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Update on previous topics: Notre-Dame, Mt. Everest, NYC Subway and more

Today, we review the latest news on six previous topics: a public spat over the Notre-Dame restorations; Mt. Everest is strengthening safety measures; NYC Subway is getting a bit more high-tech; Houston Astros 2017 World Series victory has a cloud over it; celebrities are facing jailtime over college admissions scandals; and new devices are developed for human body temperature readings. Plus, learn “under way.”

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  • Time for an update on some previous lessons of Plain English

    Hi everyone, Jeff here, thanks for joining us this Thursday for Plain English. This is lesson number 251. You can find the full lesson at PlainEnglish.com/251.

    On today’s lesson, we’ll revisit some of the topics we’ve touched on in the past few years and provide you with an update. We’ll tell you the latest from Notre-Dame, Mt. Everest, the New York City subway, the Houston Astros, and a few more. Don’t forget to stick around until the very end, when I give you my own personal taste test, as a follow up to Lesson 151.


    Notre-Dame Cathedral restorations

    Just over one year ago, the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire; we talked about it in Lesson 151 and Lesson 154. A large portion of its roof fell in, and its famous spire collapsed onto the area where the altar would be. The fire started from either an electrical glitch or an errant cigarette. Remarkably, it caused no loss of life and many, though not all, of the cathedral’s priceless pieces of art were saved. France’s business community pledged 850 million euros to rebuild the famous cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron promised that it would be rebuilt within five years. Christmas 2019 was the first in over 200 years that did not feature a mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral.

    One year on, the difficult work of restoration is under way. The cathedral remains in a precarious position. Large parts of the building are weakened due to the fire, and it’s an urgent priority to make structural repairs to prevent further damage being done. Scientists working inside have to put on heavy protective suits and wear masks because of the toxic chemicals released when the lead roof melted. Meanwhile, a public spat has broken out between the chief architect and the leader of the restoration. The architect, Phillippe Villenueve, wants to build an exact replica of the original spire. The French Army general in charge of the reconstruction effort has different ideas. He said the new spire should be more contemporary. When asked about the architect’s differing opinion, the General said the architect should “shut his mouth.” A lot of the restoration work has been paused due to the coronavirus.

    New York begins MetroCard phase-out

    The 116-year-old New York City subway is a bit more high-tech. In Lesson 60, we talked about how New York would be introducing electronic payments for the subway, retiring the famous yellow plastic MetroCards—which themselves were a high-tech replacement for tokens, which were a high-tech replacement for coins.

    On my last visit to New York, I finally saw OMNY—an acronym for “One Metro New York” and a play on words, since the prefix “omni” means “all” or “of every kind.” It’s the new electronic way to get on the subway, buses, and other forms of public transportation in New York. You can use your phone, a contactless credit card, smartwatch, or even FitBit to pay your fare. So all you future New York tourists will be denied the exquisite New York pleasure of standing at the MetroCard vending machines, trying to figure out what card to buy while impatient commuters stand behind you. Instead, your utter confusion will be delayed until after you pass through the turnstiles and stare at the map

    Speaking of the map, the designer of the modern New York City subway map, Michael Hertz, died recently. If you’ve been on the New York subway, you’ve definitely seen his artwork. The previous subway map was more like ones in Munich, Washington, DC, and London: The lines were straight, with consistent angles. It was more like a diagram than a map. The current New York subway map is different. The curves are more accurate, and you can easily tell where stations are in relation to geographic landmarks.

    Mt. Everest

    In Lesson 161, we talked about an inconvenient traffic jam. Hundreds of climbers, hoping to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, were jammed together on a narrow path, all clinging to a single safety line. Last year’s spring hiking season was one of the deadliest on record, and hikers say that’s because inexperienced climbers—encouraged by unscrupulous guides—try to climb the mountain without sufficient experience or sufficient strength.

    In response, the government of Nepal pledged to strengthen safety measures. But they couldn’t get them passed in time for this year’s climbing season, which is going on right now. One reason is that the fees charged per climber—about $11,000—are an important source of revenue for Nepal’s government, and they don’t want to put that money at risk. The new rules would have included a cap on the number of climbing permits, a requirement that guides have high-altitude experience, and a price increase.

    Some private guides are taking things into their own hands. They’re independently requiring their clients to prove they have the climbing skill needed to survive at such high altitudes, and they’re increasing equipment inspections. That’s good for them, but even the best guides and most-prepared climbers will have to contend with Instagram-obsessed people pushing and shoving in line, unless there’s reform of the system. For this year, though, the coronavirus may slow down traffic.

    Other stories

    In Lesson 3, we talked about the Houston Astros, who won the 2017 World Series of baseball. That victory has a cloud over it now. The Astros were found to have illegally used cameras to steal signs and spy on opposing teams in 2017 and 2018. A number of coaches and executives were fired as a result of the scandal and the team was fined $5 million, the maximum allowed.

    In Lesson 140, we talked about the university admissions scandal, where parents were paying a so-called college counselor to cheat the admissions system and get their kids admitted to exclusive universities. Over 50 people have been charged; many have pled guilty. Actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in jail and 250 hours of community service. Several other wealthy parents were sentenced to between one and four months in prison.

    And just recently in Lesson 231, we talked about how scientists now believe the average human body temperature is a bit higher than previously thought. That should come in handy as technology companies are developing more efficient and less-intrusive ways to measure body temperature. The new devices are intended to scan people for fevers as they enter public places, like buildings or train stations. Some are used up close and look like a price scanner at store; others can be used more remotely and kept out of sight. The technology was already being deployed before the coronavirus, but is now enjoying a surge in demand.

    Under way

    Today’s expression is “under way.” I’m still amazed that we’re now in Lesson 250 and I almost never have trouble finding a unique English expression to talk about. Every so often, I have to go back and read the main lesson and I don’t see a good expression right away—but that is the exception. Of course, sometimes I accidentally repeat one, like I did with silver lining a few weeks ago. Anyway: “Under way.” What does it mean to be “under way”?

    It means a process has recently begun. It’s in progress. The renovations at Notre-Dame Cathedral are under way. After the fire, the immediate concern was the safety of the people in the area and the structural integrity of the building. Then there was fund-raising and planning. But now the restoration is under way: it has begun. Scientists are working on the inside, and building engineers are working on the outside. The process has begun and will continue.

    We usually say “under way” when we want to emphasize that the process has recently begun. The fire happened a year ago, and the renovations have been going on for months now. But it’s a multi-year process, so we are still early in the process of the full restoration.

    Universities across the US closed their campuses due to the coronavirus, and as a result, a whole new experiment with remote learning is under way. A whole new experiment with remote learning has recently begun. Can classes be taught as effectively over Zoom as they can in person? We are about to find out because this experiment is under way. It has recently started. Sure, we have had online learning for a long time. But this is on a much bigger scale, and it’s relatively new for a lot of people. That’s why we say this massive experiment with remote learning is under way. It has started somewhat recently.

    The United States is required by its constitution to perform a count of all residents once every ten years. This year’s census measures everyone living in every place in America—from the biggest cities to the smallest towns—as of April 1. The process to count every American—and every foreigner living in America—got under way earlier this year. It is now past April 1, but the process of doing the count will continue for several months, until everyone has (theoretically) been counted later this year. The process got under way earlier this year. When it got under way, the web site was established, forms were mailed, public service announcements were broadcast on television. That’s what happened when it got under way, when it just got started.

    Another way to use “under way” is to say something is “well under way.” When something is well under way, it is advanced in the process. By the summer, the US Census count will be well under way. By then—this is in a month or two from now—most people will have filled out their forms. The many Census workers will have knocked on millions of doors, collecting information in person. It will be well under way. There will be a lot of activity and it will be well advanced in the process—it will no longer be just at the beginning. When we want to specify something is not at the beginning any longer, we say “well under way.”

    We talked in Lessons 165 and 242 about the Democrats who want to run against Donald Trump this November. The process to select a nominee started early, way back last June when candidates started to enter the race. Then the elections got under way in February with the first few states to vote. Now, we’re in mid-April and the primary election season is well under way. So many states have voted so far that we now think we have a winner: Joe Biden. It’s not over yet; states will continue to vote until June. But the process is well under way; it’s not the beginning any more. In June, we’ll know who gets to go head-to-head against Trump in the fall.

    JR’s song of the week

    Today’s song of the week is “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin, who we talked about in Lesson 79. I picked the song this time, and I picked it because it’s one of the songs in the Hulu series “Little Fires Everywhere,” which I’m watching, and because it’s Aretha and this is our update lesson. So there you go, “Rock Steady,” which accompanies the morning routines of the two very different characters Mia and Elena in this series.


    One last update for you. Lesson 151. We talked about the new Coca-Cola with caffeine. It started in Asia and then I heard from listeners in Mexico and Brazil, who had seen local versions but I never saw it here. Granted, I don’t drink a lot of soft drinks and I don’t find myself in that part of a grocery or convenience store. But the other day as I was stocking up on supplies at Target, I saw a new, taller, thinner can of Coke. That’s when I knew it was here. It’s called “Coca-Cola Energy” in the United States. I bought one can and I tried it as I was writing this lesson. I have to say…I don’t hate it.

    On your first sip, you can smell just a little bit of that sweet energy-drink kind of smell. The consistency of the drink—how it feels on your tongue and in your mouth—is classic Coke. The flavor is just a little bit different from the real thing, just a tiny bit sweeter, and without as strong of a caramel taste. I was expecting it to taste half like Red Bull, which I don’t like. JR tried it and he said he liked it too.

    I won’t drink this a lot—I get enough caffeine from coffee—but I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

    That’s all for today, this was a long one. Remember PlainEnglish.com/live to check out our schedule of live events on Zoom. It’s been fun getting to know all of you, so we’ll continue to do live events. See you Monday!

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

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