Sunday, December 28, 2008

Little Rock Nine - 50 Years On

A day to remember. It seems that they have been invited by Barack Obama to his presidential ceremony. I heard that the white girl who can be seen shouting to the black student apologized few years ago as her grand-children couldn´t bear the shame.

Friday, December 26, 2008

(You Lucky) FourEyes!!

It was a chance conversation on March 23 1985 ("in the afternoon, as I recall") that first started Josh Silver on his quest to make the world's poor see. A professor of physics at Oxford University, Silver was idly discussing optical lenses with a colleague, wondering whether they might be adjusted without the need for expensive specialist equipment, when the lightbulb of inspiration first flickered above his head.

What if it were possible, he thought, to make a pair of glasses which, instead of requiring an optician, could be "tuned" by the wearer to correct his or her own vision? Might it be possible to bring affordable spectacles to millions who would never otherwise have them?

More than two decades after posing that question, Silver now feels he has the answer. The British inventor has embarked on a quest that is breathtakingly ambitious, but which he insists is achievable - to offer glasses to a billion of the world's poorest people by 2020.

Some 30,000 pairs of his spectacles have already been distributed in 15 countries, but to Silver that is very small beer. Within the next year the now-retired professor and his team plan to launch a trial in India which will, they hope, distribute 1 million pairs of glasses.

The target, within a few years, is 100 million pairs annually. With the global need for basic sight-correction, by his own detailed research, estimated at more than half the world's population, Silver sees no reason to stop at a billion.

If the scale of his ambition is dazzling, at the heart of his plan is an invention which is engagingly simple.

Silver has devised a pair of glasses which rely on the principle that the fatter a lens the more powerful it becomes. Inside the device's tough plastic lenses are two clear circular sacs filled with fluid, each of which is connected to a small syringe attached to either arm of the spectacles.

The wearer adjusts a dial on the syringe to add or reduce amount of fluid in the membrane, thus changing the power of the lens. When the wearer is happy with the strength of each lens the membrane is sealed by twisting a small screw, and the syringes removed. The principle is so simple, the team has discovered, that with very little guidance people are perfectly capable of creating glasses to their own prescription.

Silver calls his flash of insight a "tremendous glimpse of the obvious" - namely that opticians weren't necessary to provide glasses. This is a crucial factor in the developing world where trained specialists are desperately in demand: in Britain there is one optometrist for every 4,500 people, in sub-Saharan Africa the ratio is 1:1,000,000.

The implications of bringing glasses within the reach of poor communities are enormous, says the scientist. Literacy rates improve hugely, fishermen are able to mend their nets, women to weave clothing. During an early field trial, funded by the British government, in Ghana, Silver met a man called Henry Adjei-Mensah, whose sight had deteriorated with age, as all human sight does, and who had been forced to retire as a tailor because he could no longer see to thread the needle of his sewing machine. "So he retires. He was about 35. He could have worked for at least another 20 years. We put these specs on him, and he smiled, and threaded his needle, and sped up with this sewing machine. He can work now. He can see."

"The reaction is universal," says Major Kevin White, formerly of the US military's humanitarian programme, who organised the distribution of thousands of pairs around the world after discovering Silver's glasses on Google. "People put them on, and smile. They all say, 'Look, I can read those tiny little letters.'"

Making and distributing a billion pairs of spectacles is no small task, of course - even at a dollar each (the target cost), and without Silver taking any profit, the cost is eye-watering.

This is what Silver calls "the challenge of scaling up".

For the Indian project he has joined forces with Mehmood Khan, a businessman whose family trust runs a humanitarian programme based in 500 villages in the northern state of Haryana, from where he originates.

There will be no shortage of takers in the region, Khan says. "One million in one year is straightaway peanuts for me. In the districts where we are working, one district alone will have half a million people [who need the technology]." Khan's day job is as Global Leader of Innovation for Unilever, and though his employer will have no direct connection with the scheme, having contact with 150m consumers a day, as he points out, means he is used to dealing with large numbers.

But surely finding funding on this scale will be impossible? "I share a vision with Josh," says Khan. "A thing like this, once it works, you create awareness, you enrol governments and the UN, and the model becomes scaleable. People begin to believe." And from a business point of view, he notes wryly, when poor people become more economically developed they also become potential customers.

In addition to the enormous manufacturing and distribution challenges, Silver has one other pressing problem, namely addressing the sole complaint about the glasses - their rather clunky size and design.

"Work is going on on several new designs, and further work will be required to get the costs down. The truth is that there is, at the moment, no device that can be made for a dollar in volumes of 100 million.

"But I am entirely confident that we can do that."

Such is his determination, you wouldn't bet against it. Oxford University, at his instigation, has agreed to host a Centre for Vision in the Developing World, which is about to begin working on a World Bank-funded project with scientists from the US, China, Hong Kong and South Africa. "Things are never simple. But I will solve this problem if I can. And I won't really let people stand in my way."

Big ideas

Life-changing inventions

Wind-up radio

Invented by Trevor Baylis, the crank-powered device brought radio to remote villages and was inspired by the need to disseminate information about Aids.

Solar cooker

Uses sunlight instead of solid fuel. Used in refugee camps in Darfur and while Gaza was under siege. Improvised solar cookers replaced regular ones as gas supplies diminished.

LifeStraw portable water filter

Half of the world's poor suffer from waterborne diseases and this tool contains a halogen-based resin which is claimed to kill 99.9999% of bacteria and 98.7% of viruses that can cause deadly diseases.

The XO laptop

A textbook-sized computer with built-in wireless and a screen that is readable under direct sunlight. It was designed with extreme environmental conditions such as high heat and humidity in mind. It is an educational tool created expressly for children in developing countries. For each laptop bought at around $400 (£267), one is given to a child in a developing country.

Harold Pinter (RIP)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Language Revolution

"As many languages as he has, as many friends, as many arts and trades, so many times is he a man".

I just finished reading a book byDavid Crystal, a Welsh who writes in English.

It´s small, the cover is horrible, black with a ridiculous picture on the front. But it´s very good. The only pity is that it was published in 2004 so all the internet chapter, although I agree with him and it´s really interesting, I am sure some statistics are already old.

Some interesting/shocking/nice bits I have learned reading this book:

* In 1999, UNESCO had already created 21 Feb as International Mother Language Day - a date which commemorated the deaths on that date in 1952 of five students defending the recognition of Bangla as a state language of former Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

* In 2003 there were 191 members in the UN - nearly four times as many as there were fifty years ago.

* A language becomes a world language for one reason only - the power of the people who speak it.

* Spanish is in fact the world´s fastest-growing mother-tongue at present.

* Three out of four English speakers are now non-native.

* Some 4-5 million people spoke English late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This had grown to a quarter of the world´s population, some 1.5 billion, late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

* Bilingualism, multilingualism, is the normal human condition. Well over half of the people in the world, perhaps two-thirds, are bilingual.

* It usually takes a generation for loan words to become integrated, though the internet seems to be speeding up this time-frame.

* A language dies when the last person who speaks it dies. Or, some people say, it dies when the second-last person who speaks it dies, for then the last person has nobody to talk to.

* Spoken language leaves no archeology. When a language dies which has never been documented, it is as if it has never been.

* What is happening today is extraordinary, judged by the standards of the past: half the world´s languages dying out within a century is language extinction on a massive and unprecedented scale.

* 96 per cent of the of the world´s languages are spoken by just 4 per cent of the people (!!)

* Internet offers a home to all languages. Spend an hour hunting for languages on the World Wide Web and you will find hundreds.

* The internet is the ideal medium for minority langauges.

* Children are born not just with a LAD (Language Acquisition Device), as Chomsky argued, but with a MAD (Multilingual Acquisition Device).

* A minority language needs every friend it can get, regardless of the kind or level of language the speakers display.

The book finishes with a Decalogue about the main preocupations which should be characterizing the linguistic mindset of the new milennium:

I. Concern for endangered languages.
II. Concern for minority languages.
III. Concern for all accents and dialects within a language.
IV. Greater concern for the expressive range of a language.
V. We need to become more multilingual.
VI. We need to accept change in language as a normal process.
VII. Concern for those who are having difficulties learning their mother-tongue.
VIII. Concern for those who have lost their ability to use a mother-tongue in which they were once proficient.
IX. We need to bring the study of language and literature closer together.
X. Finally, we need to appreciate, truly appreciate, the value of language in human development and society. Languages should be thought of as national treasures, and treated accordingly.

"The problem with the French is that they don´t have even a word for entrepreneur".
George W. Bush

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hot Spots: Kashmir

Align Centre

Br(a)in Scan

Enlightenment man

A FORMER vice-president, Al Gore, and one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, were already seated on the stage of Google’s “Zeitgeist” conference, an exclusive gathering for the intelligentsia, but the third chair was still empty. After a few minutes, Sergey Brin, the other founder of the world’s biggest internet company, joined them. Messrs Gore and Page gave him the floor, because Mr Brin had something important to say.

The global “thought leaders” in the audience at Zeitgeist had just spent two days talking about solving the world’s biggest problems by applying the Enlightenment values of reason and science that Google espouses. But Mr Brin, usually a very private man, opened with an uncharacteristically personal story. He talked about his mother, Eugenia, a Jewish-Russian immigrant and a former computer engineer at NASA, and her suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

The reason was that Mr Brin had recently discovered that he has inherited from his mother a mutation of a gene called LRRK2 that appears to predispose carriers to familial Parkinson’s. Thus Mr Brin, at the age of 35, had found out that he had a high statistical chance—between 20% and 80%, depending on the study—of developing Parkinson’s himself. To the surprise of many in the audience, this did not seem to bother him.

One member of the audience asked whether ignorance was not bliss in such matters, since knowledge would only lead to a life spent worrying. Mr Brin looked genuinely puzzled. First of all, he began, who’s talking about worrying? His discovery was merely a statistical insight, and Mr Brin, a wizard at mathematics, uses statistics without fretting about them. More importantly, he went on, his knowledge means that he can now take measures to ward off the disease. Exercise helps, as does smoking, apparently—although Mr Brin, to laughter, denied taking up cigarettes (a vice of his father’s).

But Mr Brin was making a much bigger point. Isn’t knowledge always good, and certainly always better than ignorance? Armed with it, Mr Brin is now in a position to fund and encourage research into this gene in particular, and Parkinson’s in general. He is likely to contact other bearers of the gene. In effect, Mr Brin regards his mutation of LRRK2 as a bug in his personal code, and thus as no different from the bugs in computer code that Google’s engineers fix every day. By helping himself, he can therefore help others as well. He considers himself lucky.

The moment in some ways sums up Mr Brin’s approach to life. Like Mr Page, he has a vision, as Google’s motto puts it, of making all the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”. Very soon after the two cooked up their new engine for web searches, in the late 1990s at Stanford University, they began thinking about information that is today beyond the web. Their vast project to digitise books has been the most controversial so far, prompting a lawsuit from a group of publishers in 2005 that was resolved in October. But Messrs Brin and Page have always taken a special interest in the sort of information that most people hold dearest: that about their health.

Mr Brin’s faith in the transformative power of knowledge also has personal roots. He was born in the Soviet Union, an opaque society and one often hostile to his Jewish parents. His father, Michael, wanted to be an astronomer, but Russia’s Communists barred Jews from the physics and astronomy departments at universities. So Michael Brin became a mathematician, as his father had been. This too was difficult for Jews, who had to take special, more difficult entrance exams. Both Michael and Eugenia passed nonetheless.

But it was clear that they had to get out to lead fulfilling lives. They applied for an exit visa in 1978. Michael Brin was fired for it, and his wife resigned. Fortunately, they received their visas, and in 1979 emigrated to America. Sergey was six at the time. He went to a Montessori school and learnt English, though he retains a hint of a Russian accent to this day. Language did not come naturally to him. Maths did. So Sergey followed his father and grandfather into mathematics, adding computer science at the University of Maryland, and then went to Stanford to get his PhD. Silicon Valley, with its casual dress, sunshine, optimism and curiosity was an instant fit.

At an orientation for new students he met Larry Page, the son of computer scientists and also of Jewish background. They instantly annoyed each other. “We’re both kind of obnoxious,” Mr Brin once said—as ever, half in jest, half serious. They decided to disagree on every subject that came up in conversation, and in the process discovered that being together felt just like home for both of them. They became intellectual soul-mates and close friends.

Mr Brin was interested in data mining, and Mr Page in extending the concept of inferring the importance of a research paper from its citations in other papers. Cramming their dormitory room full of cheap computers, they applied this method to web pages and found that they had hit upon a superior way to build a search engine. Their project grew quickly enough to cause problems for Stanford’s computing infrastructure. With a legendary nudge—from Andy Bechtolsheim, a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor who wrote a $100,000 cheque to something called Google Inc—Messrs Page and Brin established a firm by that name.

Suspending their PhD programmes with Stanford’s blessing, the two became entrepreneurs of a typical Silicon Valley start-up. They even worked out of a garage for a time, as Valley lore seems to require. One advantage of this particular garage was that its owner, an early Google employee, had a sister, Anne Wojcicki, who got along well with Mr Brin and has since become his wife. Ms Wojcicki, moreover, had an interest in health information, and began talking to Mr Brin about ways to improve access to it.

Google began its astonishing rise. On the advice of their investors, the founders hired Eric Schmidt, a technology veteran, as chief executive, to provide “adult supervision”. Mr Schmidt’s role was to reassure Wall Street types that Google was responsibly run, in preparation for a stockmarket listing. As Google filed its papers, the world discovered that Google had added to its breakthrough in search technology a fantastically lucrative revenue model: text ads, related to the keywords of web searchers, that charge an advertiser only when a consumer actually clicks and thereby expresses an interest.

“Solving big problems is easier than solving little problems,” Mr Page likes to say.

As Google’s share price went up, Messrs Brin and Page became multi-billionaires. Wealth has its effects, and stories began leaking out. There was, for instance, the Boeing 767 that Messrs Page, Brin and Schmidt began sharing and that Mr Brin was eager to turn into a “party plane” with beds sufficiently large for comfortable “mile-high club” membership.

Yet their indulgences tend to share three less decadent features. First, they enjoy being just plain goofy. During their rare meetings with the press, Mr Schmidt will typically talk the most but say least, rattling off official company positions until the journalists succumb to exhaustion. Messrs Page and Brin, meanwhile, will sit next to him and exchange the odd knowing look, then add the occasional short, inappropriate and mildly embarrassing—but often hyper-perceptive—aside that livens things up and forces Mr Schmidt to backpedal for a few minutes.

Second, they are drawn to pranks and diversions that are educational—and ideally outrageous. They used to be regulars at Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert where oddballs display innovative art and mechanical creations. And Mr Brin has invested $5m—in effect, the price of his ticket—in a company based in Virginia that arranges trips for private individuals to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Third, Messrs Brin and Page appear to be trying to do good. They have been mocked endlessly, and understandably, for their corporate motto (“Don’t be evil”), but probably mean it. When they start to look evil, it is usually out of naivety. Google went into China agreeing to censor its search results to appease the Communists, but did so in the belief that a lot more information, with omissions clearly labelled, makes the Chinese better off. Mr Brin certainly had the Russia of his youth in mind, but agonised over the decision.

Despite the best intentions of Google’s founders, privacy advocates worry that it knows a dangerous amount about its users, which might be released inadvertently if something goes wrong. And there is growing concern about Google’s dominance of the internet-advertising market.

But Messrs Page and Brin have other things on their minds. “Solving big problems is easier than solving little problems,” Mr Page likes to say, and both preach a “healthy disregard for the impossible”. They hope, for instance, to help solve the world’s energy and climate problems via, Google’s philanthropic arm. Health is another big problem. Mr Page, Mr Brin and his wife, Ms Wojcicki, have brainstormed with people such as Craig Venter, a biologist who helped map the human genome. Mr Brin instinctively regards genetics as a database and computing problem. So does his wife: she co-founded, with Linda Avey, a firm called 23andMe that lets people analyse and compare their genomes (made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes).

The relationship between Google and tiny 23andMe has on occasion raised eyebrows. Google is an investor, although Mr Brin has recused himself from decisions about it. But Mr Brin and Ms Wojcicki are quite the marketing pair. When the global political and economic elite gathered at Davos, a big draw was 23andMe’s “spit party” where the rich and famous salivated into tubes to provide DNA samples. A cynical view of Mr Brin’s Zeitgeist announcement is that it was just a marketing stunt. Ms Wojcicki and Ms Avey were in the room as he spoke.

More likely, Mr Brin and his wife have genuine faith in the value of genetic knowledge for its own sake. They get their kicks by comparing whether they share the gene that makes urine stink after eating asparagus, or the one that determines whether earwax is mealy or oily. But they do ultimately regard it as code. And code, as Messrs Brin and Page often say, benefits from many eyeballs, which is why Google typically uses and releases open-source software, such as its web browser and mobile-phone operating system. (It does, however, keep its search and advertising algorithms private.)

Mr Brin was therefore setting a public example with his announcement at Zeitgeist. Let everybody discover their genomes, through 23andMe or another firm, and then feel comfortable sharing the code so that others—patients, doctors, researchers—can get to work crunching the data and looking for the bugs. Throughout history, the prospect of greater access to knowledge has frightened some people. But those are not the people that Sergey Brin mixes with in Silicon Valley.

Obama´s Big Tasks (I)

What will Barack Obama’s presidency mean for race relations?

Illustration by KAL
Illustration by KAL

AS HE sat in a television studio in Alabama on election night, Artur Davis saw a white cameraman with tears in his eyes. It was while Barack Obama was giving his victory speech in Chicago. Of course it was an emotional moment, says Mr Davis, a young black congressman. But he was still surprised to see a cameraman cry, because “they’re a pretty cynical lot.”

“Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job” was how the Onion, a satirical newspaper, reported Mr Obama’s triumph. But most Americans are still overjoyed to see such conspicuous evidence that their country really is a place where anyone with talent and drive can make it. And blacks are ecstatic. Some 80% of them tell pollsters that Mr Obama’s victory is “a dream come true”, while a whopping 96% think it will improve race relations.

The election provided solid evidence that race matters less in America than pessimists suppose. Mr Obama won a bigger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and more of the white vote than either John Kerry or Al Gore. Outside the South, he beat Mr Kerry’s share of the white vote in every state except New Mexico and Arizona (John McCain’s home state). Even among southern whites, Mr Obama did well. He scored worse than Mr Kerry in only five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia.

But what difference will a black president make for black Americans? “He’s not a magician or a messiah,” says Marc Morial of the National Urban League, a civil-rights group. He will, however, be a role model. For one thing, “he finished school,” says Mr Morial. For another, he is a good father. And when black parents tell their children that if they work hard they may grow up to be president, those children will no longer find the notion absurd.

Some pundits think the role of role-models is exaggerated. Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank, doubts that having a black man in the White House will have much effect on the proportion of African-Americans who are born out of wedlock (currently more than two-thirds) or wind up in jail (black men are nearly seven times more likely than whites to be locked up).

Maybe so. But it is already affecting the way black Americans are portrayed in the news. Not long ago, when television producers wanted a talking head to represent black America, they would call up Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, who would always say the same thing about every problem—that white racism was to blame. Now the spotlight is falling on black leaders who have led more than just protest marches. Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, is a close friend of Mr Obama’s. Mr Davis, who first met Mr Obama at Harvard, plans to be the first black governor of Alabama, of all places. Valerie Jarrett, one of Mr Obama’s closest advisers (who is also black), boasts that her boss will make public service cool, thereby attracting the best talent into government.

Mr Obama’s early choices for important jobs include two dynamic African-Americans: Eric Holder as attorney-general and Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. Apart from a flap over Mr Holder’s role in advising Bill Clinton to pardon a dodgy financier, neither has attracted much attention. Americans have grown used to seeing blacks in top jobs.

Mr Obama is always respectful towards the older generation of civil-rights leaders. He likens them to Moses, who led his people to the edge of the promised land. It is now up to younger leaders, he says, to complete the journey. Some of his elders are unwilling to be shoved aside. In July, unaware that his microphone was turned on, Mr Jackson said he would like to cut off Mr Obama’s testicles (Actually he said balls, Ed). Mr Obama had suggested that black fathers should not abandon their children. Mr Jackson deemed this “talking down to black people”.

Advocates of colour-blind government think Mr Obama’s victory helps their case. If America can elect a black president, racism must be less of an obstacle to black progress than previously thought. The time for racial preferences, they argue, must surely be past. Voters in Nebraska agree. On November 4th it became the fourth state in 12 years to ban official discrimination in favour of “under-represented” minorities in hiring, contracting or public education.

A study by Richard Sander of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that when black students are admitted to law school with lower test scores than whites or Asians, those black students are less likely to cope. More drop out, and fewer pass the bar exam than would have done under race-neutral admissions policies. But many universities are convinced that racial preferences (“affirmative action”) are necessary to diversify the intake, both racially and sociologically.

Mr Obama’s views are hard to pin down. He has suggested that affluent blacks such as his own daughters should not get special treatment when applying to college, and that poor whites sometimes should. But he also says he supports affirmative action, his website includes no plans to scale it back and his allies would howl if he did. “I think probably in his heart of hearts he knows better, but I’d be shocked if [Mr Obama] does away with affirmative action,” says Mr Steele.

Mr Obama’s black supporters hope he will make good on promises to root out racism in the criminal-justice system and the workplace by enforcing existing laws more vigorously. Many also seek “environmental justice”, which means less pollution near black areas (more than half of those living within two miles of a toxic waste dump are minorities). And everyone expects a push to improve the relatively poor health of black Americans, who die, on average, five years younger than whites. Reforming health in general will have a marked effect on blacks, because they tend to get the worst care.

But the new president’s most urgent task will be to grapple with the economic crisis. If he succeeds, Americans of all hues will cheer.

from The Economist

Friday, December 05, 2008

Get Me Out of Here!

It's easy to mock the seemingly endless supply of second-rate celebrities in Britain today. But as I watched Nicola McLean, a former glamour model with fake breasts, talking about the harsh realities of life in the jungle on this week's I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, I realised that perhaps I was wrong.

Maybe I shouldn't laugh, I thought. Not after what she's been through. It sounds just like what I went through earlier this year, after I was kidnapped by the Taliban and locked in a dark room for three months; even the pain she felt at being separated from her child reminded me of the torments I was forced to endure. Maybe I should take celebrities and their suffering more seriously.

After all, Nicola's confinement in the jungle-studio with other celebrities, and the deprivations she was forced to endure (presumably by her agent), had clearly been traumatic for her. And the way she described her ordeal made it sound alarmingly similar to mine.

Well, not that similar. I was never forced to eat eyeballs by the Taliban, as poor Nicola was by Ant and Dec. But I did come down with dysentery, and lost more than two stone in weight because of malnutrition. As a result my teeth started to fall out. But thankfully, the Taliban never tortured me in the same way Nicola was tortured by Timmy Mallett.

Like the poor tourists who were interviewed on their return from India this week, Nicola was barely able to hold back her tears as she relived her ordeal. The past two weeks, she confessed to Ant and Dec on her release, had been the hardest of her life. A couple of weeks' confinement in a campsite might not sound as traumatic as surviving a massacre in Mumbai. But, as Nicola put it, the reality of reality TV is a lot harder than it looks on television. As far as she was concerned, her ordeal was real and her suffering genuine - and as far as the media is concerned, just as worthy of headlines as the atrocity in India.

Sadly, it seems more and more of us in Britain agree. When I arrived back in London in June, I was stopped by a well-dressed woman in the street. She had seen me being interviewed on Channel 4, and seemed desperate to hear more about my ordeal. "Tell me," she pleaded. "What were they really like?" I began to tell her what I thought about the Taliban, but she cut me off.

"No, not the Taliban. Richard and Judy. What were they really like?"

I stared at her in disbelief. Was it me? Or had everyone in Britain lost touch with reality?

Over the past 10 years I have spent more and more time abroad, filming documentaries in war-torn and poverty-stricken countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. My first film abroad was in 1998, when I spent six months in Kashmir. It felt really exotic and far away, and I can still recall that sensation of coming home, of coming back to reality after an adventurous trip abroad.

Over the years that feeling has reversed. The reality for most people in the world is poverty, conflict and strife. And I was beginning to feel at home abroad. Life in Britain, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly unrealistic, and I slowly began to feel like a foreigner in my own land.

On my return from Iraq in March 2004, I was surprised to discover that the fighting in Fallujah wasn't the big news. The front page story in the Observer on the day of my arrival was about who had won some new reality TV show called I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Within a few days, I quickly realised that no one I met in London seemed to care, or even know much, about the war in Iraq. They were far more interested in celebrities, shopping and the fact that their properties had tripled in value. Worse, in my absence, the bankers had taken over all my favourite bars in London. Somehow, London had gone from gentrification to Bentley-fication while I was away, and everyone seemed to be living in some banker's dreamland, brought on, perhaps, by a severe dose of affluenza.

Of course, it turns out that Britain really was dreaming. The recession has come as a much needed reality check, and my only hope is that the celebrity-bubble will burst like the property and financial bubbles before it. Maybe then we can get back in touch with the real world.

Unfortunately, as I discovered for myself, not everyone in the real world is in touch with reality. Near the end of my captivity, a Taliban commander entered my room and asked if he could speak frankly. He sat down on the floor, soon followed by his men. The commander had heard about our freedoms in the west, and wanted to know if it was true that women in the west "could marry animals? Even small animals?" I stared in disbelief. God, no. We're not that immoral. Why was he asking? "Well, I read an article about a woman who married a frog in the west."

He had confused the fairytale about the frog prince with reality. It would have been funny, had this Taliban commander not been in charge of 250 fighters and suicide bombers. No doubt he fed them this fairytale before dispatching them across the border to Afghanistan to kill British and American soldiers. He also had links with al-Qaeda, and with the Pakistan militant groups now widely suspected of involvement in the atrocities in Mumbai.

After 10 years on the road, I was ready to come home. Suddenly Britain no longer seemed so foreign to me. It is still a land of tolerance, common decency and basic humanity. And as I faced the reality of being killed by my captors, the final truth of my journey was revealed. The only thing that really counts in life is family. And my family were waiting for me at home.

by Sean Langan

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Lost Compass?

The unforgotten dream

Drinks were being served at Mumbai's Leopold Cafe yesterday. The backpacker haunt that was among the targets of last week's terrorist attacks opened for a few hours in a show of back-to-work resilience. There are likely to be more such small, brave gestures today, as south Mumbai gets back to business after a three-day bloodbath. Politically, the aftermath has already begun, with domestic recriminations. There is great international anxiety too about the strain these attacks will put on the fragile relations between India and its similarly nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan.

Stories this big move on quickly. What began with a bunch of gunmen running around the southern tip of Mumbai could turn out to have regional, if not global, implications. Before that happens, it is worth clarifying why those outside the Indian subcontinent should worry about the terror attacks of last week. Because the rest of us should care very much, although not for the reasons offered so far. Some have painted this as an assault on capitalist modernity, but those descriptions of India's supposedly glittering showcase city barely convey its sprawl and uncomfortable disparities. Mumbai is far too vibrant to be a mere showcase. Others see last week's attacks as a continuation of the story that began on September 11 2001. Until the problems of the Middle East are resolved, they argue, this is to be expected. To speculate on motives so soon is a fool's game, but India makes for an unlikely imperial power - it was not even one of the 49 members of George Bush's coalition of the willing.

Both those explanations seek to fit the attacks on India into a western story. Whether it is capitalism under fire or blowback from the Middle East, this is somehow our narrative in a foreign script. But India is not some adjunct to western politics. When the country won independence, in August 1947, it took on large and noble ideals. One big reason why the world should care about what happens in India is to see what becomes of those values.

This was something western intellectuals used to understand. EP Thompson, whose father had deep links with Bengal, remarked that India was "the most important country for the future of the world". The eccentric biologist JBS Haldane, who relocated to Nehru's India, defended his new home as "a better model for a possible world organisation. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment." Indeed, if there is such a thing as an American Dream, it is not too fanciful to talk of the Indian Experiment - a heroic attempt to preserve democracy and pluralism and tolerance in a poor country with more than a billion people. Nationalism is often little more than identity politics waving a flag, but when Nehru remarks in his Discovery of India that his country "is a myth and an idea", it is hard not to read more into that than mere politician's rhetoric. Similarly, when the constitutional preamble declares that India is to be a secular, socialist, democratic republic, it invites scepticism, to be sure - but it also lays out benchmarks against which a still-young country can be judged.

India has obviously fallen short of its vaulting ambitions over the decades. Any list of where it has gone wrong would have to take in Kashmir, the failure to provide serious opportunity to many Indians, and its recent embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Still, India remains that miracle, a billion-strong pluralist democracy. One was given a grim reminder of that fact as it was disclosed that dozens of Muslims were among the Mumbai dead. The country also retains a rough political accountability, where a car giant's plans for a vast factory can be derailed by peasant protests; imagine that happening in the People's Republic of China. India is not what its founding fathers would have dreamed, but it has not yet forgotten those dreams. After the horror of last week, that is surely worth some small celebration.

editorial, The Guardian