Sunday, June 28, 2009

Not-so-Cool Biz

It is still the rainy season here in Japan but the temperature is slowly creeping up as we head towards summer. Today's high is forecast to be 30 degrees (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

Which wouldn't be too much different than the weather this time of year in my home town in Virginia except for two things:
  1. In Virginia we commute by car and cars have air-conditioning; in Japan most people commute by walking or riding a bike to the train station and taking a crowded train.
  2. Cool Biz
Today I'm going to focus on #2. If you aren't familiar with "Cool Biz", there is a nice article over on Slate about this Japanese campaign to reign in energy usage by making everyone uncomfortable.

The gist of Cool Biz is to crank up the temperature in offices to a balmy 28 degrees Celcius (82.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and allow people to "dress down" to compensate. By "dress down", we're talking not having to wear a tie.

I've heard the figure 4 degrees bantered around as the difference not wearing a tie can make. But when I tried researching where that number came from, I cannot find any research measuring the relative apparent temperature with and without a tie. The number (which I presume is in degrees Celsius) seems to appear only in articles about Cool Biz and only as a number the Japanese government cites.

Not surprisingly, the large company I'm working at here in Tokyo is following the government's recommendation and has the thermostats set for 28 degrees. And I can tell you first-hand that the heat is incapacitating.

I was doing some research on how to deal with the heat and ran across some tips for living without air conditioning. For a wussy American such as myself who has been spoiled by comfortable working conditions for my whole life, 82.4 degrees might as well be no air conditioning. The tips:
  • Turn on fans to keep the air circulating.
We have 2 fans in a room with over 100 people in it.
  • Set ceiling fans to turn clockwise (counter-clockwise looking toward it).
Not really applicable in an office environment.
  • Keep curtains or blinds closed during the day.
Blinds are kept open all day.
  • Use light colored curtains to deflect heat.
The blinds are white. So if we were allowed to close them, it might help.
  • Keep windows and doors closed tightly to keep the house cool.
  • If there is a breeze or if outside air feels cooler than inside, open the window bringing in the cooler.
  • Keep sunny windows closed if there is no breeze.
  • In late afternoon, as soon as outside temperatures feel lower than inside temperatures, open all windows and doors.
  • In the evening, when it’s cool outdoors but still hot indoors, place fans in front of open windows to draw in the cool air.
I work in a fairly old office building that still has windows you can actually open. However, we are forbidden from opening them. Rumor has it that a couple years back someone snapped and try to jump out a window. Since then, we've been strictly forbidden from opening the windows. I suspect it was the heat that drove him to it.
  • Keep as many windows as possible open during night to take advantage of the cool night air to lower inside temperatures.
  • In the morning, close windows as soon as the outside air begins feeling warmer than inside air.
Besides not being feasible in an office environment, see the notes regarding the previous tips.
  • Limit strenuous physical activity until evening.
  • Drink lots of cold water.
And check.
  • When hot, use a water spritzer to spray yourself. The evaporating water will make you feel cool. (For fun, you can also spritz the water upwards and feel it fall down on you. The coldness can be quite shocking.)
I work in an open office floor plan with people sitting 2 feet from me in each direction and no walls. This might work if they are amicable to the idea too.
  • Tie a wet bandanna around your neck (this is something I do for my dog to prevent overheating and heatstroke during the summer).
I think we have a winner. I think I may have to try this one when the summer heat really sets in. Maybe I can start a fashion trend of white buttoned-up dress shirt, dress slacks, and a wet bandana. If I combining it with spritzing water, I can call it "wet biz".

Monday, June 8, 2009

Whats and Whys

I just realized something about myself today: when someone is talking to me, I'm not only listening to what they are saying, but also trying to deduce why they are saying it. Not consciously, of course, or else I would have realized that I'm doing it long before now. :)

In hindsight, I think this has been mostly a good thing. As a software engineer, when a request comes in for feature "X", rather than just understanding that the customer wants feature "X" and immediately starting to work on solving that problem, somewhere in the back of my brain I'm thinking about why the user asked or "X". What are they probably trying to accomplish? Is there perhaps a simpler way to achieve the same result that we can present as a counter-proposal? Is this something other customers might need too? If they are asking for feature "X" now, then they'll probably need feature "Y" at some point in the future too.

Which is to say that I think this has made me a better software engineer. However, sometimes it takes me a night or two of "sleeping on it" before I start being aware of the implications of the request. I've gotten into the habit of splitting my project to-do list into "things needed to do what the customer specifically asked for" and "things needed to do what the customer probably wants" categories. Obviously, the items in the list needed to satisfy the customer's explicit requirements always take priority. But I'll freely add items to the "customer will probably want" list as they occur to me, to be implemented in down time between projects or assigned as introductory tasks to junior engineers to get them familiar with the code base. From experience, I've found that this process results in more generic solutions to problems that make the product more resilient to changing requirements and adaptable to new customers.

On the flip side, I've gotten myself in trouble a few times by reading to much into my wife's words. I don't think I'm unique in that regards either. :)

Today I realized that I am sometimes perplexed by requests/statements from my Japanese co-workers. Of course there is the language barrier which means that it takes a lot more effort on my part to understand what is being said. But sometimes I know I comprehend what they are saying, but I still have an uneasy, discontent feeling. That is when I realized that my brain is subconsciously trying discern the "why" behind the statement and failing, causing the uncomfortable feeling.

As for why it is failing, I'm still unsure. But now that I think I know what is going on, I can work to address it. I suspect it may have nothing to do with the fact that the statements are in Japanese, but rather be a symptom of information asymmetry inherent in working in a large company. In which case, it would explain why I always seem to flourish in small company environments where information is more evenly distributed, hence making it easier to deduce the "why" behind new tasks.