My Achilles Heel

Heat. Following is a little bit of a whine. You’ll be even less sympathetic once you read the postscript, but such is life. Once the temperature gets up to a certain point, I can’t think any more. Well, not at the level needed to earn my living, if you see what I mean. Long periods of concentration start out well, but usually just turn into a nap. Not good at all, really. For the second or third day running we’ve had super hot temperatures with little movement of air to ensure a decent amount of throughput. This is not always unworkable, since one can simply nap during the day, do tasks that don’t require much sitting and thinking, and then work in the very early morning hours, but this time around there are two additional effects that ruin that approach.

fires_with_downtown_laThe first is that the heat has been carrying on into the night (as opposed to dropping away rapidly in the evening as is the usual pattern), and the second is that there are two huge fires nearby, making the air a bit… chewy. (Left is a shot I took of downtown Los Angeles from the South showing the huge clouds of smoke from the La Canada and Altadena fires in the San Gabriels’ foothills in the background. From some views it looks like there’s been a small nuke detonated. Anyone remember 24 a few seasons ago? For some maps of the fire’s progress see here, and a view from one of the Mount Wilson observatories is here*.)

Both of these make for less than great sleeping conditions, and the feeling of lack of clear breathing the whole night results in me waking up all groggy, and with a slight headache, so even if it was nice and cool in the early morning, I’d not be up for working due to sleep deprivation. All of this would not be a problem in and of itself, since I could just focus on simple tasks that need doing (like finally organizing and synchronizing all my calendars on my home and office computers and my handheld – yay!), but the thing is I’m supposed to be finishing an article I’m writing (with another author) for Physics Today. It is due on Monday. The conditions described above mean that every time I try to work on it I fall asleep.

Not ideal, to say the least.


P.S. Ah, yes, air conditioning. I actually do have a central air conditioning system, but (as you may know from my writing about about consumption footprints and so forth) it seems to me to be wasteful to use that to cool a whole house just for me, and so I use it only when I have to, and usually manage the Summer heat using a bit of thought – keeping curtains closed at times – against the sun heating the house up, opening doors and windows to allow air to move and cool things, fitting screens on them to allow one to do that and not be eaten by mosquitoes, and so forth. But when it is extremely hot and the air is still, a lot of this does not work, so I might have to resort to shutting all windows and doors and turning on the A/C if conditions don’t change by tomorrow… [Update: It’s “tomorrow” now, and the smoke, dust and ash have made it to my part of the city in significant quantities. Definitely a shut-in day!]

* Thanks Nick W.!

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13 Responses to My Achilles Heel

  1. justin says:

    want … to write … comment, but … it’s too … too … phbbbltttzzzthh.

  2. Jude says:

    This weird house I live in doesn’t have air conditioning either, but something about the combination of cinderblock construction largely uninsulated except for a layer of polyurethane foam my dad has sprayed on it back in the 1970s means that’s completely workable and it’s mostly comfortable enough. It seems that since the article is due, the air conditioning is essential.

  3. Sara T. says:

    Is your AC the heat-pump kind, Clifford, like at McCulloch? Those are less polluting.
    I do prefer open windows myself, but make the AC choice for allergies sometimes, heat others.
    Seeing’s how I only drive a few x/wk and recycle (we started it at McCulloch last year, Michelle A., Brian, Scales and I got it going! Don’t know if I told you) I don’t feel too guilty about the AC today!
    Sara T., driving a rental Prius and quite liking it! May be the next vehicle….

  4. Clifford says:

    Hi Sara! Well done on the recycling initiative. NO, don’t get a Prius, get a Tesla1!!

    Justin – Exactly!

    Jude… uninsulated? Does that mean heavy heating bills in the Winter? (Also, see the P.S. in the post.)


  5. Wendy yeh says:

    It’s 100 degrees outside and the air is filled with smoke and ash. Are you nuts? Open windows with current fire conditions makes for very bad health conditions. Noble to be green, but your A/C will help to clear out particulate matter from your house, and can’t you close off the vents in your unused rooms anyway? At least get an area room fan to move the air around. Sorry, there’s ash covering my car, and I can almost see the flames and smoke from my house, but then again, I’m way closer to the fire than you.

  6. Clifford says:

    Hey Wendy,

    No I am not nuts… you are way closer than I am! (But things are getting worse out there at the fires, so the reach of the smoke and ash is getting wider). The news is that I ran the A/C earlier for a bit to clear out the trapped heat of the day, and yes with some vents closed. But no, at this point, I don’t think I need the protection from smoke and so forth that you do! I’m not that close… but the situation is evolving. Don’t worry – I’ll keep evaluating how much to use the A/C as things evolve. I won’t sit here choking for the sake of it, but at the same time I am not a fan of just having A/C running all the time because of a little discomfort. It is a balancing act…



  7. Ah Texan Augusts with no AC…I remember them well. The parentals didn’t like to run the AC at night because it was noisy. My sister and I used to run flannels under the cold tap before bed and then put them on our foreheads. It actually cools you down a lot. (Although I distinctly remember one school year that I had to take a sweater to school throughout the warmer months because my homeroom teacher couldn’t work out how to turn off the AC in the classroom…there we were towards the end of August, in Texas, FREEZING, despite it being about 105F!)

    When I’ve lived in really hot places with no AC (India, Central America), the single biggest comfort-increasing adjustment, in my experience, has been dressing appropriately. I’m sure you know this, but most people don’t realise how much difference it makes wearing clothing that is properly *loose* rather than just not-seriously-clingy. I don’t know how my family in Latin America manage in skinny jeans and fitted tops in the height of the afternoon, but I do know that I can cope reasonably happily in humid 40C weather in long sleeves as long as it’s a loose salwar kameez I’m wearing, and not jeans or anything fitted.

    Of course, in Scotland I have the opposite problem…even in August I cannot leave the house without a jacket.


  8. Clifford says:

    Wow, today is significantly different. The whole region is covered in a blue haze, and some amounts of dust and ash have begun to collect on things. Yes, this is definitely an indoors day!


  9. Nige Cook says:

    Just wondering how much power your air conditioning uses? Would it be feasible in principle to power it during the day (when the sun is up) using solar cells on the roof to make it eco-friendly? Can you use it to just chill a single room, or does it automatically chill the whole house? Can’t you escape to the seaside when it’s hot? Are there any cool breezes from the Pacific or is it worse at the beach?

    In desperation I bought a portable ~ 1kW Amcor unit here in the UK during the heatwave in July 2002 but it could only just about keep a small room fairly cool with the hot air output tube sticking out of a gap the window and the rest of the gap plugged with rubber foam packing and tape, and the curtains drawn to keep the sunshine out. However, the noise it made in the room gave you a headache pretty quickly, so you couldn’t sleep and it was a choice between getting a headache or getting heatstroke. Luckily, I’ve only had to use it once since 2002, and not this year.

  10. Clifford says:

    Hi Nige,

    I’ve looked into the solar option (not for A/C specifically, but in general). Future project, but right now installation and so forth of a system that connects to the grid is simply too expensive compared to just using one’s brain to use electricity less. I don’t believe that eco-friendly necessarily means go out and buy new stuff to allow me to carry on as usual, as seems to be the trend. I simply have no interest in over-using A/C when there are ways of keeping a building cool (unusual conditions like the very still heat of the last few days – combined with fire smoke/ash affecting air – aside) by thinking a bit about things – see P.S. above. It is like rushing out to buy a Prius or other hybrid (as many have) while continuing to drive everywhere unnecessarily to do the simplest errands one could do by walking or biking or using public transport.

    I do have a plan to someday soon build and install some limited solar-powered systems myself (ones that does not connect to the grid and hence need regulators and inspectors and so forth) to run less crucial systems like patio lighting and so forth. (I already have some but will extend it…)

    Yes I can go to the seaside. And I do form time to time. It is nice, but that part of town does not interest me enough to go the many miles on a regular basis just to see the sea. Besides, I’ve stuff to do…



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  13. Another green resource you might be interested in is buying electricity from alternative energy sources. Many power companies have options to buy some or all of your electricity this way, for a small premium. Here’s a list of options in California:

    I definitely appreciate the sentiment about changing one’s life habits to reduce your environmental footprint (I’ve been car-free for over a year), but I like this option to reduce my impact further, as well as support the development of alternative energy. As of this morning, I’m 100% wind powered!