Accessibility links

Our World — 4 November 2006


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... NASA gives a 'go' for a Hubble repair mission ... a warning on dwindling fish stocks ... and days before Americans head for the polls, concern about electronic voting

RUBIN: "In particular, the way that they used cryptography was using outdated ciphers. And in some places where they needed to use cryptography, it wasn't used at all."

Those stories, a local push for energy alternatives, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The astronomy community breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday when NASA announced that it would send a space shuttle to the Hubble Space Telescope to do repairs and maintenance that will extend the life of the 16-year-old orbiting observatory.

Speaking to reporters, senior Hubble scientist David Leckrone said the servicing mission will leave Hubble in better shape than ever.

LECKRONE: "Hubble will literally be at the apex of its abilities. For one thing will we have on board, we hope, six fully-functioning scientific instruments for the first time since 1993. And it takes a whole toolbag full of instruments to provide the varous tools needed to attack all kinds of astronomical problems, and that's the way Hubble has worked, and that is one thing that's made it so successful: its versatility."

NASA had wavered on a Hubble repair because, in the event of an emergency, the shuttle crew would have been unable to reach the safe haven of the International Space Station. NASA has been particularly cautious since the 2003 accident that destroyed the shuttle Columbia. When the shuttles returned to flight in mid-2005, the focus was on finishing construction of the space station, and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said safety considerations dictated against a Hubble repair mission.

GRIFFIN: "There was a great concern about the ability to fly astronauts to destinations other than the [space] station. There were just a huge amount of unknowns. And so in that period, given the circumstances at the time, NASA made the very troubling, very troubled, and very unpopular decision to cancel the Hubble servicing mission."

For a time, NASA considered sending a robotic craft to fix the space telescope, but in the end that was considered too complex and uncertain.

Now, with three additional shuttle flights safely completed after the Columbia accident, NASA experts have concluded that a Hubble repair mission can be done with an acceptable degree of risk. As an additional safety feature, Griffin said a second shuttle will be sitting on the launch pad, ready to go in case a rescue mission is needed.

The decision was welcomed by astronomers, many of whom have described Hubble as the most productive telescope of any kind, ever. At "Astronomy" magazine, senior editor Michael Bakich said the repairs and upgrades should extend Hubble's life until the next great orbiting observatory is launched.

BACKICH: "Had they not, had they had to bring Hubble down within a year or two, there would have been a gap there, when no large telescope in space, focusing specifically on the types of things that Hubble is studying, would be up there. The next great space telescope to be launched is the James Webb space telescope, and the earliest that it's going to be launched is 2011. So I'm really glad that they're going to service Hubble and that it will continue, I think, for many years to come."

At a press conference on Tuesday, NASA introduced the seven member crew that will fly on the Hubble repair mission, led by commander, Scott Altman.

ALTMAN: "The discoveries we don't know about yet, the observations we haven't taken. And hopefully we can extend its reach for an additional period of time."

Scott Altman's crew is set to blast off to fix the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2008 at the earliest.

A new study shows that the oceans' fish are being depleted so fast that eating seafood might be just a memory in 40 years. The researchers say more is at stake than our diet, for they find the dwindling of fish stocks hurts the world economically and the ocean environmentally. But as VOA's David McAlary reports, the researchers say it is not too late to reverse the trend.

McALARY: A team of North American and European marine biologists and economists reports that our taste for fish has caused some ocean species to disappear since the 1800s, a trend that has accelerated in recent years.

The lead researcher, Canadian Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says that roughly one-third of seafood species have collapsed so far. That means their catch has declined 90 percent below the historic maximum. Of these sea species, seven percent have become extinct.

WORM: "If this trend continues, if we don't change the way we are managing ocean ecosystems, this trend projects that 100 percent of species will collapse by the year 2048 or around that."

McALARY: Worm's team arrived at this conclusion after reviewing many studies that monitored the impact of species loss on smaller, local scales and by checking historical archives to track changes in species diversity over the past one-thousand years in 12 coastal regions around the world. They also compiled seafood catch data from 64 large ocean fisheries and analyzed fisheries databases compiled by the United Nations and the University of British Columbia.

The international managing editor of the journal "Science," which published the study, Andrew Sugden in London, says the findings reveal planet-wide trends that mirror what scientists have found at smaller scales.

SUGDEN: "I think the strength of this work lies in the breadth in the array of information that the authors have used for their analysis. This analysis is global in scope."

From all the data, Worm's group found that not only are fisheries affected by the species decline, but so is the oceans' overall health.

WORM: "There was a decrease in water quality. For example, harmful algae blooms shot up by 450 percent, oxygen depleted areas increased by more than 300 percent, and so on. So there were negative consequences in the coastal environment that were felt by the humans who were living nearby."

McALARY: The researchers say many of the economic activities along coasts rely on diverse systems and the healthy waters they supply. When they examined marine areas that had been restored — protected locations such as reserves and those closed to fishing — they found that fish catches increased substantially and the waters were much less susceptible to human and environmental disturbances.

WORM: "There are signs people are trying to turn this around and that it's not too late to turn this around. We can do this, we know how to do this, and it can be done, but it must be done soon."

McALARY: David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

Next Tuesday is election day here in the United States, with hundreds of seats in Congress and thousands of local offices up for grabs.

Tens of millions of voters will be using electronic voting machines to record their ballot.

After the presidential election in 2000 and the difficulties counting punch card ballots, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. It provided billions of dollars to local authorities to buy new voting machines to replace antiquated models.

The new electronic voting machines look a bit like laptop computers, usually with a touch-screen rather than a keyboard.

The electronic machines were seen to have numerous advantages. For example, they can be programmed so voters won't risk losing their ballots by "overvoting" — voting for two candidates for one office.

But critics have emerged who challenge the security of electronic voting. Among the most prominent is Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of a new book on the subject, "Brave New Ballot."

While paper ballots and earlier voting technologies have always been subject to manipulation, he says the problem with computerized voting is that a software flaw — whether inadvertent or deliberate — can result in massive irregularities.

RUBIN: "The software for these electronic voting machines is kept proprietary, and furthermore the risks of wholesale fraud with the electronic machines is much greater because the same software runs on tens of thousands of machines, and if there's a bug in it, that gets replicated."

Among the strongest proponents of the new electronic machines are handicapped voters — particularly the blind — who have required assistance to vote using paper ballots or older machines.

By using headphones, a blind voter can now be guided through the process without assistance. Jim Dickson of the American Association of People with Disabilities told members of Congress of his first experience using one of the new machines.

DICKSON: "I cannot put into words the glorious feeling and the pride that I had as an American — and I'm speaking for tens of millions of other Americans, who have now the first opportunity to vote privately and independently."

Voters who can see, but not all that well, can also benefit from the new technology, as voting machine maker Diebold demonstrates in this promotional video.

DIEBOLD VIDEO: "You can magnify or change the contrast of your ballot to help increase readability. (click) Use the 'next' button to see each ballot page. (click)."

The machines also allow voters to display ballots in other languages.

Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins expert, was among those who studied Diebold voting machine software that became public several years ago. In an interview he said it was full of what he called "amateurish mistakes."

RUBIN: "In particular, the way that they used cryptography was using outdated ciphers. And in some places where they needed to use cryptography, it wasn't used at all. And we came up with some scenarios, for example, where instead of taking the smart card that is used to control how many times people vote, and namely making sure they can only vote once, and how you could vote multiple times with a smart card that you might bring from home."

Diebold has disputed these and other technical criticisms and, in any event, says the source code Rubin and others examined was incomplete and not used on voting machines in actual elections.

In addition to possible design flaws in the software, there is the risk that electronic voting machines — which are really specialized computers — could become infected by a virus.

Computer Science Professor Edward Felton of Princeton University demonstrated to members of Congress how a computer virus could compromise electronic voting. Felton used the popular Diebold AccuVote-TS in an imaginary election contest between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. He cast three ballots for Washington and then retrieved the results as recorded by the virus-infected machine.

FELTON: "In this machine the records were modified by our virus. And it shows George Washington with one vote and Benedict Arnold with two. Every record in the machine and outside the machine is consistent with this fraudulent result."

In other words, the virus switched two of the three votes to the other candidate, with no apparent evidence that there was anything wrong.

The answer to possible electronic shenanigans is an old but seemingly reliable technology: paper.

Avi Rubin's solution is to use the electronic machines basically as what he ironically calls a "$5,000 pencil" — to print out a paper ballot, which would then be scanned. The paper could be retained in case a recount was needed.

But Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says the reliance on paper ballots — even if counted by a state-of-the-art scanner, returns voting to the risks of fraud that modern technology was supposed to eliminate.

SHAMUS: "Paper ballots that are scanned electronically are certainly subject to the same kinds of tampering — in fact it's easier, in general, to tamper with those because they are cut sheets of paper. They're individual pieces of paper. There are all sorts of problems with optical scan voting, but it's in widespread use around the country."

Still, many voters say they feel more comfortable if there is some kind of paper evidence of their vote, what election officials call a 'voter verified paper audit trail,' or V-PAT.

In Cleveland, Ohio, where voting machines produce a V-PAT, election official Keith Cunningham says there were numerous discrepancies.

CUNNINGHAM: "Over and over and over we encountered tapes that were missing, that were in some way compromised. Nearly 17 percent of those tapes showed a vote discrepancy of one to five votes from the electronic machine. And nearly 10 percent of those tapes were either destroyed, blank, missing, or in some other way, compromised."

In 2004, almost 30 percent of American voters cast their ballot on computerized voting machines. This year, the number is expected to be more than 40 percent.

In an election year you can get a lot of news about the issues and candidates here on VOA. But frankly we can't do the job that the specialists do. And when it comes to politics and governing, two of the top names in political journalism have teamed up to produce our Website of the Week, CampaignNetwork.org, a combined project of the public affairs cable TV network C-SPAN and the authoritative Washington publisher, Congressional Quarterly, CQ.

C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully says the website combines the nonpartisan analysis of CQ's staff with C-SPAN's comprehensive television record of campaign events.

SCULLY: "What we do best is event coverage and also long form interviews. So that's what we're able to do, and that's what we do best. CQ is best at coming up with their own analysis and then distilling through all of that what they think is going to happen in this election. And that's why we feel that it's really the best of both worlds."

The busy but well-organized CampaignNetwork homepage offers links to videos of candidate ads, press conferences, debates and other events, articles from CQ analyzing the ongoing campaign, and an interactive map profiling each of the Senate, House of Representatives and state governor races.

Steve Scully says the site represents the latest in a series of technological developments that have changed the face of the American political process. It's one place where you can see videos of candidates in different settings — giving speeches, debating their opponents — all complete and unedited.

SCULLY: "We probably average a couple of events in [each of] the most competitive Senate and House races, plus the debates, plus the Washington Journal programs that we do every day focusing on different issues in this campaign. And you can just watch it — kind of what I call our video on demand, online."

There are many domestic issues this year, of course, but Scully says there's lots here to interest international visitors, including a close look at the ever-changing nature of the American political process.

SCULLY: "I think anyone who logs on to CampaignNetwork.org anywhere in the world will have a window onto the American political process. This has been a very negative campaign, as are most campaigns. But by watching the debates and watching the ads you're able to fully understand who is saying what, and why. This election is, more than anything else, about the war in Iraq, and the Bush administration, and the Republicans in the House and the Senate. It is as simple as that."

C-SPAN's Steve Scully says the site will remain active after the election, looking ahead to the 2008 presidential vote. Meantime, you can see the last frantic days of this year's campaign at CampaignNetwork.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Jimmy Sturr: "Patriotic Polka" (Incidentally, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," heard in this excerpt, was used decades ago as VOA's interval signal.)

And you're listening to VOA's hotly-contested science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Local communities across the United States are driving America's environmental agenda. Three hundred city mayors in 46 states have signed an agreement to reduce the industrial greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming. Twenty-eight states have climate action plans. And, as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, support for a new energy future is gathering momentum in Washington as well… but it's outside the halls of Congress.

SKIRBLE: On a grassy patch of land in the middle of the University of the District of Columbia campus stand a solar array, a wind turbine and a water tank. While they don't power anything on this sunny and windy day, they are a symbol of things to come… like the new visitor's center planned for this very spot.

The center will generate energy from wind turbines, solar voltaic panels and other clean technologies. With that dream less than a year away, UDC's Samuel Lakeou motions to the water tank behind him.

LAKEOU: "There is a water pump in that tank. That's an 800 gallon water tank [3,028 liters] and there is a submersible pump in it that can draw water from a depth of about 200 feet [61 meters]."

SKIRBLE: Lakeou, director of the school's Center for Excellence in Renewable Energy, says this is an affordable system that can have an impact far beyond the UDC campus.

LAKEOU: In other countries, a combination like this can provide clean portable water for a community of almost 5,000 people. And, the impact that it has on reducing poverty is tremendous.

SKIRBLE: Joining Lakeou in the shadow of the water tank is Kate Johnson, spokesperson for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a grassroots advocacy organization.

Johnson is here to support UDC's renewable energy program and to promote U.S. PIRG's national energy-saving campaign. Juggling an armload of environmentally friendly home products, she delivers her consumer message. She says saving energy can start with something as simple as changing a light bulb.

JOHNSON: "Lighting consumption accounts for nine percent of the electricity used in American homes. If every American home replaced its standard incandescent light bulbs with energy efficient light bulbs like these compact fluorescents, we could cut the electricity we use to light our homes in half."

SKIRBLE: Johnson dispenses other energy-saving advice.

JOHNSON: "For example, this weather sealant tape, it can be easily be used to insulate doors and windows. We could also install programmable thermostats like this one that save energy by automatically turning off heat and air conditioning when you are not home."

SKIRBLE: Just days before U.S. Congressional elections, U.S. PIRG is campaigning for a new energy future. Its four-point agenda calls for candidates to support policies that reduce oil consumption, save energy, increase renewable energy and invest in energy saving and renewable technology. The group's legislative director Anna Aurilio says the campaign is gaining momentum — and signatures — across America.

AURILIO: "So far 156 federal candidates in more than 27 states have committed to the goals of a new energy future."

SKIRBLE: Two hundred eighty organizations have also endorsed the plan. Among them is Republicans for Environmental Protection, which, as its name implies, campaigns to keep or put Republicans with a pro-environmental record in Congress.

Government affairs director David Jenkins says its mission is to rise above special interests to refocus the Republican Party on its historic environmental roots —

JENKINS: "— where stewardship and conservation were hallmarks of a Republican identity."

SKIRBLE: Jenkins says the group is pragmatic in its approach to environmental protection.

JENKINS: "These Republicans that are good on these issues are the very people that can make that happen. If you sweep them out and you make this issue more polarized, you are not doing long-term good for our environment. We need good people on both sides. Pick and choose your candidates. There are Republicans that are good on these issues and we need those people to help bring the rest of the party along.

SKIRBLE: Anna Aurilio agrees. She hopes that concern over environmental issues will get voters to the polls next week to put the renewable energy commitment already in place in institutions like UDC, into the halls of Congress. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Faith Lapidus edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

XS
SM
MD
LG