Month: December 2023

‘Wonka’ Back Atop North America Box Office in Weak Film Year

Los Angeles — Fantasy musical “Wonka” bounced back to the top of the North American box office this New Year’s weekend as an otherwise pallid film year came to an end, industry watcher Exhibitor Relations reported Sunday.

The Warner Bros. film took in an estimated $24 million for the three-day weekend in the U.S. and Canada, and $31.8 million when New Year’s Day is included. It has passed the $140 million mark domestically and taken in $244 million globally.

That strong showing came at the end of an off year for Hollywood, with numbers roughly 20 percent below the three-year pre-pandemic average, said analyst David A. Gross. Audience tastes are starting to change, he said, from universe-saving action films to stories closer to home.

Close to home — at least if you live near a chocolate factory — was family-friendly “Wonka,” with Timothee Chalamet as a younger version of Roald Dahl’s famous chocolatier. Hugh Grant has an unforgettable turn as a grouchy, green-haired, gnome-like Oompa Loompa.

Last weekend’s leader, Warner Bros.’ “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” took on a bit of water, slipping to second at $19.5 million for three days ($26.3 million for four). Jason Momoa again plays the sea-dwelling superhero, this time joining with his half-brother and former foe to fight turmoil and climate change.

In third was Illumination and Universal’s animated comedy “Migration” about the adventures of a family of mallard ducks as they fly from New England to Jamaica. It earned $17.2 million for three days ($23 million for four).

Completing a strong weekend for Warner Bros. was the new musical version of “The Color Purple,” in fourth spot at $13 million ($17.7 million). Based on the Alice Walker novel that became a beloved movie, “Purple” follows the struggles and triumphs of Celie, a young Black woman in rural Georgia in the early 20th century.

One-time “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino-Taylor plays Celie — a role played by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 film — with backing from Danielle Brooks, H.E.R. and Colman Domingo.

And in fifth was Sony rom-com “Anyone But You,” at $9 million ($11.5 million). Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell star in the tale, oh-so-loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” that takes the two from instant connection to crossed signals to the scheming of friends to a lot of splashing in Sydney Harbour before ultimately … but nay, the rest is silence.

Rounding out the top 10 were:

  1. “Wonka,” $24 million.

  2. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” $19.5 million.

  3. “Migration,” $17.2 million.

  4. “The Color Purple,” $13 million.

  5. “Anyone But You,” $9 million.

  6. “The Boys in the Boat,” $8.3 million.

  7. “The Iron Claw,” $5 million.

  8. “Ferrari,” $4.1 million.

  9. “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” $2.9 million.

  10. “The Boy and the Heron,” $2.5 million.

Oscar-Nominated Actor Tom Wilkinson Dies at 75

london — Two-time Oscar-nominated actor Tom Wilkinson, who starred in “The Full Monty” — a movie about a group of unemployed steel workers who launched new careers as strippers — died suddenly on Saturday. 

The British actor’s death was confirmed in a statement released by his agent on behalf of his family. He was 75. 

“It is with great sadness that the family of Tom Wilkinson announce that he died suddenly at home on December 30. His wife and family were with him.” 

Wilkinson was nominated for Academy Awards for actor in a leading role for “In The Bedroom” in 2001, and for a supporting role in “Michael Clayton” in 2007. 

He most recently reunited with his “Full Monty” co-stars, Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy, in a Disney+ series of the same name. 

The original 1997 smash hit about an unlikely group of men stripping won an Oscar for best original musical or comedy score and was nominated for three others, including best picture and best director. 

Wilkinson played ex-foreman Gerald Cooper who was recruited to help the unemployed men dance. 

The actor also took home the best supporting actor Bafta for the role. 

Wilkinson won a 2009 Golden Globe and 2008 Emmy for his role as American political figure Benjamin Franklin in the HBO series “John Adams,” opposite Paul Giamatti. 

He was also known for his roles in a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens novel “Martin Chuzzlewit,” the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” the 2014 Wes Anderson comedy drama “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and 2011 ensemble comedy “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” 

US Seizes Illegal E-Cigarettes, as Thousands of New Ones Are Launching

WASHINGTON — Federal officials are seizing more shipments of unauthorized electronic cigarettes at U.S. ports, but thousands of new flavored products continue pouring into the country from China, according to government and industry data reviewed by The Associated Press.

The figures underscore the chaotic state of the nation’s $7 billion vaping market and raise questions about how the U.S. government can stop the flow of fruit-flavored disposable e-cigarettes used by 1 in 10 American teens and adolescents. 

More than 11,500 unique vaping products are being sold in U.S. stores, up 27% from 9,000 products in June, according to tightly held industry data from analytics firm Circana.

“FDA whacks one product and then the manufacturers get around it and the kids get around it,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a Stanford University psychologist who develops anti-vaping educational materials. “It’s too easy to change your product a little bit and just relaunch it.”

Halpern-Felsher says she is “constantly” updating her curriculum to keep pace with new vaping brands and trends.

Nearly all the new products are disposable e-cigarettes, according to the sales data gathered from gas stations, convenience stores and other shops. The products generated $3.2 billion in the first 11 months of this year.

The FDA has authorized a handful of e-cigarettes for adult smokers and is still reviewing products from several major companies, including Juul. Regulators consider nearly all other e-cigarettes to be illegal.

“Those committing illegal acts don’t advertise their crimes, and those trying to import illegal tobacco products into the United States are no different,” said FDA’s tobacco director, Brian King, in a written response to AP questions. “The FDA and our federal partners are using tools, like import alerts, to stop these illegal tobacco products at the border and to deter countless others.”

The rise in e-cigarettes sold continues despite a record number of products detained.

An FDA database shows officials “refused” entry to 148 containers or pallets of “tobacco” goods last month, consisting almost entirely of vaping products from China. Refused imports are typically destroyed.

Through the end of November, U.S. officials had refused 374 such shipments this year, more than double the 118 refused in 2022.

This year’s items included $400,000 worth of Esco Bars, a disposable brand placed on a list of banned imports in May. The agency’s posted data is often preliminary because it takes time to finalize refusals.

But recent history shows how easily companies can maneuver around import bans.

In July 2022, the FDA barred dozens of e-cigarettes from Chinese manufacturer Fume, including flavors Pineapple Ice and Blue Razz.

Fume sales dipped after the ban, but the company launched a slew of new products, posting $42 million in U.S. sales in the third quarter of 2023, the data shows. Roughly 98% of sales came from products not on the FDA’s “red list” of products that can be detained.

Industry shipping tactics are also challenging the usefulness of import restrictions.

In July, FDA and customs officials intercepted $18 million worth of illegal vapes, including leading brand Elf Bar. But the shipments were mislabeled as shoes, toys and other items — not e-cigarettes — requiring officials to individually open and verify the contents of more than two dozen containers.

Circana, formerly IRI, restricts access to its data, which it sells to companies and researchers. A person not authorized to share it gave the AP access on the condition of anonymity.

The FDA has no schedule for updating its import lists but said it is “closely monitoring” instances where companies try to avoid detection.

“The FDA has a variety of tools at our disposal to take action against these tactics,” FDA’s King said.

The agency has limited powers to penalize foreign companies. Instead, regulators have sent hundreds of warning letters to U.S. stores selling their products, but those are not legally binding.

Even as the FDA attempts to work with customs officials, it is struggling to complete a yearslong review of applications submitted by manufacturers hoping to market their products to adults.

The few tobacco-flavored products currently authorized by FDA are deeply unpopular. Their combined sales were just $174 million, or 2.4% of the vaping marketplace this year, according to Circana.

“Nobody wants them,” says Marc Silas, owner of 906 Vapor shop in Michigan. “If people wanted them, they’d be on the shelves and they’re not.”

Deeply frustrated with the pace of FDA’s review, public health groups have successfully sued the agency to speed up the process. The agency aimed to complete all major outstanding applications this year, but it recently said the process would stretch into next year.

The delays have raised questions about the viability of the current regulatory framework for e-cigarettes.

“FDA is trying to operate with an old model when the whole environment has changed,” said Scott Ballin, a health policy consultant who previously worked for the American Heart Association. “They have this long line of products that have to be reviewed one by one and now they’re in a giant hole.” 

Lebanon to Seek UNESCO Recognition for Pioneering TV Archive

Beirut, Lebanon — For decades, Tele Liban has been a mainstay of Lebanese living rooms. Now the country is seeking UNESCO recognition for the archives of its pioneering Arab broadcaster. 

Information Minister Ziad Makary told AFP that Beirut would apply to have the full archives of Tele Liban added to the United Nations cultural body’s Memory of the World Register, which UNESCO says “aims to prevent the irrevocable loss of documentary heritage.” 

Tele Liban was “the first television (network) to be established in the Arab world on a state level,” Makary said, adding that Lebanon had the region’s “oldest audiovisual archive.” 

The collection includes footage that dates back “to World War II and the 1940s,” although Tele Liban did air its first program until 1959, the minister said from his Beirut office. 

Were it to join the register, it would sit alongside hundreds of other entries, spanning print, audiovisual, digital and other heritage from across the globe. 

Archives documents culture, politics

The only television channel in Lebanon until 1985, the broadcaster’s archive is brimming with years of history, politics and culture not only from Lebanon but across the Arab world, during tumultuous decades in the region. 

It counts more than 50,000 hours of recordings, from interviews and news programs to music concerts, including of Egypt’s revered 20th century singer Umm Kalthoum and French diva Dalida. 

The collection captured Lebanon’s “cultural and political life” and was unique in the country, Alfred Akar, Tele Liban’s head of archives, told AFP. 

In Lebanon, there is nostalgia for the now cash-strapped Tele Liban’s “golden age” during the 1960s and ’70s, when it featured prominent personalities on its programs that ranged from entertainment and comedy to drama. 

As sectarian tensions peaked and the country plunged into the grueling 1975-1990 civil war, Tele Liban became a witness to the country’s divisions and suffering. 

Makary noted the need to preserve history, pointing to “the archive’s importance in the collective memory and (its) cultural impact on the region.” 

Putting heritage on map

If successful, its entry on the UNESCO register would have great symbolic importance and put Lebanon’s “media heritage on the world map,” Makary said. 

The aim is to include not only Tele Liban’s archive but also that of the public radio and the National News Agency, Makary said, adding that work on the official submission would begin next month. 

Lebanon has two other entries on the Memory of the World Register: commemorative stela spanning more than three millennia at a site north of Beirut, and the Phoenician alphabet, which the U.N. body’s website describes as “the prototype for all alphabets in the world.”  

In 2010, work began on modernizing the Tele Liban archive and transferring it to updated equipment despite little financial support, in a country where dysfunctional public services have now been swallowed by a crushing four-year economic crisis. 

The digitization process is ongoing. 

Zaven Kouyoumdjian, author of two books on television including “Lebanon on Screen,” said Tele Liban was part of a modernizing effort in the Arab world and also “brought all Lebanese together.” 

The broadcaster’s archive is “a national treasure,” said the author and television personality. 

It “stores Lebanon’s cultural identity,” he told AFP. 

Venice Limits Tourist Groups to 25 People to Protect Canal City

MILAN — The Italian city of Venice announced new limits Saturday on the size of tourist groups, the latest move to reduce the pressure of mass tourism on the famed canal city.

Starting in June, groups will be limited to 25 people, or roughly half the capacity of a tourist bus, and the use of loudspeakers, “which can generate confusion and disturbances,” will be banned, the city said in a statement.

The city official charged with security, Elisabetta Pesce, said the policies were aimed at improving the movement of groups through Venice’s historic center as well as the heavily visited islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.

The city previously announced plans to test a new day-tripper fee this year. The 5 euros ($5.45) per-person fee will be applied on 29 peak days between April and mid-July, including most weekends. It is intended to regulate crowds, encourage longer visits and improve the quality of life for Venice residents.

The U.N. cultural agency cited tourism’s impact on the fragile lagoon city as a major factor in it twice considering placing Venice on UNESCO’s list of heritage sites in danger.

The city escaped the first time by limiting the arrival of large cruise ships through the Giudecca Canal and again in September when it announced the roll-out of the day-tripper charge, which had been delayed when tourism declined during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Extinction Rebellion’ Climate Activists Block Part of Amsterdam Highway

AMSTERDAM — Climate activists blocked part of the main highway around Amsterdam near the former headquarters of ING bank Saturday to protest its financing of fossil fuels.

Amsterdam Municipality said in a message on X, formerly Twitter, that traffic authorities closed part of the road and diverted traffic “to prevent a life-threatening situation.”

Hundreds of activists walked onto the road in the latest road blockade organized by the Dutch branch of Extinction Rebellion. Earlier this year, the activist organization repeatedly blocked a highway leading into The Hague.

Some of Saturday’s protesters walked along the closed A10 highway carrying a banner emblazoned with the words “Change or die” as two police vans drove slowly behind them.

Another person carried a handwritten banner that said: “ING get out of oil and gas now!” Others glued their hands to the road surface.

Police criticized the protesters for blocking the road close to the VU medical center, one of Amsterdam’s main hospitals.

“The blockade is very undesirable given its impact on the traffic in the city and, for example, employees at the nearby VU medical center and people visiting patients,” Amsterdam police said in a statement.

The protest took place despite ING announcing earlier this month that it is accelerating its moves to phase out loans for fossil fuel exploration.

ING made its announcement a week after nearly 200 countries at the COP28 climate meeting in Dubai agreed to move away from planet-warming fossil fuels in a document that critics said contained significant loopholes.

Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Let de Jong said the phase-out plan was not fast enough.

“We demand that ING immediately stops all fossil fuel financing,” De Jong said in a statement ahead of the protest. “Every day, people are dying around the world because of the climate and ecological crisis. That has to stop.”

At past protests in The Hague, police used a water cannon to force activists off the road and arrested hundreds of people.

Legendary Restaurant Reopens, Overlooking Paris 2024 Olympics, Reborn Notre Dame

PARIS — The Tour d’Argent already boasts a 320,000-bottle wine cellar, a world-famous duck recipe and a storied 441-year history. Now, the legendary Paris restaurant is about to serve up its “plat de résistance”: a front-row view of two of the biggest events of 2024 — the renaissance of Notre Dame Cathedral and the 2024 Summer Olympics.

A city landmark unto itself — and an inspiration for the restaurant in the movie Ratatouille — the Tour d’Argent recently reopened after its own renovation, which preserved revered traditions while adapting to the 21st century.

”It’s very reassuring for many customers to see that such establishments are still present in our history, and in French gastronomic history,” owner and CEO André Terrail told The Associated Press.

The restaurant claims to be the oldest in Paris, its 1582 opening date embossed on the doors. It says King Henri IV ate heron pâté here; ”Sun King” Louis XIV hosted a meal here involving an entire cow; and presidents, artists like Salvador Dalí, and celebrities including Marilyn Monroe have graced its tables in the generations since.

Today the Michelin-starred restaurant remains one of the most exclusive places to dine in the French capital, out of reach for most. The simplest fixed-price lunch menu runs to 150 euros ($167), and the most affordable fixed-price dinner is 360 euros – and that’s without even peeking at the 8-kilogram book dubbed the ”bible” of its wine cellar.

But the reborn Tour d’Argent offers options for those who want to breathe in its rarefied atmosphere without investing in a full meal: A ground-floor lounge serving croissants in the morning, an adjacent bar serving fireside cocktails in the evening, and a rooftop bar open in the warmer months, where the restaurant’s breathtaking views are on full display.

Notre Dame Cathedral takes center stage in this Paris panorama, a construction site like no other. Artisans are mounting a new spire and roof on the monument, replacing those that collapsed in a 2019 fire that threatened to destroy the entire medieval cathedral.

Piece by piece, the scaffolding that enshrouds the site will come down over the course of 2024, in time for its planned December 8 reopening to the public.

For its neighbors at the Tour d’Argent, the restoration of Notre Dame is welcome news.

“Notre Dame is a landmark and probably had lost a little bit of attention to the Eiffel Tower,” Terrail said. After the fire, Notre Dame enjoyed an injection of funding, notably from the U.S. ”Lots of love coming from abroad, making sure that the cathedral was renovated,” he said.

Terrail had been mulling a makeover for the Tour d’Argent too, and finally made it happen after an 18-month closure prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID in a sense accelerated things, and also the Olympic Games, which are kind of an accelerator for everything in Paris,” he says.

“We have a front-row seat on the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It’s a great privilege. It starts just there,” he says, pointing at the spot where the unprecedented opening-day extravaganza will unfold along the River Seine on July 26.

The restaurant reopened to generally positive reviews, after years in which it had been seen as resting on its laurels. Michelin says the cuisine and service were rejuvenated ”without taking away from its nature.”

The Tour d’Argent – which translates as ”Silver Tower” — has a redesigned dining room with an open kitchen, and a top-floor one-bedroom apartment that rents for nearly 9,000 euros a night.

Its signature dish remains pressed duck, cooked in its own blood and specially carved by servers in the air instead of on a board. Since 1890, the restaurant has been giving customers certificates with the number of each duck served. They’re now well past the 1 million mark.

The bustling kitchen staff use locally grown products and closely held recipes, like a seductive “mystery egg” starter in truffle sauce.

“You have to cook the egg white, but not the yolk,” explains executive chef Yannick Franques.

“People, when they come to eat, are quite surprised when they don’t know the mystery and often come to me asking how I manage to keep the yolk raw inside and the white part cooked. Unfortunately, I can’t say, I just can’t say,” he says, smiling.

”The secret’s the secret. Voilà.”

Most US Endangered Species Money Goes to Handful of Species

BILLINGS, Mont. — Since passage of the Endangered Species Act 50 years ago, more than 1,700 plants, mammals, fish, insects and other species in the U.S. have been listed as threatened or endangered with extinction. Yet federal government data reveals striking disparities in how much money is allocated to save various biological kingdoms.

Of the roughly $1.2 billion a year spent on endangered and threatened species, about half goes toward recovery of just two types of fish: salmon and steelhead trout along the West Coast. Tens of millions of dollars go to other widely known animals including manatees, right whales, grizzly bears and spotted owls.

But the large sums directed toward a handful of species means others have gone neglected, in some cases for decades, as they teeter on potential extinction.

At the bottom of the spending list is the tiny Virginia fringed mountain snail, which had $100 spent on its behalf in 2020, according to the most recent data available. The underground-dwelling snail has been seen only once in the past 35 years, according to government records, yet it remains a step ahead of more than 200 imperiled plants, animals, fish and other creatures that had nothing spent on their behalf.

With climate change increasing threats to organisms around the planet and adding to the number that qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, government officials are struggling in many cases to execute recovery actions required under the law.

Some scientists even argue for spending less on costly efforts that may not work and putting the money toward species with less expensive recovery plans that have languished.

“For a tiny fraction of the budget going to spotted owls, we could save whole species of cacti that are less charismatic but have an order of magnitude smaller budget,” said Leah Gerber, a professor of conservation science at Arizona State University.

An Associated Press analysis of 2020 data found fish got 67% of the spending, the majority for several dozen salmon and steelhead populations in California, Oregon and Washington. Mammals were a distant second with 7% of spending and birds had about 5%. Insects received just 0.5% of the money and plants about 2%. Not included in those percentages is money divided among multiple species.

Species drawing no spending at all included stoneflies threatened by climate change in Montana’s Glacier National Park, the stocky California tiger salamander that has lost ground to development and flowering plants such as the scrub lupine around Orlando, Florida, where native habitat has been converted for theme parks.

Such spending inequities are longstanding and reflect a combination of biological realities and political pressures. Restoring salmon and steelhead populations is expensive because they are widespread and hemmed in by massive hydroelectric dams. They also have a broad political constituency with Native American tribes and commercial fishing interests that want fisheries restored.

Congress over decades has sent massive sums of money to agencies such as the Bonneville Power Administration that operate dams along rivers the fish once traveled up to spawn. The money pays for fish ladders around dams, habitat restoration projects, monitoring by scientists and other needs.

More than half the species protected under the Endangered Species Act are plants, but the entire plant kingdom was almost excluded from the landmark conservation law when it was adopted in 1973, according to the Congressional Record and Faith Campbell, who interviewed people involved in the bill’s passage for a 1988 study published in the Pace Environmental Law Review.

Plants initially were left out when the measure passed the Senate, with opposition led by influential Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. They were added back at the 11th hour following a push by botanists from the Smithsonian Institution and Lee Talbot, a senior scientist at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, according to Campbell.

Botanists at the time proposed more than 2,500 plants as threatened with future extinction. However, most failed to get protections because federal officials failed to act prior to a Congressional deadline.

Today more than 900 trees, ferns, flowers and other flora are protected. Combined, they received about $26 million in 2020.

“In terms of numbers they’re catching up, but as far as money and attention they’re still not getting their share,” said Campbell, a longtime environmental advocate who now works at the Center for Invasive Species Prevention. “The threats are serious, they’re the same as the threats to animals. Yet they don’t have the political clout of, say, a couple dozen of the big animal species that attract favorable attention or get in people’s way.”

Most plants receive less money than recommended under their recovery plans, according to Gerber and others. Researchers say that has direct consequences: species tend to decline when allocated less funding than needed, while they have a higher chance of recovery when receiving enough money.

Gerber has suggested redirecting some money from species getting more than their recovery plans seek — the bull trout, the gopher tortoise and the Northern spotted owl among them — to those receiving little or none. Her ideas have stirred pushback from some conservationists.

Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark said debating how to allocate scarce resources for rescuing endangered species is a distraction.

“The issue is not where the money is spent,” said Clark, now president of Defenders of Wildlife. “The issue is that there isn’t nearly enough of it.”

Gerber said she doesn’t want to let anything go extinct but that a strategic approach is needed with the shortage of resources.

“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking,” she added. “We need to take action.”

Wildlife officials say they are trying to do just that with money for endangered species in the climate law signed last year by President Joe Biden.

It included $62.5 million officials said will allow them to hire biologists to craft recovery plans to guide future conservation work, initially for 32 species and for as many as 300 over coming years.

Among them are a colorful fish known as the candy darter that lives in rivers in the southeastern U.S., a flowering shrub from the Virgin Islands called marron bacora, the Panama City crayfish of Florida and the pocket-sized Stephens’ kangaroo rat in southern California.

The extra money is intended to provide some relief after the agency’s environmental review staff fell 20% over the past two decades, even while new species were listed, according to officials. Increased funding is especially important because more than half the agency’s existing recovery plans are more than two decades old, according to Lindsay Rosa, vice president for conservation research at Defenders of Wildlife.

Also in the law was $5.1 million for recovery projects that could benefit hundreds of species from four groups that officials said have historically been underfunded: Hawaii and Pacific island plants, butterflies and moths, freshwater mussels and desert fish in the southwestern U.S.

“Each of these species are part of this larger web of life,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said in an interview. “They’re all important.”

Brazil Pays Tributes to Pelé 1 Year After His Death

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilians paid several tributes to soccer legend Pelé on Friday, one year after the three-time World Cup winner’s death at age 82 due to a colon cancer.

A ceremony held at Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the redeemer, one of the South American nation’s most famous postcard locations, featured a projection of a Brazil shirt with Pelé’s name and number 10 on the statue and a message from Pope Francis. Pelé was a devout Catholic throughout his life.

“Pelé, as Mr. Edson Arantes do Nascimento became globally known, was undoubtedly an athlete who showed in his life all positive traits of a sportsman. The memory of ‘the King of Soccer’ remains indelible in the minds of many, and it stimulates new generations to seek in sport a means to strengthen the bonds of unity among us,” the pontiff said in a letter as a local orchestra played.

Other religious ceremonies were held at the Museu Pelé in Santos, the port city he put on the map with his goals and success for Santos FC, and in the small city of Tres Corações, where do Nascimento was born in 1940.

Santos FC also held a tribute at its Vila Belmiro Stadium, where Edson Cholbi do Nascimento, one of Pelé’s sons, released 10 white ballons from the center circle. Pelé’s funeral was held at the stadium.

Soccer’s governing body FIFA also paid its respects with a video of highlights of the Brazilian great with a message: “Pelé’s legacy will always live on.”

Earlier this year, a Brazilian dictionary chose to pay a tribute to Pelé by adding his name as an adjective to use when describing someone who is “exceptional, incomparable, unique.”

The announcement by the Michaelis dictionary on Wednesday is part of a campaign that gathered more than 125,000 signatures to honor the late soccer great’s impact beyond his sport.

Pelé spent nearly two decades enchanting fans and dazzling opponents as the game’s most prolific scorer with Brazilian club Santos and the Brazil national team. In the conversation about soccer’s greatest, only the late Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are mentioned alongside.

California Expanding Health Care for Low-Income Immigrants in 2024

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — More than 700,000 immigrants living illegally in California will gain access to free health care starting Monday under one of the state’s most ambitious coverage expansions in a decade.

It’s an effort that will eventually cost the state about $3.1 billion per year and inches California closer to Democrats’ goal of providing universal health care to its roughly 39 million residents.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers agreed in 2022 to provide health care access to all low-income adults regardless of their immigration status through the state’s Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal.

California is the most populous state to guarantee such coverage, though Oregon began doing so in July.

Newsom called the expansion “a transformative step towards strengthening the health care system for all Californians” when he proposed the changes two years ago.

Newsom made the commitment when the state had the largest budget surplus in its history. But as the program kicks off next week, California faces a record $68 billion budget deficit, raising questions and concerns about the economic ramifications of the expansion.

“Regardless of what your position is on this, it doesn’t make sense for us to be adding to our deficit,” said Republican Sen. Roger Niello, the vice-chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.

Immigration and health care advocates, who spent more than a decade fighting for the changes, have said the expanded coverage will close a gap in health care access and save the state money in the long run. Those who live in the state illegally often delay or avoid care because they aren’t eligible for most coverage, making it more expensive to treat them when they end up in emergency rooms.

“It’s a win-win, because it allows us to provide comprehensive care and we believe this will help keep our communities healthier,” said Dr. Efrain Talamantes, chief operating officer at AltaMed in Los Angeles, the largest federally qualified health center in California.

The update will be California’s largest health care expansion since the 2014 implementation of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which allowed states to include adults who fall below 138% of the federal poverty level in their Medicaid programs. California’s uninsured rate dropped from about 17% to 7%.

But a large chunk of the population was left out: adults living in the United States without legal permission. They are not eligible for most public benefit programs, even though many have jobs and pay taxes.

Some states have used their tax dollars to cover a portion of health care expenses for some low-income immigrants. California first extended health care benefits to low-income children without legal status in 2015 and later added the benefits for young adults and people over the age of 50.

Now the last remaining group, adults ages 26-49, will be eligible for the state’s Medicaid program.

The state doesn’t know exactly how many people will enroll through the expansion, but state officials said more than 700,000 people will gain full health coverage allowing them to access preventative care and other treatment. That’s larger than the entire Medicaid population of several states.

“We’ve had this asterisk based on immigration status,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy group. “Just from the numbers point of view, this is a big deal.”

Republicans and other conservative groups worry the new expansion will further strain the overloaded health care system and blasted the cost of the expansion.

State officials estimated the expansion will cost $1.2 billion the first six months and $3.1 billion annually thereafter from the budget. Spending for the Medi-Cal program, which is now about $37 billion annually, is the second-largest expense in the California budget, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Finance sent a letter urging state agencies to cut costs in light of the deficit. It has not given specific directions about the Medicaid expansion, state officials told The Associated Press in December.

California’s expansion of Medicaid will face other challenges. The state is chugging through a review of Medicaid enrollees’ eligibility for the first time in more than three years that was prompted by the end of some federal pandemic policies. Many immigrants who had their coverage protected during the COVID-19 pandemic now find themselves ineligible because they no longer financially qualify.

John Baackes, CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan, the state’s largest Medi-Cal plan with nearly 2.6 million members, said roughly 20,000 members have lost their Medicaid coverage during the review process this past year and are looking to secure new insurance plans. His organization is juggling to help people navigate through both processes.

“People are being bombarded with information,” Baackes said. “I can’t imagine if somebody were having to maneuver through all this, why they wouldn’t be terribly confused.”

“The phones are ringing off the walls,” he said.

Fear and distrust are also barriers for the expansion, said Sarah Dar, policy director for the California Immigrant Policy Center. 

Many immigrants avoid accepting any public programs or benefits out of fear it will eventually prevent them from gaining legal status under the “public charge” rule. The federal law requires those seeking to become permanent residents or gain legal status to prove they will not be a burden to the U.S., or a “public charge.” The rule no longer considers Medicaid as a factor under President Joe Biden’s administration, but the fear remains, she said.

More resources and effort are required to reach this population “because of the history of just being completely excluded and not interfacing with the health care system or with government programs at all for so long,” Dar said. 

California has more work to do to see the state’s uninsured rate hit zero, known as “universal coverage,” Dar said.

For one thing, immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission are still not eligible to purchase insurance from Covered California, the state-run exchange offering steep discounts for people who meet certain income requirements. A bill pending in the state Legislature, supported by the California Immigrant Policy Center, would change that.

“It’s going to be another really big undertaking,” Dar said. “And we know that revenues are down … but it’s our job to make the case that, in times of economic downturn and whatnot, these are the communities that need the support the most.”

Hundreds Dance In Bearskins For Romania’s ‘Dancing Bear Festival’

COMANESTI, Romania — Centuries ago, people in what is now northeastern Romania donned bearskins and danced to fend off evil spirits. That custom is today known as the Dancing Bears Festival, drawing crowds of tourists every December.

Hundreds of people of all ages, clad in bear costumes, dance every year around Christmas to the deafening beat of drums and roam villages and towns. The highlight of this year’s festival falls on December 30, with bear-clad dancers descending on the town of Comanesti, in eastern Romania, for the finale.

Visitors come from as far as Japan to see the spectacle, featuring lines of people in costumes with gaping bear jaws and claws marching and dancing. Giant red pompom decorations are usually added to the furs. Some of the “bears” jokingly growl or pretend to attack the spectators.

Locals say the custom dates back to the pre-Christianity era when people believed that wild animals staved off misfortune or danger. Dancing “bears” visited people’s homes and knocked on their doors to wish them good luck and a Happy New Year.

“The bear runs through our veins, it is the spirit animal for those in our area,” said Costel Dascalu, who started taking part in the festival when he was 8. At the time, Romania was still under communist rule and the festival was relatively low-key.

“I want to keep the tradition alive,” the 46-year-old added. When the holiday season approaches, he joked, “our breath smells like bears, and we get goose bumps when we hear the sound of drums.”

Residents are happy that the tradition has lived on after many Romanians left the region in the 1990s to look for better jobs in Western Europe.

Brown bears are widely present in Romania’s traditions and culture, and the animals can often be seen by mountain roads and in forests. Excessive bear hunting prompted the authorities to issue a ban in 2016.

Participants in the festival say most of the bearskins they use as costumes have been preserved for generations and treated with great care.

Wearing a full-sized bear fur isn’t easy: Including the head and claws, the costume could weigh up to 50 kilograms. The most expensive bearskins can cost some 2,000 euros ($2,200), according to local media. 

Many American Jews Celebrate Christmas With Chinese Food

new orleans, louisiana — The sweet sensation of fried shrimp egg rolls dipped in duck sauce. Steam rising from dumplings stuffed with chicken, ginger and cabbage. Smells wafting from a plate of General Tso’s chicken on a bed of beef fried rice. 

These are just some of the dishes coming from the kitchen of Miss Shirley’s Chinese Restaurant on a packed Christmas Day in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

On a holiday when most restaurants are closed so customers and employees can celebrate with their families, many Chinese restaurants in America are gathering places for the country’s estimated 7.6 million Jews. 

“Outside of these walls, maybe people are relaxing with their families, but inside these walls, it’s a celebratory madhouse!” said Carling Lee, whose family owns Miss Shirley’s and has owned and operated Chinese restaurants in and around New Orleans for more than four decades. 

On Christmas and Christmas Eve, “we’re slammed from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. with people ordering takeout or dining in with groups of five, 10, 15 or even more,” Lee continued. “It’s friends and family, and we’ve even sometimes gotten three rabbis in here at once! Everyone’s just looking for a way to enjoy the day off in their own special way.” 

The Chinese American Restaurant Association estimates there are more than 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States. For most that are open during the holidays, Christmas Day is the busiest of the year.  

And although most American Jews don’t know how this specific cuisine became so popular on Christmas, few doubt its ubiquity.  


“Whatever the reason, you can ask pretty much any American Jew what they did on Christmas and their answer will be some version of, ‘Ate Chinese food and went to the movies,'” said Sarah Wexler. “Even if they didn’t, they’ll still probably say it. It’s that ingrained in our culture!” 

The birth of a tradition 

Food writer Jennifer 8. Lee explored the question in her book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.” 

“Between 1880 and 1924, you had an estimated 3 million Jews coming from Eastern Europe, and an amazing 75% of them resided in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan,” Lee told VOA. “It was a neighborhood that Chinese people already lived near and Chinese restaurants existed in, so you have these two massive immigrant groups living right beside each other.” 

Part of the Americanization process for those Jewish immigrants was going out to dinner. In the early 1900s, Lee said, Chinese restaurants were the place to go. 

“Chinese restaurants were being portrayed in paintings and movies in the 1920s and ’30s, and they were seen as sophisticated and cosmopolitan,” she told VOA. “So if you were trying to impress a girl, for example, you’d bring her to a neighborhood Chinese spot, and you would appear worldly.”  

Convenient, ‘easier to justify’

Rabbi Joshua Plaut is head of the Metropolitan Synagogue of New York and author of “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish.” In addition to proximity and popularity, he says there are other reasons specific to Jewish immigrants that explain the popularity of Chinese food. 

“For one, Jews coming from Eastern Europe had fairly strict dietary restrictions and as they acclimated to eating out in America, many had to come to terms with leaving at least some of those restrictions behind,” Plaut said. 

“Chinese food felt a little easier to justify because it didn’t combine meat and dairy the way other common ethnic foods like Italian and Mexican do, and treif — which are non-kosher foods, like from pigs and shellfish — are more hidden in Chinese food,” he continued. “Those ingredients are chopped up or obscured in a dumpling so if you don’t see it, you can claim naivety. We call it ‘safe treif.'” 

Chinese restaurants were also open on Sundays. 

“Historically, a lot of businesses were closed on Sundays because of the Christian calendar,” Plaut told VOA, “but Jews were eager to enjoy the day. Chinese restaurants also had no reason to close, so Jewish families would go and enjoy dim sum. Similarly, when Jewish families were looking for someplace to eat on Christmas, Chinese restaurants were there for them again.” 

Hot food, warm welcome 

Another reason some Jews say they feel connected to Chinese eateries is because they lack much of the religious iconography present at other restaurants. 


“My family was always kind of uncomfortable around all the saints, crosses and crucifixions you find at Italian restaurants,” said Laurie Sklar, a music teacher in Mansfield, Massachusetts. “But Chinese restaurants have always felt so welcoming.” 

Sklar said she’s eaten Chinese food on Christmas Day for as long as she can remember, and that her parents did the same with their parents. 

“We were on a first-name basis with the owner of our local Chinese place,” she said. “He’d give us extra ice cream when we went. It felt like it was our special place, and to this day Chinese food feels as Jewish to me as matzo ball soup.” 

It’s a tradition that, after more than a century, continues to grow. 

“My 5-year-old son thinks Chinese food on Christmas is what we ‘do’ on Christmas, no different than fasting on Yom Kippur,” explained Joel Tietolman, who runs Mile End Delicatessen in New York City, which has been celebrating December 24 and 25 with a special Chinese menu for 13 years. “It’s truly become part of Jewish identity in North America.” 

Kung Pao on Christmas

Across the country in San Francisco, California, Lisa Geduldig has hosted the Kung Pao Kosher Comedy show during the Christmas holiday season since 1993. 

Thousands of guests attend the show over several nights at the Imperial Palace Restaurant, featuring a Chinese food banquet and Jewish comedians. 

“It’s a place for those who might feel ‘other’ during the Christmas season to gather together as a community and celebrate in a secular way,” Geduldig told VOA. “We’ve had Jewish guests who have been coming for decades, but we also have non-Jews who are looking for something fun to do and don’t want to be alone on Christmas.” 

That otherness is something both American Jews and Chinese Americans can relate to during the country’s biggest religious holiday. Hillary Saunders, an environmental scientist in Albany, California, admitted it was a familiar feeling for her as a child. 

“Growing up I felt very lonely on Christmas. I remember the constant Christmas music made me feel so isolated,” she said. “But knowing that Jews have this tradition, too, that you can go into a Chinese restaurant and find others doing the same thing — it’s comforting.” 

“For Jewish people, every holiday has a food associated with it,” Saunders said. “For me, Christmas tastes like Chinese food.” 

Google Agrees to Settle Lawsuit Over ‘Incognito’ Mode

san francisco, california — Google has agreed to settle a consumer privacy lawsuit seeking at least $5 billion in damages over allegations it tracked the data of users who thought they were browsing the internet privately. 

The object of the lawsuit was the “incognito mode” on Google’s Chrome browser that the plaintiffs said gave users a false sense that what they were surfing online was not being tracked by the Silicon Valley tech firm. 

But internal Google emails brought forward in the lawsuit demonstrated that users using incognito mode were being followed by the search and advertising behemoth for measuring web traffic and selling ads. 

In a court filing, the judge confirmed that lawyers for Google reached a preliminary agreement to settle the class action lawsuit, originally filed in 2020, which claimed that “millions of individuals” had likely been affected.  

Lawyers for the plaintiffs were seeking at least $5,000 for each user it said had been tracked by the firm’s Google Analytics or Ad Manager services even when in the private browsing mode and not logged into their Google account. 

This would have amounted to at least $5 billion, though the settlement amount will likely not reach that figure, and no amount was given for the preliminary settlement between the parties.  

Google and lawyers for the consumers did not respond to an AFP request for comment. 

The settlement came just weeks after Google was denied a request that the case be decided by a judge. A jury trial was set to begin next year. 

The lawsuit, filed in a California court, claimed Google’s practices had infringed on users’ privacy by intentionally deceiving them with the incognito option.  

The original complaint alleged that Google and its employees had been given the “power to learn intimate details about individuals’ lives, interests, and internet usage.” 

“Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it,” it added.  

A formal settlement is expected for court approval by February 24, 2024. 

Class action lawsuits have become the main venue to challenge big tech companies on data privacy matters in the United States, which lacks a comprehensive law on the handling of personal data. 

In August, Google paid $23 million to settle a long-running case over giving third-parties access to user search data. 

In 2022, Facebook parent company Meta settled a similar case, agreeing to pay $725 million over the handling of user data. 

Mexican President Says ‘Super Pharmacy’ to Supply Medicines to All

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s president inaugurated a huge “super pharmacy” Friday in a bid to help patients throughout the country who are told they need a specific medicine, but their hospital doesn’t have it.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s solution was to outfit a big warehouse on the outskirts of Mexico City to centralize a supply and send it to hospitals throughout the country.

“The pharmacy is going to be big, big, big, and it is going to have all the medications that are used in the health system,” López Obrador said Friday.

The pharmacy is intended to complement local health facilities. If a patient can’t get needed medications at a local hospital, the patient, the patient’s doctor or the pharmacist would be able to have it delivered from the 40,000-square-meter Mexico City warehouse.

The armed forces, or the government-run pharmaceutical company Birmex, will ship the drugs by land or air “within 24 to 48 hours,” López Obrador pledged.

The question is whether Mexico can overcome its history of being bad at regulating the pharmaceutical industry, bad at buying medicines, bad at storing them, and bad at distributing them. Extreme centralization also hasn’t helped Mexico much in the past in many areas.

The most visible face of this problem are the parents of children with cancer, who frequently stage protests because they say that in recent years chemotherapy and other drugs have been impossible to obtain.

The problems have killed otherwise healthy people. Because Mexico has had problems in obtaining enough morphine, anesthesiologists in Mexico have had to carry around their own vials of the sedative, drawing multiple doses out of a single vial for routine procedures.

That has led to contamination of the vials, triggering outbreaks of injection-induced meningitis in two Mexican states that have killed dozens of people, including some Americans who sought treatment at clinics in the border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.

In the United States, where there is no shortage of morphine, doctors are advised to draw a single dose from a vial and throw the remainder out.

López Obrador mounted a major effort to obtain COVID-19 vaccines in 2021, using the armed forces to distribute them and volunteers to administer them. By the end of that year just about anybody in Mexico who wanted a vaccine got one, for free.

But trying to replicate that model of centralized government purchasing and army distribution on a national scale for thousands of medications is not the same, according to Mauricio Rodríguez-Dorantes, a professor at the School of Medicine at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.

“This is crazy,” said Rodríguez-Dorantes, noting the government is opening the centralized warehouse without answering how the system will operate, especially for urgently needed medications. He noted that concentrating all the drugs at one site increases risks and could sideline some existing distribution systems.

For decades, there have been scandals involving millions of dollars’ worth of medicines that have expired at warehouses while hospitals couldn’t get them.

The country’s medicine regulatory agency, known by its Spanish acronym as Cofepris, was so riddled with corruption before López Obrador that regulators would hide applications for approval of new medicines for years and demand bribes to approve them.

And with alarming frequency, regulators in Mexico send out alerts about falsified or knock-off medications being sold for treating everything from cancer to heart disease. Boxes, labels, vials and certifications are copied with amazing accuracy, but the bottles often contain little or none of the medication.

The fake medicine trade is so common and so lucrative in Mexico because patients or their relatives are often told by doctors to buy medications at private drug stores when they are unavailable at government hospitals.

The civic group Zero Shortages said there was a 142% increase in the number of alerts about falsified medicines between 2021 and 2022.

But some of the problems are of López Obrador’s own making. Angry at what he claimed were inflated profits made by drug distributors and importers, the president simply cut the private companies out and decided the government should directly buy all medications.

Because the government did not have much infrastructure, contacts or experience in such a massive effort, López Obrador signed an agreement with the World Health Organization to help Mexico in purchasing. But even with that help, Mexico was unable to obtain some specialized medication.

Zero Shortages said the number of prescriptions that went unfilled in Mexico rose from 1.5 million in 2019 to 22 million in 2021; disruptions because of COVID-19 probably played a role.

But even in 2022, about 12.5 million prescriptions went unfilled. 

China’s Fireworks Bans Spark Fiery Debate Ahead of Lunar New Year

BEIJING — Chinese lawmakers Friday weighed in on a fiery online debate on whether fireworks should be used to ring in the Lunar New Year in February, saying a total ban on pyrotechnics in the country credited with inventing them would be hard to implement. 

In an unusually frank response, lawmakers said air pollution prevention laws and fire safety regulations have led to “differences in understanding” of the ban on fireworks, which was never absolute. 

In 2017, official data showed 444 cities had banned fireworks. Since then, some cities have scaled back curbs, allowing fireworks at certain times of the year and at designated venues. 

This month, however, many counties rolled out notices prohibiting fireworks, rekindling discussion on the ban. 

“We’ve the right to fireworks,” wrote a user of Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform. 

According to folklore, the earliest fireworks were invented 2,000 years ago to drive away the “Nian,” a mythical beast that preyed on people and livestock on the eve of the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival. 

Since then, fireworks have been used to celebrate other occasions: This January, after three years of COVID-19 curbs were lifted, some people defied bans — and authorities — and set off firecrackers. 

But some Chinese said the firework bans were necessary to protect the environment. 

“It should be regulated due to pollution and safety [fire] hazards,” a Weibo user said. 

In an online poll by the official Beijing Youth Daily this week, however, over 80% of respondents expressed support for fireworks during the Spring Festival, the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar. 

Some also said the ban was ironic after the United Nations last week adopted the Spring Festival as an official holiday, a move cheered by Chinese officials. 

“The Spring Festival belongs to the world, but China’s is almost gone,” wrote another Weibo user. 

In southern Hunan province, a major fireworks manufacturing hub, exports totaled 4.11 billion yuan ($579 million) in January to November, state media reported, far exceeding domestic sales.

US Military’s Secretive Spaceplane Launched on Possible Higher-Orbit Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — The U.S. military’s secretive X-37B robot spaceplane blasted off from Florida on Thursday night on its seventh mission, the first launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket capable of delivering it to a higher orbit than previous missions.

The Falcon Heavy, composed of three rocket cores strapped together, roared off its launch pad from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in a spectacular nighttime liftoff carried live on a SpaceX webcast.

The launch followed more than two weeks of false starts and delays. Three earlier countdowns were aborted due to poor weather and unspecified technical issues, leading ground crews to roll the spacecraft back to its hangar before proceeding with Thursday’s fight.

It came two weeks after China launched its own robot spaceplane, known as the Shenlong, or “Divine Dragon,” on its third mission to orbit since 2020, adding a new twist to the growing U.S.-Sino rivalry in space.

The Pentagon has disclosed few details about the X-37B mission, which is conducted by the U.S. Space Force under the military’s National Security Space Launch program.

The Boeing-built vehicle, roughly the size of a small bus and resembling a miniature space shuttle, is built to deploy various payloads and conduct technology experiments on long-duration orbital flights. At the end of its mission, the craft descends back through the atmosphere to land on a runway much like an airplane.

It has flown six previous missions since 2010, the first five of them carried to orbit by Atlas V rockets from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and most recently, in May 2020, atop a Falcon 9 booster furnished by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Thursday’s mission marked the first launched aboard SpaceX’s more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, capable of carrying payloads even heavier than the X-37B farther into space, possibly into geosynchronous orbit, more than 35,000 kilometers above the Earth.

The X-37B, also called the Orbital Test Vehicle, has previously been confined to flights in low-Earth orbit, at altitudes below 2,000 kilometers.

New orbital regimes

The Pentagon has not said how high the spaceplane will fly this time out. But in a statement last month, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office said mission No. 7 would involve tests of “new orbital regimes, experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.”

The X-37B also is carrying a NASA experiment to study how plant seeds are affected by prolonged exposure to the harsh environment of radiation in space. The ability to cultivate crops in space has major implications for keeping astronauts nourished during future long-term missions to the moon and Mars.

China’s equally secretive Shenlong was carried to space on December 14 by a Long March 2F rocket, a launch system less powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and believed to be limited to delivering payloads to low-Earth orbit.

Still, Space Force General B. Chance Saltzman told reporters at an industry conference earlier this month he expected China to launch Shenlong around the same time as the X-37B flight in what he suggested was a competitive move.

“It’s no surprise that the Chinese are extremely interested in our spaceplane. We’re extremely interested in theirs,” Saltzman said, according to remarks published in Air & Space Forces Magazine, a U.S. aerospace journal.

“These are two of the most watched objects on orbit while they’re on orbit. It’s probably no coincidence that they’re trying to match us in timing and sequence of this,” he said.

The planned duration of the latest X-37B mission has not been made public, but it will presumably run until June 2026 or later, given the prevailing pattern of successively longer flights.

Its last mission remained in orbit for well over two years before a return landing in November 2022.

Chile Granny Finds Solace, Celebrity in Online Gaming

Llay-Llay, Chile — Few players of the online video game Free Fire would know that one of their most ferocious opponents — a lithe, gun-wielding warrior in a short kimono and fang mask — is in reality an 81-year-old grandmother from rural Chile.

From her professional gaming chair at home in a small village, the soft-spoken Maria Elena Arevalo becomes a merciless hunter, mowing down rivals in a game in which tens of millions of players shoot it out to survive on an imaginary remote island.

Wearing an apron over a frilly skirt, Arevalo bears little resemblance to her online alter-ego “Mami Nena” — the nickname she got from her only grandson, Hector Carrasco, 20.

It was Carrasco who introduced Arevalo to the digital world of gaming that has given her a new lease on life after falling into deep loneliness following the death of her husband of 56 years in 2020.

“I didn’t even know what a mouse was,” she told AFP at her home in the town of Llay-Llay in central Chile.

“Afterwards, I got excited. We started to play whenever he [Carrasco] could. I felt better because I didn’t think so much about my late husband anymore.”

At first “I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she added, but with time, she developed a taste for virtual blood.

Today, Arevalo plays at the “Heroic” level — just one short of the topmost “Grandmaster” level that only 300 players compete in.

She has 4 million followers on TikTok and 650,000 on YouTube, where she shares tips with fellow players.

Last year, she visited Mexico City on an all-expenses-paid trip as a Free Fire ambassador for the game’s anniversary celebrations — her first-ever journey abroad.

“All the kids asked me for autographs. … It was beautiful. The day I die, I’ll take that with me,” she reminisced.

Earlier this month, Arevalo was named one of Chile’s 100 most important elderly people by the El Mercurio newspaper and the Catholic University for helping break down age stereotypes.

Carrasco is in awe of his famous grandmother.

“It’s totally cool, and I don’t know, I feel like she’s like my best friend and all that,” he said.

‘I’ll keep going’

Three years after starting her Free Fire journey, Arevalo says she no longer feels lonely.

In a nod to her dead husband, a bird named “Benito” in his honor accompanies “Mami Nena” on her campaigns of conquest.

Almost half of people over 80 in Chile declare feeling lonely, according to a recent study, a major mental health risk.

Ever more older people are finding solace in gaming: a Ukrainian team known as “Young Guard” are prolific Counter Strike competitors, while 93-year-old Japanese Hamako Mori — also known by her alias Gamer Grandma — is thought to be the oldest gamer in the world.

For Arevalo, the online campaigns are becoming harder due to worsening scleroderma, a disease that causes a hardening and tightening of the skin.

But she is not planning on slowing down.

“I love doing this. I’ll keep going as far as I can,” she insisted.

Legal Battles Loom as First Mickey Mouse Copyright Ends

Los Angeles — Almost a century after his big-screen debut, Mickey Mouse enters the public domain Monday, opening the floodgates to potential remakes, spin-offs, adaptations … and legal battles with Disney.

The copyright on Steamboat Willie — a short, black-and-white 1928 animation that first introduced audiences to the mischievous rodent who would become emblematic of American pop culture — expires after 95 years, on January 1, under U.S. law.

The date has loomed large on the calendars of everyone from filmmakers, fans and intellectual property lawyers to Disney executives, who in the past helped lobby to change law to prolong US copyright terms.

“This is a deeply symbolic, highly anticipated moment,” said Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain.  

Anyone is now free to copy, share, reuse and adapt Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy — another 1928 Disney animation — and the early versions of the characters that appear within them, including Mickey and Minnie.

A vital caveat is that later versions of the characters, like those in 1940 film Fantasia, are not in the public domain, and cannot be copied without a visit from Disney’s lawyers.

But artists would be free, for instance, to create a “climate change awareness version” of Steamboat Willie in which Mickey’s ship runs aground on a dry riverbed, or a feminist retelling where Minnie takes the wheel, said Jenkins.

That would echo imaginative re-uses of other characters whose copyrights recently expired such as Sherlock Holmes and Winnie-the-Pooh.

‘Legal skirmishes’

But it will not be plain sailing.

In a statement to AFP, Disney said it would “continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.”

Indeed, the version of Mickey in Steamboat Willie is a spindly, roguish creature who would not be recognizable to many younger viewers.

“What’s in the public domain is kind of a frightful little black-and-white animal,” said Justin Hughes, a professor at Loyola Law School.

He added: “The Mickey Mouse that is most familiar to current generations of Americans will remain under copyright protection.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some legal skirmishes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Disney out there educating people on that point.”

Cease-and-desist letters could be sent to artists producing “high-budget fan art” if they use elements from later Mickey cartoons, such as red shorts and white gloves, he predicted.

Additionally, while the copyright has expired, the trademark has not.

Copyrights prevent the unlicensed copying of the creative work itself, for example books, films and characters. They expire after a set time.

Trademarks guard the source of a work, preventing anyone else from making a product that could mislead consumers into thinking it came from the original author. They can be renewed indefinitely.

Disney said it will “work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”

The company has even added a clip from Steamboat Willie to the opening sequence of every Walt Disney Animation Studios film.

“They were very smart folks at Disney — they realized that the best thing to do was to establish that iconic sequence of Steamboat Willie as a trademark,” said Hughes.

Anybody using the classic image of Mickey at the helm of the boat on shirts, caps or mugs could be open to legal action, he said.


Other experts such as Jenkins remain more bullish about public domain freedoms.

“Our Supreme Court has made clear that you can’t use trademark rights to circumvent what copyright expiration allows,” she said.

Both sides agree that the law is likely to be tested in court soon.

Anyone hoping to cash in on Disney’s beloved mascot “should move cautiously and with counsel,” added Hughes.

In the short term, novelty and shocking adaptations, similar to recent high-profile slasher film Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, are likely to grab the headlines.

But copyright law should ensure artists can use characters like Mickey to create enduring works, just as Shakespeare has been adapted to make modern classics from West Side Story (a retelling of Romeo and Juliet) to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, (Tom Stoppard’s exploration of the fates of two minor characters from Hamlet), said Jenkins.

“I’m interested to see what happens in 2024,” she said.

“But I’m even more interested to see what we’re still talking about and thinking about and teaching and writing about and sharing with our children in 2054.” 

As Tree Species Face Decline, ‘Assisted Migration’ Gains Popularity in Pacific Northwest

portland, oregon — As native trees in the Pacific Northwest die off due to climate change, the U.S. Forest Service, the city of Portland, Oregon, and citizen groups around Puget Sound are turning to a deceptively simple climate adaptation strategy called “assisted migration.”

As the world’s climate warms, tree growing ranges in the Northern Hemisphere are predicted to move farther north and higher in elevation.

Trees, of course, can’t get up and walk to their new climatic homes. This is where assisted migration is supposed to lend a hand.

The idea is that humans can help trees keep up with climate change by moving them to more favorable ecosystems faster than the trees could migrate on their own.

Yet not everyone agrees on what type of assisted migration the region needs — or that it’s always a good thing.

In the Pacific Northwest, a divide has emerged between groups advocating for assisted migration that would help struggling native trees, and one that could instead see native species replaced on the landscape by trees from the south, including coast redwoods and giant sequoias.

“There is a huge difference between assisted population migration and assisted species migration,” said Michael Case, forest ecologist at the Virginia-based Nature Conservancy.

Case currently runs an assisted population migration experiment at the Conservancy’s Ellsworth Creek Preserve in western Washington.

Assisted population migration involves moving a native species’ seeds, and by extension its genes, within its current growing range.

By contrast, assisted species migration involves moving a species well outside its existing range, such as introducing redwoods and sequoias to Washington.

A third form of assisted migration, called “range expansion,” amounts to moving a species just beyond its current growing range.

Case’s project involves testing whether breeds of native Douglas fir and western hemlock from drier parts of the Pacific Northwest can be used to help western Washington forests adapt to climate change. He says the Nature Conservancy is focusing on population migration because it has fewer ecological risks.

“Whenever you plant something in an area where it is not locally found you increase the risk of failure,” Case said. “You increase the risk of disturbing potential ecosystem functions and processes.”

Population migration is the only form of assisted migration currently practiced nationwide by the Forest Service, according to Dr. David Lytle, the agency’s deputy chief for research and development.

“We are very, very cautious and do not engage in the long-distance movement and establishment of plant material outside and disjunct from the historic range of a species,” Lytle said.

The Forest Service is pursuing assisted population migration because it’s likely to have few if any “negative consequences” to ecosystems, he said.

Douglas Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, said one potential negative consequence of species migration is the possibility that native caterpillars might not eat the leaves of migrated nonnative tree species. Because caterpillars feed birds and other animals, this could lead to disruptions to the food web.

This could happen if the City of Portland migrates oak species from places to the south, Tallamy noted.

“Oaks are the most important plant for supporting wildlife that we have in North America,” he said, “but when you move them out of range, the things that are adapted to eating them no longer have access to them.”

The City of Portland’s Urban Forestry program is currently experimenting with the assisted migration of 11 tree species, including three oak species to the south: California black oak, canyon live oak and interior live oak.

Asked via email about potential ecological disruptions, Portland’s City Forester & Urban Forestry Manager Jenn Cairo responded: “We use research from universities, state and federal sources, and local and regional field practitioner experience.”

Another advocate for species migration is the Puget Sound-based, citizen-led PropagationNation. The organization has planted trees in several parks in the Seattle area and has the ambitious goal of “bringing a million coast redwoods and giant sequoias to the Northwest,” according to its website.

The PropagationNation website also recommends planting redwoods in areas where native western red cedar, western hemlock, Sitka spruce and big leaf maple already grow.

Western red cedar, western hemlock and big leaf maple have all seen die-offs and growth declines in recent years tied to climate.

Philip Stielstra, PropagationNation’s founder and president, and a retired Boeing employee, declined to comment for this story.

David Milarch, founder of the Michigan-based Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, which has supplied PropagationNation with redwoods and sequoias, says his trees aren’t intended to replace Pacific Northwest native species.

“All we are doing is extending the range [of redwoods and sequoias] north in the hopes that they will still be here in 100 to 200 years and not join the list of trees that are going extinct,” Milarch said.

This story is part of a collaboration between The Associated Press and Columbia Insight, exploring the impact of climate on trees in the Pacific Northwest.

Stigma Against Gay Men Could Worsen Congo’s Biggest Mpox Outbreak, Scientists Warn

Kinshasa, Congo — As Congo copes with its biggest outbreak of mpox, scientists warn discrimination against gay and bisexual men on the continent could make it worse.

In November, the World Health Organization reported that mpox, also known as monkeypox, was being spread via sex in Congo for the first time.

That is a significant departure from previous flare-ups, where the virus mainly sickened people in contact with diseased animals.

Mpox has been in parts of central and west Africa for decades, but it was not until 2022 that it was documented to spread via sex; most of the 91,00 people infected in approximately 100 countries that year were gay or bisexual men.

In Africa, unwillingness to report symptoms could drive the outbreak underground, said Dimie Ogoina, an infectious diseases specialist at the Niger Delta University in Nigeria.

“It could be that because homosexuality is prohibited by law in most parts of Africa, many people do not come forward if they think they have been infected with mpox,” Ogoina said.

WHO officials said they identified the first sexually transmitted cases of the more severe type of mpox in Congo last spring, shortly after a resident of Belgium who “identified himself as a man who has sexual relations with other men” arrived in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. The U.N. health agency said five other people who had sexual contact with the man later became infected with mpox.

“We have been underestimating the potential of sexual transmission of mpox in Africa for years,” said Ogoina, who with his colleagues, first reported in 2019 that mpox might be spreading via sex.

Gaps in monitoring make it a challenge to estimate how many mpox cases are linked to sex, he said. Still, most cases of mpox in Nigeria involve people with no known contact with animals, he noted.

In Congo, there have been about 13,350 suspected cases of mpox, including 607 deaths through the end of November with only about 10% of cases confirmed by laboratories. But how many infections were spread through sex isn’t clear. WHO said about 70% of cases are in children under 15.

During a recent trip to Congo to assess the outbreak, WHO officials found there was “no awareness” among health workers that mpox could be spread sexually, resulting in missed cases.

WHO said health authorities had confirmed sexual transmission of mpox “between male partners and simultaneously through heterosexual transmission” in different parts of the country.

Mpox typically causes symptoms including a fever, skin rash, lesions and muscle soreness for up to one month. It is spread via close contact and most people recover without needing medical treatment.

During the 2022 major international outbreak, mass vaccination programs were undertaken in some countries, including Canada, Britain and the U.S., and targeted those at highest risk — gay and bisexual men. But experts say that’s not likely to work in Africa for several reasons, including the stigma against gay communities.

“I don’t think we’ll see the same clamoring for vaccines in Africa that we saw in the West last year,” said Dr. Boghuma Titanji, an assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

She said that the gay and bisexual men most at risk of mpox might be fearful of coming forward in a broad immunization program. Countries should work on ways to give the shots — if available — in a way that wouldn’t stigmatize them, she said.

Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyemba, general director of Congo’s National Institute of Biomedical Research, said two provinces in Congo had reported clusters of mpox spread through sex, a concerning development.

There’s no licensed vaccine in Congo, and it would be hard to get enough shots for any large-scale program, Muyemba said. The country is trying to get a Japanese mpox vaccine, but regulatory issues are complicating the situation, he said.

Globally, only one vaccine has been authorized against mpox, made by Denmark’s Bavarian Nordic. Supplies are very limited and even if they were available, they would have to be approved by the African countries using them or by WHO. To date, the vaccine has only been available in Congo through research.

Without greater efforts to stop the outbreaks in Africa, Ogoina predicted that mpox would continue to infect new populations, warning that the disease could also spark outbreaks in other countries, similar to the global emergency WHO declared last year.

China OKs 105 Online Games Days After Hitting Industry with Draft Rules

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Chinese authorities approved 105 new online games this week, bolstering support for the industry just days after proposing regulatory restrictions that sent stocks tumbling.

The National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) announced approval of the 105 games Monday via WeChat, describing the move as a show of support for “the prosperity and healthy development of the online game industry.

“It was only Friday that those same regulators announced a wide range of proposed guidelines to ban online game companies from offering incentives for daily logins or purchases. Other proposed rules include limiting how much users can recharge and issuing warnings for “irrational consumption behavior.”

The draft rules, which were published as part of efforts to seek public comment on the proposals, caused an immediate, massive blow to the world’s biggest games market, leading to as much as $80 billion in market value being erased from China’s two biggest companies, industry leader Tencent Holdings and NetEase.

After the approval was announced Monday, video game stocks in companies such as NetEase began recovering from Friday’s tumble. China’s state-run CCTV said the approval “strongly demonstrates the clear attitude of the competent authorities to actively support the development of online games,” adding that most game companies are deeply encouraged.

Chinese netizens, however, aren’t optimistic.

“Isn’t it the daily work of the NPPA to [approve games] on a regular basis? Don’t make it look like [you’re doing the industry a favor]” said a commenter named “OldTimeBlues” on YYSTV, a Chinese media platform for online gaming.

Another commenter, named Mizu, described the back-to-back announcements as a proverbial carrot and stick tactic.

“You noticed your kid is [has] a concussion after [you’ve hit] him with a stick,” they said of Friday’s announcement of new guidelines. “Now you are giving him a [treat] to make him feel better.”

Syu Jhen, founder of the policy think tank Hong Kong Zhi Ming Institute, said that the draft rules would affect not only the stock prices of Tencent and NetEase but the entire online gaming industry, even if China’s economy relies on domestic consumption.

Syu said that Beijing’s “one-size-fits-all” regulation of online gaming shows that China’s economic decision-makers do not respect market rules and often resort to moral kidnapping, allowing the social value that officials want to encourage to override principles of economic development and business operations.

A comment on YYSTV said, “Thinking issuing an approval would boost market confidence? It’s completely scratching the surface.”

Chen Chung-hsing, director of the New Economy Policy Research Center at National Dong Hwa University, said that at a time when China’s economy is weak and sluggish, exports and investment can no longer boost China’s economy. China can only rely heavily on domestic consumption. He said if China continues to suppress the domestic online gaming industry, it may have economic consequences and cause public resentment.

“China’s current unemployment rate is so high that some people may need video games to kill time,” he told VOA in a phone interview. In this case, [the rules] are also [a kind of] deprivation. Then, after these people stop playing video games, what will happen? Don’t they think about other ways to express their dissatisfaction? So basically, [playing video games] is also a possible source of power for [social] stability.”

Tseng Wei-feng, an assistant researcher at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, said the reason why the Chinese government wants to restrict online games is that the games often have a “group-fighting” model, which has become a virtual platform for young people to gather. He said the government worries that players can be united and mobilized in the virtual world.

“A group of people may attack a city in a certain game, then evolve into a so-called organized force,” he said. “If one day they are dissatisfied with China’s policies, will they all go to the government gate to protest? I think this is an aspect that the Chinese Communist Party has been strictly controlling.”

Some information is from The Associated Press.