Category Archives: Science & Technology

Rethinking Online Classes at U.Va.

President Sullivan

President Sullivan

By Peter Galuszka

Just two years after the University of Virginia weathered a crisis and the short-lived resignation of its president for supposedly not embracing online education fast enough, Mr. Jefferson’s school is taking a cautious approach about Web-based courses.

This is a good thing, despite the excitement over having thousands of distant students sign up for MOOCs, or large scale college online courses, and expect to instantly log on to all the good things universities offer with supposedly few of the negatives.

Although U.Va. does participate in offering online courses through Coursera, they are not for college credit and Virginia is not following the example of Georgia Tech which is offering an entire degree program via the net.

The Daily Progress reports that U.Va. administrators and professors are worried that it is too easy for unseen students to cheat on the courses – an important consideration due to U.Va.’s strict honor code. Other problems are the high dropout rate of MOOCs and the fact that they may be best suited for introductory courses because professorial classroom involvement is important for more advanced ones.

These views raise questions after all the hype about MOOCs, including many posts on the blog. A special irony is that just two year’s ago, U.Va.’s highly capable and popular President Theresa Sullivan was forced to resign in Board of Visitors putsch led by chairman Helen Dragas supposedly because of her lack of enthusiasm in embracing new technologies.

One well-known blogger wrote a gushy lead paragraph on a posting stating that “Helen Drags gets it.” Err, maybe not, because Sullivan was reinstated after a huge outcry within the U.Va. community and after major, negative world media coverage.

Elsewhere, MOOCs do seem to be gaining some traction. One at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noted that a Tar Heel course got 30,000 sign ups on-line.

But a University of Pennsylvania study showed that of 16 open online courses the school offered, fewer than half of all registrants even watched the first lecture.

So, it seems that MOOCs are going through a period of adjustment. And, they are politically charged since many conservatives, still angry over social changes in the 1960s and 1970s, see MOOCs as a way to overcome what they view as the overweening political bias of cossetted universities.

As the Daily Tarheel at UNC reports: “Rob Schofield,, director of research and policy development for the left-leaning think tank N.C. Policy Watch, said though MOOCs have many positive aspects, there are drawbacks.

“This problem is especially worrisome in the current political environment in which far-right politicians are doing everything they can to de-fund public schools and universities and turn them into on-the-cheap education factories,” he said.

Luckily for the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is evaluating MOOCs with its eyes open.

Is Blackwater Successor in Ukraine?

blackwaterBy Peter Galuszka

A private security company with ties to Virginia and northeastern North Carolina has been linked to rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia that some fear could turn into war.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement April 8 saying that a security firm named “Greystone” that is tied historically to the defunct and controversial Blackwater special security operations company has sent “about 150” mercenaries to Ukraine disguised as a military unit called “Falcon.”

A spokeswoman for Greystone denied to ABC news that the firm was involved with Ukraine while other news outlets were told the firm had no comment.

Greystone is registered in Bermuda, according to ABC. It was at one time linked to Blackwater although its ties to Xe Services and Academi which succeeded Blackwater after its demise are unclear.

Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, in Moyock, N.C., near the Virginia border.  It hired former special forces military and used a swampy tract for training. The Moyock operations is close to a Navy facility at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach which is the base for the SEALs’ Team Six that tracked down and killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Blackwater was hired by the Bush Administration to handle security for officials and other duties in Iraq. Employees of the Blackwater firm were involved in the shooting of 17 people in Baghdad in 2007 and the firm was later banned from U.S. government work after a slew of problems in Iraq, Sudan and other countries.. During the controversy, it changed its name to Xe Services and then again to Academi, which has its headquarters in McLean. Prince has left the company.

Greystone, ABC reports, was formed as a sister company of Blackwater to handle security matters for foreign clients while Blackwater concentrated on U.S. government contracts.

The Russian government started accusing both Blackwater and Greystone of being involved in Ukraine last month although U.S. officials have denied it. Tensions have risen after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was ousted and Russia seized Crimea. Russia has thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border.

Another footnote in this strange tale: a director of Academi is retired Navy admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who is a former head of the National Security Agency, a deputy director of the CIA and a former head of naval intelligence. Inman also had been a director of as the last board chairman of then-Richmond-based Massey Energy, which was forced to be sold to Alpha Natural Resources after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine.

I’m not making this up.

Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

An Ex-Coal Baron’s Strange Movie

Blankenship

Blankenship

By Peter Galuszka

Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.

Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.

Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting  and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.

The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film  being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.

The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.

The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.

In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.

An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.

After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile.  He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.

The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.

Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.

Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary  titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.

Mark Warner: Let’s Out-Gas Putin

 mark warnerBy Peter Galuszka

One way to clip the wings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive land grabs, says U.S. Sen. Mark Warner who is running for reelection, is to expedite permitting of the 20 or so proposals to export liquefied natural gas, including one by Richmond-based Dominion Resources.

“Most of Europe and Ukraine are heavily dependent on Russian gas in particular for their energy use,” Warner told reporters. Europe depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas.

It is true that hydraulic fracking has turned the oil and gas business in the U.S. upside down by creating such a flood of products that the U.S. may not only become energy independent but in a position to export. Environmentalists point out that fracking has its dangers but the remarkable change in energy dynamics plays to the producers’ hands.

The big problems with Warner’s proposal are that exporting LNG to Europe will be more time-consuming and costly than he might imagine. It also does nothing to address the climate change issues that gas contributes to, albeit not as much as coal.

One reason why Warner may be so interested in the issue — House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, is making exactly the same proposal — is because of Dominion. The utility plans a $3.8 billion expansion of its Cove Point, Md. LNG import facility on Chesapeake Bay so that it can export LNG as well. Some of that gas could very well come from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia along with the Gulf Coast.

Dominion is in the permitting process – perhaps No. 3 or 4 in line – for Cove Point. It has the gear to take super cold gas pf about minus 265 degrees and warm it up to a gaseous state so it can be sent through pipelines. Now it wants equipment to reverse the process – take gas and chill it into shippable LNG. Dominion has everything else it needs – a water terminal, tanks, and so on.

Warner, of course, gets lots of campaign money from Dominion and has just brought on as his campaign manager Eva Teig Hardy, who retired as one of Dominion’s top lobbyists and public affairs executives. I have known Eva since the 1970s and can attest that she is supremely competent.

There’s nothing wrong with Warner’s ties to Dominion although they should be known. What is troublesome is that his plan may not work.

Take Dominion. If Dominion gets its permits, it won’t be able to export LNG for maybe three years. By that time Putin will either have calmed down or gone beyond Crimea to conquer Europe as far as the Czech Republic or maybe France.

Dominion already has customers lined up for its LNG and they aren’t in Europe. They are utilities in India and Japan – which are the markets of choice for many of the American export hopefuls.

And as Steve Mufson of The Washington Post points out, while Russia exports gas via pipelines to Europe, it still isn’t as big a supplier as Norway. In fact, Cove Point used to see the odd tanker full of Norwegian LNG pull up at its bay terminal. Why can’t Norway increase its sales on the Continent?

Europe would have to build more LNG import facilities and that may take a few years. Meanwhile, the global money seems to be on sending LNG to Asia. Continue reading

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading

Modern Day Sharecroppers

 tyson_chickBy Peter Galuszka

One book on my to-read list is Christopher Leonard’s “The Meat Racket” which looks at how food production in this country is being absorbed by large, vertically integrated companies that combine indirect federal government support with anti-free market policies to control much of the chicken, pork and beef we eat.

The book, published by Simon & Schuster, has gotten favorable reviews in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Leonard, who covered the food industry for a decade as an Associated Press reporter, writes that the 95 percent of Americans who eat chicken are supporting a top-down corporate structure and culture that keep “farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.”

This might have been an over-the-top statement from the conservative and pro-business Journal, but the reviewer actually says that Leonard has carefully built his case.

His evidence is Tyson Foods, a firm that grew out of the poultry belt of Arkansas into a global agribusiness giant. Early on, Tyson’s executives decided that it was too risky for them to grow their own chickens, so they farmed it all out (“out sourced” in that term we all love).

The problem is that Tyson’s rules its contract system like a ruthless plantation owner exploiting old-time sharecroppers. Pay is based on fatter chickens. If a grower goes bust, the federal government, not the banks, picks up the tab. Tyson is not at risk, the taxpayer is. It neatly dodges problems to boost its bottom line.

Growers are dependent upon Tyson for just about everything from tiny chicks to money. The author tells the stories of farmers who ran into disease issues and ended up bust. Calls for help to Tyson went unanswered until the bankruptcy papers went through. Then company men in blue anti-contamination suits would show up to gather the carcasses and birds that they still owned.

The company, of course, owns the process, from the hatchery, feed mill and the slaughter house that it often bought from locals. Leonard says the rest of Big Farming is being “chickenized.” It happened a while back with pork producers controlled by Smithfield Foods and now by its new owners, Shuanghui International which bought the venerable Virginia firm last year for $ 7 billion. Beef is next.

Virginia is a big poultry producer ranking No. 10  nationally.  More than 13,000 people are employed directly in the industry dominated by a half a dozen or so huge players like Tyson’s or Perdue or Pilgrim’s Pride. Drive in the Shenandoah Valley or in Southside and you will see lots of lengthy chicken coops with Tyson or other corporate logo written on them.

Ditto hog farms, which are operated on a massive scale. Smithfield got in trouble some years back for waste pollution and in the mid-1990s, the Raleigh News & Observer won a Pulitzer for exposing pork megafarms that produced more waste than entire cities yet were handling it in a rudimentary fashion.

Things are not likely to get much better with the new Chinese owners. Apparently Shuanghui has had issues with cutting corners, putting banned chemicals in feed and have a loose oversight structure.

This isn’t exactly the glory of the free market we hear so much about. I gather re-creating that will be up to green or organic farmers. For instance, the Virginia Association for Biological Farming promotes small farms of 10 acres or less that can network sales to local groceries.

I was in New York last weekend and was surprised at the number of green farmers selling their wares at Union Square. Prices seemed pretty steep but it looked good. The food came from a growing grid of organic farms in New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The issues raised by Leonard’s book are worthy of exploration especially since they show the very factors you see raised so much on this blog – the evils of government subsidies and the lack of free markets.

N.B. I’d link to the Journal story but I can’t get past their pay firewall. More capitalism. Sorry.

Coal Giant Alpha Pays Biggest Water Fine Ever

MTRBy Peter Galuszka

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, the coal giant that took over troubled Massey Energy of Richmond in 2011, has the dubious honor paying the highest fines ever of $27.5 million for water pollution violations at its coal mining operations in five Appalachian states, including Virginia.

Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 miners in the worst such disaster in the U.S. in 40 years, held the previous water pollution fine record of $20 million issued in 2008.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that from 2006 to 2013, Alpha and its subsidiaries violated water pollution permits 6,000 times and allowed toxic materials such as heavy metals into streams and the watersheds of Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania besides Virginia. The firm will also pay $200 million to reduce such toxic discharges.

The settlement comes after a pair of unrelated water pollution situations involving coal in West Virginia and North Carolina. Some 300,000 residents of the Charleston area went without drinking water for several days when a toxic chemical used to treat coal leaked into a river. Duke Energy faces fines in North Carolina for improperly maintaining its coal ash storage facilities, leading to a substantial spill into the Dan River which provides drinking water for Danville and eventually, Virginia Beach.

Alpha has touted its “Running Right” safety and management program as it absorbed Massey Energy and its rich coal reserves in a $7 billion deal. Alpha said it was retraining Massey workers who had suffered from Massey’s abusive corporate culture that cut corners on mine safety and environmental control, regulators say.

Alpha had agreed to pay $200 million in a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern West Virginia to cover violations from the Upper Big Branch which it bought and closed after acquiring Massey. Alpha later settled a number of shareholder lawsuits for $265 million. Some of the payout funding had factored into funds set up by Massey before the acquisition by Alpha.

Like most Appalachian coal producers, Alpha has been taking hits with soft markets for steam and metallurgical coal. Its 2013 revenues were $5 billion compared with $7 billion the year before.

Environmentalists say that Alpha’s fine does not address the massive ecological destruction of mountaintop removal strip mining which they say should be stopped at the permit stage. Alpha operates a number of such mines.

The latest fines involve 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants.

Federal investigators are still probing Massey for violations of safety laws related to the operation of Upper Big Branch where the explosion occurred April 5, 2010 and other mines. So far, three former employees have been convicted and Massey’s former CEO Don Blankenship is said to be a target of the probe. There is also a suggestion that Alpha is cooperating with federal investigators in the investigation.

The Surreal Tensions With Russia

soldier in crimeaBy Peter Galuszka

Back in the 1950s, when I was a little kid living in North Carolina or the Washington area, our family would take a semi-annual trip to visit my father’s relatives in western Massachusetts. My grandparents lived in a nice two-story house with an old-style brick barbecue in the back but that wasn’t the thrill for me.

The reason I loved visiting was because of Westover Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command facility on constant hair-trigger alert to blow the Soviet Union to kingdom come.

Gigantic B-52s would drill, roaring over the house on takeoff, sometimes in the middle of the night. Interspersed among them would be KC-135 tankers modeled on Boeing 707 jetliners. They would thunder over the house, shaking everything, at intervals of 30 seconds or maybe a couple of minutes. I was too young to understand but the reason they took off that way was to get the bombs in the air before the Russians could nuke the entire area, including my family and me. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.

So, more than 50 years later, it is bizarre to see Russia and the U.S. in their worst conflict since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis over Ukraine and Crimea. There are actually serious and intensely hedged think pieces online outlining what a modern day war between Moscow and Washington would look like. It could be a proxy war,  an air war but an ocean war is unlikely since the Black Sea is a bathtub and an American ship would be easy meat. The most likely worst case would be a NATO member on the border somehow getting involved and then we go in because we have to by treaty. If things ramp up, military-heavy Old Virginny will be high on the hit parade of love.

Every morning, I go through the surreal headlines about what seems to be Vladimir Putin’s shameless land grab. I agree with analysts who say this is time for firmness but patience. Conservative yahoos should chill their stupid upbraiding of Obama. He didn’t do this. In fact, he’s been much tougher with Putin than George W. ever was. And, there isn’t much he can do. Any doubts, look at a convenient map.

A few takeaways:

  • Putin’s not doing this to win over the Russian people. A poll shows that 73 percent of them want no part of military operations against Ukraine or Crimea.
  • It’s not clear that Putin is doing this to reinstate Viktor Yanukovich who was ousted as Ukrainian president in a street putsch in Kieva couple of weeks ago. Writing in today’s New York Times, Ruslan Pukhov of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies says that Putin actually favored former Ukrainian leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a darling of the West, who was released from prison when Yanukovich was ousted. This is not to say that Putin’s squeaky clean. He’s put plenty of people in prison, including, recently, Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal reformer.
  • The global economy can work against Putin. One of my biggest disappointments with the failure of 1980s and 1990s Russian reforms is that they have done little if anything to transform themselves from a fossil fuel kleptocracy into something more economically viable. They have enormous brainpower available but have squandered it. They need to get with the program and/or find someone to buy their oil and gas. The buyer doesn’t necessarily have to be Europe.
  • It’s awfully quiet there. There have been few if any reports of violence since the Crimea incursion began. That’s a far cry from a couple of weeks ago in Kiev. If he withdraws the extra forces, Putin can keep his Crimean bases anyway.

Somehow, I have faith that the fortitude and common sense of ordinary Russians and Ukrainians will prevail. They did when I witnessed, up front and personal, my very own coup in 1993 in Moscow that killed a few hundred (including almost me a couple of times) and wounded thousands. The skinhead guys in the camo fatigues running around with AKs looked very much like some of the characters I saw on TV in Kiev. If they can be kept at bay, the U.S. doesn’t overplay its hand and ignorant American conservatives shut their yap, maybe this madness will end.

Dominion Benefits As Renewables Struggle

North Anna PixBy Peter Galuszka

Dominion Virginia Power, as is its style, has achieved a quiet but far-reaching regulatory victory. The General Assembly has passed a complicated bill that would help Dominion write off costs for a new nuclear reactor while avoiding giving potential refunds or rate cuts to customers.

The bill, which easily sailed through the legislature, has drawn attention to whether the utility really will build a third nuclear unit at North Anna and why bills to help smaller players trying to create renewable sources of energy seem to get nowhere in Virginia.

Dominion will be allowed to deduct $400 million from its profits in a scheme that allows it to count as costs the nuclear research it does. This will likely help it avoid paying rebates to consumers the next time the State Corporation Commission considers its rates.

There are several curiosities with the scheme. For one, although Dominion filed early plans for a third reactor about a decade ago, the project hasn’t seemed to move very far. The disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 forced a rethink of how the U.S. plans its new reactors. Another problem is that North Anna suffered a major setback later in 2011 when an earthquake forced a shutdown at that station and pushed reactors past their design limits.

The danger is hardly news but may be largely forgotten. In the 1970s, Virginia Electric & Power Co., Dominion’s predecessor, was fined by federal regulators for knowing and lying about some aspects of a geological fault line that runs under the North Anna area when it planned the nuclear power station in the 1960s.

I have visited North Anna in recent years and have asked Dominion about how they plan to pay for a third reactor. Some estimate it may cost about $10 billion. Many reactors on the drawing boards can’t be built without federal loan guarantees. Dominion has said it won’t need such guarantees.

Last month, the Department of Energy announced that the federal government will provide $6.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for two new reactors planned by the Southern Company in Vogtle, Ga. They are the first in such government backing.

A big question is how far along is the third unit at North Anna and why the General Assembly felt comfortable about making such beneficial moves if there’s any question about it.

Meanwhile, Bill Sizemore at The Virginian-Pilot has an intriguing story about how Dominion, which gave $1 million to Virginia politicians last year, has little trouble with its laws while smaller fry in the renewable energy sector struggle.

They have failed at getting the General Assembly to push tax credits to help install solar, wind and other, non-fossil and non-nuclear forms of power. Originally, the proposal called for $100 million in tax credits a year but that was pared down to $10 million and then was put off for consideration next year.

Virginia has voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standards calling for a percentage of new power generation to come from renewable sources. The approach favors large utilities such as Dominion and Appalachian Power. Neighboring states North Carolina and Maryland have mandatory standards and that may be one reason why Virginia has only 5 percent of North Carolina’s solar power capacity.

Dominion points out that it has renewable projects such as solar powered panels at a university and has plans for offshore wind, but these efforts are relatively modest.

One irony with the current situation involving renewables is that conservatives argue that their promoters must meet strict free market tests. If solar and wind and other sources can expand, they need to make it without government help based on their ability to innovate and market salable products. But the traditional, large utilities have no trouble getting billions in government help in federal loan guarantees or in rate write offs that Dominion will enjoy.

So, it seems the fix is in for traditional power in Virginia. That was certainly the case with former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell who wanted to make Virginia “the energy capital of the East Coast.” He strongly backed offshore drilling. Incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe had been suspicious of offshore drilling in 2009 when he first ran for governor but has since changed his position to the consternation of environmentalists.

“We’re really disappointed but not surprised,” says Glen Besa, head of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.