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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

On air conditioning

I've been thinking a lot about air conditioning. The obvious reason is the heat: Europe is having a long, dry spell of heat. The death toll in France has just gone up to 20, the British claim tarmac roads are melting, although having grown up in Iowa where it was hotter and we called the stuff blacktop, I find this a little suspicious. In Switzerland some people go to the lakes, especially big ones like Lake Geneva, or up to the mountains. With every 100 meters of altitude the temperature drops.

We recently bought a new (used) car, a five-year-old red Volvo. We've never had an air-conditioned car and I always thought it was an environmentally unacceptable luxury, but this was the car that most suited us, and the AC came with it. After one month of driving it I think AC has some advantages and I fear I am getting used to it. My contact lenses don't dry out, my hair doesn't blow in my eyes, I can hear the music better and sometimes we manage to have conversations in the car now, instead of being blasted by hot wind. Still, I'm bothered that it's so easy to get used to it.

My son went to China and promptly came down with a cold or flu. There are new bugs, which is always a risk you take when traveling to distant new places but he insists that he fell sick because of the air conditioning. Too cold, with too many drafts, followed by hot, then cold and hot again. Bodies are not made to do this, he says. I think he's right.

Today I gave a lecture to a group of visiting business students from IIPM in India. We sat in a lecture hall in my village community center, a pleasant room with a view of Lake Geneva. It was warm, but not unnecessarily so. Everyone assumed that the Indians would be far more comfortable with our heat wave than your average Swiss person, but we were wrong. The students asked why we have no air conditioning. It's rarely this hot, I explained, and when it is, most people are on vacation. They were baffled. Heat = air conditioning.

I'm inclined to think AC has made life easier but that we haven't really got the balance right, but I'm not sure where I think we have it wrong. Meanwhile, up in the mountains after my day on the hot plain, I have the windows open and the breeze is blowing through. We've made so much progress on so many fronts, but we haven't worked out how to bottle that one.

4 Comments:

Blogger Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

Having grown up in Florida I scoffed at people in Hawaii who complained of the heat. Few really did and 19 years ago when I arrived here air conditioning was only in businesses or large buildings. It was rare to be in an air conditioned private home.

Now I am one of the few left who still is without AC in my home or car. Maui is being air conditioned at a frantic pace.

It has sure been hot here the last three summers. Our trade winds have moved north and east and we get the more humid bottom side winds of the high pressure system now.

Either that or I am getting older and feel it more.

4:41 AM  
Blogger christin m p in massachusetts said...

Up until around ten years ago, I always got by without air conditioning. But when I lived with my friend James, we had air conditioning and a de-humidifier running at home at the same time. We also worked together for a couple of years, so we commuted in the same vehicle which also had AC. As would be expected, I became very spoiled.

At first I wondered how I got so lucky in finding someone who shared my unusual fondness for cool, cloudy days (sunny days always look pretty, but they drain me quite quickly). Then he told me that when he was growing up in Queens, all the pavement, concrete structures, and cars reflecting the sun -- along with the scarcity of trees -- made the heat index there unbearable. So they needed to have air conditioning there just like people all across the southern U.S. do. He said that's one of the reasons he prefers not to move back to NYC.

Thankfully, our weather in New England is a lot like yours in Switzerland, so even when we have a heat wave, it doesn't go on endlessly. Also, we have the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and Maine, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the Berkshire Hills in the western part of our own state -- all just a short drive away, as well as the ever-popular cooler coastlines. Even by just going up to one of the local airports, one can feel a noticeable drop in the temperature. Best of all, just as in your part of the world, we have plenty of greenery to help keep things cooler as well.

Now, if they would just stop subdividing the family farms, and then do something about the ridiculous cost of living here, maybe I'd want to stay forever...

8:54 AM  
Blogger the eternal optimist said...

Thank you for your thoughts on air conditioning. It seems like one of those subjects that divides us, and I happen to be on the air conditioned side of the fence.

Having grown up in hot and steamy Chicago, unable to sleep, sticking to the furniture, operating at 30% of my potential from early June to mid-September, I love being able to retreat into my climate controled world.

I know it's not cool (no pun intended), and probably not environmentally correct, but it has its benefits beyond comfort.

The first air conditioning, invented by Willis Haviland Carrier of New York in 1902, was used to create a stable environment in printing plants, where heat and humidity had made it impossible to control the paper on presses. Thus, four-color printing became possible! Without it our photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie-Pitt would be off-register and unappealing.

Carrier's big idea came to him in a flash one night while waiting for a train. As with many engineers, he was lost in thoughts of how the world works, specifically the relationship between temperature, humidity and dew point. Most of us are lost in very different territory involving grocery lists, reality tv contestants, job problems, and how to get out of weekend commitments, but scientists and engineers are different, fortunately.

With the invention of air conditioning, many industries saw significant improvements in production including film, textiles, medical capsules, etc.

Air conditioning reach the general public in 1924 when the J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit, Michigan installed three Carrier machines. Needless to say, it was a big hit with shoppers. The Rivoli theater in New York followed shortly with a dramatic rise in summertime ticket sales.

Our home air conditioner was introduced in 1928, but the depression and World War II contributed to its delay. Today in America it seems to be just about everywhere.

During our heat wave here in the northeast, you can tell who has ac and who doesn't when you speak to someone on the phone, with weakened voices, listless verging on despondent. Most people do, although I know a man in Pennsylvania who is un-ac. He also has a black and white tv and no washing machine. Otherwise he is functioning normally.

Our unbelievable humidity has been a factor here as well. Living in a steambath for months gets to you after a while. Limp clothing, bad BAD hair, steamy glasses.

And of course in Arizona, where we enjoy a "dry heat," temperatures topped 118 degrees last week. Picture the frying egg on the side walk. Without ac, I'm sure we wouldn't be hearing about housing booms and people flocking to the sunbelt. But where would they flock? To the mountains perhaps? I guess that's what they did in days of yore, flocking to the Adirondacks and Catsklls outside New York. Our family flocked to northern Michigan where is was cooler beside the lake. Now with air conditioning we don't have to flock anywhere!

My husband's parents live in France, where it has been very hot and sec, sec, sec! The are unair conditioned and have been wilting for weeks. They could flock to the seaside if they didn't already live on the ocean. Personally, I would flock to the grocery store and go read yogurt cartons in the dairy section for a while. Then head for the movies.

Anyway, must go close all the windows to keep out the reality of another scorcher. Enjoy your altitude, and thanks for your always interesting blog!

4:22 PM  
Blogger christin m p in massachusetts said...

Thank goodness for engineers...

Our landlord is a mechanical engineer, and although not the most exciting soul you'll ever meet, he sure is nice to have around whenever something needs maintaining, repairing, restoring, etc.

Whenever he starts talking to us enthusiastically about things like gear ratios and such, I immediately feel that glazed look wash across my face and my mind goes blank.

But when it comes down to it, I do appreciate that we all reap the benefits of engineers' seeming obsession with minutia.

Sometimes I think it has rubbed off on me too.

6:40 AM  

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