Monday, November 23, 2009

The next Twitter or Facebook?

The search is on for "obsessive-compulsive" web designers, to create the next internet phenomenon to rival the success of sites like Twitter and Facebook - and it begins in Belfast.

A host of internationally renowned web designers are to descend on the city to call on local talent to help create the next "killer" internet application.

They will take part in special conference, aimed at bringing together the very best knowledge and latest developments in internet design, in order to "build a better web".

They include guest speakers such as former Apple interactive designer and EveryBlock co-founder Wilson Miner; the lead designer for social networking site Virb, Ryan Sim and the chief executive of one of the UK's largest web development studios, Clearleft's Andy Budd.

Mr Budd will tell the audience that they need "more than just a pretty (inter)face" to win web users "hearts, minds and registration details".

Those behind the Build Design Conference, which is sponsored by Invest Northern Ireland, hope the idea will spread.


"In the dating game of the web, you need more than just a pretty (inter)face and a winning smile. You need to woo your users in a complex ritual of seduction and delight. Only then will you win their hearts, minds and registration details." Andy Budd

The web is relatively young, and people still have the wrong idea about the "nerds" and "geeks" who make a living building products for it. Tim Van Damme

How can you have the most impact in different environments, from a small startup to a big company? Wilson Miner

"Web-based applications - even operating systems - are spreading like wildfire. What does it all mean for us and for the sites we build?" Eric Meyer

Organiser Andy McMillan said: "Build is working to establish itself as the epitome of design events in Europe - effectively becoming a travelling design festival with a focus on web, interface and graphic design.

"Our first event in Belfast is but the first in a series of similarly scaled events we're planning around major European cities in the coming years."

Business opportunities

The conference will include workshops, lectures, fringe events and parties, giving the "growing Northern Irish tech community" the opportunity to meet, share ideas and learn from each other.

Donal Durkan from Invest NI said the conference would provide "an informative and stimulating forum for local companies in the digital content sector".

"The strong skills base in the sector combined with increasing use of web based communications presents major growth opportunities for local businesses.

"The workshops and guest speakers will help firms realise the market potential and engage in the development of innovative technologies," he said.

The event takes place at Belfast's Waterfront Studios on Thursday, 5 November.

Facebook acts on follower trade

Facebook has threatened legal action against a service that sells friends on the social networking site.

It said it would take the action against marketing firm USocial unless it stopped violating Facebook's rights.

It also wanted USocial to stop helping members break the site's terms and conditions, specifically letting people profit from their profile.

In response, USocial agreed to a change in its practices but would not shut down its service.

Facebook sent Cease and Desist letters to USocial claiming that the way the marketing firm operates violates its rights by sending spam, using web tools to harvest pages, getting login names and by accessing accounts that did not belong to the marketing firm.

Customers of USocial use it to boost follower and friend numbers on social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

On micro-blogging site Twitter, followers can be bought in blocks starting at £53 for 1,000. The biggest block USocial is selling is 100,000 people.

USocial defended itself against Facebook's claims, saying that it did not spam users or use web tools to gather information about profiles.

However, in response to the legal letters, USocial said it would delete the login information it had collected and broadly stop offering to sell Facebook friends. It also put a notice on its site saying it was not affiliated with Facebook.

However, it said, there was "possibility" that it would resell the service in the future. If it was to re-start the service it said it would let Facebook know beforehand.

Games 'permit' virtual war crimes

Video games depicting war have come under fire for flouting laws governing armed conflicts.

Human rights groups played various games to see if any broke humanitarian laws that govern what is a war crime.

The study condemned the games for violating laws by letting players kill civilians, torture captives and wantonly destroy homes and buildings.

It said game makers should work harder to remind players about the real world limits on their actions.

War without limits

The study was carried out by two Swiss human rights organisations - Trial and Pro Juventute. Staff played the games in the presence of lawyers skilled in the interpretation of humanitarian laws.

Twenty games were scrutinised to see if the conflicts they portrayed and what players can do in the virtual theatres of war were subject to the same limits as in the real world.

"The practically complete absence of rules or sanctions is... astonishing," said the study.

Army of Two, Call of Duty 5, Far Cry 2 and Conflict Desert Storm were among the games examined.

those who violate international humanitarian law end up as war criminals, not as winners
Trial/ Pro Juventute

The games were analysed to see "whether certain scenes and acts committed by players would constitute violations of international law if they were real, rather than virtual".

The group chose games, rather than films, because of their interactivity.

"Thus," said the report, "the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the battlefield."

The testers looked for violations of the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols which cover war should be waged.

In particular, the testers looked for how combatants who surrendered were treated, what happened to citizens caught up in war zones and whether damage to buildings was proportionate.

Some games did punish the killing of civilians and reward strategies that tried to limit the damage the conflict, said the study.

However, it said, many others allowed "protected objects" such as churches and mosques to be attacked; some depicted interrogations that involved torture or degradation and a few permitted summary executions.

The authors acknowledged that the project was hard because it was not clear from many of the games the scale of the conflict being depicted. This made it hard to definitively determine which humanitarian laws should be enforced.

It also said that the games were so complex that it was hard to be confident that its testers had seen all possible violations or, in games in which they found none, that no violations were possible.

24, The Game
Army of Two
Battlefield Bad Company
Brothers in Arms - Hell's Highway
Call of Duty 4
Call of Duty 5
Close Combat: First to Fight
Conflict Desert Storm
Far Cry 2
World in Conflict
Frontlines: Fuel of War
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter
Hour of Victory
Medal of Honour Airborne
Metal Gear Solid
Soldier of Fortune
Tom Clancy Rainbow 6 Vegas
Tom Clancy Splinter Cell Double Agent
True Crime Streets of LA

It noted that, even though most players would never become real world combatants, the games could influence what people believe war is like and how soldiers conduct themselves in the real world.

It said games were sending an "erroneous" message that conflicts were waged without limits or that anything was acceptable in counter-terrorism operations.

"This is especially problematic in view of today's reality," said the study.

In particular, it said, few games it studied reflected the fact that those who "violate international humanitarian law end up as war criminals, not as winners".

The authors said they did not wish to make games less violent, instead, they wrote: "[We] call upon game producers to consequently and creatively incorporate rules of international humanitarian law and human rights into their games."

John Walker, one of the writers on the Rock, Paper, Shotgun games blog, said: "Games really are treated in a peculiar way."

He doubted that anyone would campaign for books to follow humanitarian laws or for James Bond to be denounced for machine gunning his way through a super villain's underground complex.

He said the authors did not understand that gamers can distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Said Mr Walker: "For all those who mowed down citizens in Modern Warfare 2's controversial airport level, I have the sneaking suspicion that not a great deal of them think this is lawful, nor appropriate, behaviour."

Jim Rossignol, who also writes on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, said there was scope to mix real world rules of war into games.

"Whether or not the rules of war are included in the game should be based entirely on whether that improves the experience for the player," he said.

Mr Rossignol said there was plenty of evidence that gaming violence is "fully processed" as fantasy by gamers. Studies of soldiers on the front line in Iraq showed that being a gamer did not desensitise them to what they witnessed.

He added: "Perhaps what this research demonstrates is that the researchers misunderstand what games are, and how they are treated, intellectually, by the people who play them."

Kandahar chess tournament restores old Afghan pastime

Residents of Kandahar have been taking part in a chess tournament in an attempt to revive one of the city's former cultural pastimes.

Under the Taliban, chess was forbidden, but the city's older residents hope this tournament will reintroduce the game to a younger generation.

The event was held at the Kandahar Coffee Shop which also hosts other cultural activities.

Kandahar is a key battleground for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

But Rahim Akrami, a local journalist in the city who watched the tournament, says it is important for younger people to rediscover this once forbidden activity.

"The tournament re-introduced the game to Kandahar since it has been forgotten for the last eight or so years," he told the BBC's World Today programme.

'Enlightening' tournament

Aman Ullah, a member of the Kandahar Students Organisation, was one of those playing in the tournament.

Although he was knocked out in the second round, he is happy that the tournament is taking place.

"It is very important for us to have something recreational to do that enlightens the mind and is fun as well," he told the BBC World Service.

men playing chess
The first Kandahar chess team was formed at the end of the tournament

"There are people who do not know that chess exists in this world which is amazing to me.

"Now there are people who are asking questions about the game and who want to learn, so I see it as a very positive change for Kandahar, and for the game as well."

Of the 30 players entered, 10 were eliminated after the first round, and then six players became members of a new Kandahar chess team.

'Battle with minds'

The Kandahar Coffee Shop is a place where young people meet to drink coffee and use the internet.

A poster saying: 'It's better to battle with minds than fists and bullets' lines the wall.

Mohammed Naseem, the owner of the Kandahar coffee shop, says he wants to provide a place for young people in the city.

"I am trying to create an atmosphere where the youth can hang out and learn something," he says.

"The Kandahar Coffee Shop is the only one in the south west region of its has various activities including a snooker club, chess club, youth club and a culture club.

We have a separate area for women in the coffee shop where they can come and enjoy a burger and go on the internet.

We are trying to show the world that this kind of thing can be done."

India parliament uproar over Ayodhya mosque report

India's main opposition BJP has reacted angrily to reports that its leaders are implicated in an inquiry into the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque.

Parliament was in uproar on Monday over the leaked inquiry report which is said to blame senior BJP figures including Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani.

The Liberhan commission report was submitted to the government in June but its contents have not been made public.

Some 2,000 people died in riots across India after the mosque was demolished.

The commission was set up to investigate events that led to a Hindu mob tearing down the disputed mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya.

Led by former high court judge MS Liberhan, the inquiry took 17 years to complete its work, at a cost of more than 65m rupees ($1.3m). Details about the commission's findings appeared in the Indian media on Monday.

'Political motive'

"I am stunned. I was shocked to see that the report has been leaked. I want to know who has leaked the report," senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader LK Advani said in parliament.

"If what is written is correct, the conclusions are false. There was no conspiracy, no planning. I was distressed by the demolition of the mosque."

BJP leaders accused the Congress party-led government of "selective leaks" to distract attention from the economy and corruption - and demanded parliament see the report immediately.

Home Minister P Chidambaram denied his ministry was behind the "unfortunate" leak.

The angry opposition shouted: "No, it's not just unfortunate, it's shameful."

Mr Chidambaram said Justice Liberhan's 900-page report was being translated into Hindi. The report is due to be put before parliament on 22 December, along with an "action taken report" by the government.

The Indian Express newspaper reported the build-up to the demolition of the mosque had been meticulously planned, and said the commission of inquiry had described BJP leaders as "pseudo-moderates".

The report apparently exonerates the Congress prime minister at the time, PV Narasimha Rao, of any responsibility - saying the federal government could not act in the absence of any recommendation from the state governor.

Controversial mosque

The site of the 16th Century Babri Masjid had been a focus for Hindu-Muslim hostility for decades. On 6 December 1992 a mob of Hindu militants tore the mosque down.

Rioters claimed the site had been a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram.

The destruction of the mosque was one of the most divisive events in Indian history and led to Hindu-Muslim riots across the country in which more than 2,000 people were killed.

The Liberhan commission was set up within days of the incident.

Mr Advani has long denied accusations that he encouraged the rioters - but he was charged in July 2005 with inciting a mob to attack the mosque.

The special court in the town of Rae Bareilly charged him with "giving provocative speeches leading to demolition of the mosque, creating enmity between Hindus and Muslims and inciting people for riots and public mischief".

Legal experts say once the Liberhan report and the government's "action taken report" are made public, they will be sent to the court to be used as evidence in the case.

New Indian brides abandoned by British Asian husbands

Thousands of brides in India are being abandoned by their British Indian husbands after they are married.

Despite this, there is evidence to suggest that Indian women are continuing to fall for British suitors.

In a dusty village in the Jagraon district of Punjab, northern India, 35-year-old Suman (which is not her real name), lives with her widowed mother in a small room in a crumbling building.

Four years ago, the secondary school teacher married a British man in a wedding arranged by relatives.

Shortly after the ceremony, her husband, who is in his 50s, left for London with the promise he would send for her. At first all appeared to go well.

"He would visit two to three times a year.

"Whenever he came to India, we had a good time," she said.

However, on one visit he claimed her application for a spousal visa to the UK had been refused.

It was like being a prostitute you take along and have a good time with and then leave behind

"He told me he had applied for an appeal.

"But he has never shown me a copy of that appeal. He's never shown me any documents."

The visits and calls ended, and for the past six months Suman has had no contact with her husband.

"In hindsight, it was like being a prostitute you take along and have a good time with and then leave behind.

"When he returned to England, there would be no communication. A month before he was due to come back, he established contact again.

"Many a time I let that pass, thinking he might be busy, but now I get the feeling that I was being used all this time."

In the bustling city of Chandigarh, lawyer and women's rights activist Daljit Kaur has dealt with many similar women who have been deserted by their husbands who live in the UK, Canada and the US.

"There are 15,000 to 20,000 abandoned brides in India," she said.

Daljit Kaurs thinks up to 6,500 British men may have left brides in India

In India these women are called "holiday brides" and Mrs Kaur believes British grooms account for a third of all such cases.

In the village of Rurka Kalan, in the Doaba region of Punjab, an area that has strong links to Britain's Indian community, I was taken to a local community centre, a bare single-storey concrete building.

There I was staggered to discover up to a dozen women huddled together, clutching their marriage documents and wedding photographs.

The youngest of these "holiday brides" were barely out of their teens.

A pretty girl dressed in a shalwar kameez (tunic and trousers) had married a man from Coventry, central England.

She said: "He did not give me any reason, why he did this.

"I came to know later through relatives that he did not want to stay married to a girl from such a poor background."

The eldest was a 41-year-old lady who was deserted by a Glaswegian man more than 20 years ago.

She handed me a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it, urging me to trace him for her.

Not one of these women had re-married. They said their lives had been ruined in this socially conservative part of India, where divorce is frowned upon. Many are forced to depend on relatives for financial handouts.

But Indian women are still falling for British suitors.

Jassi Khangura, a businessman from London and now a politician in the Punjab Legislative Assembly, says Indian families are obsessed with emigrating to the UK.

"People are desperate to migrate, because they don't think this land gives them the opportunities they need, particularly for girls," he said.

Rani (not her real name) is one such 25-year-old is hoping for a better life in the UK. She got married in January.

"When the marriage date was fixed he asked for around £12,000 so my parents sold our house, to give him the money," she said.

In India, paying and accepting a dowry - a centuries-old tradition where the bride's parents present gifts of cash, clothes and jewellery to the groom's family - has been illegal since 1961.

But the practice still thrives in rural areas, and a British Indian groom can command a dowry of up to £20,000 in Punjab.

After Rani's marriage, her in-laws demanded more cash, but her parents could not pay, and she was dumped.

"After marriage, they physically and mentally tortured me.

"He made me abort my baby, then they threw me out of their house."

Rani still wears her wedding bangles in the hope that she will one day be reunited with her husband in England.

I managed to trace Rani's husband in England. He claims to have left her after discovering she had a boyfriend who she continued to see after they were wed.

Another "runaway groom" I located in England claimed he was duped by his Indian bride, who only married him for a British passport.

UK matrimonial expert Tahir Mahmood helps arrange marriages, and believes British men are the victims.

"Anyone from back home (India), they want British, British, British... the girls over there, don't care if someone has been married twice before, they don't care how he looks like or what his background is."

The British government's Forced Marriages Unit says it has been dealing with a rising number of forced marriage cases involving British men.

In India, legal action against missing British grooms is a complex and lengthy process.

Clampdown sought

Inspector General Gurpreet Deo, from the Punjab police force, said: "If the person is residing abroad, one has to seek recourse through the extradition treaty.

"The expertise and knowledge of the police officers themselves in this area is so restricted, I don't think any case would reach that level."

But politician Balwant Ramoowalia, of the Lok Bhalai party in Punjab, believes both India and Britain should clamp down.

He said: "If there is any misconduct, cheating or fraud, the husband should be sent back to India.

"There should be a provision that maintenance should be given to the girl till the case is final."

The Home Office in the UK says it has not received a single extradition request in relation to abandoned Indian brides.

Meanwhile the Indian government has set up a department to provide assistance to the thousands of women who live in hope of being reunited with their husbands.

Iraq war inquiry due to begin public hearings

The Iraq war inquiry is to begin its public hearings later, with top civil servants and a former spy chief giving evidence on the conflict's origins.

The investigation, looking at the whole period from 2001 to 2009, is expected to last months, with a report not out until after the next general election.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be among the future witnesses.

Tuesday's session looks at UK foreign policy towards Iraq in the lead-up to the war, which began in 2003.

The Iraq inquiry will begin with a statement from its chairman, Sir John Chilcot.

It will then hear from figures including Sir Peter Ricketts, who was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) - which oversees MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - from 2000 to 2001.

Others giving evidence are former senior Ministry of Defence official Simon Webb and ex-Foreign Office officials Sir Michael Wood and Sir William Patey.

Controversial dossier

The members of the committee were chosen by Downing Street, leading critics to ask whether it can be independent of the government.

But Sir John has promised the inquiry will not produce a "whitewash".

On Wednesday, the panel will hear from former senior Foreign Office staff on the claims that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed "weapons of mass destruction".

Over the coming weeks the inquiry is expected to hear from a succession of diplomats, military officers and politicians, including Mr Blair, who is due to appear early in the new year.

Sir John Scarlett, the former chief of MI6 who - as chairman of the JIC - drew up the Government's controversial dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, is also due to give evidence to the five-strong inquiry panel.

The war resulted in the deaths of 179 UK forces personnel.

Previously, the Butler inquiry looked at intelligence failures before the war, while the Hutton inquiry examined the circumstances leading to the death of former government adviser David Kelly.

Sir John Chilcot has said he hopes to complete his final report by the end of next year, although he has warned it could slip into 2011.

Saudi Arabia warns against protests at Hajj

The authorities in Saudi Arabia have warned people not to stage protests at the Hajj, as more than 2.5 million Muslims prepare for the pilgrimage.

The interior ministry official in charge of security, Gen Mansour al-Turki, said he did not expect trouble, but stressed that protests were banned.

"We will not allow any actions that might disturb any other pilgrims, or affect their safety," he told AFP.

In 1987, 402 people died when troops broke up a protest by Shia pilgrims.

Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned last month that it would take "appropriate measures" if its citizens faced restrictions.

The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, meanwhile said Shia should show they were addressing challenges to their unity.

Saudi officials and clerics responded by warning Tehran not to abuse the Hajj for political purposes.

This year is also the 30th anniversary of the seizure by Sunni extremists of the Great Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest shrine.

Smoke billows from Mecca's Great Mosque on 20 November 1979
Sunni extremists seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979

Saudi soldiers, assisted by French paratroopers, took nearly two weeks to regain control of the complex. More than 250 people died in the siege, among them 127 Saudi troops. Sixty-seven militants were later executed for the uprising.

"We are taking all the countermeasures to make sure nothing like that could happen again," Gen Turki told AFP, adding that more than 100,000 security personnel were being deployed.

They have already thwarted several attempted attacks by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in neighbouring Yemen.

The authorities are also hoping to avoid a repeat of the deadly stampedes which have in the past afflicted the Hajj. The last, in 2006, left 364 people dead.

Builders have just completed the rebuilding of the Jamarat Bridge at Mina, where pilgrims hurl stones at three pillars representing the spot where the devil is said to have appeared to Abraham.

Officials say the 950m (3,135ft) long, 80m (260ft) wide five-storey pedestrian walkway, which cost $1.2bn, will prevent overcrowding.

Europe's hour of decision

Sometime on Thursday night the European Union's 27 leaders will gather for dinner in the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels. Lipsius himself was a Flemish intellectual who thought the ideal citizen was a man who acted according to reason. The 27 leaders have important choices to make but seem likely to be guided by considerations of power.

They will have to decide who will be the European Union's face to the world. For nearly ten years European leaders have been discussing how to sit alongside the Chinese and Americans at the top table. One of the key strands to the Lisbon Treaty was creating two high-profile posts; a president of the European Council and a foreign policy supremo.

But as the hour of decision approaches there is uncertainty and, just beneath the surface, there are real divisions.

The task of drawing up a short-list for these top European jobs falls to the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. His aim is to turn up at the dinner and give the leaders a small number of names to consider. What is not being sought here is lively discussion or a pitch from the candidates or an opportunity to tell Europeans what their vision is for the future of the union.The Swedish prime minister wants a dinner where the successful candidate is toasted, not debated.

The fear that haunts this whole process is that Europe might appear divided or that any public disagreement might undermine the authority of the successful candidate.
What this means, of course, is that these key posts will be decided by horse-trading, a familiar European way of doing business.

The mood that seems to be emerging is for a compromise candidate, a chairman rather than a president who strides the global stage. That suits many. The big countries, when it comes down to it, don't want to be over-shadowed by a presidential figure. The small countries fear a strong personality could diminish their influence. And those like the Conservatives in Britain who did not support the Lisbon Treaty want as bland a candidate as possible. As William Hague told the Financial Times: "It makes more sense for the president to be a chairman, not a chief." And a chairman sounds less like
a super-state in the making.

These jobs, however, are not being chosen on the sole criteria of who will be the most effective leader. As so often in Europe jobs are carved up between various political groupings. The socialists have indicated they want the foreign minister's post. That means that the president is likely to come from the centre-right. Then there is the gender balance. Two powerful women, Margot Wallstrom and Neelie Kroes, said today that it looked as if "only men would be nominated". They pointed out that "the right man in the right job is often a woman". Politics, gender and geography all are put in the mix.

So where does this leave Tony Blair, the original favourite for the president's job?
If the emerging consensus is for a meeting-chairer he won't get the job and he won't want it. Late last week he spoke to President Sarkozy among others and he has not removed his name from consideration. The British government is still backing him energetically. When the German foreign minister was in London last week a senior government figure made a strong personal pitch for Tony Blair.

There is one scenario where Tony Blair could still get the call. If there is no agreement at the dinner, the Swedish prime minister will have to call a vote and that would be weighted according to country size. In those circumstances, Tony Blair could sneak it. He could have in his corner Britain, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, the Czech republic and several other Eastern European countries. His problem would be whether he wanted a job when there was so clearly opposition to him getting it.

If, in the end, European leaders go for a little-known consensus-builder some will argue Europe flunked its moment of decision. Expect comments like this which I saw from a politician in the past few days: "We've been talking about these jobs for almost 10 years and it is now almost as if people are getting cold feet about giving them to serious global players."

A few weeks ago the President of the Commission Jose Manuel Barroso raised the old question of who world leaders should call to discover where Europe stood. After these new posts are filled, he said, Washington would call the high representative on foreign affairs. Just one call. But after Thursday the two most powerful figures in Europe will remain President Sarkozy abnd Chancellor Merkel.

The indications are that when it comes down to it, Europe's leaders aspire to speak with a more assertive voice, but not at the expense of their own influence. It is rare in history that leaders vote for a diminution of their own power. They seem unlikely to do so this week.

EU jobs race could be marathon

All the signs are out there that the European Union cannot agree on who should fill the top jobs that are supposed to define its future. The first hints are being dropped that the Thursday night dinner, where the 27 heads of government are supposed to chose a president and foreign policy chief, might extend into Friday morning breakfast or even beyond.

As each day passes new names surface and flash briefly across the screens of those following this race.

Late last week the Swedes were briefing that if the dinner were held immediately the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy, would get the job of President of the European Council. He was the low-key figurehead favoured by the French and the Germans. But in this game of horse-trading it is dangerous to get out in front.

Once Van Rompuy had become the established favourite attention turned to his record. There was his successful deal-making in Belgium which limited antagonisms between French and Dutch speakers. What was less clear was his vision for Europe.

Some find this whole secretive process disturbing. Names are tossed around without Europe's voters being able to hear from them or to assess what they stand for. It prompted Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former Latvian president, to demand that the EU "stop working like the former Soviet Union... in darkness and behind closed doors".

Further research into Van Rompuy soon revealed that at a meeting of the shadowy but influential Bilderberg Group he suggested EU-wide taxes might be needed to support the expanding EU budget. His party seems to favour the gradual replacement of national symbols with EU symbols. The revelations at once make him a controversial choice with sections of the European electorate. It could even make it difficult for some countries to support him.

It is in this context that the candidacy of Tony Blair still flickers. Without an agreed
candidate for president there could be a vote and the former Labour leader might still come through. Certainly the British government is still pushing his name.

There are signs that others, like the Poles, believe that potential candidates need to be heard from. The Swedes, who hold the rotating presidency, say it is impossible to open up the process because many potential office-holders hold power and to run for a European job would undermine their standing back home.

So, in this vacuum, other names are touted. Their merits are weighed less in terms of how they would perform but more as to how they would affect the balance between political groupings and small countries versus large countries.

Meanwhile from the sidelines are voices reminding Europe's leaders that the rest of the world is watching. This from a state department official in Washington: "It's up to post-Lisbon Europe to put its house in order in a way that would allow us to be effective partners. Europe's choices in the coming months are going to be very important."

As I said yesterday, Europe's leaders long for greater influence but fear any diminution of their own powers.

Tories tweaking their message

"We care about the recovery too, honest." That's the message from Conservative high command this week.

David CameronI've commented before that (in "More squeeze to come" and "A plan not a timetable") the Tories seemed to want to appear more single-minded in their determination to cut the deficit than they really were. They had allowed Labour to paint them as hell-bent on cutting spending, regardless of the state of the economy, though in practice, they were unlikely to tighten much more than Labour in 2010-11.

Privately, party officials have explained the disconnect as a matter of positioning: "you need to set clear dividing lines first. Later you can tweak the message."

To judge by some of the headlines this morning - for example, on the front page of the FT - this is more than a tweak.

In the past, David Cameron, George Osborne and others had argued that a tough budget programme would help the recovery, by preventing a run on British government debt. An absence of market panic over borrowing would enable interest rates to stay lower, longer, and thus help the recovery.

There was also the shakier claim that a weaker exchange rate would help exports fill any gap in demand created by cuts in public spending. (I say shaky because even if the economics point in that direction, many in the markets would expect sterling to rise following a tough Conservative first budget.)

George OsborneBut as I noted on the day of Osborne's conference speech, this argument for austerity left the party battling a counter-factual.

Until you could see signs of panic in the markets over UK debt - and we haven't seen many yet - it was that much harder to argue that deficit cuts were priority number one. And that much easier for the government to paint the Conservatives as debt fanatics who would put the recovery at risk.

Apparently, party strategists now agree. On the Andrew Marr show yesterday, David Cameron made the negative link between cutting debt and protecting the recovery. But he also tried out a much more positive line: a Conservative government first budget would "go for growth" , with a "proper plan to get the economy growing" - including, for example, a cut in corporation tax.

That tax cut might be popular with many businesses. It could even help them grow, at the margin. But it will be paid for by getting rid of various business allowances (and probably limiting the deductibility of debt interest payments). So many other firms could lose out. For obvious reasons, this would not be a give-away budget even if it was "going for growth".

George Osborne wants to reduce the bias in favour of debt finance in the UK. This is one of many ideas he has for boosting Britain's long-term growth. Opposition chancellors always have a bundle of them (see my earlier post "Are we all long-termists now?"). One would expect to see him include some of them in his first budget, though my understanding is that the tax changes would be phased in over several years.

Even Osborne would admit that these kinds of structural changes will not improve Britain's growth prospects overnight. Whereas many economists would argue that new spending cuts or tax rises which come into force next year - against a backdrop of a lot of spare capacity in the economy and possibly weak global demand - could potentially hurt growth in 2010. That's what Labour is going to be saying for at least the next six months.

After months of austerity talk, David Cameron does need to show he cares about growth after all. But he's not going to seal the deal talking about corporation tax cuts which pay for themselves, and small-bore changes to help small businesses. Labour will always be able to come back and point to all the areas where the Tories have said spending will be cut. (They've already been sending texts to journalists this morning along these lines).

It's difficult to get across the idea that cutting the deficit could help the recovery (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether it actually would). But tweaked or untweaked, the Conservatives are stuck with it. That's the argument they have to get across to the British public. And that, in fact, was the main focus of Cameron's interview yesterday and his speech to the CBI today. The question of the day is whether a strengthening economy makes it easier for him - or harder.

EU back to the future?

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Catherine Ashton, 19 Nov 09There used to be a view of Europe: that France and Germany ran the union. It was fashioned to their design.

There used to be a view that Europe's leaders preferred backroom deals to the harsher light of open debate.

There used to be a view that, despite its economic power, Europe punched below its weight on the world stage. Other nations were frustrated at having to phone numerous European capitals in a crisis. It used to be said that the world was becoming a G2 - America and China, with Europe excluded.

So began a long, divisive process to change how Europe functioned. It ended up with the Lisbon Treaty. The larger union of 27 nations would function more efficiently and Europe finally would have powerful leaders who would rub shoulders with Obama and Putin.

Wind forward to the present. The key power-brokers in the choice of Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Catherine Ashton were the French and the Germans. President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel coordinated their approach. They agreed not to oppose each other in selecting the candidates for Europe's top jobs.

They went for the Belgian Prime Minister, Van Rompuy, not because he was the best leader for the job. Germany's Angela Merkel said he offered "consensus". It is an interesting word that can be interpreted in many different ways. In Europe it often means "the person that is least objectionable". Some interpret it as "the lowest common denominator".

It should be said that Van Rompuy does not arrive empty-handed. He is an effective mediator but he is not a communicator who can sell where Europe stands. It will be interesting to see when he gives his first international interviews.

The key for the French and Germans was not to have a Blair-like figure who might overshadow them. The laws of power have not changed by the signing of a treaty.

In any system there is always some backroom horse-trading. It is not necessarily sinister. In the past few days Gordon Brown knew that Tony Blair would not make it, yet he and his ministers continued to support him publicly. It strengthened their hands in the deal-making. The French and Germans knew that if Tony Blair's name remained on the table it could split the member states. They were desperate to avoid it.

It enabled Gordon Brown to go to a meeting of the Socialist group of leaders yesterday and essentially trade in Blair for Cathy Ashton. From the British point of view it was not a bad deal. They have someone who is the Vice President of the Commission and at the heart of decision-making.

Earlier this week the British felt what support there was for Tony Blair was draining away. The final straw came on Tuesday evening, when diplomats received a Swedish paper detailing what the job of president involved. Under the Lisbon Treaty it had been left vague. There was mention of the need for a consensus-builder, a good chair of meetings. What had slipped away in the night was the role of being the voice of the EU on the world stage.

In that note the British understood the job had been redefined in a way that would not suit Tony Blair. He was called by Downing Street and by Thursday morning he knew it was over for him.

Of perhaps greater significance was the new emphasis of the job. The ambitions of the EU have been lowered. They have backed away from a powerful figure sitting at the world's top table. After being appointed Van Rompuy joked that he was anxiously waiting by his phone to be called in the event of a crisis. It was a joke because world
leaders will continue to make their first calls to Paris, Berlin and London. Part of the federalist dream has faded.

That is why some of those applauding the appointments are Eurosceptics. They can live with a relatively low-profile "chairman". It does not seem like another step towards a "superstate".

So the EU, in many ways, is back where it was. Certainly, under the new voting system it will be easier to reach decisions among the 27 member countries. But in choosing relative unknowns the EU has signalled it does not want new centres of power to challenge the

EU won't rule by Charter

When it was proclaimed and signed in 2000, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was praised by the UK government.

The UK Minister for Europe, Keith Vaz, said: "It will be one of the most important things that we have seen come out of the European Union in the last decade."

Fast forward to today, however, and it is not just the UK government but also the Poles and Czechs who are rushing to save themselves from it. Each has secured a full opt-out from the Charter.

So what does the Charter mean for people in the UK? Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told parliament that he had obtained an opt-out from the Charter.

If so why worry, as it will not affect us? Well, the Conservative Party is anxious and wants a new opt-out because it believes the Charter will affect us.

This confusion is caused by two things. First, there is a world of difference between what the Charter says and what it does, and it is this gap that provokes a lot of anxiety.

Secondly, neither of the main parties has explained to the British public that the Charter is only a bit-player in the application of EU fundamental rights law to the UK.

Rights galore

The Charter is possibly the most wide-ranging human rights treaty in the world today. There are civil rights, political rights, social rights, ecological entitlements, rights for the arts, consumer rights. The list is really extensive.

Whilst the Charter might set out many desirable things, the concern has always been that every one of these grounds gives the EU new reasons to intervene, be it to protect the environment, workers, or the right to asylum.

That scares those worried about national sovereignty and raises fears that the rights might be developed in a clumsy way.

Yet what the Charter actually does is far more limited. It does not give us the general right to challenge our police force, lawmakers or employers whenever they appear to breach these rights: the important catch is that it only binds EU institutions and member states when they are implementing EU law.

The European Commission, Parliament and Council can be reviewed for compliance with the Charter, but the UK government can only be reviewed when it applies EU law or transposes them. This is quite a limited array of circumstances.

These circumstances are further restricted by widespread acceptance that many of the Charter's provisions, notably its social ones, cannot be directly invoked before the courts.

Old wine in new bottles

It is not only the Charter's remit that is limited, but also its legal force, as the Charter repackages old wine in new bottles.

When applying EU law, our government has been bound by EU fundamental rights norms for 18 years now. All the Charter did was to create a single document assembling all these obligations in one place.

But the law that underpins the Charter continues to bind us, whether we opt out of the Charter or not. The fact this has gone unnoticed shows how little impact this law has had. It is here that the British political parties have not been frank.

The Labour government tried to deal with this problem by adopting a protocol that requires courts not to "extend" EU fundamental rights law using the Charter, but allows them to "interpret" it. It then presented it as an opt-out, when it clearly is not. The Charter will be applied by British courts.

Does it matter?

The Conservatives, by contrast, have stated that they want a full opt-out from the Charter. It will not be applied by British courts or by the European Court of Justice in cases involving the UK.

They have been coy in saying whether this opt-out applies to other EU fundamental rights law that binds us just as tightly.

Confusing, certainly, but does any of this matter?

Well, the European Court of Justice did not wait for the Lisbon Treaty and has actually been applying the Charter since 2006. Mischievous, certainly, but also unnoticed, as it was simply a continuation of existing case law, which shows great deference to national governments in fundamental rights cases.

Whilst EU fundamental rights law says a lot of things, it rarely tells us to change our lives. That is why it might be a while before we hear about the Charter again.

Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao returns a hero

Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao was given a rock star reception in his home country after becoming the newly crowned world welterweight champion.

Officials and fans flocked to Manila's international airport as the 30-year-old Pacquiao flew in five days after he beat Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto.

That win made him the only fighter in history to win seven titles in as many weight classes.

Pacquiao, wildly popular at home, is considering a run for political office.

Entry into politics?

With his right hand and ear still bandaged, he talked briefly about his fight and dodged questions about his love life.

He was greeted warmly by his wife Jinkee and three young children.

In the background, a banner read: "Welcome home, the world's best boxer of all time".

He said he first wanted to relax at his mansion in the southern island of Mindanao, before taking care of business - including filing his candidacy for a congressional seat.

A large convoy with police outriders took him to a hotel, where he was greeted by wild cheers and a shower of confetti and balloons.

After breakfast, he went to the Quiapo district Catholic church to pray where, unusually, he was allowed to give a speech to people who had been waiting hours to see him.

"I live my life like every day is the last. I am proud that for having attained this record," he said.

Pacquiao's boxing prowess has led him to a starring roles in movies and a television show.

Police say that even criminals and insurgents take the day off whenever his fights are broadcast on television.

His latest victory over Cotto cemented his reputation as the best pound for pound fighter, a title disputed by the American Floyd Mayweather.

Bolivia election: Cocaine casts shadow on campaign

As Bolivia's Evo Morales campaigns for re-election ahead of polls in December, his support from the nation's indigenous coca producers is again coming under scrutiny. Andres Schipani reports from La Paz.

Many around the world see the coca leaf - the raw ingredient of cocaine - as a source of misery. For them, it stands for crack, cocaine and all the inherent evils of the illegal drugs.

But for indigenous Bolivians, the leaf is an intrinsic part of their ancient culture and economy. And it was partly to defend it that they voted four years ago for Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president - and a man who himself grows coca leaf.

As his campaign for re-election gathers pace, the coca growers or "cocaleros" are backing him financially. The coca unions are combining to put money into his campaign, coming out of their harvest.

"I am backing President Morales with everything I can because he is one of us - an indigenous peasant, a coca grower, who knows what suffering means," says coca grower and trade unionist, Emilio Mamani, cupping a bunch of shiny green leaves.

We are the backbone of this government, of this process of change

"He is fighting for the rights of the indigenous poor, the peasants, that for centuries here were, basically, shadowed people."

The growers share a trade and passion with President Morales, who remains head of the country's largest coca trade union.

And they definitely want him to stay in office for another term.

"We are the backbone of this government, of this process of change. It is a huge responsibility we have, we coca growers," Sabino Mendoza, a young coca trade unionist and government adviser, told the BBC in one of the world's only two legal coca markets.

The only sector that has had an important growth in these past four years, is the coca production and also the cocaine industry

World drugs in graphics

Since the mid-1980s, the coca growers have always been at the forefront of the political struggle in this country and have been key to President Morales's success, so he needs their support to cement his power base.

Industrial users of coca include the cosmetics and food industries. It is also used in traditional medicines, chewed, used in coca tea, and in some Andean religious ceremonies.

But there is a darker side to the coca growers' trade. In the past four years, coca production in Bolivia has increased. But, so too has the production of cocaine.

Since the start of his presidency in January 2006, Mr Morales has had a simple message for his followers: "Zero cocaine, but not zero coca."

But he admits there is a problem. "Lamentably, I, as a coca producer, have to tell the truth - the illegal price, the price of cocaine, is what regulates the price of coca. As long as it stays this way, illegal coca cultivations will keep mushrooming," he told reporters.

So the opposition has seized on cocaine production as a reason not to re-elect him.

Political polarisation

"The only sector that has had an important growth in these past four years is the coca production and also the cocaine industry," Samuel Doria Medina, a wealthy businessman, who is one of the main contenders for President Morales's post, told the BBC.

"I would say that the main investments in this country have been in the cocaine business," he added.

However, despite four years of harsh political polarisation and the increase in drug production, there is still strong support for the man seen as the champion of the coca leaf and the indigenous masses.

Emilio Mamani says he is backing Mr Morales because he is "one of us"

Known as the "peasant president", the left-wing Mr Morales is favourite to win re-election in December. Recent opinion polls give him more than 50% support.

Riding strong support from the country's indigenous majority, Mr Morales won sweeping victories in a recall vote in August and a constitutional referendum in January.

Some analysts say it is perfectly valid that coca growers are backing him. Nor should it be an issue, says Jim Shultz of the Cochabamba-based think tank the Democracy Centre.

"It's no big surprise that the coca growers are backing Evo Morales, including with finances and other political support", said Mr Shultz.

"This is no different than large businesses supporting [former US President] George Bush financially when he ran for re-election or labour unions supporting Barack Obama in the United States when he ran. Political bases get out the vote, they contribute money, they do these kinds of things."

So, as the polls approach, the key question is whether Evo Morales is the coca leaf champion or the president who has let the rest of the country slide.

The split on this issue reflects the wider division between Bolivia's indigenous and non-indigenous people, and will play a large part in the way they vote in the presidential election.

But for coca growers such as Mr Mendoza, there is no discussion: "We, the coca growers, gave birth to this political process, to this revolution. It is an obligation to support our president with the product of our labour."

"America won't let you down"

President Obama's words are perhaps exactly what you would expect any commander in chief to say.

But he not only makes these remarks ahead of a vital meeting about sending troops to an unpopular war, but against the background of two unpopular wars.


He did not refer to Iraq directly, but to the war that scarred America's soul and divided its people like no other.

He said that in honouring the obligations to those who have fought "we are keeping faith with the ideals of service and sacrifice upon which this republic was founded".

"And if we're honest with ourselves, we will admit there have been times where we, as a nation, have betrayed that sacred trust. Our Vietnam veterans served with great honour, and they often came home greeted not with gratitude or support but with condemnation and neglect. That's something that will never happen again."

The comparison is interesting not just because you can hardly move in this town for articles comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam.

It is interesting because of Iraq. Such is the reverence for the military in America that even at the height of opposition, there was no suggestion that those who fought there should be regarded as anything less than heroes.

President Obama did not support the Iraq war and campaigned on a promise to bring troops home. But his language could be taken as reassurance to veterans of that war, that they will be honoured whatever the verdict on the politicians who sent them to fight.

Britain: Putting the bite on the States

The British ambassador to the United States is suggesting on his blog that one thing we bring to the special relationship is a bloody good bite. He is pointing out the history of British actors portraying vampires, most recently in the latest film in the Twilight saga.

Long before I arrived here, I was tickled by the way we are portrayed in popular American media. If a Brit is involved it's a good old British pound to a cent that if not a thinly disguised Mrs Thatcher, he or she is a toff, a con artist, a degenerate, or just someone with horrific teeth. Preferably all three, which could be why we score so highly in portraying vampires.

The vampire genre has rather taken off in a tweeny direction with Twilight. Close readers of this blog will know I am at home this week taking care of the children and so I can report that junior sources reveal that Robert Pattinson is exceedingly toothsome.

Vampires, are of course, sexy. In the original Dracula, Jonathan Harker's execution of the vampiric Lucy is either disturbingly Freudian or just plain funny, depending on your taste.

But if we play the undead sharply, Americans can tell the tales.

To me, the American vampire tradition reached its high with Anne Rice's sometimes magnificent Vampire Chronicles. Lestat, played by Tom Cruise in one film, is based in New Orleans, a city I long to visit and which seems to provide just the right gothic background.

Vampires are, to my mind, highly intelligent, masters of recondite knowledge, meticulous dressers, favouring a rather formal, old-fashioned style. They tend to have an aristocratic bearing and rather cynical detachment.

While sometimes tortured by what they do, they are basically amoral servants of a higher power. Where better to hide than in plain sight, in the upper echelons of the British foreign office ? Get out the garlic, Sir Nigel.

Are the Democrats losing their way?

The Democrats are celebrating their victory in the Senate that allows the healthcare proposals to move forward. But are they so busy focusing on the details of legislation that they have forgotten the fight for the big picture ? Could that be something to do with the president's approval ratings slipping below 50% for the first time?

Their campaign group, Organizing for America, has written to supporters warning:

"Right now, Sarah Palin is on a highly publicised, nationwide book tour, attacking President Obama and his plan for health reform at every turn. It's dangerous. Remember, this is the person who coined the term 'Death Panels' - and opened the flood gates for months of false attacks by special interests and partisan extremists. Whatever lie comes next will be widely covered by the media, then constantly echoed by right-wing attack groups and others who are trying to defeat reform."

They are appealing for money to pay for adverts and events to fight back. But all this looks terribly defensive for a party that has a president who was meant to represent a changing America and capture the changing mood of a nation.

Mr Obama's administration is sometimes accused of never getting out of campaign mode. It seems to me the danger for the Democrats is quite the reverse. They seem to have given up on selling their story, abandoned the attempt to describe their American dream. If I am right, they can expect big losses in next year's elections.

Take just two examples from last week: the new advice on breast cancer and the decision to try the five accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks in a criminal court.

Attorney General Eric Holder's appearance before a Senate committee had him exclaiming "I know that we are at war", suggesting that he wasn't going to be pushed around by terrorists, and giving a nod and a wink that if the good senators were worried by the possibility of an acquittal, that wasn't going to happen.

This exemplifies the desperate hole in Democratic strategy. It certainly openly addresses the Republican senators' concerns, but they are hardly going to be swayed. There was no attempt to reflect the rest of the world's rejection of the idea of a war on an abstract noun, no exploration of why the accused seem desperate to be tried in a military tribunal, and no suggestion that American values were better expressed in open trials than lettre de cachet.

I hasten to add, I am not taking sides in the argument, but pointing out that the Democrats are fighting back against accusations, not putting the case for their counter-terrorism strategy. Rebuttal may be necessary but it cannot be a strategy for government. It allows battles to take place on the opponents' chosen ground.

A recent report advising women not to test for breast cancer until they were 50 was seized upon by Republicans, not least in Saturday's healthcare debate in the Senate, as evidence of the way government would ration healthcare if allowed the foot-in-the-door of a publicly run insurance scheme.

At the time the story was first reported, there were hints that the committee had been persuaded by the insurance industry to limit expensive testing. Democrats seemed to forget that the president had told them, when he addressed both houses in September that "insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine check-ups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies - because there's no reason we shouldn't be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer".

Of course, this would mean new costs for the industry, but they would be greatly reduced if testing started 10 years later than has been the practice. Democrats failed to point out that big business, as much as big government, might have a reason to delay testing, and that the insurance companies' concerns were a little more immediate.
Again, I am not suggesting who is right and who is wrong, but that Democrats aren't bothering to make a case.

This points to a deeper problem. There is little doubt that the Obama administration is widely perceived as extending the role of federal government, while it seems that a majority of Americans dislike and distrust big government. The Democrats don't seem to know how to cope with this.

They could argue that it is a misperception; they could maintain that all government is big government these days; they could argue that big government protects little people. It really doesn't matter too much what their rationale is, as long as they have one. The Democrats have a great communicator as president, but at the moment, they don't seem to have a story to tell.

Coming of age for South Asian stars in Hollywood

American actors of South Asian origin have never had it so good, and it is only getting better for them in the land of opportunities.

Indian American creative talents in particular are increasing their presence both off and on the screen in the US television and film industry.

Until just a decade ago, there were only a few actors of Indian descent in the US - and most had no choice but to accept roles that played to the stereotypes.

In the early 1950s, India-born Noel De Souza studied theatre in California, where his schoolmates were Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, now Hollywood veterans.

But Indians were so foreign to American viewers that De Souza had to play Latinos in Hollywood films for many years.

He switched to journalism and is now a member of the elite Hollywood Foreign Press.

New generation

Fast forward to 2009 and things are rapidly changing, with actors and actresses successfully demanding challenging and varied roles in films and TV programmes.

Pakistani origin actor Ahmad Rizvi played the main role in Man Push Cart.

Babar Ahmed, who was also born in Pakistan, has directed two Hollywood films - Royal Kill and Genius - and taught a film-making course at George Washington University in Washington DC.

The Bangladesh-born film producer and entertainment executive, Anadil Hossain, also collaborates with major US and Indian film companies.

Most of these professionals are US-born.

Kalpen Modi, also known as Kal Penn, is considered the most successful. He began as an actor and now works in the White House, where he is an outreach director in the Obama administration.

Penn acted in popular TV serials including 24 and House, as well as comedy film series Harold and Kumar and crossovers like The Namesake.

Mumbai-born actor and writer Aasif Mandvi has done well on the popular American TV comedy series The Daily Show.

He is also acting in The Last Airbender, a movie by Indian American Hollywood director M Night Shyamalan.

"When I started out as an actor there were very few of us," says Mandvi, who began his acting career in America in the 1980s. "There were no roles for Indians in Hollywood films or TV.

"But acting was something I always wanted to do, and there was nothing else I was very good at. I just had to sink or swim. I did a little bit of both along my way."

Fresh content

Actress Pooja Kumar has acted in TV serials and films including Flavors and the musical comedy Bollywood Hero.

American screenwriter and film-maker Tracey Jackson has been attracted to Indian subjects - she wrote the film Guru and has written and directed her latest film, Lucky Ducks, in Mumbai, India.

Sunil Nayar, Sri Rao and Mindy Kaling are some of the other leading writers of Indian origin.

Sri Rao, a writer-director-producer based in New York City, has been involved in writing serials like General Hospital: Night Shift and What Goes On. He is also working on projects for HBO, MTV and Bravo.

"The biggest opportunity for South Asian writers, actors and producers is in American television now," Rao says.

"There is a tremendous amount of content being produced and there is much interest on the side of the networks and studios to make sure that their casts are more diverse and that the stories they are telling are unique and different from what were told in last 10 or 20 years."

Recent years have seen rising numbers of South Asian origin executives leading entertainment organisations as well.

And Hollywood and Indian film companies have started to team up on projects.

Family support

Several factors have led to a seemingly insatiable appetite for all things South Asian - the rise of the Indian economy in the global marketplace, and the success of films like Slumdog Millionaire and those by directors Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta.

Indian Americans, a population of about two million people, are considered one of the better educated US ethnic minorities.

Kalpen Suresh Modi in the White House, 14 October
Kalpen Modi has a new role co-ordinating White House functions

Traditionally, they preferred their children to take up medicine, law and management. But acceptance of the media and entertainment as career options is growing.

For US-born Suchir Batra - who works as an executive at the leading American entertainment company William Morris Endeavor (WME) Entertainment - the encouragement started at home.

"There is a big cultural, social shift and acceptance of working in the entertainment industry," Mr Batra says.

"While the talent has always been there, it's now coming to the fore more and more because people see the opportunities and they are willing to take their chances. And parents and families are more supportive of doing that."

Overall, South Asians are still under-represented in the US entertainment industry.

But many Indian origin actors have strong hopes to take up leading roles in Hollywood films - some day.

Will Sudan's Nuba Mountains be left high and dry?

"Welcome to the liberated areas," the official said proudly, greeting those climbing out the small aeroplane that had just bounced down on the sandy airstrip in central Sudan.

If one still remained unsure as to who controls the green hills at the geographical heart of Africa's largest nation, the arrival form spells it out.

The crest of the ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) heads the form.

"Welcome to the Nuba Mountains," the official added with a smile.

The scattered settlements of green farms and thatch huts were a key base for the SPLA guerrillas in their fight against the Arab-dominated and Muslim north - a two-decades long conflict fought over religion, resources and ethnicity.

Wary of the future

Some two million people died and four million fled their homes, before a peace deal was signed in 2005.

The SPLM won regional autonomy for the largely Christian and black African south, with a referendum on its potential full independence slated for January 2011.

But that leaves out the Nuba.

The former southern rebel enclave lies surrounded by the north - and that makes many wary of the future.

"We are not part of the referendum that the south will hold," said Kamal al-Nur, a former rebel colonel, and now commissioner of the SPLM-controlled Heiban county.

"Instead, the Nuba Mountains will hold popular consultations to decide our future."

The 'next Darfur'?

However, analysts warn the "popular consultations" - which will also be held in the similarly contested Blue Nile state - are poorly defined and offer little realistic chance of settlement for the regions.

They include no set steps for either autonomy or to join the south - something many ordinary people assume will take place.

Men in Sudan's Nuba mountains pose by a wall painting of the southern Sudanese flag and a slogan in support of the south's ruling SPLM party
The SPLA flag shows who is in charge of the Nuba Mountains

The volatile region is already awash with automatic weapons, and fears are growing the region requires little to tip back into conflict.

"If the south does achieve independence, it will leave these two states in a very difficult position indeed, and it could easily trigger fresh violence," warned John Ashworth, writing in a September report for the advocacy group Pax Christi.

It is a concern shared by many of the Nuba peoples - some 50 mainly black African ethnic groups - who share much in common with those in the south.

"We worry about the future, because we feel we could stand alone," said former rebel soldier Abdulaziz Kuwa, who grows groundnuts and sorghum on small hillside farm.

"I support the SPLM, but I fear the north will not let our farmland go without a fight."

The mountains, stretching for some 48,000 square kilometres (19,000 square miles), rise out of the wider South Kordofan state - a region with rich oil reserves.

Few believe the government in Khartoum would easily surrender such wealth to their former civil war enemies in the south.

A report last year from the International Crisis Group dubbed South Kordofan the "next Darfur", because of the potential for violence between the rival different Arab and African groups.

All together

Memories of the war remain bitter, with old enmities exacerbated by pressure on grazing land.

men drinking sorghum beer bought from women sellers at Kauda market
People are free to drink traditional sorghum beer - unlike in Khartoum

Nevertheless, many people here appear loyal to the rebellion's original aim: equality within a united Sudan.

"We have three religions in the Nuba - Islam, Christianity and traditional beliefs - and we all live together without problem," said Jabir Hamid, drinking home-made sorghum beer in the market.

"The north would make us have [Islamic] Sharia law, and we would not allow that - that is what we fought to end."

The Nuba even take Wednesday as their weekend: a day chosen so as not to favour the holy day of any religion.

Critical time

But the south appears determined on secession: southern president Salva Kiir said in October that voting for unity would make southerners "second class" citizens.

With Sudan's first presidential, legislative and parliamentary elections for 24 years due in April, tensions are running high between north and south.

boys playing football in the Nuba mountains
Life is deceptively calm in parts of the Nuba Mountains

Cynics predict electoral failure, but the Nuba say the ballot could be one of the last chances to decide their future in peace.

"If we can't elect the people who represent our views in these elections, then our voice will not be heard in the popular consultations," said Younan Bashir Kuku, an SPLM member at a training course in preparation for the elections.

It is a critical time for all Sudan.

"The Nuba people fear the breakaway of the south because they will be left as an isolated minority in the north - and will also be on the frontline of any future north-south conflict," said Peter Moszynski, a Sudan analyst who began working in the Nuba in 1981.

"Unless they are offered some form of special status in northern Sudan many could return to the armed struggle, as they insist that they will fight for their right to be Nuba, and not be further assimilated into an Arab Sudanese state," he added.

Reports that civil war era militias are regrouping are confirmed by the commissioner.

"The militias have many guns and they are becoming active, " said Mr al-Nur.

"Security is our main concern, especially with the elections coming."

The future of the region may not be clear but one thing seems certain - for the Nuba Mountains, there are tough times ahead.

Mexico's rural Mennonites feel impact of drug violence

Mexico's rampant drug-related violence is making headlines, with thousands of deaths linked to the turf wars this year. But while the focus is on urban centres like Ciudad Juarez, rural communities have also felt the effects first hand.

"They have murdered Mennonite people… the drug-traffickers," says Abraham Peters, a 66-year-old retired rancher, who hails from the Protestant Mennonite sect in the agricultural heartland of Chihuahua state.

Their parents and grandparents came to Mexico in the 1920s from Canada after being promised religious freedom in return for resurrecting farmland devastated during the Mexican revolution.

Mr Peters' community is one of many caught in the crossfire as the federal government cracks down on the illegal drug trade.

Despite the comfort provided by his religion, he admits feeling increasingly "unsettled" about his family's safety. "Years ago you never heard about executions," he ponders and tails off.

Few members of his Church are talking about moving to Mennonite settlements in Belize and Paraguay as a result of the violence in Mexico, but the community is clearly concerned.

The strain shows momentarily as Mr Peters rubs his forehead before pointedly adjusting his tall, cream cowboy hat, part of the trademark attire of Mennonite men that is a visual sign of the community's commitment to preserve its traditions.

His dark blue dungarees, originally inspired by the uniforms of Mexican railway workers observed on that momentous journey down from Canada, bear a large pocket at the front.

From it he pulls out a map and points to the place where drug gangs reportedly killed a Mennonite man in Cuauhtemoc and another, closer to home, in the farming corridor outside the city's commercial hub earlier this year.

Putting down roots

Mr Peters looks wistfully upon his immaculate yet modest family home, flanked by waving cornfields. For him, this farmhouse, within the largest cluster of Mennonite colonies in Mexico, is more than bricks and mortar.

It is the only home he has ever known, where he has worked the land and raised cattle since boyhood.

Built by his father, Isidro - a first generation Mennonite migrant from Canada's Saskatchewan province - the house is also Mr Peters' birthplace, where he still lives with wife, Catarina, and Maria, the youngest of their eight children.

All speak the Low German or Plautdietsch language of their forebears, and only the men learn Spanish.

Two of his sons have taken over the family farming business in Cuauhtemoc, where they are already training up the next generation. Others have purchased agricultural land in Mennonite settlements in the north of Chihuahua.

Putting down roots is rare in Mennonite history, which has been punctuated by periodic mass migration.

Originating in the Netherlands, these followers of 16th Century Anabaptist Menno Simons, a radical Protestant reformer, relocated to Russia in the 1770s and then to Canada in the late 19th Century.

They fled persecution for their refusal to participate in military action or swap their Germanic dialect for the host language.

A 7,000-strong community moved to Mexico between 1922 and 1927 after negotiating temporary fiscal benefits, autonomy over education in their mother tongue and exemption from military service.

Economic success

Since then their numbers have swelled to some 60,000 in Chihuahua's 25 Mennonite colonies, while smaller settlements are found in Durango, Campeche, Zacatecas and Tamaulipas.

Unlike fellow Anabaptists the Pennsylvania Amish, Mexican Mennonites have steadily modernised agricultural techniques in response to the harsh realities of their environment, where drought is a regular threat.

Authorities estimate Mennonite farmers account for at least 60% of the state's agricultural produce, supplying staples such as corn and beans. Nicknamed "vendequesos" or "cheese-sellers," Mennonites make 80% of the region's cheese and some 70% of its dairy produce.

Since Mexico's financial crisis of 1994, they have invested collectively in an exclusive credit union where only Mennonite shareholders are permitted. By safeguarding access to credit, the community has managed to partially insulate itself from the global financial crisis. Good harvests in 2008 and 2009 have also helped.

But these economic achievements have attracted the attention of organised criminal gangs, putting Mennonites at risk of armed robbery, kidnap and extortion.

Katharine Rempenning, director of the state government's Mennonite Outreach Programme, dismissed talk of any mass exodus over fear of violent crime, but admitted some members of the community "were thinking of leaving Mexico".

Crime prevention

Chihuahua's minority Christian groups are still reeling from the 7 July murder of Mormon anti-crime activist Benjamin LeBaron, and his neighbour Luis Widmar.

We don't know what future awaits us - only God knows
Abraham Peters

Mr LeBaron rose to prominence after his own brother was abducted in May this year. Mennonite groups joined Mr LeBaron's peaceful protests against a wave of kidnappings affecting both communities.

Ms Rempenning, a Mennonite of Russian extraction, is concerned that her community's culture of being "open to others" makes members more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime.

Giving advice on crime prevention - "most importantly, kidnapping" - is a priority for her department, which has an annual budget of 500,000 pesos (US $38,258).

Meanwhile, Mr Peters suggests some threats to Mennonite values are coming from within.

"There are Mennonites involved in the drug [trade]… in distribution," he alleges.

Uncertain future

While Cuauhtemoc is one of Mexico's fastest growing urban centres, there is also sense of abandonment.

Mr Peters, who in his retirement has been taking tourists around Mennonite country, says he has hardly received any overseas visitors this year because of security fears, compounded by the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in April.

Busloads of Canadians and Americans no longer visit the city's Mennonite Museum for the same reasons.

"We don't know what future awaits us," Mr Peters states with a tone of acceptance. "Only God knows."

But for this Mennonite at least, his future is in the land of his birth. "We are Mexican now," he proclaims as he clasps his hands together for emphasis. "Mexicans and Mennonites are like this!"

"We don't know what God wants with Mexico… but yes, we will stay, yes we are going to pray very much and come together."

This peaceful religious community could be facing its biggest test yet.

Brazilian president urges Iranian nuclear solution

Brazil has reaffirmed its support for Iran's right to a civilian nuclear programme, but called for a "just and balanced" solution with the West.

During a visit to Brazil by the Iranian president, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva criticised attempts to isolate Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

But he also urged Mahmoud Ahmandinejad to engage with the West.

Western powers fear Iran is developing nuclear weapons technology, rather than civilian uses as it claims.

It is the first visit by an Iranian president to Brazil, which maintains close ties to the US, Israel and other countries trying to block Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But Brazilian President Lula said he opposes further sanctions on Iran, and called for diplomacy instead.

"We recognise Iran's right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme in compliance with international accords.

"I encourage you to continue engaging interested countries to seek a just and balanced solution on the Iranian nuclear issue," he said to Mr Ahmadinejad at a press conference.

Iran reticence

Iran has yet to respond to a plan brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and agreed by Russia, the US and France last month.

Under the plan most of Iran's enriched uranium would be sent abroad to be turned into fuel rods for research use.

This is seen as a way for Iran to get the fuel it needs, while giving guarantees to the West that it will not be used for nuclear weapons.

Mr Ahmadinejad's visit to Brazil has already drawn criticism from Israel and members of the US Congress.

US State Department spokesman Robert Wood declined to comment on the meeting, but before the event, he said he hoped Brazil would raise some of the US concerns with the Iranian leader.

New York congressman Eliot Engel said President Lula was making "a serious error" by "lending legitimacy" to Mr Ahmadinejad.

Israel too called it a "mistake" for Brazil to host him, AFP reports.

Since coming to power in 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad has sought to build ties with leftist south American leaders.

His five-nation tour also takes him to Venezuela and Bolivia, with stops in the West African countries of Senegal and Gambia on the way home.

New safeguards urged over routine police DNA tests

Police should not routinely DNA test everyone they arrest, the government's genetic advisers have concluded.

The Human Genetics Commission (HGC) wants the police given new guidance to regulate when it is appropriate to take a sample of DNA.

It also said it had evidence police had made arrests just to get people on the database, a claim police chiefs denied.

The database for England and Wales also holds some profiles of people arrested in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Major review

A retired police superintendent told the HGC it had become the "norm" to arrest suspects simply to obtain their DNA.

But the Association of Chief Police Officers dismissed the claim as "plainly wrong".

The HGC report also said some groups were disproportionately represented on the database and it was concerned some would be stigmatised.

Under Labour's surveillance state everyone is treated as a potential suspect
James Brokenshire
Shadow home office minister

Young black men were "very highly over-represented", it said. Three quarters of men aged 18 to 35 on the database are black, the report found.

HGC chairman, Professor Jonathan Montgomery, said it had been transformed over the years from a database of offenders to a database of suspects.

Currently everyone arrested for an offence that could lead to a criminal record has their DNA taken for the database - the largest of its kind in the world with five million samples.

The HGC's major review of the national database concluded that there was "very little concrete evidence" as to its usefulness in investigating crime.

The report also called for ministers to:

• Set out in law what DNA profiles can be used for

• Make abuse of records a criminal offence with strict penalties

• Create an independent advisory body with oversight powers to help make the database and its work more transparent; and

• Make police officers and everyone who comes into contact with crime scenes through their work have their profiles recorded as a condition of employment.

Shadow home office minister James Brokenshire, said: "For too long the government has had a policy of growing the DNA database for the sake of it regardless of guilt or innocence.

"Under Labour's surveillance state everyone is treated as a potential suspect."

'Crime-fighting tool'

Earlier this month the Home Office announced that the DNA of most innocent people arrested in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would not be kept for more than six years.

But it said police may be allowed to keep DNA from terrorism suspects, even if they are later freed or found not guilty.

A Home Office spokesman said they had set "the right threshold".

"DNA samples are taken on arrest for recordable offences carrying a prison sentence," he added.

"We know that the DNA database is a vital crime-fighting tool."

But Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne accused ministers of having a "cavalier attitude" towards DNA retention.

"Ministers make no distinction between innocence and guilt and as a result everyone is treated like a suspect," he said.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that the database was illegal because it allowed police to indefinitely retain the profiles of people who had been arrested - but never actually charged or found guilty of a crime.

North Africa's leaders keep it in the family

In Libya and Egypt, it's a son. In Algeria it's a brother. In Tunisia it's a son-in-law - or even his mother, the president's wife.

Across Africa's northern rim, the belief is growing that these favoured relatives of long-serving leaders are being positioned for succession.

With Morocco already a monarchy, the emergence of these heirs-apparent has led to the prospect of dynastic rule from the Red Sea to the Atlantic.

In some countries, family succession might be hotly contested, or the potential heirs have denied any interest in inheriting power.

But observers say the fact that a clean sweep of dynasties is even considered possible reflects a growing authoritarianism in the region, and shows that dwindling hopes of political reform could be all but extinguished.

'No longer taboo'

The trend towards succession has spread as clans have cemented their power, and opposition - both domestic and international - has receded, says Amel Boubekeur, an associate scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

"Ten years ago it would have been a huge taboo, now it seems to be something that leaders and ruling elites are comfortable to present as the only option," she says.
Former Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour in Cairo, 14 October 2009
Egyptian succession opponents have a crossed-out crown as their symbol

Although no leaders' relatives have been officially anointed to take over, developments in recent weeks have focused attention on the issue of succession.

In Libya, one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons, 37-year-old Saif al-Islam, became the second most powerful figure in the country in October when he was named co-ordinator of a grouping of tribal, political and business leaders.

In Tunisia, as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali cruised to a fifth five-year term in office last month, doubts over the 73-year-old's health led to suggestions that it may be his last. His son-in-law, Sakhr el-Materi, won a seat in parliament and was touted as a possible successor.

And in Egypt, where 81-year-old President Hosni Mubarak has long been thought to be easing his youngest son, Gamal, into place behind him, groups from across the political spectrum have launched a campaign to oppose any such handover.

Weak opposition

Even Algeria, which in contrast to its neighbours has a long tradition of resisting attempts to personalise power, could be following the same path.

This summer saw the launch of a movement called Free Generation, which many saw as a project to provide a political base for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's brother, Said, who is in his early 50s.

Egypt: Gamal Mubarak, former investment banker
Libya: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, envoy and chair of Gaddafi Foundation
Tunisia: Sakhr el-Materi, businessman and politician
Algeria: Said Bouteflika, presidential aide

With just a decade in the job, Mr Bouteflika, 72, is still a relative novice among regional leaders - Mr Ben Ali has been in power since 1987, Mr Mubarak since 1981 and Mr Gaddafi since 1969.

But last year the Algerian leader pushed a constitutional amendment through parliament that abolished a presidential term limit, prompting critics to complain that he intends to rule for life.

As in other states, those critics gained little foothold, operating in a context where opposition parties are weak, civil society hamstrung, and political apathy prevails.

Other similarities echo through the region.

Ruling regimes dress up changes in democratic language, but the only groups that are thought to be capable of mobilising mass opposition are Islamist movements that tend to be banned.

Meanwhile, populist subsidies are used to prevent bread riots and lucrative business opportunities are offered to potential rivals within the elite - including the military men who have tended to pull the strings at crucial moments.

Hopes 'abandoned'

The new model is a kind of "dynastic republicanism", says George Joffe, a North Africa expert at Cambridge University.

"You carve out a new kind of autocratic bureaucracy in which there is an implicit bargain," he says.

"People abandon the right for participation in return for economic benefit."
Archive photo of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his brother Said, May 2007
Said Bouteflika (right) has served as an aide to his brother Abdelaziz (left)

On an international level, the status quo in Europe's "southern neighbourhood" reflects the failure of efforts by the US and EU to encourage political reform after the end of the Cold War, Mr Joffe says.

"In a way, we're now presented with a situation whereby all the nice aspirations of the 1990s - in so far as they have any relevance - have been abandoned," he says.

In some cases, Western reformists may have been seduced by a younger generation of future leaders who have presented themselves as modern and moderate, following the example of Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who replaced his repressive father Hassan II, in 1999.

"They are trying to play the populist card, saying that we are not like our predecessors - we are young, we are going to change things," says Ms Boubekeur.

"But on the ground, when you try to assess what their reforms are or what they are trying to prepare in terms of renewal, you can see that they are not going to change the system because they are benefiting from it."

'Doors closing'

Ruling families and their wider networks have extended their economic reach to varying degrees.

The most notorious case is perhaps Tunisia, where the family of the president's wife, Leila Trabelsi, wields huge economic power.

Catherine Graciet, who recently co-authored a book that explores the business dealings of the ruler's wife and her clan, claims that Ms Trabelsi is already managing much behind the scenes for her ailing husband.
Sakhr el-Materi in Tunis, October 2009
Sakhr el-Materi won a parliamentary seat in October elections

But it is her son-in-law, Mr Materi, who may be a more likely eventual ruler, and who has been building a burgeoning business empire that includes an Islamic radio station and a bank.

"We are certainly on a family path" to succession, says Ms Graciet, whose book, La Regente de Carthage (The Regent of Carthage), is banned in Tunisia.

"It's becoming less and less shocking - in any case the US and the EU are doing nothing to react."

Analysts say external pressure is missing because, as Ms Boubekeur puts it, the US and the EU are "still blinded by their obsessive quest for stability".

Keen to allay fears over immigration and Islamist extremism, and to secure supplies of oil and gas and other business deals, "they prefer to work with people they already know", she says.

But she also warns that it might be harder to negotiate with a younger generation who are "just out to protect themselves", and do not have the long political experience of their parents.

Moreover, with rumours of ill-health swirling around the current, ageing leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, time could be running out.

"They are closing all doors and spaces for peaceful contestation - that's one of the very worrying consequences of this succession scenario," Ms Boubekeur says.

"More and more, I can't see any other forms of rupture that are not conducted through violence."