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Our World — 30 August 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... A new study says anti-smoking programs save money, not just lives ... The complex ecology of New York's Hudson River ... and reconstructing life in ancient Egypt ...

DEPAUW: "And then the Roman envoy just drew a circle in the sand around him and said, 'you get as much time as you want, but then when you leave the circle I want your answer.'"

Little scraps of papyrus tell all ... the psychology of traffic engineering, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Tobacco Control Programs Reduce Health-Care Costs

Quitting smoking reduces your risk of heart attack, cancer and other tobacco-related diseases, and it also has a benefit for your community — lower health care costs. Faith Lapidus reports.

LAPIDUS: Stan Glantz directs the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. In 1988, voters in the state approved spending tax dollars from an increased cigarette tax on an anti-smoking effort. Glantz says California's Tobacco Control Program was innovative for its time.

GLANTZ: "Rather than simply telling people not to smoke because it was bad, it had very, very aggressive media, to create an environment to discourage smoking and help smokers quit. It had a strong emphasis on second-hand smoke and creating smoke-free environments, and was also supplemented with a 'quit line.'"

LAPIDUS: Glantz and his colleagues used statistical analysis to assess the program's performance during its first 15 years.

GLANTZ: "And what you find is if you had not had the California Tobacco Control Program, a lot more cigarettes would have been smoked and health care costs would have been higher. So, at the end of 15 years, we could compare what we estimate the health care costs would have been had the program not been there, and compare them to what they actually were."

LAPIDUS: Glantz says the effect is gigantic. A program that cost less than $2 billion over 15 years saved $86 billion in health care expenditures. And those costs began to drop in the program's first year.

Glantz notes that similar tobacco control programs will soon become more common around the world.

GLANTZ: "There's something called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which is the first global public health treaty. It's sort of like the Kyoto Accords for tobacco. And 157 countries have ratified it, not including the United States, and one of articles in there commits the ratifying countries to develop and implement large-scale tobacco control programs."

LAPIDUS: He says California's experience has shown that you can lower health care costs by reducing tobacco-induced disease, and that successful health care reform requires a large-scale tobacco control effort.

His paper is published in the August issue of PLoS Medicine, an open-access on-line journal.

Fewer Traffic Signs May Make for Safer Driving

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine caught my eye. It was about traffic safety, something that's an issue pretty much anywhere people drive.

The author, who is a psychology professor, not a traffic engineer, argues that efforts to make our roads safer have actually made them more dangerous.

John Staddon, who wrote the article, joins us now from the campus of Duke University in North Carolina, where he is James B. Duke professor in psychology. Welcome to Our World, Prof. Staddon.

STADDON: "Glad to be here."

Q: If you don't mind, I want to start with the question of, what business does a psychologist have in the world of traffic engineering?

STADDON: "Well, probably as much business as anybody else. Because it really is a psychological problem in the sense that most of what affects how people drive is psychological. The engineering turns out to be incidental. And in fact, in my article, I refer to something called Smeed's Law, named after an English boffin of the 1940s, who found that the traffic accident rates in different countries depended only on the numbers of people and the numbers of cars. In other words, the details of the traffic conditions were almost irrelevant."

Q: Well, you begin the article in The Atlantic with a description of North Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia, which is just across the river from Washington. Actually, very close to where I live. What is notable about that road as it approaches a bridge over the Potomac River?

STADDON: "Well, the first thing you can say about the road as you approach this bridge is, it's very safe. But as you come around a gentle curve, all you see is a relatively small sign, saying that the speed limit is now 25 miles an hour [40 kph].

I first noticed this when I was driving with a local resident, who suddenly braked in the middle of a clear road. And as we went around the curve — there is a curve there, and it might make some sense to have a sign saying so, but as you go 'round the curve what you see is a policeman with a radar gun, just clipping people as they come around, going too fast. Well of course, they're not really going too fast. They're going too fast for a 25-mile-an-hour limit, and it's become a nice source of revenue for the Arlington County council."

Q: So, what would be a better approach then?

STADDON: The way this problem is solved in England, for example, and many European countries, is just to have a big warning sign. So in front of you would be a big set of arrows pointing to the right, indicating that there's a curve there. That would be much, much better. In the first place it would be in front of the driver, where he or she is looking. And second of all, it wouldn't lead the local government into the temptation of using it as a revenue source."

Q: So you generalize in the article about sort of a British and American approach to traffic signage and generally the way the roads are organized. Can you describe the differences?

STADDON: "Well, the differences are really huge. For example, there are almost no stop signs in England. I mean, you really have to look around to find a stop sign. So what do they have instead?

"Well, what they have instead are little dashed lines on the road. So when you come to, let's say, a T-junction, if the road you're coming to has the right of way, there'll be just these two dashed lines in the road to indicate, watch out! The road you're about to enter has right of way. So, no stop signs. The signs tend to be right on the road so that if, for example, there's a non-standard speed limit, the sign will be right on the road in front of you. It'll be a great, big '40' —

Q: Actually painted on the road?

STADDON: "Painted right on the road, so you don't have to look for the signs."

Q: That's the British system. What about in the United States. It's quite a bit different here.

STADDON: "Well, in the United States there will be stop signs everyplace. And the result is that people no longer totally believe a stop sign. I mean it obviously doesn't bear much relationship to safety anymore. It's a method of what the Europeans call traffic calming."

Q: As a psychologist, what's actually happening here?

STADDON: The problem with traffic signage in this country is there are severe consequences for not attending to it. If you roll through a stop sign, no matter how safe it may be, you get punished for it. So people are systematically trained not to pay attention to road conditions, I think that's the fundamental flaw in the whole system. If you keep telling people, yeah, you can see there's no traffic; doesn't matter, you were supposed to stop, they become stupid. And I think that's what's happening here."

Q: You know, we've been talking mostly about the United States and Britain, but most of our listeners are in developing countries. In the traveling I've done there tells me that traffic, particularly in cities, is really a mess. So I wonder about whether your observations about human behavior and traffic would apply in places like Lagos or Cairo or Bangkok.

STADDON: "And Calcutta, yeah. Those places, they have no signs, or if they do have signs, people take them merely as hints. I mean, I've driven in Mexico City and it's really quite funny. In the daytime, nobody stops at stop signs. But they do stop at night because after all somebody could be coming, and they could be killed. So it's a very contingent kind of situation. What I can say to developing countries is, for goodness sake coordinate your policy. Don't do what the U.S. has done and allow every little locality to put up whatever sign it wants because the result would be an increase — less safety, not more safety."

Q: Dr. John Staddon, psychology professor at Duke University, thanks very much for joining us.

STADDON: "Oh, it's my pleasure."

Website of the Week features JohnMcCain.com

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

The two major U.S. political parties are holding their presidential nominating conventions, and to help you get to know the candidates, we're featuring their websites here on Our World.

Last week we introduced you to Barack Obama's site.

Today, as Republicans gather in St. Paul, Minnesota, for their convention, we take a look at JohnMcCain.com

The candidates' websites are a great way to learn about the men who want to be president. At John McCain's website you can read about his experience as a prisoner of war and his years of service in the U.S. Senate. And it's where the candidate lays out his views on issues from the economy to immigration to national security.

McCAIN: "One of the reasons why I feel so strongly about America's image in the world is because I think we'll win this struggle the same way we won the Cold War, and that's to prove our superiority, our values, our ideals, and our goals are far greater than this threat of radical Islamic extremism that challenges us."

This is also a great place to get a sense of how Americans experience a political campaign. You can watch the same TV ads that we get to see — some are negative ads, and others focus on John McCain's strengths.

McCAIN: "McCain puts the country first. He's a straight shooter. A conservative who has worked across the aisle. Broad appeal to the middle of the electorate. Steadiness. Consistency." ["Michigan Endorsed," January 2008]

Politicians like to line up endorsements, and so on JohnMcCain.com you'll hear what former secretary of state Henry Kissinger has to say.

KISSINGER: "I think I was one of the early people who urged him to run for president. And I believed then, and I believe now that he's the best candidate to serve our nation in an extremely difficult and complicated period."

The site also serves as a gathering place for various categories of supporters, from Asian Americans and small business owners, to fans of NASCAR auto racing.

Learn about one of the two men hoping to be the next U.S. president at JohnMcCain.com, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: John Rich — "Raisin' McCain"

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

Exploring and Protecting the Ecology of New York's Hudson River

The Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, is one of the most complex and diverse river ecosystems in America. Striking the proper balance between protection of this unique natural resource and its use by the public is a major challenge. That is the focus of Hudsonia, a non-profit organization that promotes scientific research, policy analysis, and better public understanding of the Hudson River environment. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: It is nearing sunset, at the end of a golden summer day. Erik Kiviat peers through his binoculars at the riot of animal and plant life on Tivoli South Bay. The 100-hectare bay is a small inlet off the Hudson River, the great eastern New York State waterway that flows over 500 kilometers south out of the Adirondack Mountains, through the state capital at Albany, on to New York City's harbor and out to the Atlantic Ocean.

Kiviat, a biologist, is co-founder and director of Hudsonia. From his place within the reeds, he sees a complex natural ecosystem: great egret birds, small killifish, dragonflies, beetles, frogs, wild rice, bulrushes, yellow iris, and scores of other animal and plant species. He also sees train tracks, river barges, and other signs of the Hudson River's important role over the past three centuries as a major commercial artery. Kiviat points to the water chestnut leaves covering most of the bay's surface as an example of how human activities have changed the river's ecology.

KIVIAT: "And this water chestnut is an introduced plant from Eurasia. It's been in North America for maybe 150 years. And it does very well in these shallow, sunny, nutrient-rich, alkaline bodies of water that are so common around human habitations. And that's a process that's been accelerating because we now have so much globalization of commerce and other human activities that plants and animals and fungi and other things get carried back and forth from one part of the world to another."

PHILLIPS: Kiviat's organization is dedicated to two separate yet allied purposes: solid environmental research of the Hudson watershed, and the enlightened use of the region's environmental resources. The two often appear to conflict. For example, Kiviat acknowledges that people are often upset by any visual change to a landscape they are familiar with. On the other hand, change is a given in any natural environment. Sometimes that change is slow. Sometimes it is abrupt.

Public responses to change can vary widely. For instance, those who love the aesthetic quality of open water may dislike the blanket of water chestnuts that has covered most of Tivoli South Bay over the past half century. Recreational fishers, on the other hand, know that the underwater stems of the water chestnut are a favored habitat for snails, insects, and other invertebrates, which help to attract fish.

KIVIAT: "But at the same time, there isn't much dissolved oxygen under that dense mat of water chestnut in the summer. So the fish can't get in there very effectively to eat all that good stuff that's in there waiting for them."

PHILLIPS: Kiviat says that just as human actions over the years have disturbed the Hudson ecology, they can also help now to bring it into better balance:

KIVIAT: "If we could break that 90-hectare bed of water chestnut up into smaller patches of water chestnut, interspersed with shallow open water that doesn't have water chestnut, we would, in theory, be able to get some more dissolved oxygen into the water, make some space for fish, let the fish get into all that good food that's in the water chestnut, and then let people who fish — the fishers — get to the fish."

PHILLIPS: Kiviat says Hudsonia scientists conduct extensive field research up and down the river. That field work forms the basis of the group's recommendations for more sustainable and responsible management of the Hudson:

KIVIAT: "We're not an advocacy program in the sense that we don't take sides in land use planning controversies. We don't say, 'this is a project that should or shouldn't be built on this particular site.' We try to take good scientific data about our environment and about people. And then we use that information to help people do a better job of doing the things that their community values."

PHILLIPS: Still, challenges such as climate change, invasive species and human-caused contamination continue to threaten the ecology of the Hudson Valley region. While good science and timely planning may help mitigate the worst dangers, prospects for the overall health of the Hudson Valley are uncertain. Near Red Hook New York, this is Adam Phillips reporting for Our World.

Finding Clues to Ancient Egyptian Life in Papyrus Scraps

Imagine if somebody in the distant future, say the year 4008, finds your daily paperwork — letters, receipts, shopping lists — and tries to figure out what your life was like. That's just what's happened to some Egyptians born more than 2000 years ago. Researchers at Stanford University in California are finding that scraps of writing used as packing material are helping shed light on some ancient lives. Lonny Shavelson reports.

SHAVELSON: Egyptian mummies were preserved in loops of white linen. But that's not all they were wrapped in. Like a delicate wine glass packed for shipping today, a mummy was often cushioned inside and out with crinkled up paper. Back then, it was crinkled up papyrus. And not new papyrus, but recycled — papyrus people had written on.

DOBBIN: "Well, here I have a papyrus, it's written in demotic, which is the final phase of the Egyptian language."

SHAVELSON: Tasha Dobbin, an Egyptology doctoral student at Yale, is one of 18 international students at Stanford's Papyrological Institute this summer. She's holding an Egyptian papyrus — 2,200 years old, from before the reign of Cleopatra — in her hands.

DOBBIN: "It's actually really exciting. You sort of dream to get an opportunity like this."

SHAVELSON: The papyrus was removed from a mummy. These ragged, brown, insect-chewed scraps with faded ink scrawlings, were donated to Stanford around 1920 by an alumnus who found them in an antiquities store in London.

MANNING: "And one of the documents said he purchased the text from what he calls a Chinaman."

SHAVELSON: Joseph Manning, a papyrologist at Stanford, says that from 1920 until just a few years ago, the papyri were forgotten, waiting to be rediscovered.

MANNING: "These things have been sitting in folders, on a shelf, for the last 60 years. Before the conservation process, it looks like a piece of paper with mud on it."

SHAVELSON: Manning had no idea what the papyri contained. So he played out a hunch, and brought a specialist in papyrus cleaning to Stanford, and after they were cleaned…

MANNING: "They were spectacular. The ink was as if it were written yesterday. Very bright, black against this beautiful papyrus color, light brown."

SHAVELSON: Spectacular in appearance, but Professor Manning still didn't know what they said.

MANNING: "The languages are difficult, very difficult handwriting sometimes. You can't just sit down and read a text in an hour. You sometimes have to spend a year, maybe reading a word or two, putting it away for a while, coming back to it."

SHAVELSON: And that's where the students came in. Stanford happened to be hosting this year's summer institute in papyrology. Manning put the participants to work reading the papyri.

RICHTER: "My name is Barbara Richter, I'm a Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at UC Berkeley. Well this is a marriage contract, actually a record of the woman's dowry that she's bringing to her husband. But in the case of a divorce, she gets that entire dowry returned to her. Very similar to a prenup."

SHAVELSON: The papyri were mostly mundane — farming receipts, land agreements. But one tiny scrap held a stunning revelation about the Greek general, Antiochus, who conquered nearly all of Egypt in 170 BC.

DEPAUW: "I'm now taking one of the papyri out of the box. Yeah, it's here. This is actually the one which is so exciting."

SHAVELSON: Papyrology professor Mark Depauw, visiting Stanford from the Netherlands, explains that historians said that when Antiochus took over Egypt, he didn't have the audacity to dethrone the Egyptian king or pharaoh, but kept the pharaoh in place. Or so it's been thought. Depauw now holds in his hands a minute papyrus fragment — with text referring to Antiochus as the Pharaoh.

DEPAUW: "This is one of two documents which actually proves that he went so far and made himself Pharaoh."

SHAVELSON: Why is this seemingly minor point of major significance? Because, says Depauw, the Greeks and Romans were competing for Egypt. And the Greek Antiochus, by declaring himself Pharaoh, so irritated the Romans that a Roman general confronted him and demanded he withdraw from Egypt. Antiochus said he'd think about it.

DEPAUW: "…and then the Roman envoy just drew a circle in the sand around him and said 'you get as much time as you want but then when you leave the circle I want your answer.'"

SHAVELSON: That was the birth of the expression "drawing a line in the sand," and of line-in-the sand diplomacy. So now we know more about what led up to that historical moment. All thanks to a faded scrap of papyrus removed from an Egyptian mummy, taken to London by a man from China, and deciphered by a Dutch papyrologist in California for the summer. For Our World, I'm Lonny Shavelson, Stanford, California.


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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 show. 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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