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Monday
US Considers Launching ‘Digital Dollar’ A top Federal Reserve official said the United States is moving forward with a plan to develop a “central bank digital currency,” or CBDC.

The U.S. would not be the first country to consider launching such a currency. China is also considering one. However, the U.S. dollar is very important in the world economy.

Supporters of a CBDC say it makes electronic payments faster and simpler. They say there is no need for a bank to take part in the exchange. And people without a bank account could receive secure electronic payments.

But critics have concerns about privacy. They say such a system could give the federal government control over people’s financial transactions. There are also economic concerns that the digital dollar could displace the currencies of smaller countries.

David Treat is with the Irish company Accenture which gives business advice. He has worked with most central banks in G-20 countries: 20 large, industrialized nations. He thinks about five of them will have some kind of digital currency by 2024. China’s digital yuan is already in limited use.

Experts believe that CBDCs are likely to be used in the future. Here are some strengths and weaknesses of digital currencies:

Possible strengths

A digital U.S. dollar would be worth exactly one dollar. Other digital currencies, like Bitcoin, can gain or lose value quickly compared to national currencies. But the digital “token” held by the owner would be guaranteed by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Bitcoin, for example, is backed by no government.

Treat said, “There is no question as to its value. Whether it's the dollar in your wallet, the dollar in your savings account, or the central bank digital currency version of $1 in your digital wallet, all of them always equals $1.”

Digital currencies involve fewer steps in a transaction. Digital transactions on services like Venmo seem simple. But there is a complex digital network behind them. Banks and other financial services exchange information to make sure the transaction is safe. If one step goes wrong, the payment can be delayed.

Experts say a digital currency would work like cash. All the information needed to verify the transaction exists in the digital wallet. Two people could even make a transaction without an internet connection, although a wireless connection is still required.

A digital dollar could also be used around the world and across borders.

Daniel Gorfine is a director of the Digital Dollar Project, a non-profit organization that supports a digital dollar. He said a digital dollar would reduce costs for cross-border exchanges.

Smartphones are widely used in some of the world’s poorest countries. CBDCs could bring many people around the world into the digital economy.

Gorfine said the experiences of "countries like Kenya show that digital access can have a strongly inclusive effect on underserved populations.”

Possible weaknesses

However, digital currencies are a cause for concern for supporters of personal privacy. Under a digital dollar system, the Federal Reserve would have control over many transactions by citizens. Critics point to China, where the government uses digital currency to watch citizens’ transactions.

A digital dollar could also weaken local currencies. It might be good for individual people to be able to buy and sell goods in U.S. dollars. But it would be bad for countries trying to supervise their own national currencies.

A strong digital dollar would reduce the value of a local currency. It would also harm other central banks’ ability to control their money supplies.

Gorfine said it is a problem that must be dealt with. He said it could be a good idea to limit the amount of digital dollars a person can hold at one time.

He added that, as digital currencies get more popular, it is important that they be supported by “strong democracies.”

In the long term, it is a good thing for any digital currency to be “underpinned by…rule of law,” Gorfine said.

I’m Dan Novak.
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Tuesday
Post-pandemic Gift Ideas In many places around the world, the coronavirus pandemic is still affecting people’s lives. With lockdowns still in place, friends are still not able to gather as they once did.

However, in other places, especially where vaccination numbers are high, things are starting to return to normal. And “normal” often means simply being able to spend time in person with the people in your life for the first time in well over a year.

With parties and get-togethers starting up again, it is a great time to bring a gift.

But selecting a great gift for someone takes thought. Knowing their tastes and hobbies is important. What do they like to do for fun? During the pandemic, a person may have started a new hobby, like painting. That is important to know.

When I asked friends on social media what they would most like to get as a post-pandemic gift, the top answers were travel, live music shows and hugs from friends and family.

Writer Katie Workman for the Associated Press gives her ideas in a recent story. We share them with you here.

For the food lover

With restaurants closed, many people taught themselves to cook. Luckily for the gift-giver, there are many things you can give to those who love to cook.

If you are from or visit an area that is known for a certain type of food, bring that. In the United States, Workman says that might mean cheese from Wisconsin, maple syrup from Vermont, peaches from Georgia or peanuts from South Carolina. I would add oranges from Florida or salmon from Alaska.

Other gifts could be special oils or sauces to cook with. Fresh herb plants for the kitchen make a good gift, too. Cookbooks and cooking tools can also be thoughtful gifts for friends who love to cook. Or you may want to get them a fun apron to protect their clothing while cooking.

For the entertainer

People who often entertain, or give parties, are easy to buy for. Any gift that adds to fun entertaining is a good idea. Bringing flowers as a gift or a bottle of nice wine will never be a bad idea. But after more than a year you may want to think of something extra special as a gift. You can give them items they can use during a party, such as pretty glasses, a pretty cake stand or decorative serving bowls.

Think of items to decorate the table. Beautiful cloth coverings for the table or napkins make nice gifts. Knowing their favorite colors may help. Beautiful candles to light during dinner are also nice. And fun games are a good choice too.

For the art lover

Some of the best places to find unusual gifts are gift shops at museums. In a museum gift shop, you can find interesting gifts that you probably cannot find in other stores.

Of course, you can find art books and posters. But you can also find bags, coffee cups or jigsaw puzzles all decorated with famous works of art. Again, knowing what your friend likes is important.

For the gardener or plant lover

If someone likes to grow things in a garden, you are lucky. There are so many things you can give them as gifts. Gardening tools are always useful. So are colorful containers. These can be used by outdoor and indoor gardeners.

A birdfeeder is an unusual present. And who wouldn’t want more birds? Also, decorations for the garden or yard can be great gifts. Again, make sure you know the person’s style. If not, your gift of a garden gnome drinking a beer in his gnome underwear might be re-gifted.

There are many ways to say, “Thank you.” or “I’ve missed you.” or “Well, wasn’t that a crazy year!” But probably the most important gift you can give is just being there … in person.

I’m Anna Matteo.
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Wednesday
Today
Climate Change Affects Maine’s Blueberry Crops Maine’s wild blueberry fields are home to one of the most important fruit crops in the northeastern United States. But scientists working with the University of Maine have found they are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the state.

The researchers say the blueberries may be at risk because the rising temperatures have brought a loss of water.

The scientists studied 40 years of data and found that the state experienced a 1.1 degrees Celsius increase in average temperature. But the blueberry fields experienced an increase of 1.3 degrees Celsius.

The team’s findings appeared in a study earlier this year in the research journal Water.

Rafa Tasnim is an ecology and environmental science student at the University of Maine and the study’s lead writer. She said the lack of water caused by the temperature difference could result in smaller crop sizes and blueberries that are less likely to survive.

“What we are expecting is the temperature is going to increase a lot and we will not get as much rainfall in the summertime especially,” said Tasnim.

Maine is home to the only for-profit producers of wild blueberries in the U.S. The berries are smaller and have a slightly different flavor than other kinds of blueberries. Most of the crop is used to supply frozen fruit. Maine growers compete with those in eastern Canada which also produce the fruit.

The wild blueberry industry in Maine has been affected in recent years by unpredictable markets, as well as last year’s lack of water. Farmers produced 21.5 million kilograms of Maine wild blueberries last year. That was the lowest number since 2004.

The researchers found that wild blueberry growers might need to change the way they farm to prepare for future climate change. That could include changes to watering methods and fertilizer use.

Eric Venturini is executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. He says the industry is ready to make those changes.

Venturini added that the organization is working to find out how climate change is affecting the blueberry industry and looking for ways to deal with those changes.

The berries are widely used in processed food products. In recent years, Maine and its growers have worked to market the berries as a superfood – a food containing compounds considered helpful to a person’s health.

The blueberries are also part of yearly agricultural events and the main ingredient of blueberry pie, the state’s official dessert. And Maine’s official berry is, not too surprisingly, the blueberry.

I’m Jonathan Evans.
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Thursday
‘In the Heights:’ A Musical Visit to New York's Hispanic Neighborhood Lin-Manuel Miranda began writing what would become In the Heights as a university student. The musical play would launch him as a playwright and performer. Now, 20 years later, a movie version is in theaters for its first weekend.

Miranda said like other artists, he was driven by ambition – but also by something else.

“It was a lot of fear, honestly,” Miranda said in a recent interview. “I was 18, 19 and starting to study theater. The fear was: I’m going into a field that has no space for me, that has no roles for me. It was sort of that thing of: No one’s going to write your dream show.”

In the Heights opened on June 10. It celebrates many things: the Latino immigrant experience, neighborhood communities in New York City and life itself.

The movie was supposed to be released last June, but was delayed by the coronavirus health crisis. The film’s director, however, thinks the delay was not necessarily a bad thing. Moviegoers might be ready for some energetic music, singing and dancing after a year of restricted life.

In the Heights Director Jon M. Chu calls the movie, “a vaccine of joy.”

“On the first day of shooting, we all got in a circle and I was like: Let go of all the pressure. Let’s just entertain…these people,” Chu remembers.

On Wednesday, In the Heights played at the Tribeca Film Festival with showings across New York City. It has won praise from critics.

The filmmakers hope In the Heights can be for Latinos what Black Panther was for Black Americans and what Crazy Rich Asians was for Asian Americans. Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States. They make up an even larger percentage of moviegoers. But, the minority is underrepresented in Hollywood productions.

Chu said, in the end, it is moviegoers who decide. Crazy Rich Asians, which Chu also directed, was a surprise pop culture hit that led to changes in the movie industry.

“For the culture!”

In the Heights tells a story about a Dominican-American store owner Usnavi who dreams of returning to the Caribbean area. Miranda himself played Usnavi in the theater version. Actor Anthony Ramos, a native of New York City’s Bushwick area, performs the part in the movie.

Ramos said he experienced many of the things shown in the movie. “There are shots of the food that I grew up eating, the music that I grew up listening to,” he said.

A sense of responsibility weighed on Ramos during the filming in Washington Heights. Before shooting, Ramos would shout to the crew: “For the culture!” — a custom he learned from director Spike Lee while working on one of his movies.

“It meant that we are all here, in this moment, doing this film and telling this story for something that is way bigger than any [of] us,” said Ramos. “This is for everybody who had to sacrifice, who had to break doors open.”

Director: 'This is what we’re here for'

Many performers involved in the first In the Heights Broadway show appear in the movie’s final song and dance. Students from a nearby high school also can be seen in the film. The students had produced their own In the Heights show which the filmmakers watched and found moving.

“It just showed us: This is what we’re here for,” said Chu.

Others starring in the movie include Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario, a college student home for the summer; Corey Hawkins as Benny, a taxi driver; and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, a beauty salon worker trying to get her own home. Thirty-year-old Barrera said the part she plays as a young woman seeking a better future away from home — is basically herself.

Barrera was born in Mexico.

“I feel like I’ve worked really hard in my career but there’s always something, like, what is it that I’m missing?” said Barrera. “I was that girl. I left Mexico. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to become a performer in my hometown.”

When the film was early in development, there was an interest in getting famous singers to play some parts. But Miranda strongly believed that In the Heights should help grow the Latino stars the industry has been lacking. The creators also decided to include some current issues in the story.

“Once we decided on now, there was a lot of room to grow,” said Quiara Alegría Hudes. She wrote the screenplay and, earlier, the book for the theater production. “I live in Washington Heights. Part of how I write is by just walking around and listening.”

Miranda has seen many changes since the first 2008 Broadway performance. He noted that theater attendance numbers for Latinos went up in 2008, the year his musical was released. Then, he said the numbers decreased.

“In a lot of ways, time has caught up to In the Heights,” Miranda said.

I’m Caty Weaver. And I'm Dan Novak.
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Friday
TOEFL ‘Essentials’: A Shorter, Less Costly English Test The TOEFL iBT has been the most common English test for international students seeking entrance to American colleges. This year, there will be a shorter, less costly test called TOEFL Essentials.

The letters T-O-E-F-L stand for Test of English as a Foreign Language. And iBT stands for internet-based test. Both the iBT and Essentials are administered by the American educational company Educational Testing Service, known as ETS.

Since 1964, colleges and universities in the United States have used the TOEFL to measure an international student’s level of English. And schools in Australia, Canada and other English-speaking European nations started using the International English Language Testing System, or I-E-L-T-S, in 1989.

These two tests have been the main choices for colleges to measure English ability. In recent years, companies including Duolingo and EF Education First, have developed new English language tests that are low-cost or free and easy to use. These tests aim to do more than just offer more choices in the college admissions process. Some people use them to measure their English proficiency for employment.

The new TOEFL Essentials

Srikant Gopal is the executive director of the TOEFL program at ETS. He said the new TOEFL Essentials is shorter and less costly than the TOEFL iBT.

The TOEFL iBT takes about three hours to complete. And it costs $200 or more, depending on where in the world you live. The TOEFL Essentials takes 90 minutes and is expected to cost about $100.

While Essentials is shorter, Gopal said it still measures students’ academic and general English ability. He explained that ETS made the test “adaptive,” which means the test will give a student a harder question if they answer the previous question correctly.

“What we've built into TOEFL Essentials, for example, is many new and innovative features, such as a personal video statement or a multi-stage adaptive design, and to really offer something very unique and something that’s distinctly different from TOEFL iBT.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, ETS only offered its test in-person at centers around the world where test-takers could be watched by proctors. When testing centers closed last year, ETS moved quickly to develop a secure home-testing system to watch students and speed up the launch of Essentials.

Gopal noted security is important for university admissions. And he said that makes the TOEFL test different from those of its competitors.

Gabriel Guillen teaches language studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. He took the TOEFL in 2010 before studying for a higher degree in the U.S.

“This is good news for the field, and for...students who are applying for college in the U.S.,” Guillen said.

He noted that it is not a coincidence that ETS created a shorter and less expensive test, given the popularity of the Duolingo English test. The test is accepted by many universities, takes one hour to complete and only costs $49.

“I don’t know the insights of ETS, but it is pretty obvious for anyone that they are responding to the competition of Duolingo.”

Most of the schools contacted by VOA said they are still waiting for more information about the new TOEFL Essentials.

Anneli Richter is the Associate Dean for Graduate Admissions at Duke University. In an email, she said, “the school is reviewing the test and has not decided yet whether to accept it.”

Some schools like Temple University Law School, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the University of San Francisco have told ETS they will accept results from the new test. And ETS said it will publish a list of universities that intend to accept the Essentials test after the first phase of testing.

Registration for TOEFL Essentials starts June 17 and the first test date is August 21. ETS said it will continue to offer iBT because most universities do not have experience with the new test. And students who are considering the Essentials test can also practice on the ETS website.

I’m Dan Friedell.
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