Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Problem-solving 101

Question: What do these three things have in common?

Answer: I bought each of them with my own money in order to solve a problem.

My office is in a rather old building on an even older campus, and that means we have an archaic climate control system. The centralized air conditioning is primitive, and in a good fraction of the offices and classrooms in my department it is simply incapable of keeping the air cool in the summertime. This wasn't even a particularly hot summer in my part of the country, but still it was common to see fans placed in open doorways as a last-ditch effort to stay cool. The same thing happens every year: people in the hot offices complain to the maintenance staff to fix the problem; maintenance never gets around to fixing the problem; and then the hot people switch to complaining about the poor maintenance.

I had a different response to the heat. Several years ago, when I realized I couldn't keep my new office cool enough, I bought my own air conditioner for $80 at Walmart. I now have perfect control of the temperature in my office during the summer, and even on the hottest days I can make my office as cool as I want. Now, you might think that the hot people around me would copy this simple yet phenomenally effective solution, but you would be wrong. The complaints about maintenance have continued unabated.

The heating system here is equally crude. Every office has exposed steam pipes near the outside wall with a simple valve that losely controls the amount of heat radiated by the pipes. Of course, the central system that distributes the steam operates unevenly, and sometimes we arrive at work in the morning to find our offices baking at 85 degrees. That prompts people to turn off the valves and open the windows, which eventually cools the offices too much and ... well, you get the picture. I bought a space heater with a thermostat for $30 and closed my steam valve, and now I stay an even 70 degrees throughout the day, every day. Problem solved.
Last Spring my university was part of the insane nationwide push to purge trays from cafeterias, so now eating in the faculty dining room has become decidedly less convenient. Instead of being able to put a salad, an entree, a cup of soup and a drink on one tray and then walk to our tables, we now have to make two or three trips back and forth between the table and serving area in order to assemble our meals. It's comical to watch professors in suits and ties ignominiously shuttling around with plates balanced on their arms, and the sound of a dish shattering on the floor is not uncommon.

Besides the inconvenience of not having trays, I have concerns about sanitation. Without trays, utensils end up resting directly on a table that someone else has just eaten on, and at the end of the meal we resort to carefully stacking our used plates on an unsanitary communal pile. It's all the more ludicrous to do these things given the occasional outbreaks of Norovirus and the looming threat of Swine Flu. In response I bought two cafeteria trays online for $5 apiece. I brought one of the trays to the dining room for the first time today, and although I got some bemused looks from my colleagues, it worked like a charm.
Why am I talking about these things? At the very least I can claim to have a unique perspective among academics when it comes to problem-solving. My first instinct is to rely on myself to find the simplest solution, rather than hope that someone else will solve it for me. I've done the same thing now in anticipation of another financial meltdown: opening multiple bank accounts and hoarding cash in case the worst happens. I hope nothing happens, but if it does, there are quite a few academics around me who can't say I didn't warn them.


Keith Wilson said...

You are the man!
Using your brain and your own resources to take care of yourself. What a strange concept these days, when everyone wants someone else to take care of them.

Now that is a great post!

John said...

Excellent post, very entertaining. I like your comment about having a unique perspective on problem solving. Which brings me back to market timing...was/is your model for market timing analysis unique? Why did it seemingly "fail" prior to you recently "sitting on the sidelines"? I'm an inquisitive person and keep wondering what changed, why your model appeared to be relatively accurate for years and then "failed" as the cyclical bear market turned bull. (Note: I still believe we are in a cyclical bull market within a secular bear market). I must admit, I would like to see you "back in the timing game" but with relative confidence in your timing model.
John from Colorado