Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Design Imperative

What is energy good for? A little background: simply put, energy performs work, which underlies all economic activity. From a human perspective, work (in the physics sense of the word) is relevant because it produces quality of life. Technology is nothing more than a design for converting work into a product, which may or may not be associated with quality of life. Finally, the harnessing of concentrated energy—energy that, from a human perspective, produces more directed work output than total human work input (e.g. an EROEI of greater than 1)—facilitates the existence of complex society.

Allow me now to suggest a new term, borrowing (loosely) from Jacques Ellul: Technics. While “technology” converts work into any product, “technics” is a more specific term that I am using to denote the design process of converting work into human quality of life.

It seems axiomatic that the goal of humanity is to optimize quality of life. There are nearly endless debates that can begin here—how is quality of life defined, do we measure the mean, median, mode, or selfish-individual level, etc.—but I think that we can all agree that IF we can answer the question “what is quality of life,” then we all share the goal of optimizing it.

This leaves us with a simple equation: Quality of Life = Work * Technics

In pursuing the goal of optimizing quality of life, there are two (non mutually-exclusive) options: improve the availability of work, or improve technics.

Option 1: Improving the Availability of Work

The availability of work is a function of our ability to harness concentrated energy. Concentrated energy takes many forms: food, wood, coal, gas, oil, etc. Civilization has become progressively more complex as the ability to harness increasingly concentrated energy sources has made more work available. Work is the building block of complex civilization. Today, however, there is mounting evidence that diminishing marginal returns on our use of concentrated energy is decreasing the availability of work that can be applied toward creating quality of life. Aspects of this phenomena are often called “Peak Oil,” “Peak Coal,” or “Peak Energy.” A peaking in world energy production—without a concomitant reduction in human population—suggests that humanity will be challenged to maintain, let alone increase, quality of life in the future.

What about improvements in efficiency? There are two reasons why improvements in efficiency will not solve this problem. First, Jevon’s Paradox tells us that at least some of any improvement in efficiency will be self-negating, as improvements in efficiency free up some of the energy resource, decreasing demand, which lowers its price, which increases consumption. Second, efficiency (per second law of thermodynamics) can never reach 100%, so there is a strict limit on how much we can improve efficiency. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the global average for efficiency for conversion of energy to work is 30%. If one accepts the second law of thermodynamics, then it is impossible to improve this number to 100%. It seems highly unlikely that this number will ever approach anything close to 100%, leaving us with well less than 70% to work with. While that may seem like a huge jump, consider this example: what if we could convert our automobile fleet from averaging 30 mpg to averaging 95 mpg? Would this eliminate the problem of peak energy? Even IF automobiles were the only relevant energy users, this would only have a short term effect—much of the gain would be negated by Jevon’s Paradox, and even without Jevon’s Paradox it would, at best, triple the time that our resources last. Efficiency will not save us. That isn’t to say that improving efficiency has no place in solving our problems, but rather to put it in its correct place: efficiency buys us time to treat the problem.

What about “alternative” energy sources? First of all, for any alternative energy source to be part of the solution (a true “alternative”), rather than part of the problem, it must have an EROEI of greater than 1. This will be highly controversial, but I’m not convinced that such a resource exists. I have written elsewhere about the difficulties of calculating EROEI, but it is my opinion that most EROEI numbers today are artificially high because of a “bootstrap effect” of using high-EROEI fossil fuels in process of bringing “alternative” energy to market. There do seem to be some renewable, “alternative” energy sources that have an EROEI greater than 1—wind and hydro come to mind—but they face severe limitations. Regardless of the exact EROEI of the various “alternatives” currently being proposed, there is little debate that these will provide an EROEI in excess of that once enjoyed in oil and gas production. If externalities such as climate change, topsoil depletion, and water use are accounted for, it seems (to me, at least) likely that our aggregate societal EROEI will continue to decline until it reaches some point of stasis slightly over 1. If I am right—and there is no place that I would rather be proven wrong—then “alternative” energy will not keep us living in our “happy motoring utopia,” and certainly won’t allow the rest of the world to rise to that standard of energy consumption (note that I’m not equating this directly with quality of life…).

Overall, when faced with these challenges in the areas of efficiency and declining EROEI of “alternatives,” it is my conclusion that the solution to our energy problems will not come from the “improving the availability of work” portion of the quality of life equation. Rather, I think that, to the extent that our energy problems are “solvable,” the solution will come from improving technics—improving how we use the energy that we do have to create quality of life. I think that reasonable people can disagree with my conclusion regarding efficiency and EROEI. The bottom line is, we just don’t know—anyone who claims to KNOW the answer is discussion theology, not science. But regardless of the answer to the energy question, it seems very likely that there is ample room to improve our technics. IF we accept this latter proposition—that we can improve our utilization of energy to create quality of life—then doesn’t it make the most sense to focus our mitigation efforts there? I have great confidence in the power of human ingenuity to solve our problems. However, when human ingenuity meets the laws of physics and thermodynamics, I don’t think they will bend to our will. Design of technics, on the other hand, seems to be an area where human ingenuity has unending room for advancement.

Option 2: Improving Technics, or “The Design Imperative”

My hypothesis is that our quality of life, both collectively and individually, is more dependent on how we use our energy than on how much of it we use. This hypothesis continues that we can better influence our quality of life through improving technics than through increasing energy consumption.

Povero o Rico? Is this a picture of a “poor” fishing village or one of the world’s most exclusive resort islands? Actually, it’s both: the idyllic island of Panarea (just north of Sicily), taken while sailing away aboard the 38’ catamaran Fandango.

What is it about Tuscany or the South of France? What is it about Kauai, or a sleepy Costa Rican fishing village? These are often held up as the ideals of quality of life, yet they are certainly not exemplars of conspicuous energy consumption. Sure, the visiting tourists may be expending copious quantities of energy, but the locals—the objects of our jealousy—are generally not. Powerdown concepts such as localized farming, vernacular architecture, and strong community ties are on display. These features are, generally, not the result of conscious design, but does that mean that they cannot be consciously designed? This seems to me to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving technics as a means of addressing quality of life after peak energy.

If we choose to pursue technics as a means of maintaining or improving our quality of life, how should we organize this pursuit? I have three suggestions: decentralized, open source, and vernacular.

All this may seem very abstract and theoretical…what does it actually mean? I’ve discussed the issue at length in several articles, which can be accessed via my Rhizome Theory Directory, but let me illustrate here by way of example. Let’s start by taking discrete examples of places that produce a quality of life seemingly disproportionate to their energy consumption. There are countless examples, but because it has a long tradition in this area in American popular culture, I’ll choose the Tuscan village.

How is the Tuscan village decentralized? Production is localized. Admittedly, everything isn’t local. Not by a long shot. But compared to American suburbia, a great percentage of food and building materials are produced and consumed in a highly local network. A high percentage of people garden and shop at local farmer’s markets.

How is the Tuscan village open source? Tuscan culture historically taps into a shared community pool of technics in recognition that a sustainable society is a non-zero-sum game. Most farming communities are this way—advice, knowledge, and innovation is shared, not guarded. Beyond a certain threshold of size and centralization, the motivation to protect and exploit intellectual property seems to take over (another argument for decentralization). There is no reason why we cannot share innovation in technics globally, while acting locally—in fact, the internet now truly makes this possible, leveraging our opportunity to use technics to improve quality of life.

How is the Tuscan village vernacular? You don’t see many “Colonial-Style” houses in Tuscany. Yet strangely, in Denver I’m surrounded by them. Why? They make no more sense in Denver than in Tuscany. The difference is that the Tuscans recognize (mostly) that locally-appropriate, locally-sourced architecture improves quality of life. The architecture is suited to their climate and culture, and the materials are available locally. Same thing with their food—they celebrate what is available locally, and what is in season. Nearly every Tuscan with the space has a vegetable garden. And finally (though the pressures of globalization are challenging this), their culture is vernacular. They celebrate local festivals, local harvests, and don’t rely on manufactured, mass-marketed, and global trends for their culture nearly as much as disassociated suburbanites—their strong sense of community gives prominence to whatever “their” celebration is over what the global economy tells them it should be.

Improving technics is, of course, the flip side of the conservation coin. If our quality of life is dependent on levels of energy consumption, then conservation must decrease quality of life. For that reason, the conservation measures that work are those that are based on technics—ways of using energy more efficiently to achieve the same quality of life.

All of these technics—localized food production, increased self-sufficiency, vernacular architecture, strong sense of community—seem to improve quality of life. Per David Hume, causation can never be proven, but my anecdotal experience tells me that the correlation between these factors and seemingly disproportionate quality of life to energy use is very high. High enough to infer causation, in my opinion.

These factors—borrowed from extant examples—are only the tip of the iceberg in the field of possible ways to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. There seem to be infinite possibilities—most of which do not have historical exemplars—for new and exciting technics. The resurgence and development of ideas such as Permaculture, Vernacular Architecture, and Slow Food seem to support the possibilities here. This is what I’m calling the “Design Imperative”: a globally cooperative, open-source effort to create and continuously improve a library of technics to improve quality of life in the face of peak energy. I’m quite aware that I haven’t presented any concrete solutions in this essay. Even the notion of focusing on technics, not energy availability, is not new—see Richard Heinberg’s “Powerdown,” the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, or Transition Town Totnes for just a few examples of pioneers in this area. I don’t lay claim to this idea—it must be open source, just like the solutions it may provide. What I do hope is that I have helped, in some small way, to convince people to consider this as a worthwhile method of addressing our energy crisis. It seems unlikely that the “way of thinking” that got us into this crisis will also get us out. That old “way of thinking” is the same one that is currently trying to solve the energy crisis through efficiency and “alternatives.” The Design Imperative is the suggestion that we should focus instead on the conscious development of technics—a new way of thinking.


sventastic said...

Excellent post, Jeff.
I'm curious about the relationships between work, energy, and power.
Also wondering about the relationship between technological innovation and technics and its impact on the perceived vs. actual quality of life.
For example:
I lived in Mongolia for six months and conducted several interviews with nomadic herdsmen (sheep/goat/horse herders in the central steppe, and reindeer herders in the taiga near Siberia).
When we discussed modern technology, and whether they'd like to have a TV or dishwasher, they answered of course. It seems natural for folks to follow the path of least resistence when it comes to engaging in manual labor, and thus natural for these herders to want to accumulate material possessions (which would most likely ironically contribute to a decline in their actual quality of life in the rhizome sense).
I think the distinction between perceived quality of life and actual quality of life is quite similar to how I interpret the difference between hierarchy and rhizome in general:
That hierarchy is a conceptually imputed projection onto phenomena that has no referent in actual reality, whereas rhizome is more like a description of reality as it is.
Suffering, or decline in both perceived and actual quality of life, is only possible within the confines of hierarchy, which is based on ultimately unfounded expectations, preconceptions, and assumptions about how things are (or should be).
Understanding of rhizome, on the other hand, leads one to be liberated from these frameworks of falsehoods that we are constantly snagging ourselves and others in, and allows us to live more in harmony with each other and our environment.
If we can cut through the social conditioning of hopes and fears that we are indoctrinated with, then we will be able to open our own eyes for ourselves, and act more in accordance with how things actually are, and thus meaningfully increase our actual quality of life.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Jeff.

You've identified, in a pretty concise way, the *type* of worldview shift that we are all talking about.

Hey Sven -- I gotta wonder, if the Mongolian herdsmen actually got a tv or a dishwasher, how long d'you think it would take for them to abandon it as 'not worth the effort'? ;-)


sventastic said...

Good point Janene.
The interesting thing historically is that the Mongolians have invested value mainly in animals, rather than material objects or gold or money (which are cumbersum and like you point out, can actual hinder one's mobility [and thus ability to stay alive] to be nomadic on the steppe).
However, when the Mongols, and their long line of nomadic predecessors, have become militarily dominant, they go apeshit when they conquer sedentary agrarian cultures with lots of gold and stuff. But after their initial conquering and orgy of indulgance, they generally receded (and/or were forced) back to the steppe after only a few generations, returning to their rather austere lifestyles.
Again I think it's important to distinguish between perceived value of materialism and it's perceived quality of life, versus actual value (which I equate to things that on a practical level keep people alive and healthy) and the actual quality of life they produce.
This is all rather relative, as some things are of significance in some ecosystems and cultures rather than others, and of course individual subjectivity about what is valuable.
This returns me to the question about technological innovation and its relationship with technics. The more sophisticated technology becomes, it seems like it is drifting from the description Jeff uses about technics...that the tools and means are localized, vernacular, and sustainable. Not to say that some sophisticated technology can't be these things, but it seems that they way history has played out, the "higher" the technology, the farther away from being accessible and mangagable but unsophisticated folks (those not specially trained for years in its use). Then again, I would need to be trained to build a Tuscan villa.

Jeff Vail said...


I think that you hit the nail on the head in identifying how critical it is that we become conscious of the system that imprisons us. I don't think we stand much of a chance, as a society, of making the decisions necessary to reduce consumption, eliminate dependency-creating relationships, etc. until we are consiously aware of the web of power-relationships that we weave with our every decision. I'm not sure that society at large is capable of that--I don't think this view is elitist, but just pragmatic given the more pressing distractions that (understandably) consume most people. I think that trying to spread the message that conscious awareness of this "structural problem" is important, but ultimately this will only really sink in with a small portion of society (analogous to the similar efforts within the spiritual realm--do you think is is likely that the "masses" can all reach enlightenment and understand the problems of suffering, or only that an elite few can and they can then lead the rest? Because that seems like a problematic spiritual hierarchy, but at the same time it seems like the best we can hope for??). I think that our best chance to move the masses is for this "cadre" of people who understand the structural problem to create, through personal example, a more desirable (by semi-conventional standards) way of life by incorporating this structural understanding. Emulate Tuscany in Tulsa and people may rethink buying their next Chevy Tahoe. Or maybe not, this could be nothing but starry-eyed optimism (imagine that--quite out of character!). Either way, this dichotomy of "the structurally-enlightened" and "the rest" presents a danger of incipient hierarchy? I think the same notion applies in Mongolia, but is endangered by (what I assume is) the lower degree of "worldliness" and communication due to the relative isolation (less access to the blogosphere--is that positive or negative!?). Does it require a Mongolian Shepherd who has been to Dallas and seen the problems inherent in our system to convince his fellow shepherds of the elegance of their traditions? I don't know. Surely there is room for improvement--for integration of technics developed elsewhere--into the Mongolian system, but the danger of modifying tradition *without* a pervasive awareness of structural issues is that the door is opened and tradition is thrown to the curb. It is my understanding that exactly this has happened to the youth in Japan. I guess the old saying holds, that power is dangerous, even if it is, in theory, the power to do good.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of local Tuscan culture: I read an article in the NY Times travel section yesterday - Today is Pasquetta (day-after-Easter festival) in Italy, and one of the local festivals the article highlighted was in a small Tuscan town. Evidentally the locals take a round of Pecorino cheese and try to roll it around the outside of the town. Whoever completes the task while touching the cheese the fewest times gets to take the cheese home. While Tuscan Pecorino is delicious, I had to laugh at the idea of spending thousands of dollars to travel to watch some old guys rolling cheese. We really must be desperate for some kind of local culture. Do we have nothing of our own left?

Anonymous said...

My wife comes from a poor farming village in rural Thailand. The contrast between her village and the modern city is overwhelming. People are generally friendly, and everyone knows everyone. It seems perfect. But things quickly start to get ugly once you look deeper.

In particular, marketing and advertising has started to erode the natural customs. People still cooperate, but they also have to compete for money so they can get those "things" they are brainwashed into believing they need. With regard to your equation, it needs to be reformulated to Quality = Work x Technics - Greed x Efficiency of Penetration.

No matter how far down the energy curve we drop, there will always be those with resources enough to scheme how to take away what is remaining. There are no new lands to conquer/plunder. Unless we deal with that aspect of society, it will overwhelm everything else.

A worldwide ban on any type of advertising would be a good start. I think if you look historically at those ideal local communities, they didn't need corporate sponsorships for their daily life. Without a radical step like this, everything else is just a dream.

Nicely written article though, but I just can't believe it is possible.

zane said...

Hey Jeff--

I like this post...the distinction you draw between technology and technic is an important one, but the quality of life piece is so much harder to quantify than the efficiency quotient, as you point out. It was a distinction I struggled with in a recent post about our very humble composting toilet system. On the one hand it is very efficient compared to a municipal flush toilet, but for me this is not the point. There is something in the humanure process that is generative, as odd as that sounds.

As always, I appreciate your ability to draw out the theory and to bring a wider frame to what, somedays, can just be emptying the compost bucket.

Anonymous said...

I am mostly in agreement with you. You make good points about the size of homes, but there are also issues of where the home is, and the size of the community. Most of these idealized locations you allude to, are located in very mild climates. You could live comfortably year round without any energy input to your home at all, providing you wear a sweeter in winter, or open the windows on a summer afternoon. Secondly, the communities are small. It is quite possible to walk across town, and there are no freeways to impede your journey. By comparison, my brother lives in a 5000 sq. ft. home in Fort Collins Colorado. Despite being well insulated, his home costs $500 per month to heat in winter, and although his job location is in the same town, it is completely impractical for him to walk to work, one because the town is so spread out, and two because the cross traffic would make it dangerous.
My own take on the looming energy and environmental issues that we face is that they are not technological at all. In fact, I do not believe that technology can solve these issues either. Our problems are social. We “chose” this path. Through our shared ideals of acceptable and desirable social behavior, we have created our own disaster in waiting. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that owning lots and lots of stuff of little value, lends value and happiness through volume. Thus we have consumerism and Walmarts. Huge homes surrounded by high maintenance lawns that can not feed us are a display of success to our neighbors. Indeed, it may be mandated by local ordinance. We drive to the grocery store two miles from home in vehicles that would not be out of place at a Monster Truck Pull event. These are not technology issues, they are 100% cultural.
The only way looming energy/food/water shortages are going to be address without major hardship and even suffering, is by starting a cultural revolution. Energy waist-fullness must be leered at. Frugalness must be exonerated. Consumerism must be superseded by craftsmanship. Communities must be rethought and redesigned to promote economy and efficiency. Over time, this may by necessity come to extreme swings in positions. For example, if you’re not growing vegetables to share, you don’t deserve a yard. A community that can’t be walked through will not be worth living in. Homes that can’t be kept comfortable by the sun most of the year will not be worth owning. These kinds of changes will take time which we may not have. None the less, they are worth doing and worth starting now.
The hard part is knowing how to start such a movement. How does one radically change a culture. I think living by example might work best, especially if it engenders a small touch of envy. But that’s actually currently part of the problem. Popular media is all about the wrong direction. We envy the rich and famous. Their palatial homes, mostly useless party yachts, and fleets of luxury gas hog vehicles. We have all been conditioned to “want” it. We have a long history of even belittling the small life. Think “Green Acres” and “Bob Newhart”.
But there may be a lot more that we can do about it than might at first be thought. Local zoning laws can be changed. Elected officials can be petitioned. City centers can be returned to peoples feet. My personal favorite would be to start a government sponsored advertising campaign. This would take after the anti-smoking effort. Some smart marketing expert needs to design some TV commercials that makes driving anything that gets less than 50 mpg look stupid. This will sink in soon enough anyway, but we should start setting the stage and “drive the point home”. Maybe they can even make heros out of people that do not own cars. A rewarding life should not require a BMW or its ilk. Wouldn’t it be nice if most people could walk to work? What would it take to achieve this. Would government supported job swapping help? Does driving to another city to work at a job that someone else is passing you for in the other direction make any kind of sense?
Culture might be our most powerful technics ever. We just need to be masters of it, not it’s slave.

Anonymous said...

Great ideas Jeff. You touched on population, but didn't expand. Population growth is the elephant in the living room and, like Jevon's paradox, will eat away at any increase in quality of life that are achieved by improvements in technics. I think that means that quality of life is inversely proportional to population.

rohar1 said...

I have been working on this open renewable energy project:

After reading your article, I think that there is a shared philosophy. Attempting to run an open source energy project has garnered me a lot of criticism, even though it has been very successful over it's short history. I repeatedly get asked about the project being a "first attempt" at applying open source methodology and project management to renewable energy.

My answer is that there is a historical precedent for the sharing of information and effort for the good of the community and it's only since the Industrial Revolution and increased fossil fuel usage that the hording of IP for the sake of individual profit over the common good has become the standard and this standard is proving to be unsustainable in a relatively short period of time.

Naresh G. Giangrande said...

Great post Jeff. Thank you for a useful equasion mathematically modelling what we are doing. And it is the premesis that a town using far fewer resourse and energy can, if properly designed, yield a better and more pleasurable way of life than at present. Even the beginnings of what we are doing are benefiting those of us who are undertaking the transition, individual by individual, as well as community by community. I can see it for myself. Riding my bike, for instance further than i ever dreamed possible; and what happens on those journeys enriches my life. I see the people stuck in their cars listening to radios, when i have birds and the wind in the trees to listen to, and the hedgerows to smell and look at. That's only one small thing.
Naresh Giangrande co founder , along with Rob Hopkins, of the Transition Town Totnes project.

Alastair said...

The new way of thinking sounds like the idea of Conscious Human Evolution (, and combined with the wisdom of focusing on what we can do - as another poster has commented: rehabilitating our localised communities - seems like a sensible direction. However, we have to account for state and corporate attempts to further weaken our communities and grass-roots capability for self-reliance. It appears to me, drawing from John Robb's approach that the overall future context is the tension between the powerful (e.g. states and corporations) and their ontologies, and grass-roots human adaptability (the rhizome) that is a growing challenge to power. Suppressing communities ability to think and act for themselves is the greatest threat to a human solution for the capitalist/empire/centralisation experiment. The real threat to power is our increasing ability to evade hierarchical organisation and regulation. The threats posed by real terrorism and sabotage are nothing compared to the potential for mass movements to submerge state power - for this reason the important conflicts are likely to be hidden and conflicts over energy, labour, production, and monetary economics in general will be superficial. Control over ICT, TIA, social network analysis, etc are the real battles and they have already started.

Anonymous said...


I am not sure about the "Quality of Life = Work * Technics" equation.

I can accept a definition of Technics as "the design process of converting work into human quality of life". However, think that flagging the problems with this definition is not sufficient to make the definition workable. There are many examples of technology that seem to be, on the face of it, (products of) 'technics', but for various reasons fail. The motor car for one, but CT scanners, and my alarm clock could be other examples.

I think that 'quality of life' is an ideological stance, and until the stance is made explicit there can't be any clarity to the term 'technics'.

You implicitly recognise this when you ask, "What is it about Tuscany or the South of France? What is it about Kauai, or a sleepy Costa Rican fishing village?" I think these questions need to be answered and the the answers need to be operationalised in order to give the idea of 'technics' any force. Perhaps you've already done this?

The other problem that I see with the distinction between work (availability) and technics, is that the two are somewhat interchangeable (not just non-mutually exclusive): If we say "work is a function of our ability to harness concentrated energy", then efficiency is certainly a major concern, however any improvement that increases efficiency (or EROEI) can easily be defined (by well meaning technocrats) as 'technics'.

I think that technics needs to consider two other factors to distinguish it from 'efficiency'.

Firstly, as you mention, 'sustainability'. How much time does this buy? In the cosmological long-run I suspect that it is going to end in tears, but in more 'human' terms, I would want to know just how long a particular 'technics' provide energy (in the desired quantities). We're going run out of shale oil before the sun goes nova right?

Secondly, and this comes back to ideology. What does a particular technics imply or demand in terms of the way that we live, and relate to one another? What qualities do we expect to find in 'quality of life' and how does a given technics reinforce or erode those desirable patterns of living?

Looking back at the equation, I think that quality of life and technics largely cancel/balance one another out, and that the significant objective term is "availability of work", not that it has any real meaning outside of a context that defines what we want to do with the work. What is a valuable product, and what is a worthless one?

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Ponter said...

"What is it about Tuscany or the South of France? What is it about Kauai, or a sleepy Costa Rican fishing village?" Aside from the seeming reduction in stress, one thing in common is that they tend to be warm!

What is it about people who live in the snowbelts of the world that they feel the need to conquer warm countries? Hmm. More to the point of the article, energy efficiency is a hell of a lot easier to achieve where the weather is mild-to-warm. The reasons are many and are probably self-evident with a little thought. Of course, Amory Lovins has done enormous research in the area of energy efficiency, and I would give him the last word on all of this. He manages to stay warm with little energy use at 7,000 feet in Colorado. On the other hand, he drives and flies way too much.

(I know this is an old post of yours, but I was just re-reading it and thinking about warm places as I sit here in Maine staring at the snow, trying to be a good do-be and keep the thermostat set fairly low.)