SOPA for Non-Techies

By now, you’ve probably noticed sites such as Google and Wikipedia "blacked out" in opposition to a couple bills in congress called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT Intellectual Property Act).

There are quite a few good write-ups explaining exactly what SOPA is and what it’s implications are. I suggest starting with the SOPA Wikipedia page, or even reading the SOPA bill itself (pdf). The problem is that all of these articles, and the bill, require a technical understanding of how the internet works; it’s easy for many of us doing the writing to take such a technical understanding and background for granted, which I think creates a disservice to the vast majority who merely use the internet.

I hope to give you, the “non-techie”, an understanding of the proposed bill so that you can understand the gravity of the situation, by using some everyday analogies. Will this explanation be 100% technically accurate? No, they are analogies after all. But I hope that’s better than giving an accurate explanation that you don’t understand.

Starting a movie theater

Let’s say you are watching a movie one night with your significant other, and you have an idea. You think, “I’m going to start a theater with premium seating. And cell phones aren’t allowed in the theater. And a candybar won’t cost $5!” And so you start this theater. Starting a theater is expensive, so you don’t have much money for marketing or advertising, you’re going to rely on providing an excellent experience and word of mouth.

Only a couple of the other theaters in town start getting nervous. They don’t want you taking their market. So they complain to the government that you’re playing movies you didn’t get the rights to play. No worries, when the authorities ask, you’ll just show them your licensing agreements.

All of a sudden, patrons stop walking in the door. You walk outside and notice someone has taken your sign down! There’s a notice on the post that says you’ll be legally prosecuted if you put it back up. You search google your theater to see if something comes up, and you realize you no longer show up in search results. You finally get an email with more information, and you’ll be allowed to present your case and prove your innocence (which will be easy since you have all the proper licensing agreements in place).

Your court date is in 30 days. It doesn’t matter. You’ll be out of business by then.

Think this is crazy? This is basically what happened to MegaUpload when they posted a music video containing artists like Will.I.Am endorsing the website (and which they were requested to post by the artists themselves)! Universal Music Group (UMG) filed a takedown notice ordering MegaUpload to immediately remove the video until they could get a court hearing.

Opening a bar

Beaten but not broken, you decide to start a new company. To avoid the mess that happened last time, you decide to clear completely clear of the media industry this time around. You decide to open a bar. Without TVs. It’ll just be an awesome social atmosphere with an excellent selection.

Everything goes well this time around, until one night customers inexplicably stop walking in the door. Remembering last time, you walk out front and your sign has been taken down again! “What happened this time?! I don’t even have a TV in the bar!”

You finally get the email and it says your bar has facilitated the distribution of unauthorized goods via the bulletin board, and you will not be allowed to serve customers while under investigation. You walk over to the board and see a small yellow flier offering counterfeit watches for sale.

You know how this story ends. Again.

Think this sounds crazy? This happened to a Canadian blogger running a climate-change blog, called ClimateAudit.org, which was hosted on servers are in the US, when a random visitor posted in the comments that they had a file containing over 5,000 emails from respected climate scientists in which they expressed doubts about the robustness of their climatology findings. The government ordered WordPress to freeze the blogger’s account for 90 days while they investigated.

In the real world

In both of the related real-world accounts, neither MegaUpload nor ClimateAudit.org actually went out of business as a result of the events, since they were one-time isolated events for each that were eventually worked out. However, this would not necessarily be the case given the new powers granted to the government by SOPA and PIPA.

They would allow the government to order Google, Facebook, and others to blacklist your website from being returned in search results or shared, and order internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T to prevent people on their networks from accessing your domain, without the need to access your servers or invade your business. Essentially, they can take down your sign before you’re actually found guilty.

Imagine a world in which large corporations and conglomerates have the ability to hire departments of attorneys who can file frivolous notices with the government and have you go out of business simply as a side effect of the actual due process involved!

Again, this is all highly simplified and analogized, so I encourage you to read more technically accurate articles if you are so inclined.

And contact your local representatives!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 — 7 notes   ()

The Science Behind “Having a Bad Day” (and how to solve it)

Update: This article was republished on Lifehacker on July 26, 2010.

Sometimes you wake up, and within the first hour or so, you know it’s going to be a bad day. It happened to me a couple days ago, and it happened to my girlfriend just this morning. So I’d like to take this opportunity to go on the record saying this entire notion of having a “bad day” is bullshit! Don’t worry, this is not a rant, there’s real science behind it. Let me explain.

A Bad Day is as Real as You Make It

Think for a minute… when is the last time you had a bad day? When is the last time a couple things happened, not quite as you had planned, and you thought, “I cannot wait until today is over!”

Here’s the thing… there is absolutely no such thing as a bad day in reality. A bad day only exists in our interpretation of reality, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When asked in an interview [1] if there is any science behind why a bad day occurs, Peter J. Bentley, PhD, writer of Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day, responded:

Yes, and it’s our fault, I’m afraid! The statistics show that people who believe in bad luck will have more accidents on Friday the 13th. Those who have a negative attitude are more likely to endow normal little mishaps with some mystical significance. Some psychologists even suggest that it’s a way of subconsciously avoiding responsibility for our actions. “It was Friday 13th, so I was bound to stick my fingers with superglue” or “Accidents happen in threes, so after the first mishap the next two were inevitable.” Of course it’s nonsense.

So there you have it, we have the ability to make a bad day exist if we believe it to exist.

Disclaimer: I have not yet read the book mentioned above, and only came across it when doing research for this essay. I have added it to my queue and look forward to posting an update once I’ve read it. If you’ve read this book and have some feedback, let me know in the comments!

Simplification Turned Against Us

The question then becomes, if we know that a bad day is all in our heads, then why do we allow it to occur? Why do we give in and throw away the rest of our day, simply by accepting and believing that we are indeed having a bad day?

The answer: it’s a convenient over-simplification.

The brain’s facility to simplify, in most contexts, is very useful and beneficial. Our brains develop symbols, or abstract representations of complex ideas, that allow us to connect the represented ideas with other ideas, and to build upon them, without having to keep the full details of every complex idea at the forefront of our minds.

In other words, simplification clears our minds, freeing our brains to draw additional connections and conclusions from complex ideas, data, and experiences.

But what happens when we simplify experiences with the wrong symbolic conclusion? This is precisely what happens when we conclude that we are having a bad day. We blame our misfortune on factors outside of our own control, in order to avoid analyzing the real reasons things happened as they did (or perhaps even to eschew our own responsibility). Hence, it is easy for us to believe we’re having a bad day. The obvious downside is that once you accept the convenient conclusion that the entire day is for naught, it will actually cause the rest of your day to go horribly awry.

I’m not exactly saying you should discard all belief in the notion of luck. In fact, a recent study published in Psychology Today indicates that people who believe in luck are in fact luckier and happier throughout their lives than those who don’t [2]. Perhaps we should believe in good luck, but not bad luck, if such a thing is possible.

The Waterglass of Expectation

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Placebo Effect. More specifically, studies examining the neurobiological effects of placebos, such as analgesia, have shown definitively that our expectations directly impact our interpretation of reality. Medical subjects who are told they will experience pain, experience heightened pain. Subjects who are merely told that they have been given something to reduce pain, experience a greatly reduced level of pain. The only difference was the expectation each subject had going in. [3]

Furthermore, Robert Coghill, PhD, a pain researcher at Wake Forest, has taken MRIs of subjects and found that this placebo-induced analgesia occurs at the most basic level or our perception of pain. It’s not just a matter of patients fooling themselves into experiencing lesser pain. The brain regions that interpret pain actually show far less activity when subjects have lowered expectations for the pain they will experience. [4]

We’ve already established that if you expect bad things to happen, you are more susceptible to having bad things happen to you. As the cherry on top, negative expectations will also cause you to interpret things in a negative manner. So, even if the rest of your day is average, you won’t see it that way.

Experiencing the world with negative expectations is like viewing reality through a muddy waterglass. Your view will be distorted and you won’t like what you see.

Ending Our Bad Day

Neurobiology is fun and interesting, but how does this help us fix our bad day? After all, even when we know a bad day is all in our heads, it can still be very convincing and real to us when we’re having one. Here are a few steps that can help turn a bad day around:

  1. Reflect on the negative feeling you have right now. Is it stress? Anxiety? Frustration? What caused it? Try to label it in one to three words, but no more! For instance, it might be “frustration with clients” or “anger from assholes.” You know, something like that. Once you’ve labeled it, do not think about the feeling or events anymore. Move on and only refer back to the label if necessary.

    Matthew Lieberman, an associate professor at UCLA, has shown that the simple act of putting our feelings into a word or two can dramatically reduce the effect of those feelings. When you’re angry, simply attaching the word “anger” to your feeling makes you less angry. [5]

  2. Re-evaluate the situation or events that lead to this stress. Find some conceivable positive outcome. Did you just lose a client? Figure out why, and you’re left with a powerful experience from the school of hard knocks, which you can use to your advantage in the future.

    Or if that fails, try to imagine some way it could have gone worse (your mileage may vary with this technique… I’ve just found that it works for me).

    Reevaluation is often much easier said than done (it’s the most difficult step in this list by far). There are a few tricks you can use to help you get in the right mindset to reevaluate your situation. These tricks rely on the fact that the brain responds to novelty by releasing dopamine, which puts you in a good mood can help to reset your outlook. [6]

    The crazy thing is that you can trigger your brain’s novelty response with seemingly small and trivial changes. The main idea is to simply change your environment in some small way so as to cause an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Some examples (which I’ve had a lot of luck with) include heightening or lowering your chair (or moving the seat in your car slightly aft or fore, but so as to still be comfortable and safe). You may also try listening to a different type of music; if you normally listen to rock, listen to some hip hop for the day. Go for a bike ride or walk in an area you’ve never explored (again, stay safe). For lunch, go to a restaurant at which you’ve never eaten. 

  3. Remember that the outcome of the last minute is not indicative of the outcome of the next minute. Likewise, the last hour has no bearing on the next hour, and this morning is no indication of what this afternoon will bring.

  4. There is no step 4, just get on with your life already!

You may also try talking to someone you trust, but beware. As stated in #1 above, thinking too deeply can cause you to dwell and can heighten your sense of frustration or anger with the events that have gone unfavorably, which may lead inevitably to the downward spiral otherwise known as “a bad day”.

Many of these ideas were inspired by or adapted from David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. If you’re interested in why our brains work as described here, or why some of these techniques work, I highly recommend it. It’s not just a bunch of self-improvement, believe-in-yourself fluff; it explains how the latest discoveries in neuroscience and neurobiology can impact your day-to-day life.

[1] Interview with Peter J Bentley, PhD

[2] Study published in Psychology Today on effect of believing in luck

[3] Studies examining the neurobiological effects of the placebo effect

[4] MRIs showing placebo-induced analgesia

[5] The effects of putting feelings into words

[6] Response to novelty predicts the locomotor and nucleus accumbens dopamine response to cocaine

Friday, July 23, 2010 — 62 notes   ()

Want to be an Entrepreneur? College May Help.

Caterina Fake recently wrote a post entitled “Want to be an entrepreneur? Drop out of college." You may know Caterina better as the co-founder of Flickr, or more recently of Hunch.com. And she certainly has some good points. I especially like her observation that "College works on the factory model…" while "Entrepreneurship works on the apprenticeship model." If you have a moment, her article is a quick and insightful read. However, I think she glosses over some facts that make her advice to drop out of college short-sighted at best.

Keep in mind that I understand and agree with Caterina’s view that there is no better way to be an entrepreneur than to get out there and do it. For this post, I am focusing on her end advice, rather than her motivation.

College Is More Than Academia

If you’re focusing on college as an institution solely to teach you academia in the classroom, then yes, it wouldn’t much further you on your path to entrepreneurship. However, college has many other, less quantifiable benefits. For instance, it vastly expands your network, teaches you how to relate to people with whom you have very little in common, and helps you improve your ability to learn.

I wrote an essay discussing the misperceptions of the purpose of college, involving the Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I think that applies perfectly here, so I won’t delve into it again.

Drop Out For a Concrete Reason, Not Some Abstract Concept

There is one thing that Caterina seems to have glossed over concerning every one of those people she mentioned that dropped out of college to become great successes. Each one had a very immediate and pressing need to drop out. None of them randomly said, “I don’t feel like staying here, I think I’ll drop out and spend some more time becoming an entrepreneur.” They each reached a tipping point in their careers where they needed to decide between one or the other. They reached a point where college legitimately got in the way of their companies and their opportunities.

I’m going to go out on a limb here (though I would never presume to speak for Caterina, as I do not know her) and assume that Caterina is not advising young entrepreneurs to drop out of college before they have some idea of what they’re trying to do. And for my part, I would never advise anyone to pass up an amazing opportunity just to stay in college. If I had ever been forced to make the decision, I would have dropped out as well. But I never had to choose. And I think many people don’t need to choose. There’s often no reason you can’t do both.

For some, dropping out of college may indeed be the right thing to do. I personally couldn’t and didn’t need to, so I finished college while running my companies.

College Can Create Opportunities

Furthermore, when you’re a young entrepreneur, you face a lot of skepticism from older, more experienced entrepreneurs. Try introducing yourself as the founder/owner/CEO of anything at the ripe-old age of 23 and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Having a degree or two goes a long way toward building credibility for yourself and your endeavors. It shows that you do, indeed, have the wherewithal to follow long-term struggles through to completion without giving up. In many ways, it can create opportunities for you that you couldn’t imagine.

No, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not need the credibility of a college degree. But they were also very fortunate to have amazing luck throughout their lives. I’m not saying they aren’t extremely intelligent; they were able to take advantage of their luck in ways most are not. Just give Outliers and Founders at Work a read for a chronicling of their amazing luck (and the luck of many other famous founders).

Sure there are some great entrepreneurs who dropped out of college, but there are also great entrepreneurs who earned a college degree. How about Warren Buffet, Dan Gilbert, and Donald Trump just to name a few? Just because there are a few high-profile entrepreneurs who dropped out of college to find their success does not mean dropping out was the main cause (or even a contributing cause) of their success. This causal oversimplification is known as the Fallacy of the Single Cause.

Understand the Real Benefits of College Before Dismissing It

I suppose it’s time for some sort of point here. What am I trying to say exactly? I’m saying that college is an amazing learning experience for anyone fortunate enough to have the opportunity. It doesn’t just allow you to grow, it teaches you how to grow. 

No, college isn’t for everyone. Great arguments could certainly be made both for and against finishing college. But it can be a great experience if you make it a great experience. Don’t get so caught up in the academia and the grades. Go ahead and start a company (or two). Start a rock band. Join as many clubs as possible. Play some sports. Go to house-parties. Begin new relationships. Build a network that you can keep for the rest of your life. Keep your eyes open for opportunity. Drop out if necessary. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to finish college and get your degree.

Monday, May 3, 2010 — 38 notes   ()