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Archive for the 'Life in the United States' Category

Tuesday - April 19, 2016

High-tech Panhandler

Man_panhandlingNo one will confuse Abe Hagenston with Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Evan Spiegel (Snapchat), Larry Page (Google), or Jeff Bezos (Amazon). They are all successful high-tech entrepreneurs (someone who starts a business from a new idea). He is a panhandler (someone who asks or begs for money). But they do share a small similarity.

You’ll find panhandlers everywhere you find people. On the street. In subway stations. At the airport. In front of the coffee shop. Most are homeless and don’t have jobs.

Abe Hagenston fits that description. He spends most of his time on a corner in Detroit, Michigan. He and other panhandlers work that corner in shifts (at different times) every day, hoping for handouts (something given to a needy person) from people who drive or walk by.

Most panhandlers use a cup or some other container to collect the handouts they get, but not Hagenston. He accepts credit cards. We might call him a high-tech panhandler.

Hagenston has a simple cellphone he got from the government’s Lifeline Support program for people who can’t pay for regular telephone service. And he uses a Square Reader, a 10-dollar device that plugs into his cellphone and makes it possible for him to read credit cards. He told a Detroit TV station: “I take Visa, MasterCard, American Express. I’m the only homeless guy in America who can take a credit card. It’s all done safely and securely (in a way that protects something from being stolen).”

Hagenston has other high-tech ideas for supporting himself and other homeless people. He has a simple website that he uses to tell his story and ask for money. And he’s using the website to try to find work for himself and his friends. “I’ve got about 20 or 30 friends around here all homeless, all [with] various skills that would love to get some work.” He hopes that people will use the website to find someone – homeless people like himself – to mow their lawns, clean out their garages, and do other odd (simple, usually one-time) jobs.

Hagenston has been homeless for almost seven years. It’s unclear how or why he became homeless. He says it’s not because he doesn’t want to work. He says that its difficult to “pull yourself out of poverty” without friends or family to help.

Homelessness is a serious problem in the U.S. as it is in many other countries. Every January the U.S. government tries to count all the homeless in one day to get a kind of snapshot (quick photo) of homelessness. In 2015 they counted more than 500,000, 25% of them children. The number who suffer homelessness at some time during the year is much higher, perhaps more than 3.5 million. People become homeless for a variety of reasons and often can’t do anything about it without help.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English website, where you can find help to improve your English.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


Tuesday - April 12, 2016

Fast Talkers, Slow Talkers

africa-713336_960_720If you’re an English learner, you know that not all Americans speak alike. In a country as big and diverse (with many types of people) as the United States, you’ll find people speaking differently, often because of geography (related to location of places).

For instance, if you’re a longtime listener, you may have noticed that Jeff and I have very slight (minor; little) differences in the way we pronounce certain words, such as “open” or “bag,” because Jeff is from Minnesota (in the middle of the country) and I’m from Arizona (in the southwestern part of the U.S.).

A research and consulting (providing work or advice) firm (company) recently released the results of its analysis (detailed examination) of four million customer service calls. These calls were recorded when customers called a company for a wide range of reasons, such as to ask questions, get help, change services, or complain. By law, businesses and organizations must tell a caller that a phone conversation is being recorded, so Americans are accustomed to hearing a recorded message while they’re on hold (waiting), such as “This call is being recorded to ensure quality of service” or “This call is being recorded for training purposes.” This firm analyzed four million of these types of calls between 2013 and 2015.

The firm found that, on average (generally), people in northern states speak faster than those living in southern states, which is what most Americans would expect. The fastest talkers are in Oregon, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. The slowest talkers are in Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

Their analysis also found that people in some states are wordier (use more words) than others, saying more during their calls than people from other states. The states in which people talk the most include New York, California, and New Jersey, states on the east and west coasts (land bordering a sea). People who speak the least amount include Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, states in the north central part of the country.

Are there differences in how fast and how much people speak in different parts of the countries where you’ve lived? Are you talkative (speaking a lot) or taciturn (saying little)? Are you a fast or slow talker?

~ Lucy

Tuesday - April 5, 2016

Often Forgotten, But Not Gone

* Fire_Escape_SoHoWhen you walk through the older parts of American cities, if you stop and look up you’ll see fire escapes climbing up the outside of many older buildings, as in the photo.

The need for fire escapes – steel platforms (a place to stand on) and stairs attached to the outside of a building – grew in the mid-1800s in the U.S. Many people were moving to cities to work in factories and other jobs. And many of them moved into apartment or tenement (a building with rooms or apartments for poor people) buildings made of wood.

Most of these buildings had one open stairway in the center of the building. It was the only way to get in and out of the building. If a fire started, the central stairway made it easy for the fire to quickly spread to the upper floors*. And it made it difficult or impossible for the people in the building to escape (get out and away from the fire).

In 1860, a six-story New York tenement, where 24 families lived, burned when a fire started in a bakery on the first floor. Firemen’s ladders weren’t long enough to reach the people at the top of the building, and 10 women and children died in the fire. Soon, laws were passed that required outside fire escapes to be attached to large buildings.

In the 1920s, outside fire escapes began to be replaced by inside stairways that are designed to be safe from fire. New York City outlawed (made them illegal) outside fire escapes in 1968.

In a recent photo essay (group of photos that tell a story), Patrick Sisson describes the history of fire escapes and shows how they became an important part of city life.

For many people, the fire escape became an extension (part added to something to make it larger) of the apartment or room they lived in. On hot days, it became a place for people to escape a hot apartment; on a hot night, a mattress turned it into an outdoor bedroom.

Fire escapes provided quiet places to talk with a close friend or read or think alone. They also provided space to grow flowers or vegetables in pots or other containers.

Fire escapes became a front porch (platform attached to the front of a house) for many apartment dwellers (someone who lives in a particular place). People spent hours outside on their fire escape watching city life walk and drive by.

I encourage you to take time to look at Sisson’s photo essay and, if possible, to watch the short video in it from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie Rear Window. It’ll show you a little of what apartment living in New York used to be like, complete with fire escapes.

* “Floor” and “story” both refer to the different levels of a building – for example, the 51st floor or 51st story. In the U.S., the ground floor is the first floor or story; in some countries, the first floor is the one above the ground floor.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach and tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday - March 22, 2016

A New Job For A Familiar Prefix

02COV1-master675“Co-” is a prefix (a group of letters at the beginning of a word that makes a new word) that adds the idea of “together with” to the words it begins, words like “cooperate” and “coworker.” Recently “co-” has taken on a new job – changing the way we think and talk about working and living.

Two new words – coworking and coliving – are quickly becoming part of the vocabulary used by many millennials (young adults under the age of 30) and others. You’ll hear them most often in cities where there are a lot of startups (new businesses), especially startups that use technology in new ways.

Coworking, the older of the two ideas, describes a workspace that is shared by a group of people who usually work independently (by themselves) or remotely (away from the office). Workers rent and share office and meeting space and equipment and services, such as copiers and copying. For many, community building – getting to know other people, sharing ideas, and working together with them – is an important part of coworking.

Coliving is a newer idea. It extends (adds) the use of “co-” to living arrangements. The Coliving website describes coliving as shared housing and as a kind of life that values (makes something important) openness, sharing, and collaboration (working together). Building personal and business relationships is often an important part of coliving.

One way to think about the housing part of coliving is to imagine renting a hotel room or suite (a larger hotel room that includes a couch or comfortable chairs, a desk or table, and sometimes a small kitchen). In addition to your room, you share living, dining, and meeting rooms, a kitchen, and other rooms with the people who live in the same house or building.

Coliving is often more cost effective (good results without high cost) than renting or buying, especially in large cities like San Francisco, New York, or Boston, where there are a lot of startups. The service OpenDoor charges tenants (people who rent) $1,000 to $1,200 a month, depending on the room and the house. Another coliving company charges $1,500 to $2,200 a month, which includes everything you would find in a hotel room plus a well-supplied kitchen for everyone to use.

OpenDoor operates several coliving locations in California. In a recent interview, one of the owners said that they see themselves as more than landlords (some who owns and rents property). They work hard to maintain a family-like environment in their locations. Applicants (someone who wants to live at one of their locations) are asked what they could contribute to the house, what kind of environment they’re looking for, and other questions to make sure they fit into the group of people who already live there.

What about where you live? Have you seen examples of coworking or coliving?

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo by Brian Harkin for the New York Times.


Tuesday - March 8, 2016

It’s Bumper Sticker Time!

US_Senator_Richard_Burr_car,_rear;_Washington,_DC;_2013-10-06It’s politics time in the U.S. And that usually means cars with bumper stickers (small signs with messages) like those in the photo.

Political bumper stickers first appeared in 1952. That’s when former World War II general Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Republican candidate (someone competing for public office) for president and former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson the Democratic candidate.

Bumper stickers probably don’t convince (make someone believe or do something) people to vote for one candidate or the other. But they help create awareness (knowledge about something). And they allow people to express (show) their support for candidates and ideas.

Most political bumper stickers are simple. Some have only the candidate’s name. Others say “Vote for Obama” or “Romney for President”.

Some bumper stickers – like “Democracy is not a spectator (for watching) sport”, “Ignore (don’t pay attention to) your rights (freedoms) and they’ll go away”, and “If you don’t vote, don’t complain” – remind people that voting is important.

Bumper stickers even appear after elections. Someone whose party (Republicans or Democrats) won may put “I voted Republican” or “I voted for Obama” on their car. If their party or candidate didn’t win, they may put something like “Next time … think before you vote!” or “Don’t blame me. I voted for the other guy.”

Since bumper stickers are so small, it’s difficult to say much about important ideas. Occasionally, however, someone tries. This one – “Taxed Enough Already” – accomplishes two things. First, it complains about too many taxes. Second, it identifies with (shows relationship to) the Tea Party, a group of conservative (usually, someone who doesn’t like change) Republicans who take their name from the time early American patriots (someone who loves their country and is willing to defend it) threw British tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxes. In history books it’s called the “Boston Tea Party.”

Some of the best, in my opinion, are those that mix humor and political talk. “Confuse a conservative. Use logic and facts” does that. So does “I’d vote Republican, but I’m allergic to (get sick if you eat or touch something) nuts (food/crazy people).”

One driver, who may not think much of (like) politicians, had a bumper sticker that used a popular line from American writer and humorist (someone who tells funny stories) Mark Twain – “Politicians, like diapers (soft cloths put on babies to keep them dry and clean), should be changed often. And for the same reason.” Another, apparently from a Republican who doesn’t like the choices he has, says “Republicans for Voldemort.” Voldemort, as you may remember, is known as the Dark Lord in the Harry Potter books and is Harry’s enemy (someone who wants to hurt you).

The number of bumper stickers seems to have declined (gotten smaller), probably because of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. I hope they never disappear; if they did, what would I have to read while waiting for the stoplight to turn green?

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach and tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday - February 23, 2016

100 Years Later

24984166005_8e152632f3_bAlbert Einstein was right. Again. But it took scientists more than 100 years to find the first evidence (facts to show something is true) that a prediction (to say that something will be true) he made in 1915 is correct.

To try to wrap our heads around (understand) what has happened, let’s start with something we know: throwing rocks into a pond (small lake). When you throw a rock into a pond, it creates a circle of small waves in the water. As the circle expands (grows), the waves get smaller and smaller until they seem to disappear.

Waves explain the nature (what something is like) of many of the things we experience every day. Take sound as an example. If a tree falls down in a forest, why do we hear it? We hear it because when it hits the ground, it causes waves to move through the air that our ears hear as the sound of a tree hitting the ground.

Einstein believed that something similar happens in space. Gravity is the invisible (can’t be seen) force that causes an apple to fall from a tree to the ground. There are large invisible places in space, called black holes, where the gravity is so strong that not even light can get out of them. Einstein believed that a large event – like two black holes coming together to make a new, larger black hole – would create a gravitational (adjective for gravity) wave that travels billions of miles across space.

There was one problem. The event Einstein had in mind (was thinking about) was so far away that the waves would be too small to measure – about 1,000 times smaller than the center of an atom – by the time they got to earth. And that is the problem that scientists have solved, 100 years after Einstein made his prediction.

To solve the problem, scientists made a measuring device, called LIGO, shaped like an “L”. Both arms of the “L” were exactly the same length – about 2.5 miles (4 km) – and had mirrors at the ends. The scientists shined a line of light at the two mirrors, half of it at one mirror and half at the other, and measured how long it took the light to return from the mirrors. If Einstein was right, gravitational waves would cause one line of light to return to the starting point a very small time later than the other. And that’s what happened.

There are many things to be impressed with in this story. Einstein, first of all, for his ability to think about and predict something like gravitational waves. The scientists for their ability to think of a way to measure the waves and to design and make the equipment to do it.

I’m also impressed with the patience (ability to keep working on something for a long time) of the scientists who worked on this project. They – helped by many assistants and graduate students – spent 40 years looking for, finding, and creating a way to measure the tiny waves of gravity that told them that Einstein was right. They were young men when they started. Today, one of the lead scientists is in his mid-70s, the second is in his early 80s, and the third is 85. I wonder how many people in today’s world would be willing to work that long and that hard on a project that could have easily failed (not worked).

If you’re interested in this topic, I think you’ll enjoy these videos from MIT and the New York Times.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL/EFL coach and tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo by Charly W. Karl used under Creative Commons license.

Tuesday - February 9, 2016

What’s In A Name?

best-sub-sandwichesIn Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, his family and her family hate each other. But Juliet tells Romeo that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In modern English she might have said, “I don’t care what your family name is; it doesn’t change who you are.”

Names may not change what something is, but names often tell us a lot about the thing we’re talking about. That’s true about sandwich names, which often tell us not only what’s in the sandwich, but also something about its history.

The sandwich – two pieces of bread with meat, cheese, or other foods in between, usually eaten by hand – was named after John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), a nobleman of the historic town of Sandwich in England. Montague loved to gamble (trying to win money by playing games) and once spent 24 hours at the gambling table eating nothing but some pieces of cold beef between two pieces of bread.

In the U.S., the submarine (see photo) is a popular sandwich. Its name comes from the shape of the roll (the bread), which is similar to the shape of a submarine (a ship that travels under water). In a submarine sandwich, the long roll is sliced (cut) the long way and often has a thick crust (skin; outer layer).

Submarine sandwiches probably began among Italian Americans in the northeast part of the country in the early 1900s. The roll was filled with cold cuts (thin pieces of cold meats), cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and a variety of condiments (spices and other things added for flavor). Since 1965, Subway sandwich shops have helped the submarine sandwich, or “sub,” become popular in many other countries.

When you travel around the U.S., you’ll find sandwiches that look like subs but go by (use) different names. In New York and New Jersey, for example, a sub-like sandwich called a “hero” is popular. Heros are similar to the subs described earlier, but you’ll also find them filled with eggplant or chicken with Parmesan cheese or meatballs. It’s uncertain how heros got their name, but some think it’s because they were extra large.

Hoagie” sandwiches come from Philadelphia. Like most sandwich names, we’re not sure how the name hoagie started. It probably comes from the sandwiches eaten by the ship workers on Hog Island near Philadelphia. Their sandwiches, with various meats, cheeses, and lettuce between two slices of bread, became known as Hog Island sandwiches, then hoggies, and finally, since about 1940, hoagies. In 1992, the hoagie was named the official sandwich of Philadelphia.

Subs, heros, and hoagies all have an Italian flavor, but if you go to New Orleans you’ll find a French American sandwich called the “po’ boy” (poor boy). Po’ boys are made on French bread rolls similar to baguettes and can be filled with fried oysters, shrimp, and fish as well as other meats. The sandwiches and the name po’ boy probably appeared sometime around 1930 when the Martin brothers made and sold sandwiches for just a few pennies each at the back door of their restaurant to streetcar workers – called “poor boys” – who had lost their jobs.

These sandwiches are all similar because of their shape. Do you have similarly-shaped sandwiches where you live? What are they called? And what’s in them?

~ Warren Ediger – ESL tutor and coach and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo from Fast Food Menu Prices.

Tuesday - January 26, 2016

Warning: TOEFL Ahead

Triangle_warning_sign_(red_and_white)“I need to take the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language). Can you help me?”

I get a lot of emails like that every year, often just before TOEFL scores are due (need to be sent to universities). I frequently have to say “No” because the student has waited too long to do what they need most – to improve their English. That’s why I’m writing this early in the year, hoping that students will read it and begin now to prepare for the TOEFL.

To do well on the TOEFL, nothing is more important than good, strong English. Many students spend a lot of time and money on cram (trying to do a lot in a short time) courses and other questionable activities, hoping they will prepare them for the TOEFL. Unfortunately, most of those activities do very little to improve their English.

The TOEFL is a test of how well you can use English in a classroom – to read and listen, to write and speak. The TOEFL score you need to be accepted by a school is the score they think you need to succeed in their classes. Each school is different. One school I know requires a score of only 62. Another says, “Don’t apply (ask to come) unless your score is more than 109.”

If good, strong English is so important, you may ask, “How good is good enough?” Here’s a little experiment you can try. Read part of this article by Sherry Turkle. And listen to some of this lecture from Dr. Paul Bloom’s Introduction to Psychology, a first-year class. Now think how you would answer these questions:

  • If you walked into class the first day and heard Bloom’s lecture or had to read Turkle’s article, how would you feel? Would you understand them well enough to take notes you could use to study later?
  • Would you be able to easily identify what they were talking about – the subject of the lecture or article – and what some of the main points (ideas) were?
  • What if I asked you to answer my questions in writing? Or by speaking? How well would you do?

If you’re comfortable with the questions I’ve asked, you’re probably ready to begin working on the academic skills – like essay writing – and test-taking skills that you’ll need for the TOEFL. If not, you need to forget about them for a while and spend time working on your English.

There’s only one way to strengthen your English, and that’s by doing a large amount of reading and listening. It’s not difficult:

  1. Find something easy enough to read or listen to without stopping. And so interesting that you don’t want to stop. You may not know all the words, but you will know enough to enjoy the story or learn from the article.
  2. Read and listen as much as possible. One hour a day, more if you can. Every day if possible. In other words, make English a part of your life.

As your English grows, you’ll be able to read and listen to increasingly difficult material. After a while you’ll be able to comfortably read and listen to material similar to Turkle and Bloom and feel that you’re ready.

If you’d like to learn more about preparing for the TOEFL, check out Rethinking the TOEFL and Doing your TOEFL homework on my website.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL/EFL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Warning sign image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday - December 29, 2015

A Different Look At Life

3550755709_fffc833e1d_oIt’s that week.

The end of one year and the beginning of a new year is the time when many people think about the resolutions (promises to yourself to do something) they made last year. And make new ones for next year.

The practice of looking back at what you have done and looking forward to what you could do is very old.

About 3,500 years ago Moses, one of the earliest leaders of the Israelites (Jewish people), wrote that it was important to think about how short life is and how important it is to live life wisely and well. To live life wisely meant to live life with skill (ability from learning and practice) so that the result is beautiful, like a work of art.

Socrates, a Greek philosopher (thinker; wise man) who lived almost 2,500 years ago, believed that the purpose of life was to grow as persons, to become better as we got older. Shortly before he died, he said that we must always examine (look carefully at) our lives to make sure that we are becoming the best we can be.

Tim Urban is neither Moses nor Socrates. He’s an American blogger (someone who writes a blog on the Internet). But he thinks a lot about life and looks for ways to visualize (make a picture of) our lifetimes (the period of time we are alive) to help us think about them.

I first learned about Urban a couple of years ago when I saw his visualization of The Life of a Typical American. It shows the periods (lengths of time with a beginning and end) of life, like when we go to school, of most Americans and the important events in their lives.

Recently, though, he looked at the end of life and how much time we have left to do different things. Some of his results are fun, some are thought-provoking (make you think). Here are a few of them.

Urban is 34 years old. He says that he eats about one pizza every month. If lives to be 90, he’ll eat almost 700 more pizzas: (90 years – 34 years) x 12 pizzas (1 per month for 12 months) = 672 pizzas.

If you’re 34 years old, there have been 8 U.S. presidential elections during your lifetime. If you live to be 90, you’ll see 14 more: (90 years – 34 years) / 4 (1 election every 4 years) = 14 more elections.

Urban made me think when he wrote about how much time we have left with the important people in our lives – like our parents. If your parents are 60 years old, and you see them 10 days a year, you will spend 300 more days with them if they live until 90, 30 more  years. That’s less than you saw them in one year when you were young and living at home. That’s thought-provoking.

How could you use Urban’s ideas to think about your life? Would it change anything that you do in the new year?

Happy New Year to all of you!

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo by pauarian used under Creative Commons license.

Tuesday - December 22, 2015

Giving that Pays You Back

800px-thumbnailIn the same spirit (idea and feeling) as Warren’s great post about random acts of kindness, I’ll talk a little about giving.

Americans often talk about the holiday season, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, as “the season for giving.” It’s the time of year people are most willing to give their money, their time, and other things to help the needy (very poor people). Many charities (organizations to help others) collect the most money and other support during this period.

To encourage people to open their wallets (spend; give money), some cities and organizations are offering forgiveness (removal; dismissal) of fines (money paid as punishment for doing something wrong or against the law) in exchange for a little giving.

For instance, in Lexington, Kentucky, if you get a parking ticket (citation for parking in the wrong place or without paying the proper fee), you can get $15 off (reduction) if you bring in 10 cans of food when you pay your fine. In 2014, the program collected 6,000 cans of food, which were donated (given for free) to the local food bank (organization that collects food to give to the poor).

In the city of Boston, Massachusetts, if you get a parking ticket between certain dates in December, you can have the fine dismissed (removed) if you donate a new and unwrapped (not covered in gift-giving paper) toy of equal or greater value (worth more money) than the amount of the ticket. The toys are given to children who might otherwise (without this) not receive a gift for the holidays.

The public library in Williamsburg, Virginia wants to forgive, too. The library will remove a fine for any single (one) overdue (not returned on time) item in exchange for a donation of a nonperishable (able to be kept for a long time before eating) food item, no matter how large the fine.

The main aims (goals) of these efforts is to encourage people to give and to garner (get; gather) goodwill (friendly feeling). The hope is that people will get accustomed to (used to) giving and give not only during the holiday season, but throughout the year.

The people who have their fines reduced or removed feel good about helping others, and the organizations plant the seed (give the idea; provide a start) for future giving. That’s what I call a win-win (something beneficial for all)!

I hope that you experience lots of kindness and generosity (giving easily to help others) throughout the holiday season. And on behalf of (speaking for) everyone here at ESL Podcast, we hope that your New Year is filled with good health and good cheer (happiness; joy)!

~ Lucy

Photo Credit: From Wikipedia