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Our World — 20 December 2008


This week on "Our World" ... How technology brings more capabilities to the disabled ... visiting American universities by video on our Website of the Week ... and remembering the first flight to the moon ...

ANDERS: "It crossed my mind that here we'd spent all this time studying the moon, and what we were doing was discovering the Earth."

The 40th anniversary of Apollo 8, our annual roundup of high-tech consumer products, and more.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


Cameras, video games among this year's great tech gift ideas

Retailers around the country are reporting a slower-than-usual holiday shopping season this year, but 2008 has been a terrific years for those who love consumer electronics - be they buying or just looking. VOA's Adam Phillips rounded up a personal technology expert for his annual review of some of the year's best.

PHILLIPS: It's lunch hour at the Midtown Manhattan outpost of Best Buy, the largest consumer electronics chain in America. The checkout line is 30 people deep and counting. That's no surprise to Nicholas Thompson, a senior personal technology editor at "Wired" magazine.

THOMPSON: "It's been a cool year; it's been a good year. There's been a lot of new stuff introduced that's faster smaller, sleeker, cheaper, better than everything we've had before. And design is also changing a lot, too. Partly that's the impact of Apple. Apple makes these beautiful things, and these things sell. So now everybody's making beautiful things."

PHILLIPS: Thompson says that one new product that gets high marks for both design and affordability is the Sansa Fuze. It's one of dozens of handheld digital music players on sale here.

THOMPSON: "It's red, and it has a little screen on it. We like it just because it's cheap. It's about $80, which is much less than it would have cost a year ago. You can watch TV shows; you can watch movies, you can listen to music; you can look at photographs you can put on it. All your little media files."

Q: "Speaking of photos, let's go look at those."

THOMPSON: "Okay! Let's do it!"

PHILLIPS: Thompson heads straight for the camera aisle, where he unhesitatingly picks up a stylish Sony T700.

THOMPSON: "It's a new model, and it's fantastic. There are a couple of things I like about it. The first is that the entire back is a screen. When you have a digital camera and you shoot a picture, it's usually displayed on a little screen. This actually has a huge screen. And one of the great things about that is you take pictures with your digital camera, and you may put them online, but if you put them online, nobody is going to look at them. If you have a nice screen on your camera, it makes it a lot easier to share your photos with your friends.

"Another thing I really like about this is it has a technology called 'Smile-shutter.' And what you do is, you point the camera at somebody, and as soon as that person smiles, it will automatically take a picture. You don't have to press the button yourself."

Q: That would drive me crazy. I wouldn't like that

THOMPSON: "Well, you don't have to turn that feature on all the time. And you can turn your camera upside down, put it on your desk, and it'll take a picture of somebody when they frown.

Q: Really?

THOMPSON: "That's not true."

PHILLIPS: Nearby, shoppers are snapping up a surprisingly simple looking video camera called the "Flip Ultra."

THOMPSON: "It's a tiny very portable video camera. Video cameras used to cost $300 or $400. So this is very cheap, very easy to use, $129, has almost no buttons on it. And very simple, very nice present."

PHILLIPS: Video games are bigger than ever in 2008. Thompson's favorite this year is the "FIFA 09" virtual football game based on the World Cup.

THOMPSON: "So what it is, is you choose a team. And then you actually have a simulation of all the soccer players who play on that national team. So for example, if you are the United States, you have a simulation of Landon Donovan, and you actually control him, and he moves like Landon Donovan. He has the same skills. He kicks as well with his right foot or his left foot. It's all put into the code so it actually plays like Langdon Donovan. And if Brazil plays the United States, Brazil wins!"

Q: "Why?"

THOMPSON: "Well, Brazil is better. These games used to work and they were like little Tinkertoys and all the players would be the same and they'd kind of run in the same direction, kick as hard, run as fast. And now everybody is an individual."

PHILLIPS: Thompson says that hard-core couch potatoes who want excitement from their electronic toys without exercise even of the virtual kind will love Samsung's new top of the line large screen flat TVs, which use liquid crystal display technology enhanced with light-emitting diodes as backlights.

THOMPSON: "It's much easier on your eyes, the colors are truer, the blacks are a lot better, and it's much easier to watch for a long time. You actually feel like you are in a movie theater even though are just sitting in your own living room."

PHILLIPS: Nicholas Thompson of Wired magazine says that sitting in your own living room, while virtually zooming through the streets of Gotham City at 250 kilometers per hour at the same time, is only one of the high tech thrills in store for gadget lovers during the 2008 holiday season. I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.



Slow heart rate reduces stress on cardiovascular system

Some of that stuff can really set your heart racing. One of the first things a doctor or nurse often does when seeing a patient is check the so-called vital signs, including temperature, respiration or breathing rate, blood pressure, and heart rate. Heart rate, for example, is typically in the range of 60 to 100 beats per minute in a healthy adult. But athletes typically have a notably lower heart rate, and as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the lower rate appears to have its benefits.

SKIRBLE: Swimmer Michael Phelps won a record eight Olympic gold medals in the 2008 summer games in Beijing. When he's resting, Phelps' heart rate per minute is in the low 30s or about half of what would be considered normal for adults. That's a good thing, says Thomas Lee, editor of the Harvard Heart Letter.

LEE: "Greater physical fitness leads to a slower heart rate and a slower heart rate means less stress on your cardiovascular system."

SKIRBLE: Thomas Lee writes about heart rate and longevity in the December issue of the publication.

LEE: "When you get above 100 beats per minute you actually have to wonder, 'Is there some kind of heart rhythm disorder that needs more immediate medical attention. It's worth having your doctor screen you to see whether you might have an overactive thyroid or a low blood count, something that makes your heart beat faster."

SKIRBLE: Decongestants, asthma medicine, caffeine and other stimulates can also speed up your heart. Lee says while some drugs can slow the rate down and even give some protection for those at high risk, ongoing research underscores a familiar message.

LEE: "…which is [to] control the risk factors you know about. Control your weight, exercise more and make sure you don't smoke."

SKIRBLE: Lee says it's easy enough to calculate your own resting heart beat. When you get up in the morning, check your pulse by counting the number of heart beats in 15 seconds. Multiply by four. If the rate is high - 80 or above - Lee suggests talking with your doctor. I'm Rosanne Skirble.



Computer technology helps disabled users

We started the show with a technology story, followed that with one about health. Which naturally leads us to this one, about how the personal computer is helping people with physical disabilities. Shelley Schlender attended a conference where some of the new technology was on display.

SCHLENDER: Training experts crowd around computers in Boulder, Colorado, as 50 featured speakers take turns explaining how these high-tech machines can be even more useful when the person using them is deaf, blind or physically disabled. Dean Colby, an organizer of this Assistive Technology Conference, knows the value of these technologies first-hand.

Colby became paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident in 1993, damaged his spinal cord at C-5, which is the 5th neck vertebra. He now has a PhD in communications, and says computers helped him get it.

COLBY: "If I had been injured in, let's say 1972, as a C-5 quadriplegic, I think the difference between now and then is just enormous. The computing technologies have made it so much easier for persons like me to be integrated into society, really."

SCHLENDER: Voice recognition software allows Colby to speak commands to his computer instead of typing them. Similar programs help people who are deaf by transforming spoken words into closed-captioned text. The biggest recent advances address the needs of those who can't see computer screens.

And that's Bravo, Kilo, 857, Juliet, Whiskey . . .

SCHLENDER: Anne Taylor may be blind, but she is a wizard on computers.

TAYLOR: "I'm Director of Access Technology at the National Federation of the Blind, and I have to know everything there is to know about screen access technology."

SCHLENDER: At this Assistive Technology conference, she's using a state-of-the-art, screen-reading program that transforms computer instructions and information into audio.

The newest technologies include ways to convert on-screen engineering diagrams into raised-relief pages.

KRAMER: "It's a combination of Braille and these tactiles, and that gives her access to the content of the class."

SCHLENDER: Howard Kramer is the Coordinator of this Assistive Technology Conference. He says that providing these special tools can cost time and money, but it's the right thing to do. What's more, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require that employers and educational institutions must make reasonable efforts to give people with disabilities the tools they need.

KRAMER: "Even if people didn't want to do it because it's expensive, it's still required by law."

SCHLENDER: But Kramer notes that the more widely it's used, the more the price comes down. He points to the voice activated software that allows someone who's paralyzed to use a computer without having to type.

KRAMER: "I can remember when it first came out, it was about 20 years ago, I believe the cost was $20,000 and now a program like Naturally Speaking, you can buy the mid-level product for about $180."

SCHLENDER: There have been similar price reductions for screen reading software, as well as tremendous advances in the technologies behind them. Take the program that Federation of the Blind spokesperson Anne Taylor is testing at the conference. It's called Jaws Tandem. It lets two people in different locations listen to the same computerized voice reading the text and instructions on an internet site. She says this will help more experienced users train other people.

TAYLOR: "We don't have enough trainers, access technology trainers. So you see a lot of blind people who are familiar with screen access technology spend time helping each other out. Jaws Tandem is going to facilitate that tremendously."

SCHLENDER: While the newest technologies are often the most expensive, Eric Damery, with Jaws Tandem, says some of their products are available in developing nations at a lower cost. But he cautions that the software is worthless unless users have personal computers, and people who can train them to use the machines.

DAMERY: "If they had all the screen readers in the world, it wouldn't help them if they didn't have the computers, if they didn't have connections to the internet, if they didn't have the instruction. There's nothing worse that giving people half a tool so that they still can't do it."

SCHLENDER: By partnering with groups that supply personal computers and trainers, and by learning from each other, the experts at the Assistive Technology conference hope to get their special tools to more of the people who need them. For Our World, I'm Shelley Schlender in Boulder, Colorado.



Videos of student interviews offer window on campus life


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

This week, a new site that features an inside view of college life here in the U.S, with thousands of video interviews with students at hundreds of American universities.

PERE: "CollegeClickTV gives you a complete, 360-degree view of what college life is like through video."

Glenn Pere is the founder of CollegeClickTV.com, where prospective students and others can learn about the academic and social experience of attending some 200 major American colleges and universities.

The site launched just four months ago, after a year of taping thousands of interviews with students around the country who talk about everything from professors and libraries to social life on campus.

PERE: "There's no other site out there like this that gives you the students' perspective and the students' point of view in an unbiased, peer-to-peer way."

Which means some of the students in the videos are critical of food or housing or large class size, but others are as enthusiastic as this first-year student at the University of Texas.

BRUCE M.: "I mean, you've got world class professors walking right next to you, one of the greatest football teams in the nation. And you've got Sixth Street in downtown [Austin]. Everything you could need. Nightlife, parties, fun. And the best classes in the world."

Although CollegeClickTV is mainly aimed at prospective U.S. university students, Glenn Pere says the site has attracted visitors from more than 180 countries who are either considering an American education or just curious about life on campus.

PERE: "They will be able to see what American students are like; American campuses, what those are like. So it is helping quite a bit in the international community."

The student view of life at American universities on CollegeClickTV.com, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Paul Lavalle: "High School Cadet" by John Philip Sousa

Lifelong learning on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.



Experts project a wireless future for Internet access


A new survey of experts is projecting changes in the way we use the Internet.

Looking ahead to 2020 - just over a decade from now - the experts see a convergence between telephones and computers, as most people access the internet using mobile phones or other wireless devices.

Prof. Janna Anderson, who let the study, says that convergence is well underway in many countries.

ANDERSON: "What a lot of people don't know in the more developed nations is how people in less-developed nations have adopted the mobile phone as their communications device and their home base in a lot of ways. Cell phones have really revolutionized communications in a lot of areas where people were not able to communicate well before. They're doing things like sharing phones, having village phones, things like that. So you can see how, if everyone at every level can use this device to be able to carry on business, to get medical help, to get an education, and you can understand very easily how by 2020 people expect it will be the primary Internet device."

Anderson is a communications professor at Elon University in North Carolina. In an interview she said that the 1,100 Internet experts and other stakeholders surveyed predicted less keyboard use and more touch screens and voice commands --

DAVE (Keir Dullea): "Open the pod bay doors, HAL."
HAL (Douglas Rain): "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

Though hopefully not like the uncooperative computer HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

ANDERSON: "Right now you can already see it in the iPhone, and I think that the iPhone had a lot of influence, and now of course the Android platform, Google phones are also coming out into the marketplace. Where people are interacting, they find it more natural to be able to work with a device and communicate by using their hands in addition to typing. It's more approachable for people who are not as literate, to be able to touch things and be able to manipulate them and especially be able to talk to them."

Natural language interfaces - where we talk to computers and they talk back to us - are becoming more common. But there are still unresolved problems with the technology, as anyone who as ever used a telephone system that responds to voice can attest.

This was the third in a series of surveys that Janna Anderson has done on the "Future of the Internet," and the experts surveyed expect a continuation of the ongoing battle between those who want to control information - like the music and movie industries - and those who say "information wants to be free." You can say the same about the battle over security vs. privacy.

ANDERSON: "There are a lot of people who are extremely concerned. You can see this through all of our surveys over the tension between security and privacy issues. You know, wanting to stop lawlessness, cyber crime, all those kinds of things; worries about, terrorists using the network. But also allowing people to have privacy, and also to have open, free communication online. There's always going to be this tension between those two things."

Janna Anderson of Elon University. Her survey was done in cooperation with the Pew Internet & American Life project. You can see the full survey results and much more at ImaginingTheInternet.org, and of course we'll have a link on our site, voanews.com/ourworld.



Remembering Apollo 8, humans' first visit to the Moon

As we've mentioned here on Our World, NASA plans on shutting down the space shuttle program in 2010, to get ready for a new generation of space vehicles.

So, what happens to the three remaining shuttles?

NASA this week announced it was open to proposals from educational institutions or other organizations to preserve and display the spacecraft, which the space agency will give away for free.

There is a catch, however.

The recipient will have to pay preparation and delivery costs, estimated by NASA at $42 million dollars for each orbiter.

The shuttles could be on their way to some lucky museum or university in a couple of years ... assuming that the incoming Obama administration doesn't reverse course and decide to continue flying the shuttles for a while longer.

If U.S. astronauts are to return to the moon, as is currently the plan, it's fitting to recall the first time humans saw the moon up close.

This coming week marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 8 moon flight. Three astronauts left Earth orbit for the first time, circled the moon 10 times, and came home. It was a test of the hardware that would be used on six successful moon landings starting in 1969.

Apollo 8 also gave humans the first photographs of Earth taken from far out in space. One of those pictures shows a round, blue Earth against the blackness of space with the surface of the moon at the bottom.

Astronaut William Anders took the famous picture, which has become known as "Earthrise."

ANDERS: "We were trained to explore the moon, to comment on the topography and geology, if you will, of the moon. And when I saw the earthrise and then also pictures of the small earth from lunar distance, it crossed my mind that here we'd spent all this time studying the moon, and what we were doing was discovering the Earth."

Anders and his fellow astronauts, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, recalled their historic flight recently in Washington.

Besides the "Earthrise" picture, the other thing people remember about Apollo 8 was the reading from the Bible as the astronauts circled the Moon.

It was controversial, the Bible reading. Critics said the astronauts, who were government employees, after all, shouldn't be promoting religion. Borman and Lovell said their bosses at NASA didn't give them much guidance for what to say on their scheduled Christmas Eve broadcast in 1968, just that they should do something "appropriate."

ANDERS (1968): "We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you."

BORMAN (2008): "Frankly, I think we were all really busy with the flight plan, that was the last thing on my mind. I don't know about you guys. But I contacted a friend of mine, Sy [Simon] Bourgin, and about two weeks before the flight he came back with the idea of maybe reading from Genesis, and we all liked it, and that's how it happened. Almost ad hoc, but so appropriate."

ANDERS (1968): "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

LOVELL (2008): "Sy Bourgin, he went to a newspaperman, Joe Layton. Joe Layton stayed up most of the night trying to figure out what would be appropriate around the moon on Christmas Eve to say to millions of people all around the Earth. And finally his wife came down and she said, well it's natural, read the first 10 verses of Genesis, which is the foundation of most of the world's religions, not just the Christian religion. Most of the people who will be listening to you are probably not Christian. And that's how it finally came to pass."

BORMAN (1969): "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."



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 show. Bob Doughty 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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