Category Archives: Uncategorized

Austin, Texas, Here We Come!

It’s a perfect day in Austin, Texas — blue skies, low humidity, about 83°. The Bacon family is in town for a wedding, and we’re going to stick around a couple of extra days to get a feel for one of America’s great cities. We were really hungry when we arrived, so we headed to Sixth Street, Austin’s famous restaurant row, and picked a place more or less at random: the Tamale House. Turned out to be a great choice.

The restaurant had a wonderful outdoor patio, but we decided to stay inside so we could listen to what Austin is really famous for: live music. The three-man band included a guitarist, a bass player and… a trombonist. The musical selection was impossible to classify — sort of old-timey jazz — but it made enjoyable listening while….

…the four of us chowed down on some excellent beef and chicken tacos, and washed them down with margaritas.

So, our first taste of Austin was awesome. Laura says the city reminds her of Richmond. It’s just bigger and has more high-tech industry, more construction, and more billboards in Spanish. And not as many historical neighborhoods. But I get what she means. Austin is a state capital and a big foodie and arts town. Who knows, maybe in another 30 years we’ll be as hip. All we need is a Willie Nelson!

Disaster + Fiscal Insolvency = Puerto Rico

Lights out in San Juan. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times.

I can watch only so much CNN and MSNBC before I get nauseated, but I have seen enough the past day or two to be appalled at how the media are spinning the post-hurricane disaster of Puerto Rico: It’s another Katrina. The Trump administration hasn’t responded fast enough or aggressively enough to help the battered territory, where two hurricanes shut down electric service, cell phones, the transportation system and government services. Others can engage in the blame game if they want to, but I want to point out the obvious: Puerto Rico illustrates the incapacity of a bankrupt government to carry out basic functions under highly stressful circumstances.

And let that be a warning to everyone. Puerto Rico is the future of many U.S. states unless we get our acts together. Garnering less attention than the human tragedy in Puerto Rico, the states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut have made headlines, too, in the past week. After Pennsylvania passed a budget without enough revenue to pay for its spending, S&P Global Ratings downgraded the state’s debt to A+, down two notches from the coveted AAA rating. Meanwhile, despite having the highest median household income in the country and the second highest tax burden (taxes as percentage of income), Connecticut faces a $3.5 billion biennial deficit. The state, notes the Wall Street Journal, is groaning under heavy debt load, large unfunded pension liabilities, and a shrinking population. S&P has placed nine Connecticut localities on negative credit watch.

Those two states have a long way to go before they achieve Puerto Rico-levels of insolvency, but they indicate the direction the U.S. is heading. On a national level, Republicans have abandoned any pretense at crafting a tax reform plan that will shrink the deficit (something that can be pinned on the Trump administration). The national debt is $20 trillion and growing, even in the absence of a recession, at a rate of more than $600 billion a year. It’s not a question of if we will share Puerto Rico’s fiscal fate, but when.

So, what happens when governments approach fiscal insolvency? One thing they do is starve infrastructure maintenance. Puerto Rican roads were in worse physical condition than roads in any U.S. state. Of the island’s 2,280 bridges, 55.8% were considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete before the hurricanes struck. The territory has chronically under-invested in its water systems, which also failed during the hurricanes, and the government-owned electric system, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), has been a disaster-in-waiting for years now.

Reports the Los Angeles Times:

As of 2014 the government-owned company was $9 billion in debt, and in July, it filed for bankruptcy under the provisions set by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, a law signed by President Obama in 2016.

Problems accumulated. Cutbacks in tree pruning left the 16,000 miles of primary power lines spread across the island vulnerable. Inspections, maintenance and repairs were scaled back. Up to 30% of the utility’s employees retired or migrated to the U.S. mainland, analysts said, and the utility had trouble hiring experienced employees to replace them.

The neglect led to massive and chronic failures at the Aguirre and Palo Seco power plants. The three-day blackout in September 2016 underscored how fragile the system was, and that the company was “unable to cope with this first contingency,” the Synapse Energy report said.

No wonder the island’s electric grid collapsed. No wonder officials say it will take four to six months to restore electric power.

If you want your city, county or state to show resilience in the face of natural disasters, you need to have governments and utilities that are fiscally resilient. Entities hobbled by excessive debt scrimp on maintenance and upgrades, leaving roads and utilities more vulnerable to disruption and depriving authorities of resources with which to respond to emergencies.

Puerto Rico would be in terrible shape no matter what. Hurricane Maria wrought devastating destruction, and recovery is impeded by the fact that the island, unlike Houston and Florida, is inaccessible to help by land. But the incapacity of bankrupt government and utilities have made the challenges immeasurably worse.

Do Remedial College Classes Need Reform? In Virginia, Probably Not

Percentage of students enrolled in remedial classes at Virginia community colleges, 2016-17 academic year.

How do you handle a situation when a student is admitted to a college but isn’t academically prepared to do the work? Traditionally, colleges and community colleges have required students who fail basic readiness tests to take remedial courses. Nationally, students spend an estimated $7 billion a year on such courses, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But educational officials are souring on the practice, saying that remedial classes are typically taught by the least-experienced teachers with little training in remedial teaching methods, that student motivation is low in classes that yield no college credit, and that remedial students graduate with six years at a lower rate than their peers. Colleges in California, Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia are experimenting with an alternative approach, teaching supplementary classes targeting specific skills needed to pass specific classes. Thus, a student taking a sociology class who needs help with statistics would learn only the math applicable for that class.

It will be interesting to see where this experiment goes. I’ve long expressed concern that many colleges, desperate to pump up enrollment and tuition revenue, are too lax with the admittance standards. Under the guise of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, they accept students who aren’t academically prepared for college. These students are disproportionately likely to fail to graduate and rack up large student debts that hobble them financially for years. Thus, for many, higher ed has become a source of social injustice rather than liberation.

Virginia colleges and universities are often accused of being excessively picky about who they admit, with the consequence that they provide less “social mobility” for poor and minority students. The flip side of that accusation is that the Virginia higher-ed system has the second highest six-year graduation rate in the country, meaning that fewer poor and minority students wind up saddled with debt they cannot repay because they failed to win the workforce credential needed to get a higher-paying job.

Perhaps the idea of teaching targeted skills required for specific courses has merit. Let’s face it, we all learned a lot of stuff in college that we never needed later in life. Speaking for myself, I barely passed a course in calculus, and, beyond retaining the fact that there is such a thing as “differential” calculus and such as thing as “integral” calculus, I remember nothing of what I supposedly learned. Maybe remedial classes teach a lot of stuff that students will never need.

On the other hand, I worry that replacing remedial classes with “basic skills” represents one more step in the watering down of college curricula, and one more step in the degradation of the value of a college degree. Businesses already complain that many college graduates are incapable of thinking critically and communicating clearly as it is. Will scrapping remedial courses make things better? I’m not holding my breath.

According to Virginia Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data, only one of Virginia’s four-year institutions, Virginia Commonwealth University, provides remedial education, and VCU enrolled only 68 undergraduate students in remedial classes in the 2016-17 school year. By contrast, the community colleges enrolled 36,000. That strikes me as entirely sensible. If students need remedial work, they should get it in a community-college setting where they will incur far less cost than in a four-year college.

For what it’s worth, the number of remedial students in Virginia community colleges is down from 44,400 ten years ago. Either Virginia high schools are graduating fewer students who are academically unprepared or the community colleges are relaxing their standards. I pass no judgment as to which is the case. Either way, remedial education does not appear to be a burning issue in Virginia’s higher education establishment at the moment.

Maybe Hampton Roads Isn’t the Second Most Vulnerable Metro After All

Norfolk flooding this past August. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

Dave Mayfield, a reporter with the Virginian-Pilot, has frequently repeated the claim that Hampton Roads, after New Orleans, was the most vulnerable to sea level of rise major U.S. metropolitan areas. I’ve repeated that factoid on this blog — perhaps I picked it up from his writing, I can’t remember. Anyway, Mayfield began wondering about the scientific basis for that judgment. After digging into the matter, he discovered that Galveston, Texas, which is part of the Houston metropolitan area, is probably  more vulnerable…. depending on which metric you use to define vulnerability, which is another issue in itself.

Mayfield’s bottom line:

Sea level rise is too complicated a problem and each coastal area too unique to make truly reliable comparisons. So I’m going to resist calling Hampton Roads the third-most-vulnerable major metro area in the country, even with my new understanding.

I’m hoping that, by now, we all can accept that we’ve got a big problem, one that won’t easily be solved.

I respect anyone who questions his own assumptions, appreciates complexity, and is willing to revise his thinking. Good work, Mayfield!

Eclipse Wash Out

Here was the view of the 86% eclipse from my house. Woo hoo! This big flippin’ cloud sailed in from nowhere just in time to block out everything. I’ll take another whack at it in 2024.

I wonder how Bill Tracey fared.

Dunes

Sand dunes at the southern tip of Emerald Isle.

Sweet Sunset

Sweet sunset at Atlantic Beach, N.C.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Virginian and would never seriously think about moving to any other state. But if I did… The North Carolina coast would be at the top of the list of places I’d consider.

Fulminations about Yuppy Scum and Idiot Technology

This is me right now — without the muscles.

OK, I’m really ticked off, my wife is out of the house, and I have no one to vent to. So, I will air my wrath online.

First thing that happened: I was picking up some branches out of Countryside Lane at the intersection with River Road. (No, I’m not much of a Good Samaritan, but I am president of the Home Owners Association, so I feel obligated to do such things.) As I was getting back into my car, I saw a guy come out of nowhere and ram into the River Road/Countryside Lane Street sign, knocking it half over. Just knocked it right over. The dude sat there, seemingly wondering what to do. When I approached to inspect the damage, he started backing up, as if to leave. When I started jogging closer to get a look at his license plate, he took off down River Road like a bat out of hell.

The dirt bag was driving what seemed to be a fairly expensive, black, two-door car. (I have no ability to recognize the model of the car he was driving.) He was white, well groomed and seemed to be in his 30s. Pardon my stereotype, but he looked like egg-sucking Yuppy scum!! I’d love to take a hammer to his Volvo or Beemer, or whatever it was!

Then, when I got home: I got a push message from Apple on my PC to download an iTunes software update. I complied. Everything seemed normal. But when I tried to add a playlist to my iPhone, nothing worked. I tried everything I could imagine, then finally gave up and called Geek support. My tech guy was baffled at first, but then discovered that the hundreds of songs that I had downloaded onto my PC previously were now marked by iTunes as needing to be downloaded again! What the %#[email protected]??? Now I’ve got to download all my songs again? Thanks Apple!

This gets back to one of my favorite themes. Yeah, technology is capable of doing all sorts of amazing things. But the more complex it gets, the more FUBAR it gets. Besides the iTunes incident, I continually get menus popping up on my PC and laptop from Apple, Microsoft, WordPress and others asking me to fill out user names and passwords for stupid reasons, and NOTHING WORKS, even though I know my username and password are correct! As a consequence, I’m driven to create new user names and passwords, some of which I manage to keep track of, and some of which I don’t. It’s all a colossal pain! So, while technology makes my life better in some ways, it is also driving me to the brink of madness!

I need a drink. Thank God for bourbon.

Everything Is Better with Bacon

Ambrosia of the gods.

Quick, load up on bacon while you can! The national craving for bacon is pushing U.S. pork belly prices to record highs, reports the Wall Street Journal. Americans purchased 14% more bacon at stores in 2016 than the previous year, and stocks of bacon in commercial freezers have begun running low. Farmers increased the size of the national hog herd by 3% last year, but not fast enough to keep up with demand for the yummiest food ever created.

Fralin Assumes SCHEV Leadership

F. Heywood Fralin. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) elected W. Heywood Fralin, a prominent Roanoke businessman and former rector of the University of Virginia, as chairman Wednesday.

Fralin replaces G. Gilmer Minor III, much beloved by SCHEV staff and fellow council members, who after two terms was ineligible for reappointment to the board. Minor, who also retired recently as chairman of medical distribution giant Owens & Minor, Inc., had been instrumental in persuading the McDonnell administration not to axe the once-troubled Council and then acted to restore its credibility with lawmakers.

“I look forward to working with my fellow Council members in leading Virginia’s system of higher education to even higher levels of excellence,” Fralin said. “Virginia is fortunate to have so many superb colleges, universities and career-training schools — they truly are our crown jewels. It is an honor to work with them for the good of the Commonwealth.”

G. Gilmer Minor. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The consummate Virginia gentleman, the 72-year-old Minor was known for his self-effacing leadership style and his penchant for praising the contributions and accomplishments of others. When introducing staff and other speakers at SCHEV meetings, he would always find something positive to say — often expostulating at some length. At his final board meeting in May, Fralin and SCHEV Director Peter Blake lauded him for his eight-year contribution.

Minor joined SCHEV in 2009, at a low point in its history. The legislature had established the Council as the state entity responsible for coordinating Virginia’s highly decentralized system of higher education. The council had seen significant turnover in its senior staff, Minor told Bacon’s Rebellion, and relations were strained with the colleges and universities it oversaw. Minor, who had just come finished a term as chairman of the Virginia Military Institute, said VMI almost regarded SCHEV as the “enemy.”

When Bob McDonnell came into office in 2010 on a platform of cutting state government, he gave serious consideration to eliminating SCHEV. Minor made it his mission to save the council and rebuild its credibility. Thanks in large part to Minor’s efforts, McDonnell spared the council. Minor spent considerable time with legislators, explaining SCHEV’s role and advocating the interests of higher education. SCHEV has functioned without major controversy ever since.

Fralin will bring a different style to SCHEV — from my few months of covering the council, he seems more blunt-spoken than Minor — but I expect the 62-year-old chairman of the Medical Facilities of America, a provider of skilled nursing and rehabilitation services — to play a similar role as advocate for Virginia’s higher-ed system.

In addition to serving as rector, Fralin has given generously to UVa, most notably a 40-piece art collection, which includes works by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Robert Henri. The donation was the largest single art gift in the University’s history.