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Archive for the 'News and Current Events' Category

Thursday - January 30, 2014

How Technology is Changing Reading for the Blind

Refreshable_Braille_displayI am a convert (someone who didn’t believe but now does). For a very long time, I resisted reading electronic books. I like the look of physical books, I like the smell of them, and I even like the little yellowing that occurs on the pages in old books.

But a couple of years ago, I broke down (finally gave up) and bought an electronic book reader and downloaded reading apps (computer programs used most often with smartphones and tablet computers) onto my smart phone. Almost from the first (immediately), I could see the benefits of ebook reading. I can carry a lot of books around with me, I could change the fonts, and I could even read in low (not bright) light.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that ebook technology has also changed how the blind (people unable to see) read. Most Americans who are blind learn to read using the braille system. The braille system uses a series of dots (like a period ” . “) that represent letters. Each set of dots is called a “cell” and dots themselves are referred to as “raised dots,” with “raised” meaning higher than the area around it.

Using a device (electronic piece of equipment, usually a small one) called a refreshable braille display like the one in the photo above, each cell changes as the device “reads” different text. For example, one dot raised in the left corner of a cell represents the letter “a.” When the refreshable display is attached to a computer or similar device, the display turns the text into braille.

That’s where current technology comes in. New reading apps allow readers to download books they want to read onto a smartphone, tablet, or computer. When these devices are connected to a refreshable braille reader, a blind person has access to anything a sighted (not blind) person does. This has opened a larger world of reading for the blind.

We have the Frenchman Louis Braille to thank for the braille system, and technology and app developers (people who create apps and computer programs) to thank for opening up this new resource for an entire population of readers. I have an even greater appreciation of these advances knowing what they have achieved.

Is the braille system used in the languages you know? If not, what systems are used?

– Lucy

Photo Credit: Refreshable Braille Display from Wikipedia

Tuesday - January 14, 2014

Does the U.S. Government Owe You Money?

250px-New100frontWould it surprise you to know that the U.S. government has $18 billion that rightfully (legitimately; according to the rules) belongs to Americans? It’s true.

The U.S. government has a substantial (very much; very high) amount of unclaimed (not asked for; not collected by the owner) cash.

The first category of money that belongs to Americans is money that people have paid or lent (given as a loan) to the government but have failed to (not) ask to get back. This includes savings bonds and tax refunds.

Savings bonds are a type of investment sold by the government when it needs money to pay its debt (money owed to someone else). People buy these securities (investments) in different denominations (amounts of money), from as low as $25 to as high as $10,000. After (at least) six months, these bonds can be cashed in (traded for money) to get the original investment back plus a little extra in interest (a percentage of the money loaned). These bonds are considered very safe investments because they are backed by (supported by) the government. But some people buy savings bonds and then never cash them in! That’s a large part of the money the government owes Americans.

A tax refund is money that you’ve paid the government through your job, but because you’ve either (a) paid too much to the government in taxes, (b) made very little money that year, and/or (c) had special circumstances (called deductions) that allow you to not pay as much in taxes, you should get back from the government after you file your taxes (officially submit your tax documents, usually by April 15th of each year). But, again, some people never ask for their tax refund, and that’s also part of the money the government has that belongs to Americans.

Another large sum (amount) of money is related to lawsuits, where you take a dispute (argument) to court and let the court decide who is right. In the U.S., there are many class-action lawsuits, which are cases where a company is sued (asked to pay money) on behalf of (for) an entire group of people whom the company has wronged (treated unfairly), such as customers who bought a bad product or a group of people hurt by a company’s action. Oftentimes (frequently), the money that is awarded (given to) to the group of people suing is in a lump sum (one large amount), which should then be divided among (split and given to) the people in the group. Usually, the amount each individual is supposed to receive is very small, such as $2 or $5. Some people don’t even know they have been included in (are part of the group for the) class-action lawsuits and never claim their money. Others don’t bother claiming such a small amount. All that money remains with the courts (that is, the government) until it is claimed.

If you think the government owes you money, there are websites that can help you get your money back, such as this one and this one. If you get any money back, I will only claim half.

– Jeff

Photo Credit:  New100front from Wikipedia

Thursday - January 2, 2014

Husbands Aren’t Happy When They’re Wrong

F1.mediumIf you frequently (often) read the blog and listen to the podcast, you know we focus on American topics. However, I recently came across (discovered; found) a research study conducted (done) in Great Britain that is so important that I had to write about it here.

The medical journal BMJ (formerly (originally; in the past) called the British Medical Journal) recently published a study to see if disagreeing with your wife gets in the way of (prevents) a husband being happy. The researchers hypothesized (proposed as an explanation) that if a husband simply agreed with his wife’s opinion or agreed to do whatever she asked without argument, there would be fewer arguments and less conflict and, therefore, less stress and more happiness for both.

A couple (two people who are romantically involved) was chosen for the experiment. The husband was told “to agree with his wife’s every opinion and request without complaint (saying that he didn’t want to)…[e]ven if he believed the female participant (the wife, in this case) was wrong.” The wife was NOT told what the husband was doing. The researchers asked the participants their level of happiness before and after the experiment.

It’s unclear how long the researchers intended the experiment to last (continue to the end), but after 12 days, the husband could not stand it (tolerate it) any longer. He told his wife about the experiment and the experiment ended.

The results? The husband’s happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 went from an 7 at the beginning to a 3 at the end, and the wife’s happiness increased from 8 to 8.5 after six days; she refused to give her opinion after the study ended and she knew what was going on (happening). The result is clear: Not being right is very stressful for a husband and makes him very unhappy.

If you are a researcher and you’re reading this right now, you are probably wondering what kind of junk (trash; worthless) science I’m telling you about. Well, you’re right, it’s not intended to be taken seriously. BMJ is a real and reputable (with others having a good opinion of it) scientific publication. However, each year, it publishes a Christmas issue that contains offbeat (unusual) and humorous (funny) studies. That doesn’t mean that the research isn’t good, but it does mean that it wasn’t done with complete seriousness. You can read this and other studies here.

-Lucy

Graphic Credit: Used with CC Permission

Thursday - November 14, 2013

Are You Physically Phfft?*

Aerobic_exerciseIf someone asked you, “Are you physically fit (healthy, especially from exercise)?” what would you say? That question is easier to answer today because a group of scientists have created a new way – called fitness age – to measure physical fitness.

If you are physically fit, you will probably live longer. And if you are physically fit, you have lower risk (negative possibility) of experiencing anxiety (worry), depression, heart disease, diabetes (disease in which there is too much sugar in the blood), certain kinds of cancer, and high blood pressure.

There are several aspects (parts) to physical fitness, but aerobic fitness – the ability of your heart and lungs to supply oxygen-rich (containing a large amount of oxygen) blood to your body – is one of the most important.

Measuring aerobic fitness usually requires special equipment. But a recent article in the New York Times describes how a group of scientists in Norway worked together to find a simple way to measure aerobic fitness and estimate (measure approximately) fitness age – how well someone’s body works physically, compared to how well it should work at a certain age.

These scientists studied almost 5,000 people between the ages of 20 and 90. They made physical measurements, asked questions about their lifestyles (how they lived), and measured how well their hearts and lungs supplied oxygen-rich blood to their bodies.

When the scientists studied the data (pieces of information) they had collected, they found that they could estimate a person’s fitness age by putting five measurements – age, gender (male/female), waist circumference (distance around the middle part of your body), resting heart rate (how fast your heart beats when you’re resting), how often you exercise, and how hard your exercise – into a special formula (a set of calculations, like addition).

They used this formula to create an online calculator that anyone can use to find their fitness age and learn how fit they are. If you are typical (like most people your age), your fitness age and your actual age will be the same. If your physical fitness is poor, your fitness age will be higher than your actual age. If it is good, it will be lower than your actual age.

If you’d like to get an estimate of your fitness age, take a few minutes now to try the calculator. All the instructions you need are on the web page.

How did you do? I was happily surprised by my fitness age. I expected it to be lower than my actual age – many of you will remember that I do a lot of bicycle riding – but it was even lower than I expected.

If you would like to lower your fitness age, the good news is that you can do it, no matter how old you are, with aerobic exercise. If you’d like to lower yours, this short article by Covert Bailey can help you get started. One of his books helped me begin to get fit many years ago.

*The title is a joke. Years ago, when I started exercising regularly, a friend gave me a t-shirt with this phrase – Physically Phfft – on it. “Phfft” sounds like the word “fit” without the “i”. It’s an expression some people use to describe something that ends or fails in a disappointing way – for example, “I wanted to go to the beach with my friends, but my plans went phfft when they decided not to go!” Hopefully, all of us are physically fit, not phfft!

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

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

 

Thursday - November 7, 2013

Want to Feel Younger? Don’t Take a Memory Test

667px-MigraineA recent research study (a carefully controlled investigation to get information and explanations) published in a journal (professional magazine of scientific information) called Psychology Science is the reason I will only be taking easy tests from now on.

A recent news report about the study said that researchers found that older people with an average age of 75 who took a memory test (a test of how much one remembers) said they felt five years older after the test.

Maybe everyone feels older after taking a memory test. No so (true). When two groups of people — one group of older adults and one group of young people in their 20’s — took the memory test, only the older adults reported feeling older afterwards.

Maybe it’s taking any kind of test that makes people feel older. Again, not true. When two groups of older adults took two kinds of different tests — one group taking the memory test and one group taking a vocabulary test — only the memory test group felt older afterwards.

Why?

The researchers say that it’s because the test highlights (gives attention to) one of people’s greatest fears about aging (getting older): losing their memory. In a related study, when people were told that they did well on a strength test (test of how strong someone is), they not only felt younger, but did better on future strength tests.

The implications (what should be done based on this information) are clear. If you feel you’re getting old, only take easy tests. That may sound silly (not smart or wise), but the researchers themselves point out that older adults are good at vocabulary tests and puzzles, often acing (do very well at) these types of tests or activities. This may be because an older person’s life experience can be brought to bear (used to get results) on these kinds of challenges.

Do you have any concerns about getting older? Is losing your memory one of those concerns?

– Lucy

Photo Credit:  Migraine from Wikipedia

Thursday - October 10, 2013

The Inverted Jenny

693px-USA_inverted_Jenny_siegal_nov_07_$977,500_Stamp collecting was a much more popular pastime (hobby) 50 to 100 years ago, but philately — the technical name for stamp collecting — is still alive and well (existing and active) in the U.S. today. One of the most famous U.S. stamps that any philatelists — the technical name for stamp collectors — would like to own is known as the Inverted Jenny.  (“Inverted” means upside down, where the top is at the bottom and the bottom is at the top.)

In May of 1918, the U.S. government decided to try a new type of mail service that would use an airplane to transport mail between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City — all cities on the East Coast of the United States. For this new service, people would need to pay 24 cents, a significantly higher price than other letter-delivery services. So the government decided to print a new stamp just for this airmail service.  The stamp pictured (showed the image of) the Curtiss JN-4 airplanenicknamed (given the informal name) “Jenny,” which would transport the mail between those cities.

The U.S. Postal Service had only a short amount of time to produce this new stamp. The stamp also had two colors on it, which meant that it had to be fed through (put through a machine) the printing machine two times, first printing one color and then the second. Sometimes, when it was put through the second time, the sheet of stamps was upside down. All of the “mistakes” were caught (identified) during production, except for one. One sheet of 100 stamps with this mistake escaped notice (was not seen or identified). That sheet of stamps contained the only Inverted Jennys available today.

A stamp collector went to the post office to buy the new stamp in 1918 and quickly realized that he had something special. He sold the sheet of stamps quickly and with the proceeds (money received from the sale) bought a house.

Since that time, this sheet of stamps has been taken apart, and many of the Inverted Jenny stamps have been been sold separately or in small numbers. Each stamp is worth in the area of (approximately) three quarters of a million dollars ($750,000) to $1 million.

Now, you can own an Inverted Jenny. The U.S. Postal Service is issuing (producing) Inverted Jenny stamps for sale. But, there is a twist (something unexpected). One hundred of the sheets produced will be right-side up, meaning they will appear as they should have originally with the top on top and the bottom on the bottom. All sheets of stamps will be packaged so that you won’t be able to see them before buying. The government hopes to get people excited about the new stamps, to create new interest in stamp collecting, and to add to their coffers (make more money). These new right-side up stamps will, of course, become collectable (wanted by people who collect this type of thing) almost immediately.

Have you ever collected stamps? Is stamp collecting a popular pastime where you live, now or in the past? Are there any special stamps you remember owning or seeing?

– Lucy

Photo Credit:  USA Inverted Jenny from Wikipedia

Thursday - October 3, 2013

The U.S. Government: CLOSED

800px-United_States_Capitol_-_west_frontAs you may have heard, the United States government has shut down (stopped working) because the Democrats and Republicans are in a standoff (where neither side will compromise or give up what it wants). Federal (national) government and many military (related to a country’s security) offices and services are unavailable, national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite are closed, and federal workers are being furloughed (temporarily told to stay home from work).

At the heart of the matter (the main point or problem) is the new healthcare program passed in 2010 called the Affordable Care Act — often referred to as “Obamacare” — which offers people the chance to purchase health insurance who don’t have or can’t get health insurance in another way. The Republicans don’t like Obamacare and propose delaying its implementation (the putting of a plan into action) for a year. The Democrats say no. In fact, the Affordable Care Act went into effect (started working) this week, on October 1. Since the two sides are in a standoff, they cannot agree on a budget (spending plan) for the government and that’s the reason for the shutdown.

While politicians are battling it all out (fighting), some people have taken to (used as a way of communicating) Twitter with a little humor about this crazy situation. They’ve come up with some pickup lines (things you say to someone you’ve never met before to try to get him or her interested in you romantically).

Pickup lines are usually cheesy (with little value and considered of poor taste or unpleasant) and usually aren’t very effective, and these are no different. I’ll explain a couple that appeared in an NPR article, but some of them are just a little too risqué (with too much sexual content) for our blog. You can try figuring those out for yourself, if you want to.

“You’re all the stimulus I need.”
An economic stimulus is when the government does something to try to improve the economy, such as spending money on new projects to create jobs or cutting (lowering) interest rates (how much money you’ll earn by keeping your money in the bank) so people will spend more money instead of saving it. “Stimulus” is also something that causes someone to feel more energy or excitement. I don’t think I need to tell you what kind of excitement we are talking about here.

“Where have you been sequestered all my life?”
Sequester can mean to hide something somewhere so others can’t find it or use it, but it can also mean to take assets (money or things worth money) from people until they pay their debt (money they owe someone else). Earlier this year, “budget sequestering” became a common term in American politics. Once again, the Democrats and Republicans were arguing about money. Budget sequestering means that if the Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on a budget, automatic spending cuts (reductions) in government spending occur as planned according to an earlier budget deal (compromise; plan). The Republicans wanted this to happen so that the government would be forced to cut spending, while the Democrats argued that cuts would eliminate (remove) or reduce (make less or smaller) important services to Americans and be bad for the economy. After a two month delay, the budget sequestration went into effect (occurred).

This pickup line is a play on (refers to in a amusing way to) the pickup line, “Where have you been hiding all my life?” meaning, I suppose, “I’m glad I’ve finally found you.”

If you’re trying to pick up an American girl (or guy), you could try these pickup lines, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope (wouldn’t expect success). These are some of the worst — though funny — pickup lines I’ve ever heard.

– Lucy

Photo Credit: United States Capitol – West Front

Tuesday - September 10, 2013

Headline English: A Modest Step Toward a Grand Bargain

Peaceful_ResolutionLet’s talk about a business headline today. This one comes from a recent issue of Bloomberg Magazine, one of the largest business magazines in the United States. Here’s the headline:

A Modest Step Toward a Grand Bargain

The news story is about the president of the United States trying to negotiate (work out; come to an agreement over) a deal (agreement) with Congress. In the U.S. political system, as you probably know, Congress is a group of elected representatives in charge of (responsible for) passing or approving laws. After Congress approves a new law, the president has to sign or agree to the law. (It doesn’t always work exactly that way, but that’s the normal process.)

Now, one of the problems that we have in our modern American economy is the same as in many economies: how much should people pay in taxes? That is, how much money should businesses and individuals have to pay the government for the government to do its job?

The headline is about negotiations between the president and Congress. It begins with the words “a modest step.” The adjective modest usually refers to a person who is humble, a person who doesn’t brag, a person who doesn’t like to talk about himself or herself. If someone compliments (says something nice about) a modest person, that person might say, “Oh no, that’s not really true. I’m not very good at that.”

In the headline, “modest” is used to mean something slightly different. It means a very small amount of something. In this case, we’re talking about how much progress is being made toward a certain goal. A step is normally a movement of your feet, moving one leg in front of the other to walk. You have to take steps in order to walk, but we also use that expression, “to take steps,” to mean to make progress, to do things.

So, a modest step is a small amount of progress toward some destination, some goal. The goal in this case is a grand bargain. The word bargain can have a couple of different meanings. One meaning for bargain is a good deal, a cheap price for something that you’re buying. But a bargain can also be an agreement. To make a bargain is to agree to do something. That’s the meaning that is used in the headline.

Finally, we come to the word grand. “Grand,” like modest and bargain, has a couple of different meanings. Here, it means something important, something large, something that is very complex and complicated that is going to solve a lot of different problems at once.

This phrase, “a grand bargain,” is actually quite common in American politics. You will see it in reading about American history, usually to describe how different political groups come to some agreement that solves a lot of  important problems.

In our story, the president and Congress are trying to come to a grand bargain about how much people should pay in taxes. I’m not sure how exactly it will all work out (what the specific result will be), but I’m guessing that whatever they agree to, it won’t be a bargain (good deal) for American taxpayers.

~Jeff

Photo credit: Peaceful Resolution by Nomadic Lass, Flickr CC

Thursday - July 18, 2013

Twinkies are Back!

Hostess_twinkies_tweakedThere are few American foods more beloved (loved very much) than the Twinkie. This modest (not fancy) snack cake with a white filling (a type of food that is found inside other foods) is over 80 years old and is part of the childhoods of many Americans, at least the unhealthy ones like mine.

Since their invention (creation) in 1930, they had been made by the large snack food company Hostess. However, in May of 2012, Hostess filed for bankruptcy (officially stated that they had no money to continue) because sales were down, since many people had switched to (changed to; were selecting other) healthier snack foods. The costs of labor (worker salaries) and production (making the product) were now just too high.

The news that Hostess would stop production of Twinkies was shocking (very surprising) for many Americans. People who grew up with Twinkies had a hard time imagining the demise (death; end) of such an iconic (representing some idea, period, or experience) American food. In fact, there was a run on (selling very quickly until all are sold) the remaining Twinkies in stores.

But for those who can’t imagine life without Twinkies, there is good news. Another company purchased part of the Hostess company that makes Twinkies earlier this year. Twinkies returned to American stores this week.

To be honest, I have not had a Twinkie in over 25 years. The list of ingredients (things combined to make a food) is a parent’s or doctor’s nightmare (bad dream). However, I can’t deny (say it isn’t true) that Twinkies hold a special place in my heart and I’m glad they’re back. To mark the occasion (celebrate an event), I might go out and buy a package of Twinkies, open it, and take one bite. Eating any more might kill me.

Is there a snack food where you live that is beloved, but that is also very bad for you?

~ Lucy

 Photo Credit:  Hostess Twinkies from Wikipedia

Thursday - July 11, 2013

Where’s the Exit*?

VoyagerThe Voyager I spacecraft was launched (to send a spacecraft into the sky) into space almost 36 years ago, in September, 1977. That was the year Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the U.S. The year the Apple II, Atari, and Commodore personal computers first went on sale. The year Elizabeth II celebrated her 25th year as Queen of England. The year Elvis Presley died. And the year the first Star Wars movie was released.

Since its launch, Voyager has traveled more than 11.5 billion miles (about 18.5 billion kilometers). It flew by Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980 and collected important information and photos of both planets. But it didn’t stop there. It has continued to fly toward interstellar (among the stars) space. But to the surprise of many scientists, Voyager still hasn’t reached interstellar space. Rather, it’s “entered a region (area) that no one expected and no one can yet explain,” according to a New York Times article.

What has happened to Voyager is like walking out of your house to go into the backyard to play. But when you step out of the house, you enter a porch (an entrance at the front or back of a house with a floor and roof but no walls) you didn’t know was there. And the porch turns out to be much larger than anyone would have expected. In other words, the exit wasn’t where scientists expected it to be.

Voyager’s experience tells us that our solar system (our sun and its planets) is much larger than anyone imagined. Voyager has traveled more than 36,000 miles per hour (about 58,000 kph) for almost 36 years – more than 11.5 billion miles – and it’s only gotten to the back porch of our solar system, not yet into the backyard of interstellar space. Rebecca Rosen, writing in The Atlantic, says that “the hardest thing to wrap one’s mind around (think about and understand) in astronomy … is scale: just how big … objects are, how far away they lie, and how long ago they formed (started to exist).”

While the Voyager story tells us something about the absolute (total; not compared to anything else) size of our solar system, Rosen’s story illustrates (shows us) something about the relative (one thing compared to another) size of the planets that make up our solar system.

Rosen tells the story of Ron Miller, a space artist. While looking at a photo of the moon over Death Valley, a part of the Mojave Desert in eastern California, he wondered what would happen if he replaced (removed one thing and put in another) the moon in the photo with each of the planets. He calculated (used numbers to find out) how large each planet would be in the photo if it were the same distance from earth as the moon. Then he scaled (made larger or smaller) each planet to the correct size and put them in the photo in place of the moon. You can see the results here.

Imagine sitting in your backyard watching Jupiter or Saturn rise after the sun goes down. Or imagine the blue glow (soft light) of Neptune or Uranus while driving through the countryside (rural area) at night. How would you feel if one of the planets appeared on the horizon (the line where the earth meets the sky) rather than the moon?

*exit = the way out of a room, building, airplane, etc.; the place where vehicles can leave a freeway (high-speed road) and connect with another road

~ Warren Ediger – English tutor/coach and creator of Successful English, where you can find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.