The Well Tempered Environment

As almost every European who lived in the US will confirm to you, air conditioning is one of the unusual encounters here. There is hardly any car or any private home that does not have air condition. Everything is fully air-conditioned, and everything is over-airconditioned.

During my first week at work, a colleague from Taiwan gave me good advice: "always wear long sleeves," he said. That was in December and I wasn't surprised. However, as winter went by and spring and summer came along, it was still pretty cold in the office. Wearing just a polo shirt with short sleeves made me shiver, so I resorted to long sleeves only and even sweaters (in summer!). Some people explain the situation by the fact that people wearing full business suits should also feel comfortable. The consequence is that I always have a jumper in my office and occasionally (have to) wear it because it is just too cold, completely independent of the fact that it is 90oF (30oC) outside.

My American colleagues seem to have adapted to the environment, no one really feels cold. I am lucky enough to have my own office with walls and a door and not a cubicle such that one of those days in spring I called up the technical hotline to ask for a temperature increase in my office. They increased it by about 2oF such that it got close to 65oF and my shivers were more regularly than before. After another couple of complaints they finally sent someone who knew about the heating system and explained to me that the problem is that the heating is regulated for a block of offices simultaneously, six to be precise. Furthermore, the heat (cold, I say) you feel depends on the heat of the air and the moisture. A warm dry air might have the same effect as a cooler humid air.

Anyway, we looked for the thermostat and found it in the office right next to mine where my good friend Fred lives (he is the one who has the sticker on the cover of the thermostat that was issued by Swissair saying "Please wake me for meals"). The technical guy and I went through a couple of iterations and finally set the thermostat to 80oF (about 27oC). I felt good after that - until Fred found out about it. He wasn't interested in any elaboration on the correlation of temperature and air humidity, of course. 80 was over the top. The other four on the block probably didn't complain because they didn't know where the heat wave came from.

Well, to cut a long story short: the block thermostat disappeared shortly thereafter, and the temperature was regulated centrally ("from a computer," as I was told, and who doesn't know that everything's better if done by a computer?). I am back to freezing again. My plan is though to conduct a clinical study that compares the body temperatures of North Americans against Europeans. There must be a clear difference. How else could you explain that after a shivery morning in the office we would go down to the Cafeteria for lunch and everyone but me would grab a 16 ounce beverage container (the smallest that there is, there is also 24 and 32 ounces, half a liter), fill it up to the brim with ice cubes, and add a little soda to it? It already comes out of the fountain ice-cold and I would let it sit for a while to warm up - which doesn't help much of course because as I mentioned before, the temperature in the building is slightly higher than in my refrigerator.

Once the working day is over, it is a bit inconvenient that I have to leave the well-tempered environment to get to my car after work. The good thing is though that it has air condition, and after just a few minutes I start to freeze again. At home I can drive straight into the garage that has a door into the appartment with the air condition on. Good thing.

My all year office sweater.

If I stop on the way for some shopping, it's good to have long trousers and a sweater, in particular in front of the freezer containers of Stop & Shop, our grocery store around the corner. Whenever I shop there on the weekend, possibly having short trousers on, I just speed past that area to avoid being deep frozen on the spot. You never know, they might even sell me.

There is a whole lot of those stories, in particular on air condition in cars. Most people only seem to know two settings for that air condition switch, "full speed" and "off." Although, rethinking it, I am not sure about the latter. I regularly need to ask cab drivers and other people to turn down the air condition. On one of those cab rides in New York the motor shut itself off and the driver explained to me that the battery was low due to the heat outside. I guess I was lucky it started up again. Imagine I had to step outside into the heat!

That is probably also the reason why you see so many people leaving their cars for ATMs (automated teller machines, the money dispenser at banks) without switching off the engine. The air condition would be shut off, too. If you plan on stealing a car, I can recommend New Jersey to you. Just hide in a bush in front of an ATM for a couple of minutes.

To be fair, one can get used to it. It's eight months since we moved here now, and in the summer New Jersey gets very hot and humid such that I appreciate the air condition in our home, and so does my wife who is now eight months along. Getting outside now is really kind of a shock though because the temperature hits you even harder. The effect is that we don't do that many outdoors activities as we used to. I suppose I even miss the air condition when or if I will be going back to Switzerland. However, I already feel pretty detached from the outside world. It doesn't matter what the temperature outside is or even what season it is, it is always the same inside.

From an evolutionary point of view, it is more comfortable to be able to adjust the environment to the comfort zone, and you can concentrate on other things than adjusting yourself to the temperature. I guess I'll miss that over in Europe. However, your genes that adjust your body to the outside temperature will degrade over thousands of generations, and the only way to survive in the wilderness will finally be to find the switch for the air condition.

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