Category Archives: Science & Technology

Auditing AI

by James A. Bacon

This is an issue that every university, corporation or government entity, not just the University of Virginia, should be thinking about: How will Artificial Intelligence affect their accounting, finances, and operations?

AI overlords aren’t likely to enslave the human race any time soon. But the technology is progressing at a logarithmic rate, and in the hands of malign or incompetent people it can cause considerable harm long before we find ourselves kneeling before killer robots and addressing them as, “sir.”

The UVA Board of Visitors voted Friday to adopt a wide-ranging two-year audit plan for the UVA Health division. Among many initiatives, the plan included this: Continue reading

Virginia’s Rocky Road to Green: Navigating the Haze of Marijuana Legalization

by Don Rippert

The journey of marijuana decriminalization and legalization in Virginia is a saga marked by halting progress, legislative inertia, and moments of enlightened reform, encapsulating the Virginia General Assembly’s oscillation between inaction and gradual, albeit grudging, acceptance of societal shifts. This narrative reflects a broader struggle within the state’s legislative body, often perceived as lacking both the foresight and the competence necessary to navigate complex social issues promptly and effectively.

Virginia’s relationship with cannabis began with a cautious foray into medical marijuana in 1979, allowing recommendations for glaucoma or chemotherapy side effects, though this law became largely symbolic due to federal restrictions and a lack of implementation mechanisms. Subsequent tightening of regulations and slight expansions did little to establish a functioning medical cannabis program until significant reforms in the 2010s, culminating in the establishment of medical cannabis dispensaries in 2018 and the relaxation of doctor registration requirements in 2023.

The road to decriminalization and legalization has been equally tortuous. The General Assembly, showing a characteristic hesitancy to embrace reform, rejected decriminalization efforts as recently as 2015. However, the 2019 elections, which saw Democrats gain control of both houses, marked a turning point. Attorney General Mark Herring’s call for legalization and a subsequent summit set the stage for decriminalization in 2020, turning possession of less than an ounce of marijuana into a civil offense with a $25 fine, a move that significantly altered the state’s punitive stance on cannabis. Continue reading

Contracting Out the Space Race

Photo credit: NASA

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Because the focus of this blog is on Virginia politics and public policy, I am loath to venture beyond those boundaries. However, I have recently become concerned about an issue (nonpartisan, I hope) that has ramifications beyond the Commonwealth. I am interested in the opinions of those on this blog who may have much more expertise in the issue than I have.

An American private company recently succeeded in landing a payload on the moon. This was the first American moon landing in 51 years. This feat highlights a change in space policy by the United States: the government has turned much of space activity over to the private sector.

The director of NASA’s planetary science division summarized this change in space policy this way:

This is a really a significant shift in how we do business. “The fact that NASA is not actually building or responsible directly for these missions or their launches is an opportunity to invest in the commercial industry to build a new capability. NASA can then purchase the delivery service, and the intent hopefully being that we can increase the frequency of deliveries and reduce the cost to NASA of doing science. Continue reading

Virginia Child Victims in the Left’s War on the Enlightenment and Science

Richard Bernstein, a founder of American critical theory.

by James C. Sherlock

Modern progressivism is religion, defined by Webster as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”

The critical theory progressive, that is to say the modern American progressive, rejects proudly and publicly, root and branch, both the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolutions of the 16th through 18th centuries in Europe.

Critical Theory developed into a synthesis of Marx and Freud. The Frankfurt School which birthed it studied the sources of authoritarianism. Their followers, as in much of human experience, wound up as practitioners.

By contrast, the leading lights of Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution awakenings, bravely in their time, stressed the belief that science and logic give people more understanding. And with understanding came freedom and the rights of man.

Logic is the principles of reasoning; science provides the principles of investigation and proof.

They led much of Europe, and the American colonies, to develop more successful systems of governance, economics, mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and education than did tradition and religion.

One development, capitalism, has raised more people out of poverty than any economic system ever.

Some of the rest of the world followed. Some did not. Those that did, prospered, and improved the lives of billions of people.

But success in those twin intellectual revolutions came too slow for some.

To that table came two prominent 19th and 20th century experiments in rejecting the Enlightenment: communism and national socialism.

They proved the deadliest political movements in human history. Continue reading

A Long Time Ago in a World Far Far Away

Mafic dike in wall of granite. Roadcut on VA Rt. 16 near Mouth of Wilson Baptist Church

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

This past weekend I went back in Virginia’s history. Waaaay back. Over a billion years back.

The occasion was the 2023 Virginia Geological Field Conference. This is an annual event staged by a group of leading geologists in the state. Attending were faculty members from several institutions, including one community college; geologists from the United States Geological Service; staff from several state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Equality; college students, folks from the private sector; and one or two non-geologists (such as me) who nevertheless are keenly interested in the science.

We met in the Mt. Rogers area (the site of the conference rotates among Virginia’s five geographic regions). There we spent a day and a half traveling among sites that have been explored and mapped by USGS geologists over the past few years. We would go to a site, get a briefing from the lead USGS geologist and then go crawl over and around the rocks, with many using their geologist’s hammer to break off chunks for examination. As for me, I would stand in front of a wall of rock or hold a chunk in my hand and ask one of the USGS or other geologists, “Tell me what I am looking at.” Continue reading

Math SOLs Up First for New Superintendent Coons

Figure 1. Average scores in numeracy for age 16-34 (bars) and age 16-24 (red dots): OECD PIAAC 2012. (From Goodman et al. 2015, Data © OECD 2012. Used with permission.)  Click for larger view.

by Eric (Rick) Nelson

In K-12 education, can Virginia lead the nation? If that’s the goal, in my view as a career educator, Dr. Lisa Coons is the best possible choice as our new state Superintendent. As Chief Academic Officer in Tennessee, the programs she guided to help teachers improve reading instruction are among the best in the nation.

But in Virginia, challenge #1 is mathematics. The department Dr. Coons now leads is tentatively scheduled in June to submit to the state Board of Education a proposed revision of our K-12 math Standards of Learning (SOLs). Workforce math skills are vital for our nation’s prosperity and defense, but current standards, in both our state and nation, are failing to teach mathematics effectively.

The evidence? On national standards, much of it can be found in the International Journal of Mathematics Education, among other places.

  • On a 2012 international test of numeracy skills for citizens aged 16 to 34, among 22 tested nations, the United States ranked dead last;
  • Since 2012? In national NAEP LTT testing in January 2020, before the U.S. arrival of Covid-19, math scores were lower than in 2012 for nearly every student group;
  • As noted by columnist George Will, “About 76,000 students each year receive from U.S. universities advanced degrees in engineering disciplines …. Of those graduates, about 43 percent are U.S. citizens….”;
  • Electrical engineering (EE) is an especially important field in the competitive world economy. Of EE doctorates awarded by U.S. universities, the proportion going to non-U.S. citizens rose from 62% in 2010 to 70% in 2019. Almost as many U.S. EE Ph.D.’s went to citizens of China as to U.S. citizens.

Many of these “best and brightest” from around the globe stay in the U.S. and contribute disproportionately to our economy. But one wonders: how long will U.S. taxpayers support higher education their children are not being prepared to enter? Continue reading

The More Things Remain the Same

by Joe Fitzgerald

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The Hopewell chemical plant where Kepone was born and raised has been cited 66 times over the past eight years for releasing toxic chemicals into the air and into the James River.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch tells the story better than I do. What makes this latest stream of toxins so poignant is the release this week of the book Poison Powder: The Kepone Disaster in Virginia and its Legacy, by University of Akron history professor Gregory Wilson. (From the University of Georgia Press, or from Amazon.)

Wilson’s work is an excellent history that brings alive what so many of us remember from back then. People we knew, including my brother Tom, worked and suffered at the Kepone plant in Hopewell in the mid-1970s. The James River, the cradle of American settlement, was closed to fishing. People who couldn’t spell “ppm” could tell you how many parts per million of Kepone were in their blood.

Tom died last summer, age 67, of what some medical sites call a rare type of kidney tumor that had also attached itself to his stomach and bowel and maybe a couple of organs I’ve forgotten. Kepone? Nobody will ever know for sure. But Wilson’s book makes sure everybody who wants to will know what happened in Hopewell almost 50 years ago.
Continue reading

Planes, Planes, Planes, and Some Space Ships

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Friday afternoon I visited the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport, officially known as National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.  It has been on my list of places to visit for a long time.  If you haven’t been, I heartily recommend it.

As with anything the Smithsonian does, the number of objects on display is astounding. There are cavernous halls with planes and other aviation-related displays laid out all over the place—big planes, little planes, planes from the early 1900’s, modern planes, Nazi war planes, a Soviet MIG, satellites, a space shuttle.  In addition, there are almost as many planes suspended from the very high ceiling.  All of this can be viewed from three levels.

For someone who is not an aviation aficionado, all these items tend to blend together fairly quickly.  It is almost impossible to take it all in in one day.  It is best to take small bites, which is what I plan to do.  I come to Northern Virginia frequently to visit my daughter and her family, so I can do that.  (Admission is free, but there is a $15 parking fee.)  If one can’t go back easily, but can devote most of one day to the facility, I recommend choosing a sunny day and take some lunch.  After spending a couple of hours or so in the facility, go outside, eat your lunch, and then go back in, with your mind somewhat rested from all the stimulation. Continue reading

Troubled Times for Turtles: Habitat Loss, Poaching Threaten the Ancient Reptile in Virginia

by Bob Hurley

The next time you see a turtle think of what life on Earth might have been like 220 million years ago.

Turtles have been around for that long. They saw dinosaurs come and go; survived the Ice Age; and with their distinctive shells, have defended themselves against a variety of predators.

And we need them. Turtles are important in balancing ecosystems. They protect water quality by removing harmful bacteria, like dead fish and animals. They control aquatic vegetation; cycle nutrients; and contribute to new plant growth by dispersing seeds. A decline in their population can signal problems for water quality or habitat loss.

Today, their survival is threatened around the world and here in Virginia. The primary causes: unsustainable – and often illegal — capture and loss of habitat.

“Turtles are this incredible legacy to the history of nature on Earth,” said Tom Akre, a Sperryville resident, who is a program scientist at the Conservation Ecology Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) in Front Royal. “They haven’t changed in 220 million years and are now the most endangered group of vertebrates on our planet, with 60 percent of species threatened,” he said. “Turtles are the most traded four-legged animal group in the world, and that is a big cause for their decline.” Continue reading

Langley Looks to the Moon

by Robin Beres

While mainstream media may be transfixed by the gutter politics going on in New York, exciting, uplifting events are happening in other parts of the nation — including in our very own little city of Hampton.

Located on Hampton’s Langley Air Force Base just off the Chesapeake Bay, the Langley Research Center is NASA’s oldest field center. Established in 1917, the 764-acre facility consists of nearly 200 separate facilities and employs around 3,400 civil servants and contractors.

In the early 1960s Langley was a top contender to be named NASA’s Mission Control Center for manned space flights. But because the Hampton facility was so close to Washington, and Hampton Roads was already home to both military and civilian aerospace and aviation communities, NASA selected Johnson Space Center in Houston over Langley.

Although missing out on the Manned Spacecraft Center, Langley has nonetheless continued to play a vital role in the research and training that has made every space mission from Gemini I to Artemis successful. The historic research facility has had countless scientific breakthroughs and historic firsts. The first crews of astronauts were trained there. Langley’s Rendezvous and Docking Simulator trained both Gemini and Apollo astronauts. It is where the Apollo Lunar Module was tested.

Scientists at the center were instrumental in the development of supersonic flight. Researchers there created the world’s first transonic wind tunnel and developed today’s international standard for grooved airport runways. And, if you saw the fabulous — and true — movie, Hidden Figures, you know that those incredible women worked at Langley.

Today, Langley is very much involved in NASA’s plans to put humans on the moon — and eventually on Mars. The space agency’s Moon to Mars program is no longer just a dream or a science fiction story in Popular Mechanics. The Artemis space program is moving rapidly forward on several goals which include putting a base on the moon and eventually landing humans on Mars.
Continue reading

Moral Injury Is Driving Doctor Burnout

by Dr. Scott Armistead

Physician burnout is a major issue in the U.S., receiving attention in medical education, medical specialties and at various government levels. Moral injury, in my professional and teaching experience, is a significant and growing challenge to physician wellness. Moral injury happens when one’s personal convictions are unwelcomed and one is pressured to think, be silent, speak, act or not act in a way that compromises one’s conscience.

I graduated from the VCU School of Medicine (formerly Medical College of Virginia) in 1991, trained in family medicine and served in a mission hospital in Asia for 16 years. In 2015, I transitioned to a Virginia university practice and became heavily involved in the lives of medical students.

In the time that had passed since I was a medical student, I found the environment of medicine and medical education had significantly changed. One area of change was the emergence of the “provider of services model.” “Provider,” a relatively new term at the time, is now commonplace. Continue reading

Wojick on Whales II: Missing BOEM Report?

by David Wojick

In my previous article I raised this question: what is the potential adverse impact of Virginia’s massive offshore wind project on the severely endangered North Atlantic Right Whales? Answering this basic question should be a central feature of the upcoming Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) required for the wind project by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

The 70-ton North Atlantic Right Whales migrate through Virginia’s offshore waters twice a year, making the impact of these proposed huge offshore wind projects a serious question. I have been doing some digging, and the results are puzzling. We may have some secret science going on.

To begin with, while there has been a lot of research on these whales, it has almost all been done in their northern and southern habitat zones. There is almost nothing on migration, even though migration is especially dangerous for any critters that do it, whales included.

So, it is not clear that we even have a clear picture of how they migrate through the waters where these massive wind projects are proposed. A lot of the risk depends on how they migrate, and we seem not to know much about that.

I say we “seem not to know” because someone in the federal government may actually know more than they are prepared to divulge. This is where it gets puzzling, as follows. Continue reading

Hoos the Best Software Engineering School?

by James C. Sherlock

Sometimes we get nice surprises. Yesterday was one of those days.

A friend on the UVa Board of Visitors sent me a report by CodeSignal.

Founded in 2015, (CodeSignal is) the first company to develop an objective skills-based assessment platform that can be used as a standard for technical hiring.

The report presents that organization’s ranking of the 50 colleges and universities with the highest concentration of students who received a top score under  CodeSignal’s General Coding Framework, “the industry-standard assessment taken by more than 50% of graduating computer science students in the United States”.

It is meant for corporate recruiters and hiring managers.  Here is the list of the top 30 universities.

Ta da!

I am a UVa grad but, alas, in 1962 I did not major in software engineering.

Congratulations to the Hoos.

Mass Transit and Flying Machines

Anderson Cooper in a personal flying machine.

Real rebound or just a dead cat bounce? After bottoming out at around 21,500 riders a year ago, the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail service in Northern Virginia is experiencing a recovery in ridership, reports The Free Lance-Star. In February, VRE reports, monthly rider trips totaled more than 52,900. That’s a far cry from the previous, pre-COVID February ridership of 355,000, but it’s something. The decision by a federal judge in Florida to throw out the national mask mandate for public transportation might help revive ridership a bit more.

Yet… the latest numbers suggest that former VRE riders are NOT taking about 300,000 trips monthly that they had been before the pandemic. Some are likely working at home, but some may be adding to congestion along I-95. Virginia has invested in the rail infrastructure, so, it’s a shame if people aren’t using it. On the other hand…

Self-driving cars and flying cars. The Virginia Mercury reminds us that Sheppard Miller, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, thinks flying cars could be a reality within the next 50 years — a reason that the Commonwealth should “reexamine transit.” People have been fantasizing about flying cars for a hundred years now, and we have yet to see anything remotely practical. But a wave of venture-funded innovation is giving rise to what might better be described as personal flying machines. They’re not cars with four wheels and wings; they’re battery-powered, drone-like craft that can lift off from parking lots and the tops of buildings. On Sunday, 60 Minutes broadcast a clip of Anderson Cooper flying (seen above) in one such device. Continue reading

New Sea Level Prediction Less Dire, Still Unlikely

Aquatrak wave and tidal sensor. Not sure if these are used in VA.

by Steve Haner

The latest projection from the ever-trustworthy federal authorities sweating out the climate crisis is that the sea level will rise one foot along Virginia’s coast by 2050, rising the same amount in 30 years as it rose in the previous 100.

The news quickly swept across the Commonwealth. Here is the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s take and here the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (both firewalled, sorry.) And The Washington Post.

What do the stories fail to mention? That this is a far less dire prediction than the ones distracted news consumers are usually fed. Governor Ralph Northam’s administration prepared a climate adaptation report last year that assumed 2.2 feet of rise by 2050, and almost seven feet by 2100. I wrote about it on Bacon’s Rebellion in August. The higher prediction of almost seven feet is also cited in a lawsuit against the state reported previously.

Even this more modest prediction is still incredibly unlikely. Nothing has changed with the actual measurements of the slow but steady rise in relative sea level, the focus of the earlier-cited article I did with Kip Hansen. For the new prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to come to pass, those measured rates will need to double or triple promptly. Continue reading