When government efficiency descends into insanity

Friday, September 7th, 2007

My previous job, before I graduated university, was programming at a government research laboratory. I spent over a year in total working there, spread out across three summers and winters between university terms. In that time I managed to get a pretty good idea of how governmental agencies operate, warts and all. My favorite quirk of that lab was how the climate control system was set up.

During normal work hours, the climate control system would function normally. In the winter it would heat the building; in the summer, it would air condition the building. So far so good. But, outside of normal work hours, the climate control system switched into “energy efficiency mode”, which is government speak for “it turned off”. This being a laboratory, there were scientists and technicians coming in at all hours of the day and night to check up on experiments, or just do additional research. But it would get so cold inside during the winter when the heating system was being “energy efficient”.

The solution was to install climate control override switches in each hallway that activated the system in that section of the building outside of normal work hours. These switches consisted of unlabeled, nondescript, little circular black buttons on beige electrical boxes mounted at the ends of hallways above eye level. I suppose information on their purpose got around by word of mouth, because most people wouldn’t even notice the switches on their own, and the few that did would have no idea of their function (and in general, in a laboratory, you don’t go messing around with buttons whose function you do not know).

The really evil thing about these buttons, and the reason you can tell the “solution” was one that only a government agency could think was reasonable, is that the override only took effect for one hour. After one hour, the climate control system would go off again (another “energy efficient” feature), and someone would have to walk back down to the end of the many-hundred-feet-long hallway and hit the button again. Every hour. I saw people setting egg timers so they wouldn’t forget when they had to go hit that infernal button once again. And God help you if you’re suited up in the middle of an uninterruptable experiment in the dead of winter with no one else in that section of the building. You’re just going to have to learn to enjoy the freezing cold. Some scientists kept interns and post-docs around after hours that they could send to go Press The Button for just this reason.

Modifying those damn buttons was the number one request on the electronic bulletin board for that agency. But rather than requesting a simple on/off switch for the climate control system, scientists seemed to just want the button’s effects to last longer. The average request was to have the override last for four hours. They didn’t object to the concept of having to press the button like a trained lab rat; they just wanted the freedom to be slightly lazier trained lab rats.

That’s the government for you.

I’m the kind of person …

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

I’m the kind of person who spends five minutes reading a map just to save one minute driving.

It may sound stupid upon first hearing it, but hear me out and maybe you’ll develop an appreciation of the technique.

It’s very calm sitting in a parking lot reading a map before heading out to go somewhere. You have all the time in the world to plan out your route. Once you get out on the road, it’s hectic, and it’s easy to make mistakes, whether it’s taking the wrong turn or taking your eyes off the road to look at a map at exactly the wrong instant. From an efficiency standpoint, it’s best to plan out your route with the car off, rather than taking a less efficient route once the car is running and the gas is flowing.

But my main reason is just for pure efficiency. So what if I really do gain nothing at present from calculating the optimal route. But what about in the future when I travel between the same two areas, and I know the optimal route without having to look it up? That’s good. If you never look at a map and you always just sort of try to figure the route out as you go, you inevitably end up taking many sub-optimal routes. But take time to plan everything out beforehand, and not only are you optimal on those routes you did plan out, you’re more optimal even on the routes you didn’t plan out, because, with all of that experience looking at the map, you have a much better spatial sense of where everything is laid out and what the general best paths between different areas are.

So pick up that map (or buy one of your local area if you don’t already have one), and just look at it, both now and at some point in the future when you need to go somewhere. I’ve ended up using Google Maps anytime my point of origin is my house, but I still find myself needing to consult a map many times when I’m away from home going from one point to another (or getting back home), and it’s always useful to have that map with me. I don’t mind spending time planning out that optimal route. I do mind taking a sub-optimal route. That’s just the kind of person I am.