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AMERICAN MOSAIC - And the Winner Is: Netflix Awards $1 Million for Best Software Program

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HOST:

Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.

(MUSIC)

I'm Doug Johnson. This week on our program:

We listen to music by several bluegrass award nominees ...

And answer three listener questions about the United States.

But first, we tell about a million dollar software competition.

(MUSIC)

HOST:

Netflix is the world's largest online movie rental service. It started in nineteen ninety-eight. It now has ten million paying members in the United States. This week it named the winners of a million dollar competition to improve its system for suggesting movies to its members. Jim Tedder tells about the company and the unusual competition.

JIM TEDDER:

Netflix was a simple idea that took off like a wildfire. A person pays a monthly fee to become a member. Members can order a certain number of movies from the Netflix Web site.

A Netflix envelope containing a DVD
A Netflix envelope containing a DVD

The DVDs are sent and returned through the mail very quickly. Netflix members do not have to go to the video store to get movies or to return them. And they can keep their movies for as long as they want. But, they cannot order new ones until they return the ones they have. Members can also watch some movies and television shows directly on their computers or televisions.

The Netflix Web site has almost any movie or television series members could want to see. If they have trouble choosing, the Web site has a built-in suggestion system. Members can note how much they liked a movie they just watched. Netflix then suggests other movies based on those ratings. It does so by comparing the movies the member has rated with all the movies on the site.

But several years ago, Netflix officials decided they were not satisfied with the system for suggesting movies. So they decided on an unusual way to improve the system. They announced a prize of one million dollars to a team who could design computer software that did a better job of predicting which movies members would like.

That was in October of two thousand six. More than forty thousand teams from almost one hundred ninety countries competed.

On September twenty-first, a team called BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos was named the winner of the Netflix Prize. The seven team members are from Austria, Canada, Israel and the United States. They include computer engineers, statisticians and machine-learning experts. At one point in the competition the team members had been opponents, but they joined forces to increase their chances of winning.

Netflix founder Reed Hastings praised the winners and competitors. He said the contest was as exciting as a movie. And, minutes after awarding the prize, Netflix announced a second one million dollar competition to improve the system even more.

(MUSIC)

HOST:

This week we answer three listener questions. Maggie Chen in Taiwan wants to know about fraternities in the United States. Fraternities and sororities are social organizations for undergraduate college students. The words are based on the Latin words for brother and sister.

In general, fraternities are for men, while sororities are for women. These groups are known as Greek letter societies or as being part of the Greek system. This is because most fraternities and sororities are named after a series of Greek letters, such as Alpha Delta Pi or Sigma Phi. Some of these groups date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Each group has a set of traditions about how new people become official members.

Often, members of a fraternity or sorority live together in a large house on campus. But they are also part of a national network of members. Different groups have different goals. These include community service, academic excellence or -- having parties.

A detail of a recruiting poster used during World War One
A detail of a recruiting poster used during World War One

Our second question comes from Somalia. Abdiaziz wants to know about the term "G.I." There are several answers to this question. The abbreviation is most commonly used to mean an American soldier. This began around World War Two. But before this time, G.I. was an unofficial military term for describing army supplies made out of galvanized iron. This term was soon used to describe army supplies in general that were government issue.

Our last question is from Brazil. Romulo Veloso wants to know about the imaginary man known as "Uncle Sam." The name is used to represent the federal government of the United States. Uncle Sam is pictured as a serious old man with white hair who is dressed in America's colors of red, white and blue.

The most common answer historians give is that the name came from Samuel Wilson. He supplied meat to the American Army during the War of Eighteen Twelve. The meat came in containers with "U.S." written on them, which was short for the United States. Mister Wilson's workers said the letters really meant their employer, "Uncle Sam."

Soon, an imaginary Uncle Sam began to appear in cartoons to represent the government. Images of Uncle Sam were also used on signs during World Wars One and Two to persuade Americans to join the Army.

(MUSIC)

HOST:

Next week, the International Bluegrass Music Association will hold its twentieth yearly awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The event on October first will honor some of the biggest names in bluegrass music. Shirley Griffith plays music from some of this year's nominees.

(MUSIC)

Alecia Nugent
Alecia Nugent

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH:

That was the song "Hillbilly Goddess" by Alecia Nugent. This Louisiana native is a nominee for Female Vocalist of the Year. She has been playing music since she was a little girl. Her songs combine the sounds of bluegrass and country music.

Dan Tyminski is a singer and guitarist with Alison Krauss and her Union Station band. But he recently put together his own group, the Dan Tyminski Band, and recorded his own album, "Wheels."

The album has received nine International Bluegrass Music Award nominations — not bad for a side project. Tyminski and his album are nominated for awards including Album of the Year, Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year. Here is the song "Wheels."

(MUSIC)

Actor and writer Steve Martin is another nominee who is taking a break from his main jobs to make music. His album of banjo music, "The Crow," has received six International Bluegrass Music Award nominations. Here Martin plays "Late for School."

(MUSIC)

We leave you with a song by Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass. "Don't Throw Mama's Flowers Away" is nominated for Song of the Year.

(MUSIC)

HOST:

I'm Doug Johnson. Our program was written by Caty Weaver and Dana Demange, who was also the producer. For transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, go to www.unsv.com. You can also comment on our programs.

Do you have a question about people, places or things in America? You can send it to mosaic@voanews.com and we may answer it on this show. Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.

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