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Demon Ants from Hell

Ant superhighway

This morning I was taking a standard tourista photo of some exotic rain forest foliage when I absent-mindedly planted my foot on a plot of sand about a foot in diameter. It looked harmless enough, and I paid it no mind as I aimed and clicked my camera. Suddenly, I felt a sensation as if a stinging nettle were wrapping itself around my right foot. I looked down and found a dozen tiny red ants roaming over my toes and metatarsal. The bitty bastards were attacking me!

I moved away and shook them loose. I could see that the sand was swarming with the little varmints.

I’ve never encountered the likes of this in Virginia.

In his latest book, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” E.O. Wilson wrote briefly out the highly structured social lives of ants. The leafcutter variants of ants, he observed, shared the distinction with humans as being the only creatures on the planet that cultivated another species for food. Workers chew off pieces of leaf from a particular plant (the identify of which eludes me) and carry them back to their colony. Underground, the leaf fuels the growth of a fungus that the ants eat. As it turns out, the ants that bit me were that kind of ant. These ants have evolved highly sophisticated social behavior.

Before: nothing much to see here, just a patch of sand.

The Belizean leafcutters I encountered had blazed pathways the width of a bicycle tire track from their colony to nearby trees.  These trails are like ant highways. Interstate 95, you ain’t seen nothing! If you get down on your hands and knees for a close inspection, you can see the little demons racing in both directions, many of them bearing bits of leaf 20 or 30 times their size. I don’t think they even pay taxes.

After: Poke the colony with a stick, and the swarm will take out your foot in the blink of an eye.

Such ant colonies are found all over in Belize. In addition to being far more ilndustrious than our fat, lazy American ants – they surely would surely perform work in the United States that our ants wouldn’t want to do — Belizean ants are furious warriors. Try swiping a stick across the placid top of an ant colony, and see what happens. Instantaneously, a swarm of hundreds of ants will boil out of the ground to defend the homeland.

I don’t know if my metaphor is anatomically correct, but I do feel safe in saying that Belizean ants kick American ant ass. If we want to make America great again, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

Still Searching for Howler Monkeys

View from my hammock at the Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize.

We’re having a fine time at the Blancaneaux Lodge here in Belize. Got in some great hiking yesterday, and took a canoe trip this morning into a cave where the ancient Mayans once performed human sacrifices. Have learned many things, both mundane and astonishing.  If I have time, I will report back on the industriousness of the local ants, the remarkable properties of the vines hanging from limestone cliffs, the old-order Mennonite settlers, and the political economy of Belize.

Still no howler monkeys, though.

Where in the World Is Jim Bacon?

The Bacon family is heading off for its semi-annual vacation today. I will consider the trip a success if we spot howling monkeys like these in the wild. Any guesses at to which country we’re visiting?

I’m taking my laptop and I hope to blog sporadically. But the wife and I hope to pack in lots of nature hiking and pool-side reading, so there are no guarantees.

Second clue: The Amazon Prime series “Mad Dogs” was set in this country and prominently featured tapirs (the national mammal) and Mennonites (a bona fide minority ethnic group), although the filming actually took place in Puerto Rico.

The Latest Twist in Newspapers’ Downward Spiral

More Virginia victims of media downsizing:

Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We are repositioning the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2018,” says Publisher Tom Silvestri today. “The continued disappearance of print advertising, now coupled with rising newsprint costs, will mean in 2018 we will have to do more with fewer resources.”

The newspaper, part of the BH Media Group, is raising its subscription rates. Explains Silvestri: “We are shifting from a predominantly advertising-supported business to an operation that relies more on subscription revenue.”

It’s also eliminating 21 positions and laying off nine employees, leaving 435 jobs. Silvestri did not say how many of the deleted positions are in the newsroom.

Roanoke Times. Meanwhile the Roanoke Times, also part of the BH Media Group, is eliminating seven jobs. Citing the “harsh reality” of rapid change in the industry, CEO Terry Kroeger cited advertising cutbacks by regional and national clients.

Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. The Free Lance-Star and its Print Innovators printing plant are laying off nine employees. Publisher Dale Lachniet cited problems with the decline of print advertising. On the bright side, he noted, the newspaper experienced strong growth in its digital products in the past year, an increase in web and mobile traffic to more than 41 million page views, and a more than 150% increase in digital-only subscriptions.

Digital advertising doesn’t yield as much revenue per reader as print did. Judging from the Free Lance Star’s digital media kit, those 41 million page views probably translate into less than $2 million a year in advertising revenue. As for that 150% increase in digital-only subscriptions, how does that compare to the loss of print subscriptions?

Slowly but surely, Virginia’s newspapers, like local newspapers across the country, are cannibalizing themselves. Eventually, all but a handful of national newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and vanity projects subsidized by billionaires (Washington Post) will shrivel into oblivion. As local newspapers cut editorial staff, they will publish less content and lose eyeballs. As they  boost subscription fees, they’ll lose eyeballs even faster.

The downward spiral will be marked by restructurings, bankruptcies, corporate takeovers, and more restructurings. For example, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va., declared bankruptcy last month. Another media company likely will acquire it, but not before the 206-employee company lays off 50. Here in Virginia, BH Media is the dominant newspaper owner. The corporation is totally unsentimental about preserving its bottom line. It will not hesitate to continue cutting to maintain profitability.

When the local newspapers are gone, or so diminished that they are barely recognizable, who, then, will report the news? Google? Facebook? Russian fake-news propagandists? What a farce!

NoVa Enters Finals for Amazon Sweepstakes

Just out: Amazon has narrowed its list of candidate locations for its $5 billion second headquarters, and Northern Virginia made the list. So did Washington, D.C., which gives the Washington metropolitan area a one-in-ten chance of winning the big prize.

USA Today lists the finalists.

(Hat tip: Rick Gechter)

Stop Executing the Severely Mentally Ill

Dale Brumfield

by Dale M. Brumfield

While Governor Terry McAuliffe’s commutation of the death penalty to life in prison for the mentally ill William Burns was welcome, the fact that the governor in July also allowed the execution of the equally mentally deficient William Morva shows the need for a fair and consistent law.

Diagnosed with delusional disorder, William Morva committed his crimes while under the delusional paranoia of his mental illness, including the belief that President George W. Bush was conspiring with local law enforcement officers to have him killed. Despite this, the jurors who sentenced Morva to death were told during the trial only that he had “odd beliefs” about the world.

His execution raises a basic bipartisan request: It is time that Virginia lawmakers pass a severe mental illness exemption to the death penalty.

These illnesses, such as schizophrenia and the disorder that afflicted Morva, are characterized by hallucinations and delusions which make it difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction. These characteristics make people with psychiatric disabilities often unable to control or understand the consequences of their behavior. People with severe mental illnesses experience these symptoms, not out of voluntary choice, but as a consequence of their diagnosable medical condition.

These involuntary conditions disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people in our society. Low-income Virginians are less likely to have stable access to mental health services, and subsequently suffer from higher rates of untreated mental illness. Veterans are similarly affected, as the RAND Corporation has found that a staggering 20% of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

The United States Supreme Court has already recognized that the death penalty should be reserved only for the “worst of the worst.” Indeed, it ruled against the practice of executing juveniles and individuals with intellectual disabilites, finding that their impairments reduce their moral culpability. Similarly, and due to their unique conditions, people with mental illnesses also have reduced moral responsibility for their actions. Human decency should make it obvious that defendants with severe mental illnesses should not be considered the “worst of the worst” in our society.

It is obvious that Virginia’s existing legal safeguards aren’t enough to protect this vulnerable population and are too prone to the whims of a prosecutor, a jury or the Governor. Mental illness is often seen by prosecutors and juries as something that heightens, rather than lessens, the accused’s level of guilt and responsibility. Studies have even indicated that jurors sometimes see mental illness as a reason to vote for, rather than against, death. Correcting this backwardness of our admittedly outdated death penalty system is critical.

To be clear, this proposed legislation would not have enabled William Morva, William Burns or anyone with similar conditions, to “fake” mental illness to avoid punishment. It is strictly defined to exempt only individuals diagnosed with the most serious and consequential disorders. Under this law, Morva, Burns and defendants like them would still face a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. This exemption still does justice to victims and their family members, while respecting community demands of decency and the Constitution.

“[Burns] will not evade punishment,” McAuliffe said in a statement, “he will be incarcerated for the remainder of his life … in my view this is the only just and reasonable course.”

According to Public Policy Polling, over half of Americans oppose the execution of people with severe mental illness. It is hoped that in the upcoming 2018 General Assembly session our lawmakers recognize this consensus in the law. Decency and justice demand that we fairly and consistently spare those with severe mental illness from the ultimate punishment.

Dale Brumfield is Field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) and the author of “Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History” (Arcadia, 2017).

Let’s Hope This Act Never Grows Old

I’d never heard of the Church Sisters — Savannah and Sarah Church — until this week, when I read they were coming to play in Richmond. These young ladies who were raised in the heart of the Virginia coalfields, Dickenson County, and in Danville, meld Bluegrass and Gospel. The melody in this video, “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” has a slow tempo but the twin sisters’ harmonies are lovely. (Skip through the first 30 seconds of the video to get straight to their performance.)

Southwest Virginia may be down and out economically, but the cultural traditions of Central Appalachia are as vibrant as ever. The twins have signed a record contract with Taylor Swift’s label, which could well push them into the big time.

Documenting Cville’s Left-Wing Radicalism

Counter protesters tussle with Charlottesville police in July 2017 Klan rally, a run-up to the tragic August United-the-Right protest. Photo credit: CNN

The primary purpose of the Heaphy report on the Aug. 11-12 United the Right rally was to evaluate the actions of Charlottesville city officials and whether the violence could have been prevented. But the document provides a treasure trove of raw material to help pundits and commentators understand the larger context of the confrontation between far-right and far-left forces and the events that led up to it. While those offended by the report have subjected it to nitpicking criticisms and minor errors of fact, the findings have held up remarkably well since its release.

Material in the report lends itself to at least two useful lines of inquiry that have gone largely unexplored: (1) to illuminate the size and scope of the left-wing radical community in Charlottesville, and (2) to show how the anti-Trump narrative of the national media, which gave the incident inordinate attention, skewed perceptions of what happened.

Before I delve into the data, let me make a disclaimer so my intentions are not misconstrued, as they inevitably will be. I am not defending the statements of President Trump regarding the rally, such as the proposition that there were “good people” on both sides, nor am I drawing a “moral equivalence” between Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists on the one side and radical leftist anarchists on the other. My purpose is to correct a misperception perpetuated by the national media in its zeal to condemn Trump by downplaying the contribution of left-wing anarchists to the violence of that day. While there has been a growing recognition by some left-of-center observers (mostly moderate liberals) that Antifa and other radical leftists are prone to violence, the mainstream broadcast media continues to soft-peddle that reality.

Conservatives don’t refer to Charlottesville as the People’s Republic of Charlottesville without reason. The city has emerged as Virginia’s center of radical left-wing activity. Other parts of Virginia are just as “blue,” as in Democratic leaning. The vote totals in Arlington and Alexandria, for example are just as lopsided as they are in Charlottsville, but voters there are more “establishment” liberals dedicated to maintaining the power and authority of the federal government, not overthrowing it. Many Charlottesville radicals are dedicated to the proposition that all government is illegitimate.

Back in April, I observed that Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tom Perriello was Virginia’s “radical chic” candidate. Perriello’s campaign was funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, global activist organization Avaaz, and a coterie of wealthy Albemarle County gentry such as author John Grisham, musician Dave Mathews, yoga instructor Lilly Bechtel, and reproductive-rights advocate Sonjia Smith.

“Never in all my years as an observer of Virginia politics have I seen such large contributions bubble forth from the People’s Republic,” I observed at the time. “Whether this gusher of campaign contributions portends an inflection point in Virginia politics, I don’t know. But it is remarkable.”

While the Albemarle gentry funds left-wing candidates and causes, Charlottesville provides numerous foot soldiers of the Left. The Heaphy report provides a window into activist groups that burbled up from the grassroots during the controversy over the removal of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue in a series of confrontations with local white-rights provocateur Jason Kessler. A faith-based organization called Congregate Charlottesville organized training sessions on nonviolent civil disobedience. Other anti-racist groups, writes Heaphy, “prepared to disrupt [a May 14 event] and hinder law enforcement response to specific threats.” Among the radical anti-racist groups active at the time were Antifa, Solidarity Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter, and SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice) .

As Kessler organized a series of rallies highlighting his white-rights issues, Leftist groups mobilized to push back against his white-nationalist agenda. May rallies and counter rallies elevated the Lee statue controversy from a local issue to part of an ongoing national debate over Confederate statues. Against this backdrop, a KKK group from North Carolina organized a rally in defense of the Lee statue on July 8.

Charlottesville police intelligence indicated that numerous radical groups were organizing a counter-protest and engaged in extensive planning to handle the event. On the day of the July 8 rally, it was clear that the counter-protesters were well organized.

Lieutenant O’Donnell characterized Antifa as “very organized” and “totally coordinated.” He spoke with a “street medic” who revealed that she had protested at Standing Rock, South Dakota for eight months before arriving in Charlottesville. At 2:15 p.m., Antifa was spotted wearing gas masks, padded clothing, and body armor. Captain Shifflett recalled being surprised at the planning by some counter-protesters who brought organized medics, used walkie-talkies to share information, and wore helmets, full body pads, gas masks, and shields. CPD Lieutenant Dwayne Jones observed counter-protesters actively monitoring scanners and other devices to track the movements and communications of the police.

The Charlottesville police created a corridor for the estimated 40 to 60 Klansmen to walk to the protest zone at Justice Park and managed to keep the them separated from the counter-protesters. The Klansmen gave a few speeches as an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 counter protesters tried to drown them out with noise and pelted them with apples, tomatoes, oranges, and water bottles. Around 4:30, the Klansmen left the park and headed back to their cars parked in the JDR Court garage.

At this point the counter-protesters grew more threatening. As the Klan entered the parking garage, the CPD Command Center issued an order to hold the Klan inside because counter-protesters were blocking the door. Police instructed the Klan to stay in their vehicles. Amanda Barker, a participant in the Klan rally, described the situation as “terrifying” because the Klan were “trapped inside the garage” and could hear the counter-protesters outside.

Police instructed the Klan to line up their cars and prepare to quickly exit the garage. With an increasing number of counter-protesters gathering outside of the garage door and blocking the Klan’s exit, Lieutenant Joe Hatter told the Command Center “this is serious” and requested permission to declare an unlawful assembly. Police Chief Al Thomas acceded to the request. Hatter organized Charlottesville, Albemarle and Virginia State police into a line in front of the parking garage and used a bullhorn to announce that the gathering had been declared an unlawful assembly.

With police clearing a path and a police car leading the caravan, the Klan exited the parking garage. Counter-protesters confronted the cars and hit them with weapons. When the Klansmen reached the U.S. 250 Bypass, they immediately left the city. States the Heaphy report: Continue reading

Acronyms that Will Change our Communities: MaaS and LML

Source: Navigant Research

You know something is destined to become the Next Big Thing when a business research firm like Navigant Research starts charging $1,800 for special reports on the subject. I can’t afford to pay that kind of money, but I do subscribe to Navigant’s alerts to keep tabs on the hottest, most hyped trends in the business world.

Let me introduce two acronyms: MaaS (Mobility as a Service) and LML (Last Mile Logistics). I have discussed mobility as a service several times on this blog — the idea of subscribing to mobility services, such as access to cars, taxi rides, buses, mass transit and even bicycles — rather than owning the transportation assets outright. LML, a new acronym to me, refers to the local delivery of food, small packages and even consumer appliances directly to the home.

The Navigant report, “The Future of Last-Mile Logistics,” explores the intersection of the two. States the executive summary (which is all I have access to):

The biggest challenge today for LML is congestion and parking in large cities. The development of MaaS applications offers a potential solution. In the near future, a MaaS service for a city or local region is likely to deploy a fleet of automated vehicles (ranging from single-person vehicles to minibuses) designed to move large numbers of people to work during rush hour and deliver on-demand transport during off peak hours. This type of fleet would have excess capacity available outside peak hours to perform functions like small parcel and takeout food delivery and would be able to take waste away in bags for recycling or disposal. If the fleet resource is shared effectively, operating single-purpose vehicles for delivery will no longer be necessary for many businesses.

Integrated, shared fleets for MaaS offer the potential for new LML options and delivery cost savings for businesses. Automated driving vehicles are critical for the success of these service models in the long term, while drones have the potential to become a cost-effective solution for deliveries to remote locations.

Got that? Mobility-service companies, be they tech companies like Google and Uber or traditional automobile companies like Ford, General Motors and Mercedes Benz, are preparing for the day when companies operate fleets of driverless cars, vans and buses that operate 24/7. Peak demand for these vehicles will occur during traditional rush hours when people travel between home and work. As demand drops off during the mid-day, cars can be kept busy — and assets continually utilized — by converting them into delivery vehicles.

The potential ramifications are mind-boggling:

  • Car ownership. Many people will find it cheaper and preferable to buy the ride rather than own the car. Demand for garages will plummet. (Expect millions of garages to be converted to man caves.)
  • Parking. Demand for parking will crater, freeing up tremendous urban and suburban space for conversion to different uses. Walkability will improve in areas with urban density, and low-value parking lots and parking decks will be converted to high-value offices, apartments and condos. urban uses. That’s good for the urban tax base. Suburban localities, with their vast tracts of acreage dedicated to parking, will be most severely impacted, especially if they maintain mandated parking ratios and prevent the land from being recycled.
  • Fewer errands. As retailers become more proficient at delivering packages, people will conduct more business online and rely upon home delivery. Insofar as improved home delivery improves the competitive advantage of online retailers, expect further decline of traditional stores and an eventual crisis in retail-oriented real estate development. Dwellings may have to be reconfigured to accept delivery of these items, especially groceries that require refrigeration. Great for renovations contractors and Home Depot!
  • Longer commutes. Driverless cars may make long commutes less onerous by allowing “drivers” to surf the web, read email and do work while commuting. Longer commutes could encourage more leapfrog development — to some degree offsetting the competitive advantage to urban areas of less parking.
  • Demise of mass transit. Driverless vans and buses will gain market share from mass transit companies with high costs and rigid schedules. Poor people will benefit from the wider range of choices. Mass transit companies will fight for their existence. Urban jurisdictions will face the question: to subsidize or let fail.

These bullet points are all speculative. For all practical purposes, it is impossible to anticipate how the MaaS and LML revolution will pan out. The interactions are too complex for mere mortals to anticipate all possible outcomes.

What we can say for sure is that the transportation future will be very different in 10 to 15 years than it is now. Transportation is a major driving force behind land use, and we can say with equal certainty that land use patterns will be very different as well — although change will come much more slowly.

Here in Virginia, cities and counties that put a premium on flexibility and adaptability will thrive. Those that rigidly adhere to outdated zoning and comprehensive plans will lose.

More Money for What?

by John Butcher

The tug-of-war between the School Board and City Council over school funding enters a new era of speculation: Will the recent election results produce more funds for Richmond schools?

That overlooks the more fundamental question: What is the School Board doing with all the money it now is spending?

The most recent data from VDOE are from 2015-16. Here, from that year, are the per-student disbursements by division for Richmond, three peer divisions, and the state average for school divisions. I’ve left out the sums for facilities, debt service, and contingency reserve.

The largest single cost for schools is salaries, so it’s no surprise that Richmond’s excess of $3,051 per student mostly went to the instruction category.

Expressing the Richmond data as differences from the state number, we get:

Or, multiplying those differences by the Richmond enrollment of 21,826:

Multiplying the $3,051 Richmond total excess by the 21,826 enrollment gives the excess Richmond expenditure total: $66.6 million.

We can account for some of that.

The 2016 average salary in Richmond was $51,263 vs. the state average of 56,320. That is, Richmond saved $11.3 million vs. the state average by underpaying its teachers.

At the same time, Richmond has a lot more teachers than average:

At the average salary of $51,263, that comes to an extra cost of $18.5 million.

Combining those data leaves Richmond with an excess cost v. the division average of $59.4 million.

This overlooks the question of what those extra teachers are doing for the RPS students.  To judge from the SOL scores, it’s more a question of what they are doing to the students. Continue reading