Please Share Your Modestly Useful Advice With the RBC Community

Good advice makes life easier, and therefore it should be shared. This post is intended to encourage the sharing of “modestly useful” advice among RBCers, i.e., keep it practical but not too heavy, not when to divorce a violent spouse or how to disarm a live nuke.

To kick us off, here are three suggestions from me.

1. If you work in an office, keep a Swiss Army knife in your desk. You might think you wouldn’t ever need it, but then one day you will be trying to screw in a computer cable with your key, or biting a piece of loose string from the hem of your jacket, and you will be glad to have it handy.

2. If you are playing hearts with three people, throwing in a random card as the widow card introduces so much chance as to make the game a crapshoot. A better variant is to explicitly make the two of clubs the widow in every hand (or just set it aside) and have the first trick be led by the three of clubs instead.

3. When drinking port at a dinner party, recall that the port side of a ship is the left side, so you always pass in that direction after pouring a glass for the person on your right. If the person on your right forgets to pass the port along to you, ask if s/he knows the Bishop of Norwich. An experienced port drinker will recognize this cue and just pass the port. If the person says “no”, politely give the required hint by responding with something like “Excellent fellow, but he always forgets to pass the port”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

39 thoughts on “Please Share Your Modestly Useful Advice With the RBC Community”

  1. Try to remember, even when you are aghast at their stupidity, that people you deal with are generally NOT stupid. The world they see through their eyes does not always look exactly like the world you see, and very few things that bother you at the moment are important enough to embarrass your friends or family over. Love and friendship should trump almost everything else.

  2. Ad KH1: The better sort of multitool is based round a pair of pliers. Leatherman are the top end, but you can get working Chinese knockoffs for a fraction of the price.

    W1: Don't forget the duct tape. You can wrap a useful quantity (enough to make a scratch repair to an umbrella or silence the odd hostage) round a dead credit card.

    W2: Travel with a nasty cheap plastic belt that you can keep on at airport security, unless you meet an officious idiot security official, not an unlikely occurrence. There’s a marketing opportunity here for Gucci etc. using high-end engineering plastics for the buckle, but SFIK they have not spotted it.

    If you want to pursue the disarming-a-nuke option against Keith’s instructions, here’s a YouTube interview with Barney Rubin, a nuclear weapons engineer who did exactly that in July 1957 when the Diablo 911 test failed to go off. There is no suggestion the bomb-makers supplied the handy countdown timer that’s so helpful to action movie heroes.

  3. 1) Never criticize your dog after it has obeyed the "come" command — either discipline them in the act of misbehaving, or let it go. Disciplining them after they come to you teaches them that coming to you is a risky business.
    2) Use your little toe or it will become obsolete.
    3) Kingside castle at the first opportunity, when black.
    4) You do not need measuring cups and a timer for rice. It's just rice. Put water on it, a little oil or butter, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and cover. Check it 15 minutes later. If it's done, turn off the heat. If it's not, steam it a while longer. It's just rice. It's not a schematic for an IED. And you don't need to buy itta-bitty boxes of rice with flavor packets, that will feed one and three quarters people for 4 dollars. Just grab a few handfuls from your ten pound bag of jasmine or basmati and grab a a few jars from your spice rack, open them, and sprinkle. It's just rice, people!!!

    1. I have been trying to think up uses for my little toe. Could you suggest some?

    2. Absolutely YES to #1. It is taking me years to re-teach an otherwise smart-enough dog that it's okay to come in when I'm standing there with the door open, calling him nicely. He is so sure that he'll still be smacked for being too slow (his previous owners' habit) that he'd rather stay out in the rain.
      #4, easier still, 2 parts water to 1 part rice in a fairly heavy pan, bring to boil, stir, clap the lid on and turn the fire off (electric stove? shove it off the burner). No need to keep heating it; it WILL be done in 20 minutes.

  4. If you notice something pleasant, take the minimal effort to remark upon it, preferably verbally. It can be helpful for others who would otherwise overlook it (like a pretty flower on a path that normally goes un-noticed) and it can be a helpful reminder for yourself at how much pleasantry surrounds you.

  5. These are all terrific. James: The Leatherman is definitely handy with pliers, but I don't think they usually have a corkscrew which is handy when someone gets a promotion or the like and there is a bottle of non-sparkling wine to open…although that could lead to another tip, which is you can open a corked wine bottle without a cork screw using your shoe…but it does take some practice (or it did for me at least) so practice

    1. One New Years Eve French TV showed a parachutist leaping out of a plane above Toulon harbour with cutlass and bottle of champagne. He (inevitable gender) opened the champagne in midair with the scratch-and-smite technique, before landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The glass was supplied by the reception committee. I'm not claiming this counts as useful advice.

      On the office multitool, Gerber have one that meets your demanding requirements:


      The spiky thing in the middle of the top half, between the corkscrew and the Philips screwdriver, is I believe known to Boy Scouts as “the device for helping old ladies across the street”.

      And Leatherman, with a bigger old lady attachment:


  6. 1. Don't put the subject of your photograph in the middle of the frame.
    2. Before pressing the shutter run your eye around the edges of the frame to spot unwanted intrusions.
    3. Raise your partner's major.

      1. Major suit, that is. (Spades or hearts).

        Though your interpretation also makes sense.

  7. With respect to your first suggestion, it's my experience that the best tool is the one you have with you and to that end I would recommend everyone should buy a Gerber Shard and keep it on their key chain. I

    It's not as full featured as a Leatherman or similar to be sure, but it's perfectly serviceable for most of the random screwing, prying, twine cutting, box opening and other odd tasks you might need to do in a pinch when all you have is your keys and your wallet. It's small enough to not be a bother, sturdy enough to do the job, cheap enough to buy for everyone you know and dull enough not to be confiscated by the TSA.

  8. Join every hotel travel reward program you can. Even if you never build substantial points in any one, you gain access to reservation desks that can provide invaluable help in getting a room when a flight is cancelled, weather forces a change in travel plans, etc.

  9. Bring or send flowers. There's hardly a soul not delighted to receive them. When you bring or send flowers, bring or send them as an arrangement in a vase, so as not to impose a burden on the recipient. This may well be the best advice I have ever given.

  10. Any newer edition* of a classic novel you have long hoped to read is likely to have a plot spoiler in the foreword, and these spoilers do not come with spoiler alerts.

    *100% likely if it is at all critical or academically oriented, in other words not a trade paperback.

  11. Without being obnoxious about it, strike up conversations with totally random people. It is astonishing, what I have learned from folks who just happened to be standing or sitting around nearby: in the same queue for car inspections, cheap dog vaccinations or sales returns; hiding from the rain. One of the funniest totally true stories I ever heard was told by a very ordinary-appearing woman with whom I – a fancy senior US diplomat – was sharing a seat on the State Department shuttle bus. Since traffic on the Roosevelt Bridge was dead stopped, I finally turned to her and said, "So. Got any pets?"

    1. Are we supposed to be able to infer the funny story, or would you like to share it with us?

  12. (1) You do not have the right of way until someone yields it to you.
    (2) When traveling, always ask one more question (HT: Debra Sanderson)

    Not so fast on the multitools: you will usually want to use the pliers to hold a nut while you turn the screw…with the screwdriver that is on the other end of the pliers handles, dammit. Get one of the few from which the screwdriver assembly can be completely unsnapped from the frame.

    1. The comprehensive low-cost solution for the Humphrieys-O'Hare office drawer is therefore two Chinese knockoff multitools, one with corkscrew. However, I fear we are rather over-engineering the solution to an ill-defined problem. Think of Microsoft Word.

      1. Otoh … if everyone in an office kept one, and if it were kept on their desk, and if borrowing and returning norms were observed, then bingo. And really you could have every other person have one and still be more than covered in most offices.

    2. #1. Indeed. One should always

      Remember the story of Michael O'Day
      Who died maintaining his right of way.
      His right was clear.
      His will was strong.
      But he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

  13. I do a great deal of outdoor grilling. I've learned to buy grills only from the well-known brands, Weber, Char-Broil, Char-Griller, Brinkman, etc. The reason: Some parts rust and break sooner than others. If you buy an established national brand, you can generally buy replacement parts even years later.

  14. More good advice, I may repost this someday to accumulate more — thank you everyone.

    1. In re: hearts, I feel like taking out the two of clubs and starting with the 3 of clubs is just common sense. The way we played three handed hearts in college (a lot–I'm talking in the car on road trips, speeding up or slowing down so we could look at our cards in the lights of cars traveling the same direction, then calling out the cards verbally), you had to take the jack of diamonds to shoot the moon.

      The jack of diamonds as a minus ten, for those of you who don't know it, is also the best way to play hearts. Otherwise, there is no incentive to win any tricks/keep any high cards, particularly in diamonds.

      Finally, if you want to stop someone from shooting the moon, pass a low heart. Very rarely this will give them enough of an advantage in terms of numbers of hearts, but mostly it will stop them from being able to lead out hearts.

  15. Regarding children, direct reports and employees, don't fret that they don't listen to your every word, be terrified that they watch your every move.

  16. The version of hearts that has come with most editions of Windows for the past two decades has always had the 2 of clubs rule, and uses it to decide who goes first. I wasn’t aware that it was optional.

    1. While we're on cards, time to trot out the old saw "Never play cards for money with a man called Doc".

  17. The best value for used cars are the brands that were shuttered in the last decade: Pontiac, Mercury, Saturn, and Saab. Their values are depressed by the lack of advertising for new cars. Also avoid the first model year on used cars since they were made before all the bugs became known. Finally, don’t buy a used car with a turbocharged engine with more than 100,000 miles.

    1. Does your stricture against turbochargers apply to diesel engines, which are normally more robust? Turbo diesels are very common in Europe, I run a VW Touran of this type with 185,000 km on the clock; the engine has never given me any trouble.

  18. Re your 5: the debt incurred getting the unsaleable law degree also lasts a lifetime.

    1. I hope I didn't offend you with my comment. Many of your other points looked pretty good to me. Civil disagreement is not personal criticism. Come back later!

  19. It sounds as if I should learn to play hearts? I had no idea it was so popular. But first I am going to work on getting serviceable at poker.

    That, and I like the tip about chitchatting with people.

  20. Practice on somebody else's. Whether plumbing, car repair, parenting, romance, etc., your own stuff will thank you.

  21. Always consult a statistician *before* doing your study or survey. As Sir Ronald Fisher once said, when you bring in a statistician afterwards, usually the only thing that he/she can provide is the cause of death for the study.

  22. Use fresh citrus when making cocktails. The part that makes people remark with delight fades away after mere hours.

    Measure ingredients. Too much or too little of any part means balance and deliciousness will be lost.

    Writing without editing is masturbation. Don't let the public see it.

  23. Hey, I have one! In the right sunlight, with occasional rotation, that plant in your office can do perfectly well on a diet of (1) its own yellowed leaves and (2) leftover coffee. Just prune the roots with scissors every couple of years so it doesn't outgrow the pot.

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