Category Archives: Blogs and blog administration

You’re Invited to the Big Bacon Fry

We won’t be sitting around the campfire and singing Kumbaya at the Big Bacon Fry, but we’ll try real hard to get along.

Politics is nastier now than at any time in forty years. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato recently opined, at least in the 1960s and ’70s the country fractured over monumental issues such as Civil Rights, the Vietnam War and Watergate. Today, the animus is largely personality driven, mostly involving the person of one Donald J. Trump. The politics of personal destruction has always haunted us, but never has it been so virulent. Our opponents aren’t just wrong or misguided, they are vicious and depraved and out to destroy the country.

Here at Bacon’s Rebellion, we reach across the partisan divide. Sure, I have pronounced libertarian-conservative views, but I have always believed that you cannot effectively advance your own argument unless you can replicate the arguments of those who disagree with you. Further, I have always opened up the blog to anyone with different inclinations, and I have fostered a lively exchange of diverse views in the comments accompanying each post. 

I am proudest of how, with the need for only occasional whip cracking, participants are able to maintain a civil dialogue. Rarely does anyone actually change anyone else’s mind, but we earn a grudging respect for one another. At the very least, we learn that those on the other side of an issue are not mindless zombies. They do have reasons to think what they do, and facts to back them up, even if in the end we still think we’re right and they’re wrong.

In the spirit of deepening that civil dialogue, I invite Bacon’s Rebellion readers and participants to a get-together on Saturday, December 2, 11:30 a.m., at the Westin Hotel in Henrico County. I have arranged for a private room for three hours, along with food and libations (lunchable hors d’oeuvres and a bacon-themed cocktail). Conveniently for out-of-town guests, the Westin is located just off Interstate 64 and provides free parking.

The primary purpose of the Big Bacon Fry is for Bacon’s Rebellion regulars — including lurkers — to get to know one another. I am hoping that the experience of participating in the blog will be more fun when you know the people you’re reading or interacting with.

Aside from mixing and chatting, I would like to propose some ideas and solicit feedback on how to build the Bacon’s Rebellion community. Bacon’s Rebellion readers are smart and well informed. I want to engage you more in the blog. I want to explore how we can direct our collective energies in ways that will have greater impact on public policy deliberations in Virginia.

If you plan to attend, please contact me at [email protected] Due to the cost of providing food and booze, I’ll have to cut off the number at thirty. (Please don’t say you’ll come unless you’re realllly sure you can make it because you’ll be taking up someone else’s slot.) I look forward to seeing you.

— Jim Bacon

Five More CURA Studies!

Both Virginia Commonwealth University and I have fallen down on our pledges to promote the Virginia-focused public policy work of the university’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA). Since last I highlighted one of CURA’s studies on Bacon’s Rebellion, the center has published five more without any notice on this blog. Hopefully, we have rectified the breakdown in communications, and I will provide access to future studies on a timely basis.

To make partial amends, I would like to alert Virginia’s policy wonk community to those five studies published over the past year or so.

Evaluation of the Virginia Enterprise Zone Program  (December 2016)

Analysis of the impacts of the program on employment and real-estate values, the features of the program that work well, and determination of how enterprise-zone performance can be enhanced. (Prepared for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.)

The Impact of Heritage Tourism on the Virginia Economy (February 2017) ‌ 

Estimates the quantitative impact of heritage tourism on the state’s economy, and provides a qualitative picture of the role of heritage tourism in community development in Southwest Virginia, Northern Virginia, and on the Eastern Shore. (Prepared for Preservation Virginia.)

Downtown Hopewell Space Feasibility Study (August 2017)

Studied the community demand for potential uses of a 14,000-square-foot building, located in downtown Hopewell. The study looked at successful kitchen incubators and makerspace facilities in other states, conducting a business survey, and presenting a cash flow analysis of five scenarios for potential uses of the space. (Prepared for Hopewell Downtown Partnership.)

Understanding the Jobs-Affordable Housing Balance in the Richmond Region (July 2017)

This report maps and describes the geographic relationship of affordable housing and low-wage jobs in the Richmond region through two different spatial models: a Thiessen polygon-based approach and a gravity-based approach. The report also examines housing value and crime data in neighborhoods around six different affordable housing developments to identify any impacts the developments had on topics of concern to neighbors of affordable housing. (Prepared with the support of the Community Foundation.)

Second Annual MetroView Development Tracker (July 2017)

MetroView Development Tracker provides a snapshot of land use, property value, development footprint, and jobs-housing balance as of 2014-2015 for 15 counties, 6 independent cities, and one town comprising the greater Richmond metropolitan area. Detailed land use profiles for the RRPDC and Crater PDC boundaries and for individual county/city are also included in the report.

Bacon Bits: Coal Ash, Eclipses and Online Learning

Moon as energy conservation device. During the solar eclipse Monday, local temperatures dropped five to six degrees and electric consumption reported by Bristol Virginia Utilities, which serves Bristol, Va., fell five megawatts — or about 7.6%. So reports the Bristol Herald-Courier.

Dominion launches coal ash study. Dominion Energy has hired AECOM, a multinational engineering firm, to conduct an independent assessment of how to dispose of the ash in the utility’s coal ash ponds. Dominion is evaluating whether to close and cap the coal ash in place, recycle it, or transport it to a lined landfill, reports the Chesterfield Observer. Dominion is required to submit a report to state government by Dec. 1.

VCU Engineering joins the online parade. Thanks to a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering will launch an online program in conjunction with VCU’s Medicines for All Institute. The purpose of the Institute is to  reduce costs of manufacturing pharmaceutical products and increase global access to medications. Read more at Richmond BizSense.

I’m Going Cyborg, Baby!

Artificial hip

Part man, part machine — that’ll be me in about six or seven hours. I’ll be checking into Saint Mary’s hospital to get a new ceramic-titanium hip to replace the flawed model that my DNA bequeathed me.

I’ll be out of action for a few days, and I expect my blogging productivity will be diminished for some time after that. Pain meds and clear thinking do not go hand in hand. But with luck I’ll come back stronger than ever. Personal issues have severely distracted my blogging over the past few months, and I hope this will be the last of them. There’s so much woolly headed thinking to dispel!

A Substation in Time Saves Nine

Photo credit: Dominion

The 2013 sniper attack on Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf transmission substation was a wake-up call for the electric power industry. A team of riflemen knocked out the facility near San Jose, Calif., by firing upon and severely damaging 17 transformers. Thanks to redundancy in the grid, PG&E was able to prevent blackouts by re-routing electrical power. But the incident drove home how vulnerable the electric grid is to sabotage.

“The next day,” recalls Mike Lamb, manager of operations engineering for Dominion Energy Virginia, “we started brainstorming about what resiliency improvements we needed.”

As part of a multi-pronged strategy to bolster resiliency of its 6,500-mile electric transmission lines, 57,000 miles of distribution lines, 900 substations and 66,000 transformers, Dominion procured mobile transmission equipment designed by manufacturers in Europe, Asia and North America. The mobile equipment provides a “plug and play” design that allows it to connect with high-voltage cables in a fraction of set-up time required by conventional technology.

Most of the equipment held in resiliency reserves sits idle until needed in the aftermath of a hurricane, earthquake, or human-caused event. As it turned out, has Dominion found a use for the trailer-borne transmission outside of an emergency situation.

Temporary substation on the job in the Cartersville transmission line rebuild.

The company had a “wreck-and-rebuild” job on an older transmission line between the Bremo Power Station and a substation in Cartersville. Typically, says Lamb, a temporary transmission line would be constructed to carry load to customers while the old line was being rebuilt. In this particular case, a five-mile section had poor access.

Besides saving the $4 million expense of stringing a temporary line, says Lamb, the company was able to conduct a “proof of concept.” Workers proceeded slowly and deliberately over four months in order to work out set-up processes and develop checklists.

“We accomplished a lot of things with this one installation,” Lamb says. “If we have an unplanned situation in the future, we could hopefully make it within five to seven days.”

Nationally, the electric grid is aging. Most transformers in the United States were installed between 1950 and 1970, and have far exceeded their expected 40-year life span. U.S. utilities, some fear, may be forced to contend with an increasing number of breakdowns. Thus the grid is growing more fragile even as the threat of sabotage, cyber attacks and natural disaster looms ever larger.

While Dominion says that it has been proactively replacing older transformers, substation equipment, and transmission lines in order to improve reliability, the mobile transmission equipment gives it an added safeguard against an extended outage.

“The installation of the mobile transmission substation in Cartersville was a first in North America, and the equipment operated as designed,” says Lamb. “Dominion will definitely be better equipped and prepared in the future to respond to unplanned events.”

Living the Good Life… for a Week

This is the view this morning from our beach cottage in Emerald Isle, N.C. The weather is beautiful. I’m guessing that my blogging will be spotty this week, but I will check in sporadically.

Note to Agitators, Bomb Throwers and Rebels

For a couple of years now, two to three dozen readers of Bacon’s Rebellion have been contributing faithfully to the upkeep of the blog through small monthly contributions. I want to thank them for their loyal support and report to them what I’ve been doing with the money.

Twitter fail. In concert with a push to build a Twitter following, which I hoped would drive more traffic to the blog, I spent several hundred dollars on a variety of Twitter-related promotions. I succeeded in increasing the number of Twitter followers, but I could see no impact upon the number of click-throughs to the blog or the number of blog readers. It was a worthwhile experiment, but it did not yield meaningful results, so I pulled the plug on the campaign.

Improved user experience. Since then, I have resolved to use the contributions to improve the reader experience.

First, I want to protect against the disruption of another Denial of Service attack like the one that knocked the blog offline a year or so ago, and I want to guard against the threat of a ransomware attack. Accordingly, I have subscribed to a service that regularly backs up the blog content. If another attack occurs, I should be able to recover more quickly than I did last time.

Secondly, I have subscribed to a service that purports to speed up the loading of Bacon’s Rebellion pages to your browser. This, too, I regard as an experiment. Let me know if you notice a difference.

Party time! Finally, let me toss out an idea.

A top goal since the inception of the blog has been to maintain a civil dialogue between readers across the political spectrum. Given the polarized state of the nation, never has that goal been more important. I’ve always felt that it’s harder to be rude to someone you know in person. Accordingly, I have been thinking of hosting a get-together in Richmond for Bacon’s Rebellion readers and contributors who would like to meet one another, promote civil dialogue, and/or provide input to the Big Bacon himself on how to improve the blog.

Naturally, alcohol and bacon-themed foodstuffs will be involved.

If you would like to participate, please respond publicly in a comment or privately by emailing me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com. If there is sufficient interest, I will organize an event.

The Biggest Screw-Up in the History of Bacon’s Rebellion

A monster apology to readers as well as to everyone in Virginia’s higher ed industry. I have screwed up with the publishing system of this blog, but never before on the scale and magnitude of the disaster that befell Bacon’s Rebellion this week. I have taken down all four articles in the four-part series on the 2005 Restructuring Act

It should be evident to everyone that some of the articles were incomplete. Even if they didn’t look incomplete, I had not fact-checked them or double-checked with key sources, as I had promised. What appeared on Bacon’s Rebellion was a rough working draft that I fully intended to modify as I incorporated feedback from sources.

Hoping to publish the articles this week while I was on vacation, I scheduled them for auto-posting, one per day. Last Friday, I concluded that the series was in no condition to publish. However, with everything going on in my family life, I neglected to amend the publication schedule. The articles auto-published one by one while I was gone. Because I had no Internet access, I did not realize what had happened until I arrived home today.

I will continue to conduct my fact- and quote checking — if anyone is still taking to me — and I will republish the articles when they are ready. When that will be, who knows? I got a three-day jury summons for next week. When it rains it pours.

RIP Sugar Bacon

After suffering a severe stroke, my stepmother, Marguerite “Sugar” Bacon, died two days ago at the age of 87. She and my dad had been married 60 years, and after my dad died two months ago, she missed him terribly. I don’t believe in heaven, but if I’m wrong, I’m pretty sure she’s with him now.

Sugar was a wonderful stepmother, and I have no memories of a life without her. I truly thought of her as my second mom.

She was a remarkable woman. Very traditional in her beliefs, she never worked a paying job. She thought a woman’s place was in the home. She also thought it was a woman’s place to say exactly what she thought… about any topic. Her marriage with my dad was a partnership of equals. She never understood what women needed to be “liberated” from. She ran the household, was active in the community, and rose to positions of leadership in the Garden Club. Asking little for herself, she always sought to be of service to others.

It’s been a tough 10 days, and I’ve had to put my blogging on the back burner. The blog will be quiet next week as well for a variety of personal reasons. But I’ll have a lot to say when I come back.

— JAB

Note to Readers — Another Misfire!

I’ve been working on a four-part series about Virginia higher-education policy since the enactment of the 2005 Restructuring Act. In juggling and updating different pieces in WordPress, I accidentally hit the “Publish” button for one of them. I have taken the piece offline, but email subscribers will get a copy in their in-boxes.

While the article, Part II in the series, is close to complete, it is subject to revision as I work on Parts III and IV, and also in need of final fact-checking. Please ignore it until I can publish at the proper time in proper sequence.

College Graduation Rates and SAT Scores

This table shows the math and verbal SAT scores for Virginia's public universities, along with college graduation rates.

This table shows the math and verbal SAT scores for Virginia’s public universities, along with college graduation rates. Table credit: Cranky’s Blog

John Butcher, of Cranky’s Blog fame, is turning his analytical gaze from K-12 schools to higher education. In his latest post, he explores the strong correlation between a Virginia public institution’s six-year graduation rate and the average SAT scores of its student body, as seen in the table to the left and the plotted chart below of median SAT math scores. (See his post for the chart of English SAT scores.)

The commentary in his post is sparse, but he makes interesting points in his email correspondence with me:

UVa and Mary&Bill both take very smart kids and graduate nearly all. The middle-tier colleges take less bright kids and graduate fewer. VCU takes still less bright kids and graduates still fewer. All these sit pretty well on the fitted line, except that JMU under-performs on the math datum.

Why should schools taking less able students graduate a smaller proportion? If they were doing their jobs, they would adapt to their clientèle and give them degrees. Doubtless the market would discount those degrees (surely it does already as to the kids who graduate now). But we wouldn’t see the kids being sloughed off.

VSU and Longwood both over-perform, albeit not by nearly enough. But they are doing something better, if not entirely right. What is it?

Image source: Cranky’s Blog

Six-year college graduation rates are the standard performance metric for U.S. colleges and universities. Four years to graduation is the ideal. Six years contain a lot of slack and, to my mind, and represents a shamefully low hurdle. The inability of a student to graduate within six years constitutes a total failure, either on the student’s part, the university’s part or both. It represents a misallocation of resources by the higher ed system and a personal tragedy for the student, who typically accumulates thousands of dollars in loans and has no sheepskin to show for it.

We need to better understand the key variables affecting six-year graduation rates.

John gets the conversation rolling by noting that the odds are stacked in favor of smarter students (with smarts measured by SAT scores). Indeed, SAT scores account for almost 80% of the variation in the graduation rate. Smarter kids come disproportionately from well-off families that raise them in an environment that rewards educational achievement and also have the means to support them financially while in school. These students can spend more time studying and less time worrying how to pay tuition, fees, room, board and incidentals.

But the correlation is not perfect. Some institutions do better with the raw material (students) they are given than others, as can be seen by the squares above and below the plotted line. (Old Dominion University may be an outlier because its student population contains a high percentage of military personnel who leave when they rotate to an assignment in another location.)

John asks if institutions are gearing their curriculum and academic standards toward the students in their student body, as opposed, perhaps, to the students they wished they had. That hypothesis is worth pursuing.

Here’s another: Could the guidance and support given students play a role in college graduation rates?

In 2011 the University of Virginia performed slightly above expectations in six-year graduation rates, but only slightly. As part of its strategic plan (the Cornerstone Plan) instituted in 2013, UVa is pioneering the concept of “total advising,” which integrates academic advising, career advising, and coaching. One would hope that the program will show higher six-year graduation rates for the class of 2017.

Likewise, it would be interesting to see what the Virginia Military Institute, Christopher Newport University, and Mary Washington University — all of which performed above expectations — are doing differently from other universities.

One way or another, we need to figure out how to help students graduate on time and on budget.

A New Sponsor for Higher-Ed Journalism

I am pleased to announce that Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU has begun sponsoring Bacon’s Rebellion effective January 1 this year. Under terms of the agreement, Bacon’s Rebellion will provide in-depth coverage of higher education issues in Virginia, with a particular emphasis on the cost of attendance of Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a not-for-profit organization, was founded in 2014 in response to soaring tuition, fees and other costs associated with attending U.S. institutions of higher education. The philosophical viewpoint of the group and Bacon’s Rebellion are closely aligned. Readers will find the following statement from the group’s “About Us” page to hit familiar themes:

The public insists that new answers be found to preserve and protect the core American belief that anyone can succeed with talent and hard work. Yet, many public university leaders maintain that tuition increases are inevitable and irreplaceable. Rankings, they contend, count more than affordable excellence.

The chances of “fixing” the system from inside seem increasingly unlikely. Progress seems incremental at best, particularly at “flagship” public research universities who set the pace for cost and the standards for excellence.

Concerned by the rising cost of higher education, a group of “philanthropists, edupreneurs, and researchers” created Partners for Affordable Excellence @EDU with a mission to enhance academic excellence in higher ed while maintaining affordable tuition. Partners has helped draft legislation to make more transparent how colleges spend the tuition & fees they receive and how efficiently they operate. Additionally, the organization is developing an online training tool to instruct newly appointed board members on the fundamentals of college and university governance.

The Partners board of directors includes three Virginians, at least two of whom are readily familiar to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion: Gilbert T. Bland, past chairman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and former member of the boards of Old Dominion University and the James Madison University Foundation; Helen E. Dragas, former rector of the University of Virginia; and James V. Koch, former president of Old Dominion University.

The terms of the sponsorship, as with all Bacon’s Rebellion sponsorships, ensure the editorial independence and integrity of the blog.

Note to Readers

electrocution_hairGood news! We think we have restored the Bacon’s Rebellion blog to full functionality. Things should be working more smoothly now. However, we’re still suffering after-effects of the Denial of Service attack and our efforts (far more complicated than we anticipated) to migrate the blog to a faster, more secure platform.

What’s in it for you?

Subscriptions. Bacon’s Rebellion offers three ways for you to stay in touch: (1) Subscribe to our RSS feed; (2) subscribe to our email notification; and (3) NEW!! subscribe to our Twitter feed. Pick the options that work best for you.

We may have lost some email subscriptions in the migration from one platform to another, however. If you do not receive your email updates, please let me know, and I’ll try to get it straightened out.

Comment registrations. Readers have been bedeviled by difficulties when signing in to make comments. We think we’ve fixed that problem, but readers may have to reset their passwords one more time. If you have any trouble, contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com, and I’ll generate a new password for you.

Thanks, JP. Thanks again to JP Barringer with (Barrel Strength) Design for helping me through this laborious process. He spent way more time on this project than he ever bargained for. I never could have done it alone.

Bacon Takes Aim, Shoots Foot

shooting_footMy apologies to the Department of Environmental Quality, the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and most of all readers: Late yesterday or early this morning I accidentally published a rough draft of an article about environmental regulation of natural gas pipelines in Virginia. That draft was incomplete. I still had reporting to do, and I had not fact checked it. I have removed the draft from the blog in order to continue working on it.

— JAB

Back in Action… Almost

We're back!

We’re back!

It’s been a remarkably long and arduous process to restore the Bacon’s Rebellion blog after it was knocked out by a denial-of-service attack a month ago. For two weeks, it was literally impossible to access the files, and I continued publishing the blog only by jury-rigging a new, bare-bones website. Then, in the two weeks following, it turned out to be far more complicated than expected to migrate a decade’s worth of posts, images and comments from Hostmonster, whose responsiveness in this crisis situation was execrable, to Godaddy, which may or may not prove to be any better. We’ll see.

I can safely say that the task was way beyond my capabilities — it turns out that Godaddy’s WordPress blog publishing software has a different file structure than Hostmonster’s — and I never could have done it without the help of reader JP Barringer. A partner in the web design firm (Barrel Strength) Design, JP repeatedly worked into the wee hours of the night. I have become accustomed to arising early in the morning and reading his email updates time-stamped as late as 2:00 a.m.

We are close to regaining full functionality. For reasons unknown, the widgets in the side columns were not restored when JP published the blog early this morning. We will work to restore those over the next hour or two. Meanwhile, JP has added some features that should make the website faster and more secure.

If something isn’t working right– if you’re not receiving your email updates, having difficulty making comments, whatever — let me know at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com (substituting “@” for “[at]”). I’ll get on it as soon as I can.

— JAB