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Our World — 22 December 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... virtual worlds and their impact on the real world ... green university campuses ... and a story about one of our favorite beverages

COUGHLIN: "There's at least 2,000 individual chemical components in coffee. We're trying to figure out what's in there that could be contributing to that story."

Those stories, maybe a big step forward in solar power, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

More and more computer users are spending more and more time in virtual worlds.

If you don't know what a virtual world is, we'll explain in a second as we're joined by Professor Edward Castronova at Indiana University. He's the author of a new book, "Exodus to the Virtual World," and we'll ask him about that exodus, too.

Thanks for joining us, professor.

CASTRONOVA: "Thanks. Thanks for having me."

Q: Well, what are these virtual worlds that you study and write about and, I gather, spend some time in yourself?

CASTRONOVA: Well, you know, people can go online and you can go to a website. And people can also play video games. So if you combine those two things you get these online, virtual worlds. It's a place that's generated by a computer, but lots and lots of people can log into it at the same time and play a video game together. And these places are persistent and they have a community of people, real people in them, and so that's why they kind of feel like worlds. It's like the earth, and people go in there and what we found is they have very Earth-like experiences.

Q: I guess two of the biggest are World of Warcraft and Second Life. How are they alike, and how are they different?

CASTRONOVA: "Well, they're alike in that they have this persistent space that's kind of like the world except it's generated by a computer.

"But really, there are tremendous differences. I would call World of Warcraft a 'closed world.' It's trying to be a place that's separate from the real world, a fantasy space. Second Life isn't really like that. It's really integrated into the real world. I call that an open place. So, people might go into Second Life and earn some money in there, called 'Linden dollars,' and then they can cash that money out in terms of real dollars."

Q: So there is economy going on in these worlds.

CASTRONOVA: "Absolutely. They spend a lot of time buying and selling things in almost all of these worlds, which is sort of surprising for me. My training is in economics. And my training strongly imposed on me this notion that economics is the dismal science. And here you go into these places that are supposed to be fun, and people are buying and selling, and there are auction houses, and they are producing things.

Q: How many people actually are participating, and do you have any numbers to suggest the extent to which this is an international phenomenon?

CASTRONOVA: "It's very difficult to put a number on this. But the numbers that are out there suggest somewhere between 20 and 50 million people right now have some sort of virtual presence. The real leaders in virtual world phenomena is actually not the United States, where I'm from, but [South] Korea and China. But it's widely distributed. Everywhere there is fast Internet, people are using virtual worlds."

Q: So we've got a growing entertainment activity that captivates a lot of people. But more people, it seems, are not participating than are participating. So how does what you describe in the title of your book, this Exodus to the Virtual Worlds, how does it affect those who are left behind?

CASTRONOVA: "It's a migration effect. And if lots and lots of people in the developed world use their rapid Internet to go off into fantasy spaces, the impact on people who continue to live in the real world, I think, could be quite significant.

"We have a lot of economic relations between different countries based on the demands of rich consumers. Well, what happens if all those demands are being met by virtual goods. You know, they don't care about, let's say, toys from China anymore because they've got virtual toys, and it turns out that the best makers of virtual toys are from Romania or from Germany or somewhere. Not China."

Q: You were talking in the book about how digital worlds might someday replace warfare. And that brought to mind an old Star Trek episode — I had to look up the title, "A Taste of Armageddon," where computers actually conducted the war, but if you were a casualty you had to report and were, well eliminated. Is this realistic that a digital battle would be a satisfactory quenching of bloodlust?

CASTRONOVA: "You know, you could look at contemporary sports and the World Cup as having very similar effect. Sociologists have written about how major sports defuses some of the tribal tensions that are natural to our species. And I think that digital conflict could go even farther. It's just a matter of, where are our valuable assets.

Q: You talked about how the growth and increasing importance of digital worlds (digital environments, virtual worlds) are going to affect life outside of those digital environments. But I wonder if the same thing plays across the digital divide? If you're a 16-year-old in Nigeria or Bangladesh, is that going to have an impact on you?

CASTRONOVA: "I think so. I mean, indirectly. So instead of saying to people in other countries, look, this is how you have to live. This is much better to live this way. What if the United States built virtual worlds with its sort-of ideal sociopolitical arrangements pre-built-in, and then let everybody under the age of 20 all around the world log in for free and sort-of create this very subtle, persuasive moment. It's like, you come into this environment, and if you find that this is better than the world you live in right now in the real world, then you might become motivated as a young person to try to change things locally.

"So that's one. A second one would be, increasingly low-wage workers around the world are earning money by farming resources out of virtual worlds and selling them to rich people. The 'Chinese gold farmer,' is how it's referred to. Actually, that's a stereotype. These people are all over the world — low-wage workers everywhere. But the stereotype of the Chinese gold farmer is a guy who goes into something like World of Warcraft and just farms resources to get gold, and then packages the gold and sells it on ebay. And actually they can earn a very good living doing that."

Q: And we're talking virtual gold.

CASTRONOVA: "Absolutely. So it's another example of, these guys aren't actually playing the game. What they're doing is trying to make money off of its existence."

Prof. Edward Castronova of Indiana University is the author of Exodus to the Virtual World, just published. Thanks very much for joining us.

CASTRONOVA: "Thanks a lot. I appreciate it."

Popular Science magazine is out this month with their annual 'Best of What's New' issue, showcasing 100 of the year's innovations from computers to spacecraft to cameras. From among all that cool stuff they chose one as their Innovation of the Year.

HANEY: "This is the innovation that has the potential to really, finally make solar power feasible, make widespread solar power affordable and a real viable option to coal and other hydrocarbon-based fuels."

Popular Science executive editor Mike Haney is talking about is a new way of making thin-film solar cells that can be likened to printing a newspaper. Instead of rolls of paper, though, they use rolls of thin metal foil, and the ink is a liquid form of the semiconductor material that converts light into electricity. It's all aimed at reducing costs, says Brian Sager, a co-founder of California-based Nanosolar, Inc., which developed the process.

SAGER: "What Nanosolar has done is develop an aggregate of process innovations that dramatically decrease the cost of using this material, depositing it much more rapidly, much more efficiently, with much better capital efficiency as well, and thereby dropping the cost of the solar panels dramatically. We're aiming for grid parity."

Grid parity, meaning consumers would pay about the same for solar power as they do now for coal- or nuclear-fueled power. In the United States that would mean a two-thirds cut in the cost of electricity from solar cells.

As the name suggests, Nanosolar's product relies on nanotechnology, which for some people might be a source of concern, but Sager says, not in this case.

SAGER: "So we use the nanoparticles as a way to coat this ink onto the foil, but then when we process it, those particles are attached together in a continuous film, so we don't have any risk of exposure of nanoparticles."

The solar panel foil can be rolled out as roofing material or on the sides of buildings in a city. Sager also imagines land just outside urban areas covered with his solar energy-collecting powersheets.

SAGER: "And the solar panels are interconnected to create a certain amount of output, which could be used to power a city. And this could be done just outside the city so that you minimize the transmission loss from getting that electricity from the [solar] power plant to the end users."

Nanosolar has just moved into a big, new facility in California, where Popular Science editor Haney says economies of scale should make an important difference in the impact of solar power.

HANEY: "When they get this San Jose plant online, they're going to create more megawatts worth of solar cells in a year than every other solar plant in the U.S. [combined], and that's only one plant. So surely once they get that one going, and, you know, as some of these other companies catch them and develop their own ways of doing it and start cranking it out, I think — I think the leap in scale of solar being used is going to be pretty incredible in the next five to ten years."

Popular Science's choice of Nanosolar solar cells as their innovation of the year came out at the end of a year in which the consensus solidified that greenhouse gases — such as those produced by burning coal and oil — are warming our planet.

The magazine isn't alone in its enthusiasm for Nanosolar. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are among those who have invested in the privately-owned company. And last month, Google announced a new initiative to help develop renewable energy technologies that can deliver city-scale electric power for less than the cost of electricity from coal.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

There's a long history linking computers and recipes, of all things. In the early days of home computers, people wondered why they would need a computer, and one of the standard answers was to organize that box of recipes in the kitchen.

Actually, a stand-alone computer probably isn't the best tool for that, but a website is, and there are a lot of online recipe sites, but today we highlight one with a difference. GroupRecipes.com is a place to find and share recipes, but CEO Kristopher Lederer says it adds a social-networking component.

LEDERER: "You can start posting your own and getting feedback on those. And, you know, one of the best features is, you can sign up with friends, and every time one of your friends submits a recipe, you instantly get it into your GroupRecipes profile every day when you log in. You can see what all your friends have been posting about, and they get to see your recipes as well, so it's a really easy way to share."

Lederer stresses that the recipes are the main reason to come to GroupRecipes.com, and to help you find interesting dishes there are technological aids like Roger the Recipe Robot, but harnessing the power of crowds works pretty well, too, especially when the crowd loves to cook and eat.

LEDERER: "I think that harnessing a community in almost any endeavor can yield some very, very serious benefits. And food in particular is a space where that works, you know, incredibly well — kind of group knowledge can yield some really powerful results over these old, traditional recipe sites, where editors handpick every recipe."

Users can tag recipes with all kinds of keywords, not just the ingredients or the name of a dish. For example, Quick Caribbean Chicken has been tagged as colorful. Roast Leg Of Lamb was tagged as impressive and elegant — maybe just the thing for company.

LEDERER: "When you let people tag with, you know, any keyword under the sun, you really get some interesting [ideas and] like a deeper understanding of the dish. And it also helps to discover new dishes that are related, yeah, maybe in this kind-of intangible, homey sense. I can go find other recipes that have that same type of feeling, even though they might have totally different ingredients or keywords."

The site is easy to use, free, and — for now at least — it's uncluttered by advertising. It's a great way to share family favorites or perhaps a favorite traditional dish. Check it out at GroupRecipes.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Burns Sisters — "Two Step Recipe"

You're listening to VOA's home-cooked science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Whether it's about making a political statement or reducing utility bills, many colleges and universities across the United States are going green.

America's oldest environmental group, the Sierra Club, recently ranked one school as the one that's doing the most to conserve energy and adopt environmentally friendly practices. From Oberlin College in Ohio, Karen Schaefer reports.

MEDRIS: "For a while people got pretty competitive, you know. How much shower time can I have in one week and how can I beat your shower time?"

SCHAEFER: Amanda Medris is a junior at Ohio's Oberlin College. She and fellow junior Lucas Brown live with six other students in a century-old house that's owned by the college. Both are interested in learning to live in a more environmentally-friendly way. Amanda says it starts with small changes, like using a shower timer to save water.

MEDRIS: "Well, this is the shower timer. Were these around four dollars? Three dollars. And it's really easy to use, you just stick it on with a suction cup. And this is also something that was really easy to install to our existing showerhead. Basically it puts a stop on the water."

BROWN: "We can just show you. We were doing military showers where you lather up with the water off. But the water would get really cold when you turned it off. And this keeps a very tiny flow going to keep the heat."

SCHAEFER: Lucas and Amanda have also installed a flow restrictor in the bathroom sink and are planning to put some bricks in the toilet tank to reduce the amount of water needed for flushing. Those low-tech approaches should reduce energy use in their old house.

Across campus is a newer building that was designed with energy efficiency in mind. In one corner of the lofty, sunlit atrium of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, water plays over rocks collected from the local landscape.

Oberlin College Environmental Studies Chairman John Peterson says what looks like a water sculpture is actually a solar monitor. It's powered by a solar panel that tracks the sun from dawn to dusk and makes passersby aware of how much energy is available.

PETERSON: "If there are clouds in the sky, each time a cloud goes by, you get this modulation in sound, where the water sort of moves down to a trickle and then comes up again. If you're here on a cloudy day the flow's much less and at night there's no flow."

SCHAEFER: Solar panels cover the roof of the Lewis Center and a newly-erected canopy over an adjacent parking lot. Peterson says they'll provide more energy than the building uses and feed the excess back to the state's energy grid. The building is heated with geothermal power and an on-site wastewater treatment system uses plants like orchids as filters.

Peterson and his students have expanded real-time monitoring of energy use to 17 campus dormitories. Last year they sponsored a friendly competition to see which dorm could use the least power.

That enthusiasm doesn't surprise Jennifer Hattam, associate senior editor for Sierra Magazine. She says it's today's students who will have to deal with global challenges like oil depletion and climate change

HATTAM: "If you can get students, young people, thinking about these issues at a young age, then it's something they will take with them as they go into their workplaces, they can use some of these ideas that they've worked out in college in their jobs, in their own homes in the future."

SCHAEFER: This is the first time Sierra Magazine has done a green college survey, but Hattam says it won't be the last. Along with Oberlin College, larger schools like Harvard, Duke and Carnegie Mellon also made the top ten list. For Our World, I'm Karen Schaefer in Oberlin, Ohio.

One of the world's most popular beverages is coffee, second probably only to tea and, of course, water. Earlier this year we took a look at some of the health issues surrounding coffee, which is a complex mixture of substances with a variety of different effects that scientists continue to study.

Coffee has a long and fascinating history. Legend has it that an Ethiopian shepherd noticed his goats were more lively after eating coffee berries, so he tried some himself. Around the year 1100, coffee cultivation began on the Arabian peninsula. Dr. Lenore Arab of the University of California medical school in Los Angeles, says that in the 16th century, coffee was regarded with suspicion by the Christian establishment, led by Pope Clement VIII.

ARAB: "The pope was asked to condemn coffee because the Muslims were consuming it, and they thought it must be the drink of the devil. But he actually decided after trying it that this was a wonderful beverage and he actually blessed the coffee and decided that this was very useful because it kept the monks awake during their long vespers."

Loaded with caffeine, coffee is a natural stimulant. Drink too much and you can get edgy, nervous, jittery. For a long time, coffee was thought to be bad for your health. Coffee can raise your blood pressure, and caffeine is slightly addictive. But recent research has found that moderate coffee drinking — a few cups a day — can actually have some beneficial effects, and may even help reduce the risk of some serious disease.

Dr. Rob van Dam of the Harvard School of Public Health has been studying the link between coffee — both regular and decaffeinated — and diabetes.

VAN DAM: "I think about 16 prospective studies around the world have now looked at coffee consumption in relation to Type II diabetes, and they consistently show that people who drink more coffee — talk about four or five cups a day — have a low risk of diabetes. We're also looking at what components of the coffee could be responsible for that. I think so far we have very consistently seen that associations are the same for decaffeinated coffee and caffeinated coffee."

Van Dam was among several coffee experts who spoke this week at the Experimental Biology conference here in Washington. I asked him whether there might be other factors in the lives of coffee drinkers that might make them less susceptible to diabetes, such as weight, diet or exercise:

VAN DAM: "That's a very important consideration in this type of research. We see actually that people who drink more coffee are less health conscious, and they have a worse diet, and they smoke more, and they tend to have a somewhat higher body mass index. So actually, when we control for these factors more completely, we see a stronger effect, rather than a weaker effect."

Van Dam says some research has identified components in coffee that might be responsible for the effect. If that's confirmed, special coffee blends rich in those components might be marketed for diabetic consumers.

Another story involves coffee and cancer.

About two decades ago, there was study that suggested a link between coffee and pancreatic cancer. But Dr. Arab, the UCLA epidemiologist who gave us some coffee history a few moments ago, says hundreds of studies have shown that coffee drinkers are less likely to get certain types of cancer, starting with colorectal cancer.

ARAB: "There might be a 24 percent reduction with regular and higher consumption of coffee. There is also surprisingly interesting and consistent results with liver cancer, drinking coffee regularly in Japan appears to be associated with a 50 percent reduction, and there's a dose-response [relationship] in some of the studies. It's gone down as far as a 70 percent reduction in those drinking more than five cups of coffee a day."

Not all cancers respond the same way. Arab says there are some studies indicating that a pregnant woman who drinks coffee may put her unborn child at greater risk for childhood leukemia. Coffee may also increase the risk of stomach cancer.

Part of the challenge facing researchers is in quantifying coffee consumption. In addition, James Coughlin, a scientist and consultant to the industry, says that from a chemical standpoint, coffee is enormously complex stuff.

COUGHLIN: "I'm a chemist and a toxicologist, and I've studied the chemistry of coffee in very good detail. There's at least 2,000 individual chemical components, in coffee, which makes it difficult when we're looking at some of the positive beneficial health effects — we're trying to figure out what's in there that could be contributing to that story."

Like so many other things, coffee should be enjoyed in moderation. Drink much more than a liter a day, say experts, and you may have to balance some of coffee's beneficial effects with irritability, nervousness, and an upset stomach.

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

Rob Sivak 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.

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