Zhou Youguang (1906–2017)

Zhou Youguang at home in Beijing in 2012. Photo by Charlie Fong, CC BY-SA 3.0 licenceZhou Youguang, who died today, the day after his 111th birthday, was known as the “Father of Hanyu Pinyin” due to his role in designing the Romanization system widely used for representing Mandarin Chinese. Today, Pinyin is the official Romanization system for Mandarin in China and many other countries, is used in millions of people’s passports, determines the spelling of names of well known Chinese people and places in foreign media and publications, and is an ISO standard. However, it was initially designed as a tool to help increase literacy levels in China.

Zhou Youguang started out not as a linguist, but as an economist. As a young man, he worked in New York as a banker. During his time in the United States, he apparently counted Albert Einstein among his acquaintances. However, after the Communist revolution in China in 1949, Zhou decided to return to his homeland. Quickly realising that the services of an economist might not be appreciated, he reinvented himself by turning to his hobby of linguistics, and was appointed head of a committee tasked with designing a phonetic system to represent Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese characters as written contain a wealth of information about ideas and words, but no indication of the pronunciation. This made teaching the reading and writing of Chinese difficult, with the result that the majority of people in China were illiterate. The Communist government wanted a new system to represent the sounds of the characters, with the ultimate goal of improving literacy rates. The committee was tasked with looking at the options for such a system, but the type of system was not specified. Any sort of alphabet or symbols could have been devised. Zhou, however, having lived and worked in America, was convinced that the Roman alphabet was the best solution, and was eventually successful in persuading the authorities to go along with it. The details of the Pinyin system then took three years to devise.

While Romanization systems such as Wade-Giles had been developed before, they tended to be foreign in origin and required marks such as apostrophes and hyphens in order to work. Pinyin makes particularly efficient use of the alphabet, and also gives words and names in Mandarin the dignity of not having their syl-la-bles divided up, or random CaPiTal letters inserted. While some people may complain that the use of letters such as q and x in Pinyin seems illogical, that misses the point that it is a system of Romanisation, not Anglicization. Spanish or French speakers, for example, use these letters in a quite different way from English speakers, and the same is true of Pinyin. Once someone is familiar with Pinyin, it is a consistent, phonetic system of spelling, so they are then able to pronounce any Mandarin word. This is real boon for anyone learning Mandarin as a foreign language. It has also changed the way that the language is taught in schools in China, where children learn the alphabet before they learn to write Chinese characters, although precisely how much of the improvement in literacy can be attributed to Pinyin is hard to gauge.

Despite being behind the Romanization system for Chinese, Zhou Youguang had no wish for it to replace Chinese characters. He has said he was glad to be on the committee for producing a phonetic system, and not the parallel committee tasked with simplifying the Chinese characters themselves (another aspect of the reforms under Mao Zedong). He also said it was “impossible” for Pinyin to replace Chinese characters, even if one wished to do such a thing.

For a while, Zhou Youguang’s involvement with Pinyin earned him a relatively comfortable life in Communist China. Although not a member of the Communist Party, his position entitled him to eat at government canteens at a time when there were food shortages. He would recall how he and his wife would eat their meals sitting next to Puyi, the man who had been the last Emperor of China. In the ’60s, though, like many academics, he was sent to the countryside for “re-education”. He attributed his survival during that difficult period to his positive thinking. (Puyi wasn’t so lucky: born a month after Zhou, his treatment during that period saw him die aged just 61.)

Zhou went on to work on the Chinese translation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In his later years, he lived in an apartment in Beijing with unpainted walls, to save him from the disruption of having them decorated. Although he didn’t use computers, he wrote daily using an electric typewriter, which naturally used his own Pinyin system to input characters. His son, Zhou Xiaoping, an atmospheric physicist, died in 2015.

It was only on becoming a centenarian that Zhou became a fierce critic of the Communist regime. He joked, “What are they going to do, come and take me away?” Books he wrote were banned, and internet posts praising him censored. He had wished to live long enough to see China admit the violent clampdown on protestors in Tian’anmen Square had been a mistake – a mistake he said ruined the reputation of Deng Xiaoping, who up until that point Zhou had considered an outstanding politician, with his policies of opening up China. Zhou said people in China no longer believed in the Communist system, and that most intellectuals believed in democracy.

Zhou Youguang was probably the world’s oldest democracy and human rights campaigner. While he may not have had his wish to see such significant change in China granted during his lifetime, surely one of the important principles behind democracy is that people are well informed, and literacy is the tool through which that is achieved. Zhou’s Pinyin system has given the Chinese people literacy, and given the rest of the world an easier way to learn Chinese, with which comes a better understanding of Chinese people and culture. Zhou’s legacy will include a contribution to democracy and peace in China.


Classic FM HD stream

For the latest post in my occasional series about digital radio, I was intrigued to receive an e-mail from Classic FM this week advertising “HD audio” in their mobile app. There are versions of the app for Apple and Android devices, and they allow users to listen to live broadcasts, as well as to a library of on-demand programmes from the last week. I have never used the app, so was unaware of what bitrate it offered to start off with. I decided to examine it to discover what this “HD sound” actually is.

The Classic FM app

The Classic FM app

When it first launches, with “HD off”, the app streams the low bitrate, 48kb/s AAC stream from the usual “musicradio” Icecast server. The details of those streams are unchanged since that article was written in 2012, except that the 48kb/s MP3 stream no longer exists. Most people wanting a low-bitrate stream are better off using the higher quality AAC anyway.

Switching to HD requires logging in with a Classic FM account. However, rather than using the old 128kb/s MP3 stream, the app fetches a new, 192kb/s AAC stream at the URL /ClassicFMHD. Unfortunately, this stream can not simply be used from within a PC’s media player or internet radio. It requires some sort of authentication so that only the official mobile app can make use of it. This follows the trend set by the BBC, where – officially at least – only website or mobile app users can receive the highest quality broadcasts for listening through their cheap ear buds, whereas people with high-end hi-fi equipment are supposed to be satisfied with 128kb/s DAB broadcasts. As with the BBC’s streams, it is possible to reverse engineer the Classic FM app and find a way to access the streams, although it isn’t straightforward to listen that way as it involves generating a URL that’s only valid for a short period. Given that it required reverse engineering, I am not going to publish details here, but anyone who is interested is welcome to contact me for more information.

As an aside, I should mention that I sometimes found when restarting the app that it streamed in HD mode from startup even though it said “HD off”. It required a toggle on and off to stream at a lower bitrate, a bug that could quickly eat up mobile users’ data allowances.

Is it actually worth the trouble of using the HD stream outside of the app? A look at the frequency spectrum of a typical broadcast (the end of Alfred Hill’s piano concerto – I hadn’t heard of him either!) immediately shows one disappointment. The frequency cut-off is still 15kHz. With 192kb/s AAC to play with, I would have thought that could be extended to 18kHz at least. This is probably more to do with the processing chain at Classic FM than a deliberate attempt to restrict the quality, but it’s as if they want to retain some features of FM broadcasts even when most people are no longer listening to analogue radio!

Spectrum of a Classic FM HD broadcast

Spectrum of a Classic FM HD broadcast

There are some subtle differences in the spectrum compared to the 128kb/s MP3 stream, but nothing compared to the difference between those and the low-bitrate AAC stream, which has plenty of holes and a much rougher appearance. That is only to be expected. To the ear, I do think the HD stream has the edge, with a slightly richer bass and more detail at high frequencies, although annoyingly it shows up the dynamic range compression of the advertisements far more. I hope they will further improve the stream in the future by adjusting the 15kHz low-pass filter. In the meantime, I’d reassure Classic FM listeners around the world that the MP3 stream is still one of the best ways to listen. Internet streaming is the clear winner when it comes to sound quality.

Renaming honours

Order of the British Empire Insignia, by Robert Prummel (CC licence)Former footballer Howard Gayle made headlines for a second time this week for declining an MBE, this time suggesting that the name of the honour should be changed to remove the reference to the British Empire.

It is important to remember that the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” is an order of chivalry, so named because it was instituted during the time of the British Empire by King George V. The name is not supposed to imply that it is an honour awarded by the British Empire, any more than the Order of the Bath implies that its members are the ones who assist the Queen in bathing.

Having said that, it’s hard not to have sympathy with Mr Gayle’s view, and he is not the only one to object to an honour on the grounds of its name. Back in 2004, a committee of MPs looked into the honours system, and recommended changing the name to the “Order of British Exellence”. They reasoned that it needed to retain the same abbreviations, MBE, OBE, etc. as everyone was familiar with these, and that otherwise existing recipients would feel their honour was outdated and worth less than newer ones. One commentator at the time remarked that it sounded more like an award from a trade organisation. Quite apart from the suggested name sounding ridiculous, orders of chivalry can not just have their names changed like that. They could institute a new order, and if desired stop appointing people to the old one, but our history should not be messed around with, and I would have expected members of parliament to be better informed.

Other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have stopped appointing to the Order of the British Empire and instituted new, alternative orders. Existing recipients retained their old honours and postnominals such as OBE, and it seems there was no confusion or feeling that older awards were devalued. Rather than mess about with historic orders, why not create a new one? As we now have the longest-serving monarch in history, what better name than the Royal Elizabethan Order, taking the Royal Victorian Order as its precedent? It could have the same ranks as the Order of the British Empire, and postnominals ending either “EO” or “RE”. The former would match the Victorian Order, but MRE, ORE, etc. would look more similar to MBE, OBE, which would perhaps go some way towards placating people such as the MPs on that committee.

The Queen has said that she doesn’t want to see any changes to her grandfather’s Order during her reign. What better way to commemorate the Queen’s reign, whenever in the future it finally comes to an end, than by instituting a new order of chivalry in her name?

TV licensing: i-Playing fair enough

iplayerThe date has finally been set after which users of the BBC iPlayer catch-up TV service will require a TV Licence. From 1 September, viewers will need to have a licence if they are to use iPlayer legally, just as they do to watch live television. I think that is fair enough. The only reason a licence hasn’t been needed up until now is because catch-up services didn’t exist when the legislation was drafted.

Last year, I questioned which services such a law would apply to. An important principle of the TV Licence is that it is required in order to watch any television, even though the money is used specifically to fund the BBC; it is not considered desirable to think of it as a subscription to the BBC. However, in the event, the change in the law has been framed in such a way that it only applies to BBC catch-up services, in other words iPlayer. As I said last year, it is very hard to define what constitutes a catch-up TV service as opposed to an online video sharing site such as Youtube, so it is not entirely surprising that the scope of the law has been limited. Whether it is the first step on a slippery slope to a subscription model remains to be seen.

One question that has cropped up is how the new law will be enforced. Now, I don’t believe laws should be broken just because they are hard to enforce and people can get away with it. The law is the law, and citizens have a responsibility to abide by it. Having said that, I don’t think the BBC’s TV Licensing arm can possibly know whether someone using iPlayer has a TV Licence or not. It seems, for the time being at least, that there will be no log-in required, no need to enter a licence number to watch a programme. That actually puts iPlayer catch-up in the same situation as its live streams. With those, there is a warning that a licence is required, but no further measures to prevent it being watched illegally.

Some people have suggested that it will be easy to trace people using iPlayer without a licence as the IP addresses of all users can be logged. While it is true that they can log IP addresses, this won’t tell them anything about who is using that IP address. Only the viewer’s ISP knows who an IP address corresponds to at a given time, and there is no requirement for them to disclose that to the BBC or anyone else. When copyright holders have wanted to clamp down on people unlawfully downloading films, for example, they have had to obtain court orders to force ISPs to hand over the details of people behind the IP addresses from which they had detected the files being downloaded. Obtaining a court order is likely to be a costly and laborious process, so only the worst offenders have been targeted. Compare that to the matter of unlicensed online TV watching. Unlike dodgy downloads – which no-one should be using – most people using iPlayer will have a TV Licence, and will be doing so perfectly legally. How, therefore, can TV Licensing even know which users to obtain a court order for in the first place? They can’t ask for details of all the millions of iPlayer users. Not only would that be impractical, it would also be totally disproportionate, as the vast majority of people they were obtaining details for would be doing nothing wrong. The bottom line is, there is no way for the BBC to know who is using iPlayer, and whether those people are licensed, unless they require some sort of log-in, and that applies equally to the live streams.

As an aside, I have noticed comments online suggesting the solution to the above is to use “encryption”. I feel there is some confusion here between encryption and authentication. Traditionally, broadcast pay-TV, for example satellite TV, has been encrypted to stop non-subscribers from watching it. After all, anyone with a dish can pick the transmissions up. Internet catch-up TV is different. As a simplification, the video is effectively sent to each user separately as it is requested. The only consequence of it being unencrypted is that it would be possible to snoop on what someone was watching if you were listening in to their internet connection. You would have to watch the same programme as the person you were spying on at exactly the same time, rather defeating the point of catch-up TV! Stopping people from watching without a licence actually requires authentication: either the input of a TV Licence number, or a login to an account associated with a licence. The password/licence number would be encrypted when it was sent, as it should be any log-in credentials used online; the video itself need not be encrypted, as this would just add unnecessary overheads.

It will be interesting to see whether any sort of log-in does eventually appear on iPlayer. In the meantime, I’m fairly certain they have no way of knowing whether viewers are licensed or not, and they will need to rely on the public’s integrity, backed up by threatening letters from an army of TV Licensing officers, if a significant number of additional viewers are to pay for a licence.

Corbyn must go

Jeremy Corbyn, April 2016

Corbyn: Students’ Union politics

When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader last year, it seemed rather like a sideshow to the “real” politics in the country. It was mildly amusing to see him politely ask questions e-mailed by the public at Prime Minister’s Questions, with David Cameron politely answering. More recently, the weekly sparring session returned more to its usual format, but Corbyn’s performance has been at best mediocre.

Our political system needs an effective opposition in order to function. Someone has to hold the government to account, challenge them, and provide a viable alternative administration. Amusing as Corbyn’s incumbency may have seemed at first, even back then it simply wasn’t healthy for our democracy to have him as Leader of the Opposition. Even the most ardent Tory must surely see that it isn’t in the best interests of the country to have such a poorly functioning Labour party.

Now, however, the country is facing one if its gravest challenges after the referendum vote to leave the European Union. The Conservative government is now likely to be taken over by right wingers who will further damage the country by taking us as far from Europe as possible. We need an opposition to challenge that, and to offer an alternative vision at any future election.

Jeremy Corbyn is not the right person to lead such an opposition. Not only is he a weak leader out of his depth; it’s no secret that his heart has never been in remaining in the EU either. Like all traditional left wingers, Corbyn would rather we left the EU, hence his lacklustre performance during the referendum campaign, which certainly had an impact on the final result.

Yesterday, Corbyn’s right hand man, John McDonnell, said that we must accept the result of the referendum, and appeared to imply that freedom of movement should end as a result of the vote. He later backtracked slightly, stressing this wasn’t Labour party policy, but he had already shown his true colours. On Europe, Corbyn and McDonnell could be singing from the same hymn sheet as the most right-wing anti-EU Tories.

Corbyn and his team have never really been interested in leading a serious, national political party, or at least have never realised that is what they are supposed to be doing. Instead, they pursue their own minority, left-wing policies. Corbyn might be suited to the post of a Students’ Union president, but not for Prime Minister of the country.

As someone who has never joined any political party or been a firm voter or supporter one way or the other, I’m sure many people across the country will agree with me when I say Jeremy Corbyn has to go. We need an effective opposition for the sake of our country at this difficult time.

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