US Chief Justice Urges ‘Caution’ as AI Reshapes Legal Field

Washington — Artificial intelligence represents a mixed blessing for the legal field, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said in a year-end report published Sunday, urging “caution and humility” as the evolving technology transforms how judges and lawyers go about their work.

Roberts struck an ambivalent tone in his 13-page report. He said AI had potential to increase access to justice for indigent litigants, revolutionize legal research and assist courts in resolving cases more quickly and cheaply while also pointing to privacy concerns and the current technology’s inability to replicate human discretion.

“I predict that human judges will be around for a while,” Roberts wrote. “But with equal confidence I predict that judicial work – particularly at the trial level – will be significantly affected by AI.”

The chief justice’s commentary is his most significant discussion to date of the influence of AI on the law — and coincides with several lower courts contending with how best to adapt to a new technology capable of passing the bar exam but also prone to generating fictitious content, known as “hallucinations.”

Roberts emphasized that “any use of AI requires caution and humility.” He mentioned an instance where AI hallucinations had led lawyers to cite nonexistent cases in court papers, which the chief justice said is “always a bad idea.” Roberts did not elaborate beyond saying the phenomenon “made headlines this year.”  

For instance, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former fixer and lawyer, said in court papers unsealed last week that he mistakenly gave his attorney fake case citations generated by an AI program that made their way into an official court filing. Other instances of lawyers including AI-hallucinated cases in legal briefs have also been documented.  

A federal appeals court in New Orleans last month drew headlines by unveiling what appeared to be the first proposed rule by any of the 13 U.S. appeals courts aimed at regulating the use of generative AI tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT by lawyers appearing before it.

The proposed rule by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would require lawyers to certify that they either did not rely on artificial intelligence programs to draft briefs or that humans reviewed the accuracy of any text generated by AI in their court filings.

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‘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.

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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.” 

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.” 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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India Demanded Apple Soften Impact of Hack Warnings, Report Says

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New York City’s Times Square Prepares for New Year’s Eve

Every December 31, New Yorkers and tourists alike flock to the Big Apple’s Times Square for the New Year’s Eve celebration. Elena Wolf had a look at how the city prepares for the big event in this story narrated by Anna Rice. VOA footage by Max Avloshenko and Elena Matusovsky.

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NY Times Sues OpenAI, Microsoft for Allegedly Infringing Copyrighted Work

NEW YORK — The New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft on Wednesday, accusing them of using millions of the newspaper’s articles without permission to help train artificial intelligence technologies. 

The Times said it is the first major U.S. media organization to sue OpenAI and Microsoft, which created ChatGPT and other AI platforms, over copyright issues. 

“Defendants seek to free-ride on The Times’s massive investment in its journalism by using it to build substitutive products without permission or payment,” according to the complaint filed in Manhattan federal court. 

The Times is not seeking a specific amount of damages but said it believes OpenAI and Microsoft have caused “billions of dollars” in damages for illegally copying and using its works. 

OpenAI and Microsoft did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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How Librarian Spies Helped Win World War II

Academics used their information gathering and organizing skills as weapons against the Nazis

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‘Parasite’ Actor Lee Sun-kyun Found Dead: Report

Seoul, South Korea — South Korean actor Lee Sun-kyun, best known for his role in the Oscar-winning film “Parasite”, was found dead Wednesday in an apparent suicide according to a police official.

The actor was discovered inside a vehicle at a park in central Seoul, Yonhap news agency reported, citing police.

Lee, 48, had been under police investigation over his alleged use of marijuana and other psychoactive drugs.

Once celebrated for his wholesome image, local news outlets reported that the actor was being dropped from television and commercial projects following the scandal.

A graduate of South Korea’s prestigious Korea National University of Arts, Lee made his acting debut in 2001 in a television sitcom titled “Lovers.”

He later won acclaim for his performances in a variety of roles, including a charismatic chef and a diligent architectural engineer who learns his wife cheats on him.

Globally, he is best known for his portrayal of the wealthy and shallow patriarch in director Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Oscar-winning film “Parasite.”

His last film, this year’s horror flick “Sleep” — in which he played a husband whose sleepwalking eventually leads to horrifying circumstances — was well-received critically and featured in the Critics’ Week section at the Cannes festival.

He briefly spoke to reporters in late October before entering an Incheon police station to meet with investigators.

“I sincerely apologize for causing great disappointment to many people by being involved in such an unpleasant incident,” he said at the time.

“I feel sorry for my family, which is enduring such difficult pain at this moment.

“Once again, I sincerely apologize to everyone.”

South Korea has extremely tough laws on illegal drugs, with even Koreans who take drugs like marijuana legally abroad risking prosecution upon returning to their home country.

This year, President Yoon Suk Yeol called for more stringent measures to eliminate drug traffickers, saying the country was no longer “drug-free.”

He is survived by wife and actress Jeon Hye-jin and two sons.

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