Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Can you hear me now?

Wi-Fi emitters dangle from a streetlight in Amherst town center

Information Technology Director Kris Pacunas paid an obligatory visit to the Joint Capital Planning Committee meeting last week to pitch the department's infrastructure needs for the next fiscal year, with his top priority the routine--but expensive--upkeep of all things digital in a $70 million enterprise like Amherst's:  $123,000 for computers, routers, wires, switches, etc, in this, the second year of a six year replacement schedule for a total amount of $615,000.

Another $20,00 is requested for document/records/images scanning to reduce the floorspace dedicated to paper records (which can be forever lost in a fire) and make retrieval so much more efficient.  Money from previous requests recently bore fruit as the town now provides history buffs with on line access to town records dating back to our 1759 founding. Another $100,000 will be requested over the next five years.

The downtown wireless Internet the town provides for free with up to 150 users on at any given time is not maintenance free and now requires $20,000 to replace the twenty outdoor emitters located on streetlights around town center.

The public Wi-Fi system was constructed five years ago in a joint collaboration with two UMass professors working with Department of Defense grant on a reliable system of communication to be used after a natural disaster or unnatural nuclear war.

The system was never "hardened" for such events, however, as the natural disaster that befell the Valley via a October 29 snowstorm took out the power and the wireless went down.  The town manager is requesting $85,000 for a Town Hall generator which will ensure that does not happen again.

Perhaps the only request Mr. Pakunas will have trouble selling is a $32,000 Ford Hybrid Escape SUV.  Even Carol Gray, who pestered Police Chief Scott Livingstone about using hybrids for patrol cars, seemed skeptical, wondering if perhaps the department could "borrow" vehicles from other departments when they are not being used. 

Pakunas responded that it sounds good but is not practical for when his employees need to quickly transport items a short distance.

Now if the I.T. Department could just develop a Star Trek transporter...
Kris Pacunas (far right) Kay Moran Chair (head of the table)


Anonymous said...

Downtown Wi-Fi, more tax money wasted on a select few. How bout something all the taxpayers could use?

LarryK said...

Last I looked, it is the year 2012.

Anonymous said...

Downtown Wi-Fi used only by a select few???? Are you kidding me?

Anonymous said...

Why can't Pacunas use the "Parking" vehicle? They can't be emptying meters all of the time!

Ed said...

This is asinine.

First, notice the wire going into the streetlight head. These transmitters clearly need electricity and where are they getting it from -- the street light itself (which I assume) or is it running all the way from Town Hall (which I really doubt).

So are we going to be powering these streetlights as well off this generator as well? That is not a bad idea in theory -- a few fail-safe street lights to prevent the utter darkness we had -- but there is this little thing called "voltage drop" (over distance) and a reason why WMECO's lines are 8,700 volts (to ground) with lots of transformers and only short 120/240 runs.

0r are we going to do what UMass once did -- put in an elaborate video system, all of which was on emergency power except the actual camera (wired into the dorm power) and when there was a riot after the power failed in Southwest, guess what they got? Yep, a lot of blank "tape" with an error code of no signal from the camera.

You have to think about the whole system, not just the server. And unless they are running something innovative that I don't know about, there is a something-like 1000 cable foot limit before you have to amplify the signal and that takes power -- even without thinking where the power for the radio signal being transmitted out from these units is coming from.

Your cell phone transmits a 1/3 watt signal, which isn't much but it is 1/3 watt of electricity that is coming from somewhere, and quite a bit more is needed to transmit it. Try using a cell phone with a dead battery if you don't understand this point...

So first, are we expecting all of WMECO's street lights to have power but Town Hall to be in the dark? And this to last more than the 6 hours that a (very cheap and quite standard) UPS could cover? (They do have a standard $60/$100 UPS/surge protectors on all this expensive equipment, don't they???)

Ed said...


And if they are talking about surviving a real natural disaster (and last October's storm was more incompetence multiplied than something like the 1938 hurricane which took down every tree on the Amherst College campus) do we honestly expect "breakaway" light poles to remain standing?


Yes, "breakaway." The base is designed to shatter when the pole is hit by a car so that the steel pole doesn't cut through the vehicle (and occupants) like a knife through butter. (This was happening in the early '70s.)

Instead the base shatters, the pole falls and the car rides up over it to preserve the lives of the idiots who hit it.

Everything but wooden telephone poles (and trees) have been this way since the 1970s, and I have seen a car go clean through a wooden pole. Most visible example: look at the sheer bolts on the base of the large metal highway signs on Route 9 & 116, just like in your snow blower, those bolts are weaker than everything else and designed to break.

And Larry had a picture of at least one of these brought down by just the weight of the snow. What do you think an 80MPH-100MPH gust of wind will do? Have you ever *seen* a *sustained* 80MPH wind (I have) -- the lightheads will be ripped off the poles even if the poles don't fall...

And the equipment completely exposed to the mercy of the wind, leaves/debris, and rain (which will get driven into it and short it out) -- I don't know what idiot thinks these will survive a hurricane.

Sheer luck and random acts of fate might keep one or two of them functional but the majority of them are gone in any disaster. And when you figure that they will have fallen 20 feet and hit hard ground, it also isn't likely that some good-old-boy could jury-rig them back into service, either.

Imagine if October's snow had been the over-1000-foot ice of two Decembers earlier. Imagine an inch of ice forming on everything including the light poles, including the transponders and they would have fallen even faster than the trees (which could bend at least a little).

And radio antennas won't work with ice on them -- I don't know if anyone has thought about this, but water (and ice) absorbs radio waves (water is a bent molecule which they spin, this is how a microwave oven works).

So the incoming signal won't get to them, much of the outgoing signal is going to get absorbed, and you may burn out the transmitter in the process.

And in an earthquake, well what happens when you jiggle a tall pole with a breakaway base?

Ed said...

Third, so you have an "emergency" internet system that depends upon highly vulnerable remote transponders (a) having electricity themselves and (b) remaining aloft and (c) not damaged by the elements to which they are directly exposed.

We won't even get into how something that is outdoors, 20 feet off the ground, and designed to receive radio signals is THE most POSSIBLE vulnerable thing to EMP, which is the real threat to communication after any incident involving nukes. (Including even a 'dirty nuke' which would create a lot of electronic "noise")

And as I said to a US Senator a while back (he was worried about power lines but the same thing applies here) -- exactly what good is protecting a network when absolutely everything that anyone would want to use on it is burnt out as well?

EMP essentially is a radio signal. These are radio receivers, placed up high for better reception. They are going to receive EMP really well....

This is a system designed to be where the people are. In an emergency, you get to tell the people where to go -- in an emergency you offer your services with as short lines of logistics as possible, in places where you can protect them, and then you have the people come to you.

An emergency internet system designed to survive would consist of, say, a bunch of network jacks in the APD's weight room, with a bunch of network hubs and patch cords being stored somewhere.

In an emergency, you move the exercise equipment out (into the snowbank if the situation is dire enough), put folding chairs in and that becomes your emergency internet access point.

So the cops loose their exercise room for the duration of the emergency. If they are working 18on/6off shifts, which they would be in a real natural disaster, I somehow doubt they would be wanting to use it anyway.

In an emergency you want to think of "hot spots" -- maybe you way overbuild the town hall wireless network so that in an emergency the wireless access you offer is for people who are sitting on the floor in the hallways of town hall. Or maybe the *basement* of town hall -- more protected from EMP, with thick granite walls to boot.

The October snowstorm and power failure was not a real disaster on the levels that could happen. Everyone's telephone still worked -- and the cell phones did once UMass got power going again, which raises a lot of interesting questions but I digress....

Thinking about internet access after a natural (or Islamic) disaster is possibly valuable. Thinking that the current transponders-on-lightpole system would survive is asinine.

Ed said...

Fourth, what is the actual power needs of the hub/network server? I doubt that there is any one item that takes over 200 watts, what is the whole load -- maybe 1000 watts (1 kilowatt)? IF that?

OK, 2000 watts. We now are beyond what the average (not peak) load of a single family house is -- I've heard the figure 1.7 KW kicked around.

Everything should already essentially be on battery backup anyway -- that is what a UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) *is* -- these are designed to provide power for some period of time -- and all you need is something to recharge these batteries with.

And please tell me that this expensive stuff is behind one or more UPS devices -- what the UPS is most important for is to "make up" voltage -- to prevent equipment from burning out when the voltage drops.

Power inverters are cheap. On a sustained power outage, each of these UPS devices could be plugged into a $30/$80 power inverter and your basic motor vehicle can power them. The town doesn't have any vehicles?

My point is this -- why buy a massive and expensive generator that quite possibly will be obsolete/replaced before it is ever needed when the only real need you have is for a minute fraction of the generator's capacity which you could provide from an automobile parked on the sidewalk outside?

Particularly when the only reason you are going to do this is to power a system that most likely isn't going to work anyway because the transponders have to be working too -- and also not be smashed to little bits as would tend to happen were the poles they are on to come crashing down into the street. (Know what one of those lightpoles *weighs*?)

I am not an Amherst taxpayer, I don't really care, but this is asinine. This is gold-plating.

And I say again, two emergency operation centers, the primary in the DPW building, the backup a "convertable" room in the APD. The weight room. The garage. The Chief's office. Whatever -- you aren't planning to use it, but if your primary EOC falls inside an emergency evacuation zone, you might like to have a fall back position.

Oh, and folks, you do realize that just about everything you weren't able to use during the power failure could have been run off a power inverter and your car, don't you?

Edsatool said...

So Ed... Tell us how you feel...

Anonymous said...

"This is asinine."
I'm guessing that was Ed warning us about what he was going to write.

Ed said...

To my critics, I have but one thing to say: The people advocating Peoplesoft said the same things about me. They didn't like me either.

To those who have no idea what Peoplesoft is/was, just say the word to anyone who works for UMass...

And for what it is worth, absolutely everything I warned about happened.

Oh, and Larry, what would your initial reaction to a presentation be when the vendor added that it would be doing its training in sunny San Diego and if it was the selectee, the University would be forced to pay for the people making the selection to be flown there.

It may not have been San Diego but it was somewhere with a nice beach on the left coast, and this was during wintertime....

Anonymous said...

Poor Ed. You still don't understand (or choose to ignore) the difference between dislike and ridicule. No one cares enough to actually dislike you -- that would require that you have some sort of impact on someone's life, beyond that of a court jester or village idiot.

Our massive egos said...

"Poor Ed. You still don't understand (or choose to ignore) the difference between dislike and ridicule. No one cares enough to actually dislike you -- that would require that you have some sort of impact on someone's life, beyond that of a court jester or village idiot."

Yeah Ed, get it through your thick head. When you challenge Ponziville primates, you get the banana peel.

Please forgive me, the ~organic~ banana peel.

Ed said...

Ponziville primates

I like that.

Amherst is the true joke.
As was Gilmanton, NH. And I, too, will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Anonymous said...

And I, too, will be laughing all the way to the bank.

How does that work, exactly? Are the Vegas oddsmakers making book on the fall of Amherst? Or will your rewards be entirely emotional?

Is that why you refuse to graduate and move on, Ed -- you're afraid of missing the big spectacle, the day the town collapses under its own corrupt, self-satisfied weight?

Team Roach Patrol said...

"you're afraid of missing the big spectacle, the day the town collapses under its own corrupt, self-satisfied weight?"

I simply love watching Ponziville chimps plummet from the great self righteous heights of their imagined solid branches.

("Snap!" goes the egos)

Sarah Conor said...

Do you mean the Human Resource program designed to schedule employees Ed? AKA an electronic version of a filing cabinet...