Category Archives: Science & Technology

Using Big Data to Put Veterans Back to Work

veteransby James A. Bacon

Unemployment among veterans in the United States is higher than that for the population at large. The problem is particularly acute among post 9/11 veterans, for whom the unemployment rate ran 9.0% in 2013 — nearly 50% higher than the 6.2% rate for all Americans, according to data from the U.S. Congress’ Joint Economic Commitee.

The silver lining for Virginians is that the unemployment rate for young vets in the Old Dominion was actually lower than the statewide average — only 4% compared to 5.4%.

Those figures alone are grounds for thinking that Virginia is more committed than many other states to promote veteran employment. In one example of that state’s commitment, the commonwealth helped pioneer a public-private open data collaborative, Veteran Talent, to shed light on veteran employment issues. The Virginia Employment Commission contributed data on unemployed veterans in each county by age, education attainment and the occupation code for the job they seek.

Veteran Talent, a project funded by the Duffield Family Foundation, mashed up data from numerous public and private sources, including U.S. Census data and job sites like Monster.com, to create a detailed national picture of how many unemployed veterans there are, where they are located, what job skills they possess and what skills employers are looking for. Not only will the searchable database suggest where veterans could be focusing their job searches geographically and where employers can identify pockets of potential employees, but it allows researchers to plumb the data for insight into the nature of the challenge.

“We need a clear understanding of the problem,” says Aneesh Chopra, co-founder of big-data and predictive-analytics firm Hunch Analytics and former chief technology officer in the Obama administration, who spear-headed the effort. We’ve had the data all along, he says, but it resided in numerous unconnected databases. By mashing up the data and making it accessible to the public, Veteran Talent allows people to spot patterns and make connections that would have been impossible before.

The Corporate Executive Board Talent Neuron used the database to examine how many veterans would qualify for entry-level technology jobs. In Virginia, for example, Talent Neuron found 681 technology jobs posted by employers committed to hiring veteran talent. Of those, about 190 are entry-level. The analysis also identified about 275 trainable, unemployed veterans in Virginia alone.

While unemployed veterans may not possess all the technology requirements needed to match those job requirements, they may meet some criteria. In other words, they have a shorter training bridge to cross than someone from the general population in order to qualify for an entry tech job. Says Chopra: “The current workforce system isn’t doing that.”

Research by John Parman, a College of William & Mary economics professor, found that unemployment rates for veterans varies in Virginia from below 2% in Alexandria and Stafford County to more than 11% in Bedford County and the City of Roanoke. Jurisdictions with more dynamic economies that experience more income mobility show lower veteran unemployment rates, while jurisdictions with less mobility show higher veteran unemployment rates. But veterans don’t seem to benefit as much from higher-mobility economies than the general population does.

“These findings … lead to important considerations when crafting policies targeted at solving veteran unemployment issues,” writes Parman. “Using non-veteran data to predict the experiences of veterans can be misleading and policies targeting reductions in general unemployment rates may have the unintended consequence of widening gaps between veteran and non-veteran outcomes.”

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

Smart Cities Tech Meets Sea Level Rise

In the most imaginative and useful application of crowd-sourcing technology I’ve seen in Virginia, Hampton Roads Cares has helped fund creation of the Wetlands Watch Sea-Level Rise app. Right now, you don’t know where it’s going to flood until you’re in the middle of it, says Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, in this video. “As long as you’re out there, wheel-well deep in water, you might as well be telling the person behind you that it’s wet here.” The ultimate goal: to provide enough data to help scientists and modelers predict where flooding will occur. – JAB

Richmond’s Tech Star in Kickback Scheme?

HDL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Critics of the American healthcare system have long cited hidden charges as one reason why costs are so high and why reform is needed.

So, it is disturbing to read a report on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal that Health Diagnostic Laboratory, arguably the most successful of the biotechnology firms to come out of a much-touted research park in Richmond, is implicated in a possible scheme to pay kickbacks to doctors who use its blood testing services.

The Journal reports:

Until late June, HDL paid $20 per blood sample to most doctors ordering its tests — more than other labs paid. For some physician practices, payments totaled several thousand dollars a week, says a former company employee.

HDL says it stopped those payments after a Special Fraud Alert on June 25 from the Department of Health and Human Services, which warned that such remittances presented “substantial risk of fraud and abuse under the anti-kickback statute.

HDL Chief Executive Tonya Mallory told the Journal that her firm “rejects any assertion” that the company grew as fast as it did “as a result of anything other than proper business practices.”

Meanwhile, HDL has sent Bacon Rebellion this updated response.

Others say that paying doctors fees sets up the chances for fraud, especially in Medicare, one of HDL’s biggest markets, the Journal reports. Other testing firms, the Journal reports, pay doctors nothing for using their services.

This is bad news for what was Richmond’s Poster Child of successful high tech startups after years of flops at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. Founded in 2008 under Mallory’s leadership, HDL zipped up to $383 million in revenues with 41 percent of that coming from Medicare,” the Journal says.

Much of the issue seems to be related to how accurately and fairly to define what is merely drawing a patient’s blood and how much goes for “P&H” or processing and handling. A problem is that Medicare doesn’t pay any more than $3 for merely drawing blood. HDL has estimated that the “P&H” part is worth about $17. The firm claims it has special proprietary methods that give it an edge.

According to Virginia Business magazine, which named Mallory its person of the year last year:

Mallory, 48, founded HDL in the summer of 2009. Since then, it has grown from a kitchen-table business plan to a corporation earning more than $420 million in annual revenue, employing 750 people, processing 4,000 lab samples and running more than 60,000 lab tests each day. HDL has driven near constant construction at its home in downtown Richmond’s Virginia BioTechnology Research Park, where a $68.5 million expansion soon will triple the company’s footprint to 280,000 square feet.

Last year Mallory received the Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Company category. One of the country’s most prestigious business awards for entrepreneurs, it recognizes leaders who demonstrate innovation, financial success and personal commitment as they build their businesses.

The Journal, however, quotes several disgruntled employees and notes that Mallory had worked for a California firm called “Berkeley Heart Lab Inc,.” which began using tests called “biomarkers” which can predict future health problems by analyzing blood.

Mallory, who was raised in Hanover County and attended Virginia Commonwealth University, was senior lab-operations manager at Berkeley until she left for Richmond in 2008, the Journal says. Two Berkeley sales executives went with her and formed a company that ended up marketing HDL’s products.
Berkeley sued HDL, accusing it of stealing its business. HDL denied the allegations. HDL settled one case for $7 million, the Journal says, but other cases are pending.

“The Economy of the Past Is Over.” But What Comes Next?

McAuliffeby James A. Bacon

So, Virginia faces a $2.4 billion projected budget shortfall, which Governor Terry McAuliffe blames largely on defense funding cuts mandated by sequestration. Surprise, surprise. We’ve seen this train wreck coming for years. Some (including multiple writers on this blog) have seen it more clearly and shouted about it more loudly than others. Now it’s here — the slowing economic growth, the stalled budget revenues and the general malaise. The question is, what do we do about it?

McAuliffe is making the right noises. As the Washington Post reports, the governor said the state needs to make a fundamental shift away from its reliance on federal spending. “It is obvious that the economy of the past — where we could simply take the economic benefits of the Department of Defense for granted — is over,” he said. “We need to move past this reliance — and build a new entrepreneurial, innovative and dynamic economy.”

Vague and platitudinous as the statement is, it has the virtue of being true. The hard part is figuring out how to move to that new entrepreneurial, innovative and dynamic economy. Part of the answer is not doing the same thing we’ve done before, only more of it.

McAuliffe can make a lasting mark on Virginia if he avoids that trap. But it will be difficult. When he solicits advice, whether in private conversations or through public mechanisms like study commissions, he’ll hear from the established special interests — not from startup entrepreneurs who are too busy building their businesses to participate in the public policy process. He’ll hear from the economic development lobby that we need to spend more money on corporate recruitment. He’ll hear from the convention & visitors lobby that we need to spend more money promoting tourism. He’ll hear from the agriculture lobby that we’ll need to spend more money on overseas trade missions. He’ll hear from incubators that we need to spend more money on incubators. He’ll hear from the public universities we need to spend more money on university R&D. He’ll hear from the chambers of commerce that government, not business, needs to spend more money on workforce development to give Virginians the skills they need in the marketplace.  McAuliffe will touch bases with all the stakeholders and he’ll hear the same thing they’ve been telling state government for decades: Give us more money!

In the early 2000s, back when I started Bacon’s Rebellion,  Governor Mark Warner initiated the state’s first economic development strategic plan. Before running for governor, Warner, a successful technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist, had traveled the state meeting with local business communities and setting up local venture funds. From first-hand experience, he understood the nexus between technology and entrepreneurial innovation. He appointed a highly capable attorney, Michael Schewel, as commerce secretary to oversee the study.

Schewel sought out new thinking, including the work, which was novel at the time, of economic geographer Richard Florida’s on the central role of the creative class. The final product of the study group included some interesting small-bore initiatives, strengthened business-university ties and represented genuine progress over previous thinking. But it conceptualized economic development along the lines of Virginia’s existing administrative organization and reflected the established institutional thinking of the “stakeholders.” Nothing really changed. If Warner and Schewel couldn’t push Virginia economic development into a fundamentally new direction, I fear, no one can. At least they tried. No one since then has made an effort to buck the conventional wisdom.

The most important thing we can do, as I blogged yesterday, is to think how to stimulate new business formation — especially of companies with high growth potential. We need more companies like Washington, D.C.-based SmartThings, an Internet-of-Things start-up which earlier this month sold out to Samsung for $200 million. SmartThings got its start literally two or three years ago with a Kickstarter fund raiser and $15 million in venture funding. That’s the kind of wealth creation we should be looking for.

One strategy would be to cull unnecessary regulation. Contrary to the views of some who frequent this blog, the state regulates many aspects of the economy to the detriment of innovation. Uber, Lyft and the taxicab sector is but one example of many that could be mentioned. Given time, I will detail others. But that is only a partial and incomplete solution. Perhaps more fundamentally, we need to build the kinds of communities where members of the creative class want to live. We need to recognize that economic development equals community development (smart growth). We also can work harder to help government do better those things that only government can do (smart cities).

The traditional pillars of economic development — industrial recruitment, tourism, agriculture — all have valuable contributions to make. But they are not sufficient by themselves to drive the economy forward. It is time for a stem-to-stern rethinking of how to move Virginia to the next level. If the budget crisis prompts that re-evaluation, it may prove more a blessing than a curse.

Innovative Virginia

Innovative State, 2014, by Aneesh Chopra; used with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Innovative State, 2014, by Aneesh Chopra; used with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

In his new book, “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government,” Aneesh Chopra makes the case for using technology to transform government in the United States. Weary of the old liberal-conservative debate of more government/less government, Chopra espouses effective government. In this book, he comes across as conservative in his frank acknowledgment that government often falls short in the execution of its goals. But the former Virginia Secretary of Technology and former Chief Technology Office for the Obama administration remains steadfastly liberal in his conviction that government can be a force for good.

While I hew to the view that less is more when it comes to government, I concede that certain core functions in American society are best provided by government. I believe that what government chooses to do, it should do well. And, like Chopra, I believe that technology can play a major role in improving government performance. That’s why I’m excited to make available to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion Chapter 3 of his book, which describes his experience as Secretary of Technology during the Kaine administration. I expect that readers will be impressed by Chopra’s approach as a pragmatic problem solver and encouraged how often, away from the spotlight, Virginia politicians are willing to cooperate on a non-partisan basis to get things done.

After resigning his job as CTO for the federal government (you’ll have to buy the book to find out what he did in that post), Chopra made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party nomination as Lieutenant Governor. But he remains active in Virginia, as co-founder of Hunch Analytics, based in Rosslyn, which applies Big Data and Predictive Analytics to solve problems in education, energy and health care, and working behind the scenes with Governor Terry McAuliffe on workforce development and veterans affairs. I expect we’ll be hearing more from Chopra who, at 42, has a long career ahead of him. — JAB

Chopra

Aneesh Chopra

Chapter 3
The Virginia Model

Back in 1999, the Virginia legislature was seeking to make someone accountable for nurturing entirely new industries throughout the state, while making sure the government’s internal use of information technology was effective and efficient. Virginia became the first state in the nation to create a cabinet position for a Secretary of Technology. Three men would fill that role over the next six years, and their work over that time contributed to Governing magazine’s 2005 selection of Virginia as the “Best Managed State.”

In 2006, Tim Kaine, the successor to outgoing Governor Mark Warner, chose me to the the fourth Secretary of Technology. He had a different spin on the position, one in tune with the times. By 2006, the Internet had transformed the way consumers accessed information and conducted commerce. yet, though it had improved some services such as e-filing tax returns and renewing professional licenses, it had not meaningfully transformed the relationship between citizens and their government. Kaine assigned me to prioritize the improvement of that interface. I realized that one of the most important things government can do is remove restrictions that exist for really no good reason. On a visit to Google, for example, I learned two things: one, most people get to government websites through search engines, not by typing in their URLs, or bookmarking them; and second, government, perhaps unintentionally, made it difficult for search engines to index information that the public had the right to know. Within 90 days, we initiated a no-cost collaboration to simplify and standardize the interface between search engines and government websites, making it easier for the public to find what they need. We formed a coalition of four states, two led by Republican governors (Utah, California) and two by Democratic ones (Arizona, Virginia), whereby Google, Yahoo and Ask.com agreed on a standard sitemap protocol that the states agreed to adopt. Those states then assigned their webmasters to implement the new protocol, a task that took about an hour per site. By the launch in April 2007, Virginia had tagged about 80,000 of our own web pages (URLs) for addition to the participating search engines. In the first year of the initiatives, we observed a 40 percent spike in site visitors, at no cost other than the modest incremental staff effort.

One of the promising aspects of that initiative was its bipartisan backing. Before my term even started, and as it progressed, I made a point to reach out to members of the Republican-led legislature. Through those conversations, I became convinced that many in both parties viewed technology, data, and innovation initiatives from a more pragmatic prism, beyond the usual, inflexible left-right division. That was evident when those Republicans invited me, a Democrat, to partner as a nonvoting participant on the Joint Committee of Technology and Science (JCOTS), which organized small working groups that included members of the executive and legislative branches, as well as concerned citizens. More than a dozen bills endorsed by JCOTS passed through the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support and were signed into law by Governor Kaine, including Republican-sponsored legislation to expand rural broadband access, adopt health IT standards, and permit school boards to purchase open source education resources.

Democrats, while a minority in the legislature, also attempted to put their signature on the smarter government movement, with the endorsement of the executive branch. Consider the way Business One Stop came together. Governor Kaine, wanting to buoy the state’s reputation as business friendly, sought to offer every Virginia entrepreneur a single destination to complete all the forms required to start a new enterprise — a task that otherwise might involved as many as seven state agencies, such as the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Department of Taxation, and the Virginia Employment Commission. Governor Kaine, inspired by South Carolina’s presentation at a National Governors Association meeting, gave me the assignment of creating something similar.

Upon digging in, our team estimated that implementing the South Carolina model — which not only improved the user experience but also connected with existing systems within each impacted agency — would require an investment of roughly $7 million. That estimate far exceeded our available funds. So I improvised… Continue reading.

Map of the Day: Average Broadband Speeds

broadband_map
While Virginians beat themselves up over Medicaid expansion, slow economic growth and the McDonnell corruption trial, here’s a morsel of good news: According to Akamai’s latest “State of the Internet” report, Virginia has the highest average broadband speeds of any state in the nation — 13.7 Mbps (megabytes per second). That’s world-class, exceeded only by the average speed in South Korea and Japan. When it comes to the most important infrastructure of the knowledge economy, we’re in good shape.

global_connection_speedsThe news is not so good for the nation as a whole. Broadband penetration and speeds lag in many parts of the country. As a nation, the United States doesn’t even rank in the Top 10 nations for average broadband speed.

Also, there’s no way of telling how evenly those great speeds are distributed around the commonwealth. I’d guess that the statewide average is powered by phenomenal speeds in Northern Virginia, location of a ginormous percentage of the world’s Internet traffic. The region is laced with fiber-optic cable lines and studded with server farms.

Here in Henrico County, I’m served by Comcast (having just switched from Verizon FiOS). When I conducted an XFINITY speed test, my download speed was 121.15 Mbps while my upload speed was a lame 11.77 Mbps. Averaging the two numbers, that sounds awesome compared to the national average, but I don’t know if I’m comparing apples with oranges. (I can’t believe I’m four or five times faster than the national average.)

If you understand the technical issues, you can read Akamai’s notes on its methodology for calculating broadband speeds here. Take the EXFINITY speed test yourself (I don’t think you need to subscribe to Comcast). I’d be interested in hearing what others are experiencing.

(Hat tip: Larry Gross)

– JAB

Confessions of the Tic-Tac Man

Jonnie WilliamsBy Peter Galuszka

On afternoon last week, I was leaving the seventh floor courtroom at U.S. District Court  after Judge James Spencer called for a break. Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the prosecution’s star witness against former Gov. and Ms. McDonnell, had been on the stand for hours, playing various roles as remorseful solicitor, confident businessman, and obstructionist witness.

It just so happened that Williams and I were going to cross paths in the crowded outchamber of the courtroom. Without missing a beat, Williams stopped walking, made eye contact with me, and graciously held out his arm to signal that I should pass first.

I have no idea if Williams knew who I am, but the summer before, I had tried repeatedly to interview him for a serious of reports I was writing about Star Scientific, the tobacco company turned dietary supplement that is at the core of the trial against the McDonnells in perhaps the most important ever corruption trial in Virginia history.

Williams, 58, had been on the stand for four days, dressed as always in a shiny, expensive suit, his thinning hair coiffed around a high, bulbous forehead.

He has a strange voice, soft and proper, that sounds at times like an elder Marlon Brando or, without the harshness, Strother Martin, the man who played the cruel prison warden in the Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke.” Either way, Williams does have a remarkable presence and he always seems to be selling, selling, selling something — either Anatabloc, his product that he claimed could do anything from cure Alzheimer’s to MS, or simply to promote  his own persona.

Williams, who has extensive immunity from the government, keeps underlining that his deal that could keep him out of jail, which means he must be honest. Honest means making “mea culpas.” They must sound sincere. When he said he pressured Maureen to get Bob to call his aging father on his 80th birthday, he recalled:  “That cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to do that,” he said. “The McDonnells were not my personal friends. It was good for my company,” noted Williams, who gave them more than $150,000 in gifts, loans, trips and cash.

That’s one version of Jonnie — pensive, regretful, honest. There was another one as well that came out when defense lawyer William Burck asked him to talk about his background in business. It was ego bait that Williams couldn’t resist.

It all came out — the confident kid from Fredericksburg who went to a little known business college in Rhode Island and came home to sell used cars and then took over a faltering eyeglass shop, learning how to pick up on one entrepreneurial idea and spin it into another.

Name dropping is a critical part of the Williams psyche, showing how impressed Williams was that his keen intellect had attracted helpful personalities far beyond his social kin. He keeps mentioning Johns Hopkins University Medical School and the “very bright” Dr. Frank O’Donnell who somehow came down from Baltimore and met Williams when he was working in the optical business. O’Donnell was a big league ophthalmologist, Williams said, and served as his mentor, even when he moved to the Midwest. Dr. O’Donnell came in with one business deal after another. One helped lead him to making machinery to cure near-sightedness, earning him millions and securing his personal finances.

Perking up during testimony, Williams ticked off medical terms as if he were the head of a medical school department. He also had developed a keen sense of what could and could not be said in good company, sort of like a small town boy of modest background who’s being let into the local country club for the first time.

When he took the McDonnells and a few others to La Grotta, an expensive Italian restaurant in downtown meeting after an Anatabloc session, he picked thousands of dollars’ worth of wine and informed the courtroom and jury that it was bad form to let your guests know if it’s $50 a bottle vintage of $500 a bottle. Of course, when he picked out the Louis XIII cognac for his male model friend, the McDonnells and some of their staff at a New York eatery in 2009, he was proud to reveal it cost $5,000.

“I really didn’t like it all that much but some people do,” he said. He also didn’t really like the Ferrari that he made a big effort to drive to Smith Mountain Lake in July 2011 so McDonnell could drive it at Maureen’s request while vacationing for free at Williams waterfront house. Williams says he prefers his Toyota Camry.

This same snobbery constantly extends to the medical and business hot shots who were helping build the idea that Williams’ use of anatabine, a substance found in tobacco, had remarkable curative powers. Jonnie was more than willing to tell you all about it, over and over, in his slow, calm, methodical voice.

Maureen McDonnell, who is being set up as the Fall Girl by her own lawyers, bought into the Williams’ spiel, big time. McDonnell’s professional staff, including Phil Cox and Jasen Eige, testified that they were deeply worried about Williams and kept on telling the governor to limit his engagement.

Smitten by Williams, Maureen kept pushing Jonnie and his miracle supplements, somehow overlooking the fact that there hadn’t been clinical trials on it and that Star Scientific had lost $230 million over the past decade (she still bought stock anyway despite Williams testimony that he told her it was a bad idea).

Rank and file Virginia researchers, whose imprimatur Williams so badly wanted, also were suspicious. When he’d show up pushing pills as samples, they called him the “Tic Tac Man.”

Diet Denier

Perhaps you could call Nina Teicholz a “diet denier.” The journalist and author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Health Diet,” is part of the growing backlash against a half century-long orthodoxy that aimed to limit fat and cholesterol in the American diet. That orthodoxy, which ruled the medical establishment and the federal health apparatus, unwittingly engineered a society-wide shift to the sugar-heavy diet now deemed responsible for the surge in obesity and heart disease that afflicts the country.

In her book, Teicholz delved into the history of how fats, trans-fats and cholesterol came to be demonized and how public policy strove to drive fats out of the American diet. The movement began in the 1950s with a famous study by Ancel Keys, which postulated a link between cholesterol and heart health. The American Heart Association jumped on the bandwagon in 1961, the United States Department of Agriculture issued new dietary guidelines in 1978, and momentum built from there. Food companies rolled out low-fat, low-cholesterol food products, typically substituting sugar and salt for fat. Pharmaceutical companies introduced anti-cholesterol drugs. Schools and media brainwashed generations of Americans to change their behavior.

How could things have gone so wrong? As Teicholz explains in her TED talk above:

The same group of people were on all the expert panels. They all reviewed each others’ papers. These groups controlled all of the funding, so if you didn’t get on this cholesterol bandwagon, you couldn’t get funding, you couldn’t do research, you couldn’t be a scientist. Over the course of 25 years, this diet-heart hypothesis became ingrained in the institutions. There became an institutional bias. There was a bias in the media. And everybody lined up behind this hypothesis. You couldn’t be a scientist if you didn’t get on board.

Thankfully, a new generation of scientists questioned the orthodoxy. Now researchers are focusing on the excess consumption of sugar as the main culprit responsible for our dietary woes.

Fortunately, we’ve learned from our mistakes. Our scientific, media and government officials would never enforce another orthodoxy on the grounds that “97 percent of all scientists” in a given field agree that “the science is settled.”  We’d never rig the peer-review process to suppress unpopular scientific viewpoints. We’d never channel billions of dollars of federal funding into supporting one particular point of view of a massively complex phenomenon while de-funding dissenters. We’d never demonize skeptics as “anti-science,” tools of evil, self-interested corporations and moral analogues of holocaust deniers. We’re far too enlightened in the United States to ever let that happen.

Or are we?

– JAB

How Not to Shift From Coal

coal-plantBy Peter Galuszka

Coal is rightly the scourge of environmentalists. Economic pressure is on to shift to cleaner natural gas made plentiful by controversial hydraulic fracking. Political pressure is on to replace fossil fuels with renewables such as wind, solar and other methods.

In Virginia, Dominion, the state’s largest utility, relies for 46 percent of its generating capacity on coal and is moving in fits and starts to natural gas. It doesn’t get much from renewables. How much and how fast should it shift?

Yet out of Colorado comes a cautionary tale. According to The Washington Post, a family in the impoverished city of Pueblo is at odds running power. They only use a window air conditioner part of the time. They avoid using their oven in the summer. It uses electricity they not longer can afford because it overheats the house in summer.

For the family of Sharon Garcia, the problem is Black Hills Energy, which recently bought the local power company – Aquila, which got some of its power from a coal plant that was first built in 1897 with peaking extra power from Xcel, another utility.

Then, in 2008, Black Hills bought out Aquila and everything changed. Xcel decided it could make more money selling power at retail rates in Denver and not at wholesale rates to the utility serving Pueblo. In the midst of these events, a state law prompted Black Hills to shut down older coal plants for cleaner natural gas.

The state approved rate increases so Black Hills could build new infrastructure to handle natural gas and and rates when up significantly.

The problem is likely to be further complicated if the utilities move on the renewables, which, in the short term, are more expensive than either coal or gas.

This is not to say that companies should stick with coal forever, or natural gas. Renewables should still be the goal. But during the transition, green activists, many of them affluent, need to realize who pays the price. What’s a few dozen extra dollars for some is a tragedy for others.