Browser Privacy: ForgetMySecret.com – by “Andrew W”

Most Internet users believe that their actions online are anonymous unless they have recently explicitly identified themselves. This is far from the truth. Two common techniques greatly reduce your anonymity online: computer recognition techniques and cross site trackers. With our website (forgetmysecret.com), Thaddeus Diamond and I created a simple game which illustrates how powerful these tracking techniques are. I recommend you visit the website to better understand privacy on the Internet.

A website can remember your computer using many techniques. The three most common techniques are cookies, flash cookies, and browser fingerprints. Cookies are very simple to erase. Most browsers include a “forget history” option as well as a privacy web-surfing mode. Both of these will defeat the tracking ability of cookies. Flash cookies, however, are much more difficult to erase. Flash cookies are stored deep in the computer’s file system, are shared between browsers, are not eliminated when a browser’s history is cleared, and are not effected by using a privacy mode. To clear this tracking information you must determine where these are stored on your particular operating system and manually remove them. Some browsers have third party plugins available which remove these cookies. Browser fingerprinting does not even rely on storing information. Instead, it captures lots of information regarding your computer system (such as font lists, plugin lists and software versions) to establish a highly unique “fingerprint” of your system. This fingerprint can then be used to identify you even if you clear all of the cookies stored on your computer.

Computer Recognition alone does not pose a large threat to privacy. However, when computer recognition information is shared between websites through “trackers” online anonymity is greatly reduced. Tackers allow for users to be followed between different websites. For example, your activity on website A can be shared and grouped with your activity on website B. This is primarily used to display personalized advertisements to users. You may have experienced this before when it appears that a certain targeted ad “follows” you around the Internet and appears at different websites. However, this technology can also be used to identify an otherwise anonymous user. If you identify yourself by logging in to website A, and then post an “anonymous” comment on website B (or visit a website you believe you are surfing privately), your identity can potentially be determined by website B through the use of such cross site trackers. Installing the Ghostery plugin from ghostery.com can show you how you are tracked at various websites.

It is crucial that web users become informed about privacy online. Misinformed surfers can accidentally expose their real identities while believed to by anonymous. Furthermore, a web user’s activity can potentially be aggregated into a single data source and sold for data mining. This greatly compromises our belief and desire of privacy for our online activities. I believe in the future it will be crucial for web browser developers to include many more tools to protect the privacy of their clients. By educating users and redesigning our browsers we will be able to recapture the true sense of freedom once enjoyed on the world wide web.

Why Isn’t Universal Education a Right? – by “Jonathan E”

In this post, I explore various philosophical justifications for why education—specifically universal (worldwide) education—is not a right. Then I argue for a reevaluation of our notion of rights that allows us to conceive of universal education as a right.

The Natural Rights position

“Education is not a natural right,” claim adherents of this position. (This isn’t to say that everyone who believes in natural rights thinks education isn’t one—just that some of them do.) These natural rights advocates believe that our rights (such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) derive from God or from Nature. And, they say, education is not one of those God-given or Nature-conferred rights.

Those who believe in God will treat their religions beliefs as nonnegotiable, and from such beliefs they can justify virtually any position (look to slavery advocates who used the Bible as evidence, for example).  Because religious belief too easily precludes rational discourse, I will not try too hard to convince the theist. For those who believe that Nature confers negative rights, or that rights inhere naturally in humans, I say that such a position is extremely problematic for three reasons. First there is an epistemological issue: Hume’s “is-ought” problem says that we cannot derive normative claims from empirical claims; since empirical claims about the world are all that we can reliably know, we can’t determine the validity of normative claims (which includes rights claims). Second there is an ontological problem: What do natural rights look like? What are they made of? How can nature dictate laws about how we should behave? And are those laws really laws if they’re not enforced by nature? Third there is good evidence for thinking that our ideas about morality and rights result from cultural norms and evolved psychological adaptations (cooperating in repeated iterations of prisoner’s dilemmas, i.e. acting altruistically when it’s not immediately advantageous, is an evolutionarily stable strategy). There: three good reasons to reject the idea of natural rights.

The “Education is a negative right” position

“I think everyone has a right to education; I just don’t think our government is obligated to pay for it.” This attitude reflects the belief that education is a negative right—one that cannot be trampled on, but also one that no party has a duty to provide. For example, the right to free speech is often conceived of as a negative right: no one is allowed to take away your free speech, but no one is compelled to give you printing materials or a megaphone either. Taking education as a negative right, then, frees one from admitting that one’s government is obligated to ensure noncitizens’ education.

One problem with this position is that it’s unclear where the dividing line between negative rights and positive rights lies. In many cases, the government must treat a supposedly negative right as a positive one. For example, my right to be free from violence seems to be a negative right, but for that right to mean anything in practice, the government must provide a police force and a military. Another example is due process: we tend to think that the government is obligated to provide an attorney for indigent defendants, because doing so is the only way to ensure that defendants actually receive due process. Applying this to education, it seems meaningless to say that education is a right if there’s no practical way for a person to exercise that right, other than the government providing it or ensuring it some other way.

Another problem is that it’s little arbitrary to call education a negative right. What is the principle that explains which rights are negative and which are positive? I don’t think there can be any such principle. Please comment if you want to propose one!

The Social Contract position

Many Americans would say education is a right, one so important that our government is obligated to provide even to those who cannot afford it. But they hesitate to extend that right to those living outside our borders.

This attitude can be justified by appealing to social contract theory, according to which the rights of citizens and the obligations of their government are established through a social contract. The reason Americans have a right to education while noncitizens do not is that Americans consent to being ruled by their government in exchange for their government fulfilling certain duties—one of which is providing some degree of education to citizens.

I won’t argue that this social contract position is wrong (even though I think it’s fraught with problems), because I think the social contractarian is correct in believing essentially that rights are what we say they are. As a result, social contract theory allows us to extend rights to noncitizens if we so choose. For example, it’s okay for a social contractarian to demand that his government intervene in order to stop genocide in a foreign country—as long as the majority (or some supermajority) of citizens agree that such intervention is permitted by their social contract. Since social contract theory allows us to confer rights on foreigners, all that’s left to do is convince the social contractarian that he should want to confer the right to education to noncitizens. I save this for later.

The “Rights don’t exist” position

Those who agree with my response to the natural rights position might be inclined to conclude that rights don’t exist. But all that my arguments demonstrate is that our old conception of rights (as being derived from nature) is problematic. We can reconceptualize rights to be how we want people to be treated. What’s appealing about this approach is that it allows us to say that people do have a right to life and liberty. It allows us to criticize people who act in ways we find repulsive. And it restores structure to how people interact, giving us the means to craft a society we find tolerable.

Why education should be a right

Rights are what we want them to be. This is where we seem to be left after rejecting the traditional notions of rights, and where we ended in “The Social Contract position.” So I guess now it’s my job to convince you that you should want education to be a right for everyone, because that’s all it should take for you to then believe universal education is a right.

Luckily, I don’t think there’s much work to do. If you believe in liberty, then you should believe in the importance of removing barriers to liberty. (And you probably know that education is one of the best ways to do this.) If you believe in reducing suffering—and you recognize that educating a populace is the best way to eliminate cruel and outdated practices, to reduce the spread of disease, to ensure proper nutrition, and to raise the standard of living—then you should believe in the importance of education. If you believe in equal treatment of individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, then you should believe that the rights Americans have should extend to non-citizens.

Don’t let dumb philosophical positions dictate your stance on how people should be treated. Just be consistent and fair. Taking this more simplistic and humble attitude will mean better outcomes for everyone.

It’s not about the idea! It’s all about the people – by “Sebastian P”

You hear it all the time:

“We have this cool new idea that will revolutionize everything!”

“We’ll be the next Facebook!”

“We’re innovating on a social media platform that will not only revolutionize everything you do, but will make us all rich. This is your last chance to jump on!”

As an aspiring entrepreneur (and for anyone who is even remotely interested in the field of entrepreneurship in the digital age), these are just some of the phrases that one hears uttered incessantly in the field. On any given day at Yale, all one has to do is walk through the Bass Library Cafe to overhear a handful of strikingly similar startup pitches to potential members (usually the engineers whom they will need to convince to do most of the work). They ask for NDAs, talk about immediately changing the world, and believe it is only a matter of time before their idea makes it big. Yet, according to a VC firm into which the University invests heavily, Yale produces record lows in terms of entrepreneurs, when compared to MIT, Stanford, and even Harvard.

Why is this? I contend that it’s because of the obsession that we, Yalies and technocrats of the digital age, have with ideas. And while ideas drive our world, ideas are not currency of entrepreneurship.

First, I don’t want to confuse anyone. Idea formation plays a key role in the success of every startup. Ideas are what created Facebook (“let’s connect friends”) and Google (“let’s make search suck less”). A good (borderline great) idea is what will inevitably anchor a company to success.

However, as the parenthetical statements reveal, these ideas are not revolutionary or that hard to think of. The latest tech obsession Instagr.am, is a take on social media and location-based technology in relation to our cell-phone cameras. It’s rumored to have reached a million users and received a $20-million evaluation within 19 days. It’s today’s “next big thing.” Despite this, the technology behind it isn’t that complex, nor are its ideas something so revolutionary that no one else could have possibly thought of it; in fact, we know for a fact that picplz is another startup with the exact same idea around the same time, if not earlier. We all get caught up in how awesome the instagram idea is and lament that we didn’t come up with it first — or we want some credit for having come up with the idea.

XKCD: Business Ideas
Because everyone believes they thought of it first and should get paid...

The true entrepreneurial story behind Instagram is that, according to TechCrunch, the program was built in just eight weeks. Many would consider this to be the value of the idea. But on the contrary, the secret behind this speedy development and release is that the team behind Instagram had worked together on another project, Burbn, for over a year!

Meebo.com, a company founded on AJAX (not the cleaner, but the Asynchronous Javascript and XML) implementation within the browser that allows for Instant Messaging chat, tells a similar story. It was pivot (definition: an entrepreneurial phrase that describes how a company originally set out to do one thing, but does something else) that came from a need that people had (a need to get on an IM client through a Web browser) and the entire thing was built extremely quickly. The team that built it, however, had worked together for much longer than its product’s existence.

Additionally, ideas can be “discovered” independently by many different people around the same time (see earlier reference to picplz vs. instagram). Google and Facebook weren’t the first companies that were founded on the idea (anyone remember Friendster, Myspace, AskJeeves, or even Yahoo?), they just did it better than everyone before them.

What can we draw from these successful companies? How did they do engage in these god-speed pivots? They’re all able to do this because they had the talent pool of founders and developers which allowed them to transition and make their startup goals come true.

Ideas may bring teams together, but the team is what drive a startup. We, as entrepreneurs, should seek to develop relations with engineers, business people, and friends to discover the correct group of people in which to stake our futures.

When all is said and done, if we as entrepreneurs focus too much on how “brilliant” an idea is, we’ll probably end up like the lady in this video.

So do you want to be an entrepreneur? Do you want to be a founder? Skip the social media pitches, the NDAs, the “stealth mode that’ll change everything!”, and instead find talented, intelligent people who you would want to spend sleepless hungry nights working with. Or don’t. More of them for me.

-Sebastian

Elon Musk: From Web Servers to Rocket Ships – by “Andrew W”

The digital age has undoubtedly brought significant changes to the entrepreneurial community. Both fixed and marginal costs are now lower than ever resulting in fewer barriers to entry for aspiring entrepreneurs. As more and more young students have capitalized on this opportunity society has become fascinated by the college-student-turn-billionaire concept enabled by these trends. The Internet economy is not without its drawbacks. Businesses must now find new and unique competitive advantages as the marginal costs of Internet services approach zero. Also, certain existing industries have been greatly challenged by the disruptive nature of this new economy. However, I believe the greatest impact of the digital economy will be its ability to act as a gateway for aspiring entrepreneurs.

No one exemplifies this concept better than Elon Musk. After graduating from college Musk formed two Internet based companies: Zip2 and later PayPal. Both ventures achieved great success and were started with little else than Musk’s own creativity. It is difficult to imagine an entrepreneur receiving such rapid achievement from little investment before the changes brought by the digital revolution. However, Musk did not stop after PayPal. Instead, he invested his profits into his own new venture, SpaceX. Unlike Zip2 and PayPal, SpaceX has little or nothing to do with the Internet. Rather, this company develops rockets and spacecraft which use reusable vehicles. SpaceX has already transformed space exploration from an exclusively government controlled operation to competition amongst private firms. Musk further went on to fund and lead the development of Tesla Motors, a company frequently credited with revolutionizing the automotive industry.

This example illustrates how the Internet has been able to act at as “gateway,” allowing creative individuals to become entrepreneurs. In the case of Musk, he was able to expand from digital markets with low costs to developing markets with astronomical costs. The Internet has changed our society in countless overt ways, however perhaps this is the greatest contribution the Internet will make, it can guide individuals into the world of business and innovation. As countless business leaders can now attest to, the Internet allows for entrepreneurship “with training wheels” due to unprecedentedly low barriers to entry. Hopefully the web will be the beginning of myriad serial entrepreneurs.

SpaceX Rocket

Why do startups exist? – by “Daniel A”

Technology startups can be broadly characterized as small, resource-constrained organizations of people attempting to find scalable operating/business models. As Robert Scoble notes in his article on why Google can’t build Instagram, the combination of resource constraints and lack of constraints on operational flexibility (no strategic partners to please, public shareholders to answer to) gives startups a unique ability to build elegant technological solutions to problems.

However, something that Scoble doesn’t note in his article is why large companies appear to have done/be doing very little to drive the kind of employee engagement that leads to startup-like outcomes. Although plenty of companies are great at organizing small teams (Scoble recognizes this as a primary pillar of startup success) what they’re not as good at doing is building the same kinds of incentives that are present in early stage startups: namely the ability to operate with little oversight/change ideas and direction very quickly and the potential to participate in financial gains from their product.

Oddly, building ways to incorporate these same incentives into the work that employees do at large companies seems to be an obvious way to create more entrepreneurially-minded companies and encourage the kind of innovation that happens in small startups. In recent years, companies like Google and Facebook have been more open about pursuing acquisitions solely for the purpose of acquiring teams/innovative ability, and have seen some success with this strategy, but companies still struggle with creating the same kinds of incentives/innovation that happens in startups. In the future, companies that are able to solve this problem will likely be able to produce more innovation internally which could render the startup itself obsolete.

50% of American marriages end in divorce. Are we afraid of commitment? – by “Nadia D”

The entrepreneur is often revered for being courageous enough to follow the American dream: to quit his/her day job and assume the risks of starting a new company from scratch. Today, a plethora of organizations, including Paul Graham’s Y Combinator, StartupLift.com and the Kauffman Foundation’s Kauffman Labs devote their money and energy to supporting these brave struggling souls. Lots of literature is devoted to the subject—from self-help books to Entrepreneur Magazine, to Paul Graham’s essays on startup companies—all filled with visions of the ideal startup project and the bold people behind it.

So why do so many founders still struggle to produce a profit? And why do so many would-bes give up before they even try? If entrepreneurs are so impressive (and have the ability to reap such remarkable rewards—think selling your company to a bigger corporation for a huge payout after only a few years and never having to work again), why are the rest of us so afraid to take that plunge?

For example, my older brother is a computer programmer with a lot of fantastic ideas. For years, he’s been telling me to learn to code html so I can start a website business myself—I still haven’t learned, and don’t intend to—and he helped found the Chicago Entrepreneurial Group, UChicago’s version of YES. He definitely has the spark.

A few years ago, he and a friend came up with idea of a mobile app that could run diagnostics on your car, and he even went so far as to write the beginnings of the code for it. I remember when he came home for dinner, very proud of himself, and showed us the prototype in his sweet Subaru WRX. They applied for a grant from Google to fund their startup, but they didn’t get much further. Neither my brother nor his friend was brave enough to quit his job and focus on this project, and eventually they lost interest and someone else took the idea and ran with it.

Why did my brother lose interest in such a great idea? I think one reason is that as a society, we have collective ADHD. Face it: especially with the Internet at our fingertips, we have the attention spans of goldfish. Our time is valuable, and we’re afraid to waste it; so we frequent websites like Facebook and Twitter, we get our information prepackaged in short, easy-to-interpret content bursts in status updates and tweets. Facebook is even introducing a new messaging system to make personal messages more “minimal.” And we can’t even pay attention to medium to long blog posts like this one; sorry, TLDR.

For this reason, it might be even harder to be an entrepreneur today than it once was, even with the Internet eliminating overhead costs and making it easy for even jerks like Vitaly Borker to make a profit. To be successful, you have to make a serious commitment to your vision, and as Bezos says,  you must be willing to fail. Even geniuses like Mozart and Newton spent decades mastering their various domains, either in training or academic study, and then devoted immense energy to their creations and discoveries. Thomas Edison once said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

So maybe entrepreneurs can’t be made. We know from experience that commitment is very hard to learn, and sustained interest is very difficult to fake. With our current inability to pay attention to more than 140 characters at a time, no wonder it’s hard for the majority of us to put in the energy and focus required to come up with a profitable idea and put it into practice. Those few who can, should, and maybe the rest of us can learn from their commitment.

– by “Allen D”

Think you have a super sweet idea to make money online? Cool. We all love a good entrepreneur. Have any idea how to do it? Didn’t think so. We live in a time where the old rules don’t seem to apply anymore. More and more businesses are starting online and many of the most profitable online enterprises don’t even sell anything. How can you make cash off your online ventures without making a sale? Just follow the two primary rules that I’ve observed.

The first question you have to ask yourself in my formula is: Will large numbers of people become addicted to your site? If the product is anything other than drugs, you’re probably on the right track towards making serious money (without going to prison, that is).

Nice try

The second question in my evaluation of the startup process should be: Is it free? If it isn’t, you should probably start from the beginning because you already messed up. People who make the most money on the web (the modern day entrepreneurs) don’t do so by selling things to people. They make there money by getting you to stay on their page long enough to be persuaded to buy someone else’s stuff.

Just look at the 10 most successful web startups circa 2007. Notice anything about the top 5? Free, free, free, non-profit, free. Beyond this, many times the main motivation wasn’t money. With YouTube, they wanted to be able to share videos and Facebook’s dirty thief Zuckerberg just wanted to be a dick because he got his heart broken by a cute girl

Hell, I'd be mad too

If the large portion of web users think like me, they don’t want to pay to use a website. It just doesn’t make sense. Facebook considered it(dumb), but realized that it just doesn’t really work that way anymore, even if you already have a built in user base. There are too many other options. Too many sites that serve similar purposes and are alike enough to capitalize on any user frustration.

In this new digital era, money is made by selling access to your existing user pool. Its like if you were to have a huge party and offered to send the partygoers, for a premium price, to certain surrounding clubs, where they’re bound to spend cash.

This guy will have children someday

Facebook is a dominant internet force, but if they were charging, MySpace may never have died out. YouTube is a great video aggregation site, but DailyMotion serves the same purpose and could sweep up disgruntled users should they have to pay for YouTube. The era where money is made by looking to sell some an exclusively online product is gone, if it ever existed at all. As weird and almost counter intuitive as it may sound, charging users for having a good time online, just isn’t good business

A Human-less Wonder – by “Emily R”

Monkey on a Keyboard
Image courtesy of the New York Zoological Society

Did you ever hear that theory about how if you give a bunch of monkeys long enough on a keyboard they’ll eventually type Shakespeare? Well, it may not be Shakespeare, but the guys at StatSheet.com have found a way to give us in-depth sports coverage of hundreds of sports teams… sans writers.

How? According to a New York Times interview with founder Robbie Allen, the guys at StatSheet have developed a computer algorithm that can analyze statistical data on a game and turn it into charts and even articles, all in real time as a game is being played. The amazing thing about this model is just how productive it can be: the nine-person StatSheet staff claims to churn out articles at a rate of 10,000/month. Altogether this means up-to-date coverage on 347 teams, and still growing.

Why care? Well, while Mr. Allen touts the site’s ability to cover teams that have essentially never been covered before, I worry about the implications that this sort of human-less writing can have for our future. Wasn’t it only several years ago that Thomas Friedman was telling us in The Lexus and the Olive Tree the famous T.J. Rogers quote:

So, in the information age we’re supposed to get ahead by taking jobs that use our brainpower, but now sites like StatSheet.com have found ways to make one’s brainpower irrelevant, too? Yes I know that this technology will surely require programmers, and I do applaud Mr. Allen’s entrepreneurship, but how comfortable can we be with a new technology capable of edging out humans in a brainpower-intensive field? It may be limited to just sports today, but is it such a leap to imagine armies of computer journalists worldwide?

Just to be sure, I took the liberty of checking out StatSheet’s Yale “Handsome Nation” page. The verdict? Well, a quick preview of the Yale vs. Hartford basketball game yields a 138 word blurb that, while it definitely reads like human writing, comes off a bit stilted and with a series of too-short sentences. Phew. I guess it isn’t Shakespeare, yet.

Open Sourcing Startups – by “Nicholas R”

Given the demonstrated benefits of collective collaboration and intelligence for everything from Wikipedia to Firefox, it seems that startups could benefit from more active feedback throughout their early stages. Websites like FeedbackArmy.com, Launchly.com, StartUpLift.com, and InviteShare.com are essentially startups to help startups startup by connecting entrepreneurs with potential users who provide advice, criticism, and general feedback (while also showcasing the sites). Enthusiasts get to view nascent startups develop and potentially adapt based on their responses, while entrepreneurs who take advantage of these services are able to get easy feedback and attention without adding staff or sacrificing equity.

In the secretive, NDA world of startups and venture capital, protecting intellectual property is key, but as Graham notes in this week’s reading, the execution is more important than the idea. In an era where both the most novice YouTube poster and the most acclaimed New York Times journalist now receive immediate feedback on their work through comments from many diverse users, why shouldn’t rapidly evolving businesses do the same? Ultimately, creating open source products will improve code and usability, but issues over how to monetize open source models are still too large. Until then, the increasing number of platforms for entrepreneurs to receive instantaneous reviews is a promising start.

The Gobble Effect – by “Scott W”

Entrepreneurship is an invigorating profession in which one can foster an incredibly new and potentially useful idea for the betterment of all.  In regards to the virtual world, the possibilities in the professional seem endless and forever growing.  An entrepreneur has no limits to the ideas and projects waiting to be formed in their imaginations and produced for the public.  But, once made and created, not all start-ups and entrepreneurial projects survive.  The “Gobble Effect”, or the tendency for a large company to buy-out smaller start-ups and or ideas, is always on the horizon based on the successes and or failures of a start-up.

Conglomerates are always on the prowl waiting for a successful start-up to brainstorm an innovative idea and/or product in which they can acquire for themselves.  This is much the case for a large company such as Google.  There have been many instances in which Google, having such large teams to create failed products such as Google Wave, are unable to successfully create new and innovative products for users.  Google, being the conglomerate it is, has the ability to buy out other start-ups in order to acquire their product for themselves.  Although the example is somewhat dated, in February of 2010, Google bought the start-up company Aardvark for $50 million in order to acquire the innovative product.  Aardvark was a social search start-up company in which the creators were former employees for Google.  This begs the question, why can Google not create such innovative products themselves?  As stated, Google, like many conglomerates, have difficulty producing such new products because of their inability to agree and comply with their rules and regulations.  The large teams and regulations hinder the conglomerates abilities to innovate for themselves.  So, in turn, they “gobble” up the ideas and products of small companies by offering large buy-outs for the products.

Entrepreneurship is a rough and tumble game.  If one can make it big with their original ideas and products, the big fish come around ready to snag the prize.  With start-ups being bought out left and right, it seems as though the “Gobble Effect” makes the big fish grow more and more powerful.  Although Google has its competitors and problems, they are constantly growing with the acquisitions of vulnerable start-up companies.  The big fish of the Internet.

http://gigaom.com/2010/02/11/google-buys-aardvark-for-50m-report/