So what’s with the funky lighting along the new 5/805 merge? They have cute red-and-white beanies, antennas, and really cool monkey trapezes. I’ve only seen this style of lights in one other place in my travels around the U.S., and I’m wondering what’s so special about them.
— Charlie in Spring Valley
I’ve been seeing these cameras all over town, and they look quite a bit more sophisticated than red-light cameras.… [There is] one in particular at Mission Bay Drive and Garnet.
— Mike, on the road
Dear Mr. Alice:
I would like if you can tell me the purpose of little white boxes that are along I-5 in North County. They are on poles with solar panels. They don’t have a lens and don’t look like cameras; instead they are little white boxes with perforations. Are they checking for explosives or poisonous gases?
— Mr. Paranoid, North County
You all seem to be quite baffled by things on poles lately. Beanies, monkey trapezes, poisonous gases — what an assortment. But I guess when things on poles start generating mass paranoia, it’s time for the elves to come to the rescue. They divided into three teams after considerable yelling and belly bumping (everybody wanted the trapeze question, nobody wanted the explosives question), and here’s what they came up with.
First of all, the elves found that things on poles are never as much fun as we might hope. Of course, you don’t have to believe any of the elf report and instead go back to your favorite made-up story. You always have that option here at the Matthew Alice Office of Genome Mapping and Peanut Butter Technology. So, Charlie, what’s up with your poles with beanies? They’re officially called high-mast lights and have been around since the 1960s. Our particular high masts are set at the intersection of three freeways (5, 805, 56) and several city streets, which, according to Caltrans, comprises 21 lanes of traffic. If they’d tried to put up standard freeway light poles for that many curvy lanes, the place would look like a big metal forest. No way it would work. The solution? Fewer but higher poles with four large lights in a circular configuration on each pole to illuminate a greater area.
Grandma always grumbles when it’s time to change the bulbs in the ballroom chandelier. Next time she does, we’ll take her out to see the high masts and give her a taste of a real bulb-change challenge. Each four-bulb fixture is 60 feet up on its pole (any higher and they would have illuminated nearby condos). When it’s maintenance time, the whole circular light fitting, with the antennas and trapezes and beanie, are lowered by a cable. When they go back in place, workers use the striped beanie, hanging trapezes, and vertical “antennas” (not really antennas) to gauge whether the light fitting is properly placed horizontally and vertically. For anyone who’s not seen the high masts, maybe this would make a jolly and informative Sunday outing for the kiddies.
Mike’s “sophisticated” red-light cameras are more a matter of logic than imagination. But at least they’re simpler than the high masts. Consider a single pole with two arms, each of which runs briefly horizontally then turns up, giving the whole structure the look of a semaphore signaler without his flags. At the top of the left arm is a red-light camera. On the right is a large, circular glass fixture. Simple enough.
Act I: Mike is hustling to a late-evening dinner date...behind time, as usual. The traffic light at Mission Bay and Garnet turns yellow and Mike guns it. Too late, once again. Flash! Click! Act II: The wheels of justice are in motion. Mike’s due for an expensive surprise in the mail. The flash, of course, is from the large, circular glass thingy (a flashlight) illuminating the intersection and Mike’s car, synchronized with the camera’s shutter. The camera alone wouldn’t be of much use once the sun’s set.
Paranoid’s solar-panel boxes contain only the gizmos necessary to help translate sunlight to electrical energy. Openings in the box keep the innards cool. Please sit down, relax, and put away all thoughts of a potential gas attack on North County.
And just to head off emails from electricians, each of you please take out a Sharpie, go back through my answer, delete the word “bulb(s),” and substitute the word “lamp(s).” In the trade, bulbs are known as lamps. I use “bulbs” to avoid confusion with things like the leg lamp from A Christmas Story.