Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Scary Consequences of Bad Media

Happy Halloween.

On a day when many people are dressing up to look like someone or something else, I thought I would call attention to some very recent media criticism that brings the weaknesses of some aspects of our news-gathering infrastructure into brilliant focus, and puts forward a warning about the future using the mistakes of the past.

From the local front, Delta-area blogger and Bagel Street Irregular Robert Laitres brings forward a historical perspective when analyzing the state of much of our media today. In an excellent post this past Friday, Mr. Laitres makes comparisons between today's media and much of the media in Austria before Hitler's rise to power. Quoting from the post:

Another observation on the behavior of the press during that period is to be found in other studies of that period as well, and on the role of a “mud raking” press in politics. In fact, all who have undertaken any type of comprehensive study of the period have come to the same conclusion. One of those, by way of example, is from the book The NAZI Seizure of Power, by William Sheridan Allen.

But, its chief effect was to debase the nature of politics and to destroy the foundation of trust and mutual respect without which democracy cannot succeed. When politics becomes a matter of vilification and innuendo, then eventually people feel repugnance for the whole process".
If there has been anything obvious in this political season, it has been the loss of civility, fomented in large part by the preponderence of what Mr. Laitres cited as a media focusing more on the bottom line, rather than getting to the bottom of the story. What is sensational often gets more emphasis than what is substantial, and that starts to sound like the beginning of a slippery slope that American media, and we as a nation, cannot afford to start down.

Perhaps a good portion of those who attended yesterday's rally hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are those who see these problems with media, with government, and with ourselves, as well as the lack of "sanity" that the "rally" sought to edge us back toward.

I half-watched the rally yesterday morning between doing other things, and while what I saw was entertaining, I was most attentive when Mr. Stewart took about 13 minutes to really say something meaningful. If you didn't see his speech, it's available below, and is definitely worth the time.

Thanks to a transcript from Rolling Stone, here is some of what made the most sense to me. The emphasis of certain points is mine:

The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems and illuminate problems heretofore unseen, or it can use its magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous-flaming-ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and tea partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rich Sanchez is an insult -- not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put forth the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims makes us less safe, not more.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we eventually get sicker. And perhaps eczema. Yet, with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly good, because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a funhouse mirror, and not the good kind that makes you slim and taller -- but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass like a pumpkin and one eyeball.

Arianna Huffington, when asked about Stewart, Colbert, and the rally on CNN today, brought it down to lowest terms a bit:
"What makes him (Stewart) and Colbert special is the fact that they use satire to speak truth to power, whether that power is liberal, conservative, in the media, in politics. That's where their power comes from. And people who continue to see it as a sort of left-leaning show are completely missing its appeal."
This raises more questions and concerns with me. Many pundits, politicians, and media wonks on both sides of the ideological divide basically give Stewart and Colbert a pass because they are primarily entertainers, humorists, comedians, and actors. While this does not diminish the importance of the points that they make on their respective programs and at the rally yesterday, it may change the tone of the response to them in the future.

Stewart and Colbert take their comedic approach seriously; that much is certain from yesterday's event. What remains to be seen is how this event changes the playing field for them, and how they react to it.

Have a great week ahead.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Out of the Comfort Zone

"What's a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?"
- Gene Wilder (as Jim) to Cleavon Little (as Bart) in Blazing Saddles (1974)
I wanted stay up late this past Sunday night and post something else, but the Search and Rescue pager beckoned in the early evening with a request for communications personnel to assist with a search for three missing hunters in the Flat Tops area of Garfield County. As it was going to be my day off, I made myself available, and at 5:00 Monday morning my fellow volunteer Bill and I were headed toward Rifle.

It turned out to be just a little bit more than a day operation.

We left Garfield County SAR headquarters near the Rifle Airport at about 6:30. After driving through Glenwood Canyon, we started uphill from just north of the Dotsero exit of I-70. As we started up the narrow switchbacks of Coffee Pot Road, the weather and road conditions changed dramatically.

The snow conditions made it necessary to stage snowmobile and ATV trail
ers about 20 miles away from the command post location, which was a couple of miles from where the hunters' truck was located. The picture on the left shows the easy part. Open, flat terrain followed, with considerable drifting of snow across the roadway.

We noticed numerous hunting camps on the way up, and with the snow we saw numerous hunters packing up and trying to get back down. The Sheriff's Deputy in our little convoy helped to winch out one group in a pickup pulling a pop-up camper. The going w
as slow, and we arrived at the command post location about 5 1/2 hours after leaving Rifle.

The command p
ost was in a US Forest Service cabin near White Owl Lake, roughly 13 miles as the crow flies due north of Glenwood Springs. There was propane to provide some heat and the capability for cooking and small lighting. There was wood to stoke a large wood stove in the main living area. We used a small gasoline-powered generator to provide AC power to our laptop computer with topo map software, as well as a charger for portable radio batteries.

There were 2 bedrooms on the first floor, and a loft on the second level which wound up being much war
mer than below. There was an outhouse about 25 feet from the cabin, which while
convenient still required slogging through high wind and drifting snow to reach. 18 people stayed in this cabin on Monday night.

As several media reports have already made clear, the search efforts for the first t
wo days were significantly impacted by high winds and blowing snow. Our primary job was to maintain communications with the teams of snowmobilers and ground searchers, note their locations and progress, and manage the coordination and allocation of radio frequencies and equipment.

There was no cell phone coverage in the search area or at the command post. The only resources available for co
mmunication with the outside world were the State Digital Trunked Radio System (DTRS) and a satellite phone. The DTRS was an impressive, invaluable resource for the purposes of this exercise; it allowed us to
communicate with our field teams, Garfield County dispatchers and emergency management, and our Mission Coordinator in Fruita. All with the same portable radio. The photo above shows the work area for the Incident Commander and communications support.

Both Bill and I had to come back down on Tuesday evening. A Garfield County road grader made the road back down much easier to navigate, and it took considerably less time to get down than it did to get up. I did wake up the next morning in time to hear the missing hunters get found, alive, cold, and hungry, by a National Guard helicopter. After they were successfully evacuated to the hospital, the search teams were engaged in at least four additional rescues of hunters stuck at campsites or other locations in this area.

I joined Search and Rescue in part to be able to keep my skills as a communications professional sharp, but also to learn more about rural, wilderness, and specialized operations that I really didn't have much of a clue about. You see, I'm a city dweller; as interesting as this mission was, I was not adequately prepared for it from both a practical and conceptual standpoint. I kept focus on the task at hand, and learned a lot. One thing that I learned was that I would prefer not to have to do this again, at least not without some sort of extra provisions. Food for thought...

Another thing I learned was how an incident involving multiple jurisdictions, severe to extreme operational conditions, and significant logistical challenges can be effectively coordinated by experienced personnel using established incident management techniques such as the Incident Command System. Still another was the extreme expertise and dedication of volunteers, without whom county Sheriffs would be hard pressed to address the sometimes daunting nature of their statutory responsibility for search and rescue.

It was a pleasure to work alongside Lanny Grant of Garfield County SAR, as well as others who donate the considerable benefit of their expertise to help people in need, often at considerable personal expense and largely without regard for the imaginary lines that identify jurisdictional boundaries and political subdivisions.

These sentiments are amplified by my position as someone with a lot of relevant experience who is still a neophyte when it comes to this sort of thing, along with the culmination of this incident as a successful rescue. As the Sentinel pointed out in their outstanding coverage of the incident yesterday, as well as an editorial in today's paper, the missing hunters deserve as much credit for this as anyone else.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Football: Fruita's Fruition, and Frustrating Folly

Congratulations to the Fruita Cowboys heavyweight youth football team, which routed Palisade 40-6 in their league championship game last night. This is the team that was coached by the late John Fullmer, who was killed in a car accident in September. The team had dedicated their season to the memory of Coach Fullmer, and it's a fitting tribute to a man who put forward so much of his passion and commitment into the sport. Great job, kids.

James Harrison - from

At the same time, there is a controversy afoot in professional football that for many strikes at the core of the game; the ability of a player to do what he has been taught to do since he began to play, perhaps as young as those boys in Fruita.

The furor emanating from players, fans, and media alike over the NFL's stated intent to suspend players who are judged to have tackled or hit another player in an excessive manner has taken a unique turn in recent days, focused primarily on the reaction of Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison to being fined $75,000 for a hit on a Cleveland Browns player this past Sunday.

Harrison is a very talented, very passionate player who has enjoyed great success. He also wears his heart on his sleeve and demonstrates a commitment to his profession that is an example for anyone who pursues a profession of any kind. As such, it's not that surprising to me that Harrison and his agent publicly acknowledged that he is considering quitting the game in response to what is happening to it.

The reaction to Mr. Harrison's statements have ranged from accusing him of whining to a passionate support of his stance in relation to other attempts by the league to profit from the sport's often violent nature, while leveling punishment when it is needed to save face. ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth called the NFL out for this very thing, and made several valid points.

I can easily dismiss this in comparison to other problems in my world and elsewhere, perhaps even with the cliche' "it's just a game". As we all know, however, it's more than that - it's a billion-dollar business with great numbers of citizens expending considerable financial, mental, and temporal resources as fans.

The NFL expects its players to set examples for those in our country who look up to them as role models and representatives of the league. In that context, I thought about what would happen if players like James Harrison decided that their own self-respect and work ethic trumped the considerable financial rewards that come from their participation, and elected to walk away from the game. What sort of message would that deliver, I wonder?

It will be interesting to watch how this plays out in the coming weeks. The NFL is apparently having problems selling out games of late. I feel that if they continue along this path, combined with the possibility of labor unrest after this season, the attractiveness of the game to those who play it and watch it will continue to diminish.

The Guggenheim at 51

Today marks the 51st anniversary of the opening of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened six months after his death at the age of 91. There is a brief but excellent description of the history of the building in today's Writer's Almanac.

I visited the museum two years ago. As with many other Wright buildings, the Guggenheim is a space that has the ability to transform the senses, and in keeping with that spirit the museum has partnered with YouTube to sponsor and host a biennial festival of the best in creative online video, a medium that has had transforming effects on our society in the last decade. There is an impressive display of some of this video in the clip above. This evening YouTube will live stream the announcement of the best of those videos submitted for consideration.

It's not lost on me that the building is just a little older than I am; the commitment to embracing change, and showcasing the best of that change in celebration of both the medium and the messenger, is one way that the Guggenheim remains relevant to both society and the intentions of its namesake and its architect.

Have a good day.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Home Patrol - The iPod of Police Scanners?

In a post earlier this year, I outlined the changes to public safety radio use in Mesa County and elsewhere, and how those interested in monitoring public safety activity via scanning receivers could still do that.

A recent development in the marketplace for scanning receivers has the potential to revolutionize the scanning hobby as we know it, and open it to all kinds of new potential uses and user communities.

The Home Patrol scanner by Uniden, released for sale the beginning of this month, utilizes technologies previously unavailable in most scanners. Some of these features include:
  • Touchscreen controls
  • Pre-programmed frequency database, coordinated through Radio Reference
  • Automatic scanner programming from the database by ZIP or postal code
  • Built-in last transmission recall and manual recording capability with Micro SD Card storage
Home Patrol brings forward the potential of an elegant and versatile receiver that will likely bring in new hobbyists who may have been previously intimidated by the complexity of today's receivers, as well as bring back those who may have left the hobby because of these complexities. The video above demonstrates how quickly and easily one can have the scanner up and running out of the box.

Another feature that is a little more complex to put in place is the ability of the scanner to interface with any GPS receiver that can communicate with other equipment using what is known as the NMEA 0183 standard. This standard code also requires an RS232 serial connector, but the end result is that the scanner will automatically update from the database with the frequencies in use in the location provided by the GPS receiver.

In other words, hook Home Patrol to a compatible GPS, and the scanner will automatically tune to the frequencies in use wherever you are in the US or Canada.
Pretty cool for traveling.

There are some kinks to work out, like any new piece of equipment. One thing that's missing is the ability to program the unit manually. You can enter a single frequency for monitoring, but not to program into the internal database or the available favorites list. There is software provided for free download that will manage the internal database, but something this sophisticated will undoubtedly have improvements coming down the pike. Hopefully these will be available as software downloads, and not require additional hardware purchases to implement.

The Home Patrol HP-1 may not be quite the cup of tea for purists or true die-hard hobbyists, many of whom derive joy from the ability to experiment and tinker. Some have called the unit the beginning of a 'dumbing down' of the scanner hobby, and thus a threat to the integrity of the hobby itself. Hogwash.

There are greater threats to the hobby than an easy-to-use receiver; the push toward getting public safety to start making more use of newer wireless broadband networks, such as LTE, threatens to make scanning go away because of its potential to leverage all kinds of datasets, including voice, into a single digital communications environment. If you're interested in discussions concerning the future of public safety communications, check the sidebar for the blogs of Andrew Seybold and Daryl Jones. They're both highly informative and pull no punches.

Home Patrol, as you would expect, isn't cheap. Most retailers are pricing it just below $500.
I'm not one to jump on the bandwagon of every new thing, and that includes this new innovation.

However, I know of at least one local scanner hobbyist in Grand Junction who is trying to order one, and has promised me a look once he gets it. I'll post an update when that happens.

Have a great day.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Things Found While Looking For Other Things

This sign was recently erected at the beginning of westbound U.S. Highway 6 in Provincetown, Mass. I was there about two weeks ago.

U.S. 6 has a rich history to it. Originally laid out as a transcontinental
ighway from Provincetown to Long Beach, California, it was shortened to its present length and now terminates at Bishop, where a similar mileage sign can also be seen.

I've had a curiosity about this highway ever since I moved to Grand Junction, as U.S. 6 passes about 2 blocks from my house in the form of North Avenue. I've explored sections of the highway in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Colorado.

If you're really interested in the character and scope of what is an unfortunately forgotten byway in many parts of the country, check out this website, which is an extraordinary county-by-county photographic chronicle of the life and times of U.S. 6. The Mesa County page can be viewed here, with navigation links at the the top of each page to go east or west.

The Wikipedia page for U.S. 6 contains a quotation attributed to George R. Stewart, who said of the roadway, "Route 6 runs uncertainly from nowhere to nowhere, scarcely to be followed from one end to the other, except by some devoted eccentric". Well, that fits. Mr. Stewart wrote a book about U.S. 40 instead.

I decided to check Mr. Stewart's writings out a little more, and found out some incredible stuff. Along with being one of the country's most revered experts on place names and their history, he was an English professor at Berkeley and an accomplished novelist and historian. He wrote definitive historical accounts of the ordeal of the Donner Party and the Battle of Gettysburg. His novel Earth Abides was the inspiration for Stephen King's The Stand, and his novel Storm influenced the National Weather Service's practice of assigning names to tropical storms and hurricanes.

Most interesting of all to me is that Mr. Stewart and I share the same birthplace, though sadly I had never heard of him until now.

Without George R. Stewart, the eccentric nature of U.S. 6 would not have been expressed satisfactorily, we would likely not have an understanding of why places are named what they are, and the name of the 80's band Katrina and the Waves would not make us cringe a little today.

So now you can begin your week being able to discuss something other than how the current season of Mad Men ended last night.

Have a great week ahead.

Friday, October 15, 2010


                                                         Rob Rogers - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Be real careful what you wade into out there.

Medical Marijuana - A Conservative Conundrum

The issue of medical marijuana, in particular the presence of dispensaries, has been a contentious issue here in the Grand Junction area, as well as elsewhere across the state.

I haven't personally seen the negative effects of dispensaries in and of themselves. Instead, I see the questionable proliferation of patients that qualify for medical marijuana under the auspices of Amendment 20. The actions of some of these 'patients' in obtaining their marijuana, and providing it others who are not patients, is for me the main potential cause for concern. 

The dispensaries are a free-market consequence of President Obama's stated intent not to pursue dispensaries operating legally under state law, and the aforementioned proliferation of 'patients' seeking 'treatment'. In fairness, it's possible that the dispensaries have contributed to the ease with which some have been able to obtain the necessary physician evaluation and certification. 

It's been interesting to follow the debate regarding the County's decision to put the continued presence of dispensaries to a vote of the people, as well as the City of Grand Junction's decision not to. If the pro-dispensary crowd decides to protest the City's ordinance via a provision in the City Charter, then it's quite possible that the City could have a dispensary vote down the road as well. 

Living in a predominantly conservative community like Grand Junction, I expected these cautious approaches as a matter of course. Our law enforcement leaders, led by our county Sheriff, have all come out in public as opposed to the presence of dispensaries, and our leading local newspaper has editorialized the same position as well.

There was one notable exception to the chorus of those opposed to the ban; Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland. In a Sentinel op-ed she defended the presence of dispensaries primarily on constitutional grounds, and voted against a referendum on their continued existence. 

I initially thought what appeared to be a reasoned, thoughtful approach by our local government officials was what one would expect from the citizens and leaders of a predominantly conservative community. 

Then I read some of the things coming out of Colorado Springs.  

In what is perhaps our state's most conservative political environment, the county Sheriff is in favor of well-regulated dispensaries as a deterrent to illicit sales in neighborhoods. There is an initiative on the El Paso County ballot to ban dispensaries, which the Sheriff does not support. The Colorado Springs Gazette also encouraged a "no" vote, citing the following:
Medical marijuana retailers have brought order to mayhem and are providing a substantial boost in sales tax revenues to county government. Before the proliferation of medical marijuana stores, which are taxed and regulated, all marijuana sales were conducted on the black market. Sheriff Terry Maketa has said a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries would result in more illegal sales, in neighborhoods, which would be more difficult to police. It’s hard to find a good reason to support a ban.
The Gazette also commended Sheriff Maketa for what it termed an honorable stand toward the issue of dispensaries: 
All over Colorado, leading cops and prosecutors have done their best to close medical marijuana stores. None has explained how banning taxpaying, regulated dispensaries will prevent the enrichment of the old black market trade that devours public resources and despises medical marijuana stores. Most just know that opposing the stores may appear anti-drug to the electorate.
Despite the fact that nearly everyone else in top law enforcement publicly hates marijuana stores, Maketa spoke truth. He said a ban would push the trade out of business parks and into neighborhoods, creating difficulties for law enforcement.
“It could create a bigger problem and more unintended consequences,” Maketa said.
I'm wondering out loud now why this approach to dispensaries in the Springs is so radically different from that espoused in Grand Junction. Aside from the presence of a popular Sheriff who has some different ideas, maybe there is a different brand of conservatism at work there - one that places greater emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom from government interference than other areas, with the expected result in lean economic times. It almost sounds more Libertarian than conservative, except that the seeming approach to dispensaries there is to tax and regulate them, not just leave them to their own devices, or ban them outright.
The citizens of Colorado Springs and surrounding areas are getting what they pay for, thanks in part to their refusal of a property tax increase last November. Whether that payment comes in the form of private donations to get the sprinklers turned on at a City park, or citizens mowing the grass in that park in between infrequent visits from the parks department, it's still something quite different from other areas like Grand Junction that bear the label 'conservative'. In Grand Junction and Mesa County the grass in the parks is still the desert. I guess there's something to be said for that.

In this election season, the differences illustrated above are that much more proof of an essential truth that gets lost in the hysterical rhetoric that pollutes the airwaves this time of year:

Effective, responsive government resists labels.

Here's one label that doesn't make any sense to me; "Tax and spend" is what governments do to provide services. Fiscal responsibility is written into Colorado's constitution - budgets must be balanced. Prudent allocation of available resources is a job I wouldn't want and couldn't do on the scale that responsible government leaders contend with every day. 

At the same time, I'm wondering about the future direction of the conservative movement in Colorado, and the rest of the country, in the wake of the rise of the Tea Party in Republican Party politics, as well as other elements that stand to further alter the composition of the GOP in current and future election cycles. The Democrats will need to remain on their toes, even as they heal from what is looking like a worse-than-usual midterm election.

The dichotomy between Colorado's two conservative strongholds on how to address medical marijuana stands as testimony to me of a struggle for identity that is just getting started. 

Have a good weekend. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Answered Prayers and Accepting Loss

As much as the world appeared transfixed by the rescue of the 33 miners in Chile over the last day or so, I was impressed more with the quiet resolve of the rescue crew as they went about their work, saving the fanfare for the moment when each of the trapped miners made their way to the surface. A friend of mine put it nicely in an e-mail last night:
While we all are thankful for the answered prayers for the 33 miners from Chile safely out of the mine, we need to take a moment and focus on the 5 rescuers who willingly allowed themselves to be put down the mine, not knowing whether the rescue mission would succeed or whether the first attempt would cave in the mine and they all would die?  God Bless Them!  They are the personification of those we take for granted daily:  our police, our fireman our paramedics and EMT's.  How many of us do as great a job of walking in the path of Jesus?
She made a great point; it takes a great deal of individual resolve - call it faith, perhaps - to function as a responder in today's world, without succumbing to cynicism or outright contempt for many of the people that come into contact with responders and rescuers every day. To quote The Matrix, "there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path". 

Leslie and I spoke briefly about the miners last night. I'm grateful for their rescue, and while I hope that they can someday tell their stories to an undoubtedly curious world, I also agree with Leslie that they should be left alone until they're comfortable in doing so on their own.


While celebrating the seeming result of the collective prayers of the world, I must also reflect on the recent loss of another child to cancer.

Jake Hubsch, along with his parents Don and Erica and siblings Aesha and Fletcher, were neighbors and friends of Leslie, Gianna, and Michaela. Jake lost his battle with cancer last Saturday at the age of 10. 

I did not know Jake and his family as well as Leslie did, although our paths did cross more than once at Children's Hospital while both he and Michaela were there, and the family came to help remember Michaela after her passing in July.

Jake's life will be celebrated this evening at St. Stephen's Church in Sewickley, PA.

The worldly side of me laments at the number of people I have personally known and loved that have been taken from this world by cancer, especially children. Despite these feelings, I must also resolve myself to quietly accept the outcome, to be a better steward of God's love for all those He created, and be an instrument of His peace for anyone that He places in the path He has set before me.

These are easy words to type, to know...not so easy to walk.

My thoughts and prayers are with Jake's family.

Have a good day.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This Date in Baseball History

I was only seven months old when it happened, but the reverberations of this occurrence certainly impacted my childhood:

In later life, I sometimes reflect on this singular moment as something that defined what makes sports what it is to a lot of people. It certainly means a lot to the people of Pittsburgh, where this kind of history is ingrained in the culture. 

The Pittsburgh media have been providing special coverage of the 1960 World Series for several months now, ramping up to today. Today's gathering at what is known as Mazeroski's wall is an annual occurrence, but amplified by the anniversary as you would expect. Luckily, Bill Mazeroski is still around and very able to take part in the festivities. 

It's a great moment, made even greater by the Pirates being a decided underdog, and beating the Yankees.

Have a great day. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tip-Toe Around the Tuition Tiff

As the parent of a college student, I was interested in the news reports last week concerning the estimates from Colorado colleges and universities regarding tuition increases that could approach 20 to 25 percent at some institutions.

After reading about this in several different media outlets, I'm left with more questions than answers. Along with concerns about Mesa State's approach to this process, I'm also concerned as to how the local and state media reported on this. The coverage seemed to generate more confusion than clarity about the significance of last week's activity. 
Here's what I can sort out so far:

There's a new state law, Senate Bill 3, that establishes a mechanism for state-run colleges to raise tuition above a ceiling of 9 percent in any given academic year. If the colleges want to raise tuition below 9 percent, they are free to do so. Any more than that requires the colleges to file a waiver request in the form of a five-year Financial Accountability Plan (FAP) with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE). CCHE must approve the plans, which must also contain contingencies for addressing the tuition needs of lower-income students. These plans were due last Friday, and their contents are the fodder for the recent media activity.   

All of the state colleges filed plan documents except one - Colorado School of Mines. The CCHE accepted all of the plans except one - Mesa State's. In an Associated Press story on Page One of last Thursday's Sentinel, it was reported that MSC's plan did not specify an increase, just "only that it would not increase rates if state funding remained the same". 

This reporting seemed to oversimplify what MSC actually submitted, however. A story in Education News Colorado stated this about Mesa State's proposal:  
The current draft says Mesa can contain tuition increases to 9 percent or less in the next two schools years unless state support is cut by 10 percent or more from the current assumption of $555 million for all colleges in 2011-12. If that happens, the application says, “The college reserves the right to revise its FAP accordingly, based on new information.”
Considering the current budgetary situation the state finds itself in, a greater than 10 percent cut in overall college funding is pretty likely. It sounds to me as if Mesa State submitted the plan the way it did in an attempt to make sure it could raise tuition above the 9 percent cap, without committing to a definitive number until it sees similar definitive numbers from the legislature next year. That sounds pretty reasonable on the surface, but is the issue critical enough to challenge the state's process? Judging from the rhetoric coming from Lowell Heiny Hall, it would appear so.

In the AP story, Mesa State President Tim Foster sounded downright combative about the issue, calling out CCHE Director Rico Munn for denying MSC's waiver request:
'Is his goal to drive tuition higher? If it is, we're going to fight with him. He's saying he wants us to submit a plan that would raise tuition more than 9 percent,' Foster said.
Well, that's what the state law requires the college to do if it intends to raise tuition beyond the 9 percent level specified in SB 3. President Foster may have a point about trying to forecast the college's fiscal needs before a 2011 state budget is put forth, but he's also trying to have his cake and eat it too. If he's so intent on keeping any tuition increase below the 9 percent ceiling, then perhaps he should have done what Mines did and not submitted a plan at all.

Perhaps feeling the need to clarify his position in a friendlier local forum, President Foster spoke with Emily Anderson of the Sentinel for a story published last Friday. He is apparently concerned about the impact an arbitrary increase figure would have on the attractiveness of his institution to prospective students:
"I could say 9.1 percent. It would be bogus, but I could say it. The danger of throwing around speculative numbers is it scares kids away".  
I would hope that equal, if not more, concern is being paid to those students already enrolled at Mesa, and who are looking at this uncertainty in the cost of their education with a wary eye as well.

KREX provided President Foster a little more of a bully pulpit last Thursday:


I believe that President Foster makes good points about what could very well be a convoluted first dive into a process that could negatively impact the state-run education system in Colorado for years to come. His stance is, at the risk of sounding trite, maverick in nature. 

However, I hope that his stance doesn't blow up in the face of not only those who have to foot the bill down the road, but those who could suffer from severe cuts in programs and services at the college if it is not permitted to offset losses in state funding with reasonable increases in tuition. To quote Scott Glenn's character in The Hunt for Red October, "the hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch".

I also hope that our local commercial media will dig deeper into these issues in the future, instead of just blindly obeying a seemingly unwritten commandment, "thou shalt not be critical of Mesa State". As citizens, taxpayers, and media consumers, we deserve the Paul Harvey treatment when it comes to issues like this.

For example, I would have liked to see some comment about President Foster's stance from State Senator and Mesa State alumni Josh Penry, who co-sponsored Senate Bill 3.
The rest of the story, please...

This may also be an opportunity for the self-described "voice of the students", the Mesa State Criterion, to step up and report on something that literally impacts every MSC student. The Crite, apparently under fire for some of its recent editorial content, could help to recover some of its prior greatness by taking on issues like this one and digging in.  

On a somewhat related note, this is the first post where I have linked to a Daily Sentinel story that is behind their subscription paywall. While I understand and share the frustration of those who are not subscribers and may consider the link useless, I feel it's important to allow everyone quick access to content relevant to the post, whether you're a subscriber or not. The Sentinel does offer the option to purchase a one-day subscription, should you find the content important enough to you to want to do that.

Have a good week ahead.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Fracking, Fusion, and Foolishness

Leetsdale, PA - Over the last couple of weeks I've been following a story out of Pennsylvania that has implications across the homeland security and civil liberties fronts, as well as the continuing battle lines being drawn over energy development, particularly gas drilling and the use of hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') technologies.  

The story involves the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security (PA DHS), and its use of a private company, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR), to provide it with intelligence information concerning potential threats to likely terrorism targets within that state.  

The outcry surrounding this appears to have resulted in the cancellation of the contract by Governor Ed Rendell, and this past weekend's report of the resignation of the Director of PA DHS, James Powers.  

As it happens, ITRR's classification of individuals and activities as 'threats' included people and organizations involved in lawful protest and dissent, largely directed toward the extraction of energy resources from the Marcellus Shale formation. They also reported on activities surrounding campaigns for gay rights, and even on a non-profit supporting an education bill that also happened to be supported by Gov. Rendell.  

The resulting revelations have been unfortunate to both the causes of providing credible information on potential threats to our nation's critical infrastructure, and the right of our citizens to use their constitutional rights to petition their government, and express themselves freely, without fear of reprisal.

Gov. Rendell and his staff were quick to address the issue publicly, even in the face of questions regarding what the Governor knew and when he knew it. They then ordered PA DHS to publish online every single intel bulletin they received from ITRR.  

While privately operated by American and Israeli (?) concerns, ITRR can be compared in some context with the fusion centers operated by many state governments since after 9/11. The US Office of Justice Programs defines a Fusion Center as:
" effective and efficient mechanism to exchange information and intelligence, maximize resources, streamline operations, and improve the ability to fight crime and terrorism by merging data from a variety of sources".
The national ACLU office has been monitoring and attempting to address issues arising from fusion centers for several years now. According to a 2007 report, the ACLU cited the following bullet-point concerns:
  • Ambiguous Lines of Authority - Who is really in charge, and what are their policies concerning effective operations that are within legal boundaries?
  • Private Sector Participation - See the ITRR above.
  • Military Participation - Involves the regular military in domestic law enforcement, a questionable and potentially illegal practice.
  • Data Fusion = Data Mining, and associated privacy concerns. 
  • Excessive Secrecy - I could tell you why I'm looking for this information, but I'd have to kill you.
Colorado has a state-operated fusion center, the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC). Because I spend a lot of time in both Pennsylvania and Colorado, I was interested in finding out more about the nature of the CIAC's operations, especially in analyzing information concerning energy development and fracking, a commonality between the two jurisdictions.

To that end, on September 24 I sent an e-mail to Evan Dreyer from Governor Bill Ritter's press office, requesting comment on the current situation in Pennsylvania, and what policies are in place or being considered to prevent similar activity at CIAC.

To date I have not received a reply. I sent another request today, and will publish whatever reply I receive.

Have a great week ahead. 

Monday, October 04, 2010

Sentinel Goes Behind the Paywall

Leetsdale, PA - Happy October.

When Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton announced in a column last week that his newspaper would be charging a fee for access to much of its online content, I was disappointed but not surprised, in part because of my research last year that showed most Seaton-owned papers doing the same thing, but also because Mr. Seaton told me as much in an e-mail exchange almost a month ago.

I was doing some research on a post about copyright trolls such as Righthaven, a Las Vegas-based law firm that made headlines back then for pursuing both commercial and non-profit websites in court for alleged infringements on the copyrighted material of its client, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  I had asked the publishers of both local papers if they would consider such a move, and if they had anything in place that defined for the end user exactly what constituted infringement. Mr. Seaton replied initially:
"We at The Daily Sentinel have elevated our enforcement efforts against misappropriation of our intellectual property.  We are finding that our competitors are lifting and repurposing our content at the rate of 1-4 stories or photographs per week.  This misconduct will likely force our hand, and we will find ourselves vigorously enforce our rights -- perhaps with the assistance of Righthaven, LLC.  We are building a case internally against the worst violators."
It's unknown specifically who these "worst violators" are, but it's possible that other media outlets in the Grand Junction market may be among those Mr. Seaton applied this label to.

Mr. Seaton also referred me to a post by federal judge and blogger Richard Posner, which put forth basically the same argument that Mr. Seaton used to justify putting up a paywall to view most of the "value-added" content in the Sentinel. His argument is somewhat blunt and stark:

"We're trying to tamp down on the free rider problem.  The industry as a whole is headed this direction.  As Posner has observed, it's a matter of survival or extinction for this industry, I'm afraid."
Kim Burner, General Manager of the Free Press, replied:
"Colorado Mountain News Media has a policy in place prohibiting copy right (sic)infringement and will seek to better understand the Righthaven strategy. Once we do we will perhaps get back with you with comment." 
So the Sentinel will keep a good portion of its' features and top stories from those Internet freeloaders, making them available only to 7-day subscribers to the print edition, which costs roughly $140 a year. In all fairness, a lot of valuable content will still be available for free, and I cannot dispute Mr. Seaton's desire to charge for the any or all online content of his newspaper if he wishes to do so. However, I have a few points to make regarding this:

  • Mr. Seaton states in his column: "Significantly, we derive revenue from sales of The Daily Sentinel; we do not derive revenue from visitors to the website." I question the Sentinel's prior commitment to its web presence in terms of the marketing of advertising space online, and creating features that make the value-added power of online content that much more appealing to the potential subscriber. I'm sure that the banner ad just below the top of the home page can contain ads for something other than right-wing astroturf groups and Rick Wagner.

  • Speaking of value adds, there are some annoying quirks of the Sentinel website that could be resolved with a revenue stream, and perhaps more help for the web editor. Examples are a search feature that allows for more detailed article searches, and a more complete online archiving of stories that doesn't expire, similar to the Free Press and most of the broadcast stations.
    I did make a remark that perhaps through subscriptions Mr. Seaton had figured out a way to rid himself of comment trolls, which he had earlier termed an "unmanageable risk". He added another trick recently that will hopefully go away with paywall-based access to local opinion; commenting on his column was not enabled. That's pretty wimpy. 

  • I'm hoping that any revenue stream realized will be put toward these and other improvements to to make it an even more attractive online destination for news and information, and not just something that gets all too easily ignored by the majority of Internet news junkies, who generally eschew anything with a price tag on it.
As much as I understand the Sentinel's action, I disagree with it on the grounds that without a commitment to innovation and added value, combined with a possibly lukewarm reception to the idea of paying for Internet content or subscribing to a 7-day print newspaper to access it, will not grow. 

Then again, if the Sentinel did nothing, it's quite possible that the entire operation, if not the newpaper industry itself, might be a victim of what is known as the tyranny of small decisions. A brief example is cited below:
The fact remains that each selection of x over y constitutes also a vote for eliminating the possibility thereafter of choosing y. If enough people vote for x, each time necessarily on the assumption that y will continue to be available, y may in fact disappear. And its disappearance may constitute a genuine deprivation, which customers might willingly have paid something to avoid.  1
Best of luck to Mr. Seaton, the Sentinel staff, and especially to Jim Spehar, who is moving his excellent column from the "unsustainable" (?) Grand Junction Free Press to a weekly slot on the paywalled local opinion page of Grand Junction's "chronicle of record".

Have a good week ahead.

1  Kahn AE (1988) The economics of regulation: principles and institutions Volume 1, pp 237–238. MIT Press.