Print, online ad revenue fall at Washington Post

WASHINGTON, February 24, 2012 (AFP) - The Washington Post Co. reported a lower fourth-quarter net profit Friday on weakness at its education division and declining print and online advertising revenue at its flagship newspaper.

The Post Co., which owns the Kaplan chain of schools and television outlets in addition to The Washington Post, reported a net profit of $61.7 million, or $8.03 per share, compared to $79 million, or $9.42 per share, a year ago.

Revenue declined 10 percent to $1.1 billion in the fourth-quarter.

For the year, the Post Co. reported a net profit of $116.2 million, down from $277.2 million the previous year. Revenue declined 10 percent in 2011 to $4.21 billion.

Education division revenue declined 14 percent in the fourth quarter to $597.7 million.

Television broadcasting division revenue was down 14 percent to $88.3 million, while cable television revenue fell to $190.8 million from $191.3 million a year earlier.

At the Post Co.'s newspaper publishing division, revenue fell four percent in the fourth quarter to $181 million while operating income declined to $7.4 million from $19.9 million a year ago.

The fourth-quarter results included a $2.4 million charge at the newspaper publishing division for withdrawal from a pension plan.

For the year, revenue declined five percent at the newspaper publishing division to $648 million.

Print advertising revenue was down 11 percent for the year at $264.5 million and online advertising revenue for WashingtonPost.com and Slate.com fell eight percent to $105.8 million.

Print advertising revenue dropped six percent in the fourth quarter to $77.1 million and online advertising revenue declined 12 percent to $31.5 million.

Daily circulation for The Washington Post fell 6.3 percent in 2011 while Sunday circulation was down four percent. Average daily circulation for the Post was 516,200 for 2011 and average Sunday circulation was 732,300.

Like other US newspapers, the Post has been grappling with declining print advertising revenue and circulation and the migration of readers to free news online.

Earlier this month, citing the difficult economic climate for the newspaper industry, the Post announced a voluntary buyout for some newsroom staff, the fifth buyout offer at the newspaper in recent years.

Post Co. shares were up 1.27 percent at $393.73 in early trading on Wall Street.

Singapore's GIC buys 5% of US grain firm Bunge

SINGAPORE, February 24, 2012 (AFP) - The Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) has acquired a 5.0 percent stake in multinational grain producer Bunge, the US-based company said.

In a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Bunge said the city-state's sovereign wealth fund had acquired 7.31 million of its shares.

The filing did not give a value for the acquisition but Dow Jones Newswires said it was worth $495.5 million, based on the closing price of Bunge shares in New York on Thursday.

The US SEC filing was dated February 13 but posted on the company's website on Thursday.

A GIC spokeswoman confirmed the acquisition but would not give details.

GIC, one of two state investment vehicles of the Singapore government, says on its website that it manages a portfolio worth over $100 billion ranging from equities to real estate and natural resources in more than 40 countries.

Like other funds, GIC has been raising its investments in natural resources which stood at 3.0 percent as of end March 2011, according to Dow Jones.

GIC last year agreed to purchase $400 million worth of shares in Glencore International's initial public offering, making it the second-biggest investor in the IPO of the Swiss commodity trading giant.

GIC also raised its stake in blue-chip oil producer China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. or Sinopec, to 5.0 percent.

Singapore is a tiny but affluent Southeast Asian nation without any natural resources and its trade-dependent economy is vulnerable to volatility in the global markets, but it has a diversified portfolio of overseas investments.


Freed Myanmar blogger pushes 'people's voice'

YANGON, February 24, 2012 (AFP) - Aside from an emotional reunion with family and friends, Myanmar blogger Nay Phone Latt knew exactly what he wanted to do after his release from prison: get back online.

It was a bold move, given that his Internet activities landed him a two-decade jail term back in 2008 under the former military regime.

"There are so many friends online who supported me via my blog," said the 32-year-old, a few weeks into his newfound freedom. "So what I wanted to do when I was released was to go online and post a new post."

He made his name through political commentary and poetry on his blog, which he set up to avoid strict press censorship and which soon became an important source of news on isolated Myanmar for the outside world.

He was among activists rounded up for their links to the "Saffron Revolution" monk-led protests against the junta in 2007, and believes he was punished for both his blogging and support for opponents of the generals.

His sentence was later reduced to 12 years and cut short in January, when the new government released hundreds of political prisoners -- one of a series of reforms sweeping the country.

"To frighten the other bloggers and other IT-related youth, they sentenced me to so many years," he told AFP, in English, over a cup of coffee in his hometown of Yangon, which is dotted with popular Internet cafes.

While detained in his own country, Nay Phone Latt was feted from abroad, winning the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in New York for showing the "strength of the creative spirit" in the face of repression.

Specific accusations against him included storing caricatures of the junta chief, found in his email inbox, and giving out CDs of performances by a satirical entertainment troupe.

"I don't know what crime I have committed, I really don't know that," said Nay Phone Latt, who also owned and ran two cyber cafes before his arrest.

The authorities, he added, hated bloggers and "did not understand the Internet and technology".

The years he spent in jail were a critical time for Myanmar, after almost half a century of draconian army rule.

In late 2010 the country held its first election in 20 years, widely criticised by the West as neither free nor fair, and early last year the junta dissolved itself and handed power to a new government.

It was dubbed as a transfer to civilian rule, yet Myanmar's parliament is dominated by the military and its allies and the new president, Thein Sein, was formerly a general and prime minister in the junta.

So few were expecting the impressive series of reforms that he has ushered in over the past year.

Along with the mass release of political prisoners such as Nay Phone Latt, the regime has made progress towards peace with ethnic minority rebels, and the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi has been allowed back into the mainstream.

"I don't think that they will turn back again," said the blogger.

"They cannot change their uniform to the military so easily, so they want to go on, but this progress can slow and stop. This all depends on all of the people in our country".

A former member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, the blogger is glad to see the party's figurehead, detained herself for much of the past 23 years, running for office in by-elections in April.

"We need to amend so many nonsense laws and we also need to amend the constitution, so Daw Aung San Suu Kyi intends to do that," he said, using a term of respect to refer to the Nobel laureate.

Nay Phone Latt is especially keen to see reform of Myanmar's legislation on Internet use, the Electronic Act, which has been described by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders as "one of the most liberticidal laws in the world".

He has no plans to become a politician himself, but neither does he intend to keep quiet as he tastes his new freedom, despite his ordeal behind bars.

His plans include furthering IT education in rural Myanmar, where many are still without access to the Internet, and publishing a book of "so many articles, letters and short stories and poems I have written in the prison".

The recent political changes are being felt online. Internet connections are often still painfully slow, but websites of the opposition and exiled media groups that the government once tried to block are now freely available.

"There's no more ban on the political websites," Ye Htut, director general of Myanmar's Ministry of Information, told AFP.

For Myanmar's reform to keep momentum, citizens must keep on speaking out -- "now they are listening to the people's voice", said Nay Phone Latt.

"They have got to give freedom of expression, so we need not be afraid of anything," he said. "We have to say loudly and we have to say freely and we have to say bravely".

Lebedev: Press baron, war reporter, Russia critic

MOGADISHU, February 24, 2012 (AFP) - Among the war reporters covering the brutal conflict in Somalia, one stands out: under his bulletproof vest, Evgeny Lebedev is also a British press baron and son of a Russian billionaire.

"I just felt that I wanted to understand and see for myself," said 31-year-old Lebedev, owner of Britain's The Independent newspaper and the London Evening Standard, as he stared out at the Indian Ocean between military sandbags.

Somalia's anarchic capital Mogadishu is not for the faint-hearted: the once elegant city has been left in ruins by two decades of bloody violence, and Al-Qaeda allied Shehab insurgents regularly launch guerrilla attacks.

The rattle of gunfire and the heavier crump of larger artillery are a near daily occurrence in Mogadishu, often dubbed the world's most dangerous capital.

Foreign correspondents -- like aid workers and Western officials -- must travel the pot-holed streets in armour-plated vehicles, or be flanked by gun-toting guards to deter Islamist insurgent attacks.

But Lebedev -- son of Russian banking tycoon and former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev -- is no stranger to tough reporting environments.

Before Mogadishu, where he spent two days reporting stories for his newspaper under the protection of heavily armed African Union troops, Lebedev already reported in Afghanistan, spending time with President Hamid Karzai in September.

After that he toured the Palestinian territories in December with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister in the Gaza Strip.

Dressed in dark glasses, hat and grey Converse trainers, the youthful black-bearded newspaper proprietor is a special foreign correspondent for The Independent.

"You need to be aware of what is happening in the world, and help draw attention to places that need such an attention, especially when real progress is happening," Lebedev said, admitting a preference for conflict areas.

And Somalia, despite its dangers and daily violence, is slowly making progress: African Union troops forced Shehab fighters from positions last year, and continue to battle rebel positions on the edge of the city.

'I wanted to understand and see for myself'

Lebedev's arrival was preceded by a security reconnaissance team, investigating just how strong the heavily armoured personnel carriers used to transport troops -- and journalists -- were to guerrilla attack.

Clearly used to being obeyed, Lebedev received the top VIP reception that Mogadishu can offer -- a shipping container behind sandbagged walls that serves as a basic hotel, with plates of simple pasta on the menu.

Close by, two security guards maintain a constant watch.

With Lebedev travelled renowned British photographer John Shand Kydd, stepbrother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Lebedev's father Alexander co-owns liberal Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a publication proud of its fierce independence, including carrying reports in Chechnya by the late opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

When Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006 -- an unsolved killing -- Alexander offered a million dollars for information on the identity of the killers.

Like his father, Evgeny Lebedev does not hide his contempt for other Russian oligarchs.

"Russia is a very rich country in bright, intelligent, creative people of all sorts," he said. "Unfortunately this country has given an image of itself of a stereotype of ruthless, overpowered, very vulgar nouveau riche businessmen."

But he himself may reflect a new generation of the Russian elite.

Educated both in Moscow and London -- where he studied history -- and as comfortable in English as in Russian, he notes he has been "very privileged to have had exposure to both Russian and British culture".

And Lebedev, lacking nothing materially in his life, admits a certain fascination for the Somalis surviving in their impoverished nation.

Decades of war and lawlessness have devastated the Horn of Africa country, leaving it with no basic infrastructure, its people in deep poverty and a humanitarian crisis the United Nations describes as the worst in the world.

"Somalis are very bright and entrepreneurial people who have been in a situation of constant war, deprived of all that they are taking for granted in the West," Lebedev said.

Japan investment firm probed over huge pension loss

TOKYO, February 24, 2012 (AFP) - Japan's financial watchdog on Friday froze an investment firm's operations after investigators said it lost most of the $2.3 billion in pension funds it manages amid a report it may have hidden the losses for years.

The head of the Financial Services Agency (FSA), Shozaburo Jimi, has suspended AIJ Investment Advisors for a month as it carries out a probe into one of the biggest cases of its kind in the country.

"The FSA, together with the labour ministry, will take every possible step to prevent this kind of incident from happening again," he said, adding the agency would probe all 263 of Japan's investment management firms as soon as possible.

It comes as Japanese camera giant Olympus is embroiled in a massive scandal, with Tokyo prosecutors investigating the role of senior management in falsifying financial statements to cover up $1.7 billion in investment losses.

Olympus's former president, vice president and auditor were among the executives arrested earlier this month for their alleged role in the scheme.

Friday's announcement followed a report in the Nikkei business daily that AIJ -- which had a reputation as one of the few asset managers to deliver positive annual returns -- had lost most of the 183 billion yen ($2.3 billion) in pension fund contributions that it held.

The company may have lied to clients for years about reaping cumulative returns of up to 240 percent since it started management in the early 2000s, the Nikkei said.

It was not known whether the money was lost due to market turbulence or because it diverted them for other purposes.

In footage shown on national broadcaster NHK Sei Takahashi, a lawyer representing AIJ, said: "We have nothing to disclose at the moment as we are under investigation.

"We will offer a thorough explanation once we are able to talk about this," he said.

A company report submitted to the FSA says it had 120 clients and managed 183.2 billion yen of assets by December 2010.

Calls to the investment firm by AFP went unanswered on Friday morning.

The company mostly controls group pension plans for small and midsize businesses in industries such as trucking, construction, electrical work and plumbing, the Nikkei said.

They also include a handful of big-name firms, including technology firms Advantest and Yaskawa Electric.

However, Yaskawa Electric said the scandal's impact on its pension scheme would be "very small" as less than two percent of its corporate pension fund was in the hands of AIJ.

Advantest, a major producer of semiconductor-manufacturing devices, declined to comment on the business suspension.

Japanese art shifts in response to tsunami disaster

TOKYO, February 24, 2012 (AFP) - In the year since Japan's northeast coast was torn apart by a massive quake-tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis, artists have searched for new ways to come to terms with the disaster.

The so-called "Post-3/11" movement has taken its inspiration from images of tsunami-ravaged townships and grief-stricken victims in the aftermath of the the worst tragedy to hit the nation since World War II.

From activist performance art to the creation of a memorial, artists have found new ways to either make a statement against nuclear power or simply remember the thousands who perished.

"Practically every exhibition and art event held after the... earthquake has implicitly or explicitly responded to these life changing events," says Emily Wakeling, a curator and art researcher working in Tokyo.

"The majority of artists' responses have been emotional," she says.

For 27-year-old installation artist Tsubasa Kato, a trip to Fukushima for volunteer work to clear up the mountains of rubble provided him with the inspiration to leave a lasting memorial.

Kato recently completed a three-storey lighthouse built from the collected ruins of houses destroyed by the tsunami, with the help of 300 local residents whose lives were wrenched apart by the disaster.

While his usual approach with large works is to drop them into place, ensuring a noisy landing, he decided his Fukushima work should be lifted quietly, as a mark of respect.

He was initially reluctant to become involved creatively, but his experiences working alongside the locals soon changed that, he said.

"In Fukushima, they were pulling buildings down, clearing the ruins. Yet there I was, with the opportunity to build something new for the community," he told AFP in a Tokyo gallery.

He says the optimism of the thousand or so who gathered to watch the lighthouse pulled upright was palpable.

"Japanese people have a shared culture of rallying together after natural disasters, and the project was a way audiences and victims could communicate on an emotional level," he said.

Manga artist Moeko Fujii, 25, says the disaster means she and her colleagues have had to change the way they go about their work.

"As artists we've had to rethink how we would present such a terrible story, and whether it was necessary to do so," she says.

"Manga is so familiar and can be read by people of all ages, it's a good way to understand others' earthquake experiences," she said.

However, while many of the artistic responses have been emotional, six-member art collective ChimPom have taken a more confrontational approach, using public anger at the country's reliance on nuclear energy.

The group has produced a video called "Real Times" in which they travel into the middle of the exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi and hoist a white flag above the ruins of the plant.

They paint it with the red sun of Japan's national flag, before transforming it into the warning symbol for radioactive material.

In a separate project, they added a panel to a mural by Taro Okamoto in Tokyo's fashionable Shibuya district that depicts the fallout from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.

Aping the the style of Okamoto's original, the ChimPom addition shows the smoking Daiichi nuclear plant.

Although the panel -- for which they did not have permission -- was swiftly removed, group leader Ryuta Ushiro insists it contributed to "renewing the history" of Japan and nuclear energy.

Ushiro rejects some Post 3/11 artists' view that there is a distinction between emotional and political responses to the disaster.

"When you try to create something, sharing one experience together, the action inevitably takes on a political aspect," he said.

"The issue is not really whether it is political or not, but whether it was made with the intention of communicating with other people."

A Japanese language news report on Kato's lighthouse project can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdyGJKo1qUg

ChinPom videos can be viewed at:

Murdoch slashes price for new Sunday tabloid

LONDON, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - Rupert Murdoch on Thursday fired the opening shot in his battle to reclaim Britain's Sunday newspaper market by announcing his newly launched publication would be half the price of his previous title.

The 80-year-old tycoon took to microblogging website Twitter to reveal: "Regular Sunday price for The Sun only 50p -- and Saturday's Sun going down to 50p too! Great news for readers and the economy."

Murdoch's News of the World -- the Sunday tabloid which shut seven months ago over the phone-hacking scandal -- cost one pound ($1.57, 1.18 euros), the same cover price as rivals the Sunday Mirror and The People.

The 50 percent price cut announced for The Sun on Sunday, which will hit the stands this weekend, signals the Australian-born businessman's hunger to once again own the top-selling Sunday newspaper.

The News of the World dominated the country's Sunday market with sales averaging 2.67 million when Murdoch took the decision to close it in July last year.

Publisher News International said the US-based mogul would be in London to oversee the launch this Sunday and confirmed that the editor of the weekday paper, Dominic Mohan, would also edit the Sun on Sunday.

Murdoch flew in to Britain last week to announce the creation of the new paper and to promise demoralised staff he would stand by them despite the arrest of senior Sun journalists over bribery allegations.

Microsoft founder urges digital revolution against hunger

ROME, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - Microsoft founder Bill Gates on Thursday called for a "digital revolution" to alleviate world hunger by increasing agricultural productivity through satellites and genetically-engineered seed varieties.

"We have to think hard about how to start taking advantage of the digital revolution that is driving innovation including in farming," the US billionaire philanthropist said in a speech at the UN rural poverty agency IFAD in Rome.

"If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture. We believe that it's possible for small farmers to double and in some cases even triple their yields in the next 20 years while preserving the land," Gates said.

He gave as one example of innovation the genetic sequencing that allows cassava farmers in Africa to predict how individual seedlings will perform, shortening the time it takes to develop a new variety from 10 years to two.

Another key development is the use of satellite technology developed by defence departments to document data about individual fields, as well as information videos of farmers discussing best practices to help others.

"If we don't do this, we'll have a digital divide in agriculture," he said.

Gates also defended the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the developing world and large-scale farm land investments by foreign states in the developing world -- both highly controversial issues in the aid community.

"You should go out and talk to people growing rice and say do they mind that it was created in a laboratory when their child has enough to eat?" he told reporters at a small media roundtable after his speech.

"The change in the way mankind lives over the last several hundred years is based on adoption of innovative practices and we simply haven't done enough for those in the greatest need to bring these things," he said.

On the issue of land investments that are referred to by their critics as "land grabbing", he said: "It's not actually possible to grab the land. People don't put it on boats and take it back to the Middle East.

"If we could have clear guidelines there could be more land deals and overall it could be very beneficial... The truth is the person who is most at risk on a land deal is the person who is putting the money in."

Gates also unveiled $200 million (150 million euros) in new grants from his foundation to finance research on a new type of drought-resistant maize, a vaccine to help livestock farmers and a project for training farmers.

"Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty," he said, adding that his charitable foundation had committed $2.0 billion for farmers and was working on seven crops and one livestock vaccine.

Gates called for a new system of "public scorecards" for developing countries and UN food agencies that would measure things like agricultural productivity, the ability to feed families and farmer education systems.

"It's something that can be pulled together over the next year," he said.

"When I meet with an African leader, I'd love to have that report card. I have a report card for health.... Without the scorecards, the donors tend to fund fad-oriented, short-term things," he told reporters.

The technology pioneer also criticised the work of the UN food agencies in Rome: the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD).

He said the current food and farming aid system was "outdated and somewhat inefficient" with a lot of "duplication."

For these organisations to go digital will take "a lot of time," he said.

Asked about the need for wider reforms of capitalism to help the poor, he said: "How do you get rid of its excesses, including the finance people who are paid these huge salaries, without hurting the beneficial things?"

He added: "I wish those Wall Street traders would have gone... and worked on maize and used their mathematical models to look at phenotype versus genotype.    

"It's clearly imperfect but it's the best system we have."


Singapore PM's brother seeks removal of online post

SINGAPORE, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - The Singapore prime minister's brother has demanded a political website to remove an allegedly defamatory online comment but the portal said Thursday it would put up a legal challenge.

Temasek Review Emeritus (TRE) said Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, had sent a "lawyer's letter" asking that the comment be deleted.

News reports said the younger Lee's lawyers are also asking for a written apology among other demands.

The move by the younger Lee -- the chairman of beverage firm Fraser and Neave -- came just days after Premier Lee demanded TRE to apologise for a post that alleged nepotism in the appointment of the premier's wife as head of a state investment company.

TRE removed the post, and apologised to prime minister Lee on Wednesday.

But the website's editorial team said the circumstances involving the younger Lee were different from that of the prime minister's, and the editors have sought legal advice from human rights lawyer M. Ravi.

In Premier Lee's case, TRE admitted it "made a serious error by allowing a defamatory article submitted by a contributor to be published", the editors said.

But in the younger Lee's case, the comment was left by a reader in reaction to an article published on the website late last month.

"When a complaint is received by TRE about a comment, TRE will normally comply and delete it," the website's editors said in a statement.

"However, Mr Lee Hsien Yang is making more demands than the normal demand of simply removing the offending comment. Acceding to all the demands of Mr Lee Hsien Yang will seriously make running TRE site difficult in future," it added.

"Hence, we are seeking legal counsel this time."

TRE did not say what the additional demands were, but news reports said they included publishing the particulars of the reader who wrote the comment and details about another website in which it had been cached.

Online political websites like the TRE have gained popularity as alternative news and opinion sources in Singapore, where the mainstream media is perceived to be pro-government.

Ravi told AFP he would write a reply after studying the demands, but noted that readers' reactions to articles are common online, including in websites  like Yahoo!.

International human rights groups have regularly criticised Singapore leaders including premier Lee and his father Lee Kuan Yew -- the city-state's founding prime minister -- for using financially ruinous libel suits to silence critics and political opponents.

Singapore leaders however have countered that the lawsuits are necessary to protect their reputation.

Milan lags behind in fashion's Internet revolution

MILAN, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - With social network sites and smartphone apps making rapid inroads into the fashion world, observers say Italy risks falling behind even as its luxury brands feel the pain from the economic crisis.

"Milan is always really ahead of everyone in fashion but behind everyone in technology," fashion blogger Olga Rink said outside the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week, as she took pictures of leggy models in goth-style outfits.

"I'm sure they will catch up eventually, but this isn't New York. Milan is slow, graceful. People here take their time," she said.

One of the must-have iPhone applications at the New York and London shows -- Fashion GPS Radar -- is only just starting up in Milan.

The app allows users to register for events and check in with a personal barcode and already has around 6,500 members.

"In Italy, they all prefer paper invitations," said Jennifer Jann, director of global marketing at the New York-based firm.

Salvo Testa, a professor in fashion management at Milan's Bocconi University, said Italy's top brands were catching up.

"They may have been slow to realise it, but social networks and blogs are now the biggest area of investment," Testa told AFP.

"Videos are being increasingly used to create a strong emotional link with the brand in a more viral and cheaper way than standard advertising."

In a nod to progressively high-tech generations, Prada this month released a clip called "Folding In Love" simulating a videogame in which a pair of sunglasses races through different galaxies before finding its soulmate.

And in a bizarre homage to the passion Miuccia Prada's creations can evoke in women, Miu Miu released a short film entitled "The Woman Dress", in which an unnerving Sapphic ritual transforms a drowned woman into a blood-red dress.

The high-fashion world has embraced the Internet and hundreds of thousands of fans of the biggest names in the business can now book front-row seats for catwalks online and order the latest outfits long before they reach the shops.

"The revolution has made it to the heart of the industry, brands now see the Internet as a powerful way to reach millions and build a loyal 'one-to-one' following," said Testa.

Online videos take viewers into the backstage world of the catwalks, while celebrities are captured wearing the latest creations and fans on Facebook are offered exclusive deals on designer perfumes or the soundtracks from shows.

"The models are in fittings. The invites sent. There's just one last thing to do. Take your virtual seat," Gucci told its  300,000 Twitter followers and six million Facebook fans before its show on Wednesday.

As brands increase their profile on social networks and chat forums, exploiting the "Internet word of mouth" phenomenon in expanding markets such as China, fashion fiends post photographs of their favourite pieces on blogs.

On up-and-coming websites such as Pinterest, bloggers build up dedicated followers of the latest fads, seeking to decide what to purchase where.

In a report on digital luxury last November, Italy's trade association Altagamma said blogs and social media are now setting trends more than fashion critics, with 50 percent of consumers using them for advice before buying.

Those wanting to get their hands on cutting-edge designs head to luxury fashion websites such as Net-a-Porter, mywardrobe.com and Gilt, which has flash sales offering 50 to 70 percent off high-end brands exclusively for members.

"Sales for luxury are growing through businesses like Net-a-Porter which offer luxury services. But to succeed in e-commerce they have to offer a little bit more," said Isabel Cavill, luxury expert with Planet Retail research group.

Moda Operandi, an online service founded by a former Gilt executive and a Vogue editor, allows members to purchase pieces from catwalk collections before they hit the shops and a year after its launch is now opening up to the public.

Testa said: "Fashion and luxury have finally left the 'Hall of Fame' of catwalks, celebrities and top journalists to build up relationships with real consumers."

China's Xi pleases crowd, gives little away on tour

BEIJING, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - Xi Jinping returned to Beijing on Thursday after a high-profile foreign tour that analysts say put a more human face on China's leader-in-waiting, but gave away little about his politics.

Xi, who is all but certain to be China's next president, attended a basketball game, cracked jokes and showed off his skills on the Gaelic football field during his visit to the United States, Ireland and Turkey.

The 10-day trip -- Vice President Xi's most high-profile role yet on the diplomatic stage -- was seen as an attempt to show a gentler side of China's leaders before a generational handover of power that starts later this year.

China's Internet population has exploded since current President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power nine years ago, and the next succession will take place under unprecedented scrutiny.

So far, Xi's reviews have been largely positive, both at home and abroad.

His host in the United States, Vice President Joe Biden, said the visit would "build a stronger relationship that benefits both our nations and our people."

In China, people took to weibos -- microblogs similar to Twitter -- to praise Xi's man-of-the-people approach, which was in stark contrast to the often stiff bearing of President Hu.

"Isn't it good," posted one under the name Linyunkezhan. "Leaders are humans, they shouldn't think that they are gods, or behave like them in public."

Another blogger, using the name Yiqishuoshuohua, described Xi as "easy, relaxed, and close to the people" -- an approach some attributed to his years spent toiling in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

But there was also scepticism about the carefully stage-managed visit, with many bloggers questioning whether Xi's down-to-earth manner was a genuine new approach or mere "hype" ahead of a leadership handover that starts this year.

"On a personal level, the trip was a success. It showed him to be quite spontaneous, he talked about his personal life and his love of movies," said Zheng Yongnian, politics professor at the National University of Singapore.

"He is quite popular with the people -- Chinese society is more open now, people don't always want to see leaders with a serious face.

"But when Hu and Wen came to power they also were popular. Popularity is not fixed," he added, referring to the outgoing president and prime minister, who have failed to enact the reforms that many hoped for when they came to power.

Zheng said Xi's family background -- his father was Xi Zhongxun, a communist revolutionary who fought alongside Mao Zedong -- and close military ties had given him a confidence in public that Hu has sometimes appeared to lack.

"He struck a good balance (in the United States). He defended China's position, but also came across as quite honest, for example on human rights, saying that China could do better," Zheng added.

Xi has received prominent coverage in China's state-run media, with large chunks of the main evening news bulletin given over to showing the vice-president's trip.

But political analyst Russell Leigh Moses said the coverage had followed the strict hierarchy of Chinese politics, with Xi playing second fiddle to the current leadership.

"The public at large is looking to be educated (about China's new leader), but it's not much more than that," he said.

"A lot of the presentation is to satisfy public curiosity, but how it plays in the party media is more important. There, the coverage has been positive but restrained."

Xi, 58, has been the clear front-runner to take over from Hu since his promotion to vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission in 2010.

If, as expected, he is named general secretary of China's ruling Communist Party when Hu steps down from that role later this year, he will take over as president -- a role that is traditionally held for a decade -- in 2013.

He is likely to face considerable challenges as China's rapid economic growth slows, raising the spectre of rising social unrest.

Like many senior Chinese officials, Xi has until recently had a relatively low profile, known more for his marriage to the well-known singer Peng Liyuan than for his political achievements.

Peng, who did not accompany Xi on his visit, has made few public appearances in recent months, possibly to avoid overshadowing her husband as he steps into the spotlight.

As an exercise in raising Xi's profile both at home and abroad, Zhu Feng, international relations professor at Peking University, judged his foreign tour to have been a success.

"He is recognised by American media, they know what kind of person he is, and that he is relatively relaxed in front of the media," said Zhu.

"He has managed to penetrate into the American public consciousness."

White House unveils 'one click' online privacy plan

WASHINGTON, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - The White House unveiled an online privacy proposal Thursday intended to allow Web users to easily opt out of being tracked on the Internet.

The "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" has received the backing of leading Internet companies and online advertising networks and would involve a simple "one click" setting on a Web browser, the White House said.

"American consumers can't wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy.

"That's why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important," Obama said. "For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure.

"By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policymakers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth," he said.

The White House said Internet firms and ad networks were committing to incorporate "Do Not Track" technology in most major Web browsers to make it easier for users to control online tracking.

"Companies that represent the delivery of nearly 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and AOL have agreed to comply when consumers choose to control online tracking," it said.

The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights comes on the heels of a number of privacy controversies involving some of the biggest actors on the Web, including Facebook and Google.

It has received the backing of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), a consortium of Internet, media and marketing trade associations and companies.

"Consumers will have a simple and clear mechanism in their browser to exercise choice," DAA counsel Stuart Ingis said.

"If a consumer elects not to have data collected on them under the principles laid out then that will be honored uniformally across all companies."

Ingis said the DAA will work with browser providers "to develop consistent language across browsers regarding this technology to make choice simple and clear."

White House deputy chief technology officer Daniel Weitzner said the "Do Not Track" option would be a "very easy, one click" setting on a Web browser.

Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz said companies that make a commitment to "Do Not Track" would be subject to Federal Trade Commission enforcement.

"It's great to see that companies are stepping up to our challenge to protect privacy so consumers have greater choice and control over how they are tracked online," Leibowitz said.

"The fact that they're going to honor the Web browser's choice of what we call a 'Do Not Track' header is simply going to give consumers more privacy options and that is critically important," he said.

The White House said the Commerce Department will begin holding talks with companies, privacy and consumer advocates, academics and others to develop privacy policies and practices based on the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

"We will be working with Congress to implement this through legislation," Commerce Secretary John Bryson said. "But we're moving forward regardless."

The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights calls for giving consumers control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it, clear privacy practices and secure and responsible handling of their data.

Consumers should also have a right to access and correct personal data and be able to expect that any information they provide will be used in ways that are consistent with the context in which they provided the data.

Beatles hits become mobile phone ringtones

SAN FRANCISCO, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - Hits from The Beatles have finally joined the chorus of ringtones available for mobile phones.

Catchy 30-second snippets from more than two dozen of the famed 1960s British rock band's top tunes are available exclusive at Apple's online iTunes shop, a message Wednesday at official website thebeatles.com.

"Fans around the world can, for the first time, purchase ringtones for the Beatles' 27 UK and US #1 hits, exclusively on iTunes," the message announced.

"You can even assign your favourite tracks to your favourite people," it continued.

The ringtones were priced at $1.29 each and could be downloaded for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices. The list of Beatles songs included "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Let It Be."

The Beatles arrived on iTunes in November of 2010 after what late Apple's Steve Jobs described at the time as "a long and winding road."

A decade had been spent getting the music of "Fab Four" -- Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- released in digital form for Apple's wildly popular mobile devices.

The vast catalog of Beatles hits had been held back for years from Internet download sites amid legal squabbles, although their songs have long circulated as unlicensed downloads available from unlicensed peer-to-peer networks.

US attorneys general pressure Google on privacy

SAN FRANCISCO, February 23, 2012 (AFP) - Attorneys general from across the United States urged Google on Wednesday to put the brakes on plans for a major change to its privacy policy.

The National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to Google chief executive Larry Page arguing that the new policy "appears to invade consumer privacy" by sharing personal information between services that people rely on.

Google announced the change to its terms of service in January, explaining that it will essentially "treat you as a single user across all our products" when it comes to use patterns tracked for targeting services, content or ads.

"Google's new privacy policy is troubling for a number of reasons," read the letter signed by attorneys general representing more than three dozen US states and territories.

"On a fundamental level, the policy appears to invade consumer privacy by automatically sharing personal information consumers input into one Google product with all Google products."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center two weeks ago asked a federal court to block Google from implementing the change on March 1 as planned and to direct the Federal Trade Commission to intervene.

The updated policy will make Google privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects a desire to create a "seamless experience for our signed-in users," Google said Wednesday in response to an AFP inquiry.

"We've undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google's history, and we're continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services," said a spokesman for the California-based company.

"Of course we are happy to discuss this approach with regulators globally."

People may have reasons to keep information such as Gmail use separate from Web surfing habits noticed by Google's search engine or Chrome browser software, the attorneys general maintained.

The letter was sent on the same day that California attorney general Kamala Harris announced an agreement with Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Hewlett-Packard and BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion to strengthen the privacy of people who use "apps" on smartphones or tablet computers.

The companies agreed to require applications made for mobile devices on their competing technology platforms to provide privacy policies if mini-programs collect personal information, according to Harris.

""This agreement strengthens the privacy protections of...millions of people around the globe who use mobile apps," Harris said.

"By ensuring that mobile apps have privacy policies, we create more transparency and give mobile users more informed control over who accesses their personal information and how it is used."

Microsoft files EC complaint against Motorola Mobility

WASHINGTON, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - Microsoft filed a complaint against Motorola Mobility with the European Commission on Wednesday, accusing it of seeking to block sales of Windows personal computers, Xbox game consoles and other products.

"In legal proceedings on both sides of the Atlantic, Motorola is demanding that Microsoft take its products off the market, or else remove their standards-based ability to play video and connect wirelessly," Microsoft deputy general counsel Dave Heiner said in a blog post.

"The only basis for these actions is that these products implement industry standards, on which Motorola claims patents," Heiner said.

"Motorola is on a path to use standard essential patents to kill video on the Web, and Google as its new owner doesn't seem to be willing to change course," he said.

US and European regulators gave the green light last week to Google's $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility and its trove of 17,000 patents.

Heiner said Motorola Mobility was violating a promise to make patents available on "fair and reasonable terms."

"Unfortunately, Motorola has refused to make its patents available at anything remotely close to a reasonable price," he said.

Afghan journalist beheaded: official

KHOST, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - An Afghan radio reporter was beheaded in the insurgency-plagued southeastern province of Paktika after being lured to a meeting by unidentified men, an official said Wednesday.

The body of Samid Khan Bahadarzai, 25, who worked for a local radio station in the town of Urgun, was found Tuesday night near his home just hours after he received the call.

"We are investigating to find out who is behind this brutal beheading, but he was killed after receiving a call by someone asking him out," provincial police chief Dawlat Khan Zadran told AFP.

Journalists have in the past been targeted by Taliban insurgents who objected to their reporting, but a Taliban spokesman told the Afghan Islamic Press news agency that it was not responsible for Bahadarzai's death.

"Mujahideen never kill journalists," said Zabiullah Mujahid. "The Taliban can resolve matters with the journalists by talking to them directly."

In 2007, Afghan reporter and interpreter Ajmal Naqshbandi was beheaded after being left behind when an Italian journalist hostage was freed by the Taliban.

Intense US questions early on over Fukushima

WASHINGTON, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - US officials voiced concern about a lack of information after Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster and issued a controversial warning not to go near the plant after intense discussions, transcripts showed.

Transcripts of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, released ahead of the one-year anniversary of the crisis, showed that US officials at times relied on information from the media as Japan initially declined assistance.

"We're getting various information from various sources, most of which is either conflicting or supporting the little bit of information that we actually have," Martin Virgilio, a senior official in charge of nuclear safety, said in one transcript shortly after the March 11 tsunami smashed into Fukushima.

Nuclear officials debated at length over a decision to urge Americans to stay out of the 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a wider no-go zone than that put in place by Japanese authorities.

"If this happened in the US, we would go out to 50 miles. That would be our evacuation recommendation," Bill Borchardt, the commission's executive director for operations, said in the transcripts.

The transcripts showed that the commission considered a larger evacuation if the situation deteriorated or the wind changed direction. Several European countries issued dire warnings and urged residents to leave Tokyo.

The no-go zone advice came as Nuclear Regulatory Commission's chairman, Gregory Jaczko, told a congressional committee on March 16 that Reactor No. Four's pool for spent fuel had dried, meaning its ability to keep cool was severely diminished and radiation would spike.

That assessment turned out to be inaccurate. The transcripts showed Jaczko had discussed the spent fuel pool with aides, knowing that he would be asked the question during his appearance on Capitol Hill.

"I'm going to say (the assessment) is from a team that is in Japan that is embedded that is working closely with the Japanese utility and the Japanese regulatory agency, is that correct?" Jaczko asked.

Senior officials replied in the affirmative, although one staff member -- apparently speaking when Jaczko was no longer on the conference call -- disputed the assessment.

Last year's earthquake set off a tsunami that left more than 19,000 people dead in Japan's worst post-World War II disaster. While the disaster crippled the Fukushima plant, the nuclear crisis has not directly claimed lives.


55 Boeing Dreamliners 'have potential' problem

SINGAPORE, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - Boeing said Wednesday around 55 of its flagship 787 Dreamliners "have the potential" to develop a fuselage shimming problem, but reiterated that the fault was being fixed.

Shims are used to fill in space between parts and industry publication Flightglobal has reported that improperly joined pieces had caused "parts of the aircraft's carbon fibre structure to delaminate".

The discovery of the issue in early February is the latest snag to hit the showpiece but troubled jet, which suffered extensive production delays.

"In all the airplanes that we built, up to airplane 55 in round numbers have the potential for the shimming issue," said the aviation giant's vice president Jim Albaugh at a media roundtable in Singapore.

"It's very fixable and we are in the process of fixing the airplanes that are in flow, there is not a safety or flight issue on the airplanes that we've delivered and this is a long term issue that has to be addressed," he added.

Boeing has previously said the problem arose because "incorrect shimming was performed on support structure on the aft fuselage" of some 787s.

Albaugh -- who is concurrently the chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes -- stated the problem would not impact total Dreamliner deliveries scheduled for this year.

"It's something that we can address in a short period of time. It will impact some short-term deliveries but in terms of the number of deliveries for the year, it shouldn't have any impact at all," he said.

Albaugh also said Boeing did not agree with European Union's imposition of its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), effectively charging airlines a carbon tax on travel within the region.

"I don't think the ETS approach is the right one," he said, describing it as "a carbon tax where you don't know where the money is going and you don't know if the money is going to be used in an efficient way".

"I really believe that the right approach is for the governments to tell us what the emissions standards are and we will use our money and we will spend that money wisely to come up with a way of addressing what those new requirements are," Albaugh added.

Boeing joins a growing chorus of airlines as well as countries including China, India, Russia and the US in decrying Europe's carbon tax scheme, saying it violates international law.

Albaugh said any softening in airplane demand if the global economy tanks as a result of European and US economic woes, would be an opportunity for Boeing to clear their backlog of orders, rather than a severe financial setback.

"We've got a backlog of 4,000 airplanes right now, we got a backlog of $300 billion. If there's a softening I really see it as an opportunity for us to burn that backlog down," he said.

Stem cell implants boost monkeys with Parkinson's

TOKYO, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - Monkeys suffering from Parkinson's disease show a marked improvement when human embryonic stem cells are implanted in their brains, in what a Japanese researcher said Wednesday was a world first.

A team of scientists transplanted the stem cells into four primates that were suffering from the debilitating disease.

The monkeys all had violent shaking in their limbs -- a classic symptom of Parkinson's disease -- and were unable to control their bodies, but began to show improvements in their motor control after about three months, Kyoto University associate professor Jun Takahashi told AFP.

About six months after the transplant, the creatures were able to walk around their cages, he said.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological illness linked to a decrease in dopamine production in the brain. There is currently no medical solution to this drop off in a key neurotransmitter.

The condition, which generally affects older people, gained wider public recognition when Hollywood actor Michael J. Fox revealed he was a sufferer.

Takahashi said at the time of the implant about 35 percent of the stem cells had already grown into dopamine neuron cells, with around 10 percent still alive after a year.

He said he wants to improve the effectiveness of the treatment by increasing the survival rate of dopamine neuron cells to 70 percent.

"The challenge before applying it to a clinical study is to raise the number of dopamine neuron cells we can implant and to prevent the development of tumours," he said.

Takahashi said so far he had used embryonic stem cells, which are harvested from foetuses, but would likely switch to Induced Pluripotent Stem cells, which are created from human skin, for the clinical trial.

Scientists say the use of human embryonic stem cells as a treatment for cancer and other diseases holds great promise, but the process has drawn fire from religious conservatives, among others.

Opponents say harvesting the cells, which have the potential to become any cell in the human body, is unethical because it involves the destruction of an embryo.

The Japanese government currently has no guidelines on the use of human stem cells in clinical research.

Website apologises to Singapore PM for nepotism post

SINGAPORE, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - A political website apologised Wednesday to Singapore's prime minister for a posting that alleged nepotism in the appointment of the premier's wife as head of a state-linked investment firm.

Temasek Review Emeritus -- well known for its anti-establishment articles -- said the article was without basis.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's lawyer had on Sunday written to the political website's editors demanding an apology and the removal of the post published on February 16.

"We unreservedly apologise to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the distress and embarrassment caused to him by this allegation," Richard Wan, one of the website's editors, said in an online post Wednesday.

"We admit and acknowledge that this allegation is false and completely without foundation," he added.

"We have removed the article and the comments in response to the article and undertake not to make any further allegation to the same or similar effect."

Wan also acknowledged information contained in the lawyer's letter which showed that Lee was not involved in the decision-making process to appoint his wife Ho Ching as the chief executive of state investment firm Temasek Holdings.

In his letter, Lee's lawyer Davinder Singh had said it was "publicly known" that Ho's appointment in January 2004 was made "on merit and through proper process".

Temasek Holdings is one of two Singapore state investment firms and had a portfolio worth Sg$193 billion ($153 billion) for the financial year ended March 31, 2011.

In a note that accompanied the formal apology, the website urged its readers to refrain from making similiar allegations, which it said would be deleted.

International human rights organisations have regularly criticised Singapore's leaders for using financially ruinous libel suits to silence critics and political opponents.

Singapore leaders however have countered that the lawsuits are necessary to protect their reputation.

Publications like The Economist, Bloomberg and Financial Times have previously paid damages and apologised to the Lee family for publishing similar allegations.

China manufacturing activity weakens in Feb: HSBC

BEIJING, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - China's manufacturing activity continued to contract in February as export orders weakened, HSBC said Wednesday, in a further sign that the eurozone crisis and US weakness are hurting demand.

HSBC's preliminary purchasing managers index rose to 49.7, the highest level in four months, from a final reading of 48.8 in January, the British banking giant said in a statement.

But while the figure marked an improvement it still remained below 50, indicating the sector is contracting. HSBC will release a final reading early next month.

"With a meaningful rebound of domestic demand not in sight, external weakness is starting to bite, adding more downside risks to growth," HSBC Chief Economist Qu Hongbin said.

Qu urged the government to step up efforts to ease credit restrictions, which would boost lending and spur activity in the export-driven economy.

On Saturday, China's central bank cut the reserve requirement ratio for banks, effectively increasing the amount of money they can lend, for the second time in three months as officials moved cautiously to open the credit valves.

The world's second largest economy expanded by an annual 9.2 percent last year, narrowing from 10.4 percent in 2010, and is widely expected to slow further this year, but most analysts do not expect to see a sharp reduction.

Beijing has pledged to "pre-emptively adjust and fine-tune" economic policy to prevent a hard landing that could trigger widespread job losses in the key manufacturing sector and trigger social unrest.

But policymakers will likely move slowly for fear of reigniting inflation, which reached a more than three-year high of 6.5 percent in July, and property prices, which have risen out of the reach of many ordinary Chinese.

Trademark row over Apple's iPad moves to Shanghai

SHANGHAI, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - A trademark dispute between Apple and a Chinese computer maker moved to Shanghai Wednesday, where the debt-laden plaintiff is seeking to stop the sale of the US giant's iconic iPad.

Proview Technology (Shenzhen) says it owns the Chinese rights to the "iPad" name and is asking the Shanghai court to order Apple to stop selling its trendy tablet computer in the city, where it has three stores.

Lawyers for both companies would exchange evidence at Wednesday's hearing and the Pudong District People's Court would then decide whether the case should proceed to trial, a court official told AFP.

The Shanghai case marks the latest round in a long-running and multi-pronged legal battle between Apple and Proview, which has been badly hit by the financial crisis, over the rights to the iPad name.

The Taiwan affiliate of Proview Technology (Shenzhen) registered "iPad" as a trademark in several countries including China as early as 2000 -- years before Apple began selling its product.

The US titan subsequently bought the rights for the global trademark, but Proview Technology (Shenzhen) claims the Taiwanese affiliate had no right to sell the Chinese rights.

Apple last year took the firm to a Chinese court, claiming trademark infringement, but the court ruled the US company lacked "supporting facts and evidence" for its claim -- even though a Hong Kong court had previously sided with Apple.

Apple is now appealing that case but Proview, which makes computer monitors, has itself filed trademark lawsuits against Apple in China and is threatening to sue the technology giant in the United States for $2 billion.

Proview's lawyer, Xie Xianghui, said Tuesday the company was preparing for talks with Apple, raising hopes for a settlement.

Xie's remarks came a day after Apple's law firm warned Proview of possible legal action over "defamatory statements and unlawful actions" aimed at interfering with Apple's business, according to a letter seen by AFP.

In another lawsuit, a Chinese court last week ordered an electronics chain store to stop selling Apple iPads at a branch in the southern city of Huizhou, according to the GH Law Firm which represented Proview.

Proview, based in China's southern boomtown of Shenzhen, has also filed complaints with local governments in several Chinese cities, resulting in seizures of iPads in at least two places.

Analysts expect the companies will eventually reach an out-of-court settlement.

"Apple has so much cash, they will look at the situation, they will look at how their profits are going to be impacted, and if it looks like it is going to be significant they will just pay and take care of it," said Ben Cavender, a senior analyst at China Market Research Group.

Shanghai dialect fights to survive in modern China

SHANGHAI, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - When professor Qian Nairong published his dictionary of the Shanghai dialect in 2007, he was in some ways documenting a dying language.

The number of people speaking the rapid-fire language -- a badge of identity for residents of China's commercial capital of more than 20 million people -- is shrinking.

As the government maintains a decades-old drive to promote Mandarin Chinese as the official language, banning dialects from media broadcasts and schools, many young people are unable to fluently speak the native Shanghai tongue.

An influx of migrants from outside Shanghai and the city's drive to become more international have also combined to water down the local patois.

"A language is like a living thing, after it gets old, it must die," said Qian, a retired professor of language studies at Shanghai University. "People born in the 1990s cannot really speak Shanghai dialect."

Shanghai is not alone. China's southern province of Guangdong has announced plans requiring broadcasters to get special permission to use the Cantonese dialect in programmes from March 1, causing a storm of controversy.

But there are signs that Shanghai's residents will not give up on their language that easily.

Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo has helped revitalise interest in the dialect with his witty routines, which often mock outsiders.

"The weakening of dialects means the weakening of local culture. Why must our children speak (Mandarin) Chinese? Shanghai people who cannot speak the Shanghai dialect. What stupidity!" he said on a talk show.

City buses have recently introduced announcements in Shanghainese, and there are plans for the metro system to follow suit to cater to older people, especially those with no formal education, who do not understand Mandarin.

Shanghai Airlines has just added an announcement about the city's attractions to market the unique features of Shanghai. But the airline had to train young flight attendants to pronounce the words.

Not long after the Communist Party took power in 1949, it made Mandarin Chinese the official language to promote unity.

The government has been unable to stamp out local dialects, but it has discouraged their use, barring them from the classroom in most cases.

Although millions of people -- mainly those aged from their 40s -- still speak the Shanghai dialect, the version Qian heard in the 1980s is now found only in the mouths of elderly people and in the city's distant suburbs.

Qian, 66, laments the disappearance of words and changes in pronunciation as Shanghainese borrows from dominant Mandarin.

"As soon as the sounds combine, a group of words change," he said.

Also lost to time are colourful curse words like "corpse floating on the river" and "ghost of an executed criminal" which were once common insults in the Shanghai dialect.

In the 1990s, the local government pulled radio and television broadcasts using the Shanghai dialect as part of a national campaign.

A popular Shanghai radio show "A Fu Gen" which featured discussions of current events was among the victims.

Xiao Ling, a host for the show, struggled for 10 years before a sympathetic official revived the programme.

Xiao is one of only two hosts at the radio station who have formal broadcast training in the Shanghai dialect.

Last year, the programme was forced to hold open auditions to find candidates with Shanghai language skills to fill open positions.

"My colleagues joke that we are giant pandas," said Xiao.

Shanghai's prestigious Tongji University organised a voluntary class in the dialect, after finding student volunteers were unable to communicate with elderly Shanghai people, teaching basic phrases like "nong hao" (hello).

Tongji also offers a class for foreign students.

"We thought it was good to have people from outside the organisation and even outside the school to join the class," organiser Shen Yiwen said.

Italian fashion designers look to China for salvation

MILAN, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - Italy's top designer brands are looking to China for salvation this year with revenues falling due to a debt crisis that has cast an air of gloom as Milan Fashion Week kicks off on Wednesday.

With Italians hurting from budget austerity and fears that an debt-laden Rome could follow Athens into the mire, the National Chamber of Fashion said the situation was "worse than in 2008" when the global financial crisis began.

Italian fashion's hopes that last year's revenue trend -- up 5.5 percent from 2010 -- could be sustained, were dashed last week when the industry forecast a 5.2-percent drop for 2012 to 60.2 billion euros ($79 billion).

Revenues went down 4.0 percent in 2008 and a record 15 percent in 2009.

"It has become essential to focus attention on Asian and American markets," said Mario Boselli, head of the chamber which organises fashion week.

In fact, bleak results in Italy are being offset largely by gains in non-European countries, particularly in Russia, Hong Kong, Korea and China.

"The situation is dramatic. The Italian market is a disaster, just like the French market. No one is buying anything! In Europe, there is a real crisis," said a manager at a top fashion house who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Milan has responded accordingly: for the first time buyers attending the shows and fashionistas unable to attend the whirlwind of parties this year will have access to the fashion chamber's website in a Chinese language version.

Seventy-two fashion houses take their autumn-winter 2012 collections to the catwalks in palaces, monuments and parks across the city until Monday.

The show opens its doors with Gucci on Wednesday, followed by Prada and Fendi on Thursday, Versace on Friday, Jil Sander and Bottega Veneta on Saturday, Missoni and Dolce & Gabbana on Sunday and Giorgio Armani on Monday.

"This year will be complex and full of uncertainty, while 2011 was positive overall," said Silvio Albini, the head of the international textile association Milano Unica, adding that there were already signs of a slowdown in orders.

"This is a time for our companies to have a global vision and to focus on exports to countries where the values of Made in Italy count a lot," he said.

Albino said Italian textile imports by China went up 27.2 percent in 2011.

Fashion giant Gucci in particular has been performing so well in Asia that it buoyed up the 2011 results for the French luxury group PPR which owns it.

PPR last week posted a net profit up 2.3 percent to 986 million euros in 2011 with revenues up 11.1 percent, and the group said it was "very optimistic" that Gucci would continue to perform well in Asia and sales would increase.

Exposure to the higher-margin retail business in Asia also boosted profits at Salvatore Ferragamo. Revenues for the Italian house, which listed on the Milan stock exchange last year, climbed 26.2 percent to 986.5 million euros.

With the exception of tsunami and earthquake-hit Japan, the group posted a growth in revenue close to or higher than 30 percent in every region, while the fashion house's retail chain registered a vast 44 percent jump in China.

A wealth of brands are expanding in the region, including Armani, Roberto Cavalli and Jil Sander, which has just opened a new branch in China.

Versace has even come up with a jewelled handbag with hand-painted golden dragons on the side panels in honour of the 2012 Year of the Dragon.

"China's retail market will grow at a rate of 14 percent in 2012 and 2013, and luxury retail will grow at an even higher rate of 20 percent over the same period," said Isabel Cavill, luxury expert with Planet Retail research group.

"China is the most tangible emerging market for growth, we're talking about major investments where brands are prepared to set up stores in Hong Kong despite incredibly high rental rates for shops," she said.

Murdoch tweets support for Scotland independence

LONDON, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch on Tuesday appeared to throw his weight behind Scotland's independence bid, a move welcomed by Scottish First Minister and pro-independence campaigner Alex Salmond.

The News Corporation chief, who is in London for the launch of The Sun on Sunday weekly newspaper, used micro-blogging site Twitter to urge: "Let Scotland go and compete. Everyone would win."

On Sunday, the Australian-born mogul tweeted that Salmond was "clearly most brilliant politician in UK" who was "loved by Scots."

Scottish National Party head Salmond called Tuesday's message "a very interesting eight words".

"We are in a debate in Scotland and internationally about Scotland's future and I welcome all contributions to that debate, including Mr Murdoch's," he added.

A spokesman for the minister confirmed Salmond had held a telephone conversation with Murdoch earlier on Tuesday in which they discussed Murdoch's new paper and his Twitter comments.

British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed in a speech in the Scottish capital Edinburgh last Thursday that he would to fight to keep the United Kingdom intact as Scotland's leaders push for a referendum in 2014 on independence.

Later, Cameron held his first talks about the referendum with Salmond, but the British premier said they had made little progress.

Cameron described the discussions as "constructive", but told BBC television: "On the issue of independence, separating Scotland, leaving the United Kingdom, I am afraid there wasn't much progress."

The Scottish and UK governments disagree on a number of referendum issues, including who has the legal authority to organise a vote.

The Edinburgh government is open to including a second question on the ballot paper, asking people if they want more powers for the Scottish parliament but stopping short of independence.

In his speech, Cameron conceded that Scotland could go it alone if its people so wished.

Opinion polls show that only a third of Scots currently back independence.

Salmond has pushed for a referendum since May 2011, when the SNP won the first majority in the Edinburgh parliament since the assembly was formed in 1999.

The Scottish government already has powers over some policy areas, but defence, energy and foreign affairs remain with London.

Murdoch, 80, flew in to Britain last week to announce the creation of the new Sun publication and to promise demoralised staff he would stand by them despite the arrest of senior journalists over bribery allegations.

The Sun on Sunday's launch comes seven months after Murdoch closed sister paper News of the World in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

BlackBerry PlayBook gets new engine in tablet race

SAN FRANCISCO, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - Research In Motion on Tuesday released a long-overdue new operating system for its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer in the hope of gaining ground in a market led by Apple and Android gadgets.

PlayBook OS 2.0 software, available as a free download, comes just shy of a year later than it was originally slated for release by the Canada-based company.

The new PlayBook engine adds email, calendar and other productivity-related capabilities to the tablets.

"The new BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0 introduces a range of new communications and productivity enhancements as well as expanded app and content support," said RIM senior vice president David Smith.

Freshly-installed RIM chief executive Thorsten Heins said last month that he planned to focus more on the consumer market but that a "drastic change" is not necessary at the struggling BlackBerry maker.

RIM in October set out to rev up its BlackBerry and PlayBook lines with a tactic from Apple's winning playbook -- sexy, entertaining software applications.

Known for serious, work handsets as compared to sleek Apple or Android smartphones tailored for Internet-on-the-go lifestyles, RIM used a developers conference in San Francisco to showcase game applications for its devices.

RIM is also working on a new BBX software platform that it said will provide a powerful new platform for developers for programs that focus on anything from work to games.

Heins took over RIM, which has been losing market share to Apple's iPhone and handsets powered by Google's Android platform, in January from co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie.

RIM shares were up 0.66 percent at $15.17 in mid-day trading on Wall Street.

Barnes & Noble unveils $199 Nook Tablet

NEW YORK, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - US bookseller Barnes & Noble unveiled a new version of its Nook tablet computer Tuesday, a device with the same $199 price tag as Amazon's Kindle Fire.

The seven-inch (17.78-centimeter) Nook Tablet also has eight gigabytes of memory like the tablet released by online retail giant Amazon in November.

Apple's cheapest iPad costs $499. Barnes & Noble released a $249 Nook Tablet with 16 gigabytes of memory in November.

Barnes & Noble also said it was slashing the price of its Nook Color electronic book reader to $169 from the current $199.

The New York-based bookseller also announced its fiscal third-quarter results on Tuesday.

The company said its net profit fell to $52 million in the quarter compared to $60.6 million in the same quarter a year ago. Revenue was up five percent at $2.4 billion in the quarter which ended on January 28.

"Our physical book sales at our stores increased more than four percent over last year," Barnes & Noble chief executive William Lynch said in a statement.

"Our Nook digital content business continues to grow rapidly," Lynch added. "According to some of the largest US publishers, we maintained or slightly gained share in the e-book market during the third quarter."

Barnes & Noble said sales of digital content and Nook tablets and e-readers rose 38 percent during the quarter to $542 million.

Browser bypasses put Google in privacy cross hairs

SAN FRANCISCO, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - Privacy advocates, lawyers and powerful rival Microsoft were piling on Google on Tuesday for sidestepping Web browsing software to tailor ads for people signed into its online services.

The California-based Internet giant continued to staunchly defend itself meanwhile against accusations that it had put profit ahead of privacy.

Controversy ignited last week after it was revealed that Google ad-targeting "cookies" bypassed track-blocking software on Apple's Web browser for iPhones and computers was fanned by Microsoft saying Internet Explorer was likewise duped.

By Tuesday a suit was filed in US federal court demanding Google pay unspecified damages for violating the privacy of millions of people, and potentially national anti-wiretapping law.

Some researchers, however, said lashing out at Google did little to resolve a contradiction underpinning the complex situation -- people want free online services that know them but Web surfing that remains anonymous.

Snippets of code called "cookies" from Google and three online ad specialty firms slipped past tracker-blocking safeguards on Apple's Safari browser, Stanford University graduate student Jonathan Mayer said Friday in a blog post.

Microsoft on Monday said that a check showed that Google was bypassing anti-tracking mechanisms built into the Redmond, Washington-based technology titan's Internet Explorer (IE) Web browsing software.

"Google is employing similar methods to get around the default privacy protections in IE and track IE users with cookies," IE corporate vice president Dean Hachamovitch said in a blog post.

"Given this real-world behavior, we are investigating what additional changes to make to our products," he said.

Google fired back at Microsoft, saying that the company has known for years that the IE cookie blocking technique thwarted the functionality of modern websites such as Facebook and Amazon and that bypassing it was common practice.

"Instead of fixing (a) P3P loophole in IE that Facebook and Amazon exploited ...Microsoft did nothing," privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian said in a Twitter post, referring to IE's way of having cookies identify themselves.

"Now they complain after Google uses it."

Researcher Lauren Weinstein in a post at social network Google+ referred to Microsoft's complaint as seeming "disingenuous at best, and certainly is not helping to move the ball usefully forward regarding these complex issues."

Whether calculated or innocent, Google's sidestepping of privacy features on browsers raised alarms with consumer rights groups and has already prompted a call for an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission.

Google discontinued use of the offending cookies in Safari browsers after Mayer's findings went public, and characterized the situation as an unintended side-effect of an effort to safeguard online privacy.

Google last year began using cookies in Safari browsers to let people signed into Google accounts get personalized services, such as being able to "+1" ads or other online content as likeable for friends at its online social network.

The plan was purportedly to provide users personalization requested while disclosing no information about them to Google-owned ad specialty firm DoubleClick.

Google reportedly did not realize was the presence of the cookies opened Safari browser doors to a slew of DoubleClick ad tracking cookies, which would otherwise have been rejected.

"The Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser," the California company said in a released statement.

"We didn't anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers," it continued.

Safari is the most widely used browser on mobile devices and the default browser on iPhones and Macintosh computers. The Apple browsers are pre-set to block tracking cookies.

Megaupload boss 'relieved' to get bail in N.Zealand

AUCKLAND, February 22, 2012 (AFP) - Megaupload boss Kim Dotcom said Wednesday he was relieved to be granted bail in New Zealand after spending a month behind bars amid fears he would flee the country to escape US online piracy charges.

"I'm relieved to go home and see my family, my three little kids and my pregnant wife," he told reporters in Auckland after a judge overturned two previous rulings that the Internet millionaire was an "extreme flight risk".

The bail decision is a setback for US authorities, who are seeking to extradite Dotcom and three others arrested when New Zealand police cooperating with a major US probe raided his Auckland mansion on January 20.

Two previous bail hearings had accepted the prosecution case that the Internet millionaire was an "extreme flight risk" because he had the wealth and possible criminal connections to slip out of the country if he wanted.

But judge Nevin Dawson said the danger of Dotcom fleeing had diminished because all his funds had been seized and investigators had not uncovered any new bank accounts or assets in his name since his arrest.

"It would seem that he has every reason to stay to be with his family and to fight to keep his significant assets," Dawson said.

Dotcom, who allegedly earned $42 million from his Internet business in 2010 alone, declined to comment on his case, aside from saying his treatment by New Zealand police "resembled an audition for American Idol."

The US Justice Department and FBI allege Megaupload and related sites netted more than $175 million in criminal proceeds and cost copyright owners over $500 million by offering pirated copies of movies, TV shows and other content.

Megaupload was founded in 2005 but shut down last month when its assets were frozen as part of the US probe.

Malaysia blocks British sex education book

KUALA LUMPUR, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - Malaysia has ordered bookstores to stop selling a children's sex education book by a British author over concerns it could "corrupt people's minds" in the conservative Muslim-majority country.

Malaysia's Home Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that bookstores were no longer allowed to sell "Where did I come from?" by Peter Mayle pending a review.

Abdul Rahim Mohamad Radzi, a senior ministry official, said in the statement that the book would be banned "if it is proven to contain elements harmful to public morals and corrupt people's minds".

"The ministry has obtained the cooperation of book sellers around the country to immediately stop sales until the review is completed and a decision is made," he said.

The ministry did not specify how long the review would take or how many copies were in circulation.

The illustrated book aims to help parents explain to children such topics as sex, conception and birth, according to a book preview on online retailer Amazon.

Malaysia regularly bans publications, especially those touching on sex and religion.

Sex and sexuality are seen as taboo, while authorities are also on the lookout for interpretations of Islam that they consider stray from the mainstream.

Google signs deal to show real time London stock prices

LONDON, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - London Stock Exchange Group said Tuesday that it had signed a deal with Google to show real time prices of shares traded in London and Milan on the US group's website free of charge.

The London Stock Exchange Group, which operates the London Stock Exchange and Italy's Borsa Italiana, said Google users would be able to access the prices without delays of 15 minutes.

"This partnership between LSEG and Google is great news for retail investors across the globe," LSEG head of real time data Jarod Hillman said in a statement.

"For the first time Google users will have access to free, real time ... prices, allowing them to make more informed investment decisions."

No financial details of the deal were disclosed.

Yahoo! seeks to avoid Indian lawsuit over content

NEW DELHI, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - Internet giant Yahoo! on Tuesday applied to be removed from a lawsuit lodged in an Indian court against social networking sites hosting allegedly offensive content.

More than 20 Internet firms, including Google and Facebook, have been named in the case, which follows meetings between government ministers and the companies over material seen as offending Muslims or defaming politicians.

Yahoo! was made part of the lawsuit "on the patently mistaken assumption that it is a social networking website", lawyers for the company said in a district court hearing in Delhi.

The lawyers added there was "no cause of action" against Yahoo!, and described the case, which has been brought by a member of the public, as "a complete abuse of the process of law".

Telecoms Minister Kapil Sibal has pressurised global Internet firms to crack down on offensive material but he has denied accusations of censorship, saying they only had to obey the same rules governing the press.

Google and Facebook said earlier this month that they had removed allegedly offensive content used as evidence in court.

The groups have appealed to the Delhi High Court asking for cases against them to be quashed on the basis they cannot be held responsible for their clients' actions.


Development-weary Singaporeans back 'Green Corridor'

SINGAPORE, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - The air is crisp and sunlight filters softly through foliage punctuated by pink and yellow flowers as birds and crickets supply the soundtrack for joggers, cyclists and nature lovers.

It's hard to believe you're in one of the world's most densely populated countries when you're standing in the middle of former railroad land in the heart of Singapore.

A winding stretch of lush greenery runs from the shadows of skyscrapers in the financial district to the border with Malaysia, all that's left of an old railway taken over by Singapore from its neighbour in mid-2011.

Now popularly known as the "Green Corridor", the 25-kilometre (16-mile) zone runs from north to south like a spine and is the focus of a citizens' campaign to create a sanctuary for nature -- and development-weary Singaporeans.

But whether or not the government can resist the urge to develop parts of the swathe of land is another matter.

Liew Kai Khiun, an academic involved in heritage work, said the future of the railway land has become an important issue for many Singaporeans.

"Other than merely nostalgia, these concerns actually reflect the undercurrent desires by more Singaporeans for more stability, ownership and continuity in a country that they would like to call home instead of an exploitable asset," he said.

The railway land cuts through old religious shrines, graffiti-decorated bridges, community gardens and neighbourhoods where about a fifth of Singapore's five million people live, according to Leong.

Malaysia and Singapore separated in 1965 but the railroad, built earlier in the century during British colonial rule, remained in Malaysian hands for 46 years as the two countries sorted out a raft of issues.

This shielded the railroad zone from development until it came under Singapore's control last year.

The former main terminal in downtown Singapore, an art deco structure erected in the 1930s and sitting on prime land, is to be preserved as a national monument.

Train services from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur now run from a modern terminal at the border area.

Avid nature and heritage groups are now calling for the rest of the railway land inside Singapore to be converted into recreational spaces and nature reserves instead of more shopping malls, apartments and industrial zones.

"This area is very rich in terms of flora and fauna, especially bird life, there are easily about a hundred species," said Leong Kwok Peng, 55, vice president of the Nature Society of Singapore.

Property analysts said it would be difficult to put a commercial value to the railway land, which runs through some of the priciest real estate in Singapore, until official policy is made clear.

All but two kilometers of the former railway are currently open to the public, a preserved rural zone welcomed by city dwellers.

Singapore is one of the world's most densely populated countries, with 7,257 people per square kilometre (18,796 per square mile).

"It becomes a countryside, a backyard to all these residents. There is a mix of wild vegetation and informal community gardening by the residents, which is very pleasant," the Nature Society's Leong said of the old rail line.

Together with allies like architects and cycling groups, Leong proposed the preservation of the corridor to the government in October 2010 when the handover of the railway land was already a certainty.

Leong likened it to New York's High Line project, saying the movement to preserve the Green Corridor in Singapore was a "bottom-up" approach launched by citizens.

The High Line is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan's West Side. It is owned by the City of New York but and maintained and operated by the community.

Singapore is noted for its tree-lined, manicured coastal highway from the airport to the city -- but Liew said military reservations and golf courses are counted as part of "green spaces" on the island.

The government tends to emphasise "manicured and sculptured green spaces rather than natural vegetation," Liew said.

Citizens' calls for the preservation of the Green Corridor through social media, later amplified in the traditional media, have had an impact on public policy, but the government refuses to rule out future development.

"We will study the proposal of maintaining a continuous green link along the rail corridor while balancing the need to safeguard the development potential of the lands," the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) told AFP.

The URA, Singapore's land-use planning agency, has launched a competition with cash prizes for the best ideas on what to do with the land in the long term.

Ian Krempl, a 23-year-old Singaporean park ranger, is relieved he no longer has to watch out for trains when he goes cycling in the corridor and hopes the land will not be redeveloped like the rest of the island.

"Everywhere in Singapore is paved already. We should keep the heritage," he said.

Myanmar to consider ASEAN poll monitors

YANGON, February 21, 2012 (AFP) - Myanmar has promised to "seriously consider" allowing Southeast Asian observers for by-elections marking the opposition's return to mainstream politics, the ASEAN regional bloc said Tuesday.

The April 1 polls, which will see Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stand for a seat in parliament for the first time, are viewed as a key test of the military-backed government's commitment to budding reforms.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said in a statement that Myanmar President Thein Sein made the pledge to its visiting Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan during talks in the capital Naypyidaw.

"We will seriously consider having observers from ASEAN ... during the April elections," Thein Sein was quoted as saying.

A 2010 election which swept the army's political allies to power was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and intimidation.

Foreign election observers and international media were not allowed into the country for that vote, which was denounced by Suu Kyi's opposition party and Western powers as lacking legitimacy.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party held a news conference on Monday to warn that the fairness of the April vote was also under threat because it was being denied the use of suitable venues for campaign rallies.

But just hours later the NLD said the authorities had eased the restrictions in a turnaround it described as "very significant."

The opposition cannot threaten the ruling party's majority even if it takes all 48 available seats in the by-elections, but a Suu Kyi win would lend legitimacy to the fledgling parliament.

The NLD won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then-ruling junta never allowed the party to take power.

Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time. She was released from her latest stint in detention a few days after the 2010 vote.

Suu Kyi's decision to stand for a seat in parliament is the latest sign of dramatic change taking place in the country formerly known as Burma after the end last year of nearly half a century of outright military rule.

The regime has surprised observers with reforms including welcoming the NLD back into the political mainstream, signing ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.

The upcoming polls are being held to fill places vacated by those who have since become government and deputy ministers.

The new military-backed government, which is dominated by former generals, assured visiting top EU officials last week that the vote would be democratic.

Western nations are now considering further easing sanctions, adding to hopes of an end to decades of isolation, but controversy surrounding the 2010 vote means the upcoming by-elections will be heavily scrutinised.