LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE




 

Simple Solutions from Simple People for Simple Problems, Global Province Letter,
January 12, 2011

Doctors Are Great Until You Need Them.  We’ve all noticed that doctors have velvet, reassuring voices that are warming to the heart and opiates for the brain.  Until, that is, you actually have something wrong with you.  Then, so often, the internists are long on analysis and short on solutions. 

That’s the sticking point with professionals in all sorts of trades.  Lawyers, accountants, consultants, stockbrokers, all the so-called knowledge workers.  Years ago there was a distinguished statistician in England, Lord Somebody or Other, who opined,  “We have never kept better track of the numbers, and so I am happy to inform you that England’s economic debacle will be the most precisely charted decline in world economic history.”  He and his brethren did not know how to surmount England’s collapse, but they were fantastic at trumpeting how bad the problem was.

Simple Solutions from Simple People for Simple Problems.  To get somewhere, one must often range beyond the experts and find somebody on the firing line who has banged about enough to know how to do the simple things the big shots can only talk about. If at all possible, one should look to a nurse to get blood taken, avoiding the bumbling doctor who will make a mess of your arm. Should you suffer from fits of depression, better to hire a clinical psychologist than a psychotherapist if you want somebody who will help you survive today, and give you some hints about tomorrow.

For most practical matters, we’re looking for a hard worker who has spent 10 or 20 years dealing with the specific problem at hand every single day. What’s amazing is that our daily life is riddled with tasks where we really don’t know what we are doing.  It is the very simple chores that get us down, but the experts are mostly useless, masters of banality when it comes to immediate action.  We need somebody who can state the problem simply and solve it with dispatch. 

Years ago, Robert Townsend, onetime head of Avis, came out with a delightful little book called Up the Organization. The most important thing he had to say is that in organizations there’s a whole lot of difference between how the front office says things get accomplished and how they actually get done.  It is incumbent upon us to separate the wheat from the chaff.  You have to hunt around for the people who know how things work, shunting aside the suits who are only put on this earth to pontificate.

All this might remind us of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He is quoted as saying that early in his marriage, he and his wife decided he would make all the big decisions, and she would make the small ones. He duly noted that in several decades of marriage there never were any big decisions. There you have it. We’re wise to focus on that giant little person who can get small things done successfully.  Here are a few of the solutions to small problems we’ve picked up lately from some very unassuming people.

Boxwoods. Most of us are not doing a good job with our plants. Boxwoods are a great evergreen outdoor plant that most of us would do well to have around our houses or even our apartments.  But the nurseries do a terrible job telling you how to take care of them.  One old-timer has told us how. In early April you put a cup and sometimes two cups of cottonseed meal around each plant.  Then you spray the leaves with an intense pesticide to ward off boxwood leaf miner and spider mites. In mid April you put 10-10-10 fertilizer around the plant but not close to the base, while again spraying with the pesticide.  Meanwhile you water each plant an inch a week:  once a week will do, except when it is hot, when you should water twice a week. As a matter of fact, you need such precise care formulas for many of your major plantings, if you can find someone with real experience to spell it out for you. 

Of course, if this SOP does not work out for you, we suggest you visit with one Michael DesRosiers in Connecticut who has surrounded himself with 700 boxwoods and pretty much knows how to keep them going.  Likewise, we have recently lit upon a collector of clematis who has recommended just the variety we should buy for our climate and circumstance.  Indeed, if a hardworking yeoman cannot give you the right lowdown on a practical problem, a collector, a passionate crazy, may just be able to set you straight.  As you become addicted to boxwoods, feed your habit at the American Boxwood Society.

Computerdom.  It’s the dread of modern life that we all have to deal with computers.  They are as much one’s enemy as one’s friend.  In fact, we will never forget the rather brilliant,  high- ranking IBM official who absolutely refused to have a computer in his office, even though the bureaucracy in Armonk, New York, was determined to inflict one on him.  As he said, “They tell us they are friendly.  You know, your friendly PC.  In fact they are not at all friendly and are designed to confound thoughtful men.”

What’s worse, they have gotten worse.  So you have to learn the simple measures that might keep them going.  A recent article in the New York Times, “10 Ways to Get the Most Out of Technology,” December 30, 2010, p. B7 is somewhat helpful, even though, naturally, the writer made it too complicated.  You should install free antivirus software.  PC users can find free AVG software at Download.com.  Apparently Apple Mac users can access free iAntivirus software.  Secondly, many think you should drop Internet Explorer, and use either Firefox or Google Chrome as your browser.  Several flaws do seem to be cropping up in Explorer, and it seems to be easily invaded by hackers.  Finally, one must, for sure, back up all data (store a copy somewhere)—to make sure you can get running again if your computer completely crashes.  One fairly elaborate blog does feature a whole slew of ways of dealing with the technologies you will encounter in life, to include that poor jumble of contrivances that reside in your computer.  One must understand, however, that the computer makers and the software designers are hard at work making your machines more complex, more expensive, and more incomprehensible, so you must look for ways to get around them..

Finding a Lost Dog.  The temptation is to call the pound, the police, and various humane societies.  There’s even a fancy service out in California that uses robot dialing to call a 1000 or more people around your town to ask if they have seen Rover. But usually the ticket is to reach, very quickly, as many people as you can who are located in neighborhoods within a 3 to 4 mile radius of your home. Remember that lost dogs often go to the nearest low spot near your homestead and may be no more than a ½ mile away from your house.  The key actions are (a) to reach as many people as you can by email, often through neighborhood associations which will send out email alerts, and (b) to post huge numbers of notices with a picture of your dog on telephone poles, traffic signs, grocery store bulletin boards, schools, and everywhere else that comes to mind.  There is a good chance you personally will not find your dog.  The task is to leverage all your neighbors—those you know and those whom you will come to know, letting them become your dog trackers. One’s community is our bulwark against the insanities of the state.

Cutting the Cost of Travel.  The New York Times and other publications regularly do complicated articles on how to save money, but you still spend a fortune on travel..  “How to Cut Travel Costs in a Year of Higher Prices,” January 9, 2011, p. 2 is somewhat helpful.  But it pays to be more imaginative than the journalists.  Consider alternatives for both transportation and hotels. For instance, in Europe, especially in the north, one can find very nice rooms with local residents at a fraction of the cost of hotels.  Many smart people have started staying at clubs, rather than hotels, in London to bring down the tab.  In the Northeast it often pays to use rail, rather than air:  When you count the waiting time at airports, you are just as well served to use Amtrak instead of the airlines to get from New York to Boston. Look for new establishments and services:  some people recently cut 50% off their hotel bills by booking into a hotel in the Middle East that had not yet opened when they made their  reservations. Try out different days and weeks when booking transportation and hotels:  moving your trip by a week or even 3 days often will net much cheaper prices.  Similarly, if you travel at offbeat hours, you may find cheaper air or Amtrak fares.  Basically one saves money by staying away from the madding crowd, doing what others are not doing.

We are hopeful that mayors in our big cities will catch up with a notion that has been a big hit in Japan.  If one’s baggage could be hand delivered by a service, then one might use subways and buses, eschewing taxis.  If baggage could be moved fairly cheaply from city to city when one is flying, again by a separate service, then air and rail travel could become immensely easier.  Such services would also improve air and rail security.

We Are All Guerillas Now.  In this modern world we are all at war with organizations that are not trying to make our lives easier or more profitable. Pitted against us are vast resources, calculated indifference, extraordinarily flawed business strategies, and systems that are inherently unstable. To get through the day, we must learn to be guerillas, going underground to learn what to do, ever alert for two-minute, 50-cent solutions to our problems.

None of us like to think of ourselves as guerillas. Yet this is our only option when organizations have become so large and self-serving that they no longer address the needs of society. The “Strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare tend to focus around the use of a small, mobile force competing against a large, unwieldy one.”  The ordinary man today is tasked with the challenge of using mental jujitsu on the unwieldy institutions that surround him.  

P.S.  While physicians as a group are not working to improve our health or to protect our pocketbooks, there are some extraordinary doctors, many of our acquaintance, who more than follow the Hippocratic Oath that is the mantra of medical practice.  They take seriously the charge to do no harm.  And they work very, very hard.  While the docs as a whole are hurting both our health and our economy, we find that several doctors demonstrate professional integrity that ranges above that exhibited in any other professional field. This is an amazing paradox.  Several practitioners are doing unbelievable good. And yet parasitic medicine is chewing up more than 15% of our GNP, a figure that keeps rising in most years just about every year.

P.P.S.  It pays to define a problem simply and to seek simple solutions.  This can be overdone, since some things have to be complex.  But usually, if you cannot state the problem and the solution simply, not much will get done.  In this vein, we are fond of telling how the very successful TV drama Miami Vice came into existence.  Two TV impresarios went out to lunch.  Amidst wine, and food, and laughter, they came up with the formula for the show.  One wrote it down on a napkin. The recipe:  “Cops and robbers plus MTV.”

P.P.P.S.   Once upon a time an infantryman learned that “immediate action” was his best hope should his M1 rifle jam while he was out on a battlefield.  All this meant is that one quickly pulled back on the bolt.  Once in a while a rifle would fill with mud and grime, such that one could not pull back the bolt with one’s hand.  Then one would kick the bolt with one’s boot and that would un-jam it.  Of course, that rude course of action was not in any of the Army manuals and would earn a tirade from young lieutenants in crisp fatigues if they spotted a soldier doing anything so unseemly.  Of course, old time sergeant majors would smile at such resourcefulness.

 

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