Wednesday, April 28, 2010

David Cox - Man Of The People?

The volatile mixture of politics and personal conduct got quite the stir this past weekend, courtesy of Charles Ashby, the Daily Sentinel's current surveyor of the political landscape. In the cross hairs of the Sentinel's Page One, Sunday coverage was one of the three candidates for the Republican Party's nomination to replace Steve King as the District 54 representative.

David Cox, at age 28, can certainly be called an unconventional candidate running an unconventional campaign. As the Sentinel documented in full, he's had his share of contacts by law enforcement, several criminal charges related to underage drinking, minor in possession of alcohol, and traffic-related issues. This includes recent contact with the GJPD, for which the DA declined to prosecute.

It's also been reported that Mr. Cox has a previously-stated stance regarding the decriminalization of marijuana, one which propelled him into outright activism. He has been much more reticent regarding his views, perhaps trying to maintain some type of grasp on any chances of being a choice of Republican Delegates to the District 54 Assembly when it convenes on May 8.

Comments and letters from Sentinel readers run the gamut from righteous indignation, to an attempt at understanding, to impugning Mr. Cox's family. I am personally fascinated with Mr. Cox's candor, even if it is full of seeming uncertainty about what sanctions he endured, and exactly what he remembers about them:
I think I actually had to go to jail for five days because of my violation under my terms on that. I’m certain I went to jail. I think I was sentenced to seven days, and I ended up doing five or something like that.”
I think, that is I believe, that if I was ever sentenced to jail I would remember it, along with exactly how much time I spent there. One comment to the Sentinel seemed to ring truer to me than the rest:

(Quoting Cox) 'I drank a lot. I can admit that I like to drink. I’m definitely not a drunk. I don’t get drunk on a weekly (basis) even. If anything, I might get drunk on a monthly basis, so I’m not a drunk. I drink once in a while.'

This is such a classic example of alcoholic denial, it’s pathetic.

This commenter went on, and perhaps got a little off track themselves:
With accountability so poor, and rationalizations so delusional, does he actually expect anybody to think he’s suited for public service? At 28-years-old, he has way too much self-reflection and maturing to go through. And from the sound of him, it’s dicey at best that he’ll ever have even a slight understanding of himself. If you read about where Cox has come from on his web site, you’ll read about a life of privilege and entitlement; which explains a lot about his state of mind. You will also see a mediocre intellect spouting scare-em catch phrases and sense his lack of original thinking.
The commenter concluded by calling Mr. Cox a "Penry wannabe..without the brains". Ouch.

Mr. Cox has had a somewhat tumultuous existence through his college years and young adulthood, not unlike a good portion of his constituents. He is married and states he is operating the family agriculture business. He likes to drink; judging from what he keeps in his glove box, he is an advocate of gun rights.

Mr. Cox sounds representative of a significant demographic of District 54. I wonder how many of that demographic actually vote, however. I also wonder if Mr. Cox has ever been passed out in the campground at Country Jam...

Mr. Cox is just full of opinions. Whether they are completely his or not, they are voluminous, and written in large, unwieldy paragraphs at several locations on his website. Speaking of his site, it's not a typical, consultant-generated political web presence. His lengthy commentaries on the condition of the state and his plan for the future may bore a lot of people with short attention spans, but they're pretty interesting.

Mr. Cox published a blog post on his website yesterday in response to the Sentinel story, which seemed to illustrate why he didn't appear to be willing to share some of his views with the paper. The post included this looong paragraph:
As for my views concerning legalizing drugs, particularly marijuana, I believe this; prohibition has failed miserably to reduce the use or availability of specifically targeted substances and instead has created a powerful, lucrative incentive to our citizenry to become criminals. This incentive is particularly dangerous to our youth who see this lifestyle as glamorous and profitable rather than the dead end that it is. The drug war, or rather drug prohibition, is more dangerous than drug use. Look at how drugs power the terrorists, gangsters, and corrupt public officials in our system and the world. Prohibition is particularly destructive to our system because it also denies the sanctity and cornerstone principle of our system, personal responsibility. Personal responsibility for one's actions and decisions is the basis for individual freedom and without it we inevitably will degenerate into collectivist statism. Thanks to our war on drugs, which is actually a war on reality, we have confused multiple generations to believe that objects rather than personal decisions are responsible for failure or success in life. Yes, drugs and drug use is very dangerous, but believing that we do not have the ability to say no to such dangers personally, without the government making that decision for us, is even more dangerous. So, do I object to prohibition? ABSOLUTELY.
Now I'm wondering if Mr. Cox's home library includes Ayn Rand. Lots of Ayn Rand.

There are three candidates for the GOP nomination, and basically the seat in the legislature, as there is no reported opposition from the Democrats or any other political party. Bob Hislop and Ray Scott also have a web presence. Mr. Hislop has received criticism, and is the target of an anonymous website, for associations and activities that bring his worthiness to serve as the Republican nominee into question.

Mr. Hislop describes himself as a "retired lawman". His site contains a lot of good information about his background and stance on the issues. The only thing that annoyed me about his site was a somewhat dated photo of Mr. Hislop standing next to President Gerald Ford. I know that there are pictures of me standing next to John Heinz..when I was 14. I don't think I would use them to hasten my chances at elective office in middle age, however.

Mr. Scott's website is a little more vague with regard to background and beliefs. He describes himself as a "family man", and works in the energy industry. Mr. Scott stated in a reply to an e-mail I sent him that he is native of Rifle, graduated from Rifle High School, and has been married for 33 years. He and his wife have two grown daughters.

It seems that Mr. Scott is trying to play it safe by attempting to appeal to the middle of the Republican base without providing a great deal of information, in contrast to not one, but two, RINOs in the race; one a self-proclaimed "Republican Independent Democrat", and the other an Objectivist Libertarian.

I'm paying attention to this because one of these three individuals will represent me in Denver next year. Like it or not, the dominance of the Republican political machine, and the lack of any Democratic challenge to at least stir up dialogue in this election, has presented us with these choices for a legislator.

They're not really bad choices, but a (smoke-filled?) room full of GOP delegates will effectively make that decision for every registered voter in District 54.
That's a problem.

As far as Dave Cox is concerned, he added another gem to his resume' in a letter to the Sentinel published yesterday:

The Daily Sentinel wants to make my alcohol use the main morality issue of 2010? This has nothing to do with an intelligent debate of the issues that the state of Colorado faces. I have made mistakes in my youth and I have learned from them. I’m not a career politician. I actually hate politics. I’m only in this to try and do some good for the people of Colorado and the wonderful, free country that we live in.

He went on to say that if elected he will represent the people of his district in his voting on legislation, including those issues such as marijuana where he has an open disagreement with the majority of his potential constituents:

Yes, despite how absolutely stupid prohibition is, I will vote no to end it. Why? If I am a representative, I am there to represent, not to do as I please. I do that on my own time. And by the way, my momma always said, if you don’t have something nice to say then don’t say anything at all.
Mr. Cox will "represent" us, but does he know how to compromise, to build coalitions, to engage in those parts of the political process that have been famously compared with the making of sausage?

Mr. Cox may be earnest in both his convictions and his dedication to his candidacy, but as many citizens older than Mr. Cox already know, it takes much more than that. Hating politics doesn't help.

I wish all three candidates the best of luck in the upcoming GOP selection process and primary election.

Have a great day.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Telecom Tremors

Yesterday was a long day. I took a day trip to the Front Range, and while the drive was fairly pleasant on the way over, the ride back was snowy and difficult over the passes. It still amazes me how one can encounter such variations in weather and landscape over a three hour drive.

The landscape of telecommunications in Colorado and elsewhere has seen some unsettled, and perhaps unsettling, moments over the last few days. The first was the media reports early in the week that the private equity firms that own Bresnan Communications were exploring the sale of the company, a major provider of telecom, cable, and Internet services on the Western Slope. 

I found good reporting about this in the Billings (MT) Gazette. Bresnan has a significant technology and human resource presence in the Billings area. According to a media analyst interviewed for the story, Bresnan is “a valuable property for a couple of reasons..It has an established network to deliver services and...established customer relationships, which again is valuable for a potential acquirer."

I've written in the past, and some readers seemed to have affirmed, that Bresnan is largely dependent upon cable giant Comcast for the lion's share of their cable programming. While the aforementioned media analyst also asserted that "private equity companies are generally the buyers" of cable companies, one cannot discount the possibility that Comcast may be interested in expanding its already robust Colorado coverage area through a buyout of Bresnan.

Right now Comcast is trying to haul in a much bigger fish, NBC Universal. Should that sale not pass regulatory muster (it's encountered a lot of vocal opposition already), perhaps they'll want to revisit expansion of their core business. It's definitely worth keeping an eye on.


Speaking of little fish and bigger fish, the acquisition of Qwest by CenturyLink (formerly CenturyTel) initially sounded to me like a piranha taking down a tiger shark. It seems that in telecom these days the leaner the organization, the more it is able to adapt and overcome obstacles similar to what the little ILEC (Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier) that could did today.

In truth, CenturyLink isn't so little; in their role as an ILEC they provide primary local phone service to a significant chunk of Colorado, surpassed only by Qwest in terms of area serviced. This includes the Collbran and Mesa areas of Mesa County. They swallowed up a competing ISP last year as well. Telecom analysts following the industry have taken notice of the company's growth over the last few years. 

The history of Qwest has been an interesting one, especially if you followed some of the moves that predated its creation. Philip Anschutz bought up railroads in the early 90's, so he could lay fiber optic cable along their rights of way, building a massive fiber network that Qwest was created to sell products and services over.

Along the way, they swallowed US West, became a real phone company, and perhaps bit off more than they could chew. Several consumer complaint cases and a financial scandal later, they are limping along, having been caught up with by other telecom providers who have also built out large fiber networks. 

Aside from the number of Colorado jobs that may go away as a result of the proposed merger, there is some light at the end of these cables. Less than 2 weeks ago, Qwest announced a new service initiative to link together traditional telephone networks with IP-based data networks. Yesterday, a friend on Facebook spoke briefly about a roundtable he attended in Boulder, concerning the transitioning of the state's 9-1-1 infrastructure to an IP-based platform. 

There's a lot happening out there, and CenturyLink seems to be positioning themselves to be on the cutting edge of it. Let's hope that consumer choice and competitive pricing aren't casualties of their largesse.


It's pretty strange when a wireless telephone network goes completely down, even stranger (and disconcerting) when two of them have significant problems the same day. That was the case yesterday with Verizon, and to a lesser extent with AT&T.

The strange thing about AT&T's outage was that it appeared to affect only their 3G data network, but for many iPhone users (including my son) this meant that the phone woudn't work. According to anecdotal reports from social media sites like Facebook, many whose iPhones weren't working figured out that if they changed their network settings to shut off the 3G portion, the phone started to work again. This was not reported in the media like the Verizon outage, so it's impossible to tell how widespread the problem was.


Telecommunications as an industry is integral to our society's ability to function. The lines between telephone, television, and data transmission are blurring to the point that all three can and do travel down one pipe. Watching how that one pipe, or set of pipes, are maintained, marketed, and mold themselves into a responsive element of the communities they serve is not only the job of the government, but also of every consumer who values choice in TV content, reliable and economical telephone service, and an uncompromised, neutral Internet.

Let's hope that things settle down a bit from this week, and all that's left is increased diligence and resolve on the part of all of us to assure that these services are provided in a manner that enables all of us to communicate, collaborate, and thrive.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sign O' The Times 6

There's another community garden sprouting up in Downtown GJ. This one is in the 200 block of White Avenue, and will be overseen by the residents of St. Benedict Place, the housing complex operated by Grand Valley Catholic Outreach.

The garden is on land owned by the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo, and is directly adjacent the Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced rectory of St. Joseph's Church.

This is an ad for the Airmall, the shops that occupy the concourses of the Pittsburgh Airport.
My mother worked in several shops there.
Every time I see it, my first reaction is, "Wow, I feel kind of sad for you".

This is in a highly visible location in Downtown Grand Junction.

Well, I liked you OK, even if I didn't support you the first time I got to vote for President in 1980. I realize that others have a much lesser opinion of your presidency, but either way the essential premise of this billboard is true.
After 8 years of George W. Bush, all doubt has indeed been removed.

My first car was one of these, without the camper features.
I miss it. The message is excellent.

I'll have some more examples of this type of expression soon. Have a great day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street..

No, I don't think I'll apologize to Dr. Seuss. This was fun..

Saturday marked the long-awaited return of the Hot Tomato Cafe to the increasingly diverse commercial landscape that is downtown Fruita. According to friends who had been there most of the day, people were lined up at the door at 11:00, and kept streaming in until evening.

The interior of the new cafe',  with its custom-made wood tables and recycled- metal floor accents, was packed, along with the enclosed patio and convenient beer window, with overflow onto the surrounding sidewalks and alleys. The street had been closed for the event, and the live music from the stage in the middle of North Mulberry was excellent.

The cafe ran out of pizza dough at about 7:30 PM, so myself, Evan, and his friend Ben pigged out on some excellent stromboli. It didn't really matter what we ate; it was satisfying enough to see Jen and Anne's enterprise back in full swing after the events of last year.

As several media outlets reported in advance of the opening, the Hot Tomato is truly an example of community, government, and private enterprise in action to enhance quality of life. KJCT led off their Saturday newscast with the opening; instead of a slow news day, it was a good news day.

Props go to U.S. Bank, which according to press reports provided the financing necessary for the transformation of an empty former dry cleaning store into the reincarnation of the Hot Tomato. I would have been tempted to ask which banks were approached and said no; I'm hoping they didn't include those local banks that pride themselves on community reinvestment.

There are intangibles at work here; droning on about a sense of community may sound repetitive to some, but you can really feel it working in the finished product, and the slight change of venue seemed to have no effect on it. The cafe' has a rather active Facebook page for fans and others interested in the restaurant and its rebirth. It's worth checking out.

Fruita and the surrounding communities will benefit from this kind of collaboration and cooperation, so long as those in the community continue to recognize and encourage the nature of the efforts made in this instance.

The Hot Tomato's former home, just down the street on the corner, sits empty and available for rent. I'm also tempted to ask the Fruita Masonic Lodge how that's working for them, and whether or not the current condition of their rental space is justified by the means they undertook to empty it.

Would it have just been easier for the Masons to work with the Hot Tomato, instead of against them? Time will certainly clarify the answer to that question, but in the short term, it's time to celebrate a little.

Best wishes to the Hot Tomato, and to Fruita, for continued prosperity and community growth. From the looks of the picture below, the neighborhood weathered the additional activity with little or no notice or inconvenience.

Have a great week ahead.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I'll Take Medium Tech, Thanks...

Despite a lifetime fascination with technology, I am what I would consider a below-average consumer of computers, electronics, and digital media. With very few exceptions, I am not one to jump on the newest technological breakthrough or latest, greatest, thing being hyped to high heaven, creating lines of overly eager consumers at the temples of the First Church of My Stuff.

My computer is about eight years old. I've done a few upgrades to it, and it remains a reliable piece of equipment. I have a 6 year old laptop. The hard drive just crashed. I will use an inexpensive replacement to run a Linux-based operating system called Ubuntu on it. This will give me an Internet terminal, which could really be useful if I ever get an HDTV that I can hook it up to. With a wireless keyboard and mouse, it could make for some interesting web surfing. As for computing on the move, I will probably invest in a netbook down the road.

I have analog TV's - 3 of them. The newest is 5 years old. One of them is hooked up to digital cable. The picture from the HDTV channels on Bresnan looks just fine on it, and I appreciate the widescreen aspect. This suits me fine right now.

New technologies and capabilities need to flesh out all of the bugs of their first production version. No amount of field beta testing will bring out every glitch that a curious user can find. For these and lots of other reasons, I'm not particularly excited about the latest offering from Apple, the iPad.

My son has an iPhone and a MacBook Pro. He is into graphics, music, and video, and there is no better platform to manage multimedia than Apple's. What is disturbing is the attitude of this manufacturer toward innovation, as demonstrated by the limitations Apple has placed on content, access, and most importantly, tinkering with the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad.

This inflexible and seemingly illogical control game has manifested itself in earnest this week. The most visible gaffe was the revelation that Apple had rejected a program for its App store submitted by online cartoon artist Mark Fiore. Apple's reasoning for this was a clause in its Developer Program License Agreement, which stated that applications could not "contain materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.”

This came to additional light because this week Mr. Fiore won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, for his work in the online presence of the San Francisco Chronicle. Apple changed it's tune pretty quickly, asking Mr. Fiore to resubmit his app, NewsToons, for consideration. Other Apple edicts about content have caused considerable concern among artists, publishers, and online freedom groups.

This is far from being the only affront to online creativity that Apple has foisted on the global computing community. Apple products continue to be incompatible with Adobe Flash, a suite of applications that aid in software development, not to mention supporting the bulk of online video content. The sleek, attractive lines of these devices conceal Apple's desire to prevent any intrusion into its hardware for any purpose.

This also has some ominous consequences for those in the print media that see devices like the iPad as part of their future. The Columbia Journalism Review issued a warning this week as well:

The iPad is the most exciting opportunity for the media in many years. But if the press is ceding gatekeeper status, even if it’s only nominally, over its speech, then it is making a dangerous mistake. Unless Apple explicitly gives the press complete control over its ability to publish what it sees fit, the news media needs to yank its apps in protest.

There are many writing out there who are much more in touch with these debates than I am. An excellent example is the Free Press summary of the issues, as well as an extremely thoughtful piece on the concept of generativity, or "a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences".

This has led me to yet another book to put on my list; The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain. Some introductory language from the website states the problem all too well:

IPods, iPhones, Xboxes, and TiVos represent the first wave of Internet-centered products that can’t be easily modified by anyone except their vendors or selected partners. These “tethered appliances” have already been used in remarkable but little-known ways: car GPS systems have been reconfigured at the demand of law enforcement to eavesdrop on the occupants at all times, and digital video recorders have been ordered to self-destruct thanks to a lawsuit against the manufacturer thousands of miles away...As tethered appliances and applications eclipse the PC, the very nature of the Internet—its “generativity,” or innovative character—is at risk.

As a journeyman user and below-average consumer who strives to inform himself and others about these things, aside from forums like this blog the only other way I know of to speak my mind is through my wallet.

So I will say with some confidence that I will not spend one dime on an Apple product or service until they loosen up.

It's starting to sound like Tron; the Master Control Program vs. the Users. I guess I'm kind of glad there's a sequel due out this year.

Have a good weekend.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Political Weekend

I am an unaffiliated voter. Among other things, this means I am part of a bloc of the electorate that comprises nearly 1/3 of the total active voters in Colorado.1

As a result, I don't get to participate in the caucus process that determines who represents a political party on the ballot, and whether or not a primary election is even necessary. In Mesa County, it doesn't appear that the latter has to happen very often.

I'm not an expert on the political process; there are plenty of those to go around. Excellent analysis of these processes, at least from the Republican side, came from local blogger Gene Kinsey. Gene's insights as to the nature of the beast came in several posts, available here, here, and even here.

Gene illustrated well the pattern of recycling career Republican politicians in our area. Not that this is a bad thing in all respects, but how to you avoid disenfranchising those who want, and likely deserve, a place in the process? The Democrats even do this; at least since I've lived here, the county Coroner's office has rotated through the Pathology department at Community Hospital, without apparent opposition. I could probably start into a bunch of reasons why Mesa County should be a Home Rule county with an appointed Medical Examiner, but that's for another time.

There was a bit of a ripple in the calm pond of this 'business as usual' on the GOP side, with the unsuccessful nomination of Tom Bjorklund for the office of County Treasurer. Tom's wife, Shari, tried running for legislator a couple of times.

One friend of mine on Facebook, who attended the GOP assembly on Saturday, described Mr. Bjorklund as a "narcissistic idiot". I wouldn't know about that, but his Facebook profile lists him as a fan of the Personhood amendment and Tom Tancredo. Allll-righty, then..

On the Democratic side, Mesa County's contingent did make the news for bucking the remainder of the state in supporting incumbent appointee Senator Michael Bennet in his bid for a full term, over the favorite of the rest of the state, Andrew Romanoff.

If I were really interested in all of this, I would probably register with one party or another. In this context, Gene made another great point, specifically about the Tea Party faction within the GOP:
There is no room at (Mesa County Republicans') table for newcomers and outsiders...It is this closed attitude in both parties that has been the genesis of the TEA party and sister organizations. The Tea parties are unstructured groups of people dissatisfied by both parties. Republicans may think that the ire of the TEA party is directed against the Democrats, but it is directed against the old way of doing business.
I do get e-mail from the Mesa County Democrats, and see a lot of the same names, but also a lot of new names in recent years. Unfortunately, only one name there has seen fit to challenge for state office this time around, so Mesa County's two seats in the state House will be occupied by Republicans without opposition. What does this do for the rigorous, open exchange of ideas inherent to the survival of a democratic system of government? Not much.

I found a much more interesting example of political analysis on TV this weekend. It's good evidence of the adage that when you arrive at the way some things are done, sometimes you just have to laugh.

Have a good week ahead.

1 Colorado Secretary of State, Voter Registration Statistics, March 2010

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Got The Code?

This is called a QR, or "Quick Response" barcode, one of many kinds of what are called '2D' barcodes. The UPC barcode, ubiquitous in our society as a pricing and inventory tool, is known as a '1D' code.

The code above can contain up to 250 characters of text. This can be contact information, a URL for a website, or a simple text message. It can be a lot smaller than this one, too.

What's the big deal? Not much, unless you are one of the growing numbers of people who own a smartphone, like the iPhone, Motorola Droid, Palm Pre, Blackberry, etc. In places like Japan, where smartphones with cameras and built-in reader software are everywhere, these codes are embedded into print media, electronic signs, business cards, and even serve as tattoos.

If you have one of these phones and have downloaded a reader, you can test your new toy on the code above. It has an important message.

As more people in this country embrace smart phone technology, expect these codes to form a connection between printed media and associated content on the Web. Recent stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette detailed how the paper will use QR codes to allow smartphone users to go directly to Internet-based content related to the particular story without having to type a lengthy URL.

The codes are also gaining a foothold in advertising. Ralph Lauren has used them rather creatively in linking shoppers to their website for online ordering via smartphone. There are myriad other applications, i.e. real estate brokers putting the codes on ads and flyers for a specific home, linking prospective buyers to more robust web-based information.

How about a code on the price sticker at a used car lot, linking the customer with the vehicle's Carfax report? Or a QR code on a fledgling band's concert poster, linking you to a music or video sample from their MySpace page? QR codes apparently made a big splash (though considered by many a thud) at last month's SXSW events in Austin, Texas.

To try and get a better sense of the mass media take on the potential of barcoded content, I asked our local newspaper editors about this trend, and how it may affect their future operations. I got a thoughtful response from Daily Sentinel Managing Editor Laurena Mayne Davis, who said in part:
From a media standpoint, I appreciate QRs' utility in navigational ease. They don't add content, of course, which is our emphasis, but would eliminate the typing of "" in our case, for example. People want ease in navigation — Google's success underscores that. Who bothers with looking up URLs anymore? You just Google...People also like increased connectivity. Pointing readers to related content is something we do narratively in print, now. A QR would eliminate that need.
Ms. Davis also clued me in to a barcode-based web service called Stickybits, which uses 1D barcodes to link to all manner of web content that they host for registered users. The user attaches the barcode to whatever they'd like. Their mobile app is only available for iPhone and Android-based phones, however.

There are endless applications, but there are steps needed to get the ball rolling here. First, downloading a QR code reader to your smartphone is pretty easy. Even with my sometimes cumbersome Nokia phone, I was able to download a couple of good barcode readers via some of the sites listed below. Next is finding a way to actually create codes, and there are some great online resources to do that as well.

QR Code Generators and Readers:


Kaywa - Includes a link to a reader

QR Stuff - Includes a link to a reader

SnapMaze - This one allows you to generate codes in color - has a link to a reader too. - Lists several QR Code readers.

My son, who has an iPhone and enjoys technology (but not hardly as much as I do), was decidedly underwhelmed about this. He thought it was interesting, but couldn't see the practical future applications as yet. I'm betting that he'll be around to see these things proliferate even beyond what the architects of our global wireless architecture are betting on.

Have a great day.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Adventures in Trunked Radio...and Beyond

Last month I wrote about the transition of Mesa County's public safety and other government agencies to the state's Digital Trunked Radio system (DTRS). Most of the county's law enforcement agencies, as well as the Grand Junction Fire Department, were slated to be operating completely on the new system yesterday. Other area fire departments will remain on the existing VHF radio network; according to a memo issued last week, a transition date for them "has not been determined".

Digital Trunked Radio Systems are not new technology. They have been put to the test in much larger urban env
ironments, and dependent upon their configuration have proven to be a largely reliable, robust, and reasonably secure method of maintaining communications and establishing interoperability between large and diverse groups of radio users. As with many technological advances, adjustments and updates are almost a constant process, and a complex system such as trunked radio is no exception.

I thought that I would expand on how these technologies are developed, marketed
, procured, and implemented, in hopes of fostering some understanding of the complexities involved.

Warning: Fairly exhaustive late-night techie diatribe follows.

A Brief History of Trunked Radio.

Trunking is the use of several repeaters, on different frequencies in the same band, operating together under computer control to allow for the pooling of resources.1 The first trunked radio systems started to become operational in the late 1970's. By the early 80's it became apparent to many in public safety that a standard group of capabilities were necessary, such as a mode for operation in the event of computer problems, or a transmitter site becoming isolated from its computer controller, priority access to the system, and emergency alerting.

The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), made up of members from both public safety and the commercial sectors that provide radio equipment, established a project group within its membership to develop such a standard. This Project 16 group was successful in putting forth standard capabilities that were adopted by several of the 'big players' in the industry, such as Motorola and General Electric.

The standards list dovetailed with the Federal Communications Commission's first issuance of licenses to operate public safety radio systems in the 800 Megahertz freq
uency band. While trunked radio systems can effectively operate in the VHF (150-170 MHz) or UHF (450-512 MHz) bands, they are most frequently found in the 700-800 MHz band today.

One big drawback to APCO 16 trunked systems is that they were not interoperable; radios on a Motorola system, for example, would not work on a GE system. Thus began another APCO project effort to define a standard by which multiple manufacturers could adhere to when building trunked radio systems.

This Project 25 (or "P25") standard incorporates the use of a device called a vocoder to convert voice radio traffic into a digital signal for transmission through the system architecture. This formed the basis for what is known as the P25 Common Air Interface (CAI).
A radio using the P25 CAI should be able to communicate with any other P25 CAI radio, regardless of what manufacturer produced the radio.2

The final P25 standards were presented in 1994, with most of the manufacturers adopting the standard for use in their systems. These included Motorola, EF Johnson, Kenwood, and Daniels Electronics. One notable exception was Ericsson, which had purchased GE's radio manufacturing division. This company is known today as M/A Com. This is significant, as many cities in the core of the Denver Metro area use a trunked radio system known as EDACS, manufactured by this company.

In the late 90's, the State of Colorado developed a proposal to construct a statewide trunking radio network. The state purchased and began development of the statewide DTRS in 2001.

In 2002, the Consolidated Communications Network of Colorado (CCNC) was incorporated as a users group encompassing multiple jurisdictions and governmental layers. This group serves as the standards setting and system coordination arm of the DTR, which is maintained and monitored by the state.

I am DTR of Borg...not.

The arguments are compelling for a public safety entity or local government's participation in CCNC and transitioning their operations to the DTRS. There is a distinct advantage to a trunked radio system's ability to leverage multiple repeated channels, connected and coordinated through multiple transmitter sites, to providing wide-area coverage for even portable radios.

The state, along with other public safety organizations and the commercial sector, has touted the economies of scale and interoperability benefits associated with a statewide radio infrastructure to encourage local governments and special districts to move their operations to the DTRS. This is true even with the increased end user costs associated with such a move. DTRS mobiles and portables can cost nearly 5 times more than conventional VHF or UHF units.

Some of this encouragement has been less than subtle. The state Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), which administers many grant programs to local governments using funds such as Energy Impact fees, will only approve grant requests for radios that operate on the DTRS, regardless of what system is used by the local jurisdiction. Additionally, funding for communications upgrades from the Department of Homeland Security usually requires migrating to a P25 system.3

Even with this, there are jurisdictions committed to other radio technologies, and there are still very valid uses for legacy VHF and UHF radio systems. Many smaller agencies, even using grant funding, are having a hard time affording the cost of new field units. This is likely what is keeping most of Mesa County's fire departments on VHF for the foreseeable future.

Some limitations are technical; the DTRS cannot be used for over-the-air paging, and cannot be accessed by airborne aircraft. Other factors include interfacing with federal resources, such as wildland firefighting crews and aircraft, which use a national VHF radio system for coordination.
There are now statewide and nationwide
common calling channels allocated for use in an analog, simplex mode which can be used to accomplish some of these user needs.

Technology has also played a role in the diminishing of the non-proprietary, common-across-manufacturers component of the P25 standard. While the P25 CAI is a non-proprietary 'open' trunking standard, some manufacturers have been marketing technology that incorporates proprietary components for use on these systems.

An example is encryption protocols, which provide another level of security for discreet communications. While there are forms of encryption which can be used in any P25 radio, Motorola markets a proprietary form of encryption, which when used requires any user needing to use encrypted talk groups on the system to use a Motorola radio.

A key development in the years following P25 is Software Defined Radio (SDR). This technology has facilitated the development of radios that can transmit and receive over multiple frequency bands, in either conventional or trunked modes. Radios from newer players in the public safety marketplace such as Harris Corp. and Thales are capable of communicating over VHF, UHF and 800 Mhz frequencies and trunked systems. The cost of these units are roughly double that of the currently available P25 equipment, often exceeding $5,000 per radio.

Concerns about safety in certain environments has also led to the development of alternative simplex channels using analog modulation, which can be contained in the same radio. An exhaustive study conducted by the Phoenix Fire Department concluded that "simplex channels provide incident commanders and firefighters a safe and consistent communications system that is not dependent on infrastructure in order to speak to other units on the

Despite these challenges, it made good sense for our local communications system to begin a transition to trunking. The obvious benefits outweigh a simple dollars and cents argument. While as a taxpayer I would have preferred an objective assessment of available technologies when there is big money involved, the DTRS was a common sense path of least resistance.

Right now there are eight transmitter sites providing coverage of the 3300 square miles of Mesa County, with more to come. These sites are part of a network of nearly 200 across the state, all accessible by the end user using the same radio. Every radio on the system is registered, its
usage monitored, and can be disabled remotely if malfunctioning or compromised.

By combining this robust technical resource with effective utilization protocols and consistent use of proven Incident Management strategies, our public safety responders are poised to provide a better coordinated response to all manner of emergency situations.

Growing Pains...and the Future.

As much as this technology brings to the potential effectiveness of public safety response, it is still 20 year old technology, and portions of it are showing their age. The development of improved means of transmitting digital voice has resulted in the establishment of a second phase of P25 digital standards.

The Colorado DTRS has been feeling the effect of some of these factors as their system has continued to grow in popularity and usage. This past February, a letter from the CCNC Executive Board detailed a moratorium on new users of the DTRS until specific goals pertaining to technical and administrative capabilities were met. These included, for example:
System Infrastructure Additions: As the DTRS has grown over the past 10 years, many entities have joined without adding the infrastructure necessary to support their traffic load. Applications to the CCNC must be more thoroughly scrutinized to ensure additional users do not negatively impact the system resources provided and used by current members.
Additionally, the development of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, and the ability to effectively use broadband networks to carry voice traffic, has led to a new push for broadband communications systems for public safety that incorporate the secure digital transmission of both voice and data.

This was most recently reflected in the National Broadband Plan released by the FCC for public review last month. Part of this plan advocates for the establishment of a broadband public safety network using radio spectrum in the 700 MHz band, recently allocated to public safety after the transition of broadcast TV to digital transmission.

However, the nature of public discourse in the form of some of the finest minds in technology implementation and consulting are already creating doubt as to the effectiveness of broadband communication versus channelized systems, given the nature of public safety operations. One of the most respected consultants in this area, Andrew Seybold, put it right out there last week in an email to an FCC commissioner:
Channelized communications for voice is one-to-many, which is a critical component of first responder communications...It is vitally important for all units in a given area to hear what is happening so they can prepare to provide additional coverage or assistance.

It is not possible to provide the level of voice communications required by public safety within the confines of commercial wireless systems or using commercial wireless technologies...It can be difficult to understand how different channelized devices are from cell phones. They must be able to communicate directly with each other no matter where they are, and with those around them so everyone knows what is happening. A delay of only a few seconds can mean the loss of life or property.
Scannerheads Unite.

What do the development and deployment of these rapidly evolving technologies mean for the average citizen who enjoys listening to public safety in action? From what I've heard, many have been converging on places like Radio Shack, trying to figure out why they can't hear the GJPD anymore.

It's possible that the scanning hobby may find itself fading out of popularity as these digital technologies make for more sophisticated and expensive equipment to monitor them. For the casual hobbyist, most of today's scanners require a computer and software to program them with any degree of efficiency. Monitoring these communications may eventually become impossible.

If/when that day comes, I will regard it with some sadness. I remember the first police scanner I ever owned, a little handheld Bearcat that you had to buy crystals for. This was followed rapidly by a programmable Bearcat 210XL, which I took to work on the night shift and learned a lot. This eventually translated itself into a career.

There are several fellow hobbyists in the GJ area with a lot more experience and technical knowledge than I. They've kept ahead of the curve, and thanks to the Internet the fruits of their labor are available to anyone interested. Enjoy it while you can.

The times they are indeed a changin'.

Have a great week ahead.

Photo Credits:



Friday, April 02, 2010

The Veneer of Social Media

Happy April.

I've been pondering this topic for several weeks, while at the same time trying to wrest myself from the self-imposed prison that online activities can at times become. While pondering a milestone in my own life and the difficulties of a friend and fellow blogger, I was reminded a little more of what I wanted to write about.

Last month in the midst of all the Oscar hype,
IFC put on the 2006 Best Picture, Paul Haggis' Crash. I like this film because of the ensemble cast, and the story that interweaves the lives of characters for whom little else appears to be in common, while dividing them along the man-made barriers of race and culture.

In each character's story there are moments of crisis and redemption; people connect and disconnect, or vice versa. In many cases, those man-made barriers, the external shield of ego or pride which we identify with or protect ourselves from others, is stripped away, revealing the true nature of that person underneath.

It's kind of like furniture; what is solid wood, and what is particle board covered with a thin, albeit attractive, veneer?

I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh that was very reminiscent of classic, stereotypical small town America of the 50's and 60's, much like those immortalized in print by writers such as John Cheever and Richard Yates. See The Swimmer, or Revolutionary Road.

My fiancee Leslie also grew up there, but in a very different way. We're challenging convention by being together, and in many ways challenging each other. She's trying to teach me that the veneer doesn't matter, that what's underneath is what God looks at, and what two people need to depend on to make a relationship work.

The veneers of the past, be they the status symbols (house, car, job, clothes) or the carefully crafted way that one conducts themselves in public life, are being replaced today by the virtual representations of oneself in the great cloudy cacophony of the social media phenomenon. I know this largely from experience, having had a Facebook account for a while now, and staying active on it as part of my periodic overindulgence into all things Internet.

Social media sites such as MySpace appeal to younger people (or those who would like to be younger) largely trying to create a persona for themselves, or market themselves in the case of many musicians and bands. Twitter seems to speak to those with commonality in interests or ideologies; it's become the tool used most famously to mobilize citizen action, and is most notable to me as a tool for creating Smart Mobs, or stupid mobs in Philadelphia.

Facebook has become the bastion of connecting with friends new and old. In looking at my own page and those of my Facebook friends, many of whom I went to high school with, I put forward what I want others to see, and they do the same. There isn't a lot of unpleasantness or tragedy, unless it's brought forth to generate assistance, prayer, or to galvanize many to action.

Unlike interacting with someone face to face, one can carefully craft their online persona and still appear genuine within the confines of a two-dimensional, pixellated universe of their own creation. The Internet is unique and paradoxical because it can serve to connect us with others in a way that can be genuine or false, or even isolate us in our own virtual world. This can have consequences ranging from the subtle erosion of a sense of 'real' community, to the tragedy of literally trading a virtual existence for the real world, as evidenced by recent events in South Korea.

Even through social media connections, and the collective virtual compassion that they can convey to us in times of need, too often we are afraid to remove the veneer, show our pain, our strength, our weaknesses, and genuinely reach out for or to our fellow man.

Last month, Grand Junction blogger Ralph D'Andrea reached out as far as his comfort level would allow him, with the news of an "unspeakable tragedy", and initially left it at that. It was only later that he shared the news of his daughter's death with his readership.

This month the Grand Junction religious community is leveraging the connecting ability of the Internet in a tangible and practical way, to conduct its annual ShareFest. It's an opportunity to reach out past the virtual world to make a difference in the life of someone real. It's worth checking out.

Self-doubt and fear of change cause many of us to conceal our pain underneath the veneer of what society expects to see of us. We forget that we are best as a society and as humans when we balance the need to be self-reliant with the understanding that none of us are alone, and all of us are cared for.

One other thing I ran into recently was a page from a Max Lucado devotional, which was written around a scriptural admonition that feels appropriate to the topic at hand. Perhaps the message will be one that can help us all to remain strong in the face of difficulties, and hearty and solid beneath our veneers.

Matthew 11:28-30 (New International Version)

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Have a good Easter weekend.