Friday, February 26, 2010

Freedom (nod) and Responsibility (wink)

Gary Harmon's column in this past Sunday's Daily Sentinel had me mulling a few things over in my head during the week. Mr. Harmon made some good points in his analysis of the deeper reasons behind an underage drinking party at the home of Mesa County's District Attorney nearly 3 weeks ago.

Mr. Harmon seems to want to find some fault with the collective shrugging of shoulders in the more well-heeled (and presumably more socially responsible) parts of our community over a bunch of underage kids looking for a place to party.

I feel a little of Pete Hautzinger's pain. One year ago this weekend, I was working the evening shift at the hospital when a phone call came in from another former place of employment, which happens to tell the cops where to go. It seems that a team from the Underage Drinking Task Force had reason to believe that there were several teenagers with alcohol inside my house, and were wondering if there was any way I could help in getting someone to talk to them, and would I consent to a search of the house afterward?

One phone call to my son, and he was outside and the cops were in. The exact number of Minor-In-Possession (MIP) tickets issued numbered around 15, with a disorderly house ticket lumped in for good measure.

I don't keep alcohol in my house; all of the booze was brought in by the miscreants involved, including the makings for Jello shots. To the task force's credit, it was an alcohol purchase by adults, who provided it to juveniles, who wound up at my house, that got the party, and the so-called grownups, busted. They did a good job.

My son lost his drivers license for a few months, pulled some community service, and the fines and court costs took a nice chunk out of his savings. I can't say for sure that he has completely learned his lesson, but he appears to be achieving some level of responsibility to his college studies and other things.

Unfortunately, Mr. Harmon failed to distinguish between two separate issues in his column; the true problem of minors accessing and consuming alcohol (and those adults who either actively or passively condone it), and the illegal consumption of alcohol by those who are adults by any other legal definition.

My son is 18 now; as an adult in the eyes of the law, he is responsible for his own actions. The government now sees fit to allow him to exercise the right to vote, consume tobacco products, obtain credit and sign contracts, serve on a jury, and fight and die for his country. He can't legally drink a beer with his old man, though.

These are but a couple of examples of the subtle hypocrisies that exist with our society's attitudes toward alcohol, and who may legally possess or consume it. This is familiar territory that I've explored in the past, and found no solid or reliable path through the morass of advocacy that creates a true ideological fork in the road.

Our children are, by and large, pretty smart. They see right through these hypocrisies, and many appear to relish the opportunity to make seemingly intelligent adults look like fools. Mr. Harmon asserts in his column that "
some kids have more MIPs than they have Ds on their report cards, and they have lots of Ds".

I get the feeling that some of these kids wear their MIPs like a red badge of courage, with just as many stories about how they got away as when they got caught. I also get the feeling that a lot of these kids know they'll be taken care of, regardless of how they misbehave.

The resources to deal with this are, in many ways, already out there. The Mesa County Underage Drinking Task Force is an extraordinary source of information and advocacy for both aiding enforcement efforts, and changing hearts and minds about what is truly responsible living.

Mr. Harmon asserted that MIP is not a serious enough crime to warrant attention by parents and other adults who ascribe to what he called "a general, casual and pervasive social license for underage drinking". He went further to advocate for more severe penalties for MIP and associated offenses.

If the Legislature were equally serious about addressing the problem from a proactive standpoint, it would take into consideration the opinion of 135 college presidents (including Mesa State's Tim Foster) and seriously discuss eliminating the current hypocrisy concerning young adults and alcohol. This would allow both law enforcement and social service resources to focus their energies on the root of the problem, before it truly grows beyond our control.

Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Travelogue of Hope

The bulk of the two weeks since my last post were spent away from Grand Junction, and while I tried to keep up with the goings-on here I was otherwise occupied most of the time.

The main purpose of the trip was to attend an evaluation session with caregivers for my brother-in-law Michael, who lives in a group home in Massachusetts. Mike shares a home, and attends a day rehabilitation program, with some people he has known for over 20 years. I took over the handling of Mike's affairs after Jan died, and part of this includes being out there at least once or twice a year to see how he's doing, and meet face-to-face and coordinate his needs with those overseeing his care. This includes staff from the state government.

I stopped in Pittsburgh on the way to spend some time with Leslie and the girls, with the intent of taking Leslie out for Valentine's Day. We wound up spending most of that day at Children's Hospital, where Leslie's daughter Michaela was eventually admitted for vomiting and back pain, some of which may or may not be consequences of her continuing fight against neuroblastoma.

I stayed with Leslie and Michaela in the hospital until Wednesday. There was a pull-out sleeping pad included as part of the small sofa apparently intended to accommodate two for such purposes. This only served to create my own back pain in places I had not experienced it before. So after the first night I slept sitting up, with one pillow filling the space between my back and the angle of the furniture, adopting what could best be described as an "airline-style" sleep position. It worked for those periods when nurses or aides weren't in to administer medications or otherwise do their jobs.

After flying to Boston and driving the 90 miles to Cape Cod, I attended the evaluation meeting the next morning, then stopped in at Mike's group home to meet some other staff and see how Mike's living arrangements were shaping up. I finished things up in time to get an evening flight back to Pittsburgh.

I brought Leslie and Michaela back home from the hospital the next day. We managed a very nice belated Valentine's dinner this past weekend, before yet another set of flights to arrive back in GJ just before midnight on Sunday.

I saw my mother a couple of times while I was there as well. I sent both her and Leslie a crank-up flashlight and radio, if only to help prepare for the next major snowstorm and/or power outage. Talk radio in Pittsburgh was still abuzz with the so-called shortcomings of the road crews, electric utilities, and anyone else not perceived to have done their best to deal with what was a significant weather event.

The snow still piled on the sides of many roads, and the ice accumulated on the sides of many houses, was an impressive sight. There are already concerns about flooding, should the Pittsburgh region experience temperatures and rain which would rapidly melt the over 40 inches of snow that fell there so far this month. I'm hopeful for a more controlled, steady runoff.

After returning I found myself trying to be hopeful for many other things as well. I'm hoping for an improving stability in my relationship with Leslie, and that the medical professionals caring for Michaela will be able to stem the tide of her cancer, and also reduce the new onset of back pain that has no etiology as of yet. Michaela returns to Philadelphia next week for follow-up to the radiation treatments she received in January.

I'm hoping that Mike will continue to improve in his ability to socialize appropriately with his housemates and others, and that his skills development will also improve with continued daily involvement in programs that are designed to do just that. Mike is hampered by an impaired short-term memory, one of the consequences of his head injury nearly two years ago. He does seem to recognize me and others that have known him a long time, but he likely does not remember my visit. I'm looking forward to monitoring his progress later in the year.

I'm hoping for change in several factors that seem to connect me to what feels like two parallel universes, both integral to my existence but disparate in the way my life is conducted while I am in them, or even thinking about them. Along with this is hope for acceptance of the choices I have made by those who still display some measure of discomfort about them.

Many of these hopes are decidedly uphill in their intent or desired outcome. Along with that hope is a need to commit myself in a greater sense to the fact that these things, like so many others, are really outside of my control, and all that I can do is learn to live in a way that honors God's plan for my life, as well as those who share my personal, working, and social existence.

Have a good week ahead.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

On the Cusp of Comcast

Several stories in the national and regional media of late have brought attention to the changing operations of Comcast, the cable and media conglomerate currently providing cable TV service to over 23 million households nationwide.

Comcast enjoys a significant presence in the Denver metro area, providing high speed Internet services to homes and businesses, as well as digital telephone service, in much the same fashion as Bresnan Communications does in many areas of the Western Slope. A story one week ago in the Denver Post got my attention, and had me asking questions:

Comcast plans to stop providing more than 40 cable channels in analog format by year's end, including ESPN and MTV, a change that will allow the cable giant to add high-definition content but could force hundreds of thousands of Colorado customers to install new equipment.

Subscribers to Comcast's extended basic cable tier and above will need a digital set-top box to view the channels that are being switched to all-digital signals.

Customers who want to watch those channels on more than one television will have to install digital adapters on each additional set. Comcast will provide a set-top box and two adapters free of charge. Additional adapters will cost $1.99 per month.

I am a Bresnan subscriber. I have one TV with a digital set-top box and DVR; the rest of the TVs in the house are hooked directly to cable, and use their analog tuners to tune to the desired channel. I started noticing several channels disappear into static on these TVs last year; Hallmark Channel and Ion are a couple of examples. They are only available through the digital tuner that's part of the set-top box.

The move by Comcast in Denver removes many more cable networks, including some of the most popular ones, from the realm of analog transmission over a cable system. Aside from using a set-top box or digital adapter, the only way to watch these is through the digital tuner of an HDTV.

This is the wave of the future, and not entirely unexpected. Since analog over-the-air TV broadcasting went away last June, the cable industry has begun to address those analog transmissions of digital signals that are eating up bandwidth, and preventing the industry from putting more channels, choices, and potential revenue sources along that same bandwidth.

If you would like a compressed version of this, look at the last 25 years since wireless mobile telephones hit the market. At its infancy, these systems used the "brick" analog radios that used one channel per conversation, making for a comparatively inefficient use of spectrum. Now all conversations are digitized, and through digital signaling and routing schemes several conversations can simultaneously share the same radio channel.

Digital television does the same thing; multiple channels of content can be transmitted over the same digital signal. KKCO has used this capability to broadcast uninterrupted coverage of major news events, such as visits by President Obama. By moving most channels in a cable system to a digital format, the available space to put more content down the pipeline increases significantly.

I've known for some time that Bresnan enjoys a business relationship with Comcast on more than one front. Comcast Spotlight, the advertising sales arm of the company, handles cable advertising for Bresnan, and for a while had an office here. It looks like they're handling everything from one office in Denver now. When you see those commercials for Comcast channels that you can't get here, or ads to help support an animal sanctuary in the Grand Junction "suburb" of Brighton, that's Spotlight at work.

In trying to confirm what I remembered about other Bresnan/Comcast collaborations, I contacted Shawn Beqaj, Bresnan VP for Public Affairs. Shawn takes the time to answer questions from an otherwise inconsequential amateur, and I greatly appreciate his time.
Mr. Beqaj had this to say to my question about their relationship with Comcast:

You are correct in that Bresnan has a relationship whereby we get much of our programming under an umbrella agreement with Comcast. As you can imagine those agreements preclude me from discussing specifics but I can say that they are predominantly for traditional cable networks and not local broadcasters. Bresnan has migrated some of our markets to an all digital format but there are no immediate plans to do so in GJ (emphasis mine).

He also added the following about the migration to all-digital technology:
The driving issue is efficiency whereby a customer can receive many more channels of higher quality over the same bandwidth in digital format than analog. Much like tube than transistor radios were displaced by digital sets, the migration to digitally tuned TV sets is progressing and the consumer electronics marketplace is progressing with television set technology that will allow users to have true two way functionality with a TV and no set (top) box.
Having had experience with Comcast in both the Pittsburgh area and New England, I am familiar with the cost of their services and the capabilities they offer. I like the additional channel choices, especially the local access channels, which while as much a responsibility of local government to provide for in franchise agreements are nonetheless well-supported by the cable provider in many cases. Comcast also has many detractors. If you Google "Comcast Sucks", you'll see what I mean.

Last week also marked congressional hearings into Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal, which has raised the hackles of consumer organizations and media watchdogs. Senator Al Franken leveraged his knowledge of the business through his previous employment with NBC into quite the watchable program.

The company is sensitive to both criticism over the merger and damage to their brand by the numerous customer service complaints that both originate from and are strengthened by consumer word-of-mouth. In what could be called taking a page from Blackwater's playbook, Comcast recently announced the creation of a new brand name for the bulk of its digital services.

Regardless of what side you may find yourself when it comes to the subject of media consolidation (I think it's a problem), if you are a media consumer anywhere in this country and elsewhere, Comcast will be in your living room in some capacity if the NBC deal goes through.

The revolution of digital transmission will inevitably continue to make its way through the various ways that all information is sent between two points, be it data, video, or audio. In the near future, I'll be outlining another significant change coming to the Grand Junction area, how it affects citizens, and how to prepare for it.

Have a good week ahead.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Civil Discourse and Natural Gas

I spend too much time on my computer. I am told this by those who love me from near and far away, including those who would seem to benefit from contact with me by e-mail, Facebook, and other virtual conveniences. Between writing, following the news, looking for work, and playing (most recently) Scrabble, I have to say that I agree with them.

One reason I spend so much time is what I write here. I try to get things right, to analyze and comment on different issues in a comprehensive, concise, and respectful manner. My emphasis is on engaging in civil discourse and being accurate about it. After three years-plus this is still a good outlet, and with the assistance of others has helped me see things and express myself a little bit better. I'm sure I don't get as many visits as other blogs, but I can deal with that.

In keeping with that, I'd like to follow up on my last post about gas drilling in areas other than western Colorado, and the seeming lack of coverage from the media in Grand Junction. Today's Daily Sentinel took a step toward recognizing the validity of issues surroundin
g gas drilling in other parts of the country, and effectively applying it to the discussion going on here.

The paper dutifully covered a Republicans-only 'candidate forum' for persons seeking to replace Steve King in the State House. The three men seeking the GOP nod appeared to let loose on the current regulatory climate as it pertains to drilling in Colorado. Quoting from Gary Harmon's story:

“We need to convert our economy to natural gas” and use it as a transportation fuel, (David) Cox said.

(Ray) Scott said changing the drilling rules wouldn’t go far enough.

“You don’t need to fix the regulations. You need to abolish them and start over,” Scott said.

Regulations of all varieties are strangling the state’s economy, (Bob) Hislop said.

“We need to deregulate Colorado,” Hislop said.

Fortunately for local readers, the Sentinel's editorial staff seemed to counter these assertions with one of today's editorials. They chose to reference recent news articles about drilling in the Barnett Shale region of north central Texas, which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

It seems that air quality monitoring around wells in both residential and rural areas there has showed high concentrations of pollutants that apparently can be sourced to drilling activity. This includes reported high concentrations of benzene. Both state and municipal officials are discussing the development of new regulations, along with continuing to "work with" the energy industry to address the issues.

In a truly civil manner, the Sentinel basically said "B.S." to the above prospective legislators:
Colorado adopted stricter rules on air quality and gas development in 2006, even before it passed new drilling rules last year. That was sensible. Protecting the environment while encouraging development of natural gas is a difficult balancing act, but one that must be undertaken, as people in Texas are beginning to realize.
Thanks to the staff at the Sentinel for widening the perspective of recent reporting just enough to let some relevant information from other areas of the country shine a light on the true nature of gas drilling, and why a 'balancing act' is indeed critical.

Speaking of balance, for too long there's been a lack of it in political discourse at too many levels of government and media. Nowhere is this more evident than the Internet, where opinion publishing can be facilitated by sitting down at one's computer and typing. This isn't anything new.

However, some of the discourse in the blogosphere, while less than civil, can also create representations of events that bear little resemblance to what actually happened. Jon Stewart pointed this out in the usual hilarious fashion on
The Daily Show last night.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Blogs Must Be Crazy

This is just another shining example of how humor and entertainment give us the ability to look inward at ourselves without being so serious about it. For some reason, the lesson is often imparted better than it would be otherwise.

Thanks to the Sentinel and Jon Stewart, we are today able to better distinguish between what is civil discourse and what is..well, natural gas.

While I'm at it, congratulations to the Sentinel on their new website, especially the improved ability to leave comments.

Have a good weekend.
Go Saints.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Media Myopia - A Tale of Two 'Alleys'

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced the creation of the “Eyes on Drilling” tipline for citizens to report non-emergency suspicious activity related to oil and natural gas development.

The agency is asking citizens to call 1-877-919-4EPA (toll free) if they observe what appears to be illegal disposal of wastes or other suspicious activity. Anyone may also send reports by email to Citizens may provide tips anonymously if they don’t want to identify themselves.

In the event of an emergency, such as a spill or release of hazardous material, including oil, to the environment, citizens are advised to call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.
- EPA Press Release, January 27, 2010 - Full text available here.

I finally got to read the Daily Sentinel's "Energy Alley" series that was published over several days at the end of this past year. It's a rather comprehensive and well-written overview of all of the possibilities surrounding energy development in western Colorado and east
ern Utah.

In recent weeks, the focus of industry, activism, government, and media appear to be directed toward another 'Energy Alley' that has vast amounts of natural gas, and issues related to its extraction that are similar to our area of the country.

The Marcellus Shale Region, which encompasses southern New York, northeast, central, and western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and almost all of West Virginia, has been drawing a good deal more attention from energy companies, environmental groups, and state regulators in recent weeks.

Part of this attention has lots to do with the drilling technology required to extract natural gas from this shale; the controversial practices of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, both of which have generated considerable debate in both regions.

I don't know much about this, which is kind of embarrassing because I was born and grew up in the middle of this part of the country. I did do some research, and consulted local geologist and fellow blogger Ralph D'Andrea, who went to school in the middle of it and lent some very useful insights.

As it happens, Ralph also published most of those insights in one of his blog posts this past November, detailing the primary differences between the Marcellus Shale and gas deposits on the West Slope, such as the Piceance Basin featured in the Sentinel's series:

First and foremost, the Marcellus Shale gas fields are, in round numbers, 2,000 miles closer to natural gas consumers than Colorado's gas fields. That significantly affects the cost of transporting the gas to market. If you're a gas company, are you going to pay to pipe gas from Colorado to heat homes in New York and Pennsylvania, or are you going to pipe gas from New York and Pennsylvania?

Second, if you look at the maps on the site linked above, particularly the structure contour map drawn on the top of the Marcellus Shale, you'll see that much of the formation is less than 7,000 feet deep. That's shallower than most of of the gas produced locally.

Cheaper to drill, cheaper to transport, more profitable. It ain't rocket science.
Ralph additionally stated something that seems prophetic today: "But I guarantee you, when drilling picks up, it will pick up in the Marcellus Shale first."

That's what's been happening over at least the last month or so. Local, state, and federal governments have been noticing, including those quasi-governmental entities that serve as water utilities for many of the targeted areas. The media there have also been noticing; a Google News search for 'Marcellus Shale' usually kicks back 6 to 8 new stories a day.

One story that drew my attention was the press release excerpted at the top of this post.
A hotline set up by the EPA to report issues with drilling? It sounded like news to me.
However, If you were relying on your local news media, at least in western Colorado, to report this, you were out of luck.

One thing I did notice about the press release was that it originated from the EPA's Region 3 office in Philadelphia, whose area of responsibility includes the majority of the Marcellus Shale. Most of the media outlets that covered the establishment of the tip line were also located in this same region of the country.

I went so far as to contact the tip line staff, along with the EPA Region 8 office in Denver, to inquire if the tip line could be used to report drilling-related problems in any part of the country. Both offices assured me that this was the case; any information specific to Colorado, for example, would be relayed by the tip line to the appropriate people in Denver.

Not seeing any mention of this story in any local media outlet, I sent e-mails to just about every one of them over the course of last week. No reply, as well as no coverage, was the order of the day.

Granted, there are probably reasons that the local media would ignore something like this, given the tacit association of the tip line to another region of the country. Back in November, however, an attempt to use last year's downturn in drilling activity as a political football resulted in some local media attention toward the Marcellus Shale, in what appears to me to be a decidedly short-sighted and selective fashion.

As many people who know more than I do have said, the downturn in drilling is market-based, and not the fault of new rules and/or incumbent politicians. You don't have to look any further than the activity in the Marcellus Shale for evidence of this.

Republican candidate for Governor Scott McInnis, who praised Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in November for, among other things, bypassing "
an opportunity to levy a tax on natural gas drilled in his state", may want to revisit that assertion, given more recent news to the contrary. Some examples are:
  • Reuters, Jan. 14, 2010 - "Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said on Thursday he will press for a wellhead tax on natural gas drilling in the state's Marcellus Shale formation to take effect July 1 this year".
  • Associated Press, Jan. 29 - "Police in northern Pennsylvania say they discovered a natural gas well-drilling service truck that was more than 41 tons over the weight limit for the road it was on. Cpl. Roger Stipcak said it is the latest of numerous examples of state troopers finding overweight natural gas trucks inflicting damage on area roads."
Eastern states are generally much more intensive in their taxes and fees, layers of government oversight, and regulatory infrastructure. Pennsylvania and New York are no different, and are starting to take what appear to be common-sense measures to assure that drilling in the Marcellus Shale is done within the scope of safety for waterways and water supplies, treatment systems, and transportation infrastructure.

The gas is there, in abundant quantities, close to where it will be used, and generally easier and cheaper to extract; most of the land is privately owned. The energy companies will likely comply with any reasonable rules and regulations that allow them to get at the gas.

What can we in western Colorado learn, if anything, from these experiences? I think plenty.
We already know that new pipelines here will make it a lot easier to move natural gas to markets where it is in demand. We also know the potential environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing.

We rely to a large extent upon our local news media to objectively report on these issues to keep us informed of those events which could have consequences for both citizens and industry. Except for November's report, and perhaps a paragraph or two in the Sentinel's "Energy Alley' series, the local media has not seen fit to cover the unfolding issues back east that may set the stage for the future of gas drilling all over this country. That's disturbing.

An e-mail sent to Sentinel reporter Gary Harmon and Managing Editor Laurena Davis received no reply. To be fair, they're not the only ones who seem to be ignoring the issue.

I suppose that if there is consensus on the part of a media market that something is not newsworthy, then it isn't. I'm thankful for the freedom and ability to pursue this information from virtually any news source around the world, and to decide for myself what's important and who to believe.

Faced with increasing numbers of those who feel the same way, one would hope that local media outlets here and elsewhere will get the message. I'll try to keep my fingers crossed while I'm looking around on the web.

Have a good evening.