Category Archives: Featured

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Machine Tool Scuttlebutt

By Lloyd Graff

As a dealer in used machinery I get to hear a lot of things if I ask the right questions and have the good sense to shut up and listen.

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Today, as we begin the PMTS show in Columbus where a lot of new machines are on display, the price quote you get may not be the final price. Importers of machinery have had the advantage of a strong Dollar for almost three years versus the Euro and Yen. If they have not dropped their list prices they may have room to throw in options or take trade-ins. They are under a lot of pressure to make their numbers by the foreign machine tool builders and may get concessions from them to move the iron.

American builders like Haas Automation are really putting the pressure on their distributors now. We hear Gene Haas, who owns the company, is telling his top lieutenants that they must sell at least 1400 machines per month, and he recently let go several top employees who had been with the company for a long time, to emphasize the urgency of the goal.

F1 Haas team drivers Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico, left, and Romain Grosjean of France pose during the official presentation of the new Ferrari-powered VF16 car at the Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, just outside of Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Siu Wu)

There are rumors about Haas Automation finally going public as one reason for the jump from 1200 machines a month, but those have been around for a long time. Gene Haas has also gone into Formula One Racing, a very costly hobby, while continuing his Nascar racing team.

Haas dealers, I have been told, are now very aggressive in taking in trades in order to hit the ambitious sales targets. This aggressiveness trickles down through the machine tool industry. A Haas Factory Store is now akin to a Ford or Toyota dealer. They are eager for trades that they will quickly cash out with used machinery dealers who serve a bit like Carmax does for the new car dealers. A VF-2 Haas machining center is not quite as easy as a Camry to cash out, but not too far off.

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The Precision Machined Products Association figures are showing that March was one of the best months ever for companies in the group. Most of the reporting firms showed improvement over the previous month and March of last year. The “Trump Bump” was definitely in evidence. My sense is that people in the industry are finally changing their mindset from cautious to “beginning to get more confident.” I have recently noticed auction prices bouncing up on multi-spindle screw machines, even National Acmes like 1 ¼” RA6 models from the near scrap value we saw last year. At a recent auction of Brown & Sharpe automatics in Dayton Ultramatic Ram Slide machines brought $7000. Last year $4-5000 would have been strong.

Returning to the Haas strategy, I think the top brass in Oxnard, California believe that the market is robust enough today to support the aggressive sales push. It is a good piece of knowledge to have if you are a potential buyer of a Haas machine or a competitor’s.

Question: Is business really getting better?

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One Company’s Life Cycle

By Lloyd Graff

Jeff Pedu called Graff-Pinkert to find a new home for three Schutte screw machines, an SD32, SD50 and SD80, that his dad bought new in 1967 for the family’s machining company, now called Placid Industries. They don’t need them anymore because they sold the company recently, and the new buyer doesn’t want multi-spindles. The machines may have no value, but Jeff’s story of a small American manufacturing plant, started 62 years ago by his father on Long Island, is the stuff I love about working with machining people.

The company started as a job shop after the Korean War. It was growing in the mid-‘60s but Alex Pedu didn’t like the economic climate of labor unions and high wages around New York City and decided to move the business to upstate New York, little Lake Placid, which is famous for only one thing, the Winter Olympics of 1980 when the American hockey team beat the Russians in the Miracle on Ice. It is slightly miraculous, too, that the tiny 10-person shop of the Pedu family has survived profitably since then.

The United States hockey team celebrating the victory over the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Soon after the Olympics Jeff’s dad, a tinkerer and lover of mechanical things who fell asleep at night reading machinery catalogs, developed a clutch and brake product for specialty applications. Son Jeff had just come into the business, and he had no taste for the insecurity of the job shop world so father and son focused on the clutch business. They kept the three big Schutte multi-spindles partly because their loyal employee from Switzerland who set them up and ran them made the move to Lake Placid with the Pedus. He worked there until he retired ten years ago.

The clutch and brake business developed into a highly profitable cash producer. It was a low-volume, high-margin product with long-term clients who valued American quality and reliability. Jeff’s brother Jason came into the business in the 1990s.

Jeff and Jason’s father died in 1987, but the business continued to prosper under the sons’ ownership. With a staff of 10 including the owners they could make a nice living with around $2 million in sales.

But every business has a cycle. Jeff’s two children are now launched in careers outside of Placid Industries. Jeff’s wife is spending much of her time in Florida dealing with her ailing mother. Jason’s daughter is only 10 now. The Pedus’ 91-year-old mother, who owned 8% of the stock, lives in Florida, too. When Jeff and Jason Pedu made the decision to sell the company, they called everybody they knew in the clutch and brake business and many they didn’t know. They ultimately figured out a price that made sense to a buyer and would satisfy them. For a closely held business with a profitable product line like theirs the price was probably about 4-5 times EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization). Jeff is now headed to Florida; Jason is sticking around Lake Placid.

The buyer of Placid Industries is SEPAC, Inc., a privately held 40-person firm whose owners are refugees of the old Bendix plant in Elmira, New York. They are moving the operation. They do not need three 1967 Schutte multi-spindle screw machines with a thousand collets. They bought a product, a brand and a reputation that they believe they can grow.

After 62 years, the Pedus are walking away comfortable and happy. Anybody need a big Schutte in a hurry?

Questions: Do you want to sell your business? Would you like to buy one?

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Beds, Banks and Beyond

By Lloyd Graff

The economy is always hard to figure out, but we seem to be in an especially baffling period for both professional economists and amateur business people like me. The Federal Reserve has given the banks two .25% rate hikes recently, yet the 10-year U.S. Treasury has fallen back to 2.25%. This number dictates the mortgage rate and many other interest rates. The dollar has been steady versus other currencies. Unemployment is supposedly at 4.5%, yet there seems to be no upward pressure on wages, an apparent anomaly. The real estate market is steady generally. Home prices are going crazy in Toronto, but in Chicago, Detroit and Miami, not much movement.

Capital equipment is not doing much except in aircraft. Machine tools are scuffling. The oil and gas market is rebounding while cars and trucks are softening a bit, making things generally decent but nothing to have a party about.

I am looking forward to the Precision Machining Technology Show in two weeks in Columbus, Ohio. I hope it will give the precision machining folks a good excuse to issue some big orders.

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How do you find a bed you love and a pillow that doesn’t crimp your neck? I’ve been struggling with sleep issues for many years. I fall asleep fairly easily, but a 3 a.m. bathroom call can often mess up the rest of my night’s sleep. I also tend to wake up at first light and struggle to fall back asleep. Add to that a case of sleep apnea to my slumber issues to complicate a night’s snooze.

I really crave a comfortable mattress and pillow to make my night less wakeful.

My wife Risa and I currently sleep on a Sleep Number bed. In my opinion, the bed’s real number is 3 out of 10. I sleep well on maybe 3 out of every 10 nights. Besides not really being able to calibrate the hardness of the mattress, my big beef with the Sleep Number is that I slip off the sides when I play Words With Friends on my iPad before going to bed, or when I try to tie my shoes in the morning. The Sleep Number company replaced the foam on both sides of the bed but the slippery slope problem persists. I cannot sit up in bed without getting back and neck pain, so I have to sit on the side of the bed to read my phone or iPad. Maybe I need to put pine tar on my sheets to stick on the bed.

The pillow is also a pain in the neck. Conventional pillows are always too hard or too soft. A hard pillow tends to make my neck crooked, culminating in numbness in my fingers. A soft pillow makes me feel submerged. I have a gel pillow now that cost $200, but it seems to be the best remedy for neck pain that I have found. The gel in the center of the pillow is depressed and is a good compromise between firm and “give.” The only negative is that I need to stay in the center of it to really get its benefits, which can be tricky for a side sleeper in the middle of the night.

The mattress market is now in a period of disruption by lower-priced, mail order entrants. I relish the competition for the old cartel of overpriced bed makers, but it is extremely difficult to pick one off the Internet. I look forward to your comments about success or failure in finding a mattress and pillow that really works (or fails) for you.

Question: Do you have a mattress and pillow you like?

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Our Crunchy New Car

By Emily Halgrimson

About two weeks ago my boyfriend bought a 2013 all-electric Nissan Leaf while I cheered him on. Steve had been driving a 2005 Chevy TrailBlazer he bought used at Carmax for the past eight years, and was tired of the $50-$70 in gas money he burned up each week commuting 26 miles each way on a semi truck-heavy stretch of I-94 in Northwest Indiana. I planted the idea of an electric car in his head months ago, and after lots of Internet research and discussion we decided to go test drive one. We were impressed with the surprisingly powerful acceleration, smooth handling, interior space and comfort of the car. After the dealer accepted a price just above our seriously low-ball offer, Steve decided to roll the dice and go for it.

It’s very exciting to get a new car, but we do feel the nervous uncertainty of being early adopters. The U.S. is definitely setup for gas engines, and stepping outside the norm means a learning curve, challenges and some sacrifice. People’s reactions have been fun to watch. Family and friends want to see it, look under the hood, and drive it, and few people try to hide their skepticism about if this was a dumb purchase.

The price of a used Leaf sounds too good to be true. Our 2013 with 22,000 miles was priced online in the south suburbs of Chicago for $8900. After our initial offer of $7500 was rejected we agreed to pay $8000. These cars sold in 2013 for $30,000-$35,000 in three trim models, and look and feel like $30,000 cars inside. Most new Leaf buyers lease the cars, which has left the used Leaf market flooded and the used car price unnaturally low.

Steve’s 2013 all-electric Nissan Leaf

A 2013 Leaf when new reportedly had a range of about 100 miles per charge. Our used Leaf shows 91 miles of range after being fully charged, so we’re already seeing some signs of battery capacity loss, though it doesn’t seem too bad considering it’s a four-year-old battery. This is the scariest part about the Leaf, not knowing how much battery capacity it will lose each year. There is some worry that we may be left with an un-drivable car that needs a $4000-$5000 new battery sooner than we expected. After reading hours of blogs and articles on the subject it’s clear the battery wear issue isn’t simple. A lot depends on how the car is driven, the climate the car battery is subjected to, and how it’s charged.

Driving a Leaf does mean a bit of a lifestyle change. The automatic noting of gas prices I used to do while driving around has morphed into a feeling of smugness I try to resist while watching people burn dollars at the pump. You also see your neighborhood in a new way, because I wouldn’t feel comfortable traveling more than 35-miles from home without having a plan in place to charge the battery.

It’s surprising how many charging stations are around. Of course, there’s an app for that. BP is reportedly working on a network of quick charge ports at their gas stations, though there aren’t any in Chicagoland yet. We’ve already taken a trip to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park for a hike so we could try charging the Leaf at their free charging station while we walked the beach trails near Lake Michigan. And knowing there’s a charger next to our favorite farmer’s market in Chesterton, IN is exciting. Our local hospital and park have free chargers, and every Kohl’s store has a free charger too, info that has changed our opinion of the retailer notorious for its fake sales.

Charging the Leaf is a learning experience. The car comes with a Level One 3.3 kW, 120-volt charger that fully charges the battery in about 11 hours, which perfect for overnight when electricity is the cheapest. You can purchase an after-market Level Two 6.6 kW, 240-volt charger for about $500 that will do the job in 5 hours, but you’d need an electrician to install a dedicated line in your home. A public fast charge port can charge the battery to near capacity in 30 minutes, but these aren’t always free. It’s estimated that home charging a Leaf costs $2-$3 from zero to full, a quick-charge station can be up to $7.

Since we’ve only had the car two weeks the newness and excitement hasn’t worn off, we don’t yet have a feel for how well the car will work for us in the long run. The modest car payment is easily being covered by Steve’s previous monthly gas expenditure, so financially we should feel no worse off. And we still have my 2010 Subaru Forrester for Steve’s fishing trips and our vacations. But there is a small sense of loss of freedom, because the combustion engine lets you get up and go anywhere without much thought. Right now we feel it’s a positive move, but ask me again in a year and I’ll let you know if we’ve passed the real world test, and Steve has in fact sold the TrailBlazer.

Question 1: Would you ever consider buying an electric car?

Question 2: Tesla’s market value just surpassed Ford’s. Does this make sense to you?

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Shot at Stardom

By Lloyd Graff

Jon Samuelson has three daughters, Bonnie, Karlie and Katie Lou. Two were in the NCAA Basketball Final Four over the weekend. A third started for Stanford and graduated in 2015. How do you end up with your three kids all starting for big time college programs? Start by having them shoot 500 shots every day with Dad checking the numbers and the form.

Jon Samuelson is 52. He played college ball himself at Cal Fullerton and Chapman College. He took his love for the game to England to play European Pro ball and met his wife Karen who was a Netball player, a poor cousin of basketball. The three girls have the b-ball genes and being over 6’ tall doesn’t hurt. The youngest, Katie Lou, was the most sought after, considered the top high school recruit in the 2015 class. She picked UConn, which had won 111 games in a row before losing to Mississippi State in Saturday night’s semi-final.

When I researched the Samuelson family my a priori feeling was that Jon must have been a crazy, autocrat of a father, demanding his girls practice like fiends. This was the picture tennis great Andre Agassi painted of his father who he despised. I have this image of the Indian and Chinese parents who relentlessly drill their kids on spelling words day after day hoping they will win the National Spelling Bee.

Karlie, Jon, Katie Lou and Bonnie Samuelson. Courtesy of ESPN. 2014

But the Samuelson girls portray a tableau of a loving family of jocks who were in constant search of vacant gyms to practice in. Jon delighted in seeing them surpass his skills, though he still thinks he can beat them at HORSE because he is ambidextrous. They have trouble with their left hands.

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It’s baseball season again, and I’ve been bubbling with anticipation. My Cubs are stacked, but it is extremely hard to repeat even if you have a great team.

On paper, the Cubs are superior to last year’s team. They are better at catching, possess the best defense in the game, and sport a superior offense with Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras who will be playing most of the games in 2017.

But the team has something special that cannot be easily quantified – players with character and leadership. Start with Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, both cancer survivors. Rizzo spends at least one day a week at Lurie Children’s Hospital, really connecting with kids with cancer. Matt Scczur, an important substitute outfielder, is a bone marrow donor.

Jason Heyward, who signed a huge contract last season and had a disappointing year, held the crucial meeting during the rain delay of the seventh game of the World Series to rally the team to victory. He spent a grueling winter working with special instructors to remake his swing despite being guaranteed $25 million a year.

Heyward also paid out of his own pocket for an upgraded hotel suite for third string catcher, David Ross, last season that could hold his whole family during every road trip. This is something I have never heard of before.

Kris Bryant, last year’s National League MVP, beat out his closest friend, Rizzo, for the award. They are such close buddies they had jerseys made up with an amalgamation of their two names, Bryzzo, to wear.

Miguel Montero, the Cubs backup catcher, is tutoring his replacement, Contreras, a fellow Venezuelan. The Cubs also signed John Jay for $8 million to be a utility outfielder and coach his friend and protégé from Miami, Albert Almora, who will start in Center.

This collection of young men is very special. Theo Epstein, Cubs President, understands that you do not just put together an assortment of batting averages and 90-mile per hour sliders. Over a 6-month season, character and chemistry make a tremendous difference when things get tough. Same goes for a business or a Boy Scout troop.

I like the Cubs’ chances in 2017 to repeat.

Question: Did you push your kids too hard, not enough, or the right amount?

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Paid by the Hour

By Lloyd Graff

I received an email recently from Steve Rose, a veteran of the machining wars who was educated in an apprentice program in England during the 1960s. Steve had a CNC training business in Cleveland for many years but now teaches Trig and programming while whiffing cutting oil again in lovely Olympia, Washington, where raindrops fall for two months straight.

Steve’s reason for writing to me was not to lament the wet, but to discuss the question of why so many jobs in machining go unfilled. In his opinion, wages are stubbornly low for people in the field, especially the technical school grads who he teaches and trains.

I have grappled with this issue myself for decades as I run a machine tool business and publishing business. I am always trying to figure out how much to pay employees in order to hold onto them. I also have to motivate the most productive people, yet not sow discontent among the marginal but still useful ones.

In my experience, we tend to not pay the best people enough while we pay too much on the low end. This hurts us in attracting promising young people.

I am finally trying to address the issue by hiring people when needed and paying them by the job, which probably means paying $30-$50 per hour for machinery rebuilding specialists who are very efficient. By doing this I avoid paying health insurance which would cost $10,000-$15,000 per employee. I also only pay for the labor when we need it.

I think that specialists in machining such as repair or setup people for Hydromats and CNC Swiss enjoy making $50 per hour while being paid to do a specific job extremely well.
It makes me think that one reason so many jobs are “unfilled” in machining is that businesses are organized in an old school, basically unproductive hierarchical system that actually overpays unproductive folks and underpays the truly outstanding people. If success is rewarded accurately and properly I see machining companies becoming more specialist oriented with experts making $50 or more per hour while being supported by $15 per hour assistants. There will be a mid-group of minor league prospects who have a chance to make it to the majors if they work hard and progress. Larger companies will have training programs and coaches to help promising candidates move up.

I am curious whether you think I am nuts in my analysis of the current and future trends of working in the machining realm. Will the cost of health insurance tend to keep the old wage system going or will it doom compressed wage ladders?

Question 1: How does health insurance affect your business or personal healthcare situation?

Question 2: Should factory workers be paid by the hour?

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You Bet Your Life

By Lloyd Graff

Fifteen years ago, I was in Las Vegas for a business conference in late March and ran into a used machinery dealer from Chicago named Earl Elman.  Earl was a contemporary of my Dad. I knew his wife had a fatal illness, and he was a starched collar, grey suit kind of guy—not a gambler.

“Hey, Earl, what are you doing out in Vegas?” I asked. “Lloyd, it’s March Madness. I come every year for the basketball games. I love it.”

It struck me as so unlike what I thought Earl did when he was not brokering Bridgeports, but then I thought to myself, why not? We all make bets with our money and our lives, every day. He put his dough on the Spartans or the Gophers.

This memory came back today because of the calendar and my daily scan of The Wall Street Journal. It’s March Madness time again. Intel is paying $15 billion for Mobileye, a young Israeli company with $300 million in sales. Tesla used Mobileye’s technology in its car that had the first fatality using artificial vision and blamed it on Mobileye’s software.

Intel is in a pickle at the moment because it missed the Smartphone and Cloud booms while focusing on the declining market of chips for personal computers.

The company still has plenty of cash and credit, and decided to make a big bet on vision systems for autonomous cars. Its arch competitor QUALCOMM recently made a $40 billion bet on NXP Semiconductors, an automotive chipmaker. These are massive business wagers that are by no means sure things.

Is Intel caught up in billion-dollar March Madness? Don’t ask David Ackman, the hedge fund gambler who just took his medicine on Valeant to the tune of $5 billion. Valeant is the company whose brilliant strategy was to buy drug franchises like EpiPen and raise the price ten-fold. It worked for a while until people started dying because they could not afford the drugs they had been buying for decades. The name “Valeant” has became equated with “predator.” Ackman lost 95% of his “investment.”

I wonder if the Wall Street wizard, Ackman, might want to make a career change like the son of a business associate of mine. He had the best education you could get in England, graduating from Oxford with a mathematics specialty. Rather than going into academia or the family machine tool business, he followed his passion for football (soccer) and gambling by joining a London firm that bets its own money on games around the world using “big data” and a little moxie. I think they are doing better than Bill Ackman these days.

Groucho Marx on “You Bet Your Life”

We all make bets each day. When you pick fresh strawberries out of the case, you are betting on their texture, sweetness and incipient mold. When you go to the doctor, you gamble that the tests she sends you to are interpreted correctly. Medicare just released a study showing that patients who spend more on tests and scans do no better than those who are unscanned.

My fascination with bets began as a child as I listened to my father’s stories about machinery deals. I think he only told me about the good deals, not the ones that went sour, because as a kid I thought his judgement was infallible.

I used to play poker in high school with neighborhood friends, which was a good lesson in losing. I graduated to Bridge in high school and usually lost. I think it cured me of depending on the luck of the draw to place my bets, but the used machinery business was a different game because I had my personal big data of a thousand deals done, in my head. I had my Dad’s experience etched into my cerebral context and I had pounds and pounds of green and yellow cards with the records of used machinery transactions of yesteryear.

In my decades of buying all sorts of imperfect used goods I have learned that making successful bets is hard, and the hardest part is continuing to bet on your own judgement when you have just screwed up big. When you lose your own confidence the percentages swing strongly against you.

The hardest part of business is staying in the game when the game turns against you.

In that light, I admire the leaders at Intel. They have been playing a losing game in the PC market since the iPad came out.

On the face of it, Mobileye is ridiculously expensive, but if an Intel just keeps doing what it has been doing it will become Sears Roebuck.

Life is a gamble. Business is a gamble. Spin the dice. Squeeze the oranges. And hope.

Question: What is the over-under on Donald Trump’s time in office?

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My Country

By Noah Graff

My dad and I arrived in Nashville last Thursday afternoon to go to a conference put on by the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA). After checking in at our hotel I headed straight to Broadway to take in the main attraction of Nashville, the prolific Country music scene. I can’t say I’m a true country music fan, though I do love Johnny Cash, but I was in Nashville so I had to listen to some Country music. I find that even if I’m not an expert or big fan of something, be it jazz, bull riding, or sniper rifles (at the Shot Show in Vegas), if I’m in a place that features the best in world of something I can usually appreciate it and get into it. So in Nashville I was ready to expand my mind and hopefully be wowed by the next… shoot, I don’t know jack about about Country music so nobody clever comes to mind.

For those readers who don’t know about Nashville’s music scene—I really didn’t—it’s kind of the Mecca of Country music. It’s the place to see some of the best emerging Country artists in the world, the ones who are on the cusp of becoming stars on the radio. It’s also home to many great artists who will never be heard by people outside of Nashville but play for the love of the music and performing.

Artists in Nashville have the opportunity to practice their craft constantly, getting to perform long sets in medium-sized local bars with passionate audiences throughout the day and until 3:00 a.m. Sometimes they even play sets at more than one bar in the same day. There is probably no better place in the world for a musician to get in the 10,000 hours prescribed by Malcolm Gladwell to achieve mastery.

The main drag for Nashville’s music venues is Broadway, with some other interesting spots off the intersecting avenues, primarily 2nd Avenue. I strolled Broadway for a half hour in the late afternoon, feeling uninspired to go in anywhere. Music seemed uninteresting, and I was turned off by the street’s commercial Disneyland feel. Picture continuous neon signs of Cancun’s Party City framing the world’s highest per capita number of bachelorette parties riding booze bicycle trollies. Ehhhh! And so many tourists. I met more people in Nashville from Chicago than from Nashville!

The Risches Performing at Layla’s Nashville, March 2, 2017.

But then something caught my ear. Something twangy, melodic and fun, that at that moment reminded me of the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou. I looked up and saw a smiling middle-aged woman at the door who invited me inside of Layla’s to hear a Blue Grass band called The Risches. Layla’s seemed a little different from elsewhere. It felt more raw, more like how I would picture a real honky tonk. It had a simple decor, with some posters on the wall and hundreds of colorful license plates hanging from the ceiling.

On stage were six musicians. A skinny long haired man in his 20s or 30s played an acoustic guitar at left stage. At right stage a pregnant woman sitting on a stool also played guitar, and behind her was a man playing base. A cute fiery chick in her 20s with a quasi mohawk, wearing a miniskirt and cowboy boots, furiously played fiddle and guitar and sang, and a woman with a wild mop of short blond curly hair, wearing big dark sunglasses, belted out surprisingly powerful and beautiful tunes. I guess she gave me a rebellious Janis Joplin type vibe. Finally, a blond woman with short blond hair in her 50s or 60s sat discreetly on a stool in back playing a snare drum with brushes. Everyone on stage sang and played guitar at some point in the set, aside from the base player.

I had to leave after 30 minutes to go to the conference. When I stepped outside I chatted again with the sweet woman at the door. She told me that the older woman playing the drum was Layla, THE Layla who owned the bar. She said that everyone on stage were siblings. They have been playing in Layla’s since several of them were kids. She said some were practically raised on stage! I researched the Risches, formerly known as Jypsi for this piece. Turns out some of the members have solo albums in addition to those recorded as a group. They perform at Layla’s three days a week at various times a day. I’d recommend you check them out if you’re in the neighborhood. I saw some other talented musicians over the next few days at other decent venues, though nobody I loved like the Risches. I’m happy to say that underneath its commercial shell, Nashville does deliver the music it’s known for—it has a soul. And though I’ve developed an appreciation for both, I think I’m slightly more likely to download a Country song than buy a sniper rifle.

Question: Who is your favorite Country singer?

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First Family

By Lloyd Graff

Commitment to family is a bedrock value to my wife Risa and I. It comes before career, money, religion, friends, even the Cubs. It wasn’t something we preached about frequently to our children, but we built our lives together giving each other space while always staying in touch and caring about one another.

We spent last week together, the 12 of us, in San Diego. We own several weeks at a timeshare resort, and we have been using it as a gathering spot for a dozen years. Trying to pull together the schedules of busy business people, clergy, software engineers, therapists and students can only work if they really want to get together for a week, because it ultimately is not about the dates, but the desire to be with one another in person—not on social media.

Aside from Noah, the rest of our family rarely posts anything on Facebook. Over the last week I never even heard Facebook mentioned. Throughout the year we do talk on the phone to one another, send a lot of photos, and get together face-to-face, even though my daughter Sarah lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three kids. I work with my son Noah, so we are in constant touch. My son Ari is married with a baby living in Chicago. We try to see each other twice a month.

Holidays like Thanksgiving, New Years, Passover (around Easter), and President’s Day open up the calendar for extended weekends.

The Graff and Roy clans at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Feb. 21, 2017.

But family gatherings only work if you really like each other. You can love someone deep in your gut yet really not want to spend any face-to-face time with her, but on our trips we all like to break off into various pairs or small groups to spend quality time with people we don’t get to see very often. I put out a sign-up sheet requesting a walk with each of the 11 other people on the trip. I particularly wanted to walk with my grandchildren to learn about their lives without parents or siblings chiming in. I also wanted to talk to children’s marriage partners who I do not converse with so frequently. And I wanted to get to know Noah’s wonderful girlfriend Stephanie better without Noah hovering close by. This is how you build family, I think.

I will never forget eight years ago when I was fighting for my life in the hospital and Ari’s then girlfriend of short duration, Elissa, stayed close to Ari when she should have been at work. She defied her parents saying, “this is where I have to be now, school can wait.” We “talked” by me writing her notes while hooked up to tubes. Those 14 days at the hospital were truly days where family meant so much to me and especially Risa. During the first critical night people slept on the floors at St. Francis Hospital keeping a vigil. It was a family hovering together for support.

The trip to San Diego this past week was probably my best one ever. Sarah’s girls were finally big enough to play our competitive games of Taboo, Scattergories and Snake Oil. I was even able to talk about some heavy stuff like the Vietnam War to my oldest granddaughter, Eliana, on our walk.

On the last night of the trip we capped everything off by watching a fantastic documentary chronicling our trip made by Eliana on an iPad.

It was Family. It was great.

Question: What is your favorite TV show about family?

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I Love Cars

By Russell Ethridge

I am a car guy and, as I do most years, I strolled through the North American International Auto Show which is held in Detroit every January. Unlike the auto shows in smaller cities that are mostly venues for local dealers to whet the appetite of local customers, this show attracts journalists and auto industry types from around the world who come to see the concept cars and advanced technology car makers think we’ll want in years to come. Nevertheless, there is plenty of dreaming by the masses, most of whom see cars as personal statements and engines of their independence.

I waded through throngs of everyday folks gawking at cars they might never afford and stood in line to sit behind the wheel of cars I could never afford or justify bringing home even if I could. Like everyone else, I felt the shifter in my hand, touched the controls, and adjusted the seat to exactly how I’d want it. I observed it from every angle as it rotated on its platform, wondering how it would look in my driveway. I imagined how I’d look piloting the big motor version with sport rims and fat tires and what my friends would say about my new ride. I listened to the siren song of the comely model raving about the performance, driving characteristics, and luxury features of this, the latest and greatest, and I saw thousands of others lost in the same revelry. It is the revelry that comes from the chance to have your true identity (or the person you want the world to see) displayed in a mobile package that doesn’t care which side of the tracks you come from. It is your personal expression and your independence, limited only by your ability to make the payment.

1967 Plymouth Valiant (Barrett-Jackson.com)

I have always loved cars, but it is not always the big motor or great color that has me smitten. One of my top ten lifetime rides was a 1967 Plymouth Valiant with a Slant-6 motor. I bought it for $90, brush painted it Rust-Oleum brown and slammed that thing around every mountain road I could find when I lived in rural West Virginia. Legend has it that New York cabbies would run a cab with a Slant-6 until the body fell off and then run the motor in another cab until it was toast. Mine never failed, and it was running strong when I sold it for $35 with nearly 200,000 miles on the clock. I knew they were strong; I helped build them when I worked at Chrysler’s Mack Avenue stamping plant in Detroit in 1968 churning out 273 Valiant fenders an hour.

As I made my way through the displays of various manufacturers, I saw their homage to the emerging technology of autonomous cars and self-driving technology. Many manufacturers touted their lane following systems that use multiple cameras and proximity sensors so you can comfortably manage your car hands free, at least on major roads. Almost everyone has autonomous braking, and many manufacturers are making it standard equipment, a technology that will undoubtedly reduce rear-enders in stop-and-go traffic. This technology will soon be good enough (and some say it already is) that a driver will be unnecessary. Google and others have millions of crash free driverless miles in the rearview mirror, not that a rearview mirror will be needed. Truck drivers should be worried.

But how will this technology square with cars as a personal statement and driving as pleasure? What do I care about the shifter, the big motor and the sport wheels if cars become something I don’t own but merely summon when I need to get to work? Even if I own a self-driving car, will I care if it does not take the scenic route I enjoy every morning? The physical act of driving provides its own autonomy since I, alone, sit behind the wheel in full control and can decide mid-stream to stop for coffee or pin myself to the seat with a burst of delicious power. The conventional wisdom is that self-driving cars will be safer because they don’t drink and drive, don’t speed, and never fall asleep. They’ll communicate by satellite instead of horn and middle finger. Autonomy will undoubtedly bring its own benefits in the form of less road carnage and greater convenience, especially for those who don’t like driving in the first place. But will I feel frustrated riding along at 55 mph on a freeway that currently moves at 80? Will I need a special “driver’s” license to actually drive a classic sports car made well before seat belts were even required? What if I want to drive it at 80 mph? Will I be dodging legions of driverless mobile pods doing exactly 55? If that happens, I guess I’ll never again be able to be absorbed unconditionally in the sweet and immediate moment of the next turn.

It could be comforting to know that the latte slurping motorist applying make-up in the mass of metal next to you is not actually in control. Maybe I’ll be able to return some calls without violating Detroit’s no cell phone law. But it remains to be seen whether this technology portends the end of the love affair I’ve had with cars or the beginning of a beautiful, safer relationship with the road.

Question: What is your dream car?

Russell Ethridge is a prominent attorney in the Detroit area and longtime contributor to Today’s Machining World.

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