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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Better With Age

By Lloyd Graff

Are you getting better with age?

The question came up for me watching Tom Brady’s virtuoso performance in the Super Bowl. He threw for over 460 yards and played a brilliant second half.

I think about the issue quite a lot because I bet my livelihood on my judgement every week. If I’m slipping, will I know it before it’s too late to bail out or change course? If I go on a losing streak, does that mean I’m unlucky, or losing my mojo? My uncle Aaron Pinkert used to tell me often that the “dollar is round, sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down.” But what if it loses momentum and just stops rolling?

I do have the immense gift of working with my son Noah and living with my wife Risa, who are both into continuous improvement and generally keeping things real. They tell me when they think I’m wrong.

I recently listened to a brilliant podcast by Steven Dubner of Freakonomics. He discussed getting better through practice, not just daily laborious repetition, but purposeful focused practice. He started the podcast with an interview with Suzanne Bartman, a woman in Denmark in her 40s, whose lifelong dream was to be a professional singer. Her idol was Whitney Houston. We heard a recording of her singing before she started her training. She sang like somebody whose best work was in the shower.

Bob Fisher the Free Throw Shooting World Record holder.

Suzanne started by practicing with Karaoke tapes. She worked at it religiously, five days a week for an hour, when she wasn’t being a psychologist and a Mom. She slowly improved, but it was in little fits and starts. Eventually she hired a voice coach and her singing improved significantly. But she still couldn’t hit the “big notes” of Houston or her current idol, Christina Aguilera. But finally, after eight years of deliberate practice, her confidence grew and she was able to really belt it out. Today she is singing professionally at local clubs in Denmark.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a wonderful book, The Outliers, where he extolled the virtues of 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. But it is the intersection of talent, practice, and another ingredient, “self-belief,” that enables a Tom Brady to reach the pinnacle.

Dubner’s podcast about “focused practice” featured a great interview with Bob Fisher, a 54-year-old soil technician in Kansas, who holds 14 world records for free throw shooting, currently.

Fisher never played high school, college or pro basketball, but wow, can he shoot a basketball like nobody else. He has worked at it with a passion for 20 years and devised a unique training regimen. He practices shooting in his basement with each hand every morning and has an extensive library about shooting technique and the psychology of success. He recently made 53 free throws in one minute and then followed that by making 29 in one minute shooting blind-folded. Fisher is no Steph Curry. He’s a 5’8” guy who made himself into the best foul shooter ever, and he is still getting better.

So where does that leave you and me? I am 72 years old and I still think I can get better at business and writing. Noah and I are listening to audiobooks on business strategy. I keep writing blogs and discarding them, trying to publish a few good ones. I do worry about stagnating and falling backwards. I don’t know if I have 10,000 hours left to learn a new skill so I’m just going to keep practicing, still hoping to hit the “big notes.”

Question: Would you rather go to a 35-year-old doctor or 60-year-old doctor?

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Stealing Signs

By Lloyd Graff

Chris Correa, an employee of the St. Louis Cardinals Major League Baseball team, hacked into the computer system of the Houston Astros. Over a period of two years he stole useful information about Houston’s trade talks, draft evaluations and analytical research. He was tried and sentenced to 46 months in prison. Yesterday, MLB fined the Cardinals $2 million, money which will go to the Astros organization, and it took away two of the team’s high draft picks in the upcoming amateur player draft. No other other people in the Cardinals’ organization were prosecuted for misconduct, but MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the Cardinals were “vicariously liable for (Correa’s) misconduct.”

Chris Correa, St. Louis Cardinals employee who hacked into Houston Astros computer system.

As a Cubs fan, I have no real sympathy for the Redbirds, but the prison sentence seems awfully stiff for a baseball peek, compared to stealing millions of Yahoo! files, much less Vladimir Putin hacking both the Democratic and Republican Parties in the Presidential election and then leaking the information.

My guess is that the U.S. probably did some nasty damage to Putin during and after the winter Olympics, so both sides decided to call it a draw for now.

Meanwhile, a little guy named Chris is taking the fall for at least three years in the poke.

*******

The Trump honeymoon with business ended in his first week in office when he actually started doing what he said he would do while running for the Presidency. He really seems to want to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep out the Mexicans and Central Americans. Trump is also threatening a big tariff on imported goods, which will drive up our guacamole tab, but also screw up the auto parts blood flow that depends on the Mexican heartbeat.

From my parochial view as a machine tool dealer, some Mexican heartburn after a decade of eating our lunch with cheap labor and a sweet NAFTA deal is not an awful thing. I view NAFTA as a calculated move by Bill Clinton to gradually stem the flow of illegal immigration into the country from Mexico by building up the Mexican economy. The experiment actually worked quite brilliantly over 20 years as Mexico prospered despite its inefficiencies, drug wars, and bloated oil industry. Illegal immigration slowed to a trickle with as many Mexicans going back to the country as coming in. Desperate people from El Salvador and Nicaragua are trying to sneak into the U.S., but Trump’s oratory about the threat of Mexican rapists coming over in hordes was as ridiculous as building a $10 billion wall.

NAFTA has probably swung a little too far in Mexico’s favor for my taste, and possibly Trump’s bluster is just an elaborate bargaining device, but I fear he is actually serious about some of his threats, which could screw up the car manufacturing business for a couple years as it re-adjusts.

Question: In a world of internet espionage, is a border wall with Mexico obsolete?

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Your Neighbor in the Mobile Home

By Robert Levy

I had never been in a trailer park before, at least that I can remember, but I have watched episodes of Netflix’s Trailer Park Boys, as well as every single episode of Breaking Bad with Walter White in his 1986 Fleetwood Bounder encapsulated meth lab on wheels. So I readily agreed when my friend Jim asked me to photograph some of his Florida parks. I also accepted because I know that Jim is an enigma to the typically absent mobile home park owner who is driven purely by vast profits derived from curtailing expenditures on park necessities. He proudly takes extreme care of his parks, employees and residents. He visits his parks regularly to maintain the best possible standard of living and he invests in infrastructure and programs for the residents. He is starting programs to promote reading readiness for smaller children and to make college a realistic priority. While I did this photo journal for free, I would have paid for the opportunity to photograph these communities.

Photos by Robert Levy taken during his trip through mobile home parks.

We headed to Florida without any confirmed plan other than renting a car and visiting a long list of parks. Just two middle aged, moderately experienced family guys on a road trip. Our three and a half day 320 mile journey began in Miami visiting parks up the east coast to Cocoa, then a leftward turn to Tampa. We hit a total of 23 parks that had an average of 387 trailer pads each.
The typical single wide mobile home is between 600 and 1,330 square feet, which makes a person prioritize with great care which items to keep. Conspicuous consumption must be redefined when the space to keep possessions is so limited. It takes a mere five minutes for a mobile home and its contents to be completely destroyed by fire.

I spoke with the residents and managers of every park. People who ranged from park lifers in the mobile home parks to the eternal transients and snow birds in the RV parks. One woman had recently lost her home and all of her worldly possessions to a fire. Fortunately, insurance proceeds will be enough to buy a used $2,500 replacement home. It will be devoid of her cherished items turned to ashes, but she will be able to live once again near her children and grandchildren.

I watched a park manager guardian over children while parents were at work. The love, adoration, care and connection between the children and park manager was heartfelt and as close as any nanny would be with her charges. I experienced tightly knit, highly concentrated protective trusting communities.

I met an older couple who purchased a used 1972 GM Buffalo bus 35 years ago and have travelled the country in it ever since. He used to rebuild National Acme screw machines in Ohio. Now retired, he travels the USA from one RV park to the next with his wife reloading hunting bullets on his portable RCBS A3 reloading press. They collect stories and memories of their journey, rather than molecular possessions. Their bus is adorned by the trophies of their journey including numerous photos and deer antler door handles.

One little boy got very excited when I asked his parents if I could take a picture of him in his complete outdoor Toys “R” Us plastic kitchen. His pure innocence and joy were evident in his torqued little fingers and the intensity of the smile on his face.

All was not idyllic however. One park tour was abruptly interrupted by a police stakeout for a breaking and entering robbery for which the suspect was under pursuit. A woman found a burglar in her trailer stealing her flat screen TV. The streets were cordoned off as the police laid down portable tire puncture strips to catch the thief. The police chief and the park manager had a casual and friendly familiarity and their actions seemed precisely well rehearsed to indicate that this was a routine occurrence in this particular park.

Luxury is a relative concept. There is as much pleasure in plastic, plaster and concrete for some as there is in gold, crystal and champagne. I captured images of children playing soccer on the narrow paved paths between homes as happy as anyone I have ever seen. I spoke with one single mother giddy with excitement as she had just closed on the purchase of a home regaining her independence.

Of the nearly 1,600 images captured, I whittled them down to 275 workable photos that captured the true essence of what was plainly visible to the naked eye, but more importantly, the essence of the atypical daily lives of nearly 20 million Americans who inhabit an estimated 8 million mobile homes. I was most moved by the sense of community, enjoyment of life and the beauty of that which has been created by the pride and commitment of the residents, management and ownership of these parks. There are images that you will like, hate, be moved by and not identify with. That is OK because what I began to realize as I worked on the photos was that this series of images, which was originally for my friend, became more for me.

Some of the images can be seen at http://www.pbase.com/robertl594/florida_mobile_home_parks

Question: Do you want to live in one spot when you retire?

Robert Levy has been a prominent auctioneer living in Detroit for the past 30 years. Photography is one of his passions.

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Can’t Think of Anything

By Lloyd Graff

I’ve started this piece several times over the last two weeks, and each time I got deflected and went on to something else like eating, watching TV or reading email. I’ve been stuck as a writer because I was writing to fill space, not because I had anything to say.

So today I sat down at the library and decided to be authentic. No politics, no sports, not much business. Just stop thinking so much, and let my unconscious write the blog. And I still feel stuck.

What do you do when your mind keeps drifting, and you just want to put jam on another piece of toast?

I have my standby self-admonitions. “Put one foot in front of the other,” is my favorite. I don’t know exactly what it means, but it’s better than eat more toast.

I also use exercise to shake me out of a funk. Thirty minutes on the elliptical watching TV sometimes pulls me out of my lethargy, but the following shower, lately, has dulled my edge again.

One issue I have is that writing and operating a used machinery business are not always a good fit. At times the adrenalin rush of a deal on the cusp is much stronger than the drip of creative juices needed to put pen to paper. For me the thrill of competition in business is so overwhelming at times I just cannot summon the patience to sit and write a paragraph worth reading.

This conflict between Graff-Pinkert & Co. and the lonely craft of writing is the central contradiction of my daily life. It also is the fuel. The business struggle provides topics to comment about. It keeps my brain sharp as I search for creative ways to beat my foes. Placing bets releases my adrenaline every day. Losing is a teacher and leveler. Winning can make me smug, but it usually doesn’t last too long.

Since I was five years old I have been a competitor. My father was in business the day I was born, and the “fight” was his daily bread. It felt like the conversation at every dinner table was about winning and losing. For me school was about learning, but it was also about being the best. Sports was about winning. Business was about winning. Life was about being “Number One.” But the beauty of writing and other creative pursuits is that winning is not required. One of the interesting contradictions of Today’s Machining World is that it is a business. When I ran it as a print magazine I felt like it was a monthly masterpiece, but unfortunately it was time consuming and a financial flop. Now I get to write frequent current content. It is much easier to manage and it is profitable.

There is also a built-in conflict regarding the content the way I’ve chosen to do the blog. Advertisers who are locked into the normal metrics and sales strategies of business publications often struggle to justify the unique approach of TMW because it often features human interest articles and personal reflections. My gut may tell me to write about a personal issue on my mind, but I cannot disregard the readers and advertisers who may prefer more manufacturing-related material.

Thanks for helping me out of my writer’s block. It helps to go back to what you know when you can’t think of anything.

Question: I just bought a new expensive pillow. How do you like your pillows?

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My Syrian Driver

By Noah Graff

Last weekend I took a Uber downtown.

After a few minutes of chit chat, my driver told me he was an immigrant from Syria who came to the U.S. five years ago.

I asked him how he felt about our incoming President, expecting to get a strongly negative earful, but I was surprised by his response. First, he said he agreed with Donald Trump that our borders need to be more secure. As an immigrant who came to the United States through a legal process it makes sense that he would prefer that others do so as well. He said he wasn’t that afraid of Trump because he believed the United States’ system of government was designed to prevent a President from overstepping his bounds. He has an interesting perspective as someone who lived under the despotic Assad Regime.

Richard told me that the process to emigrate to the U.S. started 12 years ago. He and his family, a wife and two daughters, were sponsored by his brother who had emigrated in 1985. It took seven years of vetting for his family to finally be allowed to enter.

Inside Uber Ride

When I meet someone like Richard the first thing that comes into my mind is that he must feel so thankful to be living in a safe, free, prosperous country like the United States. I think Richard does appreciate the safety of the United States while his home country withers in turmoil, but he definitely did not sound content in his current situation. In Syria Richard was an engineer and owned a company with 12 contractors working under him. Before he left Syria the government seized all of his assets, including his land and the money in his bank account. He said he arrived in the United States with $30,000.

Richard’s two daughters are 19 and 21. One daughter is in college and the other has graduated from Northeastern Illinois University, a decent public school in Chicago. He bragged about their 3.9 GPAs which they achieved while also working to earn enough money to pay for their educations. He complained that he has no time to spend with his family because he is constantly having to work. He complained about paying for Obamacare, which he considered a poor value for the cost. He complained that his kids are saddled with huge debt from college loans and that he can’t work as an engineer in the U.S. because his degree is not accepted here. He said it costs $60,000 to earn an Engineering Masters Degree, which he cannot afford. He told me he finds it crazy that in the country with the richest economy, healthcare and education are unaffordable while in most developed countries, including his native Syria, those services are provided free by the government.

I have sympathy for Richard. He seemed so tired and felt trapped in his situation. As someone who came from a position of stature and wealth driving a taxi for 12 hours a day torments him.

Despite being such a downer, I found Richard strangely endearing. I admired his tenacity and the sacrifice he has made for his family. As I reached my destination I remained in the car for several minutes to listen to an articulate, candid opinion of an Arab immigrant living in the country I grew up in. It was fascinating. It was healthy.

He sounded like so many other Americans who say they feel hindered from succeeding.

Question: Do you feel hindered from succeeding in the United States?

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