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Let’s Decide the Future of the Internet Before It’s Decided for Us

The online experience is changing rapidly, explains Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, and not necessarily for the better. We should act to make sure certain norms such as web surfing persist as they are.

Jonathan Zittrain: The features of the Internet that we really want to make sure persist, and I don't count on inertia to do the job here, but these features include the fact that when we're surfing the web, that we're actually visiting lots of different places. The web of 1998, and sort of through the past 10 years or so, has been one where there's lots of baskets with eggs all over the place and by just clicking on a link you can visit that new basket and not even feel the burdens of the journey. It could be at a basement in Chappaqua, New York, the server you're going to; it could be at Amazon; it could be somewhere in Europe; you name it anywhere around the world. That I think has been less and less so, and part of the research I'm working on is to actually document and figure out if that hypothesis is true. I'm actually concerned that because of worries about things like denial of service attacks where websites might be brought down, what we'll see are websites huddling under the umbrella of just a handful of Internet service hosting providers.

So it might feel like you're going from one website to another, when in fact all you're doing is visiting one corner of the massive databanks at Amazon that offers commodity web hosting to the world. That puts all the eggs in one basket, which seems dangerous to me. If Amazon goes down everything goes down, not just your ability to one-click purchase a mousetrap. And it also means that there are regulatory changes made possible so that if a government of the world wants something taken down or dealt with, they only have one door to knock on. And depending on your view of how easily governments should be able to take stuff down, that's either a good thing or a bad thing. So having a distributed web with eggs across lots of baskets is one thing that I hope will persist.

The other thing is I hope the web will persist. You know the number of times you might find yourself living your digital life by running a browser and typing in a link and then from the trapeze going from one place to another visiting each site and clicking on links and typing stuff, that's starting to feel possibly very 2005. More and more the way in which we experience of the world are through apps. So if you were told you can still use your smartphone, but you just can't load up the browser you can only use apps, and those apps might have a browser quietly running in the background but the experience you'll get inside that app is so much more defined by the app maker. And you know, if you're looking at Facebook and you see the sponsored links you're getting importuning you to do something, almost always it's bottom line please install this app. Everybody wants you to install their app. And that's because that's putting you inside the bottle of a miniature universe that isn't necessarily connected web-like to the rest of things.

If you see something interesting inside an app and you want to share it, it will be under the terms of that app whether you can email the link or whether you can only tweet it or whether you can do anything with it. There's not a common URL, that bar at the top, that you can just copy and paste and share with a friend and then that friend can see what you see. So, as I look to the future, really thinking about the future of the web itself is something we ought to be doing. I don't take for granted that there will be a World Wide Web the way that there has been; it might be much more stovepiped and feel a little bit more like 1985 with an America (Online), CompuServe, Prodigy, and the source. Okay you've got your apps; those apps in turn are there at the sufferance of your mobile phone or your other platform vendor. It's a much more staid possibility and so much of the benefits of the Internet have come from unusual corners from not being so staid. I'd hate to think oh those were the early days; things have matured.

Now, there is a genuine worry about security that has it no longer seems so crazy, as it probably did. I think it did in say the year 2000; gee maybe before you run an app someone out there should vet it, should know who wrote it; should have their contact information on file the way that if you get into a taxicab, remember taxicabs, there'd be an identity marker. If you use an Uber or a Lyft, they have some way of knowing who the drivers are. They're registered. If that's the level of security you want when you drive three blocks, why wouldn't you want that for code to which you are entrusting your most intimate details? And more and more I think that's what we see happening. I don't know that that's terrible, but it does show a general trend in the name of security in having intermediaries be able to more tightly control the code that we can run, whether it's on our device or afar, and the content that we can see.

The online experience is changing rapidly, explains Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, and not necessarily for the better. We should act to make sure current norms such as web surfing remain unfettered as the Internet evolves. If not, we'll be allowing Internet powerbrokers to control how and through which means we access online information. Zittrain is author of the book The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It and writes for the blog of the same name.

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
Surprising Science
  • White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
  • Carbon is an essential component of life.
  • White dwarfs make carbon in their hot insides before the stars die.
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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