Friday, 8 January 2016

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it was disturbed by reports that five Hong Kong booksellers critical of China's leaders had disappeared.

Lee Bo, 65, a shareholder of Causeway Bay Books and a British passport holder, went missing from Hong Kong last week, though his wife has said he voluntarily traveled to China and has withdrawn a missing person report.

Four other associates of the publisher that specializes in selling gossipy political books on China's Communist Party leaders have been unaccounted for since late last year.

The disappearances, and China's silence, have stoked concerns that they were abducted by mainland agents in shadowy tactics that erode the "one-country, two-systems" formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its 1997 return to China.

“We are disturbed by reports of the disappearances," U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular news briefing. "We share the concern of the people of Hong Kong regarding these disappearances."

He said the United States was closely following the issue and noted a Jan. 4 statement by Hong Kong's chief executive expressing concern about the potential implications of this case. "We share those concerns,” he said.

On Wednesday, Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said any abduction of people from Hong Kong to face charges elsewhere would be an "egregious breach" of Beijing's promises on how it would rule the former British colony.

He said that after a two-day visit to Beijing there had been "no progress" on determining the booksellers' whereabouts, after raising the case with Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday that China opposes "any foreign country interfering with China's domestic politics, or interfering with Hong Kong affairs."

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mohammad Zargham)

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" soared past "Avatar" on Wednesday to become the top-grossing movie of all time in North America, the Disney studio announced.

Disney said the seventh film in the "Star Wars" saga had grossed $758.2 million through Tuesday, when it took in $8 million, and surpassed on Wednesday the $760.5 million earned by James Cameron's Oscar-winning futuristic sci-fi epic "Avatar."

"This afternoon, with early box office results in, 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' became the highest-grossing film of all time in the domestic market," Disney said in a statement, without providing figures.

The company thanked its fans for helping it reach the milestone saying that without them "there is no Star Wars."

"There has indeed been an awakening -- and it's all thanks to you," it said.

At $1.56 billion in global earnings, "The Force Awakens" still has some work ahead to overtake "Avatar" ($2.79 billion) or another Cameron blockbuster, "Titanic" ($2.19 billion).

It is now fourth in all-time worldwide revenues, also trailing "Jurassic World" ($1.67 billion).

But many observers expect the film ultimately to challenge for the top spot.

"'Star Wars' has always been one of the most beloved franchises in all of was just a matter of finally having a deserving sequel to the original trilogy that tipped the scales and topped 'Avatar,'" said Jeff Bock, of industry tracker Exhibitor Relations.

The upcoming release on Saturday in the huge Chinese market of the film directed by J.J. Abrams could help give it a further push to warp speed.

The success of "The Force Awakens" -- detailing the adventures of classic "Star Wars" characters Princess Leia and Han Solo as well as new heroes like Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron -- helped propel the overall American box office to a record $11.1 billion last year, the Rentrak website reported.

Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York, said the hype and marketing surrounding the latest "Star War" had helped ensure its success but so was the fact that it is a good movie.

"Had the film been a disappointment, the numbers after the first weekend would have been a very different story," he told AFP. "My prediction is that Avatar will retain its global crown, but I could certainly be wrong on that."

Disney, which purchased Lucasfilm from "Star Wars" creator George Lucas for $4 billion in 2012, plans two more films in the space saga and a spinoff.

James Cameron is also planning three sequels to "Avatar," which should ensure that the two franchises will continue battling it out for the top spot at the box office.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

New Zealanders began voting Friday to select a potential new flag as the South Pacific country considers dropping Britain's Union Jack from its national banner.

Voters are being asked to choose between five flag options in a postal referendum that will continue until December 11.

The winning design will then go head-to-head with the existing flag in a second referendum to be held in March next year.

Prime Minister John Key has made the flag reform issue a pet project since his conservative government won a third term late last year.

He sees the current flag, with the Union Jack in the corner, as an anachronism, arguing the country needs a standard "that screams New Zealand".

Key has also expressed frustration the flag -- which features four red stars representing the Southern Cross on a dark blue background -- is frequently confused with Australia's.

Four of the five designs in the first referendum feature the fern, the informal national emblem.

The fifth, dubbed "Red Peak", consists of red, black and blue triangles with a white chevron. It was a late addition to the line up after a social media campaign for its inclusion.

An opinion poll last month predicted a design featuring a white fern on a red and blue background would win the first referendum.

But separate polling suggests the existing flag is likely to decisively win the second referendum in March with about 65 percent of the vote.

The present flag came into use in 1901, mainly because of New Zealand's patriotic fervour over sending soldiers to fight in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.

New Zealand was once part of the British Empire, and although it is now independent, Queen Elizabeth II remains head of state. However, her power is seen as largely symbolic, with many considering the monarchy itself as a colonial relic.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- A Carnegie Mellon University student who hoped to sell enough malicious software to infect 450,000 Google Android smartphones pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal law meant to prevent hacking of phones and computers.

But how many phones were actually infected by Morgan Culbertson's malicious creation remained a mystery after his court appearance before a federal judge in Pittsburgh. Infected phones could be remotely controlled by others and used to spy and secretly take pictures without the phone owner's knowledge, as well as to record calls, intercept text messages and otherwise steal information the owners downloaded on the devices.

Culbertson, 20, of Churchill, faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines when he's sentenced Dec. 2. But he'll likely face probation or a short prison term under sentencing guidelines that will take into account his lack of a criminal record.

Culbertson is one of 12 people charged by U.S. authorities, and the fourth to plead guilty so far, in the worldwide takedown of the cybercriminal marketplace.

A total of 70 people have been targeted for allegedly using the cybercriminal marketplace where hackers bought and sold malicious software, and otherwise advertised schemes to infect computers and cellphones with software that could cripple or illegally control the devices.

"I committed the crime, so I am responsible," Culbertson told Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill Jr. on Tuesday and apologized to those whose phones were affected by the malware.

"I understand what I did was wrong and I take full responsibility," Culbertson said. "I would like in the future to use may skills to help protect people."

Culbertson said he has taken a leave of absence from Carnegie Mellon, where he's completed his sophomore year. He previously interned for a cybersecurity firm in California's Silicon Valley.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jimmy Kitchen said Culbertson worked online with a man identified only as "Mike from the Netherlands" to create Dendroid, the malware that was secretly linked to Android phone apps available for purchase through Google Play.

Culbertson developed the "binder" - or computer code used to hide Dendroid on the apps - with another unidentified man, then "bought out" Mike's share of the operation and planned to sell 200 to 300 copies of the malware on for $400 a copy, Kitchen said.

Culbertson expected each person who bought Dendroid would be able to infect about 1,500 phones with it, or 300,000 and 450,000 phones total.

Culbertson also tried to sell the "source code" that would enable others to make their own copies of Dendroid for $65,000 and at an online auction for $10,000, but defense attorney Emily McNally said that never happened.

Kitchen wouldn't say how many Dendroid copies Culbertson actually sold.

McNally said Culbertson personally used a copy to infect and control about two dozen phones, though some of those were Culbertson's and were controlled for testing how Dendroid worked.

She and Culbertson declined comment after the hearing.

Beijing (AFP) - Usain Bolt and fierce rival Justin Gatlin eased into the 200 metres semi-finals as middle distance greats David Rudisha and Genzebe Dibaba blazed to gold at the world championships on Tuesday.

Bolt, the biggest name in athletics, returned to the Beijing track two days after pipping Gatlin to retain his world 100m title, and won his 200m heat in an easy 20.28 seconds. Gatlin topped his heat in 20.19.

Sweat dripping from his beard on a humid evening, Bolt then icily shrugged off the threat of two-time doping offender Gatlin in his favourite event.

"It actually means more to me than the 100m," said the world record holder, who recovered from pelvic trouble just in time to deliver positive headlines after allegations of widespread doping engulfed the sport.

"I'm feeling tired and my legs are sore -- just from the fact it was an up and down season. Hopefully I can get my technique right and give it my best in the final," added Bolt, who returns to the Bird's Nest for Wednesday's semis with the final scheduled for Thursday.

Joining the heavyweights in the semi-finals was 16-year-old Japanese schoolboy Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, who clocked 20.35 behind Gatlin.

"It's just a dream to be here," said Sani Brown, who was ordered by his Japanese mother to choose track over football when he was in elementary school. "I don't know if I can reach the finals but I think I can go faster," added the youngster, whose father is Ghanaian. "I'll give it everything."

Long jumper Greg Rutherford won a third gold medal for Britain on day four of the competition, launching himself to a season's best of 8.41 metres to add a world title to his Olympic, European and Commonwealth crowns.

"It's unbelievable," said Rutherford. "It's just the most incredible thing. I've been dreaming of this for a long time. I can't believe I've done this."

Australian Fabrice Lapierre took silver with 8.24m as home favourite Wang Jianan claimed bronze after leaping 8.18 to bring the house down in Beijing.

- Olympic replay -

Along with Rutherford's gold, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill have also claimed world titles in Beijing, in the 10,000m and heptathlon, mirroring the trio's feats on the same fever-pitch night at the London Olympics in 2012.

Rudisha stormed to a second world title in the men's 800 metres, meanwhile, after running a typically masterful race in sapping conditions, taking Kenya to the top of the gold medal standings with four after Nicholas Bett's earlier victory in the 400m hurdles.

The Olympic champion and world record holder led from gun to tape, clocking one minute, 45.84 seconds with Poland's Adam Kszczot taking silver in 1:46.08 and Bosnian Amel Tuka the bronze in 1:46.30.

Hot favourite Dibaba oozed class as she won the women's 1,500m title with another sumptuous performance, the Ethiopian finishing strongly in 4:08.09 under the floodlights at a packed Bird's Nest stadium.

Kenya's Faith Kipyegon came home in second in 4:09.96 with Ethiopian-born Sifan Hassan third for the Netherlands in 4:09.34.

"I had a lot of confidence in this race because I told myself: you are the world record holder," said Dibaba, who last month ran 3:50.07 to shatter the world best set in 1993 by China's Qu Yunxia, a product of controversial coach Ma Junren.

"I knew all my rivals in this race and everything about them so I was very confident in the last 400 metres."

There was a first gold medal for Cuba as Denia Caballero won the women's discus, while on the track and somewhat overshadowed by the Usain Bolt show, American Allyson Felix qualified quickest for Thursday's women's 400m final in a season's best of 49.89.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

AFP News - Oscar-nominated US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old at 37 to play the lover of a 55-year-old man, she said in comments published Thursday which went viral online.

"There are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time," she said in an interview with TheWrap Magazine.

"I'm 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad and then it made feel angry, and then it made me laugh."

The remarks immediately trended on Twitter and Facebook, with commenting that the incident "lays bare just how delusional and hilariously sexist Hollywood truly is."

Earlier this month the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called for government action to confront "widespread exclusion of women directors" in the US film and television industries.

In letters to federal and California state civil rights authorities, it said women directors face "a systematic pattern and practice of discrimination and exclusion" that cannot be allowed to stand.

In 2014, it said, women accounted for only seven percent of directors on the year's top 250 grossing films, down two percentage points from 1998. Gyllenhaal, the older sister of actor Jake Gyllenhaal, was nominated for an Academy Award for 2009's "Crazy Heart." Her brother won an Oscar nod for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain."

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- As PayPal prepares to split from its corporate parent, its new chief executive is promising to expand the popular online payment system, adding a variety of services for consumers to use when shopping on their phones or in traditional stores.

PayPal will be spinning off from parent company eBay later this year at a time when it's facing new competitive challenges. Alibaba, Amazon and even Facebook are promoting online payment systems, while Apple Pay and Google Wallet are competing to handle transactions in stores and on mobile devices.

Veteran executive Dan Schulman, who will be CEO of the new PayPal, says his company will compete by positioning itself as a "full-service" payments partner for consumers and merchants, handling mobile transactions, credit purchases and even customer loyalty rewards programs.

PayPal was best known for many years as a payment method for purchases made on desktop computers. But consumers are increasingly using mobile phones to shop online and even when they make purchases in traditional, brick-and-mortar stores. Almost a third of transactions handled by PayPal are now made on mobile devices.

"Those worlds are blurring," Schulman told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. "When you go into a store environment, and you have your mobile phone with you, it should be a simple step to do a checkout from that device."

Schulman spoke after an event where PayPal announced new partnerships with companies that help merchants sell goods online around the world, including in India and China. PayPal also touted a recent partnership with Burger King that lets consumers pay for their meals with a smartphone app.

"We want to be more than just a button on a merchant's website," Schulman said. "We really want to provide a full suite of services and products."

That includes expanding a PayPal credit service that lets shoppers spread payments over time and the Venmo mobile app that lets individuals exchange small sums when they split a bill or repay a debt. PayPal is also extending a service for websites and mobile apps that remembers an individual's account information and shipping address, so they don't have to be re-typed with every new purchase.

PayPal, which is based in San Jose, California, has stumbled in one arena. Without admitting wrongdoing, the company agreed this week to pay $25 million over U.S. regulators' allegations that it signed up some customers for credit they didn't want.

"Sometimes you try and do things and they're not always perfect. We want to fix them as much as any regulator wants to fix them," Schulman said.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

BALTIMORE (AP) -- Victor Espinoza couldn't wait to get off American Pharoah.

His boots were water-logged, his goggles were painted with mud and a chill ran through the jockey's body as thunder roared overhead.

So, forgive Espinoza for acting like a man in a hurry to get the job done after the gate burst open Saturday to launch the 140th running of the Preakness.

"I was freezing," Espinoza said. "I just wanted to get it over with."

The Mexican jockey guided American Pharoah to a seven-length victory, keeping alive the bay colt's bid to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown.

American Pharoah came from behind to win the Kentucky Derby. In this one, he forged in front early and maintained the advantage to win easily.

Espinoza, trainer Bob Baffert and the marvelous Kentucky-bred horse will head to the Belmont, where on June 6 they will attempt to ride into history as the winner of the Triple Crown.

Espinoza has been here before - twice. In 2002, aboard the Baffert-trained horse War Emblem, Espinoza was in position to claim the Triple Crown.

War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and rallied before finishing eighth.

Last year, aboard California Chrome, Espinoza won the Derby and Preakness before finished fourth in the Belmont.

No sooner had Espinoza jumped off American Pharoah when someone wanted to know his thoughts about resuming a chase that has thus far been futile.

"Hopefully, the third time will be the lucky charm," Espinoza said.

It's the first time in history that the same jockey has entered the Belmont two years in a row with a chance to win the Triple Crown.

Although American Pharoah proved he's outstanding on a sloppy track, Espinoza will no doubt be looking for better conditions when it comes time to approach the starting gate in three weeks in New York.

Things got really weird for the 42-year-old jockey as the Preakness approached. One race earlier, the horse he was aboard - Grand Tito in the Dixie Stakes - sat down in the stall and had to be scratched.

Then, only 15 minutes before the Preakness, a horrific storm hit the track. As lightning cracked in the distance and thunder boomed above, sheets of rain came down on old Pimlico Race Course.

"The first thing I think about is so much water in my boots," Espinoza said.

It was time to adjust on the fly, and few in the sport do it as well as Espinoza.

"Going into these big races, sometimes we have a plan and a lot of things will change," he said. "Definitely, it changed a lot. Sometimes you make the right decisions, do what's best for the horse. All changed with the rain, but it worked out well."

Espinoza did a wonderful job - and so did American Pharoah.

"Each race I learn something new, and he surprised me how he came around," Espinoza said. "Today is just an amazing race for him. I couldn't see how far I was in front because there was so much water in my eyes. But I was not worried about it."

Neither was Baffert.

"Victor ran a tremendous race and let him run," Baffert said. "That's how he likes to run."

There came a point when American Pharaoh lost much of his lead. Turns out, it meant nothing.

"Victor slowed him down a little bit, and then when they came to him at the 3/8th pole, my wife, Jill, was saying, `They're coming to him,'" Baffert said. "I said, `He's just waiting. He's waiting. And he just put it in overdrive."