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Electronic Design
What’s All This Smart Grid Stuff, Anyhow?

What’s All This Smart Grid Stuff, Anyhow?

Once upon a time, in the 1940s, there were only rotary telephones. They were very slow and inefficient, using mechanical stepper switches, click-clickity-clack. AT&T recognized the need for an electronic system, so it designed the basic touchtone system we now know and love.

AT&T set up a big press conference and demonstration of the new system. A charming young lady came out to show its advantages. She sat on the stage in front of the cameras and started to give her well-rehearsed lines. She started to punch in a telephone number. She misfired. Now what? She tried to hang up, but the system wouldn’t let her redial. Apparently, nobody had considered the possibility that a person might misdial a number and have to redial.

AT&T shut everything down and apologized. A few weeks later when it had the problem fixed, it ran the press conference again, correctly. So much for smart telephone grids.

Now we have the Smart Grid, and smart meters, for gas and electricity. In California, PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric, also known as Pigs, Greed & Extortion) has connected up to 3.3 million “smart meters,” which are presumably helping people save energy and money. In fact, 99.8% of these meters work fine. Just one leetle problem—more than 5400 customers have had terrible problems with bad meters. They read either much too high or too low.

Whichever is the problem, PG&E sends out an estimated bill. Some of these bills are so absurd, the customers are enraged. PG&E apparently did not have any good plans to talk thoughtfully to customers, not any better than AT&T had. So gangs of outraged customers are protesting and marching on PG&E, equipped with pitchforks and torches.* Wouldn’t you be grouchy if you went on a month of vacation and came home to find a $236 bill for electricity, even though you’d turned out all the lights?

Did PG&E have no plans for the possibility that some meters might err? Who designed the meters? Who built the meters? Who ran the quality control on the meters? Who evaluated the meters after they were installed? Who planned the customer relations? Not me! Did these guys all assume that the “smart meters” had to work right because they were all-digital?

Do you trust the people who designed and put out these “smart meters” to run a complete “smart” power grid? I can’t answer any questions. But I am qualified to ask questions.

I just hope that somebody has set up some stronger, smarter firewalls to keep foreign hackers from going in and mis-programming the grid’s computers to wreck all the generators and transformers. If the Department of Defense isn’t smart enough to keep all the hackers out, who is? I hope somebody is.

Will we have enough electricity to charge up all the new electric cars and plug-in hybrids at night? You can manage some parts of a shortage, and you can make incentives for people to postpone their charging. But a real shortage is a real shortage. Pretending doesn’t fix that.

Since that’s the limit of my wisdom on that topic, I’ll shut up and sit down.


I keep getting invited to join up with other people in “social” or “professional” “networks” like Linked-In, Twitter, and Facebook. They drive me nuts!

First, their software is often horrible. It won’t let you reply, and it’s nearly impossible to resign. When I tried to sign up on Linked-In, it refused to believe that my e-mail address is valid. After eight tries, it decided my e-mail was okay. Then it wouldn’t let me reply to other people because it said their e-mail addresses weren’t valid. It asks dumb questions like “Why don’t you have any recommendations from MIT?” Well, I haven’t been there for 49 years. Half the guys I knew are dead.

Then I get requests from people who want to sign up as my “friend.” These vary from good old friends to people I may or may not have met for a minute, at a conference, years ago. I’ll just do none. No more. Sorry.


If I buy wine in a bottle or jug, I take the glass back for recycling. Good. But sometimes I buy box wine. I don’t like all box wine, but Almaden’s Mountain Chablis is pretty good.

When the wine is gone, what can I do with the packaging? My wife talked me into using 3/4 of a box (lop off a corner) to put magazines in. I have groups of several magazines boxed up thusly. Not too heavy, whereas a photocopy paper box of magazines is much too heavy!

Then I had some covers for photocopy boxes, with a busted (ripped) corner. I took the other quarter of the wine box (a corner) and shoved it around the ripped cardboard, added a couple dabs of glue, and these boxes are better and stronger than new!

Now what to do with the bags? I recycle all my plastic bags. I do rinse out some wine bags and recycle them. But these bags often have excellent toughness. And nice spigots. So I use a couple for storing extra water for my bus.

These bags are rated to hold 5 liters, measure almost 10 by 10 by 4 in., and are a good grade of heavy 0.008-in. plastic (sans spigot). If you wanted to buy a bag as rugged as that, they’d soak you a buck. So, what can we do with the bags? Reuse them? For what?

* Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating about the pitchforks.

Comments invited! [email protected] —or:
R.A. Pease, 682 Miramar Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94112-1232

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