Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Cold House Epidemiology & Psychology

October 2, 2011

Back in May, a group called the Marmot Review Team, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth, published a paper titled The Health Impacts of Cold Homes and Fuel Poverty.  An associated editorial was also published in the British Medical Journal.

The bottom-line conclusions of the Marmot paper, which focused primarily on Britain, are that living in cold housing is harmful, that the harm falls disproportionately on the economically disadvantaged, and that fairness demands that society provide more warmth to those in “fuel poverty”.

As you might expect, my feelings about this report are mixed.  On the positive side, I strongly support the authors’ sense of social justice, and of course agree that living in cold housing is potentially hazardous for elderly, disabled, or otherwise physically compromised people.

I have skepticism, however, about many of the inferences drawn in the paper, which are based primarily on epidemiologic correlations, rather than proven cause-and-effect.  For example, the paper notes that there is an increase in deaths over the winter months, and goes on to state: “Cold weather, and in particular cold homes, is believed to be a main factor in causing the winter increase of respiratory and circulatory diseases”.  The one citation for this statement leads to another policy paper by the same group, which, by my reading, actually provides no data whatsoever to support the assertion that cold weather (rather than, say, the increased indoor contact, lower exposer to fresh air,  and lower indoor humidities common in winter) cause these diseases– let alone any evidence for the “belief” that cold homes are to blame.

Indeed, I cannot picture any way that scientific conclusions on this topic could be drawn from epidemiology alone.  Why?  Because (more…)

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It Burns Burns Burns, The Stove of Fire

March 15, 2011

We’re now a week past the date when we “fired down” last winter.  I can’t quite put my finger on why we haven’t done so this year yet, except to say that we had quite a cold snap a couple weeks ago, and since then it’s been mostly rainy, drizzly, and/or cloudy.  Sometimes, cold and dank feels even chillier than frigid and dry.

It is peculiar, though, that we seem, in March, less accepting of the same indoor temperatures that we tolerated in January.  You’d think (I’d think, anyway) that it would be the opposite.  I have three possible theories for why we need it even warmer indoors in March than in January:

1)  Just sick and tired of being in a cold house.  Perhaps there’s just a time limit.  Perhaps we really never adapt, we just get grouchier and grouchier and finally summer comes and saves us?

2)  Something about maintaining an ongoing indoor:outdoor differential to give an “impression of warmth”.  I.e, 50º inside may be fine when it’s 10º outside, because, wow, that’s a lot warmer.  But when it’s 50º outside, then 50º inside is… well, just like living outside, which may be unappealing.

3)  It might be somewhat unintentional.  We get used to stoking the fire to a certain degree, a certain number of sticks to achieve Xº of warming, etc.  Suddenly, we’re overshooting a bit.

Might be any of these.  Anyway, the difference is very subtle (see graphs in next post.)  Once the sun comes out for a few days in a row I think we may be done with heat until next year.

Money Down The Toilet? Up The Chimney?

February 4, 2011

Here’s a story from Maine this morning about the phase-out of a federally-funded local “efficiency” program.  The Green Energy Alliance aimed, in theory, at improving the heating efficiency of homes around here, but in reality, seems to have spent a lot of money to achieve not a great deal.  Specifically, they completed “200 energy audits and help complete 50 home retrofits”, and in doing so spent $355,836.

Okay, honestly, I don’t know if that’s a reasonable or unreasonable amount so spend for that particular amount of work.  What I do feel pretty strongly about, though, is that even when it is managed well, the effort and and money thrown at “retrofitting” and “weatherizing” and, here, “homeowner coaching” towards the same, is mostly a rather inefficient way of reducing heating fuel use– the exception being the odd house that is truly horridly underinsulated– I mean, like, zero insulation left between the studs, holes in the windows, that kind of thing.  Barring those situations, I think the first forms of “coaching” homeowners (and renters) should be aimed at changing behavior, rather than renovating houses.  Specifically, I’d tell people to:

1)  Strongly consider moving to a smaller place, especially if your kids have grown up and left, or you don’t have any.

2)  If you can’t or don’t want to move, strongly consider living in less of your house in the winter.  Heat only what you need.

3)  If your house is too big, and for some reason you can’t or don’t want to heat only part of your house, consider getting a housemate.

4)  Try living at lower temps.  Try it.  Do it.

Also, I can tell you this definitively:  That money spent by the Green Energy Alliance would’ve heated our house for over 1,000 years.  Or, looked at differently, it could’ve heated the homes of 1,000 people this winter– if they agreed to follow steps 1-4 above.

Cold Backyard People

January 27, 2011

I’m not sure whether these people are “my people” or not.  But I think they probably are.  I have to confess that for all the being-in-the-house-in-the-cold we’ve done, we do very little being-in-the-yard-in-the-cold.  I really can’t abide the idea of an outdoor propane heater, with all those BTU’s spending just a few scant seconds warming your body before going on to warm the planet– but the idea of “sitting out in the snow, drinking a Scotch and watching the sunset” is appealing, as is the concept of a cold-frame winter (or, at least, early spring) garden.

This we do have in common with the folks interviewed for the article: ““The difference between summer entertaining and winter entertaining is less people.”

Buddhism, Happiness, Freud, The Cold House

January 31, 2010

I’ve been reading a book by Dr. Mark Epstein about the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and Western psychotherapy (professional interest, mainly, but I recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the topic.) Early in the book, Epstein describes “a basic Buddhist concept… that the pursuit of pleasurable sensory experiences leads inevitably to a state of dissatisfaction, because it is the nature of pleasure not to be sustainable.” He discusses the Buddhist realization that unhappiness (or “suffering”) is the inescapable result of trying to “extract lasting pleasure or meaning from what is essentially a transient pleasure.”

A marvelous parallel exists between this philosophy and Western psychotherapy’s insights into human nature.  As Epstein quotes from Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents):

“What we call happiness in the strict sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as a periodic phenomenon.  When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment.  We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.”

I’ve been thinking a lot, during these two winters, about heat as an addictive drug, or intoxicant, or sensual experience, to which we’ve all grown tolerant and inured. Over the past 50-odd years people in these parts have come to expect, insist (more…)

Gender, Thermostats: Poll

January 29, 2010

Conversation this morning (house temp 45º):

J:  When are you going to the office?

Me:  Not– working from home today.

J:  Great!  Then you can light a fire!

Me:  Hm, maybe.  Why, when are you going to class?

J:  In an hour.

Me:  Well, that’s not enough time for it to warm up in here anyway.

J:  Oh, pleeeease just promise me it will be in the 50’s by the time I get home tonight!

I think people reading these pages picture J. and I in perfect harmony about this cold-house thing, but that’s a phony image. Like couples everywhere, we bicker a bit about the temperature in the house.  True, the “set point” around which we bicker may be 10 or 15 degrees lower than “normal”, but the process is recognizably similar.  I’m to the point where 48-50º is fine for protracted periods.  I’ll let J. speak for herself, but my guess is that she’d choose 5-10º higher.  Please note that this still makes her an exceptionally good sport, in my book.

The stereotype, of course, is that men like/tolerate colder (or as we call it, “more normal”) house temperatures than women. People have written news stories on the topic, and the Times (UK) asserts there are physiological underpinnings.  Certainly among the couples I know with widely divergent temperature preferences, it is the man who likes it colder– but it’s not a large sample size.  So I’m interested in feedback from readers as to whether this is just a sexist stereotype, or whether there is something to it.  In your house, who likes it warmer?  By how much?  And a potentially illuminating question– do same-sex couples and have just as much disagreement about the thermostat as different-sex couples?

Also (assuming there is any basis to this all to begin with), is it that women prefer it warmer per se, or that they have a narrower range of comfort?  For example, in hot places– where the question is A/C instead  of heat– do men still prefer it cooler, or does the disagreement reverse, with women wanting to turn the A/C down to 68, but men wanting it at 74??

[Addendum:  I managed to titrate the fire so that it was 50.2º when J. got home.  I am a man of my word.  But I’m not sure she was entirely amused.]