Monday, May 11, 2015

The United Sycophantic Air Force?

I wrote this entry as a response to Sue Rodriquez, who linked this article by former Air Force unit commander Tony Carr, which referenced this post by a (presumably) active duty Master Sergeant (MSgt), and was curious about my take on the United States Air Force's "zero-defect culture."

I have first-hand knowledge of how much the Air Force culture has changed. I served from 1981 to 2006 and retired as a Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt). The first few years of my nascent career was a place we all got to make mistakes, get chewed out and embarrassed, and figure out how to avoid future dumb-assery. Drunk and stupid in the club? No problem. The Security Police (SPs) get your relatively more sober friends to drag you back to the barracks and the next morning you line up in front of the First Sergeant for some colorful invective. 

This meant a friendly drunken scrap might generate a letter of reprimand and that was that. 

Conversely, our daughter Naomi will hit her fifth year in the Air Force this summer, just sewed on Staff Sergeant (SSgt), and can personally vouch for the zero-defect culture that emphasizes off-duty education, PT, and volunteerism. She has a close friend on whom the Air Force spent millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, training and who, as a result of a .02 breathalyzer result, lost a line number and a stripe and is facing the end of a promising career. 

Let me illustrate just how much the Air Force has changed with a few anecdotes.

As a young SSgt, I remember Brad O'Donnell and I got into a dust up at the Incirlik AB club that spiraled into a wider fracas and resulted in police statements being written late into the night. The maintenance Colonel, a gin blossomed mustang with a penchant for carrying a baton, had to fly in from our home base at Upper Heyford. When he got there the next day, he waved everyone off, including the LtCol on-site commander, saying to me, "You guys were just having some fun." Brad still got his F-111 incentive ride. In today's USAF, we would have lost stripes, been forced to attend alcohol rehab courses, and I probably would never have made CMSgt. 

Another guy at Heyford, Ted "Ruxpin" Ernst was a famous carouser and I remember one Monday morning having to take a small crew to roust him out of his barracks room when he didn't show up for roll call. He was hungover and staggered out of bed in his skivvies, somehow managing to avoid shredding his bare feet on the shattered beer bottle glass that carpeted the floor. Ted made Chief in 2012.

Those times make for great "war" stories and I will be able to regale my grandchildren with tales of my roommate Rebel, who routinely went to the club, got drunk, picked fights, and subsequently got his ass kicked; he was never without a black eye or two. Or the shenanigans of the Appliance Destroyers of America, rooftop football, third story mattress diving, and Squez, who first fell from his third story barracks window onto the grass below, then climbed back upstairs and did it again when nobody believed he had fallen the first time. These are the actions of "spirited group of young Americans." 

But unfortunately, this tolerant culture of allowing kids to make mistakes without jeopardizing careers didn't always steer folks in the right direction or teach any lessons and bad behavior was allowed to slip into the SNCO and officer ranks. 

The same colonel who cut us slack in Turkey later rolled into our shop at 0400, hungover and looking for coffee and canned vienna sausages. He was livid because the O-club had thrown him out for throwing his knife into the club's acoustic ceiling tiles. 

Our weapons shop MSgt flight chief at Nellis AFB routinely hopped on his motorcycle after getting drunk at our fairly regular Friday afternoon keggers. 

Our TSgt shift supervisor on mids calmed his shakes every night with a couple of bottles of NyQuil and had been busted twice for smoking weed. He chewed me out early one morning when he found a MAU-12 safety pin only halfway installed on a loaded pylon. The ass chewing was warranted, but his alcohol soaked spittle flying across the truck'sinterior shot his credibility.

On the way to work early one icy English morning, I stopped for a young girl who was stumbling along the road barefoot in the sleet-wet gutter and dressed only in panties and an Air Force issue wool blanket. She had been thrown out of the barracks by one of the guys who had picked her up at the club the night before and then invited his friends over to run a train on her. I took her to the Ministry of Defence police station on base and showed up to work late, vocalizing my anger at how anyone could do such a thing. The subsequent sniggering in the break room pointed me to the culprits; they were airmen in my own shop. Yeah, nothing happened to them either. 

And physical conditioning was a joke. Our annual fitness test consisted of a pass/fail 1.5 mile run: make it in under 14 minutes and you were good to go for a year. Or you could choose to walk 3 miles and get a pass if you could make it in under 45 minutes. The annual PT exam was a morning for SNCOs to cluster up on the track, light up some smokes and stroll around the track. No, that isn't snarky  hyperbole.

Off-duty education was mildly encouraged, but hardly mandated. And while folks could generally do their jobs, leaders were less able to communicate effectively and tended to hold myopic views of the world and their place in it.

Air Force leadership needed to take a hard look at how we wanted our airmen to behave and what example we needed to set for the American people. Change needed to happen. The military needs to be ready: physically and morally for violent conflict, and we need to set our behavior apart and yes, generally above those civilians who thank us for protecting their freedoms. The American fighting force needs to be both capable and compassionate. Away from the field of battle, we need to practice clenching our fist and extending our hand. We need to be able to bring swift and overwhelming violence to our enemies and we need to cultivate "the better angels of our nature" so that in war, we can fight with distinction and leave the battlefield with honor.

The price for routinely failing to exceed civilian standards will be an erosion of confidence and dulling of our sword.

Now, I agree Tony Carr and the Master Sergeant who decry today's "zero-defect culture." The pendulum has swung too far. A "firewall-or-done" system with heavy emphasis on volunteerism outside the work place and the danger of a single rowdy night crashing a young career is flawed to the detriment of individuals and to the detriment of the force. On the other hand, why should we shy away from improving our physical and mental fitness through serious PT programs and recognize troops who both do a great job and take the time to pursue off-duty education? And who decides what is an honest mistake? There has to be a middle ground where young troops can make mistakes that don't involve felony offenses and whole-person excellence can be rewarded.

In the latter years of my career, I guest lectured at First Term Airman's Centers, Airman Leadership Schools and SNCO professional development seminars.  I found that it doesn't matter how much they gripe, almost every MSgt wants to know how to make CMSgt. I told them they could no longer rely on great duty performance alone. The Air Force is filled with great performers. I told them they needed to widen their experience, finish a college degree, stay on top of their physical conditioning, take on leadership roles outside the duty section and not act like ass-hats in public. I told them to retire or give up if they thought getting a Community College of the Air Force Degree or chairing the Air Force Ball committee or being president of the Top 3 was all bullshit and politics. Maybe they are. But I also told them had I not finished a degree and chaired a few committees and volunteered outside my duty section, I would not be in a position to advocate for the poor dumb kid who got a little too drunk to mind her manners.

The senior leaders of tomorrow are the ones who stay today. They are the ones who see the flaws in the system through which they are moving. I wish that angry MSgt the best of luck because he understands his mission exactly. I hope that he and my friends who are still in and now reaching flag-officer and SNCO ranks can steer us back toward that middle ground. Because if that MSgt and his ilk give up, all that are allowed to reach the top are"coat lickers" who, "on some level . . . know [the zero-defect culture] is wrong — even the senior officials who continue to champion such a culture" but who have abrogated their authority and continue to allow it to continue. If you are convinced they are wrong, keep fighting and replace them with those SNCOs and officers who can bring the Air Force culture back in trim without sending us back to our embarrassing past.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Zeppelin Drummer’s Son Keeps the Legacy Alive (Extended)

The abridged version of my interview with Jason Bonham was published in print and online in Vegas Seven on 3 March 2015. This is the full, polished transcript for those interested in his comments on other projects, Sting, Phil Collins and AC/DC.

* * *

Jason Bonham’s name will be forever connected to his father, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who passed away in 1980 when Jason was just 14. And even though the younger Bonham is a drumaholic who has worked with a plentitude of well-known and lesser-known acts, his love and and admiration for his dad is still the driving force in his life. Now 49, and just a week after his grandmother’s passing, Bonham is making final preparations for his third tour with the Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience (JBLZE) project.

I am sorry to hear about your grandmother.

Thanks, but it doesn’t get me off the hook of real life. Even when it’s expected, you never expect it when it happens. I got introduced to death very early in my life, you know, at 14 years old. Every time it happens after that you’re actually a little bit more prepared than you were before especially when it’s someone that’s gotten to a very, very old age, but when you’re a youngster you never expect it, you know what I mean? You don’t get to say your goodbyes; you spend your life thinking about how you could’ve done it all differently.

Would it be fair to say that much of the reason for JBLZE is to continue your communion with your father?

It’s one of the reasons why I do this show. Because I always say, I never really got a chance to tell him while he was alive how great I thought he was as a musician. You just take it for granted. He was just, Dad, you know? To me and my buddies at school he was just my dad.

And at 14, a lot of times there is a struggle between parent and child.

Yeah, but luckily for me, I think I was just starting to do it because the last thing we kind of did together was I got him to take me to see Police in concert. I had just gotten into the band and he got me backstage to meet them. Sting said to him, “Hey John, don’t step on my blue suede shoes” and he said to Sting, “I’ll step on your head in a minute.” I was like, “Dad, don’t embarrass me.”

Funny thing, later on my daughter was attending a college in Boston and she used to show the new students and parents around. Sting had come to the college with his son and they’d been told that there was another child at the school whose parents or grandparents were famous. Sting [asked my daughter], “Who's this other girl” and she would say, Oh, I don’t know. What’re you talking about?” and play it down. Later on we found out that he was persistent in asking and eventually the girl at the college said that “Oh, it was John Bonham’s granddaughter.” And apparently Sting started to laugh aloud. Of all the people it had to be, it was Bonham’s granddaughter.

I suppose it was synchronicity, if you’ll pardon the joke.

[laughs] Oh, I love the pun. That’s one of my favorite albums and my favorite tracks to warm up to is “Synchronicity.”

I am psyched to see your show on 7 March. What can we expect from your 3 nights in Vegas?

On the 6th [of March] we’ll be playing [Led Zeppelin] 1 and 2. but you know I always say I could never just do 1 and 2 and not play certain certain songs such as “Kashmir “and possibly “Levee Breaks. Then on the nights we play 3 and 4 I can experiment and play other songs that wouldn’t necessarily be played live. Somes things like “Hats Off to Roy Harper” we’ve never attempted so that’s going to be fun. My ultimate favorite album is Physical Graffiti so I am really looking forward to [Mar 8] which is really the only time on tour that we are doing Physical Graffiti. So the third night is kind of a one off. It’s the only time we will attempt the double album. (Unfortunately, James Dylan's sore throat forced them to cancel the last two shows. -kcr-)

How long has it taken you guys to get ready for JBLZE?

What started me thinking about doing the Led Zeppelin Experience was my realization that Led Zeppelin wasn’t going to get back together and I put it together as therapy as much as anything else. I mean it became its own entity. It personally grew for me with the fans: the reaction we got everywhere we played, the letters I would receive, the overwhelming response [and] passion. But that was four, no five years ago. I didn’t want to keep to doing the project just for the sake of it. It had to have energy. It had to have something that made us play like we did. Which it does; we love playing this music. So if we had the time, we’d love to do nine nights and do every album.

So you like being on the road?

I like it when you’re playing and doing something that you really, really enjoy. We are very privileged to be on a stage and to play for the time we do. That is the the best part of being on tour. But the rest of it, the travelling? When you get to be about 49 years old you start going, “you know I’ve been to this hotel a few times.” They don’t have the same spark. And being sober for 13 years means I remember them more now.

You have a huge number of projects under your belt and it appears more in the works.

Somebody commented that I must have commitment issues because I play with so many different musicians. And I said it’s not really that, it’s that I really enjoy playing and if somebody called me up tonight with a challenge to play other music, then it’s great . I’ve been privileged by the offers get from really huge musicians, the older musicians always seem to hire me which is great, because these are the people that were important in my formative years.

You admire Phil Collins and there are some rumors that you might work with Genesis or with his son Simon’s band Sound of Contact.

Oh yeah, there were a lot of rumors going around. I was just quite happy it wasn’t another Led Zeppelin rumor. I did spend two weeks last August with Phil Collins’ band rehearsing. He was just trying to see if he would do it again. I mean, I had the time of my life. It was great, but what comes of it I don’t know. I always joked, if I did the Genesis gig and the The Who I’d be a really, really happy camper. I mean for me they are the really big, huge premier bands I knew growing up. After my father passed away in 1980, that was the year Abacab came out, and that was a huge album for me because to begin to look at another drummer as an inspiration was a big step for me. And it was so nice for me to side by side with [Phil Collins] and play, it was a dream come true.

Early in February you tweeted “AC-DC are just so good. Timeless !!!” Would you consider taking Phil Rudd’s place behind the kit if they asked?

[When I tweeted that] I had just watched the Grammy’s and [AC/DC] were phenomenal. I think Chris Slade is a really good choice. He’s been in the band before and you have to have a hell of a lot of restraint to play in AC/DC. I am not sure I could have that much restraint. Some people might call it simple, but sometimes the simplest beats were to make a groove or a pocket and when you are doing some of that slower, riff based rock and roll like in Back in Black, it’s not as easy as you think to play that. But for sure, AC/DC is someone I would consider having restraint for, let’s put it that way.

Is California Breed over?

As I always say, I will never air dirty laundry and as much as people try to back you into a corner to say things, I always say it’s just a difference of opinion.

The last time you were in Vegas was in October for Sammy Hagar’s birthday. Are you are still committed to the Circle?

Sammy’s been sending odd songs here and there and you never know the way things are going with us. Sammy still enjoys it and we still enjoy each other’s company. I’m sure there will be a new project and new music.

It’s said the your father suffered from stage fright. Is that true?

Yeah, he did actually. At least when he wasn’t Bonzo. Bonzo was the part that would come out when he had a few drinks and was the more confident, bombastic, boisterous version of Dad. It was the other Gemini. Because at home, I only ever saw Dad. The lovable father who would get up a six in the morning and make sandwiches to go when we’d do motocross and go riding up the trail . I never really saw Bonzo at home. He would very rarely play drums at home and if he did, it was my small kit. But the drink never seemed to hinder his playing. I asked [Jimmy Page and Robert Plant] if it was ever a problem when my dad drank. They said, “No, we loved it when he felt that loose. That was when we would all take that leap.” But for me, one is too many. It doesn’t work for me and sadly in the end, it didn’t work for Dad, although it certainly did make for some of the greatest bootlegs.

Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience at Mandalay Bay House of Blues, 8:30 pm, Mar. 6, 7, & 8, $38 and up, (702) 632-7607,

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Christian Activism and God's Plan for America

Politically active Christians fight for policies they feel support their god's agenda. In this statement of belief about why Christians should be politically active, Michigan businessman, inspirational speaker, and born-again Christian Stacy Swimp argues that "True Christians have a responsibility to God to fight any law or policy that would violate God’s will and, in the end, our own conscience."

Swimp and other politically active Christian leaders urge believers to engage in the entire process from prayer to the polling place, and to work in private, in small groups, and in crowds in an effort, as Swimp articulates, to remove " the demonic stronghold which has, for decades, lead us down the path of moral relativism, socialism, broken families, record levels of unemployment, and leadership that has forgotten that righteousness exalts a nation!"

Taking a shot at Swimp for his hasty generalizations would be easy enough, but he is here not as a punching bag, but as an example of Christian political activism and an introduction my argument that, from the perspective of a believing Christian, political activism has no bearing on political outcomes, and from the perspective of a non-believer, Christian political activism seems almost contradictory to the faith's tenets.

Let's begin with solidarity. While Christians in general claim the same broad beliefs, their politics (and indeed their doctrine, but that is best left to a shelf of books) are anything but homogeneous. What one might support depends on one's particular sect. Let's take a look at two politically active Christians' views on the minimum wage. The first, Stacy Swimp, you've already met.

Stacy Swimp
Swimp is a businessman and conservative Christian and is connected with The Crossing Church in Farmington, Michigan whose pastors, Randy and Debbie O'Dell, are married. I only point this out because although Swimp does not directly associate himself with a particular sect, it is safe to conclude he holds generally Protestant religious views because the Vatican does not allow ordained clergy to marry. Swimp urges his readers to fight a political battle against the minimum wage which is, in his words, "inherently discriminatory. It can be argued that they are racist in consequence, if not in intent" and "furthermore, show partiality for one segment (a very small part) of our society, to the detriment of the masses. Hence, they are not only morally wrong, they are unrighteous. Spiritually wicked." Got it? God says we should pull back on government entitlement programs and increase the freedom of the individual to move in a relatively unregulated capitalist marketplace.

Charles Clark
Economist and staunch Catholic Charles Clark disagrees with Swimp, and in an interview published in U.S. Catholic, argues for legislating a raise in the minimum wage. He emphasizes that "research clearly shows that once you raise the minimum wage, the whole bottom wage structure rises with it. The last study that I saw found the bottom 40 to 50 percent of wages start to creep up once you raise the minimum wage. That’s a way of creating rules to push people up." Furthermore, Clark, like Swimp, frames this as an important issue for the faithful, "Poverty is exclusion, and people are excluded from more than just the economic life of the community: exclusion can be social, political, cultural, and even spiritual. These are areas where the church, I think, can be most effective." And . . .got it? God says we should use government power to manipulate the capitalist marketplace and decrease the individual businessperson's range of choices when comes to paying his or her workers.

So how does God decide which view to support? Is there some sort of polling switchboard and He just goes with the majority? How does He weigh the prayers and protests and votes of politically active Christians on opposite sides of an issue or who take various differing positions within an issue?

Actually, Christian religious texts have the answer to these questions, and at least for those who take the Bible as truth (often spelled with a capital "T"), reveal that for true believers, activism intervention can have no possible impact on the outcome of any political struggle.

Let's postulate (if you aren't Christian) or present as a given (if you are Christian) that:
The Abrahamic god worshiped by Christians exists. I will, according to convention, use the masculine pronoun and refer to him using the proper pronouns "Him" and "He" and the proper noun "God."

God is omnipotent. He can exert His will over anything in His creation at any time or any place simultaneously. Nothing can resist His power.
"And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." (Revelation 19:6). 

 God is omniscient. He knows all things at all times, including the past actions, ongoing actions, and future actions of everything in His creation. Nothing is hidden from Him, including even the most fleeting thought.
"I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'" (Isaiah 46:9-10).  

God is omnipresent. He is everywhere at all times and in all places and has been and will be for all eternity. God's presence cannot be escaped.
"Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:13).

 God has a plan for His creation. He has a plan not only for the larger scheme of things, but also the lives of every individual creature, including and especially humans, in His creation.
"This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23).

Because of His overwhelming power, it is quite easy for Him to affect His plans. He enacts His larger plans through the actions of individuals and groups of individuals regardless of the personal desires of those individuals.

This, for example, occurs in Exodus when God tells Moses to ask Pharaoh for release, but apparently for PR reasons, God says to Moses, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 7:3). Pharaoh may well have let Moses and his crew go without all the death and pestilence, or maybe just after Aaron did the whole my-snake-rod-swallows-all-your-snake-rods thing, but that was not part of God's plan.

Dude, your breath.
Likewise, Jesus's public torture and blood sacrifice was also part of God's plan, a plan in which He created a dramatic tableaux using his former pal and fallen Archangel Satan and patsy Judas Iscariot: "Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus" (Luke 22:3-4). 

Neither Satan nor Judas had any say in the matter. I suppose you could argue that Satan could have refused God, or failed to have been manipulated into possessing Judas, but that would contradict God's omnipotence.

All this helplessness in the face of an almighty deity means that if you are believer, you can take solace in knowing that even though your prayers were not answered, God heard them and didn't answer them for a reason, or He answered them in unexpected ways because it was all part of His plan.

God's plans are immutable and the individual's wants are secondary, if not irrelevant. He already knows the outcome of everything in His creation across all time and is present and powerful in each every moment. You can't surprise Him and He can't surprise Himself.

Thus, whatever path the United States body-politic is taking is being directed by God through the actions of individuals and groups of individuals whether they know it or not or whether they think their actions are making a difference or not.

By way of example, the striking down of DOMA was all part of God's plan and the exertions of protestors on both sides of the argument were also part of His plan. Like Pharaoh and Moses and Satan and Judas Iscariot, Christians might argue that yes, of course the DOMA defeat is part of God's plan. He want us to demonstrate our loyalty and commitment by fighting more strongly for His will in our nation and is testing our worthiness through political martyrdom and ability to suffer. But this doesn't make any sense because, being omniscient, He already knows the personal commitment and worthiness of every single individual.

So why do some believers feel that "good Christians" are politically active Christians? If you are not a politically active Christian, are you are something less than "good." Does that mean you are bad? Does God prefer the firebrand over the hermit? Will a prayerful, reflective, honest, introverted, studious true believer be cast out of Heaven and a prayerful, honest, exuberant, publicly passionate extrovert be welcomed? Real Christians know these are rhetorical questions.
Or not, Your call

One argument made by some religious leaders that good Christians must be politically active in order to influence the levers of power to push the United States to become a moral and righteous nation, a more Christian democracy.

But again, it won't make any difference. If God needs America to become a Western European democracy with a single-payer health care system and extensive social safety net with legalized abortions, so that later he can condemn the damn place to sulfur and brimstone, then no amount of good Christian influence is going to make any difference. If, on the other hand, He chooses to take America to the brink and save her, then He has already planned it (and relative to His existence, it has already occurred and is occurring) and He'll do it without his followers' puny exertions.

For non-believers my argument is simply a thought exercise. They understand that political activism does have effect on the outcome of political struggles, and they also understand that religion plays a big part in people's lives. Thus, non-believers realize that religious beliefs can be manipulated or invoked or rallied to successfully gain the upper hand in political contests.

For believers it is a bit more complex. They cannot be fighting for personal gain, because through faith they already have achieved the Kingdom of Heaven and in the blink of an eye will be reunited for eternity with their deity.

They also cannot believe that their exertions will help anyone God doesn't want to be helped or change anything God doesn't want changed.

This excerpt from Chapter 9 of Paul's Epistle to the Romans sums up the whole exercise:
For He says to Moses,“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

The research clearly shows that once you raise the minimum wage, the whole bottom wage structure rises with it. The last study that I saw found the bottom 40 to 50 percent of wages start to creep up once you raise the minimum wage. That’s a way of creating rules to push people up - See more at:
The research clearly shows that once you raise the minimum wage, the whole bottom wage structure rises with it. The last study that I saw found the bottom 40 to 50 percent of wages start to creep up once you raise the minimum wage. That’s a way of creating rules to push people up - See more at:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Artifacts #5: Cartography

A dear friend gifted me this collection of early 20th century Ordnance Survey motoring maps in the 1980s. It had been in her family for some time and she knew of my love for all things cartographic. Poring over maps is, indeed, my idea of a good time.

Published in 1929, the kit is a marvel not only of pre-orbital-platform cartography, but also of functionality, durability, and aesthetic.

The collection of 11 maps and an index sheet covers England and Wales and snugs perfectly into its stout leather case. Sigh the hinged lid closed and the springed clasp clicks into a keyed sliding release mechanism. The tidy heft and precision of the whole package would fit nicely alongside a picnic basket for a country outing in one's 1927 Wolseley motocar
Each of the maps is made of paper panels affixed to a linen backing. A small gap between each panel means the linen bends for storage, not the paper, and thus the map does not lose information or tear along the fold. The colors are still bright and the although there are no motorways (the first wasn't opened until 1958), this collection could still be used to navigate without difficulty from Dover to Holyhead.

 Just touching these maps, peering closely at carefully drawn topography and tracing the lines of country byways on an imaginary meander from Upper Heyford to Steeple Aston to Great Tew and on to Tadmarton makes me want to eschew motorways altogether, pack a flask of white tea, and putter at single-track speed down lanes crowded by hedgerows. I want to steer by an old square Norman steeple and find myself lunching by the fire at a country pub and talking the weather with new acquaintances over a pint of bitter as a drizzle sets in outside.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Cup of Mediocrity, Sir?

So weak you can see the flag at the bottom
We Americans do breakfast better than just about anybody, except maybe the Brits, with one exception. Our coffee.

Sure, while a brown, watery, mildly bitter bladder-full is part of many American’s morning, it fails in so many ways to live up to its potential.

Like many Americans, I take a dose of caffeine in the morning. But my loyalty goes to PG Tips or Black Irish.

Yes, I’m a tea guy, but I never order it with my eggs over-easy, hash browns and bacon. That’s because American breakfast joints can’t do tea. Instead, they proffer a little pot full of tepid bathwater and single yellow Lipton bag.

Hitting a fancy, themed chain restaurant doesn’t improve things. They just upcharge for their bathwater and a basket full of perfumed sachets that would be better employed dangling from your car’s rearview mirror after a weekend carwash.

So when I am away from my kitchen, I just default to coffee. It’s not bad, but it normally isn’t that good either. It helps my toast go down and takes care of my morning caffeine therapeutic throat bath. But that’s really all it does. I always walk away from a coffee-based breakfast especially self-conscious of my coffee breath, because, like a hangover after PBR, I got it without having that great of a time.

Now, you can get really good coffee here in the United States; it just isn’t common. You can’t get it fast in truck stops or shopping malls or at the counter of your favorite eggs-and-bacon-and-pancakes eatery. You get it drained from a bucket or carafe where the best you can hope for is the clerk or server who says, “You’re lucky, I just made it!”

Made it from what? Tiny nodules scooped from a giant open bin?

I was reminded of the delinquency of American coffee last fall, when my wife and I wandered around western and southern Europe for a month and re-discovered just how well coffee for the masses could be done.
Don't you agree?

We hit a Back-Factory in Worms during the mid-morning rush. The formica bauhaus tables were packed and crumbed and splashed as strangers crushed against each other cheek to jowl to shovel their pastries and suck down coffee. Those who couldn’t find a new friend overflowed into the cobbled shopping district.

German bakery snack chains, like Back-Factory, stock their shining shelves with a constant stream and wide variety of goodies from the bakery that clatters away just behind the service counter and pump out rich, dark coffee by the endless litre all self-serve at a noisy station just inside the door, where any patron back-up would stall the whole cafeteria-style process, but instead an endless stream of caffeine-hungry shoppers and office workers moved through easily. This automated station ground beans and delivered coffee at a rate and quality the baristas wouldn’t dare bet their tip money on. And the product? A cup of creamy, smooth brew without any harsh bite, covered with a layer of steaming froth. Perfect, cheap, fast.

Did I mention this was a chain?
With all this chaos and demand, Back-Factory still manages to produce excellent coffee in the same quantities as McDonalds pumps out Coca-Cola.

It seems like America has an unconscious, perhaps even guilty, understanding of our inability to give the crowds a decent cup of coffee. But instead of making a reasonable shift in preparation technique, we go for glam. We are like the high school freshman who works too hard to wear her womanhood, and tries all the glitter and spray and color from every tube and bottle and box Cosmo Girl can pitch her.

As a result, we have Starbucks and her ilk, all over-compensating for cafe impotence with esoteric menu boards full of overpriced, candied concoctions served by carefully chatty twenty-somethings. Plus, the ridiculous “international” linguistic mashup of size names just seems desperate.

Now, every time I tuck into an ABC omelet and take my first sip of joe, I think, damn, there are machines that can do the job better.

Look, I’m not a coffee connoisseur. I've never had coffee shat out of a Civet cat. And while I appreciate Todd Carmichael's zealous pursuit of coffee and bullets, all I really want is the same quality cup harried German white-collar workers get their hynde around everyday.
Maybe I should tell the manager he should check out Back-Factory’s website and “Werden die Franchise Partner!”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Taking God's Name

"No, not an oath . . .
Swear priests and cowards and men cautelous,
Old feeble carrions and such suffering souls
That welcome wrongs."
- Julius Caesar, Act 2 Scene 1

Five days ago, the United States Air Force Academy quietly announced that "After reviewing the cadet Honor Oath, and in the spirit of determining a way ahead that enables all to be true to their beliefs, the Air Force's Academy has decided to make the final clause optional."

The United States Air Force Academy Honor Oath
"We will not lie, steal or cheat nor tolerate among us anyone who does.  Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably, so help me God."

As reported by Time's Mark Thompson, the original 1959 oath "was modified following a 1984 cheating scandal" and "the phrase 'so help me God' was tacked on 'to add more seriousness to the oath.'"  

The USAFA press release discussed leadership's reasoning behind the decision, but did not mention the complaint brought by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose mission statement reads: "The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is dedicated to ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

I am not surprised by the decision and although there will be dissatisfaction in the ranks, the US military has a solid tradition of being on the front line of equality, even if it doesn't all seem that way. President Truman's executive order 9981 desegregated the military in 1948, six years before segregation in American public schools was declared unconstitutional. In 2011, the Department of Defense eliminated punitive discharges for those who identify as homosexual.

Even so, according the Air Force Times, MRFF president Mikey Weinstein wasn't satisified with the decision and argued that "the Air Force Academy took the cowardly route,” Weinstein said after the announcement. “From our perspective, it still creates a tremendous amount of unconstitutional turmoil ... for anyone who is a religious objector." In an excerpt published in the Christian Post, Weinstein promised to press the fight "if the words are still there, if our clients are willing to come forward, we'll sue the academy in federal court aggressively and as soon as we can."

Media sympathetic to promoting and supporting public expression of religion, and specifically Christianity, reacted as you might expect. This piece published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State takes the religious alarmists to task and outlines what the writer sees as a strong push by the religious right to "invent a national Christian identity"

A blogger at Christian Fighter Pilot argues that nothing has really changed, since cadets could easily omit the phrase and nobody would notice, but is concerned that "Weinstein is calling the shots for religious liberty in the US military."

Big surprise, everybody has something to bitch about.

This decision to make "so help me God" optional allows adherents to monotheistic faiths, of which Christianity is by far the majority in the United States and by obvious extension also in the US armed forces, to express their commitment to their deity. It allows those who find deities superfluous to openly avoid mentioning a deity and perhaps move their lack of belief a little closer to acceptance alongside those who believe wafers and wine turn to flesh and blood and there is a supernatural being who punishes or rewards every thought of every human being on the planet. I also suspect polytheists will be able to insert a surreptitious pluralizing "s" to their oaths with no one being the wiser.

And, as Shakespeare pointed out, oaths are for those who expect wrongdoing. Liars are wont to lie loudly and keep their own cunning counsel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Classroom Ephemera #4: Hey Gurl!

This note is obviously crafted. Not well-crafted, sure, but certainly thought out. So many adults of a certain age think kids are missing out on the joy of writing and receiving letters. Obviously, this writer cares for her "gurl" enough to take the time to carefully construct the note's appearance and diction. For instance, she doesn't just explain that she is worried about getting suspended and having to clean the cafeteria, she chooses to use the vernacular, writing "i feel helluh stupid for being in skool" without (apparent) irony.

She is also sensitive to her reader's sensibilities. With a consideration of a 19th century novelist, who might writ "Well. I'll be d_____d!" and allow the reader to fill in the blanks so as not to offend the innocent, our writer spares her friend with a modest "hes an f__en kissing ho."

This piece might also be of interest to anthropologists and sociolinguists, who might comment, each in their own way, on the significance of the "bootykall."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mechanical Kurt

A few weeks ago, I found myself wandering around in the world of crowdsourcing. At one point, a friend of mine had his machine set up to work on the SETI project and a few months ago I heard a piece on NPR about using CAPTCHA responses to parse texts OCR programs couldn't crack.

In my meanderings, I came across Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk), named after the 18th century hoax, a chess-playing automaton that wasn't an automaton at all, but rather an elaborate machine operated by a hidden chess master. MTurk has been around for quite a few years now, and I vaguely recall hearing about it, but I didn't take the time to explore until a couple of weeks ago.

Amazon's MTurk is essentially a match-finding service that pairs up people willing to work on Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) in exchange for currency. Tasks range anywhere from transcribing WalMart receipts and voice recordings to identifying inappropriate images in a cluster pf pictures to helping a grad student with his or her research.

Intrigued, I signed up as a worker. It took a couple of days to verify my details and pretty soon, I was off. I quickly ran across HITS that were transparent attempts to generate web traffic. I took some glee in reporting these, as such crude manipulations are strictly against Amazon MTurk policy.

Then I pulled up some WalMart receipt transcription jobs, but decided I wasn't all that interested in typing "NUTS 1 9729837653423986592398" and "DIAPERS 1 089274897089348572" 63 times. Instead, I viewed a cluster of images, found nothing inappropriate, and clicked on the box that said so. Easy money, yo! then I ran across a psych grad student's survey about physical activity and health. It was fun clicking on the little radio buttons and contributing to science and all. Plus, I was getting paid!

After messing around on MTurk for an hour or so, I felt the same kind of rush all those Candy Crush players seem to be chasing. Plus, I was making money!

Well, sort of. If all my excitement has got you thinking about a new career path as an Amazon MTurker, you may want to look at my earnings statement:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Artifacts #4: Just the Basics

Becoming a "pinger"
I received a fabric-lined, faux-leather portfolio on the same day I had my high school hair shaved and a brass padlock and key hung around my neck. I spent that afternoon in the 3723rd BMTS, Flt 623 barracks getting to know my squad as we furiously stamped our tighty-whiteys and "pickle suits" with identifying markings and cowered under the withering glare of buck Sergeant John D. Elovich.

With my ears toward the future
That portfolio carried my red-tape through basic, into tech school, and through two PCS moves before the addition of a family made the paperwork too thick to fit.

I found it a couple of weeks ago, crumpled up at the bottom of our master bedroom closet. Recruits get messenger bags these days. Fucking hipsters.

Wrinkled, but still usable
I wonder if BCGs are still as hipster as they used to be? Probably not, or they wouldn't be called BCGs anymore.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

50 Shades of Jesus

I ran across this lengthy and theologically convoluted justification of bondage-dominance sex games.(1)

In it, Jonalyn Grace Fincher, an apparent Christian and author of the site and book Ruby Slippers: the sparkly connection between femininity, sexuality and faith, interviews ordained minister "John Keller" who "shares his belief of how Christianity and BD/s (Bondage, Discipline, Domination) may work together." (And yes, I don't know what to make of the blog/book title either. "Sparkly"?)

Fincher is skeptical, but writes that she wants to learn more and challenges Keller to support his position. I will not summarize the whole bit here, but focus on a single point: Christianity and BD are completely compatible: both center on absolute, unthinking domination.

Keller, however, is keen to emphasize BD play is all about building mutual intimacy. He urges "those who get a kick out of controlling and overpowering others should stay away from BD/s, because for them in the end is not about mutual pleasure and building intimacy with one’s spouse, but about a thrill-seeking power-trip"

Considering that 40% of the Decalogue is all about an egocentric "power trip," Keller is slipping dangerously close to contradicting his thesis of BD/Christian compatibility. The Old Testament deity is clearly someone "who get a kick out of controlling and overpowering others." This isn't healthy, right?

But to be fair, Keller seems to be bringing his argument to what might be called "moderate" Christians, who usually try to emphasize embracing a loving Jesus who is both there to comfort and to guide. This, most Christians would agree, starts through complete and unquestioning faith and submission.

Multiple Biblical passages support the idea of total submission. These include everything from the chillingly prone to twisted interpretation Romans 12:1 "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship," to the seemingly more benign James 4:7 "Submit yourselves therefore to God," to the gentle binding of Matthew 11:29 "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

It would be hard to find a Christian, even a "moderate" one, who did not agree with pastor Dr. Roger D. Willmore's exhortation that every Christian "should live moment by moment in faithful submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ."

Keller straps his argument to this clearly defined and long-accepted aspect of Christianity. He states that "the act of bondage – which would represent an ‘exercising power over a willing partner’ would not inevitably have to be seen as ‘dominion-taking’, since the one exercising ‘power over’ would not necessarily do this outside of the realm of love, but as part of a mutually empowering love. The powerful love in this BD/s scenario, then, expressing itself in the form of surrender and submission on the one hand, and care, guidance and leadership on the other hand, would mutually reinforce and deepen the strong bonds that exist between the marriage partners."

I don't have any problem with mutually consenting adults enjoying themselves in whatever ways they both find titillating, but if I were a believer, I would find Keller's closing comments a little disconcerting:

"BD/s should only be engaged in by a couple who share deep trust and where both are interested to grow, expand and deepen the ways they can build shared sexual and emotional intimacy. It will take lots of communication, understanding and ‘letting ourselves be fully known’ to practice BD/s healthily. But isn’t that exactly what can contribute to bringing a couple closer together – in a way that delights and honors God?"

So Christian couples, the next time you tie down, remember, your omniscient God is watching and is quite possibly "delighted."

(1) I just stumbled across this piece and was moved to write this blog even though I haven't explored what is apparently a well-established Christian BD "community." And although I haven't read any Christian BD erotica, perhaps the blog post will peak your interest in investigating further. Spank Me for Jesus seems like it might be a place to start. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Teaching College > Teaching High School (for all the reasons you might expect)

Last week, I filled in for a government class over at the Henderson campus of the College of Southern Nevada High School. Students at CSNHS come from all over Clark County and have already completed their first two years of high school. They apply for admission during their 10th grade year and ,if accepted, have an opportunity to complete a two-year degree while they finish their last two years of high school, all on the district's dime.

The program appeals to students who find the normal high school experience tedious and pointless, look forward to more flexible class scheduling options, and are self-motivated enough to tackle a heavier course load with less adult oversight. It's a pretty good deal.

One of the students asked me, "Mr. Rice, what do you like teaching better, high school or college?"

I taught or trained plenty of post-secondary students during my 25 years in the Air Force, and I taught roughly 1,200 high school students in my 5.5 years at Spring Valley High School. I have only been teaching in higher education for 7 weeks. I loved mentoring and teaching and training and guiding and leading in the Air Force. The outcomes there were immediately tangible and almost always positive. But the kid had asked me to choose between college and high school teaching.

I found the answer came quickly: college.

My reasons are pretty predictable, not fully fleshed out, and in no particular order:
  • High school students have no  buy-in since they cannot easily grasp where or how their education is being funded. This tends to result in high school students comparing high school to prison. While this analogy is inaccurate, one can see how they might, in their naivete, arrive at the conclusion. Because they often perceive high school as something they are forced to do rather than an opportunity they get to do, more than a few students work diligently to avoid learning anything while "incacerated."
  • Most high school students have not experienced the difference between having a formal education and not having one. Young college students have at least been convinced that a higher education is beneficial and thus put some effort into succeeding. Adult students who have experienced years in the working world often put much more effort into succeeding. I am still amazed at how quickly my college students pick up concepts that before would have taken all year to pass along to high school kids.
  • College students are free to come and go and completely shoulder the benefit or loss as a result.
  • High school classes are constantly being interrupted by requests for students to go to the Deans' office or the counselor or to see the coach or help set up for an event or to head off to a rally.
  • College students don't get parent-teacher conferences and I don't need entertain parental complaints about the appropriateness or pedagogical validity or challenging nature of my coursework. Students are expected to take those issues up with me directly.
  • College classes don't take on a revolving door of transient students.
  • As a college instructor, I am not expected to keep an additional set of entrance and exit books that could easily fall out of balance with the high school registrar's books, force students to comply with arbitrary dress codes, ask for parental permission to show video clips that contain taboo language. The bureaucracy, at least at my level, is almost zero. High schools, on the other hand, expect teachers to share a larger and larger part of the daily administrative load.
  • My college doesn't filter the Internet or restrict where I or my students can roam. As a high school teacher, I could rarely use my classroom computer to assemble lesson plans because, and this is ironic given the push in education to integrate engaging technology, image and video search functions were disabled. Of course, lessons involving writing for public consumption were severely restricted because all major social networking sites were also blocked.

    And yes, I am aware of the pitfalls of college instruction as well. Perhaps a blog will be in order after I trip into one.

Friday, October 18, 2013

"Suspiciouse Activity" Indeed

I sometimes get confused about how to adequately categorize "bad digital things." Malware, adware, spyware, spam and an associated host of esoterica related to various to jack with your hardware, software and wetware. Still, I can usually spot bullshit when I see it.

However, scammers are getting trickier. For instance, I uploaded utility software that included adware I have been unable to eliminate from my system even with a reasonably diligent web search on how to make it go away. The adware changes my browser homepage, even after I go in and force it back to Google, and pops a window or two open on occasion. Based on my searching around, it doesn't seem to have any other deleterious affects.

On the other hand, I still routinely run across incredibly lazy scammers. Their work makes wonder how they manage to hook anyone. I received what looks like a phishing scam in my email and it got me thinking: who proofreads this shit? Are they hiring? It would be a dead easy editing gig and if the haul was good, I might get a decent Christmas bonus.

These guys could use an editor
It also got me thinking about the state of education. One of the quickest ways to detect bullshit is by noticing grammatical errors or inconsistencies in the copy. Professional firms go to great lengths to eliminate errors in their communications to customers and potential customers because they know every homophone error or misspelled word reduces their credibility and can steer business to competitors who have bothered to use spell check.

So when you see something misspelled, especially in the subject line of an email purportedly from Wells Fargo, there is a 100% chance it is bullshit. Unless of course you don't know how to spell "suspicious"in the first place or notice that your demonstrative pronoun doesn't match its noun.

"Mr. Rice, this shit is hard. Why should I fucking care about grammar and spelling? My friends understand what I am saying."

Good point. Here, let me put you on my mailing list.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Strange Tailoring

I understand why the tailored advertising feed on my Facebook page would push a high frequency of educational promotions. I often visit *.edu sites and my education and employment history show a strong interest in education at all levels.

On the other hand, I'm trying to figure out what slightly out-of-focus images of women with various expressions of what looks vaguely like drunken fear have to do with dads going back to school.

Perhaps they are experiencing a high level of credulity regarding the grant and citizenship claims.

In any case, the images are so incongruous that they do indeed draw my attention, but also ensure I never, ever will click on the link.

Unless my curiosity overwhelms me.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tat Rebellion

Permanent resume
As body modification becomes increasingly more diverse and overt, especially with regard to skin ink, I wonder what my grandchildren will do to rebel.
According to a Pew study titled Millenials: A Portrait of Generation Next, "Tattoos have become something of a trademark for Millennials—nearly four-in-ten (38%) have at least one. Gen Xers are not far behind; 32% say they have a tattoo. Only 15% of Baby Boomers and 6% of Silents wear body art."
In a Harris Poll reported by Vanishing Tattoo, 36% of respondents said that having a tattoo made them feel rebellious when compared with not having a tattoo. This norm-breaking aspect of body art is threatened, though, as more and more people get inked.

It seems tat's negative image is eroding, even in the work place. In a piece in Forbes from earlier this year, Rachel Hennessey reports that "with many contemporary companies stressing commitments to diversity and inclusion, tattoos are becoming increasingly unproblematic across the board. Lax tattoo policies for blue-collar and art-related jobs aren’t shocking, but the increasingly tolerant outlook of frontrunners in corporate, educational and medical industries are more surprising." 

I remember the Air force deciding it was time to come down on tattoos after it starting becoming more popular outside the gates. Until then, tats were associated with grizzled lifers, who might have a badly rendered anchor or panther on a forearm. When dewy-eyed recruits started sporting tribals and barbed-wire biceps, the AF became concerned and clamped down.

What then, will happen when marked skin becomes more common than unmarked? Will kids defy their parents by not going under the vibrating needle?

"No Mom, I am not going to get a butterfly on my ankle."

"But honey, if you don't have at least a little body art, nobody will hire you."

"It's my body, I can do what I want!"