Saturday, July 16, 2016

Give a Man a Minnow

The rising sun shines through a magnifying glass, burning a hole in a hot water bottle. The water drips onto the head of a sleeping pet, causing it to wake up and walk away. The string tied to its tail turns the crank on the jack-in-the-box, causing the conductor to pop up. The makes the monkey crash his cymbals together, squeezing the suspended orange. And fresh orange juice drips into the glass to greet you as you open your eyes.

As conceived of and drawn by Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg, this is just one example of over-engineering a complex solution to the simplest of problems. Goldberg was a master of these flights of imagination, delighting readers with a range of convoluted inventions for back scratching, fly swatting and napkin wiping. Widely admired and copied, his drawings were the inspiration for real life contraptions brought to life by a varied group ranging from Honda to Pee Wee Herman to my personal fav from OK Go.  

But while we might not go as far as Goldberg did, we do have a tendency to overcomplicate things. American ingenuity is legend, but we often take a big stick to a small problem. While it turns out not to be really true, the "Space Pen" anecdote captures this the best. As told and retold, an American astronaut was commiserating with his Russian counterpart about the difficulties of writing in orbit: "The pens that we use work with pressure and gravity. But in space, there is no gravity. So we created a battery operated pressure pen. It creates pressure at back side of the refill and constantly pushes the ink to front. What do you do?" Replied the Russian, "We use a pencil."

There are numerous real examples as well, not all in the vastness of space. Motivational speaker Scott McKain talks about arriving in a town to give a speech and finding that he forgot his cufflinks. He visited store after store trying to find replacements: no dice. Finally, a sales associate at a Walmart suggested he just buy a shirt with button cuffs. Duh.

In that vein I was most impressed with the notice from our county. We get these missives periodically, detailing everything from recycling drives to passport renewals to anticipated traffic issues. In this case it was focused on the upcoming summer season, a time when mosquitoes are on the increase. Used to be all you had to worry about with the little buggers were if you had enough calamine lotion. More recently, the focus has been on the West Nile virus. But this year it gets scarier, with the expected arrival of Zika.

The notice from the health department contained the usual warnings and precautions, including covering exposed skin by wearing long-sleeve shirts, pants and socks, and putting screens in open windows. It talked about traps and spraying to kill the critters buzzing around. But these are all methods designed to stop them once they are in the air. Any expert will tell you the best control starts at the source: get 'em before they start flying and your disease vectors go way down.

So higher on the list is dumping water from old tires or catch basins where eggs are laid. Next up is distributing "dunks," or larvacide that can be placed in standing water like bird baths to kill the little ones. But my favorite is bullet point number one, and something I'm not sure I've ever heard as a public health control measure: free fish.

The county is giving away free minnows to any resident that wants them. Turns out that the little swimmers love to feast on the mosquito caviar which floats on top of water: each good size fish eats hundred a day. The fish breed like rabbits, so they come back season after season to do the job. And at pennies each, the cost vs. other methods is extremely low. Throw a bucket in your backyard pond, and without chemicals, sprays or other nasties, you squelch the bugs at their source. It's Darwin writ small.

Usually you have to pick one thing or another. The saying is that you can have it good, fast or cheap: pick two. Here, it's simple, and no choice is necessary. And while you do need fish, you don't need monkeys, wind-up toys or whoopee cushions. Sorry Rube: less fun to be sure, but less itching as well.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes simple solutions. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: