yeah, I judge

IMG_0238I admit that I judge people.

Scooter people.  I hate ’em.

(Except for one of my Facebook friends & former coworkers, who I can tell is a conscientious rider, but hey, Charlotte is just the exception that proves the rule as far as I’m concerned.)

I’m not proud of it… well, not entirely, but there it is just the same.

It’s pretty simple why, and I’ll tell you.

Motorcycle people are, in general, pretty aware of other motorcycle people. When we park, we tend to leave enough room for another bike to get into the space with us and when we park in a space where there’s already another motorcycle (which, honestly, we will usually only do if we’re sure we know the owner of the other bike), we leave enough room to make sure the other rider can safely get out of the space. It’s not much more than common courtesy, but it’s important because it makes sure car drivers aren’t given another reason to hate us.  Seeing one bike per space just pisses people off, especially folks with those massive SUVs.

(Wow, I’m not making any friends here, am I?)

I have noticed, however, that scooter people (in general) are not like this.

Everybody knows I work from home now, but up until March of this year, I worked in a regular office in Arlington (and before that, Alexandria). Of course I rode my motorcycle to work as often as logistically possible and when I parked it at the office, I tried to take a space that a car either couldn’t fit in or that a car driver wouldn’t particularly care for (low ceiling, next to a pole, straddling a speed bump, that kind of thing).

In that same office building in Arlington, however, were several scooter riders.

There was more than one occasion where I came out after work to start my commute home and discovered my bike blocked into its parking space by one or two of these things. Blocked, I tell you! As in I had to physically move the scooter(s) to be able to get my bike out of the parking space. The first time, I figured the guy (or gal) was just in a hurry, so I carefully moved the scooter just barely enough to squeak by bike past it. The second time, I wasn’t as sure the scooterati was in a hurry, so I was … well, less careful but still doing nothing that would get me in trouble.

The fifth or sixth time I had to move this person’s scooter, I took the time to go back up to my office, grab a piece of paper, write “Please stop blocking my motorcycle in the parking spaces, thank you” on it, and squeeze that piece of paper into a crevice on the scooter.

I found the paper lying on the ground the next morning with the scooter once again blocking me into my space and this time, it had a bicycle lock run through the front wheel so I couldn’t roll the thing out of the way. Luckily I am strong and scooters are light, so I just picked it up and moved it – only this time, in a very hateful move, I carried the scooter 30 or 40 feet and left it in a very inconvenient (yet still accessible/viewable) spot.

You’d think that would have ended the parking lot standoff, but no. A week later, I found my bike once again blocked in by this scooter-riding knucklehead. After that, I started parking my bike at an angle across the front of the space I was in, basically preventing anybody from blocking me in – thus becoming the parking space-hogging dick I was trying to avoid becoming. I occasionally discovered the scooter in question parked behind me, but it never blocked me in again.

Fast forward to now. I live in an apartment complex with a parking garage. They charge $90 a month for garage spaces, but they allow motorcycles & scooters to park in the garage for free – they just ask that we either use a space a car can’t use or bunch together with multiple two-wheelers in one space.

Guess what’s happening.

It’s actually worse than just some insensitive prick blocking me in. The scooterati here park inappropriately in multiple places, and some of them even have left their broken-down scooters (leaking oil, gas, etc.) lying around like so much post-apocalyptic detritus.

I’ve witnessed reprehensible behavior on the part of scooter riders around here, including riding on sidewalks, running stop signs & red lights, and more. I’m not saying motorcycle riders don’t occasionally do those same things, I’m just saying I don’t SEE motorcycle riders doing them with any regularity.

It could just be that I’m getting all “GET OFF MY LAWN,” but this shit is irritating me to the point where all I want to do is kick these little bastards out of my way and get on with my life.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that no matter how big or small your two- (or three-) wheeled conveyance is, we all reflect on each other. When a swarm of sport bike riders attacks an SUV driver, that makes us all look bad. When an open-pipe bike gets revved for 2 minutes at a stoplight by its rider for no apparent reason, that makes us all look bad. When a guy (or gal) on a scooter acts like a dick in the parking lot, that makes us all look bad.  We have enough to worry about just getting from place to place without getting run over that the last thing we need is car drivers actively hating us for behavior they witnessed  that we weren’t even involved in!

Scooter, moped, bike, trike or sidecar – we all have to look out for each other.

If you ride a scooter, I’ll look out for you … as long as you quit blocking me in my damn parking space!!

cheating update

After weeks of stalling, lying, fussing and fuming, the last (fourth) student I caught cheating during the summer has finally admitted what he did and accepted his punishment – an F for my course and required completion of an academic integrity class. He was fighting my accusation of cheating all the way, dragging it out by insisting on a formal hearing (which is his right) but refusing to schedule it. I was able to prove that he cheated on 9 of 10 answers he gave on one portion of the exam. He found out that he wouldn’t be able to register for classes for the spring semester unless he finished the process, so that must have been what motivated him to finally confess.

Which brings me to my current cheater.

Two weeks ago, I gave a mid-term to one of my classes. I was in the midst of reading an excellent book at the time, so I took it to class with me to read while the students were taking their exams – a solid two hours of reading time, give or take a few minutes when they had questions.

cheatsheetOne of the students who sat way in the back obviously thought I wasn’t paying attention, because during the exam he whipped out a cheat sheet. I watched him use it for a while, then got less subtle about my observing to be sure he saw me watching him. At that point he tried to cover it up with his blue book, then folded it back up and stuffed it in his pocket.

After he turned in his exam, I followed him out in the hall, informed him I’d seen him cheating and asked for the cheat sheet. He gave it to me and asked me what I was going to do.

I told him what I do with cheaters: You fail my class.  He asked if he needed to keep coming to class and I said – honestly – that I didn’t care if he came to class any more.  I thought that was the last of it, and when he didn’t come back to class the following week, I thought we were done with the incident.

A couple of days ago, I was going through my rosters, mostly because I just started two 2nd 8-Weeks Session classes, so I had to check two classes anyway. Might as well check them all, right?

That’s when I discovered that the cheater student had dropped my class – his official grade would be “Withdrawal” – not an F.  That’s also when I found out that a student can drop a class all the way through the end of OCTOBER!! Unbelievable. At least, I found out, they have to have some kind of good reason and documentation.

After a few phone calls, I finally spoke to somebody that could do something about it. I filed the requisite paperwork.  Now instead of just getting an F in my class and getting on with his life, his Withdrawal will get changed to an F and he’ll have to answer for lying on the forms needed to drop a class this late in the semester as well, which could get him expelled.

I call that justice.

gear is gear, even if it’s made in china

Some of you will remember that I fell (while walking) and hurt (sprained severely) both of my knees back in September. I’ve been diligent about going to physical therapy and am making good progress. Part of that progress is getting back on my motorcycle, which is the thing I told the doctor & physical therapists is the only thing that really mattered to me as far as recovery went.

I missed some amazing weather in the first weeks of recovery, and I’m doing my best to make up for it.

(That’s part 1 of the story.)

Some of you will also remember that I moved recently, leaving a 3BR house in Annandale for a 3BR apartment in Fairfax. There’s 2 big things I gave up in that move – a garage and a basement. The main repercussion of giving up the garage & the basement is the loss of all that storage space. The apartment has some great storage space, but it doesn’t compare to having a garage to put hooks on the wall and hang an entire year’s worth of gear, or a basement to hold … well, pretty much anything.

(Thus endeth part 2.)

Now, if you really know me, you’ll remember that my basement, and by extension my garage, had a bit of a moisture problem. The drainage around that house was very poorly done, and I ran a dehumidifier in the basement 24/7, emptying the 2-gallon reservoir literally every day. We had problems with the electricity in the house because the fuse box, mounted on the wall in the garage, constantly had water in it. The entire lower level of the house always smelled musty, and I was always worried about mold.

(You knew it – part 3 ends there!)

It was summer when we moved, so I packed a lot of my cold-weather gear in boxes or tubs for transport to the apartment. Upon opening one of those tubs, I discovered that my 2 favorite pairs of motorcycle gloves had molded.  A lot.  It broke my heart a little to throw out nearly $300 worth of gloves, but once leather molds, it just isn’t ever going to not smell like that.

I very soon bought a new pair of nice BMW sport-touring gloves from Morton’s BMW, 1 of the 3 BMW dealers that’s within an easy (if traffic-filled) ride from where I live.  Great gloves except the thumbs are freaky long, like they were made for some weirdo gray-skinned alien. What they’re not great for, though, is very cold temperatures.

Yesterday, when I rode to physical therapy, it was maybe – MAYBE – 50 degrees and very windy to boot.  Even using the heated grips on my GS, my hands were friggin’ COLD. By the time I got out of physical therapy, I knew there was no way I was riding all the way to Fredericksburg, Gaithersburg or Jessup to go buy a pair of BMW winter gloves.

Walmart? Target? That ski shop in Oakton? Wait, wait, wait.

What riders have to have amazing cold weather gear? The ones that ride those cruisers, which have (for the most part) really poor weather protection, that’s who.

Yes.  Harley riders.

Before you blow a gasket, yes, I know Harley-Davidson make some bikes that have great fairings that offer a lot of weather protection. If I can admit that, then surely you can admit that many Harleys do NOT offer excellent weather protection – and that means that on the rare occasion a Harley rider goes out on a cold day (ok ok look I’m kidding!), they have to have gear that keeps them warm.

The idea hit me to go to Patriot Harley-Davidson, which is maybe a mile from my apartment, and see what they had for cold-weather gloves.

I was happy to see 10 or 12 bikes parked in front of PHD when I pulled up. One guy that came out & got into a car gave me (on my BMW) a really intensely weird look as I parked, but hey, maybe he looks at everybody in a full-face Schuberth helmet with day-glo orange stripes on it like that. I did park discreetly as far from the front door of the dealership as I could, so as not to sully their reputation with a bike that is practical, comfortable, gets great mileage, and … oh come ON! You know I’m kidding!!

The first thing I noticed when I went in was how nice & warm the shop was. Oh, that felt great. The lady at the door greeted me pleasantly, and another woman who was messing with a t-shirt display looked up and said, “Good morning! Can I help you find something?”

HDGloves01“Yes,” I told her. “I need a good pair of winter gloves.”

“Come on right over here, we’ve got a bunch.”

So far, so good. She then proceeded to show me several different pairs of gloves, some with more sporty features, and let me try on as many as I wanted to. I found one I really liked, but realized they wouldn’t go over the outside of my jacket sleeves, so I asked for a similar glove but with a longer gauntlet.  She knew right where they were and all in all, in about 10 minutes I had selected a pair of gloves.

Knowing what I know about BMW-branded gear, I was pleasantly surprised to learn the gloves I chose were only $90. I did hesitate a little when I saw the “Made in China” tag on them, but I figured a lot of stuff is made in China & I can’t avoid all of it – and besides, my HANDS WERE FREEZING COLD!  The clerk-lady that helped me offered (kindly) to put me on their mailing list (I declined) and tried to sell me a couple other things, but I managed to resist the urge to buy anything else.

I wasn’t far from home, but just from wearing them for the few minutes, I could start gauging their quality & fit.

Well constructed. Nice lining.  That was about it in the first 5 minutes.

Last night, though, I rode down to Woodbridge for class. It took an hour & 10 minutes in rush hour traffic. I rode home, too, a 40-minute ride after dark and it was really cold.

Gloves work pretty good!  Well worth the $90 buy-in.  The outer leather shell is relatively thick & will most likely be protective in a slide. The leather is soft and feels more like fashion-weight leather, but the layer is thick enough to block out most of the wind. The inner lining is plush and warm; it’s a little thicker than I like, especially on the palm, but it’s not so thick (especially in the fingers) that it compromises feel on the controls. With my heated grips on low on the cold ride home, my hands were chilly, but comfortable. I was impressed and pleased with my purchase.

These gloves are not as nice (or as warm) as the pair of First Gear gloves I lost to mold, but they also didn’t cost as much.  They’re not as well constructed as my BMW-branded gloves, but again – they didn’t cost as much. They are a good pair of gloves for $90, no doubt about that.

HDGloves02

 

I don’t feel the urge to run out and buy a Harley, but I do have to say the brand has some decent kit. When I was in the shop, I saw a variety of gear, some of which even appealed to me – and not all of it was all leather, either, which was a big surprise. Some of it wasn’t even black! The clerk even asked me about my helmet!!!!

Anyway, I’m posting this less as a product review and more of a reminder that gear is gear, even if it’s H-D branded and made in China. The point of the gear is to keep you comfortable and protected, so wear that gear!

This is also part confession, as I’m sure my BMW-riding friends are sure to give me a healthy dose of shit – not for stepping into a Harley dealership, but for buying Harley-branded gear… and maybe getting the H-D shield tattooed on my bicep.

cuccinelli and the gun show loophole

I saw another reason to hate politicians this morning while watching the news.

Independence USA PAC is running a new anti-Cuccinelli ad in Virginia. (IUP is funded by current NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg.) The ad puts forward how Cuccinelli opposed closing the “gun show loophole” …

Wait.

Do you actually know what the “gun show loophole” is?

When you buy a gun from a gun dealer or pawn shop or any other commercial entity that is licensed to sell guns, you have to fill out a piece of paper and prove your identity to the shop. (This post only addresses the rules in Virginia – I am not familiar with gun laws in any other state.)  The shop then takes your piece of paper and your proof of identity and they contact the state police, who run a quick check to make sure you’re not a felon or charged with certain misdemeanor crimes (drug possession, domestic violence, etc.).  If you don’t set off any alarms, the shop is allowed to sell you the gun, they do so, and you leave happy.

(Due to recent events like the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, there have been numerous attempts to get a person’s mental status taken into account in the gun purchase process, but unless you are committed to a mental institution against your will, there often isn’t any public record that can be searched by the police (or even the FBI) that will show whether or not you have a history of mental instability.)

In the state of Virginia, as a gun owner, you are allowed to engage in the private sale of your firearms if you so wish.  Whether you own 1 gun or 100, unless you are a commercial entity, you are not required to put anybody that buys a gun from you through the background check process.  You are expected to engage in some due diligence in the private sale of a firearm, such as writing out a bill of sale and getting some proof of identity that shows your purchaser lives in Virginia. This last part is important, because selling a gun across state lines requires the involvement of an “FFL” – Federal Firearm Licensee, or somebody who is allowed to sell guns commercially. Many private sellers will take this a step further, by not only asking for a drivers’ license, but also asking to see a buyer’s voter registration card, which is a pretty good way to make sure your buyer isn’t a felon, because in Virginia, felons aren’t allowed to vote and therefore won’t have a  voter registration card.

The “Gun Show Loophole” is when a private citizen rents a table at a gun show and sells part of his collection of guns.  Note the key words here – PRIVATE CITIZEN. Not a commercial entity.  Even at a gun show, a commercial seller must submit buyers to the background check process.  A private citizen is not required to do so.  This means that anybody with a VA DL can go to a gun show and probably buy a gun pretty easily – with no background check – as long as they buy from one of the collectors at the show.

“Closing the Gun Show Loophole” then would entail forcing ALL parties that sell guns at gun shows to submit buyers to the background check process.  It’s that simple.

However.

Whether you think this is a good idea or not is not the point of this blog post.  What is the point is why I hate politicians.

The new Independence USA PAC ad blasting Cuccinelli shows the photos of several mass killers, including Seung-Hui Cho (pictured at left), who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech on 16 April 2007. It also shows the Aurora, CO shooter, James Holmes, as well, and several others in a very fast montage.

I did some research into these shooters.  All either had a history of mental illness (or at least some measure of treatment for mental issues) or were suspected of mental problems in the months leading up to their murderous activities.

Every single one of the shooters pictured in the ad used legally purchased firearms, none of which I was able to determine were purchased using the “Gun Show Loophole” or in any way that was anything other than 100% legal.  Some of the shooters used guns purchased by other people, such as Adam Lanza, who killed all those 1st graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School with his mother’s legally purchased guns.

Putting the photos of these cowardly murderers in an ad about how Cuccinelli sucks because he opposed closing the “Gun Show Loophole” is specious at best.  This shows that politicians – and the high-powered lobbying collectives that support them – care more about scaring the shit out of you than actually educating or informing you about the issues and where their candidates stand on them.

In Virginia, this ad has the effect of saying “The VA Tech massacre was Ken Cuccinelli’s fault because he opposed closing the gun show loophole.”  Keep in mind that the “Gun Show Loophole” wasn’t even an issue people were talking about in 2007 when the VA Tech massacre happened.

Shame on Michael Bloomberg – who, by the way, should stay the fuck out of Virginia politics and focus on running his own city – and shame on Terry MacAuliffe and any other Democrat, Republican or Independent that supports this kind of misinformation and fear-mongering.

some books belong in the trash

I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to school to finish my PhD for years.  Every now and again, I get the bug to take a class (instead of teach one), just to see if I’ve still got it – you know, that “it” that makes you work hard and get good grades.

Right now, I don’t have it – but you never know what the future holds.

In 2007, I waded back in, taking a summer course at NOVA.  I was pretty excited about it – a philosophy class, and a logic class to boot.

Unfortunately, my excitement soon turned to dread for two reasons.  First, I didn’t realize that the base-level logic class was really more like a math class, with formulas, proofs, equations and other math-like aspects.  Second, the professor was hands down the single worst teacher I have ever had in my entire life.  The guy was just horrible.

The fluorescent lights hurt his eyes, so he kept the room half dark. Great for him, perhaps, but not for anybody trying to take notes.  He assigned us a textbook, then ordered us not to read it. He felt the book was OK for the homework problems contained inside, but that his superior knowledge of the subject was more important than anybody else’s.  His lectures were pedantic in the extreme, laced with personal asides that had nothing to do with the subject matter and served to distract us all from the lessons at hand.  Homework assignments were voluminous and overly repetitious.

Those are the more objective reasons why I thought he was such a poor teacher.  On a purely personal note, he not only informed the entire class that I was a professor myself (after I explicitly asked him not to do so), but after the first two of our three exams, he took it upon himself to inform the class that I had the highest score on said exams.  While normally a person would be proud of that accomplishment, I found it to be terribly embarrassing. If you’re interested in looking at what a logic class exam looks like, you can see one of mine by clicking this link.

(One interesting side effect of him exposing this data point to the class was that all the slackers in the class suddenly wanted to be pals with me and join my study group.  I spent most of the last 4 weeks (of the 6-week class) coming up with new and increasingly less believable excuses to exclude people. I was very lucky in that before the 1st exam, I was able to connect with two intelligent, motivated classmates – our study group of 3 rocked those exams!!  It is precisely for this reason that I never, ever expose the identity of the student that gets the highest grade on any exam in any of my classes.)

As I often tell my students, all that up there is background – I told you that story, basically, so I could tell you this one.

ImageToday, of course, I had my Saturday morning History 101 class.  It was their mid-term examination, so there wasn’t much for me to do other than give the instructions; encourage them that they could, indeed, succeed on the exam; and be available to answer questions during the two or so hours it would take them to complete the exam.  I brought a book to read (Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson – an excellent look at the Middle Eastern theater of operations in World War I), but I have to admit I didn’t read too terribly much of it.

The reason I didn’t read much of it was because, upon my arrival, I noticed that whomever used the room before me (I’m assuming on Friday, because who would have a class that was over before 0800 on a Saturday? You’d have to be insane!) hadn’t bothered to clear off the table at the front of the room where I normally station myself.  It was covered with papers – and one book.

An introduction-to-philosophy textbook.

Written by … you guessed it, the Worst. Professor. Ever.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to read it.

It was, as you can probably expect, torturous to read. I heard his droning voice and incessant lip-sucking in my head as I read it and that surely didn’t help my judgment of the content.  Each chapter was just like one of his boring-ass lectures, only without the personal anecdotes.  He’s the only author I’ve ever come across that basically tried to convince the reader that he was smarter than Socrates.

I looked at the back of the title page to see when the book was published – 2010 – so a while after the class I took from him.  I was further stunned that anybody would actually publish such a book, so I looked to see who the publisher was.

I’d never heard of Publish America, so I looked them up on the internet when I got home.  Based out of Frederick, MD, Publish America is a typical “vanity” press.  Anybody can get anything published through Publish America, you just send it in and promise to buy a bunch of copies.

Publish America and “publishers” like them are universally reviled in academic circles for a wide variety of reasons.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that this particular professor had used a vanity/print-on-demand publisher for his book.  I looked up his Philosophy 101 classes and surprise – he’s listed the book as his course’s required text.

(Interestingly enough, the 2nd worst teacher I ever had – this one at GMU back in the mid-1990s – did exactly the same thing, requiring us to buy an expensive book he wrote that was, of course, not available used as we had to buy it directly from him.)

After about an hour of thumbing through this purple turd of a book, I tossed it on the floor with the other stuff I’d moved off the desk and started reading the most excellent book I’d brought with me.  I thought about tossing it in the trash, but then I realized that somebody shelled out their hard-earned cash for it, and maybe they’d come back for it.

It was a tough decision, though.  A really tough one.

blindly reposting political memes on social media doesn’t make you look informed

I’m not trying to offend anyone here, so keep in mind that I’m trying to help you before you get all worked up about this.

When you hit “share” or “retweet” on that pithy politically-oriented picture that somebody painstakingly put together, you’re telling all your friends or followers that you believe the content of that picture to be true.

If you’re not 100% sure it’s true – or at least funny, I guess – you should hesitate before you clickety-click.

I’ll give you an example.

72665_10202164193810299_2124226652_n

This is one of many graphics getting shared/reposted/retweeted on social media that is simply just wrong.

Let me break it down for you so you know the truth.

The president of the United States earns $400,000 a year.  He also receives another $50,000 (untaxed) for expenses related to the job – travel, holding meetings at the White House, etc.

When he’s no longer president, he gets a pension – yes, for life – that is equivalent to the pay of current Cabinet secretaries (like the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State). Currently, that amount is $191,300.  This is called “Executive Schedule Level I” and it does increase from time to time.  This pension/salary is taxed as normal income.

There you go – the very first line of “data” in that graphic is patently and completely false. Period.  You know how long it took me to discover that?  Well, actually, I already knew it, so no time, but seriously, I looked it up anyway.  Google “presidential salary” – it’ll take you five fucking seconds. Click the first link.  Info. Bam!

Now let’s take a look at the other numbers in that graphic.

  • Senators/Representatives earn $174,000
  • Majority/minority leaders of the Senate earn $193,400
  • The speaker of the House of Representatives earns $223,500

(Please note that there is one majority leader, one minority leader and one Speaker of the House. 532 of the 535 Members of Congress receive the standard pay, as do several other non-voting MCs, like Eleanor Holmes Norton, the “delegate” for Washington, DC.)

Those numbers aren’t even transcribed 100% correctly in the graphic, which has the majority/minority leaders at $194,400, but let’s skip over that tiny error and look at the glaring error:  FOR LIFE.

Guess what?  WRONG AGAIN.

No Congressman (or woman) earns a pension unless they achieve one the following criteria:

  • Must be 62 years old AND must have served for at least 5 years (3 terms for Reps, 1 term for Senators)
  • Must be 50 years old AND must have served in Congress for 20 years
  • Must have served in Congress for 25 years (by default this means he’d be 50, as you can’t be a Representative unless you’re 25 years old)

Here’s the kicker, though: to receive the pension, the Member of Congress must have paid into the congressional pension system (which, I believe, is mandatory since 1984).  Since that is at least vaguely important, I’d like to repeat it.

To receive a congressional pension, a member of Congress must have paid into the (mandatory) congressional pension system.

The pension they receive, then, is based on how long they served and their average salary for their highest-earning three years of service.  There’s a whole confusing formula, but the bottom line is that the average pension received by any former Member of Congress is between $41,000 and $55,000.  The highest current Congressional pension paid is just over $84,000. Again, I found this with just a little searching on Google – in under a minute.  UNDER A MINUTE.

Once again using my google-fu, I found (in about 3 seconds) the Army’s website that clearly lists max pay for each grade:

  • Private, E1 – $18,194
  • Private, E2 – $20,398
  • Private First Class, E3 – $24,178
  • Specialist/Corporal, E4 – $28,840
  • Sergeant, E5 – $32,490
  • Staff Sergeant, E6 – $35,226
  • 1st Lt, O1 – $43,430
  • 2nd Lt, O2 – $55,037
  • Captain, O3 – $64,338
  • Major, O4 – $69,296    391,427

Since this is public record, you shouldn’t be surprised how easy it was to find.

You know what was also easy to find?  The combat pay differential.  A soldier deployed to a combat zone – like Afghanistan – earns $225 extra per month. This amount is prorated if they don’t serve a full month – that’s $7.50 a day.  Think about what you buy for $7.50 in any given day.  That’s what a US soldier gets – extra, mind you – for getting shot at.  How’s that $4 Starbucks mochafrappelatte taste now?

(Sorry – I apologize for getting a little soldier-righteous on you there.)

There’s also something soldiers can get called Hazardous Duty Incentive Pay (HDIP), which is an extra $150 a month.  This is based on their jobs, though, and not their location. If you want to earn this princely sum, you have to be directly in contact with something hazardous, like explosives or a flight deck, or do something hazardous, like work in the Arctic or jump out of airplanes.

Let’s do a little math.  Let’s say a Private First Class (PFC) is both an explosives tech and deployed in Afghanistan.  He’s there from 1 Jan to 31 Dec – 12 full months – so he earns the full combat differential for one year – that’s $2,700.  His HDIP for the year is $1,800, bringing his total extra pay to $4,500.  Add that to his salary – provided he has 4+ years of experience, he’s earning the max pay for a PFC – and he’s making a grand total of $28,678.

Based on a 40-hour work week, a PFC in Afghanistan who handle explosives every day earns $13.78 an hour.

(By the way, based on a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks a year, a rank & file Member of Congress earns $83.65 an hour. Yes, I realize they often work more than 40 hours a week, but they don’t work 52 weeks a year, so let’s just agree that it evens out.)

To figure out the average pay for soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, you’d have to know some specific data points, including how many soldiers are there and what grade each of them is.  Even if you just do a straight average on the listed max pay (without differentials) for 1 of each soldier from the list above, the average isn’t $38,000 – it’s just over $39,000.  When you take into consideration that there are dozens of privates in the field for every major, I have a really hard time accepting the $38,000 average stated in the graphic. I’m sure it has to be lower than that.

(A typical US Army rifle platoon – the basic unit of an infantry formation – has 36 riflemen (privates & corporals), 4 staff sergeants, at least one sergeant first class (E7), and at least a 2nd lieutenant.  Soldiers at the bottom of the pay scale outnumber soldiers at the top of it by a ratio of 6:1.)

Last but not least, let’s look at the very last number – the assertion that the average Social Security income for US seniors is $12,000.

According to the Social Security website (shit, I didn’t even need Google for that!), the average monthly benefit for a retired senior citizen is $1,230. Simple math tells us that, extrapolated to a full year, that number is $14,760. It’s not a lot more than $12,000, but my point being that the numbers are just wrong is upheld thanks to a little googling and a little math.

How far these numbers are off isn’t why I wrote this post – I wrote it because these numbers – and their assertions – are just plain fucking WRONG.

Educate yourself before you repost something. Stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.

tom clancy dead at age 66

539945Tom Clancy is dead. He was 66. While few articles are speculating as to the cause of death, Clancy was well known to be a heavy smoker; that no doubt contributed to his early demise.

I never met the man, but his books meant a whole lot to me. As I say to my students, I have to tell you this story to tell you that story.

You see, I’m a child of the Cold War. I wasn’t just a child during the Cold War, I was a child IN the Cold War.

In 1976, the US Air Force saw fit to station my father in Germany, at an air base called Sembach. We joined him there a year later (going to see Star Wars was the last big thing I did in the States before we left – thanks, Uncle Brian & Aunt Julie!).

This means that my father was attached to the 601st Tactical Air Control Wing, part of the 17th Air Force. I was too young then to grasp whatever it was he did, but I knew one thing – we lived near a base where they had OV-10s, and as a fourth grader, I was absolutely captivated by those slow, ugly bastards. I used to sit on the hill behind my elementary school and watch them take off and land, over and over. We lived in a little town called Otterberg in an apartment above a nice German family.

GermanyAfter Sembach, we lived near Hahn AFB for a short time. I traded the turboprop OV-10s for on-their-way-out F-4Es – still one of the coolest-looking fighters the USAF ever flew. I’m not sure which unit my father was part of, but it was either the 10th, 313th or 496th Tactical Fighter Group. Much to my ultimate dismay, we moved to another base before Hahn got its F-16s in 1979.

From Hahn, we took kind of a weird turn, as my father was sent to Neubrücke Kaserne, a tiny-ass Army installation not far from the border between Germany and Luxembourg. This was the first time since we left the States that we lived on base, in a shitty Army apartment building.

When we lived at Neubrücke, I lost all connection with what it was my father did for the USAF. “What’d you do at work today?” I’d ask. “Nothin’,” he’d say.

Every. Day.

The weird thing about Neubrücke – beyond its very small size – was the buildings.  Nearly every major building had a hallway that clearly went underground, but was blocked off by a locked gate.  Sometimes I could see equipment stacked up on the other side of the gates, but usually it was just kind of ghostly.  I learned later that, in the event of war, our little installation would quickly be converted to either a fallout shelter or a hospital, whichever was needed more. It was stocked to do either – or both.

I remember being excited one day when my father brought something home from work. It was a printout – you remember those big, roll-fed dot-matrix printers? They fed this wide paper that was striped with a pale green for readability. He showed me the printout. I thought I was finally going to get some insight into what he did all day, every day in that mountain he worked inside. Instead, what I saw was the printout of a text-based computerized Star Trek game – he’d finally beaten the Klingons, and was so proud of his accomplishment that he brought it home to show me.  (Imagine Zork, but with the Enterprise.)

A fucking computer game. Who’d’a thunk it.  Star Trek to boot.

It was several years later when I finally figured out that’s when he started his career in intelligence work, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Neubrücke, we moved to SHAPE HQ in Mons, Belgium. We lived in a tiny hamlet called Harmignies. Our bus driver and his backup were always armed. It seemed perfectly normal to us – after all, we’d been living on or near military bases nearly our whole lives at that point. I didn’t even blanche when I saw some knucklehead racing to get into an NBC suit, an Uzi or 2 certainly wouldn’t have phased me.

Sorry, I’m digressing.

The whole time we lived in Germany, we were never more than 100 miles from Frankfurt, which means we were never more than about 150 miles from Fulda, which means we were within just a few minutes’ flight time of the Fulda Gap.

“What’s the Fulda Gap?” I hear you cry.

The Fulda Gap is where NATO fully expected two entire Soviet tank armies to invade when the Cold War got hot. The air bases we lived at were forward support for US tanks (3rd Armored Division) and infantry (8th Mechanized Division) that were in place specifically to plug the Fulda Gap when World War 3 started.

Yeah. Lay that on a 10-year-old and see how he does with it.

By the time I was 14 years old – in 1984 – I had regular nightmares about exactly what a tactical nuclear weapon would do to me. I knew more about fighter planes and main battle tanks than any 9th grader should, and all of it scared the living shit out of me.

In one of his rare instances of paternal insight, my father realized that he could do something to help his oldest son. He came home from work one day and sat me down at the kitchen table. Very dramatically, he put his briefcase on the table and snapped open the latches.

“I’m going to give you something,” he said. “You can’t take it out of the house, and you can’t ever tell anybody you have it.” He looked at me with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Nobody. Ever.”

No pressure, right?

To this day, I don’t know if he was being melodramatic or if he could have really gotten in trouble, but he’d never shown that level of trust in me before, so I was nearly apoplectic trying to figure out what was going on.

soviet military powerHe opened his briefcase and brought out a crimson-red book. It was 8.5 x 11 and the title – “SOVIET MILITARY POWER” – was all that was on the cover, along with a tiny “1983” at the bottom.

“This is for you,” he said, “So you can understand what we’re up against. You know what we have and how we’ll use it if we need to, so I want you to see what the threat really is.”

I probably didn’t come out of my room except to eat or go to school for three days after that. I was so afraid of somebody finding this book that I hid it between the mattress and box spring of my bed.

(Yeah, I know. I should have been hiding Playboys there, but you already knew I was a nerd, so is this a big surprise?)

The book broke down in meticulous detail the stats, specs and capabilities of every piece of Soviet hardware, even fessing up when US/NATO intelligence knew very little (or nothing) about a weapons platform. It went on to detail how many of this or that were stationed where, even making some attempts to predict what Soviet strategies would be if a war started.

My father was right – having that book helped. A lot. The nightmares didn’t disappear, but they did lessen in frequency and intensity. The dreams lost their persecutory atmosphere as well, the idea that the Soviets were coming after ME.

I found out several years later that later volumes of this series (they put one out every year) weren’t classified – but they were hard to get. My father was able to nab a copy each year, at first due to his position working for the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – a guy called General Bernard Rogers at the time) and later through his job on the bottom floor of the Pentagon. I filled out my collection – 1989 & 1990, the last 2 years of them, of course – at a library sale in the late 1990s.

Less than a year after giving me that first one, he brought home a book from work. It was an advance copy of the first work of fiction ever published by the Naval Institute Press. He read it in a couple of days and gave it to me – “You’re going to love this book,” he said.

The advance copy’s cover used a similar stark typeface to the Soviet Military Power reports, and it read, simply: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.

He was right – I loved that book. As soon as it was commercially available, I got my own copy, the first hardback book I ever spent my own money on.

Clancy’s next novel, Red Storm Rising, was even better. I later learned it was actually the first book he wrote, but “Red October” was the first he got published. If you read Red Storm first, you can see a lot of the sub chase sequences from Red October in them.

Red Storm Rising was epic in scope – World War 3 on land, at sea and in the air. It had some clunky characters (the clueless Air Force weather man in Iceland comes to mind), but the plot was solid and it was a fantastic read. I’ve read my copy so many times that it’s falling apart.

Clancy went the James Bond route after that, developing the character Jack Ryan (the hero of Red October) on and on until Ryan actually becomes the president of the United States. Patriot Games, The Cardinal in the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears – all solid spy books.

What attracted me to Clancy’s writing was its military precision. He described the technology with loving detail; his description of stealth fighters in Red Storm will give you chills. He seemed to know as much (if not more) about military hardware as I did, and I always felt like he was writing those books just for me, that scared kid who grew up in Europe just a short drive from the Fulda Gap.  You could tell he totally geeked out on the hardware, and I just ate it up.

After those books, though, I kind of lost interest in Clancy’s work. Without Remorse was OK. I found the climax of Debt of Honor (published 1994) to be completely implausible – what kind of crazy person would commandeer an airliner and crash it into a building? Debt also made me uncomfortable because it rode a wave of Japan-bashing that was sweeping the US at the time, and I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, its people and their culture.

Executive Orders was also an OK book, as was SSN, but neither was great. Clancy seemed to get some of his zing back when he brought back John Clark, a character from Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse, and put him in charge of the book’s eponymous Rainbox Six counter-terrorist group.

I read The Bear and the Dragon and Red Rabbit, but that was pretty much it for me. I felt like Clancy lost what had made him great – the techno-spy-thriller aspects of his writing weren’t shining through like they did in his first few books. I never read his last solo book, The Teeth of the Tiger, because I couldn’t get into Jack Ryan’s son picking up his father’s mantle. This probably had something to do with the fact that, by 2003, my own father and I were quite distant from each other – we never had much of a relationship after 2001, and frankly, not much of one before that, either.

I wasn’t interested in reading any of the books Clancy co-wrote with other authors. I’m not a fan of co-written fiction books, so I just didn’t bother.

Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October will always hold a special place in my heart because they helped me be less afraid of nuclear war. I saw in these books the intense ways in which the commanders of US & Soviet forces wanted to avoid throwing nukes – even when it seemed like the only possible option for victory.

One of Red October‘s main characters, the Captain Marko Ramius, astutely realizes his new submarine is – as we now call them – a WMD, purpose-built to sneak up on the USSR’s enemy and launch a devastating attack. He takes it upon himself to even the playing field and drastically reduce the possibility of nuclear war.

That always meant a lot to me.