Thursday, February 24, 2011

Strangling Carmel to death

The February 11 Carmel Pine Cone reported that the Pilgrim's Way bookshop on Dolores Street had attempted to brighten up their storefront only to bring the aesthetics police to their door. This skinny little independent bookshop felt that their business was difficult to notice and needed a little boost to catch people's eyes. They decided to repaint with a “tan-ish orange” hue, topped with a nice textured topcoat of a somewhat brighter color to catch the eyes of passers by.

But the planning commission came along and said “No” to the faux finish and pointed out that city regulations require storefronts to have “muted” colors that “blend with the natural surroundings.” In other words, don't stand out from the crowd.

This incident reminds me of another one a few years back when a motel owner made a simple little fence out of posts with a rope strung between them. The city decreed that it looked too “industrial” and ordered the rope replaced with common wooden rails.

I know these regulations are intended to protect Carmel's image, keep the commercial district from looking too urban, discourage tasteless designs, and prevent the invasion of formulaic corporate architecture. In short, to keep Carmel Carmelish. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, but Carmel's rules have become so rigid, so locked into its own design formulas, that they have stifled the very sort of creativity that made Carmel a unique village in the first place.

Starting in the 1980s, when pricey galleries and tacky T-shirt shops began crowding out mom and pop stores, stricter regulations were enacted to preserve Carmel's way of life. In reality, however, those rules have changed Carmel so radically that today's regulators would throw hissy fits if anyone tried to bring back the things that once made Carmel a real town.

Back in the '60s Dolores Street had a movie theater, a hardware store, and a sleazy tavern. On the SE corner of 7th there was a modern bank with bright yellow tile covering the facade from sidewalk to roof. Speaking of bright facades, Kips grocery on the NW corner of Ocean and San Carlos was painted bright green on both street-facing sides. That building is now plain vanilla.

Ocean Avenue had a fabric shop, a hobby shop, and a barber shop in a block that was anchored by Sprouse-Reitz, a chain variety store. Believe it or not, the townsfolk begged the corporate owners to keep the “dime store” open when the company left town in the mid 1980s. Across the street was an ice cream parlor with purple and white striped awnings over arched windows. Next door, on the corner of the block, was a Chevron station, one of seven service stations (as they were then called) up and down San Carlos. The only one that survives is the Shell station at 5th, but at 6th there was a 76 station (NW corner) and a Phillips 66 (NE). At 7th there was a Texaco station (NE), a Mobil station (NW) and a Ritchfield – later called ARCO - station (SW) where my dad bought tires once. Full-color corporate logos adorned every one of them, mostly on metal or wooden signs, scaled down to Carmel-appropriate proportions.

On Mission and 6th, where the library annex stands today, there was a small supermarket of the Purity chain, complete with automatic electric doors. On the opposite side of Devendorf Park, at the entrance to Carmel Plaza, Sambo's pancake house, a popular chain restaurant, served their famous tiger butter with every meal. And down across from the Pine Inn, my dad had a candy store with the name “Toy's Candyland” emblazoned in red and white striped letters on the storefront advertising his hand-made candies, popcorn and Cecil's ice cream. While it caused a stir among the town's more conservative residents, the law saw no need to intervene. Years after the store was gone, people were still coming up to us telling us how much they missed it. 

Friends Lois and Chris Robinson outside my dad's store at
Ocean and Monte Verde in the early 1960s
That was the real Carmel. Few of those businesses would be allowed now, much less their facades. Today's Carmel is so locked into its formulas that visitors often come away with the impression that it's an artificial town, manufactured to look cute just for them – and their money – like Disneyland without the rides.

I have tremendous love for Carmel's quirky and sacred traditions, and I have spoken out from time to time to protect them. But this notion that Carmel must look picture postcard perfect from every conceivable angle is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is just as disruptive to Carmel's character as standardized corporate chain store architecture would be, precisely because it is itself a form of standardization.

There's a fine line between protection and overprotection and it was crossed sometime in the last twenty years. Architectural review and historic preservation are important, but it's time to put some slack in the reins. Just as you have to let children at some point define their lives on their own terms, Carmel needs to let its community members express their creativity in their own way. Business owners need to respect their surroundings, but they also need the freedom to run their businesses and maintain the appearance of their shops as they, not the bureaucrats, think best.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What I've learned about smart meters

I learned some more about Smart Meters over this past week, and I'm no more comfortable with them than I was before. PG&E held an open house in Seaside last Wednesday. The people who were there were friendly and explained their program fairly well despite my surly attitude going in. The two impressions I came away with were that they really wanted to get this right, but that the company is acting too overconfident for my comfort.

As a technological innovation, smart meters are definitely cool. The things they can do now and will be able to do in the future certainly make a strong case for their deployment. However, some of the smart meter features can also be obtained with over the counter products, so smart meters aren't essential for consumers to monitor their own energy usage. 

PG&E is promoting these devices to the public on coolness alone. It worked for the iPhone, right? Well, not everyone is sold on the iPhone, either, and nobody is forced to buy one. It is clear now that PG&E grossly underestimated the public's suspicions of smart meter technology. Worse, by making smart meter installation rapid and compulsory for all PG&E customers, people feel imposed upon in a very un-American, Big Brother fashion. (Note to PG&E: People resent that - think Tea Party.)

It doesn't help
that PG&E downplays people's concerns. The two biggest worries are whether the meters' wireless transmissions may cause health problems and the challenges of maintaining a secure wireless network that contains private data.

On the health issue,
it is clear from reading the technical data that the RF (radio frequency) transmissions from individual smart meters is incredibly low, as low as or even lower than many other common RF devices. The meters use these transmissions to send your electric and gas usage to PG&E primarily for billing purposes.

According to all of the data provided by PG&E, the power level of these transmissions is way below the maximum exposure levels allowed by the FCC. However, I notice the scientific documents provided by PG&E only reference power levels at a given moment in time, and the maximum exposure over the course of a day from individual meters or other individual transmitters in the system. PG&E's studies do not discuss the cumulative impacts of blanketing entire cities with these transmissions from thousands of new sources, nor do they discuss any potential long-term effects of same over the many decades they will be operating. I also notice the studies do not address the effects transmissions may have on much smaller creatures, such as birds and other wildlife.

Isn't this the sort of thing that would normally require and Environmental Impact Report?

While signal strength is one issue, a related one is how frequently smart meters make transmissions. PG&E says meters do not transmit constantly, but intermittently, and ever so briefly - transmissions last just a few thousandths of a second. They say a given meter compiles usage data every hour, and transmits the data every four hours. But because individual meter transmitters have such low power, they can't all reach the company's access points. So each meter also acts as a relay for other meters, sometimes thousands of them. So while each meter only transmits its own data every four hours it can be relaying data from other meters anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times per hour, which means a transmission rate somewhere between every four to forty seconds. Technically speaking, that may be "intermittent" but to most of us that would be considered "constant."

A report was prepared by Richard Tell Associates, Inc. for PG&E on this subject. It states "The actual duty cycle of the meter transmitters will only be known once the system is in place and statistics can be obtained on its operation...." In other words, we do not know how often meters will actually be transmitting until after the meter network is fully in service.

If PG&E itself cannot determine such basic information, why are these meters being deployed statewide in such a hurry before all the facts are known? If these things don't work as advertised, we could have a statewide nightmare.

Speaking of nightmares, there's another problem. Sending data wirelessly means that anyone can intercept it without being detected. Should a hacker decipher the information, and it's more a matter of when than if, a hacker might disrupt power to individual homes, to entire neighborhoods, or even determine who is home and who isn't. And what's to stop a foreign government from monitoring and analyzing PG&E's transmissions? Hackers from some undetermined government managed to create a worm called Stuxnet that reportedly disrupted Iran's nuclear program and set it back a full year. If hackers can do that to a supposedly secure government program, how hard would it be to disrupt a wirelessly managed power grid?

PG&E seemed particularly overconfident
on the security issues, which scared the hell out of me.

Now, I'm not an expert.
Maybe my concerns are overblown and smart meters are the greatest invention since the transformer. But what's the hurry? Why deploy these things statewide before really knowing how these things work in real-world conditions? Let's demand that PG&E put the brakes on this technology long enough for the public to be sure it's safe, secure, and really in our best interests.