Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Americans Cope With Economic Reality" from VOA.

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Shirley Griffith.

And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program, we look at how some Americans are dealing with the current economic situation.

"Reality" television shows are very popular in America. Some show the lives of the wealthiest people in the country. "How'd You Get So Rich?" is one program on cable television. The program features people worth more than a million dollars. It shows how they got their money and what they do with it.

The interest in wealthy people may have something to do with the increasing difference between the richest and poorest Americans.

Recent Census Bureau findings show the number of Americans in poverty is the highest in more than fifty years. In addition, the income inequality between rich and poor Americans has been increasing in recent years. It reached the greatest difference ever last year. And the United States has the greatest income inequality among industrial nations.

Economists say the recession and the high unemployment rate are among the reasons for the growing number of poor Americans. Henry Freedman is director of the non-governmental National Center for Law and Economic Justice. He says the decrease in the number of people in the middle class has also had an effect.

HENRY FREEDMAN:"The elimination of most of those jobs that people could get in factories, our factories are not there so much anymore. Other kinds of clerical work that is either being outsourced or is being replaced by technology that does it efficiently. Those people are competing with people below them for work."

Robert Hawkins is associate professor of social work at New York University. He says people in poor areas do not have the same chances for success that rich people have.

ROBERT HAWKINS:"What we have there are people who did not and do not have opportunities. So those folks cannot get an education, and so, what happens? They cannot get a job."

Professor Hawkins says lack of opportunities causes greater risk for crime, teenage pregnancy, illness and early death. He also says the weakening of the middle class could have lasting effects on everyone.

He says it could affect the quality of teachers, law enforcement officers and nurses. The professor says wealthy people have increasing political influence in America because the poor are not using it.

ROBERT HAWKINS: "If low-income people want more political power, they have got to organize, they have got to vote. That is the best and probably only way."

Almost ten percent of Americans are unemployed. Some people believe one way to deal with a bad situation is to laugh at it. That is the idea behind "The Adventures of Unemployed Man." It is a funny version of the superhero comic books. Writers Erich Origen and Gan Golan created the comic book.

The story is about a man called Ultimatum. He teaches the power of positive thinking: If you can believe it, you can do it. That is, until he meets a woman searching for food in the trash. She explains that she has a job and works hard. But she is still paid too little and has to find food to survive. When Ultimatum tries to help her, he is fired from his job and becomes Unemployed Man. He cannot find a job. Erich Origen explains:

ERICH ORIGEN:"Unemployed Man lost his house in a fantastic foreclosure. He's living in a cave, Rock Bottom, which is the cave underneath his former mansion."

Unemployed Man searches for work. He fights against bad people or super villains with the help of other down-on-their-luck superheroes. Will Unemployed Man find a job? Will he be defeated by evil forces like The Human Resource and Toxic Debt Blob? "The Adventures of Unemployed Man" is a light-hearted story of the recession and unemployment.

Erich Origen says that early in "The Adventures of Unemployed Man," our hero meets his silver-haired friend, Plan B. He cannot get hired because he is too old.

ERICH ORIGEN: "They met in a job line and of course Plan B has been in the business for decades and can't afford to go into retirement because the broker made a joke with his 401K."

The writers had fun with the names of their characters, using terms from financial news. Gan Golan says Unemployed Man and Plan B meet others who are affected by the economic crisis. They include Wonder Mother and Fantasma, an undocumented immigrant superhero.

The superheroes struggle with the economic crisis and a group of evildoers who are profiting from it, including Outsource. Here Erich Origen reads an exchange between the bad guys and one of the heroes:

ERICH ORIGEN: "His ideas infect others, eliminate him immediately! Then backdate a charge on his credit card and raise his APR by seventy percent!

"Pain! It's time you got … the boot! Klank! You're fired!


The classic American superheroes, like Superman and Batman, first appeared in the late nineteen thirties. During the time of the Great Depression, they were symbols of hope and the desire to succeed.

Erich Origen says the idea for unemployed superheroes came from the present economic downturn. But unlike Superman and Wonder Woman, Unemployed Man's friends have no superpowers other than the ability to face reality. Gan Golan and Erich Origen want people to laugh as they deal with their troubles.

GAN GOLAN:"A depression is not just an economic term, it's an emotional term. And I think we're providing a kind of comedic stimulus package for the country and for other people who are struggling right now."

D. Prichep

Many Americans save money by preparing nutritious soups to feed themselves and their families. These soups usually include more vegetables than meat and go a long way. People often make these soups in large amounts.

A few years ago, Knox Gardner, a technology consultant in Seattle, Washington, made a big pot of soup. He grew tired of eating it day after day. So he decided to get a few friends together for a soup trade.

KNOX GARDNER:"My original idea was that it would be some loud, boisterous kind of event, where you would trade three of my corn chowders, because you know I'm an awesome cook, for, you know, one of your minestrones."

This was the beginning of Soup Swap. It works like this:

KNOX GARDNER: "You bring six quarts, (liters) and then draw numbers and go around the room six times until everybody gets all new soups."

In addition to a set of rules, Knox Gardner got a website and declared National Soup Swap Day in January. The idea has spread across the country. There are now soup swaps from New York to Texas.

In Portland, Oregon, Jon Van Oast and Megan Kelley invited twelve friends to a Soup Swap. People started by sharing their stories about how they made their soup. Knox Gardner calls this "The Telling of the Soup." Some recipes came from the Internet. Others, like Christina Kellogg-Gratschner's fruit soup, were family traditions.

CHRISTINA KELLOGG-GRATSCHNER: "Fruit soup is something that my mom would make out of all her home canning pears, peaches, whatever she happened to have. And she'd cook it up with a little bit of cornstarch, and pour it on whole wheat toast."

Swappers then went around the circle, choosing their six quarts or liters. People were excited about leaving with a collection of different soups, especially people with busy lives. Stacy Meyer teaches fifth grade and tries to fit inexpensive and healthful meals into her diet.

STACY MEYER: "I will admit to having the breakfast-for-dinner kind of thing, that's happened before. And so being able to have a ready-made dinner in the freezer helps out quite a bit."

Boston University economist Juliet Schor says people are increasingly coming together for these kinds of informal swaps. In her latest book, "Plenitude," she describes how the economic downturn has made more people open to the idea of swapping. And the Internet has made it easier.

JULIET SCHOR: "In the past, if you wanted to organize some kind of a neighborhood swap or sharing scheme, you'd have to go around and call the people in the neighborhood, knock on their doors, etc. So there's a lot of what economists call transactions costs. With the Internet, that's drastically reduced."

Ms. Schor says that once these swaps come together, they strengthen connections between people. This is what economists and sociologists call "social capital." Juliet Schor says communities with strong social ties work better.

JULIET SCHOR: "Soup may seem like a small thing, but it may turn out that your sharing network is very important to you if you lose your job, if your housing is in jeopardy. You're going to have these folks to rely on."

Soup Swap activity has increased every year, as more groups start up. Founder Knox Gardner agrees that the Internet and the economy have helped its popularity. But, he says, it is also because of the soup.

KNOX GARDNER:"I think that there's something really fundamental that happens when people bring food together to share it. Soup's like the ultimate soul food."

Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake, with reporting by Peter Fedynsky, Deena Prichep and Faiza Elmasry. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Shirley Griffith. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at And you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"The Sounds of Outer Space" from VOA

Venus, the planet

I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English

This week, we hear some unusual sounds from space. Scientists created them by taking radio wave observations and turning them into sound waves that we can hear.

But first we tell about the Venus Express spacecraft of the European Space Agency. The spacecraft has made the most detailed maps yet of the atmosphere of the second planet from the sun.


Venus is a rocky world that is about the same size as Earth. But its climate is anything but Earth-like. It is a cloud-covered world where temperatures reach over four hundred degrees Celsius. The atmosphere of Venus is so thick that the pressure at the surface is about one hundred times that of Earth.

The European Space Agency's Venus Express space vehicle is exploring the planet's atmosphere in more detail than ever before. The vehicle itself is small. Venus Express is less than two meters wide and less than two meters long. However, it carries seven scientific devices including ones that measure radio waves, magnetism and infrared radiation.

The goal is to better understand the complex atmosphere of Venus. Space scientists say this is important for understanding more about the planet.

Venus Express will help scientists find out why a planet so much like Earth in size and material could have such a different atmosphere.

Some of the differences cannot be seen but are very important. For example, unlike Earth, Venus does not have a strong magnetic field. On Earth, the magnetic field protects the atmosphere from the powerful force of the solar wind, a flow of particles that moves out from the sun.

Instead, a magnetic charge builds up around Venus. But this magnetic field does not protect Venus completely from the force of the solar wind. In fact, it causes the planet to slowly lose some of its atmosphere.

Venus Express has also suggested to scientists why Venus is so dry. The planet loses mainly hydrogen and oxygen ions. An ion is an atom that has lost or gained an electron. That means Venus is slowly losing the elements that make up water by the action of the solar wind. Venus may have had more water and been more like Earth long ago.

There are other important differences between Earth and Venus. The Earth has seasons but Venus does not. Also, one day on Venus is two hundred forty-three Earth days. Venus's atmosphere is massive and made up mostly of carbon dioxide. It also has clouds of sulfuric acid.

The winds in the atmosphere of Venus are severe. They can move at one hundred meters a second. Yet even these powerful winds high above Venus probably do not extend all the way down to the surface. Powerful winds, especially at the south pole of Venus, cannot move the heavy atmosphere near the surface.

"Venus Surface" Space Art by Don Dixon
David Grinspoon is a Venus Express scientist from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado. He says Venus suffered a climate disaster. But we do not know how, why or when. However, Mr. Grinspoon says we do know what happened. Venus lost much of its water. Today, Venus is a very dry planet, unlike Earth, which has a large amount of water in its polar areas.

For example, if you took all the water in the atmosphere of Venus and placed it on the surface of the planet it would cover the planet with only three centimeters of water.

Venus Express has added a lot to what scientists know about our sister planet. It has created a map of temperatures on Venus. It has also discovered that there are electrical storms on the planet. And it has suggested to scientists the process that robs Venus of some of its atmosphere.

Venus Express has enough fuel to last until two thousand thirteen. In two thousand ten, it will be joined by a Japanese spacecraft, the Venus Climate Orbiter. Information from the new spacecraft will permit scientists to confirm the findings of Venus Express.


There is nothing wrong with your listening device. These sounds were created from information gathered by Voyager One. The spacecraft passed Jupiter in nineteen seventy-nine. Its plasma wave instrument recorded the information used to create the sounds.

The information, or data, was collected as the spacecraft came close to an area near Jupiter called the bow shock. That is where particles flowing away from the sun move past Jupiter at extremely high speeds.

The sharp sounds you heard at the beginning are waves created by electrons coming from the bow shock and moving into the solar wind. These sounds die out except for a slight low sound from one of the science instruments on the spacecraft. There is also the sound of one of Voyager's engines. Then things become quiet. Suddenly the spacecraft enters the bow shock and is surrounded by the noise of this planetary "sonic boom."

Another spacecraft, Cassini, entered orbit around Saturn in two thousand four. Before that the spacecraft traveled through Saturn's rings. The spacecraft was struck by about one hundred thousand particles of dust in less than five minutes. Its large round antenna protected the spacecraft. The event was measured by Cassini's radio and plasma wave instrument. Here is what it sounds like:


The next sound you will hear is the sound of Saturn turning. These were the first sounds of Saturn recorded by Cassini. Scientists wanted to know: How long is a day on Saturn? Cassini gathered information showing that Saturn's day is ten hours, forty-five minutes and forty-five seconds long. But that is about six minutes longer than information recorded by the spacecrafts Voyager One and Voyager two in nineteen eighty and nineteen eighty-one. The difference remains a mystery. Scientists continue to study Saturn to find out how the planet's turning motion creates radio emissions.


Saturn is one of the few places in the solar system that is known to have lightning. The Cassini spacecraft captured radio emissions they believed came from a large electrical storm on Saturn. It took place on January twenty-third and twenty-fourth, two thousand six. The radio emissions were turned into this sound recording.


This next recording was put together in a laboratory. It was taken from sounds collected by a recording device on the European Space Agency's Huygens probe. The probe came down to the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, in January, two thousand five. Several sounds recorded at different times are combined. They give a realistic recording of what a traveler on the Huygens probe would have heard during the ride down through Titan's atmosphere.


We leave you with some unusual and mysterious sounds captured by the Cassini spacecraft. They were made by Saturn's intense radio emissions. The radio waves recorded by the spacecraft's radio and plasma instrument were turned into a sound recording. These sounds are closely related to auroras near Saturn's north and south poles. Auroras are areas of charged particles that give off light near the poles of some planets. On Earth they are known as the northern and southern lights.


This program was written and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. You can find more space and technology news on our Web site, Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"The Legendary Mississippi River" from VOA.

This is Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today, Shirley Griffith and I tell about one of the biggest rivers in the United States, the Mississippi. The Mississippi flows from near the northern border of the United States south into the Gulf of Mexico. The river flows for more than 3,700 kilometers through the center of the country. It is the one of the longest rivers in the world. Only four rivers in the world are longer. They are the Nile in Africa, the Amazon in South America, the Yangtze in China and the Missouri in the United States.

The name, Mississippi, came from the Chippewa Indians who lived in what is now the north central part of the United States. Their name for the river was "maesi-sipu". In the Chippewa language this meant "river of many fishes". The word was not easy for European explorers to say. So they began calling it the Mississippi instead. Today, it is often called "Old Man River"

Modern maps show that Little Elk Lake in the north central state of Minnesota is the true beginning of the Mississippi River. Little Elk Lake is only about four kilometers long.

At its beginning, the Mississippi does not look like much of a river. But it grows as it starts moving slowly north before turning west and then south.

What is called the Upper Mississippi ends in southern Illinois, near a city with an Egyptian name – Cairo. However, in this middle western state it is called Kay-ro. At Cairo, another large river, the Ohio River, joins the expanding Mississippi.

It is easy to see how the Upper Mississippi has flowed through the land. It has cut its way through mountains of rock, pushing and pushing its waters slowly south.

The Lower Mississippi begins south of Cairo. It is often higher than the land along it. The land is protected by man-made levees, which are walls of earth. These levees prevent the river from flooding. Some of these levees are higher and longer than the Great Wall of China. If you stand behind some of the levees you look up at the river and boats sailing on it.

While the levees control the river, the land is safe. But when heavy rains fall on the hundreds of big and little rivers that flow into the Mississippi, the land is threatened. If the levees break, the river can spread its fingers across the land, flooding towns and villages and destroying crops growing in fields.

There are hundreds of big and little islands throughout the Mississippi River. These islands are formed by dirt carried along by the flow of the powerful river. Every year, the river carries 500 million tons of dirt. Islands can form quickly, sometimes between the time a ship sails down the river and returns.

United States government engineers work hard to keep the river safe. They destroy islands built by the river to keep it clear for ships and trade. They also work to keep the levees strong so that the river does not break through them. Still, Old Man River does not like to be controlled. Every few years the Mississippi River changes its path or floods many thousands of hectares. In the state of Minnesota, the two cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul face each other across the river. The cities are on the northernmost point on the river that is deep enough for trade boats to sail. The cities today form an important center for business and agriculture.

About 2,000 kilometers south along the river is the city of Saint Louis, Missouri. The city is just a few kilometers south of where the huge Missouri River joins the Mississippi. A French trader first established a business there in Seventeen-Sixty-Four. A few years later settlers named their new town after the Thirteenth Century French King, Louis the Ninth, who had been made a Christian saint. The city of Saint Louis was a popular starting point for settlers traveling to the American west.

The most famous city on the Mississippi is at the river's southern end. It is the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana. French explorers first settled there, naming the town after the French city of Orleans (Or-lay-onh). From its earliest days, New Orleans was an important center for national and international trade. During the War of 1812 a great battle was fought there against British forces.

Today, New Orleans continues to be an important center for business and international trade. But the city is probably most famous for its culture, music, and food. Many cultures unite in New Orleans. The large black population of the city provides strong influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. French culture also has been very important since the time the city and large areas of North America belonged to France.Indians had lived in the Mississippi Valley for a very long time when Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto arrived around Fifteen-Forty.

De Soto was looking for gold and cities of gold. He thought the Mississippi was just another river to cross before he would reach those cities, which the Spanish called El Dorado. Instead of the cities, he found hostile Indians, hunger and sickness.

De Soto died on the edge of the river in Fifteen-Forty-Two. He was 42 years old.

After De Soto's death, the natives attacked the soldiers he had brought with him and forced them off the land. The Indians saw no more Europeans in the part of the country for more than 120 years.

In 1682, French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, reached the mouth of the Mississippi at the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle claimed the surrounding country for France. He named it Louisiana, after the King of France at that time, Louis the Fourteenth.

La Salle failed to reach his goal of building forts and trading towns along the Mississippi from Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, he was murdered by one of his soldiers.

By the end of the Seventeenth Century, stories about Louisiana were spreading across France and other parts of Europe. Ships that were sailing to the new world were crowded with people. Many of them died of hunger and sickness. However French people kept coming. They began settling the Mississippi Valley. They established control along the river, from New Orleans to as far north as Illinois.

In Seventeen-Eighty-One, Britain and the new United States of America signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolutionary War. The treaty gave the United States complete control of the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. The Americans also gained the right to use the river.

In 1803, France sold the territory of Louisiana to the United States. What became known as "The Louisiana Purchase" included more than two-million square kilometers. It was the largest land purchase in history.In the early 19th century, the steam engine was invented. Soon steamboats were moving goods and people on the Mississippi River. For about 60 years, steamboats were extremely important for trade in the Mississippi Valley and throughout most of the middle west.

During this time, a boy living in a town next to the Mississippi fell in love with steamboats and the river. He grew up to become a captain on one of those boats. Then he began writing stories and books, using the name Mark Twain. Mark Twain's most famous book is "Huckleberry Finn". It tells the story of a boy who runs away with a slave and their adventures as they drift on a raft down the Mississippi.

The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865. During this time, nothing much was heard along the river but the sounds of war. After the war, trade along the river began again.

The Mississippi has always had an important part in American history. Today, the river is still an important part of the American economy. Goods are carried up and down the river to get to other parts of the country and the world.

Human activities on and along the Mississippi River have changed through history. But the great river just keeps flowing through the center of America. As the song "Old Man River" says: "It must know something. It don't say nothing. It just keeps rolling along."

This Special English program was written by Oliver Chanler and directed by Paul Thompson. This is Shirley Griffith. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the VOICE OF AMERICA.


1. One river that isn't longer than the Mississippi is the _____________ River.
a. Nile
b. Missouri
c. Amazon
d. Hudson

2. According to this article, the U.S. government engineers must destroy the islands that form in the river because _________________ .
a. the islands cause floods
b. the islands interfere with shipping
c. undesirable people camp on the islands
d. the islands are hideouts for drug dealers.

3. The huge Missouri River flows into the Mississippi a few kilometers ______________ Saint Louis.
a. south of
b. west of
c. east of
d. north of

4. Without levees, the Mississippi would _____________ much more frequently.
a. change course
b. flood the area
c. become narrower
d. probably dry up

5. Hernando De Soto arrived at the Mississippi River in 1540. He was looking for _____________ .
a. hostile indians
b. cities of gold
c. the source of the Mississippi River
d. a passage to the Orient

6. Trade didn't take place on the Mississippi River during the __________________.
a. American Revolution
b. Mark Twain's life
c. the Civil War
d. 18th Century

7. Louisiana was named after __________________.
a. the King of France, Louis the Fourteenth
b. Rene Robert Cavelier's wife, Louise Cavelier
c. the Louisiana Purchase
d. Thomas Jefferson's mother

8. The Mississippi River flows from _________________ to the Gulf of Mexico.
a. the state of Ohio
b. Cairo
c. The U.S. northern border
d. Southern Illinois

9. Another name for this article could be ____________________.
a. "The History of New Orleans"
b. "The Louisiana Purchase"
c. "The Flooding of the Mississippi"
d. "The History of a Great American River"

10. This article is mainly about _________________ .
a. the mighty Mississippi
b. how levees protect communities from floods
c. Mark Twain's life on the Mississippi
d. Shipping and Trade after The Civil War

11. Another name for the Mississippi River is ________________.
a. the Missouri River
b. the Crazy Twisty River
c. Old Man River
d. the Louisiana River

In the musical "Show Boat", Paul Robeson sings of the tough life of slaves working on the Mississippi River. This is one of America's most famous singers, and this is one of America's most famous songs.

There's an old man called The Mississippi
That's the old man that I try to be.
What does he care if the world got troubles,
What does he care if the land ain't free. ("ain't" is slang for "isn't, aren't")

Old man river,
That old man river
He must know somethin'
But don't say nothin',
He just keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.

He don't plant taters (potatoes)
He don't plant cotton,
And them that plants 'em
is soon forgotten,
But ol' man river,
He just keeps rollin' along.

You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin' and racked with pain,
Tote that barge!
Lift that bale!
Get a little drunk
And you land in jail.

I get weary
And sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin'
And scared of dyin',
But ol' man river,
He just keeps rollin' along.

Darkies all work on the Mississippi,
Darkies all work while the white folks play,
Pullin' those boats from the dawn to sunset,
Gettin' no rest till the judgement day.

Don't look up
And don't look down,
You don't dast make
The white boss frown.
Bend your knees
And bow your head,
And pull that rope
Until you're dead.

Let me go 'way from the Mississippi,
Let me go 'way from the white man boss;
Show me that stream called the river Jordan,
That's the ol' stream that I long to cross.

Ol' man river,
That ol' man river,
He must know somethin'
But don't say nothin'
He just keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.

Long old' river forever keeps rollin' on...

He don't plant taters,
He don't plant cotton,
And them that plants 'em
Is soon forgotten,
but ol' man river,
He just keeps rollin' along.

Long ol' river keeps hearing that song.
You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin' and racked with pain.
Tote that barge!
Lift that bale!
Get a little drunk
And you land in jail.

I get weary
And sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin'
And scared of dyin',
But ol' man river,
He just keeps rollin' along!

Finally, this video from Youtube tells of ancient pyramids built on the Mississippi River many eons before Europeans arrived. It's the video that visitors to Cahokia State Park see before they explore the park itself.