Saturday, January 31, 2009

The good, the bad and the mangled

(Top row) Peter Sellers, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gary Oldman, Renee Zellwegger. (Bottom row) Russell Crowe, Sean Connery, Heather Graham, Forest Whitaker

By Finlo Rohrer and Katie Fraser
BBC News Magazine

The release of Valkyrie and The Reader have brought to mind a recurring problem for moviemakers and television producers - should actors stick to their own accents?

In Valkyrie, the story of Claus von Stauffenberg's attempt to kill Hitler and topple the Nazi regime, Tom Cruise sounds like Tom Cruise.

Not Tom Cruise with a slight German accent, but the usual vaguely East Coast-tinged Cruise of Mission: Impossible and Top Gun.

Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg
Tom Cruise is so well-known that if he started doing an 'Allo 'Allo accent, it would have everyone in hysterics
James King
Film critic

And at the same time, there's The Reader, another film set in Germany and tackling Nazism, which goes the other way. David Kross, the young German actor, does his lines in English with a German accent, as do Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

As the Anglophone film industry appears disinclined to ever stop making movies about the 1939-1945 period, it's a dilemma that is going to continue coming up.

Take Sam Peckinpah's 1977 epic on the horrors of the Eastern Front, Cross of Iron. A classic war movie it is. A classic example of coherent accents it is not.

Of the main characters, James Coburn as the hero, Steiner, attempts a German accent while James Mason as Colonel Brandt wanders in and out of one, and David Warner as Captain Kiesel speaks mostly in his best stage Received Pronunciation with only the occasional German tinged word. Maximilian Schell, being Austrian, keeps rather more consistently to his accent, as the baddie Stransky. All in all it's a bit of an accent mess.

So it's perhaps not surprising that the Valkyrie's no-funny-voices rule has its supporters.

"Tom Cruise is so well-known that if he started doing an 'Allo 'Allo accent, it would have everyone in hysterics," says film critic James King. "In Valkyrie it works because the opening [dialogue is] in German [even Tom Cruise] and it's done smoothly."

Kate Winslet
Kate Winslet does a German accent - only Germans know if it is any good

It can sometimes seem a natural thing in a period piece. In Roland Joffe's The Mission, the stars play Spanish parts with their own accents, Robert De Niro American and Jeremy Irons English.

The same tactic can be taken in television. When the BBC recently adapted Swedish author Henning Mankell's Wallander detective novels, the major cast members were British and speaking with British accents. Perhaps the producers were aware of the danger that if not done properly, a difficult and little-done accent could soon degenerate into something like the Swedish chef out of the Muppets.

And where accents are done now, they tend to be low-key affairs.

"These days when people put on a foreign accent they make them slightly less pronounced, not like in the days of Gary Oldman with his full Russian accent as the villain in Air Force One," says King.

Baltimore Brits

Oldman, despite his alarming Russian, has of course made a career out of playing American roles, and doing various accents convincingly. Peter Sellers was another master of accents. In Dr Strangelove he does a comedy German, an uppercrust Englishman and a mild-mannered American, all in the same film.

And how many of those who have recently become fans of the Baltimore cop show The Wire would have guessed that Russell "Stringer" Bell was from Hackney or that the Baltimore twang of Jimmy McNulty was produced by Dominic West, educated at Eton.

English RP is similar to Roman
Bad Germans are played by Germans
Brits must play Americans well
Sean Connery does not do accents

And perhaps the greatest accents of recent times were furnished by Americans Gwyneth Paltrow and Renee Zellweger who did upper-middle class English as well as any Englishwoman.

But when things go bad they can go really bad. Everybody remembers Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but at least that was a comedy. How much worse was Forest Whittaker's frankly ludicrous British accent in The Crying Game, Russell Crowe attempting an English City boy in A Good Year or Sean Connery in most of everything he was ever in?

But context is everything. When Johnny Depp did Cockney in Jack the Ripper movie From Hell he was lambasted. When he did the same accent, again modelled on Keith Richards, to comic effect in Pirates of the Caribbean, it was regarded as amusing. In a good way.

It's all down to your expectations of what you're watching.

Evocation of place

"When you watch Russian plays or Greek tragedies they don't bother with an accent," says Sally Hague, dialect coach at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. "There's a convention that it's set around the characters or the action and not the place. Directors think that using dialect would be a distraction.

"But sometimes an accent would be central to evoking a place. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - it's all about the language of the Deep South that Tennessee Williams was using when he wrote it. It can be perverse not trying to do that accent. Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting. It couldn't have been done without the dialect."

Brando as Zapata
Marlon Brando did Mexican for Viva Zapata

And of course in some movies, accents and casting are offering a subtle code. In some war movies from days of yore, Americans play the heroes, English actors do the more acceptable Germans and the truly bad Germans are played by real Germans.

In some films about the Roman Empire or with other classical or period settings, English accents can be used by Hollywood to convey gravitas.

In Gladiator for instance, Roman-ness can only be properly conveyed by an English accent. Witness Joaquin Phoenix's rather alarming effort as Emperor Commodus. One might surmise that an English accent represents the "Old World" in a more general sense to an American viewer. But still, Tony Curtis, despite his Bronx accent, played a string of roles in ancient dramas.

In many American films the baddie is English or English accented. But you can also get a film like Die Hard, where Alan Rickman does a German accent for a double dose of baddie-ness.

Then you have an actor like Art Malik, born in Pakistan, but raised in England, doing a string of Arab terrorist baddies.

It all tests the audience's ability to suspend their disbelief.

"Films like Die Hard have had their day - no-one blinked an eye. Now people would think of those as out of place," says King.

Dick van Dyke
Dick Van Dyke has never lived down his cockney accent in Mary Poppins

There have been classic films where actors have not just put on accents but even "blacked up" to play exotic parts. We can still relish a viewing of Lawrence of Arabia because we know it comes from 1962, although we may find Omar Sharif [an Egyptian] as Sherif Ali a lot more convincing than Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal.

In Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata from 1952, Marlon Brando (born Nebraska, US) seems more ardent in his Mexican accent than Anthony Quinn (born Chihuahua, Mexico). Quinn got the Oscar.

But perhaps we care less about how convincing an accent is than we do about the quality of the film.

We are happy for Americans and Brits to do foreign voices in the right settings and to do each other, as long as it's well, but show us a rubbish film and we'll zero in on the bad accent.

And if you really want authenticity, why not just take the Mel Gibson route and do it all in Aramaic with subtitles.

Boys With Unpopular Names More Likely to Break Law

By LiveScience Staff

posted: 28 January 2009 12:21 pm ET

Boys in the United States with common names like Michael and David are less likely to commit crimes than those named Ernest or Ivan.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

The findings, announced today, are detailed in the journal Social Science Quarterly.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that "they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent."

"Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships," according to a statement released by the journal's publisher. "Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names."

The findings could help officials " identify individuals at high risk of committing or recommitting crime, leading to more effective and targeted intervention programs," the authors conclude.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Did Sid really kill Nancy? Explosive new evidence suggests the punk rocker may have been innocent

By Paul Scott
Last updated at 7:14 PM on 23rd January 2009

The murky half-light of a bleak New York winter's morning had yet to penetrate the small rear bedroom of an airless apartment in the city's bohemian Greenwich Village.

Stepping over empty bottles and half-eaten plates of spaghetti (the untidy remnants of the previous night's party), two police officers from the tough 6th Precinct stood in the doorway and surveyed the scene.

Pushed up hard against the far wall was a bed. Lying amid the crumpled sheets, illuminated by the unforgiving glow of a single light bulb, was the naked dead body of a young man.

sid and nancy

Tragic love story: Sex Pistol Sid Vicious was accused of the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen

To Manhattan's hardened policemen, it was hardly an unfamiliar scene. But the death of the 21-year-old in the messy ground-floor flat at 63 Bank Street did offer the New York Police Department a rather convenient solution to a potentially messy murder investigation.

Because the dead man, John Ritchie, who had taken his last breath just hours before, was better known as British punk rocker Sid Vicious - the prime suspect in the murder of his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

Now, however, the Sex Pistols bass guitarist, who was on bail charged with stabbing Spungen to death at their Manhattan hotel four months earlier, was dead and the file could be closed with the minimum of fuss.

He killed Nancy, they assumed, then died of an overdose. End of story.

But many of those who knew the couple have always questioned this official version of events.

And on the 30th anniversary of his death, a new film is set for release which presents the fascinating theory that Vicious was innocent of murdering his blonde lover.

Its makers claim to have uncovered evidence which reveals that a series of police blunders and apathy by detectives led the authorities wrongly to pin the blame on the star.

In fact, the film contests, medical tests carried out on Vicious at the time of his arrest showed the musician would have been incapable of the attack, because he was out cold at the time after taking so much of a powerful sedative that it would have killed all but the most hard-bitten drug users.

Instead, the film Who Killed Nancy? asserts for the first time that 20-year-old Spungen, the daughter of a wealthy middle-class Philadelphia family, was killed by another resident at the hotel - a shadowy British man named Michael, who spent that last fatal night in the room with the couple.

As the murderer robbed and killed Spungen for the huge stash of cash they kept there, Vicious, it is claimed, slept through the attack, only waking to find his lover's dead body in the morning.

The documentary's British director, Alan G. Parker, who has spent 24 years investigating the life and death of the star and has written a series of well-received books on the subject, tracked down more than 180 witnesses and unearthed previously unseen police reports.

He also spoke to several witnesses who are adamant that Vicious was innocent. Crucially, Parker says police found the fingerprints of six people who had been in the couple's room at New York's rundown Chelsea Hotel in the early hours, but none was ever interviewed.

One witness, who subsequently became a priest, tried to tell detectives that he thought Vicious was not the murderer, but was given the brush-off by investigating officers.

Meanwhile others pointed the finger of suspicion at the man known only as 'Michael', who one friend of the couple swears remained alone in the room with them during those fateful final hours. He disappeared after the murder and police made no effort to track him.

sid and nancy

Troubled: Spungen and Vicious in London, 1978

'I have followed this story for over 20 years,' says Parker. 'The more I researched and dug around, the more I became convinced that Sid was innocent. The police thought they had their man, and when he died the whole thing could be put away and forgotten about.'

But just how much of the film's thesis stands up to scrutiny and how much is based on the plethora of wild conspiracy theories that have grown up about the deaths of Sid and Nancy over the past three decades?

Certainly, Spungen's killing did seem, at first, to be a routine murder investigation. A rock groupie who had turned her back on her genteel Jewish upbringing and become a heroin addict, funding her habit at one time by working as a stripper and prostitute, Nancy was found dead in her underwear in the bathroom of Room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel.

The monolithic Chelsea had once been a Mecca for writers and artists. Dylan Thomas, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan had all once lived there. But by the late 1970s, it was little more than a sprawling drugs den populated by a seedy coterie of Manhattan low-life.

Spungen, who had been dating Sid Vicious for a year, had been stabbed once in the stomach by a hunting knife that London-born Vicious had bought days earlier to protect himself when he ventured out into New York to buy drugs.

It was Vicious himself who phoned police to say he had found her dead body, and an hour later on the morning of October 12, 1978, in a holding cell at the Third Homicide Division, Vicious famously confessed: 'I did it because I'm a dirty dog.'

The police, it seemed, had their man. With his taste for violence, animal torture and swastikas, Vicious was, after all, the repellent face of punk rock in all its snarling ugliness.

His band, the Sex Pistols, had shocked Britain with their foulmouthed rants on TV and their anti-monarchy hit, God Save The Queen.

He had killed his lover, it seemed, in the ultimate act of rock debauchery while out of his mind on drugs.

But Vicious was later to retract his confession, claiming he could not recall anything about the night Nancy - dubbed 'Nauseating Nancy' by the star's own mother - had died.

Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that the police report obtained by Parker reveals Vicious was dosed up on powerful sedatives at the time of her murder. Indeed, witnesses who were at an impromptu party in their room the evening before her body was found claim he took up to 30 Tuinal tablets - a strong barbiturate.

Few could survive such a massive dose, claims Parker, and even those who could would be put into a deep coma for many hours.

Certainly, several witnesses who passed in and out of the couple's first-floor room in the early hours say Vicious was out for the count. And at least two say the previously unknown Michael, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, was with Sid and Nancy as late as 5am - around the time she was stabbed.

So what could have been a possible motive for the killing? In a word: money. Vicious, who had quit the Sex Pistols nine months earlier after a bitter fall- out with the group's lead singer Johnny Rotten, had gone on to have a Europe-wide solo hit with a tuneless version of the Frank Sinatra classic My Way.

Just days before Nancy's death, he had received $25,000 in cash - royalty payments from Richard Branson's Virgin Records.

Witnesses say that on the night before Spungen's death, the room was awash with money. The following morning, however, the cash was gone, and Michael was later seen carrying a large wad of cash secured with one of Nancy's purple hair ties.

So just who was the mysterious Michael? Details of the alleged killer are sketchy, but he was described by witnesses as a young, slim, blond man with a penchant for alligator shoes. He spoke with a British accent and had moved into the hotel recently, befriending Vicious and Miss Spungen.

Several of the couple's friends remember seeing him with them in the days before Nancy's death, and one, musician Neon Leon, who had been with the couple on the night of the killing, says he rang Nancy shortly before the time that she is estimated to have been stabbed. He says he could hear the man he knew as Michael talking in the background.

Another resident of the Chelsea, Victor Colicchio, also stopped at the couple's door shortly before the stabbing and says Michael was inside.

But none of the witnesses knew Michael well, and his last name remains a mystery. Only one hand-drawn picture by the couple's friend, singer Steve Dior, offers any evidence of what he looked like: slimly built, with shoulder-length hair.

sex pistols

Controversial: Vicious on stage in San Francisco with fellow Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten in 1978

Dior is adamant that this is the man he believes killed Nancy and who disappeared soon after with the bundle of the couple's cash.

Another resident at the sleazy Chelsea Hotel was a would-be actor called Rockets Redglare - who had been born 'Michael Morra'. Interestingly, within days of Nancy's murder he allegedly confessed to a friend that he was the real killer.

Redglare, who was raised in a tough district of Brooklyn, had been an unofficial minder and drugs dealer to the couple. He was a well-known figure on Manhattan's Lower East Side and went on to star with Madonna in the Hollywood movie Desperately Seeking Susan and with Tom Hanks in Big. One English friend of the couple, Zoe Hansen, met Redglare after the killing and says he admitted to her he had been in the room that night and told her: 'I did it.'

Redglare, himself an addict, died, aged 52, in May 2001 of a combination of kidney and liver failure caused by his years of drug use.

But despite his mysterious confession, witnesses insist that Redglare - who was American, dark-haired and 25 stone - was not the man they blame for Nancy's murder. That Michael, it seems, vanished without a trace.

And so, with no other suspects to hand, the police charged Vicious with Nancy's murder. He was remanded in custody, but his manager, the colourful Malcolm McLaren, hired a top New York lawyer called James Merberg to win him bail.

Within days, Vicious was free on a $50,000 licence which had been put up by his record label boss, Richard Branson.

A little more than a month later, however, Sid was back inside the maximum security Riker's Island jail after glassing a man in a fight in a New York club. He spent nearly two months behind bars in the prison's detox wing before he was again released on bail.

By then, Vicious had a new girlfriend, a would-be actress called Michelle Robson. On the day of his release - February 1, 1979 - Vicious, his mother Anne Beverley and a few friends went back to Robson's apartment for a celebration meal.

After eating spaghetti bolognese, Vicious asked his mother - herself a hopeless addict - to find him some drugs. He complained that what she brought him was not strong enough, and another friend was dispatched to get some more.

But unknown to Vicious, this second batch of heroin was more than 95 per cent pure and nearly three times stronger than most of the heroin sold on the streets of New York. After taking it, Sid collapsed.

He was revived by his girlfriend and mother, but they decided not to call an ambulance because they feared he would be thrown back in jail for breaking his bail conditions. It was to prove a fatal mistake.

Later that night, alone in the bedroom, he injected more of the powerful heroin. The following morning, he was found dead.

A pathologist who examined his body said the star's tolerance to the drug had been weakened by his period behind bars. That, and the potency of the heroin, had killed him.

Police quickly announced they were not looking for anyone else in connection with Spungen's death.

Meanwhile, Anne Beverley discovered what appeared to be a suicide note in the pocket of her son's jeans. Written some days earlier, Vicious told his mother he wanted to be reunited with 'his' Nancy.

The discovery of the letter led some friends to speculate that Nancy's death had been a suicide pact that had gone wrong, and Spungen had administered the fatal knife wound herself.

In fact, ten days after her death, Vicious had attempted to slash his wrists, and just a few months earlier the couple had told a British music magazine of their plans to take their own lives.

After his death, the punk rocker's mother requested he be laid to rest in the same plot where Nancy was buried, but her parents refused. The following week, Anne flew with her son's ashes to the Philadelphia cemetery and secretly sprinkled them over Nancy's gravestone.

His mother, who committed suicide in 1996, remained convinced of her son's innocence until her dying day.

'Before she died, Anne told me to clear her son's name,' says Parker. 'Everything I have found out since makes me believe that Sid was innocent.'

It is unlikely we shall ever now know for sure. But could it be that the undeniably unpleasant and violent Vicious really was the victim of an injustice after all?

Who Killed Nancy? is released on February 6.

New lingua franca upsets French

That the French resent the global supremacy of the English language is nothing new, but as Hugh Schofield finds out, a newly evolved business-speak version is taking over.

They were giving out the annual Prix de la Carpette Anglaise the other day. Literally it means the English Rug Prize, but doormat would be the better translation.

Lord Nelson
Quel horreur! Lord Nelson is the inspiration for a French rock band

As the citation explains, the award goes to the French person or institution who has given the best display of "fawning servility" to further the insinuation into France of the accursed English language.

Among the runners-up this year: the supermarket company Carrefour ­which changed the name of its Champion chain of stores to Carrefour Market, not using the French word "marche".

Also the provocatively-named Paris band Nelson (it is the Admiral, not Mr Mandela, that they have in mind) whose frontman J.B. sings in English because, he says, French does not have the right cadences for true rock.

Worst offender

But topping the poll for grave disservices to the mother tongue is France's higher education minister, Valerie Pecresse.

Valerie Pecresse
Valerie Pecresse has decided if you cannot beat then, join them

Her crime: proclaiming to the press that she had no intention of speaking French when attending European meetings in Brussels, because, she said, it was quite obvious that English was now the easiest mode of communication.

The rise and rise of the English language is a sensitive subject for many here in France, who believe that French has every bit as much right to be considered a global tongue.

Even conceding to English victory in the war for linguistic supremacy, the French believe that the least they can do is defend their own territory and keep the ghastly invader at a decent remove.

Personally, I sympathise greatly with defenders of the French language

The same group that sponsors the Prix de la Carpette also brings legal actions against companies that, it says, breach the law, for example, by not issuing French language versions of instructions to staff.

Personally, I sympathise greatly with defenders of the French language. I think it is true that culturally the world will be diminished if one monolithic form of discourse squashes the rest. But then I am also a realist.

Recently I have spent a lot of time in French multinational companies, and what is inescapable is the stranglehold that English already has on the world of business here.

French executives draft reports, send e-mails, converse with their international colleagues - and increasingly even amongst themselves - in English.

It is of course a kind of bastardised, runty form of business-speak full of words like "drivers" and "deliverables" and "outcomes" to be "valorised", but is nonetheless quite definitely not French.

New language

This brings me to Jean-Paul Nerriere.

Monsieur Nerriere is a retired French businessman who one day in the course of his work made a fascinating observation.

In a meeting with colleagues from around the world, including an Englishman, a Korean and a Brazilian, he noticed that he and the other non-native English speakers were communicating in a form of English that was completely comprehensible to them, but which left the Englishman nonplussed.

He, Jean-Paul Nerriere, could talk to the Korean and the Brazilian in this neo-language, and they could understand each other perfectly.

But the Englishman was left out because his language was too subtle, too full of meaning that could not be grasped by the others.

In other words, Monsieur Nerriere concluded, a new form of English is developing around the world, used by people for whom it is their second language.

It may not be the most beautiful of tongues, but in this day and age he says it is indispensible. He calls the language Globish and urges everyone - above all the French - to learn it tout de suite.

In his book Don't Speak English, Parlez Globish, Monsieur Nerriere sets out the rules.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat, an 'excellent exponent' of 'Globish'

Globish has only 1,500 words and users must avoid humour, metaphor, abbreviation and anything else that can cause cross-cultural confusion.

They must speak slowly and in short sentences. Funnily enough, he holds up the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as an excellent exponent.

Many in France consider Monsieur Nerriere a traitor for promoting the dreaded Anglais, but he insists he is not.

He says the French have to recognise that the language war is lost.

"We're just urinating on the ashes of the fire," he says. We should look on Globish not as a triumphant cultural vehicle for les Anglo-Saxons, but as a tool, he says: essential but purely utilitarian.

For lovers of English there is another consideration, only half-serious I admit. But what if this were all a devious Gallic plot?

After all, if Globish really does take over the planet with its stunted business-speak, its bland insignificance, its cultureless access-for-all availability, then where does that leave the real English?

Will the language of Shakespeare suffer by association, leaving the field open one day for the resurgence of the other great tongues of the world ? Like French?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 22 January, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Celebrations will welcome Year of the Ox

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In the midst of hundreds gathered in San Francisco's Portsmouth Square on Saturday morning, a Taoist priest used red dye to dab the eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth of Gum Lung, the golden dragon.

Within moments, the 238-foot dragon twirled, soared and zigzagged through the often narrow streets of one of the nation's most historic and largest Chinese enclaves.

Awakened with the red dye that symbolizes blood, the dragon comes to life two weeks a year as Chinatown celebrates the Lunar New Year, which begins Monday and is observed in much of the East Asian world.

Gum Lung is the unquestioned star for the fortnight of festivities, embodying thousands of years of tradition and attracting a legion of local volunteers who carry it during the annual Chinese New Year Parade.

"It's always good luck and prosperity when the dragon comes around," said Frank Ung, 57. As dragon master for the parade, he has overseen the creature's care for 35 years.

Monday marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox. People born in that year are dependable, patient and methodical. They do not back down in the face of obstacles. President Obama is an ox.

Gum Lung (pronounced "goom loong") has a skeleton of bamboo and is connected by rope. Linen, paper, rabbit fur and decorative disks serve as the dragon's sinewy skin. Hundreds of LED and compact fluorescent bulbs vein the body, allowing Gum Lung to glow during the parade the creature will highlight on Feb. 7. For the first time, the dragon will lead rather than end the procession.

Wear and tear render Gum Lung unusable after several years. This year's dragon was made in Hong Kong and brought to San Francisco three weeks ago. It is the longest in the parade's history, which is believed to date back to at least the 1860s.

Weighing an estimated half-ton, Gum Lung is carried and escorted by some 100 volunteers, not including the drummers, stilt walkers and lion dancers who walk in its wake. As the dragon careened down the hilly streets of Chinatown on Saturday, small children and the elderly were left equally awestruck.

"It's cool how that many people can synchronize it," said Megan Van Hoorebeke, 27, of Petaluma. "It's this big bulky creature, and they move it so fluidly."

Tradition attracts many

The long tradition of Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown always has drawn many non-Chinese.

Mark Langley's grandfather was an Italian American living in North Beach, but he worked alongside Chinese Americans and often shopped in Chinatown. Langley grew up in the Mission District and remembers coming to his first Lunar New Year celebration in 1968.

The memories of storefront neon lights mixed with incense and patchouli-wearing hippies are still vivid to him. Every year, to mark the past and present, Langley hosts a dinner in Chinatown for 30 friends.

"Chinatown was a magic place, and the parade just made it more so," said Langley, 52, who lives in Concord, one of the many who run while holding up Gum Lung.

The mythology of the dragon is central to Chinese culture, and one of the highest forms of divinity in polytheistic Taoism. It is the most desired birth year in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese horoscope, and is the only mythological creature. With horns of a stag, claws of an eagle, scales of a fish, whiskers of a cat and a body like a serpent, the Chinese dragon embodies many creatures.

Unlike European concepts of dragons, which portray the creatures as evil and destructive, the dragon in Chinese lore is benevolent. It brings luck, longevity and prosperity. The longer the dragon - and San Francisco's Gum Lung is believed to be the largest outside Asia - the more luck it's supposed to bring.

"Everyone is happy to see the dragon," said Jefferson Lee, a head priest with the Ching Chung Taoist Association of America, who awakened Gum Lung on Saturday morning. Lee and several others said traditional belief holds that all Chinese are "children of the dragon."

Prayers to the dragon are also believed to bring rain.

"Hopefully, the blessing of the dragon will bring us some water," said Lee, referring to the fact that California is facing a third straight dry winter.

Dragon energy

Gum Lung is a just a visual symbol. But Lee said Taoist belief holds that meditation can bring dragon energy into your life.

Several involved in the Chinatown Lunar New Year celebration saw particular significance in this year's dragon that went beyond the religious. The Rev. Norman Fong, master of ceremonies at the parade since 1991, sees the dragon as a marker of how far Chinese Americans have come in the city.

The community has been in San Francisco since at least 1849, but the slights and hurdles have been many. In the early part of the century, many immigrants including Fong's father were imprisoned on Angel Island and interrogated for months before finally being released. Now, there are three Chinese Americans on the Board of Supervisors and, for the first time, a Chinese American president of the board, David Chiu.

Just as stereotypes led Euro-centric beliefs to fear dragons, Fong said it has taken time to come to understand that Chinese-Americans are not to be feared. Fong said the fact that non-Chinese now celebrate the dragon embodies that change.

"Finally, we have some respect," said Fong, 57, who grew up in Chinatown and who was born in a dragon year. "In many ways, the Chinese have persevered through the years. We've come to a time where the Chinese New Year's events are finally understood and appreciated."

For more photos and video of the Chinese New Year Parade's dragon eye-dotting ceremony, go to

For more information

-- To learn more about Lunar New Year festivities in San Francisco, visit

-- Other celebrations include one today at the Oakland Museum of California,, and Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at Mills High School in Millbrae.

-- Gum Lung will be on display this week on the lobby level of One Embarcadero Center.

E-mail Matthai Kuruvila at

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama Orders Secret Prisons and Detention Camps Closed

Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Obama signed executive orders Thursday directing the Central Intelligence Agency to shut what remains of its network of secret prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantánamo detention camp within a year.

Obama Orders Secret Prisons and Detention Camps Closed

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bush forced to repeat a term after failing end-of-year exams

America today woke up to the news that George W. Bush will remain US president for a further four years after officials from the Electoral College ruled that he had failed to secure the grades needed to graduate from the White House. A sub-clause of the US Constitution requires a serving president to be held back and forced to repeat a term if he does not make the necessary progress.

‘There were clear signs during the President’s first term that led us to suspect he may have special leadership needs,’ said a spokesman for the Electoral College today, ‘and the second term did nothing to dispel those concerns. We put in place an intensive support programme, but despite some progress in subjects like walking and eating, the President’s end-of-administration results mean he’s not yet ready to join wider society.’

Told of his lack of progress in English, George Bush said he was ‘disappointmented’ but insisted he would make the grade next time round. ‘I am getting special tuitioning in English and extra helpings with geography. Though I already know quite a lot about the olden days.’

‘I just don’t understand it,’ said disappointed mother Barbara Bush today. ‘In his letters home George told us everything was going so well – I could tell from all the smiley faces in the pictures.’ But Barbara and George Bush Snr. remain hopeful that their son will make further progress, and that perhaps one day they will get to attend his graduation ceremony. ‘I know there was all that fuss over his entrance exams and whether he got enough marks to beat that Gore boy,’ said Barbara, ‘but since then he seemed to be making real strides.’

The Bush Presidency will forever be associated with the terrible images of September 11 2001, when the nation woke to see its President taking twenty minutes to finish a simple children’s picture book.

Posted: 20 January 2009 by Genghis Cohen

Monday, January 19, 2009

A legacy of Bushisms

Sunday, January 11, 2009

President George W. Bush will leave behind a legacy of Bushisms, the label stamped on the commander in chief's original speaking style. Some of the president's more notable malaprops and mangled statements:

"I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."

- September 2000, explaining his energy policies at an event in Michigan

"Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?"

- January 2000, during a campaign event in South Carolina

"They misunderestimated the compassion of our country. I think they misunderestimated the will and determination of the commander in chief, too."

- Sept. 26, 2001, in Langley, Va. Bush was referring to the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There's no doubt in my mind, not one doubt in my mind, that we will fail."

- Oct. 4, 2001, in Washington. Bush was remarking on a back-to-work plan after the terrorist attacks.

"It would be a mistake for the United States Senate to allow any kind of human cloning to come out of that chamber."

- April 10, 2002, at the White House, as Bush urged Senate passage of a broad ban on cloning

"I want to thank the dozens of welfare-to-work stories, the actual examples of people who made the firm and solemn commitment to work hard to embetter themselves."

- April 18, 2002, at the White House

"There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again."

- Sept. 17, 2002, in Nashville, Tenn.

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

- Aug. 5, 2004, at the signing ceremony for a defense spending bill.

"Too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."

- Sept. 6, 2004, at a rally in Poplar Bluff, Mo.

"Our most abundant energy source is coal. We have enough coal to last for 250 years, yet coal also prevents an environmental challenge."

- April 20, 2005, in Washington

"We look forward to hearing your vision, so we can more better do our job."

- Sept. 20, 2005, in Gulfport, Miss.

"I can't wait to join you in the joy of welcoming neighbors back into neighborhoods, and small businesses up and running, and cutting those ribbons that somebody is creating new jobs."

- Sept. 5, 2005, when Bush met with residents of Poplarville, Miss., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

"It was not always a given that the United States and America would have a close relationship. After all, 60 years we were at war 60 years ago we were at war."

- June 29, 2006, at the White House, where Bush met with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi

"Make no mistake about it, I understand how tough it is, sir. I talk to families who die."

- Dec. 7, 2006, in a joint appearance with British Prime Minister Tony Blair

"These are big achievements for this country, and the people of Bulgaria ought to be proud of the achievements that they have achieved."

- June 11, 2007, in Sofia, Bulgaria

"Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for your introduction. Thank you for being such a fine host for the OPEC summit."

- September 2007, in Sydney, Australia, where Bush was attending an APEC summit.

"Thank you, Your Holiness. Awesome speech."

- April 16, 2008, at a ceremony welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the White House

"The fact that they purchased the machine meant somebody had to make the machine. And when somebody makes a machine, it means there's jobs at the machine-making place."

- May 27, 2008, in Mesa, Ariz.

"And they have no disregard for human life."

- July 15, 2008, at the White House. Bush was referring to enemy fighters in Afghanistan.

"I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office."

- June 26, 2008, during a Rose Garden news briefing

"Throughout our history, the words of the Declaration have inspired immigrants from around the world to set sail to our shores. These immigrants have helped transform 13 small colonies into a great and growing nation of more than 300 people."

- July 4, 2008, in Virginia

"The people in Louisiana must know that all across our country there's a lot of prayer - prayer for those whose lives have been turned upside down. And I'm one of them. It's good to come down here."

- Sept. 3, 2008, at an emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, La., after Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast

"This thaw - took a while to thaw, it's going to take a while to unthaw."

- Oct. 20, 2008, in Alexandria, La., as he discussed the economy and frozen credit markets

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ann Arbor music community mourns death of Ron Asheton, guitarist for The Stooges

by Roger Lelievre | The Ann Arbor News
Tuesday January 06, 2009, 2:16 PM

Friends and fans of influential rock guitarist Ron Asheton reacted with shock and sadness Tuesday as they learned that he had been found dead at his Ann Arbor home.

Asheton, 60, was a member of The Stooges, a garage-rock band formed here in 1967 and headlined by another former Ann Arborite, Iggy Pop. Asheton's buzz-saw guitar riffs on the band's first two albums helped build the foundation for punk rock.

Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton was found dead early today in his Ann Arbor home.
"I am in shock. He was my best friend," Pop said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. Ranked No. 29 on Rolling Stone magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list, Asheton, who kept a low profile locally, was also known for his work with the area bands Destroy All Monsters, Dark Carnival and others.

"It's a real shocker. I was at Ron's house for his annual Christmas Eve party, everything seemed fine, he seemed healthy," said Scott Morgan, leader of the Stooges'-influenced Ann Arbor band Powertrane and a close friend of Asheton's since junior high school.

Morgan said Asheton will be remembered not only for his unique, three-note style of guitar playing, but for his down-to-earth attitude, a sentiment echoed by John Carver, who owned the Ann Arbor rock and roll club Second Chance in the 1970s and early '80s. Carver remembered Asheton as "a kind and gentle, good man ... a legendary figure from a legendary band."

Police were called to Asheton's house on Ann Arbor's west side early Tuesday by Asheton's personal assistant, who had not been able to reach him for several days. There was no sign of foul play or drug use, and Asheton likely had been dead for several days, police said.

MTV Shows: Last MTV video Interview with Ron Asheton

Alan Goldsmith, an Ann Arbor-based music journalist who knew Asheton for nearly 30 years, said his status never went to his head.

"He was always approachable and always helpful to local bands. And he could go on for hours with stories about show business and people he'd run into over the years."

"When the whole Stooge reunion happened (in 2005-07), he started to get attention and people were focusing on his place in history," Goldsmith said. "The last three or four years he was starting to get the notoriety, attention and financial rewards for all the work he had been doing. It's too bad he didn't get to enjoy that more."

Leni Sinclair, a Detroit-based rock music photographer, said she was saddened by the news.

"He was a mesmerizing guitar player. He was not a showman, he didn't show off very much, but if you listened it just got into your blood. I saw him at the Fox (Theater) when they had a reunion after a long absence. I was immediately transported back to the Grande Ballroom (a Detroit venue of the 1960s and '70s). He was one of the greatest guitar players coming out of this area, I believe."

The Stooges have been nominated several times, including this year, for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the band has not been inducted. This year's inductees are expected to be announced in late January.

In a 2007 interview with The News, Asheton said he didn't mind that The Stooges had been overlooked by the rock hall. "What, this is our third or fourth time turned down? I think it's really funny," he observed, adding that if the band did eventually get it, "That's cool. ... It would be nice to be there with the names that are there."

The Stooges completed an European tour last month.

Greg Upshur, of Stockbridge, recalled meeting Asheton in the early 1980s when his band, The Seatbelts, opened for Destroy All Monsters. The two hit it off and Asheton wound up producing a 45-rpm single for the Detroit area band.

"He was the sound of The Stooges. I don't think Iggy Pop would be Iggy Pop if it wasn't for Asheton's licks," Upshur observed. "I'm sure a lot of rock and roll people are going to very, very sad today."

An additional statement, attributed to Iggy Pop, Stooges drummer (and Asheton's brother) Scott Asheton, saxophonist Steve Mackay, bassist Mike Watt and The Stooges' management and crew reads:

"For all that knew him behind the facade of Mr. Cool & Quirky, he was a kind-hearted, genuine, warm person who always believed that people meant well even if they did not. ... As a musician Ron was 'The Guitar God,' idol to follow and inspire others."

Dianna Frank, an Asheton fan and marketing manager for concert booking agency Live Nation in Detroit, remembered Asheton as the calm in the midst of the storm that was a Stooges live show.

"Much like Neil Young or Keith Richards - great sloppy guitarists in their own right - (Asheton) proved that it's not necessary to be technically proficient to become one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. I don't think there's another player out there who could match that psychotic, primal sound he had. His playing on The Stooges 'Fun House' record is just jaw dropping in its raw, brutalist power. He was unparalleled - nobody can match that sound.

"The sound coming from his guitar was just the most unbelievable thing I had ever heard; bursts of feedback-laced shrapnel. I was awe struck then, and I still am to this day every time I play their records," Frank said.

Asheton's body was taken to the University of Michigan Medical Center, where an autopsy was to be conducted. Cause of death won't be determined until toxicology reports are complete, which could take about a month.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

Stooges' guitarist Ron Asheton found dead in his Ann Arbor home

by Art Aisner | The Ann Arbor News
Tuesday January 06, 2009, 8:28 AM

Famed rock-and-roll guitarist and longtime Ann Arbor resident Ronald "Ron" Asheton was found dead in his home on the city's west side this morning, police said.

Asheton, 60, was an original member of The Stooges, a garage-rock band headlined by Iggy Pop and formed in Ann Arbor in 1967.

Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton was found dead early today in his Ann Arbor home.
His personal assistant contacted police late Monday night after being unable to reach Asheton for days, Detective Bill Stanford said.

Officers went to the home on Highlake Avenue at around midnight and discovered Asheton's body on a living-room couch. He appeared to have been dead for at least several days, Stanford said.

Detective Sgt. Jim Stephenson said the cause of death is undetermined but investigators do not suspect foul play. Autopsy and toxicology results are pending.

Asheton was born in Washington, D.C. His brother, Scott, who lives in Florida, is the band's drummer.

In 2007, The Stooges reunited and released "The Weirdness," their first album in three decades.

Asked how it felt to be back with The Stooges, Asheton told The News in an interview that year that it was "great to be back on the road."

The Stooges were part of a 1960s music scene in Ann Arbor that included such bands as the MC5, Bob Seger, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and The Rationals.

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