Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Nothing exceeds like excess

Mid-March 1995

Just one more twist, just one more bushel, just a little closer. These thoughts spring to mind like whispered encouragements from one of those little cartoon devils that tempt us to do the wrong thing. To make it worse, we go along with the suggestion for the best of all possible reasons. The logic is unassailable – if a little is good, a lot is better. We are the victims of our own zeal to achieve maximum efficiency.

A lot of this problem has to do with being self-employed. If the outcome of our performance has no effect on compensation, then enough is a reasonable goal.  But nooooo! We are always trying to get the biggest edge possible, to push the envelope, to stretch our resources.  Hence we find ourselves in situations like:

  1. The Stripped Threads - Back in the Dark Ages before the invention of the lock washer, I gather that bolts were made fast by sheer brute strength. I have watched my father on many occasions strain to add that last bit of torque to a nut to insure it would hold tightly. Unfortunately, the usual outcome of such an endeavor was either stripped threads or a twisted off bolt - both of which were greeted by a stunned silence as the magnitude of the repair effort suddenly increased tenfold. That one extra turn to be sure has stayed with me and my generation, making it a difficult process to get used to o-ring hydraulic connections that are designed to be just "snug". Or how many farmers actually follow the instructions on oil filters, which state "Tighten until gasket makes contact, and then 1/2 turn more." Sure we do. I'm probably the only farmer who tightens the filter as tight as I can. Right.
  2. The Overfull Truck/Wagon - When I came back to the farm, I allowed my father to drive the combine, since he was well past 55 and needed an easy job during harvest. I drove the trucks, both to our bins and the elevator. He had the irritating habit of trying to get every possible kernel on every truck, which made driving without spilling on corners impossible. We had serious talks about this problem almost daily, during which he would promise to do better. There was no change. I have a friend who even calculates which side of the truck he can heap up the highest considering the turns to be made by the truck. The most horrifying part is that I have been having the same earnest conversations with Jan, now that I am driving the combine, and she is driving the trucks. Something about us won't allow a truck to leave without the maximum possible load. And if you think I went crazy over a little grain on the road, you haven't seen anything. I think I know where it began.
  3. Burning the Trash - It is all my mother's fault. One of my many odious chores as a boy was to burn the trash. [As all rural residents know, trash is what you burn; garbage is what you haul away.] The important thing to remember when burning the trash was to take it all in one trip, since that would take the least time. The fact that I could not begin to carry it all at once was beside the point. It was obviously more efficient to spend 20 minutes loading up and another 20 minutes struggling to the burner than to make two 1-minute trips with reasonable loads. Everybody knows that.   
  4. The Field Cultivator Proximity Temptation: Back when discs were 11 feet wide, a skilled operator could shave the soil around a power pole with surgical precision. We continue to assume this is possible with 40-foot finishers at 8 mph.  Not. Look around the base of any field marker, fencepost, or light pole, or check the outboard ends of the harrow on the implement and my point is made. But still we try to get that last ragweed - just a little closer and - rats! It comforting to know that this recurring temptation is shared by my partner Jan, who has been hitherto immune to the "Little More" syndrome. I have been far too considerate to mention this failing, of course.
  5. Glue/Caulk/Paint/Sealant/Ketchup Applications: Several thin coats?  Don't make me laugh. Why do you think they sell this stuff in two-gallon containers?

This all stems from the same logic that I used to figure out how they establish load limits on bridges. When I was a boy, it seemed reasonable to build the bridge, and then keep driving heavier and heavier trucks over it until it collapsed, then rebuild the bridge. Now that I am a fully-grown engineer, I know better. We just guess. At any rate, the empirical method of try it and see left us forever vulnerable to "just a little more" thinking.  Whether it is a good idea or not, it feels like you have gotten something free.  And every now and then it works.

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