Monthly Archives: September 2016

Phone Call to the Dead

By Lloyd Graff

This American Life on NPR routinely does amazing stories on radio. The program, hosted by Ira Glass, recently had this piece that really struck me.

In 2010 a man named Itaru from the town of Otsuchi, Japan, was having a hard time dealing with the loss of his cousin. He decided to install a phone booth with an old rotary dial phone on the grass in his backyard where he could go to communicate with his dead cousin. Most Japanese are Buddhist and generally believe that when people die they don’t instantly get to go to heaven and leave all of their earthly concerns behind. They believe that the dead can see suffering of the family members who are still living and they can be caught in a state of limbo in-between life and death. Itaru’s phone was not actually hooked up to a line, but picking it up and imagining he was talking to his cousin was a way for him to deal with his grief.

One year after Itaru installed the phone booth his town of Otsuchi was devastated by the Tsunami in March of 2011 that killed over 19,000 people in Japan. According to the radio story Otsuchi was the place worst hit by the disaster.

Somehow a buzz about Itaru’s phone booth to communicate with the dead spread around Japan. People started coming from everywhere to the phone booth to talk to their own family members who had died in the tsunami. It has become a shrine of sorts, something like the granite wall in Washington with the names of 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. But this is even more intimate because the people who come to the phone shrine dial their lost family and talk to them as if they are actually on the line.

The reporter for this story is of Japanese origin. She got permission to tape and translate the conversations for the radio piece.

I found calls heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating. People dialed a number like they were calling home and talked to the dead often in a matter of fact way, and sometimes in a sad, regretful way. “Is it cold there?” a man would ask his dead wife. In Japanese culture emotion is rarely expressed overtly, but in the tapes of the calls you could hear the pain and sadness in the most mundane statements and queries.

The conversations (one way, of course) brought tears to my eyes as my wife and I were driving home from the city last Sunday night.

I thought of conversations I wish I had with my parents before they died. I was on a vacation trip with my sister Susan and her family when my mother died suddenly. There was never a chance for a last talk. I would have liked a chance to tell her I loved her deeply.

I do remember a heartfelt talk with my father, visiting him in Florida. We were talking about his wife, my mother, who had died a few years earlier and he said something that struck me with such impact that I still recall it frequently. I thought of it while listening to the “phone call to the dead” show. “I wish I’d given her more jewelry,” he told me.

I asked a therapist about this remark because I wondered why it seemed to bother my father so much. The psychologist interpreted the remark to mean “I wish I gave her more love or sex.” If I could talk to my father today I would ask him to tell me more about the “I wish I gave her more jewelry” comment.

We all have things we’d like to ask the dead or tell the departed. This is the season as we head toward the holidays when we should ask the questions and express our feelings to our loved ones, before we have to make a phone call to the dead.

Question: What would you say in a phone call to the dead?

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Pig in a Pipe

By Lloyd Graff

If 2012 and 2014 IMTS shows were about the arrival of 3D printing, 2016 was the year of the robot. It seemed like everybody was talking about automation and robotics. Prices are coming down and ease of use is advancing. I had the opportunity to interview Esben Østergaard, the head of Universal Robots of Denmark. The company was sold last year to Teradyne, a technology heavyweight in America, which so far is adding marketing muscle but not interfering with the creativity that made the company. Mr. Østergaardis is now a very rich guy after the firm was sold for $285 million plus earn-outs if it hits profit and sales projections. His big splurge after the deal closed was buying a grand piano. But a few years ago he was living on milk and crackers in the basement of a university after his $200,000 in seed money ran out. He and an associate were desperately trying to build their inexpensive, easily programmed, out of the box robot for industry so they could convince a venture capitalist to back them.

He said the all-out commitment cost him his marriage, but he built his prototype, got some funding, and today he is running a company with 330 employees and trying to hire 10 more people each month.

Esben is tall and wiry with the athletic build of a cyclist. He was born in Iran of Danish parents. He built his first robot when he was 5 years old.

Esben Østergaard, Founder of Universal Robots

His parents were working in the Philippines on a water project in Seibu City. His folks came home one day complaining about a problem of getting cables from the beginning of a pipe to the end. The locals were tying the cable to the leg of a pig and then trying to cajole the oinking animal through the pipe. Young Esben said “you need a robot for the job” and then proposed to build it. He made the crude robot and it did the job. It was the beginning of his career.

His family ended up back in Denmark. Esben Østergaard’s career took another leap in college as his robotics team won a contest associated with soccer’s World Cup in 1998. After graduating college and beginning work on a PhD he headed for Los Angeles for work and study. In 2006, back in Denmark, he started his company on a shoestring in the college basement office.

It all began with a pig in a pipe.


For a show coming on the heels of a brutal report on 2016 machine tool sales, people were surprisingly upbeat at IMTS this year. I did focus on areas that are doing comparatively better than the norm, rotary transfers, Swiss type machining, robotics and 3D printing, but the mood was pretty positive considering the discounting that is widespread in the industry. Part of the comfort level comes from the big cushion that Asian and European builders have baked into their pricing formulas because of the strength of the U.S. dollar compared to their currencies. A 10% discount to an end user will barely move the needle in Tokyo or Cologne. The home office wants to move the iron.


During my two days at IMTS the only black people I saw were McCormick Place employees. I saw thousands of people in the booths and the aisles, but not one black person with a badge. The irony is that there are lots of black people working on the shop floor in America and many have well-paying jobs, but they are not decision makers who own businesses or have a lot of influence on buying choices.

It is ironic that the politicians tout manufacturing as the vehicle to bring good jobs to the African American community. My conclusion is that for many reasons black people are disinterested in manufacturing and white supervisory people have been unwilling or unsuccessful in bringing them into key roles. This is more a commentary than a criticism. There is a huge disconnect between upwardly mobile young black people and the manufacturing community. IMTS is a dramatic manifestation of the gulf.

The absence of black people in manufacturing’s elites was stark. The absence of women was obvious also. There were many women with badges on the floors of the show, primarily in marketing and administration, but very few in sales, engineering or management. We can attribute this to the legacy of educational patterns as well as gender choice and bias. The practice of hiring women for IMTS to be eye candy has diminished over time, but is still employed by some firms. Tsugami had a beautiful young model trolling the edges of its booth, seemingly engaging the curious men quite successfully.

IMTS is a bastion of white men over 40. It probably always will be. It’s a part of America I love because it’s so constant and reliable and safe. But I reject it, rationally, because it seems so backward and yesterday compared to the bigger country I live in every day.

Question: Who won the debate last night?

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The Cubs of Casablanca

By Lloyd Graff

The Chicago Cubs, my favorite team, and Casablanca, one of my all-time favorite movies, share so many common threads. One could say they are cut from the same cloth. Strangely enough, they really are.

The movie’s screenplay was written by twin brothers Phillip and Julius Epstein. Cubs president, and chief architect, Theo Epstein is the grandson of Phillip Epstein.

The Epsteins did not create the script for the movie, it was an adaptation of an unpublished play written in 1939. Theo Epstein did not create the Chicago Cubs, he took an organization that was going nowhere in 2012 when he came in to rebuild the team. He inherited some decent players like Ryan Dempster who he traded for an unknown minor league pitcher named Kyle Hendricks who might win the Cy Young Award this year.

Phillip and Julius Epstein

The Epstein brothers were free agent writers who were brought in and paid $30,000 to rescue the script which had been started by Howard Koch but was considered unusable by Hal B. Wallis, the brilliant producer of Casablanca. Wallis had Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman for the leads, but he knew the script was broken, just like Theo Epstein knew he had great position players in June of 2016 but had a mediocre bullpen. He knew he needed relievers to improve the odds of winning a World Series. In a dynamite trade he sent a potential star from the Cubs A-ball minor league team to the New York Yankees for flame throwing closer Aroldis Chapman.

This was a difficult choice for Theo Epstein, the baseball purist, who had built the Cubs with players of great character and grit like cancer survivors Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, and white bread stars like Kris Bryant who has never tasted alcohol, and Ben Zobrist, whose wife travels the country as a Christian singing icon. Theo is a lot like Bogart’s Rick Blaine who was conflicted by love, patriotism, and the demands of running a popular gambling joint in Vichy occupied Morocco. Rick held the ultimate prize during war, “letters of transit,” that were stolen by a murdered thief. Those letters meant freedom for two desperate people that he could choose, most likely himself and the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa).

Theo has had his moral conflicts this season. Aroldis Chapman is an accused abuser of women, but he can throw a baseball 105 miles per hour, left handed. He is the most feared relief pitcher in the game. He was deemed the piece the team had to have even if he is no saint. Like in war, in a baseball season sometimes you compromise your ethical standard for the greater good – life, victory, a World Series.

Theo Epstein is a twin, just like his grandfather and great uncle. His brother is a guidance counselor back in his home town, Boston, but his professional brother, Jed Hoyer, is his fellow architect of the Cubbies. They both came to the team via San Diego and then Boston. The folklore of Casablanca says that the Epstein brothers were struggling to come up with a conclusion for the screenplay which would tie up the loose ends. Supposedly Ingrid Bergman didn’t even know which man she would ultimately end up with when she made the movie, her husband the freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo, or her passionate lover of the past, Rick.

The climax of the movie takes place at the Casablanca airport (actually filmed at Van Nuys Airport in California). The plane is waiting. Rick holds the “letters of transit” and the Nazis are coming. Rick gives the precious documents to Victor and commands Ilsa to go with her husband for the greater good of the world. The Nazi Colonel, Strasser, arrives to stop the plane and Rick shoots him.

The Epstein brothers were allegedly discussing the ending while driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Hollywood. They came to a stop and suddenly both twins yelled out simultaneously “Round up the usual suspects,” the famous line of Inspector Renault the corrupt French police commandant. It meant Rick was off the hook for killing the Nazi officer.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer do not know how the Cubs season will end. The odds say the Cubs have a one in four chance to go all the way. Those odds haunt Theo, the workaholic perfectionist. But one thing is for sure, this year the Cubs are much more than just the “usual suspects.”

Question: Will this be the year for the Cubs?

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The Foot Soldiers of IMTS

By Lloyd Graff

On Wednesday I went to IMTS. It was going to be a 16-hour marathon because we were taking folks out to dinner after the business day, and had a 30-mile drive each way in bumper-to-bumper Chicago traffic. Emily Halgrimson, my associate at Today’s Machining World, drove, which eased my apprehension about the day. But for somebody who has had a lot of health issues, at 71, a 16-hour day in the endless din of McCormick Place is a challenge to negotiate.

I framed it in my head before I left my house. “I get to do this,” I said to myself, and I really believed it, too, but I knew it would be exhausting, even if it was exciting and exhilarating at times.

This is the hard part of aging for me. I want to do IMTS. I almost have to go to see clients and stay current, but it is physically very demanding, even for much younger people. For the folks who draw the job of setting up the exhibits for the big displays it is a 3-4 week trial by fire. Complicated machines with a million things that can go wrong are shipped by flatbeds to McCormick Place where union guys do the unloading and placement. For some of the big players like Okuma, Mazak and Haas, budgets are in the multi-millions of dollars. There are always last minute snafus and virtually every company is running up to the deadline to prepare for IMTS.

Mickey Tajariol, who runs ZPS Corporation of Zlin, Czech Republic, told me their new machine the “Penta” a fascinating and innovative multi-spindle bar machine, was completed two days before it had to be loaded in a container.

At Hydromat, the rotary transfer machine builder in St. Louis, their new larger Eclipse CNC station prototype was still in need of a sheet metal protective cover a day before shipment to Chicago. Bruno Schmitter, who runs the company, gave his approval only after sitting and then bouncing on the painted cover himself and then checking for any dents. It passed the Schmitter test, and was shipped.

Lloyd Graff next to a car body and chassis made with additive technology in a couple days at Oak Ridge Tennessee lab.

Mindy Mikami of Okuma in Charlotte had a major role in getting their massive exhibit to Chicago. How they not only got the enormous double column machining center reassembled in the front of aisle 8500 in the South Building is a McCormick Place Miracle. I invited Mindy out for ice cream or a drink on the Friday before the show to renew acquaintance, but she was working until later than I could stay in the city.

To me, the folks who work the show day after day, set it up and tear it down, are heroic. For the big builders particularly, IMTS is their main face to the public. It’s their chance to shine. It is a great chance to reconnect with customers and attract new potential buyers. It confirms their technical capability to a probing herd of potential doubters.

Big exhibitions like IMTS and EMO in Europe force the builders to continue to innovate. The Internet or even a showroom does not ratchet up the adrenaline like a competitive circus does. The feedback and questions during IMTS force changes in the prototypes when they are sent back to the factories. I think IMTS also fosters great camaraderie in the team and exposes the players who cannot or will not sacrifice for the group.

I believe everybody should do a few trade shows during their working career. And if you do not have the “privilege” of working a show, I strongly recommend that you walk IMTS or something similar for a couple of days, not just to appreciate the iron, but also the heroic foot soldiers who make it all come together.

Question: What’s your most memorable IMTS experience?

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The Art of Framing

By Lloyd Graff

Beverly Sills, the wonderful soprano opera singer, was on one of her “if it’s Thursday it must be Seattle” concert tours. She had her routine publicity meeting with the local press. A columnist asked her if she hated to have to do the grind of eight concerts in seven days. She answered him abruptly, “I don’t have to do this, I get to do this.”

She had framed her work in a way that transformed it from a “grind” to a “joy” in her language and her mind.

Our choice of words to ourselves and others is crucial to our happiness. Is a man or woman fat, obese, a blob? Or well-rounded, zaftig, husky or voluptuous? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – but also the ear – for language.

For children, words and tone can have a huge impact on their desire or disgust for education. Multiplication tables can be boring drudgery, or a fun game to learn. The tables can be put into a song to make them brain sticky, or be deadly and elusive printed on a slab of paper.

frame-jpThis year’s presidential campaign is a framing exercise at its ugliest. Donald Trump has learned the art of framing in business. He doesn’t build tall buildings, he builds Trump Towers. To Trump, Hillary Clinton is not “Mrs. Clinton” or the “Democratic Candidate” but always “crooked Hillary,” hoping to make the characterization an indelible tattoo.

Hillary Clinton has not been as skillful or persistent as Trump in her framing. She could use the “Dangerous Donald” or “Reckless Donald” description incessantly like her opponent. She may yet do it or leave it to her ad makers.

In the used machinery business that I’m in we occasionally use the phrase “crème puff” to describe a lightly used piece of equipment. I remember chuckling when I heard my father describe a National Acme 2” RB6 he bought which had been stored in the Atchison, Kansas labyrinth of caves for 20 years at a constant 58 degrees and 37% humidity, as being a crème puff. He said it with such conviction that I not only wanted to descend into those caves, but also try out one of the machines for dessert.

Proper framing demands not just the right words, but the proper tone. When my son, Noah, joined me in the machinery business, he struggled to develop his enthusiasm for trading in greasy, chip-filled 30-year-old bar machines. They carried no romance for my son, who made movies in his spare time.

I thought there was no need to call a Wickman a rose. It was what it was and that was ok for me, but not for Noah.

He finally redefined the business for himself. He was a “treasure hunter.” The treasure was disguised as a machine tool waiting to be discovered and turned into gold by somebody with superior knowledge and the guts to correct its mispricing. That was worthy work for an ambitious romantic.

Question: How do you frame your daily work? How could you do it better?

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Cubs Cancer Winners

By Lloyd Graff

The Chicago Cubs have two superb leaders, Anthony Rizzo, who is a contender for National League Most Valuable Player, and Jon Lester, whose 15-4 record makes him a solid possibility for the Cy Young award. Both men are terrific team players and lead by example, but they share another attribute that sets them apart from their peers. Both are cancer survivors, diagnosed while playing, taking a year off for chemotherapy, and coming back to play much better than before being diagnosed.

They share something else. Both give of their time, notoriety and money to support cancer research and patients. Rizzo spends virtually every off day in Chicago at Lurie Childrens’ Hospital visiting child cancer patients, and Lester has a line of wine whose proceeds go to the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Both players were diagnosed with Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes.

It is not just coincidence that they are both on the Cubs. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, who make the personnel decisions for the Cubs, were both with the Boston Red Sox during their glory years. Epstein and Hoyer drafted both Lester and Rizzo for Boston. Lester was already a star pitcher when he was diagnosed with cancer. Rizzo had been traded to San Diego as a minor leaguer and had just reached the Majors when he was diagnosed with Lymphoma. Hoyer had moved on to San Diego and made the trade that sent Adrian Gonzales to Boston for four prospects including Rizzo. Rizzo was traded to the Cubs for a first round draft pick, Andrew Cashner, who could throw the ball through kryptonite until beset by arm trouble. Rizzo has become a perennial All-Star First Baseman.

Anthony Rizzo visiting at Lurie Childrens’ Hospital

John Lester signed with Cubs last year for about $30 million per season and is justifying the contract this season, at 32.

Whether the Cubs win the World Series this year, these two men will always be winners.


For me, the most entertaining show on TV is American Ninja Warrior. The idea behind the show actually came from a similar Japanese program. Contestants attempt to traverse an extremely challenging obstacle course, ending with a Warped Wall, a brutally steep incline to be run up after surviving a devilish, exhausting course. Week after week contestants try their luck on the courses around the country. Newbies may wait in line for weeks to get their chance, while other candidates who have shown their worth in previous years, come back to try again.

American Ninja skillfully edits back stories about some of the competitors into the one or two hour show. Both men and women compete with no relief given to the women. There is no prize money except for the ultimate winner, who somehow finishes the impossible Mount Midoriyama gauntlet in Las Vegas. Last year, there were actually two men who bested the Vegas challenge, but only the fastest one got the million-dollar prize.

Ninja is really the height of happy amateurism. Contestants train together and cheer for one another to get through the obstacles. Ninja Warrior gyms have sprouted up around the country and many people have built their own challenging courses to practice on. Some folks come on in silly costumes, but the courses are so tough that injuries, some serious, are not uncommon, particularly in practice.

We are in the last phase of this year’s American Ninja Warrior. My (cousin?), Jesse Graff, an L.A. stuntwoman, has been the star this year, getting to the Las Vegas finals versus the fittest men you will see this side of the Olympics. My whole family is rooting for Jesse to win it all. I heartily recommend that you watch this NBC show. It is what TV does best.

Question: Do you have an inspirational cancer story?

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