Monthly Archives: January 2017

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

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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Have a Good Password?

By Russell Ethridge

Maybe the pen is mightier than the sword, or so it seems in the worlds of crime and, lately, politics. What with the Russians hacking the election and Hillary’s emails, cyber security has been on the front page for months. The theft of millions of Yahoo! personal accounts and the shenanigans of banks everywhere make headlines, but countless less notorious larcenies take place every minute and have since the start of e-commerce.

There is little law enforcement can do for the everyday case. Unlike an old-school armed robbery or breaking and entering where a gun or a crowbar is the tool of choice, the variations of e-thievery are limitless and much more subtle. They don’t leave a pry mark or a bullet hole. At most they leave a vapor trail to an electronic address that no longer exists. The outrageous Nigerian prince bank account solicitations which, remarkably, meet with some success or the cloning of account information for scam purchases are “low rent” methods. Others are far more sophisticated, relying on virtual identities, Internet banks, the default human tendency to trust, and the fact that we don’t actually talk to each other.

A recent matter for a client had me speaking with the fraud unit director of a purely Internet bank. She confirmed a scheme where stolen individual identities were used to create employee accounts for fake companies using real federal employer ID numbers that were also obtained using a hijacked identity. The fake company set up a payroll service contract with an accountant, temporarily hijacked real money to fund the payroll, withdrew the payroll in cash using debit cards issued by Internet banks and then returned the money to the hijacked account before the account holder noticed that under federal rules certain electronic transfers can be reversed. No one actually meets anyone else in this transaction. Innocent identities are used but not their money, so most people don’t notice. The only trail is electronic, and the only one hurt is the accountant or the payroll service company he or she contracts with.

I’ve had several of these cases over the years, and I can’t get law enforcement interested. When it happened in southern California a few years ago, the city cops said it was a county problem. The county said to call the feds. The feds said it was a local matter, and since it was under a million, they weren’t interested. It was $70,000! Another time it was only $40,000, but that’s real money in my world. If you tried using your 9mm to take $700 from a 7-11, you’d be doing 7 to 15 courtesy of the state.

Mathew Broderick Hacking into NORAD Supercomputer in the film War Games.

From a cop’s perspective, particularly local ones, these cases are essentially unsolvable without the kind of work that non-geeks generally find tedious. Plus, it’s not sexy. Internet crime doesn’t bleed or leave a broken window. It has a digital finger print but not a human one. There is no DNA to test. There is no accountant with a gambling problem. There is no “dye pack’ that explodes because no one presented a robbery note to a terrified teller. What is stolen, money, is fungible. It all looks alike and with the Internet it is just zeros and ones anyway.  It happens before you know it. Even if you can “follow the money,” you’ll end up with nothing the district attorney can prosecute. The local county attorney has a lot more immediate things to worry about than charging some Balkans-based Internet scammers. Anyway, it is a lot easier to fish for kiddie porn perverts on the Internet instead of financial criminals, and the cases are easier to prove.

We can change our passwords, encrypt our electronic commerce and firewall everything, but can we or, more importantly, should we change our default human setting of basic trust in fellow man? So many of our natural alarm bells come from a sense we get when we interact with others face to face or even over the phone. We know who seems shady. But there is no eye contact in e-commerce; no bricks and mortar housing a helpful teller; just account numbers, ID numbers, and maybe faceless emails from fictitious places we’ll never visit. Even when the deal is real, how do we really evaluate the bona fides of those we have only met electronically? How do we know if a promise is real? The key stroke may not be mightier than the sword, but we may need to recalibrate the human experience to accommodate it.

Question: Why would the Russians prefer Trump?

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

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Psyched for 2017!

This is my first Swarfblog of 2017 and it’s not about the Cubs. I am grateful to be able to continue writing it and grateful you are willing to devote your valuable time to reading it. I take neither for granted. Every day I wake up I feel I am a blessed survivor. When I write a piece worthy of putting my name on it (I do throw away a lot of crap I write), I feel a real sense of satisfaction.


I think 2017 has a chance to be the best year economically since the 2008 meltdown. Some of this is based on numbers and observation and a fair amount on gut.

The country is certainly split politically, and I’m not really talking Republican and Democrat, because I think those party designations are less important than I can ever remember. The split is economic, rich and poor, but even more, psychological, between those who are optimistic about their future and those who are fearful. Donald Trump capitalized on fear to win the election, but must now engender a sense of optimism in the country to have a successful presidency, which he desperately wants to have to support his fragile ego and rampant narcissism. In that respect, he and Barack Obama are similar. Obama is obsessed with his “legacy” as President, exhibiting his enormous egotism in full flower, spending his final days in office defending Obamacare.

Trump’s party is Trump. He borrowed the Republican banner to get elected. Republicans also borrowed Trump to get elected. For the moment they need one another because the Democrats will be just as obstructionist and spiteful as the Republicans were versus Obama unless Trump’s popularity forces individual Democrats to jump ship to save their own skins.

Donald Trump has instinctively reinvented Presidential politics by both using and circumventing the institutional press like the TV networks and national newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post. His daily tweets have proven to be enormously effective in reaching the public and scaring leaders in business and politics to follow his lead. The Carrier and Ford episodes are both hopeful and scary because they reflect Trump’s bullying nature, but they also show a true gut feel for the mood of the country.

I have been fascinated by his top cabinet and staff picks. He appears to be using Mike Pence to guide him on useful Republican and ideological choices like Representative Tom Price to guide healthcare policy and Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff.

Many people seem troubled by his choice of so many generals, but generally this does not bother me. Colin Powell is famous for saying that generals know the horror of combat and are the most reluctant people to send young men and women into danger. That comforts me.

For someone who railed about the influence of Wall Street Trump has filled his Cabinet and advisory groups with Wall Street folks. One could argue that they know the flaws in the system, having taken advantage of the weaknesses of government throughout their careers.

Despite the prevalence of Big Business figures in his inner circle, a preponderance of small business people I talk to are feeling as confident as they’ve felt in a decade. Higher oil prices are beginning to rejuvenate the people who supply the oil fields. We can thank the desperation of the Oil Sheiks for that. Homebuilding and home prices are getting a lift from baby boomers starting to retire and move, and Millennials are finally beginning to start families in their 30s.

The low unemployment numbers are probably mythical with the extremely low labor participation rate, but we may finally see a bump up in wages soon.

For a skilled machinist in New England and the Pacific Northwest $80,000 – $100,000 a year is not that unusual. People are buying businesses just to get first crack at skilled employees.

The strength of the U.S. dollar and the possible rise in interest rates are potential headwinds for the economy, but we have had good times with both conditions in the past.

So far, Donald Trump has played his role of President-elect shrewdly and fairly close to the vest. I am holding my breath that his impulsiveness is somehow held in check during a crisis, which will certainly come.

Let’s enjoy the honeymoon and hope it lasts well into his presidency.

Question 1: Does it trouble you to have a President coercing company CEOs?

Question 2: Are you hopeful about manufacturing in 2017?

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