Category Archives: Science & Technology

Photo Project Spotlights Pipeline Impact


By Peter Galuszka

Veteran photographer Karen Kasmauski, who grew up in Norfolk, has a brilliant online project that shows the human and environmental impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

She is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a non-profit group that funded her project that centers mostly in rural Nelson and Buckingham Counties that would be dissected by the natural gas pipeline.

She combines spectacular aerial photos with deep close ups of people.

One of her subjects is Ella Rose, a retiree who lives in a small house in Union Hill. She was living a quiet happy life in her natural setting until she got a letter from Dominion Energy stating that they would be routing the ACP about 150-feet from her house.

Union Hill is a touchpoint for pipeline controversy since it is largely African-American community that ACP officials have selected for a compressor station. It is one of similar localities that seem to be targeted with other loud and disruptive equipment along the pipeline route. Continue reading

A Look at Richmond and COVID-19

By Peter Galuszka

Here is a roundup story I wrote for Style Weekly that was published today that explains the effects of COVID-19 on the Richmond area. Hopefully, BR readers will find it of interest.

It was a tough piece to report. The impacts of the deadly virus are very complicated and multi-faceted. An especially hard part was trying to keep with the fast-changing news, notably the number of new cases and deaths. We were updating right up until the story closed Monday afternoon. It was hard to talk to people with social-distancing and closings.

The experience shows the delicate balancing act between taking tough measures to stem the contagion and keeping the economy going. My view is that tough measures are needed because without them, it will all be much worse, particularly more illness and death as the experience in Italy has shown.

Incredibly, our utterly incompetent president, Donald Trump, now wants to focus on the economy more than taking necessary containment steps. It’s far too soon for that. Regrettably, a number of Bacon’s Rebellion commenters are sounding the same irresponsible tune in keeping with their big business and anti-regulation laud of free market capitalism. Continue reading

In Memory of a Great (West) Virginian

By Peter Galuszka

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a pioneering and brilliant African-American mathematician whose on-the-money calculations kept early astronauts alive, died Monday at the age 101. She spent most of her life in Hampton and worked for NASA there until she retired in 1986.

Her life and that of two other female African-American mathematicians from NASA, were portrayed in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures. Last year, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Ms. Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va, where she was able to develop her talents despite the restrictions of the Jim Crow era. In the Mountain State at one point, public education was not provided to black people from high school on. So, her Father moved the family to the town of Institute where a high school was available. She graduated summa cum laude From West Virginia State, a historically black school, in 1937 when she was 18 with degrees in math and French.

For years she moved in and out of education, teaching at a school In Marion. Va. and continuing her studies. She moved permanently when her husband found work in Hampton. Continue reading

Three Bad Bills

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

Each session there are bills that are introduced probably with the best of intentions and approved for those reasons, but are basically bad policy and are likely to have unintended consequences. They are not “big” bills and do not generate headlines, but skate under the radar. I want to highlight three that have come to my attention and are in an area with which I am familiar.

Inmate medical copay. (HB 281—Hope.) This legislation would repeal the authority of the Department of Corrections to charge inmates a co-pay for medical services. Inmates now are subject to a $5 co-pay for offender-initiated  medical visits. No inmate is denied medical services due to a lack of funds in his account. The revenue generated by the co-pay is used to support the agency’s telemedicine program. The House amendments to the budget bill include $405,000 from the general fund each to replace the revenue lost. Continue reading

Amazon’s Security Collaborative: Cool or Creepy?

HQ2 rendering

by James A. Bacon

Amazon.com, Inc., is pushing for an intelligence-sharing alliance with law enforcement and emergency-management agencies around its Arlington office complex, similar to arrangement it already has with its Seattle headquarters, reports the Washington Business Journal.

On the positive side, Arlington police and other participants could gain access to Amazon’s tech, best practices, and intelligence-gathering methods. On the other hand, deeper collaboration and information sharing between one of the nation’s biggest corporations and law-enforcement sounds kind of Orwellian.

“Amazon can take a leadership role in the region and establish a new NOVA/Washington DC Regional Security Council (modeled after the Greater Seattle Security Council),” wrote Florence Chung, in charge of Amazon’s public-private partnerships, in an Aug. 1 email. It would “promote collaboration and information sharing between security leadership from both the private sector and public sector.” Continue reading

Northam Proposes Reorganization of Tech Programs

The Center for Innovative Technology’s iconic soon-to-be-former headquarters.

by James A. Bacon

I’m so old that I remember when the Center for Innovative Technology, created to catalyze high-tech development in Virginia, was in charge of allocating state funds for university-based R&D. After commanding center stage in Virginia’s conversations about technology development during the 1990s and 2000s, CIT underwent successive downsizings to the point where it is a mere shell of its former self. Responsibility for overseeing state funding for R&D shifted to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), where it still resides.

The politics driving CIT’s dismemberment are long since forgotten. Now Governor Ralph Northam proposes to combine CIT with SCHEV’s Virginia Research Investment Committee, the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing and the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative under the mantle of the Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“What we have right now are multiple initiatives, all with good intent,” Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball said in an interview. “What we’re trying to do is pull all these together in one authority so we can allocate resources in the most efficient possible way.” Continue reading

Virginia’s Tech Roadmap: Space, Biotech, Cybersecurity and More

by James A. Bacon

A new study, “The Commonwealth Research and Technology Strategic Roadmap,” has identified six strategic technology clusters exhibiting the greatest potential for Virginia’s economic growth. The report, conducted by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, is not prescriptive — it does not offer legislative recommendations. Rather, the report identifies fruitful areas for collaboration between education, industry, government, and economic developers.

The most promising areas for focused research and economic development include:

  1. Life and health science
  2. Autonomous systems
  3. Space and utilities
  4. Agricultural and environmental technologies
  5. Cybersecurity
  6. Data science analytics

Collaboration should take the form of aligning investments in R&D, talent development, industry engagement, capacity building (such as venture capital), and marketing/advocacy for the purpose of globally competitive industry clusters. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Monday Morning Kick-Starter

No limits to human ingenuity, er, depravity. The developers of flying drones promised all manner of wonderful things, from saving lives to home deliveries. I doubt any of them considered the latest use for drones highlighted in the news: sneaking drugs into prison. In August, security staff of the Buckingham Correctional Center found a small white drone by the side of the road stuffed with $500 worth of marijuana, an eight ball of cocaine, a cell phone, three SIM cards and a handcuff key. That was only one of 33 drone sightings near prisons since January 2018, reports The Daily Press. Never forget Bacon’s Rule of Technology: for every beneficial use of a new technology conceived by the inventer, bad guys can think of a malevolent use.

$100 Million Gift for UVa Scholarships. David Walentas, a University of Virginia undergraduate and business school alumnus and New York real estate developer, is giving $75 million to the university in support of a $100 million Jefferson Scholars Foundation initiative to provide financial support to first-generation students from Virginia and New York. The gift will serve as “a cornerstone” for a larger $5 billion university fund-raising campaign, the university says. Walentas is to be admired for his generosity and for using his money to address the manifest injustice of the rising cost of attendance at UVa. Question: Does Walentas’ benefaction take pressure off the General Assembly to maintain financial support of the university and off the UVa administration to rein in runaway spending?

Oops, Virginia did it again. Ivy Main, an energy/environment blogger for the Virginia Sierra Club, is distressed by the latest electricity usage for Virginia, which showed a 2% increase last year, continuing a three-year upward trend and (something she doesn’t mention) confirming Dominion Energy’s forecast of continuing electricity demand growth for the state despite assurances from many quarters that electricity consumption would decline. Writing in the Virginia Mercury, she attributes growing electricity consumption to the proliferation of energy-intensive data centers and a failure to invest in energy efficiency. Continue reading

How Artificial Stupidity Is Ruining Our Lives

Evil contraption. A wood-burning stove is looking really good right now.

by James A. Bacon

Periodically, Bacon’s Rebellion asks whether the increasing complexity of society is out of control. Personally, I don’t worry much about Artificial Intelligence wiping out our jobs or taking control of humanity because so much putative “intelligence” of the artificial variety is incredibly stupid.

Case in point: my microwave oven.

Just as my elderly parents wanted a cell phone that just made phone calls, I want a microwave oven that just re-heats food. All I ask is for the machine to respond to few simple commands. Instead, I have a digital monster connected to the Internet that promises a dazzling display of versatility but is, in fact, functionally useless. Continue reading

The Dualistic Nature of Technology in Schools

Wi-Fi-enabled school bus in Bath County. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

In Bath County Google has wired school buses, turning them into “rolling study halls for students with long commutes and sometimes patchy or nonexistent Wi-Fi at home,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The pilot program, being funded in 15 school districts in 13 states, will last at least through the end of the school year.

Clearly, technology can do wonderful things to help children learn. Accessing the Internet can open up a world of knowledge. Students can watch taped lectures outside classroom so teachers can use their face time applying and discussing the content. Technology can enable personalized learning, adapted to children’s individual learning styles and pace of learning. Distance learning can deliver specialized courses, such as Latin or Japanese, to rural school districts where the courses would otherwise be unavailable. 

Responding to this siren call, many Virginia school districts have invested heavily in providing laptops and computers to their students. More recently, Virginia became the first state in the country to mandate the teaching of computer science and coding. Standards of Learning for Computer Science, finalized in 2017, will be taught starting in the 2019-20 academic year. Continue reading

Virginia-Based Capital One Hacked

Who let the dogs data out?  McLean-based Capital One has been hacked in one of the largest data breaches ever. A single hacker with apparent mental health issues managed to copy 100 million credit card applications and accounts. The seeming ease with which the hacker compromised what should have been ironclad security is shocking. The bank’s stumbling and fumbling explanations of what happened have not helped Capital One’s cause.

The hacker who couldn’t shoot straight.  The FBI has arrested 33-year-old Seattle resident Paige Thompson in connection with the data breach. Ms Thompson, who goes by the online name of “erratic,” made so many mistakes that her capture was tantamount to turning herself in. Slate reports, “According to a federal indictment, Thompson posted the data she pilfered on her GitHub profile on April 21, where she had also uploaded her résumé with her full name listed and details about her employment history.” Erratic indeed … not exactly up to the standards of Frank Abagnale. Ms. Thompson also posted her interest in euthanizing her cat and committing herself to a mental institution on social media. Continue reading

I, for One, Welcome Our New Alien Overlords

Alien from the popular XCom2 strategy game.

Navy pilots flying off the East Coast, including the Virginia coast, have reported numerous encounters with Unidentified Flying Objects, the New York Times informs us. The newspaper has recounted the pilots’ stories and now that the Trump-Russian collusion theory has melted like the Siberian tundra in summer, people are latching onto a new conspiracy theory. Could the UFOs be aliens (not the kind that sneak across the border)? What’s the government hiding? Even Robert Zullo with the Virginia Mercury is getting into the act, demanding answers in a light-hearted rant: “Tell us about the UFOs already, Mr. President.”

I have no explanation for the flying objects. Are they secret experimental aircraft? Are they meteorological phenomenon? Who knows? Whatever the case, I find no cause for alarm. Whatever they are, they are not extra-terrestrial aliens. I worry more about climate change than I worry about an alien invasion — and I worry about the scourge of feral cats more than I worry about climate change.

For the UFOs to be alien craft, several other things must be true:

Craft designed for atmospheric flight are also capable of space travel. First the UFOs had to reach earth. Then they had to be capable of flying in the atmosphere. I’m not aerospace engineer, but I’m pretty sure that spacecraft designed for interstellar flight at speeds of millions of miles per hour in the vacuum of space are not optimized for zipping around Earth with all of its atmospheric drag. Continue reading

Courts Authorizing “Reverse Location” Warrants in Virginia

FBI “reverse location” warrant in Henrico County…. Photo credit: Forbes

Big brother Google is watching you. Back in October, 2018,  Forbes reported that a Virginia court had authorized the FBI to use a “reverse location” warrant to try to solve a series of crimes in Henrico County, Va. This warrant, also known as a geofence warrant, allows police to compel Google to provide all cellphone activity for all people in a general area over a specified period of time. The resulting handover of data includes locations and other information on potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of people. While Google has complied with the warrants in the past, it is unclear whether the company complied in the Henrico case. Continue reading

Smart Cities Council Comes to Virginia

The Smart Cities Council recently held a “Readiness Challenge” workshop in Virginia. I’ve banged the Smart Cities drum on and off over the years, but gave up when I saw so little reader interest. But I’ll take one more whack with a percussion mallet because the “smart cities” concept seems to be gaining momentum. The fact that several high-level people in the Northam administration attended the workshop signals more official interest than in the past.

A big focus of the workshop was universal broadband — bringing the benefits of high-speed Internet access to rural communities and the inner city. News that I had missed: Virginia now has a “chief broadband advisor” — Evan Feinman, who had served previously as executive director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

Other topics discussed:

  • Mobility options. Use smart mobility to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Energy planning. Deploy smart technologies to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles.
  • Public safety. Improve data coordination between state agencies to address more complex public safety threats.
  • Standardize data. Improve data governance, develop a common architecture and data platform, and create incentives for data owners to work together. Also, prepare the next generation of data workers.

Information technology is not a silver bullet for Virginia’s immense challenges. But it is a potentially useful tool. Hopefully, some of the ideas spawned by this workshop will percolate through the impermeable strata of politics and bureaucracy to be adopted in the real world.

Read the Smart Cities Council account of the workshop here.

Taxes, Innovation and Virginia’s Lost Mojo

In 1940

In 1940, technological innovation in the United States was concentrated overwhelmingly in the Great Lakes states, the Northeast, and California. The powerful economic force known as agglomeration — in which geographic proximity boosts the productivity of inventors and researchers — acted to perpetuate those states’ lead. Yet over the following six decades, the propensity for innovation, as measured by patents per 10,000 state residents, diffused to Texas, the South Atlantic states (including Virginia), and the Rocky Mountain states. What drove that change?

One likely factor was tax rates — primarily for corporate income taxes, but for personal income taxes as well. And that should be a wake-up call to Virginia. The Old Dominion’s 6% top marginal tax rate for corporations gives the state a crummy 31st rank in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate index, and its 5.75% top tax bracket contributes to the state’s 9th highest rank for state-and-local income taxes paid per year.

A new study by Ufuk Akcigit, a University of Chicago economics professor, and three colleagues has found that corporate and personal income tax rates have a profound effect over long periods of time on technological innovation. States their paper, “Taxation and Innovation in the 20th Century“:

Taxes affect the amount of innovation, the quality of innovation, and the location of inventive activity.

The effect of taxes on innovation is a consuming question in modern-day economics. Heavily dependent upon anecdotal evidence and incomplete data, the debate has been impossible to resolve decisively. However, Akcigit and his co-authors have set a new evidentiary standard by compiling three new datasets. First they constructed a database of inventors based on historical patent data since 1920, which allows them to track innovations over time, industry, and location. Secondly, they built a database of corporations’ R&D labs and research employment. Thirdly, they created a dataset of state-level corporate and personal income tax rates.

The authors find that personal and corporate income tax rates have “significant effects” at the state level on patents, citations (a measure of the significance of a given patent), the prevalence of inventors in a state, and the share of patents produced by firms compared to those produced by lone inventors.

Corporate inventors are the most “elastic” — economics speak for “sensitive” — to tax rates. Corporations tend to be unsentimental about where they invest. They have less loyalty to a given geographic area. They look to maximize their return on investment wherever they can find it. By contrast, individuals may have strong personal and sentimental attachments to a location. However, when inventors do choose to move, Akcigit has found, they are “significantly less likely” to move to states with higher taxes.

Though a significant factor in shaping the geographic distribution of innovation, taxes are not all-powerful. The authors readily acknowledge the influence of agglomeration effects. Within a given scientific or technological field, inventors like to stay close to the action — in other words, to locate near others in the same field. Often, agglomeration effects are stronger than tax rates.

Bacon’s bottom line: Let me offer a couple of refinements, and then a warning to Virginia.

The authors examine published corporate income tax rates. They do not take into account the impact of corporate tax giveaways — an essential strategy for some states (such as New York) to retain corporate activity and for other states (such as anyone trying to attract Amazon’s HQ2) to bribe corporate investors. Also, they don’t examine how the tax money is spent. In theory, highly skilled and educated inventors prefer to live and work in locations with superior amenities made possible with higher taxes. Finally, they neglect to examine university-generated R&D. It goes without saying that university R&D is tied to the geographic location of the institution (although research teams can be induced to move).

I would argue that powerful forces work to perpetuate the geographic status quo:

  • Agglomeration effects, in which inventors in industry clusters feed off one another. Silicon Valley is a classic example of how agglomeration effects outweigh the negative impact of high taxes and even higher real estate prices.
  • Government and cultural amenities, in which wealthy regions of the country spend more money on schools, higher-ed, and other amenities valued by the educated class, and where philanthropists have endowed local universities, medical centers, and arts & cultural institutions over the ages.
  • Tax-favored institutions, in which leading universities, disproportionately located in the Northeast, the Midwest and California, have accumulated massive tax-exempt endowments that allow them to underwrite the recruitment of world-class research faculty. Insofar as universities serve as anchors for innovation ecosystems, this tax advantage is crucial.

It is remarkable, given the extraordinary advantages of the incumbent innovation leaders, that research and innovation has migrated to other states at all. What allows these other states to compete? Lower corporate and individual taxes is one of the few public policy tools a poorer state can muster.

Once upon a time, Virginia was known as a low-tax, fast-growth state. That is no longer true. At best, we can claim to be a moderate-tax, moderate-growth state. We have neither the advantage of accumulated wealth in the form of world-class research universities, medical centers, foundations, museums, and cultural institutions nor the advantage of lower taxes that attract corporate investment. (Yeah, yeah, the University of Virginia is great, and so is the Virginia Museum, but overall Virginia is strictly second-tier.) Measured by economic performance, Virginia is in the muddled middle. Economic growth is plodding. For the first time in decades, more native-born Americans have been leaving the state than entering it. 

Is our tax policy to blame? Do our tax structures and budgetary priorities increasingly resemble those of the Midwestern and Northeastern states — without the inheritance of vast industrial-era wealth and philanthropy to underpin our economy? I suspect strongly that that’s the case.

To answer the question, it would help to have innovation data more recent than 2000. Economically speaking, Virginia was on a roll then. Today, the state is suffering economic malaise. I would not be surprised to find that our relative innovation standing has declined. Our governor and legislature propose lots of small-small remedies to jump-start the economy, but it’s hard to see how they will amount to much. Virginia’s relative decline warrants far more serious thought than it has received so far.