China linguist's 109th birthday wish: democracy

 

Born when a Qing dynasty emperor was on the throne, the man who helped invent the Pinyin system used for writing Chinese worldwide turned 109 on Tuesday. But Zhou Youguang's outspoken support for democracy means his works are still censored by the ruling Communist party.

"After 30 years of economic reform, China still needs to take the path of democracy," Zhou told AFP in an interview, his wrinkled face topped with a patch of white hair. "It's the only path. I have always believed that."

Zhou is commonly known as the "father of Pinyin", a system for transliterating Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet introduced in the 1950s and now used by hundreds of millions of language learners in China, as well as abroad.

But in his cramped third-floor apartment in Beijing, where dog-eared books -- including dozens by Zhou himself -- line the walls, the writer was modest about his achievements.

"I don't have any feeling of pride. I don't think I've achieved very much," he said, speaking lucidly but slowly and with obvious effort. "My birthday is of no importance at all."

Born to an aristocratic family in 1906, Zhou experienced the last years of the Qing dynasty and its revolutionary overthrow, before studying at elite universities in Shanghai and Japan.

When Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, Zhou moved with his wife and two children to the central city of Chongqing, where he endured constant air raids but made contacts with leaders in the then comparatively weak Communist party.

After Japan's defeat he avoided China's civil war between the Communists and Nationalists by going to work for a Chinese bank on Wall Street, twice meeting Albert Einstein while visiting friends at Princeton.

But following the Communist victory in 1949, Zhou returned home to teach economics and became a close associate of the party's number two, Zhou Enlai.

"I came back for two reasons: because I thought the country had been liberated, and had a new hope. Also, because my mother was in China," he wrote in a 2012 autobiography.

He was attracted to Mao Zedong's Communists because "at that time they promoted themselves as democrats", he wrote.

 

An amateur linguist who had taught himself some Esperanto, Zhou was assigned in 1955 to co-chair a committee tasked with increasing literacy by reforming the Chinese language.

He eventually backed a system based on one developed in the Soviet Union, using Roman letters to represent pronunciation alongside marks to indicate tone.

The proposal, named Pinyin -- "putting together sounds" -- is used in schools across China and has been instrumental in boosting the country's literacy rate from around 20 percent in the 1950s to more than 90 percent today.

Though systems for transcribing Mandarin into the Roman alphabet already existed -- including Wade-Giles, produced by two British diplomats in the 19th century -- Pinyin is regarded as simpler.

"With Chinese characters, you can't tell the pronunciation just by looking. So Pinyin was useful in teaching," said Luo Weidong, a professor at Beijing Language and Culture University. "Pinyin made a big contribution to the literacy movement in China."

In recent decades, Pinyin has become key to the easy creation of Chinese characters on computers.

But Zhou's contributions did not save him from the chaos of Mao's decade-long Cultural Revolution from 1966, during which intellectuals were persecuted.

Zhou, then in his 60s, was sent to work at a labour camp in faraway Ningxia for more than two years, separated from his wife and son.

"I had never slept on an earth bed before," he wrote of the experience, adding: "When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic. The pessimists tend to die."

He has described the two decades from 1960 to 1980 as "wasted", adding: "In all honesty I haven't got anything good to say about Mao Zedong."

He has a higher opinion of Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping, who launched market-style reforms which helped transform China into the world's second-largest economy.

But since retiring aged 85, Zhou has written dozens of books arguing that Deng's reforms are insufficient without political change.

"Chinese people becoming rich isn't important," he said. "Human progress is ultimately progress towards democracy."

 

Zhou, probably China's oldest dissenter, marked his birthday with friends and family, enjoying dishes including braised sea cucumber and a date and mushroom soup, his editor Ye Fang said.

Sleeping takes up an increasing proportion of his time as his health flags, but he is still a voracious reader. Confucius and Socrates remain his favourite thinkers.

Age appears to have been no barrier to a harsh crackdown against critics of the party overseen by China's current President Xi Jinping.

Scores of journalists, lawyers and academics have been arrested and dozens jailed, among them 71-year-old journalist Gao Yu, tried last year for leaking state secrets, and writer Tie Liu, 81, detained since September.

Zhou's books have also come under more intense scrutiny, with topics which could be tackled just a few years ago now taboo.

Censors demanded that his latest book, due out next month, be purged of some references to anti-intellectual movements, as well as a 1950s famine which killed tens of millions as a result of Mao's "Great Leap Forward".

"The restrictions on publishing have got tighter. No one knows if it's a short-term thing, or a long-term change," said Ye.

Sitting beneath peeling paint in his flat, Zhou said the leader was not the issue.

"I don't think it's a problem of individuals," he said. "It's a problem with the system. We don't have freedom of speech in China."

AFP, photo by languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu

Serbian stray dog advocate fights to save his 450 pooches PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 06 April 2015 11:42

 

Surrounded by hundreds of dogs, wagging their tails and running free on fenced-off land in a Serbian town, Sasa Pesic knows each of the pooches by name.

"I know exactly how each dog arrived at my shelter, I know their names, personalities," says Pesic as he patted one of his charges.

It all started when Pesic, out of work like around 17 percent of Serbians, came upon four abandoned puppies in woods near his home.

The discovery changed his life dramatically, setting him on a path to becoming an advocate for stray dogs and opening a shelter in Nis in southern Serbia.

Today it is home for more than 450 animals, but Pesic may soon have to move his canine horde as the city wants him to find a new location.

When the 45-year-old walks into the shelter, set on a piece of land near the centre of town, hundreds of mongrels of all sizes and colours run to him barking happily in greeting.

The refuge is located at a former equestrian club stable that Pesic got rent-free from the owner back in 2010 where the dogs can be outside all day long.

"It is only when night falls that we put them in their cages. They are happy this way," he tells AFP, adding that all the dogs have been vaccinated, sterilised and have microchips.

There are 280,000 registered dogs in the Balkan country, but veterinary authorities say it is practically impossible to determine the exact number of stray canines, many being pets abandoned by their owners in hard economic times.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 06 April 2015 11:44
 
Replica of French general's historic US independence ship sails again PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 18 April 2015 18:14

 

A replica of the French navy frigate Hermione which brought General Lafayette to America to rally rebels fighting Britain in the US war of independence, will set sail for the United States again on Saturday, 235 years after the original crossing.

French President Francois Hollande is expected to be on hand to wish the ship and crew godspeed on the journey from France's Aix island to the US east coast, a trip exciting sailing and history fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

Some 80 crew members will sail the three-masted 65-metre (213-feet) ship along the route to Boston made by French General Gilbert du Motier -- the Marquis de Lafayette -- to bolster revolutionaries fighting for an independent United States.

Back in 1778 Hermione took a mere six months to build. The new replica took a painstaking 17 years to construct, mobilising hundreds of craftspeople from around the world.

The crew plans to make landfall on June 5 in Yorktown in Virginia, where US troops led by George Washington and French soldiers accompanied by General Lafayette scored a decisive victory over the British in 1781.

 

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 18 April 2015 18:28
 
Amazon tribe's antibiotic resistance concerns experts PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 18 April 2015 18:55

 

 

A remote tribe in the Venezuelan Amazon appears to be resistant to modern antibiotics, even though its members have had barely any contact with the outside world, researchers said Friday.

The people, known as the Yanomami, were first spotted by air in 2008, and were visited a year later by a Venezuelan medical team that took samples from 34 of them, including skin and mouth swabs and stool samples.

To protect their privacy, the name of their village was withheld from publication.

Scientists found that the tribespeople's microbiome -- the community of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in and on the body -- was far more diverse than seen in comparison communities of rural Venezuelans and Malawians. Their microbiome was twice as diverse as observed in a reference group of Americans.

The remote villagers are generally healthy, and that may be thanks to a microbiome that "contains perhaps the highest levels of bacterial diversity ever reported in a human group," said the study in the journal Science Advances.

While the Yanomami had some T-shirts, machetes and metal cans, suggesting some limited contact with civilization, they have not been exposed to the many elements of contemporary life that can cut down on microbes, such as eating processed foods, taking antibiotics, hand sanitizing and delivering babies by Caesarean section, scientists said.

Some microbes seemed to have a protective effect on their health, such as preventing the formation of kidney stones.

 

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 18 April 2015 18:58
 
Nishikori cruises past Klizan into Barcelona final PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 25 April 2015 19:15

 

 

Reigning champion Kei Nishikori booked his place in the Barcelona Open final with a 6-1, 6-2 thrashing of Slovakia's Martin Klizan on Saturday.

Klizan had won the only previous meeting between the two in a shock straight sets win over an injury-plagued Nishikori at last year's French Open.

However, there was never any danger of a repeat in the Catalan capital as the Japanese romped through the first set in just 28 minutes.

Klizan offered some more resistence at the start of the second set as he held onto his serve in a marathon opening game that included eight deuces.

 

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 25 April 2015 19:20
 
VW patriarch and board chairman Piech resigns PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 25 April 2015 19:20

 

 

Volkswagen patriarch Ferdinand Piech, has resigned as head of the German auto giant's supervisory board with immediate effect, the company announced Saturday.

The news came two days after Piech rejected media reports that he was plotting to oust the carmaker's chief executive, Martin Winterkorn.

Vienna-born Piech gave up all his positions in the group with immediate effect, as did his wife Ursula Piech, a member of the board since 2012.

He will be provisionally replaced by deputy chairman of the supervisory board Berthold Huber, according to the company statement.

Piech, a major figure in the German business world and grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the Porsche car company, had been president of VW's supervisory board since 2002.

Volkswagen had attempted last week to draw a line under a bitter power struggle between its chief executive and supervisory board chief, saying it would extend Winterkorn's contract as chief executive.

 

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 25 April 2015 19:22
 
Eccentrics camp out in London to await royal birth PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 26 April 2015 11:15

Camped outside St Mary's Hospital in London, eccentrics decked out from head to toe in Union Jack colours are counting down to the latest addition to Britain's royal family.

"Diana superfan" John Loughrey cannot hide his excitement, dancing a jig and singing on the pavement.

"Get down here, you're missing something, the atmosphere is electrifying," he said, as hospital patients and staff hurried past, grinning.

"Once the baby is born we will be celebrating! We will be dancing for two hours!" he told AFP.

"This is what you call Shakespeare, this is theatre!"

The same loyal fans all came to the same clinic in 2013 for the birth of Prince George, the first child of Prince William and his wife Kate.

Two years later they are back to witness the birth of George's little brother or sister.

Around a dozen of them could be seen on Friday, preparing to spend a fifth night sleeping in two small two-person tents and on nearby benches.

Among them is Terry Hutt, the famous "Union Jack Man" who at 79 is still a feature at all royal events.

"It's important for me," he told AFP, wrapped in a sleeping bag donated to him by a television channel.

"Someone stole my sleeping bag. Unfortunately that night was freezing," he said, fixing his hat covered in Kate, Diana and Queen Elizabeth II badges.

Next to him are two beaming William and Kate impersonators, posing for a Japanese television station holding a plastic baby doll.

Last Updated on Sunday, 26 April 2015 11:18
 
Activists file Facebook class action suit in Austria PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 09 April 2015 18:26

 

 

An Austrian law graduate spearheading a class action case against Facebook for alleged privacy breaches officially filed the suit in a Vienna court on Thursday.

In a closely-watched case, Max Schrems and 25,000 other users are suing the social media giant for various rights violations, ranging from the "illegal" tracking of their data under EU law to Facebook's involvement in the PRISM surveillance programme of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

"Basically we are asking Facebook to stop mass surveillance, to (have) a proper privacy policy that people can understand, but also to stop collecting data of people that are not even Facebook users," 27-year-old Schrems told AFP in an interview this week.

 

 

The case has been brought against Facebook's European headquarters in Dublin, which registers all accounts outside the United States and Canada -- making up some 80 percent of Facebook's 1.35 billion users.

Schrems was able to file his action against the Irish subsidiary at a civil court in Vienna because under EU law, all member states have to enforce court rulings from any other member state.

Among other issues, judges will have to rule on Facebook's objection that the class action is inadmissible under Austrian law -- an objection dismissed by Schrems' lawyer as lacking "any substance".

So far, the social media company has not been available for comment on the matter.

Interest in the case has been overwhelming. Within days of launching the suit in August last year, thousands of people -- mostly based in Europe but also in Asia, Latin America and Australia -- had signed up.

In the end, Schrems limited the number of participants to 25,000 but a further 55,000 have already registered to join the proceedings at a later stage.

Each of the plaintiffs is claiming a "token amount" of 500 euros ($540) in damages.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 April 2015 18:32
 
Ancient Thracian culture reveals splendour at Louvre PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 14 April 2015 18:41

 

 

Exquisitely crafted gold, silver and bronze objects will go on display at the Louvre museum in Paris this week, giving visitors a rare glimpse of the ancient Thracian culture that produced them.

Many stories still remain untold about this refined civilisation whose citizens included Orpheus, the mythical son of a Thracian king, and legendary gladiator Spartacus who led an uprising against Rome.

Today, "ancient Thrace is most famous for its unique goldsmithing works", Bulgarian exhibition commissioner Milena Tonkova told AFP ahead of Tuesday's opening.

One of the exhibition highlights is the Panagyurishte ritual beverage set -- the most prized possession of these ancient people who inhabited the Balkan peninsula from the 2nd millennium BC to the 3rd century AD.

 

 

 

Made of 23-carat gold, it consists of a phial, an amphora with centaur-shaped handles and seven rhytons, and drinking vessels carved in the form of women's and animal heads, with a total weight of six kilos (13 pounds).

Since Communist times, Bulgaria has been exhibiting gold and silver Thracian treasures found on its territory in museums around the world, from Mexico to India and Japan.

- Not just about gold -

 

But "it won't just be the umpteenth exhibition in France of Thracian gold: it will offer the general public an opportunity to gain broader insight into this culture," said Francoise Gaultier, the director of Louvre's Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities.

 

 

 

Beyond the stunning wares, this latest exhibition aims to paint a broader picture of the lifestyle of the Thracians by showing the tools used to carve the pieces.

It will also showcase for the first time the exact replicas of four Thracian tombs from central Bulgaria, where some of the precious finds were uncovered.

One of them contained another centrepiece of the exhibition -- the life-size bronze head of King Seuthes III with eyes made of alabaster and a glass paste lending extreme liveliness to the king's sculptured face.

This ruler of the Odrysian kingdom had been buried together with his gold wreath, headpiece, horse ornaments, drinking cups and even glass playing dice.

"Seuthes' face will personalise ancient Thrace for the public," French commissioner Alexandre Baralis said.

 

 

 

In addition to unveiling the spectacular craft behind Thrace's treasures, the exhibition aims to shed a light on famous Thracian rulers.

"What we want to do is to present a historical and archeological synthesis that allows us to go further, to give substance, and offers a global perspective on the history of the Odrysian kingdom from 479 to 278 BC," Baralis said.

"We want to show that the Thracians, as actors of the ancient world, were as influential as the Greek, the Macedonians or the Romans."

 

- Bulgarian tourism boost -

 

 

 

The exhibition will also provide an opportunity to Bulgaria to bolster its image as one of the three European countries with the richest cultural heritage after Greece and Italy.

"The exhibition at the Louvre will offer us a trampoline for promoting cultural tourism," said Tourism Minister Nikolina Angelkova.

Bulgaria is currently mostly known for its winter resorts and Black Sea beaches but according to the minister, it has a huge potential to attract new tourism to the dozens of reconstructed Thracian burial sites. afp

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 14 April 2015 18:44
 
Football: Injury-hit Real tasked with breaking down Atletico wall PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 22 April 2015 13:22

 

Real Madrid have the unenviable task of beating city rivals Atletico Madrid at the eighth attempt this season if they are to progress to a fifth consecutive Champions League semi-final.
The European champions have failed to overcome Atletico in seven games since beating Los Rojiblancos in last season's Champions League final, including last week's 0-0 draw in the first-leg at the Vicente Calderon, and have also been struck by a series of injuries and suspensions to key players.
Luka Modric and Gareth Bale will miss out after limping off with knee and calf injuries respectively in the 3-1 win over Malaga at the weekend, whilst Marcelo is banned and Karim Benzema faces a race against time to be fit due to a knee problem.
Given those absences, the return to fitness and form of James Rodriguez is a huge boost for Los Blancos.
The Colombian World Cup star has scored twice in four games after a two-month injury layoff due to a broken foot to take his tally to an impressive 14 in his first season at the Bernabeu.
"Before I was out I was scoring goals, playing at a good level and now I think it is the same," he told Madrid's website.
"I want to continue like this, using my characteristics to help the team achieve important objectives.
"We are all dreaming of getting through this round and if I can score as well then it would be great. The most important thing is to win and get through this very difficult game, but we are in our own stadium with our own fans. I think it could be a great game."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 April 2015 13:24
 
Switzerland, Scandinavia top global 'happy' index PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 24 April 2015 09:26

 

 

Switzerland is the happiest country in the world, closely followed by Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Canada, according to a global ranking of happiness unveiled in New York on Thursday.

The 2015 World Happiness Report is the third annual report seeking to quantify happiness as a means of influencing government policy. The United Nations published the first study in 2012.

Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia round out the top 10, making small or medium-sized countries in Western Europe seven of the top 10 happiest countries.

Academics identified the variables as real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption and generosity.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and one of the editors, said the top 13 countries were the same a second year running although their order had shifted.

They combined affluence with strong social support, and relatively honest and accountable governments, he told a news conference.

"Countries below that top group fall short, either in income or in social support or in both," Sachs explained.

The United States trails in 15th place, behind Israel and Mexico, with Britain at 21, pipped by Belgium and the United Arab Emirates. France ranks number 29, behind Germany in 26th place.

Afghanistan and war-torn Syria joined eight sub-Saharan countries in Africa -- Togo, Burundi, Benin, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Chad -- as the 10 least happy of 158 countries.

Despite the conflict raging in Iraq, that country was ranked 112, ahead of South Africa, India, Kenya and Bulgaria.

The 166-page report was edited by Sachs, John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia in Canada and Richard Layard from the London School of Economics.

"One of our very strong recommendations is that we should be using measurements of happiness... to help guide the world during this period of the new sustainable development goals," Sachs said.

 

- Iceland, Ireland and Japan resilient -

 

The report would be distributed widely at the United Nations and closely read by governments around the world, he said.

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 24 April 2015 09:30
 
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British Queen celebrates 

 

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