July 28, 2008

Electro-Shock Therapy

Last year, while he was working in Germany as an engineer for General Motors, Andrew Farah got a call from a senior engineer in Detroit asking him to come home.


A car. A special car.

Farah had heard about it, of course. The Chevrolet Volt was the automotive sensation of 2007, a new kind of electric hybrid that GM was proposing to have in showrooms in late 2010. Farah had advocated a similar design years earlier, so he didn't need to be sold on the idea.

Still, he hesitated. GM had called him because of his deep experience with battery-driven electric cars. In the 1990s, he had worked »

on GM's EV1, an all-electric technological masterpiece that had done so poorly commercially that GM wound up crushing the cars amid a hail of public condemnation. Farah had been fiercely committed to the EV1, and he was not about to relive the disappointment.

"Hell, no," he said. "I've been on programs like this before. They're not real."

"No," came the reply. "This one is real." Farah asked to talk to other senior executives, and they concurred. So, in the spring of last year, he took one of the hardest jobs at GM, and became the Volt's chief engineer.

And how, I ask over coffee early one February morning in Detroit, is it going? It is 6 a.m., and Farah, who is 47 and has angular features and prominent black glasses, is rushing to make a 7 a.m. meeting. The car, he says, is 10 weeks behind the original schedule. Any more slippage, and the 2010 deadline will be history. Even if no more time is lost, he will have only eight weeks to test the underbody, the car's structural base.

July 19, 2008

Hey, It's A Vast Conspiracy

CPM's Stalinist ideology leads to a warped view of the world

Gautam Adhikari

It was a conspiracy, no less, a dire, globally networked plot. In an extraordinary piece of deduction, Sitaram Yechury, politburo member of the CPM, concluded in his 'Hindustan Times' column on Thursday that Manmohan Singh's ''hurry'' to take the nuclear deal to the IAEA this month came out of compelling reasons that tied together New Delhi, Tehran, Washington and — hold your breath — Tel Aviv. And we poor sods knew nothing!
Until Yechury laid it all out for us, thank you. You see, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under pressure to quit for alleged corruption; that's why he wants to bomb Tehran to divert the Israeli Knesset's attention; US President George Bush, already facing a public outcry at home against his Iraq war, is in no position to attack Iran directly; he has, cunningly, given an amber light to Israel to carry out the dirty deed. So? Where does New Delhi fit in? Ah, Uncle Sitaram can explain all.
''If such an attack on Iran happens, then it would be virtually impossible to 'sell' the go-ahead to sections of the Congress and the UPA allies '' writes Yechury. ''This explains the desperate hurry to move ahead.''
Huh? I mean, does Manmohan's wife know? Will someone please check whether Bush called her to get her husband to run to Vienna with the deal? And what about the French? Or the Russians? They support the deal. Why? Could they be in league with Olmert?
''Arrey, no,'' said my knowledgeable buddy Jahangir. ''Yechury knows zilch. I'll tell you what happened. It's all Lalit Modi. The Americans said they won't send any cheerleaders to the next IPL unless the deal was signed. So, Modi got the PM to hurry up.'' Hmm. That sounded as plausible a thesis as Yechury's. Now, which one do we simple folk believe?
Seriously, we as a nation are in trouble if the level of political debate in this country can come down to such a dumb depth. Yechury is no run-of-the-mill hack. He is a product of St Stephen's and Jawaharlal Nehru University, a powerful voice in his party's politburo, and widely admired not just as an intellectual but as a man of wit and charm. So, unless he was being charmingly witty, how could he write such nonsense with a straight face?
The answer, alas, may lie in his religion or what in polite company is called ideology. Every religious doctrine is an ideology and the CPM's Stalinist brand of Marxism is little more than a religious belief-system. Remember, it remains one of those rare communist or socialist parties in the world —North Korea's is another — that is obtuse enough to display Josef Stalin's portraits in its offices despite the effort by almost every other Marxist party or group in the world to distance itself from the diabolical record of the late Soviet tyrant. But, how does it matter for us?
It matters in two ways. Such unreconstructed Stalinists — as the majority of members of the CPM are — tend to understand the movement of world history in a simplistic version of 'historical materialism', the way it was outlined by Stalin for the general masses in a thin Soviet booklet. That leads them to believe (a) in vast class conspiracies, which span the globe; and (b) in the inevitable arrival — after a brief detour through socialism — of their version of the communist paradise, where we shall all live ever after in happiness and cooperation, having liberated the world from the shackles of class conflict that so debilitates this exploitative and oppressive system called capitalism.
The problem is this kind of thinking leads them, first, to deconstruct all reality and reconstruct it in a framework of conspiracy that only needs to be explained for all of us to understand the progress of history. Thus, Yechury sees — in brilliant hindsight, of course — every link in a chain connecting those evil forces of the world that want the US-India nuclear deal out of selfish class interest. He doesn't ask before constructing his thesis whether Manmohan Singh wasn't in fact trying to take the deal to the IAEA for several months, and not just in the past two weeks, and that he was being held back by the Left. Surely, trying to close a deal over almost a year doesn't qualify as ''being in a hurry''.
But, no, everything is class-interest directed, therefore devious, mere plots to subjugate the innocent and the naive who haven't experienced the epiphany that communists have. They occupy a lofty moral summit on a hill that we gentiles cannot climb.
Secondly, they believe deep in their hearts that the tenure of precommunist societies is limited, soon to be overwhelmed by the inevitable contradictions of capitalism. It will give way initially to a necessary yamalaya of socialism and then it'll be Eden. That all such talk went out of the earth's atmosphere in most of the inhabited globe since the end of the Soviet Union — indeed, even earlier at a theoretical plane — does not bother our Stalinists. They know they have to build coalitions in this temporary phase of sham democracy before socialism arrives — their so-called united front theory — but they can merrily generate instability in that phase, because it is maya any way. Creating instability in an unjust and oppressive system doesn't count as irresponsible politics. It's actually quite desirable.
C'mon, give us a break, will you?

July 18, 2008

The Declining Value Of Your College Degree

A four-year college degree, seen for generations as a ticket to a better life, is no longer enough to guarantee a steadily rising paycheck.

Just ask Bea Dewing. After she earned a bachelor's degree -- her second -- in computer science from Maryland's Frostburg State University in 1986, she enjoyed almost unbroken advances in wages, eventually earning $89,000 a year as a data modeler for Sprint Corp. in Lawrence, Kan. Then, in 2002, Sprint laid her off.

"I thought I might be looking a few weeks or months at the most," says Ms. Dewing, now 56 years old. Instead she spent the next six years in a career wilderness, starting an Internet café that didn't succeed, working temporary jobs and low-end positions in data processing, and fruitlessly responding to hundreds of job postings.

The low point came around 2004 when a recruiter for Sprint -- now known as Sprint Nextel Corp. -- called seeking to fill a job similar to the one she lost two years earlier, but paying barely a third of her old salary.

In April, Ms. Dewing finally landed a job similar to her old one in the information technology department of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where she relocated. She earns about 20% less than she did in 2002, adjusted for inflation, but considers herself fortunate, and wiser. A degree, she says, "isn't any big guarantee of employment, it's a basic requirement, a step you have to take to even be considered for many professional jobs."


July 13, 2008

Dissident's Tale of Epic Escape From Iran's Vise

After three days on the run, Ahmad Batebi picked his way down a rocky slope to the stream that marked Iran's border with Iraq. His Kurdish guides, who had led Mr. Batebi, an Iranian dissident, through minefields and dodged nighttime gunfire from border guards, passed him to a new team of shadowy human smugglers.

At the age of 31, after nearly eight years in Iranian prisons, subjected to torture and twice taken to the gallows and fitted with a noose, Mr. Batebi had fled.

But in Iraq, his former captors had one more chilling message for him. Not long after his arrival in Erbil in March, the new cellphone provided by United Nations officials rang. Mr. Batebi was shocked to hear the familiar voice of the chief interrogator at one of Iran's notorious prisons.

"We know where you are," the interrogator said. "You must turn yourself in."

Instead, Mr. Batebi, one of Iran's best-known dissidents, received permission to enter the United States. He arrived on June 24.