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Benefitting from the Wisdom of Others

For about a year now, I’ve been having trouble with my faithful Craftsman Eager-1 push mower, which I bought at Sears about 15 years ago. The daggum thing starts up fine but then cuts off after about 2 seconds. This has led me to adopt the following algorithm:

1. Press rubber priming balloon 5 times.

2. Pull rip cord to start engine.

3. If the engine does not start, go to Step 1.

4. If the engine starts but then stalls after a few seconds, utter expletives go to Step 1.

5. If the engine stays on, mow the grass.

6. If the engine cuts off again, utter stronger expletives and go back to Step 1.

My problem is that the number of iterations through Steps 1-4 has been steadily increasing by about 2 times per month. Now that I’m north of 20 times for just one mow, our longstanding relationship is really on the rocks. I think it’s time for a new mower, but what am I to do with this one?

On my way to the store to check out the latest new models (urggh-urggh), I pass a small house with a hand-written sign out front:

Good Used Lawn Mowers


“What the heck,” I say to myself as I pop the number into my cell. After a few rings, an elderly voice with a friendly Southern drawl answers:


“Hi, I’ve been having trouble with my mower and was wondering if you might be interested in it.”

“Bring it by on Saturday at 9 in the mornin’, ‘cause I like to sleep in on weekends. When you come, knock on the back door.”

“OK, see you then.”

On Saturday, I pull around behind the house to find a double-wide carport with what must be the largest assemblage of used hand mowers in the state of North Carolina. Some are obviously very old but are neatly arranged, and all appear to be ready for action.

I knock on the door, and a spry old gentlemen with a flannel shirt and workman pants pulled up over his stomach with suspenders greets me with a firm handshake and beckons me to an overstuffed chair in his small living room. We exchange pleasantries, and I learn he is 91 years old and had spent 45 years as a railroad engineer. He has lived in Cary his entire life, and after his wife passed away, he started tinkering with mowers.

We go out back to take a look at the Eager-1. He deftly removes the air filter and squirts a bit of starting fluid into the exposed hole.

“Give ’r a pull,” he tells me.

I obey, and the Tecumseh engine roars to life but then quickly begins to stall in its usual fashion. But just before it completely dies, he gently places his index finger over the hole and, lo-and-behold, the engine coughs and cycles back to full power! It tries to stall again, but with perfect timing he chokes off the hole just enough to maintain that magic mixture of fuel and air. After a few more taps the engine is running steadily and better than ever. “Give ’r a try,” he says, pointing to a patch of grass. I am so ecstatic that I mow his whole backyard.

As software users and developers, we’re often tempted to abandon and bash old technologies and go for the latest, greatest new thing. While I’m certainly in favor of using the best means possible for the task at hand, sometimes those best means are those that have stood the test of time and have benefitted from the wisdom of those who have struggled through and solved myriads of problems using them. I put classic SAS software into this category – it provides a richly deep and powerful foundation for the processes in JMP Genomics. Our team continues to learn about clever new ways to use it to more effectively handle genomics data.

By the way, using this new-to-me-but-really-old-school technique, I can now start my Eager-1 with a single pull :-). It’s still going strong, and so is my nonagenarian mower buddy.

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1 Comment

Paul Savarese wrote:

Russ: I knew just who you were talking about from the description of the sign and other descriptors of your lawn mower repair guy. I bought my used Craftsman mower from him about 12 years ago and it is still going strong - starts on the first pull too but I use 15 pumps! By the way, that elderly gentelman can cuss up a storm! I heard him one day when he was playing pool with his buddies in the basement. I know his name but won't repeat it here. Anyway, I also enjoyed your tie-in and sentiments about SAS. Cheers, Paul S.