It Spoke to Me

By Lloyd Graff

I bought a gorgeous piece of art last Saturday, a painting of an “L” Train clacking through an apartment jungle in Chicago. At least, that’s what it represented to me. Another person might see something different. That’s part of the beauty of art.

I didn’t expect to be buying a painting. On the spur of the moment after a workout with my trainer I was driving home, focusing on NOT stopping at Dairy Queen, when I remembered there was an art fair in downtown Homewood, Illinois. I spotted a parking spot at Starbucks, went in and bought a bottled water and asked if I could park for a half an hour or so. They were cool, and I walked over to the fair. I saw Charlie Celander who used to be the art director of Screw Machine World in the early days of the magazine. He was in a booth with his daughter Anna who was showing her work. The “L” piece immediately caught my eye. That’s the way it is with art. If it doesn’t speak to you, yell out to you, when you first experience it, who needs it. I talked to Anna, who remembered me from the magazine days, and she told me about her work as an art therapist. I wanted to buy it then but figured it was wise for my wife, Risa, to see it because we would have to negotiate wall space in the house, though I also had Graff-Pinkert as a fall back location. Risa was working out at the time, and we had a dinner engagement in a couple hours, but I figured I could get her to see it before the fair closed at 6:00 pm.

“L” Train Painting by Anna Celander.

Risa arrived around 5:30 and checked out some Peruvian fashions I liked (that she didn’t like). Then I led her over to the booth with the painting. But on the way over we met some old friends, Joel and Gayla Kahan, who were grazing at the fair. I told them about the painting, and they wanted to see Anna Celander’s work. Joel loved the “L” piece, too. Both wives were a little less enamored of it.

Joel wanted to buy it, which only increased my desire for it. I asked Anna for “her best price,” which I’m sure my son Noah would have said was a poor negotiating tactic, but I considered her asking price of $525 framed and covered with glass to be something I could afford anyway. She stammered and went down to $475. Then my friend Joel stepped up and indicated he really wanted it too.

Impulsively, I said to him, “why don’t we flip for it.” Anna was a bit taken aback by this twist of events because nobody had ever sought out her work like this before. She offered to do another piece or make a copy, but both of us were really only interested in this “one and only” original.

Fortunately, my “flip for it” gambit knocked Joel and Gayla off their game. Joel Kahan is a gastroenterologist, not a used machinery dealer. Competing for a material object of unknown value at an art fair was not exactly a colonoscopy, so he gracefully backed off, and I immediately handed my credit card to the grateful artist as her Dad began wrapping it up.

I felt good, not because I beat Joel out of the “L” painting, but because I was decisive about something that really spoke to me.

It harkened back to 13 years ago when I commissioned a college kid named Mike Eisenwasser to paint an original mural on the side of a 40-foot steel shipping container to flank the driveway of our office. I had liked his work that had been displayed on the walls of my local Starbucks so I proposed this crazy assignment for Graff-Pinkert. He was up for the project, but I made it clear to him that he had to finish it in three months from inception to completion. That’s a lot of paint.

Mural outside Graff-Pinkert in Oak Forest, IL. By Michael Eisenwasser.

Mike completed the mural right before he left to go back to the University of Illinois, and I loved it. He created a colorful city-like scene in which the buildings are shaped like screw machine parts and tooling all found in Graff-Pinkert’s shop.

But the evening before he left for school he realized he had forgotten to sign it, so he and his dad came back to Graff-Pinkert that night, dug the paint can out of the dumpster and put the finishing touches on in the dark

That mural brings me pleasure every day when I drive into the parking lot and when I look out my office window. When I came back after my heart attack 10 years ago I cried when I stared at Mike’s mural.

How much is art worth? That is in the eye of the beholder. But when I saw Anna Celander’s painting last Saturday afternoon I knew it would bring me great pleasure, hopefully for a long time.

Question: Which art pieces have spoken to you? Both famous and not famous.

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Taster’s Choice

By Noah Graff

Last week in Palo Alto my fiancé, Stephanie, and I went to a unique coffee shop called Philz. Philz distinguishes itself from other coffee chains because its stores only serve pour over coffee engineered for each customer. They don’t make espressos, lattes, macchiatos, cappuccinos or frappuccinos. They don’t even have standard drip coffee, though they do serve wonderful pastries and tea that is also made with the individual pour-over method.

For those unfamiliar, a pour over cup of coffee is made one cup at a time, by pouring hot water though an individual filter into the cup. At Philz the baristas grind the coffee beans for each individual cup right before pouring the water. Grinding the beans right before the cup is poured helps bring out the strong distinct flavors of the coffee.

I had been to a Philz several years ago, but Stephanie had never been before. When we arrived I immediately told our barista, Edward, that we were Philz virgins so we needed guidance to order our drinks. Edward was extremely friendly and informative and put us at ease. He asked what type of coffee we normally drank at a typical coffee place. I told them that I normally get a latte, perhaps with a flavor shot. We went over a few choices and he guided me to a coffee variety called Tesora, which was described on the store’s blackboard as a medium blend with aromas of Caramel, Nuts, and Butter. All of the 20 coffee varieties on the cafe’s blackboard had descriptions like that, with in-depth flavor descriptions resembling a how one would characterize wine or cheese.

Noah and Stephanie with barista Edward at Philz Coffee in Palo Alto, CA.

Edward told me my cup of coffee would taste similar to a caramel latte. He told me that he would first give it to me with only cream and no sugar added. I just about always take a bit of sugar in my coffee, but he told me that because the coffee was so freshly roasted and ground just before my cup was made it would be bursting with flavor and sweetened by the proper amount of cream he would add.

He was dead right. The coffee had a wonderful flavor, in fact it had a lot of flavors that were easy for even my novice palate to identify. The coffee didn’t taste bitter despite having no added sugar. I wanted it just a tad sweeter, so Edward added just the right amount of sugar for me to insure the coffee’s distinct flavors would not be drowned out.

As Stephanie and I left the cafe I noticed there was no table with cream or sugar for customers to add themselves. This gave the cafe a paternalistic feeling. The cafe evidently thought it could engineer the coffee I desired better than I could. No cream, no sugar, and I had only one choice for how my cup would be made. But I suppose it made sense. If I knew how to make better coffee than a professional barista then why should I pay one to make the first 90 percent of the drink? I didn’t prep the coffee beans, I didn’t operate the coffee making equipment, so why should I put the finishing touches on the drink?

If a producer is great, why should it give the customer freedom to screw up what it sells? To me the Philz formula is a great model. Listen to a customer. Help a customer obtain her vision, but don’t give the customer the ability to screw up a beautiful product.

Question: Do you prefer fewer menu choices when you go to a restaurant?

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Negotiating Two Oceans

By Russell Ethridge

It was time to change oceans. John and Julie King, retired and fed up with California taxes and congestion, needed an experienced crew to take their 44-foot sailboat Myla from the Pacific coast to a new home in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. The Panama Canal was on the route, and I got the call to assist since John and I have been sailing together since childhood. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. When else was I going to see one of the most remarkable products of human endeavor? A non-stop flight from any number of cities deposits you in Panama City, a metropolis of two million people going toe to toe with Miami as the economic capital of Central and South America. Skyscrapers define a shoreline cluttered with the clatter of commerce. A half hour car ride deposited me at a marina where I took a dingy out to Myla to join the crew.

The Atlantic and the Pacific was one really big ocean before plate movement in the earth’s crust three million years ago created the isthmus between the North and South American continents. Humans have been trying to traverse it forever; first by foot, later by train, and finally by water; a dream of kings and explorers for centuries. Success was achieved in 1914 after more than a decade of work by the U.S. that followed an even longer effort by the French that ended badly for many, including  thousands of laborers who died from tropical diseases. The U.S. really did “speak softly and carry a big stick” when it bought the failed French effort for pennies on the dollar and, after brewing up a revolution, made a deal with the new country of Panama, formerly a province of Columbia. Manufacturing and trade were booming, and the U.S. needed easy access to the Pacific rim, the fast growing U.S. West, and the ability to inject its military quickly.

The Myla: A 44-foot sailboat on its way to the Panama Canal.

The 48 mile trip through the Canal saves roughly 12,000 miles of travel around South America, some of it through the most treacherous waters in the world. Due to Panama’s geography, the canal actually runs from the southeast to the northwest, and it was slightly confusing to watch the sun rise over the Pacific. I thought we would probably spend a day or two transiting through the three locks at either end of the canal and Lake Gatun, an artificial lake between the locks that was the largest manmade lake in the world when it was created from 1907-1913. Pleasure boats like Myla only transit the canal alongside the huge container ships that comprise the bulk of the traffic and pay the big fees. The Panama Canal Authority estimates that around 5% of the world’s maritime traffic passes through it at 10% of the cost of traveling around South America. Myla’s modest fee of a few thousand dollars seemed like a pittance compared to an average fee of $400,000 for a loaded container vessel passing through the original locks or $500,000 to $800,000 for passage through the larger locks completed in 2016. When you are moving grapes from Chile or cars from Korea, time really is money. The Canal Authority claims to employ a value pricing model that factors in cargo and time sensitivity and, apparently, you can pay to jump the line.

Our passage was scheduled three weeks in advance, but the exact time was still uncertain. We spent the day before departure stashing gear and supplies and lashing old tires to the side of the boat in anticipation of the bumping and grinding that can happen in the locks. With three million gallons a minute pouring into an up bound lock (almost 28,000,000 gallons a fill), turbulence for a small boat like Myla is significant. The Canal Authority requires each boat to carry an advisor (an added $1,150 charge) and a crew capable of handling the lines controlled by lock employees that run between the boat and the lock walls. That’s where I came in. Keeping the boat stable while water pours in and the boat rises is complicated by Myla’s proximity to a ship over 20 times its size that may be carrying 4,000 Hyundai cars bound for Europe. Julie was on the phone to the booking agent (another fee) much of the day trying to confirm our departure time.

At 10:00 p.m. the night before departure, the Canal Authority notified our agent that we would be delayed a day. I’d cleared my docket for a two day transit with a day for return travel. I had to be in Court in Detroit on day 4, so unless we started before 6:00 a.m. to make it in one day, I was screwed. When the call came the next morning announcing a late start, I knew I had to get off the boat. But I was determined to transit the canal, even if it had to be by land. I hopped a cab to the first set of locks to watch Myla through the locks and answer the questions of tourists who wondered why the crew of this sailboat was waving at me.

Once through the Miraflores locks at the Pacific end and elevated 85 feet, Myla motored through the Culebra Cut for 8 miles across the continental divide and into Lake Gatun. Although the big boats typically make it through in about 8 hours, Myla moves at about 6 knots under motor. With a late start and an advisor who’d reached his work time limit, Myla was forced to spend the night in the lake and complete the transit with a new advisor the next day. My decision, disappointing as it was, was irrevocable. You may not leave your boat, even to swim, or you’ll be arrested. Most people going through the canal have not “entered” the country, and the canal certainly presents an opportunity for surreptitious entry. Although there is literally nothing around aside from the locks, there must be cameras because a patrol boat questioned the crew about a quick swim no one thought would be noticed. After that, the crew caught up on its reading. In the meantime, I took a locals’ bus to see the Gatun locks at the Caribbean end.

A Container Ship going through the Panama Canal.

The passage to the Caribbean the next day was reportedly uneventful and ended near Colon, a small city that has a deserved reputation for crime and filth. Aside from the impressive port terminal facilities of various worldwide shipping companies, it has little other than the decaying remains of colonial era buildings and an impoverished population of the decedents of the West Indians whose muscles built the canal a hundred years ago. It stands in stark contrast to Panama City, just 50 miles away, with its gleaming buildings and fancy cars. A return trip the same day by train on tracks built along the canal years before its construction gave me the chance to see what I’d missed and to speak to a guide shepherding some boisterous Eastern European tourists. He wanted to know why it was China, not the U.S., proposing a $4.5 billion dollar rail line from Panama City to the border of Costa Rica, both popular tourist destinations. He wondered why neighbors were not helping neighbors.

The story here, however, is of engineering prowess and political will that transformed shipping and our global economy and gave rise to construction techniques in use today. The building of the canal resulted in the discovery that mosquitoes transmit malaria and yellow fever, and confirmed that sanitation systems and paved streets were at the root of good public health. We have had other efforts that transform how we live such as putting a man on the moon and building the Internet. But this is the only one that allows the changing of oceans in a day without leaving the surface of the earth. I was impressed even though I sort of missed the party.

Question: What is the craziest trip you’ve taken?

Russell Ethridge is an avid sailor, lawyer for Graff-Pinkert, a good friend and occasional contributor to Today’s Machining World.

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Should We Forget?

By Lloyd Graff

I have been struggling to write this blog for over a year now, but it is a topic I really want to discuss, because it is so tough. It’s also about baseball – sort of.

Luke Heimlich is the best player on the best college baseball team in the country, Oregon State. He is a left-handed pitcher with impeccable stuff. He has lost only once all season. He is 22 and a Senior. He would easily be a first round draft pick at next week’s Major League Baseball draft. He would have been a first round pick in 2017 as well, but just before the NCAA Tournament last year, a reporter for a Portland newspaper accidentally discovered that Heimlich had registered as a sex offender at age 15, after pleading guilty to improperly touching his five-year-old niece.

By all accounts his behavior has been as impeccable as his control in the eight years since his guilty plea, which was expunged from his record after five years. He also now denies the incident occurred and says he pled guilty because he thought it would be expedient to avoid a trial with his brother’s daughter as the centerpiece.

Luke Heimlich

His reasoning was that his record would be cleansed after five years and he could live a normal life according to the recent cover story in Sports Illustrated. But fortunately, or unfortunately, Heimlich, one of six children from a religious family in Washington State, became an incredible athlete and earned a scholarship at the premier college baseball program in the country. When he enrolled at OSU he strictly adhered to the rules of registering in a new state as a sex offender, but evidently nobody in the athletic department checked the criminal files for Heimlich. He had been home-schooled during most of his time growing up. He did not go around campus in Corvallis with a “sex offender” sign on his back. He was just hoping after five years his record would be expunged and the stigma would go away.

I’ve been wrestling with this case for a year. It was brought to the forefront again with a Sports Illustrated story that covered the issue exhaustively without any clear conclusion or opinion.

Major League Baseball will make its judgement next week.

On the one hand, I think about a teenage boy who may have behaved inappropriately with his niece. She may be affected adversely, though she appears to be thriving now, according to the SI piece. Heimlich’s brother, the niece’s father, now divorced, is estranged from Luke. I think of my three granddaughters and how I would feel about a similar case involving them. Would I exude forgiveness? I doubt it.

But to me this case is not just about how his family regards Heimlich, but whether a kid who makes a mistake like he may have committed will ever be able to live his dream to become a Major League ballplayer or even just live a regular life. He has been incident free almost eight years now. Can he just be a ballplayer or is he forever condemned? His teammates at Oregon State have seemingly embraced him. Most likely some fans won’t.

Should my beloved Chicago Cubs draft him if he is available? I hope so, because I’m sure his talent will be undervalued.

We all have stuff in our past that we are not proud of. Heimlich’s issue is darker than most, but should it doom him for the rest of his life?

Question: Can you ever forget if someone is a sex offender?

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Hoping Against Hope

By Lloyd Graff

I read Matthew Stewart’s long, insufferable guilt laden essay last night, “The Birth of a New Aristocracy,” which is the cover story of the June Atlantic.

Stewart recounts his own background, he descended from a grandfather who was the president of Standard Oil of Indiana way back in the 1930s. He grew up well off and has the guilt of an academic liberal tattooed on his arm.

His mission in the article is to make Americans who manage to live in a comfortable home, educate their kids well and take care of their health feel like they are doing it at the expense of a large group of folks who aspire and often succeed in doing the same thing.

The article is a profoundly pessimistic, arrogantly negative screed against the American dream of upward mobility and the possibility of possibility.

I have to thank Stewart for getting me angry enough to write about the strain of negativity that has infected so much of the “respectable” media like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Besides absolutely loathing Donald Trump, they despise the annoying possibility that anything good sprouts in America outside of the suffocating bureaucracies of Government.

Matthew Stewart’s Atlantic opus drones on endlessly about the gulf between the affluent 9.9% of America and the supposedly pathetic 90.1% who are falling further and further behind. Stewart implies that life is stacked so heavily against the 90% that they might as well give up, swallow more opioids and accept their inevitable decrepitude.

I wish Stewart would actually walk out of his dismal ivory tower into the machining world, for instance, where a person without a fancy degree has a real opportunity to advance, and even start her own business with ten grand, a customer and a dream.

I doubt miserable Matthew has watched a lot of Shark Tank on that plebeian bastion of optimism, the television set. If he watched he’d see tons of folk, young and old, trying stuff and dreaming the dream.

Stewart mocks the American public schools. He decries the fact that the 11 best public schools in American are supposedly in Palo Alto, California. As someone who spends a lot of time in Palo Alto, I see the kids walking and biking to schools, and a large percentage of them are of Asian descent, the children of immigrants, not the offspring of joyless country clubbers he seems to envision.

There is an educational elite in America, but the barrier to entry is far from impenetrable. The hiring frenzy in Silicon Valley is not one of exclusivity, nor is it confined to people with advanced degrees. The companies in the Valley are casting a wider net, because they know from experience that college does not necessarily produce original thought, which is not to say that they don’t have a big challenge with political and social orthodoxy that stifles daily conversation in the new office palaces of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

One reason the Silicon Mammoths are building second and third headquarters outside of the Bay Area is to get access to more diverse idea generators.

The thrust of the Atlantic cover story is that the United States is a hopeless aristocracy of the rich, educated and healthy, dedicated to keeping itself closed to outsiders who are stupid, angry and White.

While I did not vote for Donald Trump and find him a lout and a scoundrel as a person, I would vote for him today, if just to protest the intellectual sterility of negativists like Matthew Stewart. The no-nothing popular media hammers Trump mercilessly, and he provides ample juicy material. Yet his popularity is rising, and the Mueller vacuum cleaner cannot suck up the right dirt to impeach him.

The conception that America is hopeless and failing is the grist of the commentators who think everybody is as sour as they are.

If Matthew Stewart actually talked to the people he thinks he is defending he would find that optimism and belief are quite alive in America today.

Question: Were the people who voted for Trump hopeful or pessimistic?

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Talking Steel with Miles Free

By Noah Graff

Two weeks ago at the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA) Tech Conference I interviewed Miles Free, the association’s Director of Industry Research and Technology. He’s a guru of machining industry world politics and one of the world’s foremost experts on the steel trade.

In March when President Trump tweeted his intentions to implement a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum coming into the United States, Free was bombarded from news outlets around the globe for his analysis—he really knows his steel. I came into the interview knowing very little about global steel trade, so it was a great opportunity to get a solid breakdown of the effects of Trump’s proposed tariffs on the machining industry.

Below are a few interesting points I gleaned from the interview, which in a few weeks will be released as a Today’s Machining World Podcast!

Target of President Trump’s Proposal for Tariffs on Raw Material Imports

Miles Free says that the proposed tariffs target China. The Chinese have overbuilt their capacity to make steel. They can produce more steel than they can use and more steel than the entire world can use. This gives them power over the prices of raw materials used to make steel and also makes them vulnerable.

A steel foundry on the outskirts of Beijing. (abc.net.au)

Also, solely owned American companies are illegal in China. An American company must have a Chinese partner, and that Chinese partner is supposed to have full access to the American company’s technology. The Chinese have just relaxed the regulation for ownership of car companies. The press is speculating that Tesla is going to build a plant in China, and this probably would not have been announced right now had the tariffs not been brought up.

Quality of Chinese Steel and Other Raw Materials Versus that Produced in the United States

Free told me that it would be difficult at times for even experts to be able to take a certificate of analysis and say if a batch of steel is from the United States or China. However, the Chinese have different production systems and inconsistent regulations in their manufacturing processes. The quality of Chinese steel is not legally guaranteed like it would be from a steel company in the United States. As a result, when Chinese steel is bought off the dock, a purchaser cannot know the quality of the product. Also, as opposed to big hot roll coils, steel bar stock used by machining companies is notoriously difficult to maintain in good condition when transported by sea because it has a lot of surface area that can rust.

Sanctions on Ourselves

Despite the desire of American companies to buy steel in the United States for reasons of both quality control and economic patriotism, there are certain grades of steel used for machined parts that are no longer produced domestically. Thus machining companies have no choice but to import those grades of steel. The tariffs may make certain types of steel cost prohibitive for American manufacturers.

If Trump’s policy of a 25% tariff on raw material were implemented, it would mean that if General Motors wanted to order a batch of steel parts, an American supplier would not be able to price the parts competitively with a foreign supplier who didn’t have the 25% penalty tacked on. General Motors would then be tempted to produce the parts in China or another foreign country and import the finished parts to the United States. Miles Free compared this potential raw material tariff debacle to the economic sanctions on imports that the United States would inflict on an enemy like Russia or Iran.

“Nobody would have dreamed that the White House would ever use an entire industry as a negotiating technique” Free said.

Hopefully the tariff threat will remain solely a negotiating technique and not something the U.S. government follows through on. The current postponement of the tariffs until June 1 and the many exemptions already discussed in Washington to protect machining companies from the tariffs are reasons to remain calm.

Question: Have the proposed tariffs affected your business already?

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The Retirement Question

By Lloyd Graff

Is retirement a curse or a blessing? Obviously, there is no single answer to the question.

I have answered the question for myself without a lot of soul searching. I enjoy the challenge of working, of pushing myself, interacting with people and creating new stuff.

If I can be productive I would like to work for the rest of my life. I am 73 years old. I find the number scary, but doing the mundane of “showing up” everyday still stimulates me like nothing else that I have discovered. I am very conscious of having the enormous asset of working with my son, Noah, and a cadre of bright reliable caring people who have my back and challenge me to be smarter than I am.

I am also acutely conscious of the fact that the year that somebody is most likely to die (other than the year they are born) is the year they retire. I’m sure that is partially related to folks retiring because they are ill, which may skew the numbers, but I also believe that for many people, the loss of interaction with peers, the boredom, the solitariness, the lack of purpose is a curse.

72-year-old Finn Esko Ketola. Four-times World Champion Weight Lifter.

I think the self-professed financial gurus who preach the virtues of retirement to feed their advisory services tend to be a group of circling vultures.

The traditional retirement age of 65 is totally outdated today. It was an invention of unions and do-gooders when the lifespan of workers (many of whom smoked cigarettes regularly) was rarely past 65. Today if you live to 65 you have a good chance to pass 80 in reasonably good health. With 4% unemployment now, there are many interesting job or gig opportunities as well as an infinite number of volunteer possibilities.

I want to identify my own biases at this point, because I do write this piece from a position of white privilege in America. People in failing health, weak in skills, or chronically depressed certainly lack the opportunities that I have. For them, retirement may be more of a blessing than a curse.

But I think that the notion of retirement has been sold to people from childhood, partly as a job preservation tool for workers and unions that see older people hogging the prime jobs. In an economy that increasingly is filled with service jobs and people doing part-time gigs, I think there will be loads of interesting opportunities for older people if they are not crippled by the notion that the world undervalues them.

My view of the world is colored by my wife Risa’s passion for Taekwondo at 67 years old. She is a 4th Degree black belt and is proceeding with the long test protocol to get to 5th Degree. She drives 37 miles each way to her school twice a week, partly to train with other women who have a similar commitment. She also maintains a private practice as an educational therapist in which people pay her $100/hour to help their children learn. Her clients do not care about her age.

I certainly know about the fragility of life. “Man plans, God laughs,” is the line I live by, but understanding how blessed I am to be alive and live in America makes me determined to keep squeezing the juice as long as possible. For me, that means to write, make deals, expand my networks and have fun.

Question: What’s your plan at 65? Keep working, retire, volunteer, hang out?

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Profilometer

By Lloyd Graff

I’m writing this blog in my new favorite Starbucks in Flossmoor, Illinois. All of the employees are African American women. I am one of three white people in the shop. If there was ever a company whose culture frowned on racial profiling it is Starbucks, with its Jewish founder, Howard Schultz, son of a New York cabbie. Yet at one of its shops in an upscale neighborhood in Philly, a couple of well-dressed black men ended up in handcuffs because an employee of Starbucks freaked out and called the cops when the guys wanted to use the bathroom and hadn’t yet ordered their Frappucinos.

Profiling happens all the time and it stinks.

To stereotype, to profile, is human. It’s a means of protection built into our brains. It’s a decision-making approach taught to us almost from birth.

I have learned through the years that one of the beauties of everyday life is that profiling is such an imperfect tool for making accurate judgements. Its flaws present us with opportunities to exploit the fallacies of stereotyping.

Profile of a Starbucks cup.

For running a business, profiling is the screening device we use, consciously or unconsciously to make decisions. Too fat, too ugly, too young, dresses inappropriately, dropped out of school, served time, wears his hat funny, gets around in a wheel chair, farts a lot, too old. We have a million disqualifications. In our machinery business, Graff-Pinkert, we try to use profiling of unloved machine tools to our advantage as we hunt for unloved gems in the scrap category.

A couple years ago, the best college pitching prospect in the county couldn’t get an offer to play professional baseball because he had an embarrassing sexual incident in his past. The kid was completely blackballed by Major League Baseball. The incident happened 10 years earlier. Was it fair?

Is life fair?

*******

One of the funnier cases of profiling, very literal profiling, took place a dozen years ago and was recounted recently by Michael Lewis in his book The Undoing Project. Lewis has a long chapter on Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, who are favored to win the NBA Championship this year. Morey recounts his struggles through the years trying to figure out what players to draft, sign or trade to build a championship team.

He brings up the story of Marc Gasol, a Center from Spain whose brother Pau was already a respected player in the League. Marc had most of the pedigree to be a top five pick in the draft.

He had skills, a shot, a height of 7’1”, and a brother in the NBA. A no-brainer pick, except that the scouts and GMs hated one thing—his body type. Poor Marc Gasol had breasts. Because of his “man boobs” the profilers, the NBA draft mavens, all whispered with their half smiles that Marc really wasn’t “our kinda guy.” He went #48 in the 2007 draft. Upon entering the NBA, Gasol worked on his fitness, hit the weight room and became an NBA All Star for Memphis.

********

One more stereotyping story to savor. Last Monday’s Boston Marathon was run in brutal weather conditions. Freezing cold, sheets of rain. Perfect weather for Boston in April. Boston is the premier marathon in America and most of the top distance runners in the world compete there. The great marathoners do not pay to enter the competition. The best ones are guaranteed their expenses and sometimes are paid just to show up.

Vegas puts odds on the favorites, and very rarely does an outsider break into the top group. But in 2018 it happened.

Sarah Sellers, a 26-year-old nurse from Arizona, paid her $180 entrance fee. She runs at 4:00 a.m. back home in Phoenix because her job as a nurse anesthetist doesn’t afford her a lot of training time. She came partly because her husband Blake was running too. Sarah had run cross country and track at Weber State and was an Academic All American. But she isn’t a marathoner. Boston was her second marathon.

She just kept pushing in the horrendous conditions of Boston, and all of the big names kept faltering. She was 25th at the midway point and 13th at 20 miles. Sarah just kept running and finished the race in second place, collecting $75,000 in prize money and a spot in the Olympic trials.

The profilers in Boston and Las Vegas didn’t know her name before Monday in Boston.

Question: Is profiling necessary for successful law enforcement?

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Rocket Men

By Noah Graff

I’ve always thought space travel was cool and interesting, particularly as a kid, but I seldom romanticized it like so many other people do.

I think it’s a generational thing. The Space Shuttles of the ‘80s and ‘90s were neat but those didn’t travel very far and they seemed too practical and utilitarian to me. Working on the Hubble Telescope and taking photos of earth and other planets was cool, but most of the news I heard about the Shuttles came when they blew up. The moon landing was amazing, but it was 49 years ago! So that has generally felt kind of “been there done that” for me.

I just read Rocket Men by Robert Kurson, a book documenting the story of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and my perspective on NASA and space travel has changed. I doubt most people nowadays even know what the Apollo 8 mission was. They know about the mission that landed men on the moon, though probably not by name (Apollo 11). Apollo 13 was the only Apollo mission I myself could name before I read this book because I had seen the great Tom Hanks movie about it.

View of the moon from Apollo 8 .

Apollo 8, launched 50 years ago, is arguably the NASA mission that most changed the world. It was the mission that sent a manned spacecraft to the moon and orbited it 10 times, not the mission that landed men on the moon. Apollo 11 was momentous, but Apollo 8 was the bigger achievement. Space travel had begun only a little more than a decade before it, and until that point in time the farthest any manned space flight had traveled was 800-some miles. To get to the moon’s orbit and return back to earth a spacecraft had to travel almost 250,000 miles at speeds up to 25,000 miles per hour. The ship had to have the power to break out of Earth’s orbit, enter the moon’s orbit, then break away from the moon’s orbit again and return to earth. Its instruments had to make extremely precise life or death calculations using computing power a micro-fraction of that found in a modern smartphone. The spacecraft’s so-called Apollo Guidance Computer was more basic than electronics in modern toasters that have computer controlled stop/start/defrost buttons. Upon reentry to the earth’s atmosphere the Apollo 8 spacecraft traveled in excess of 24,500 miles per hour and the computer took over flying duties. Some compared finding the entry corridor to throwing a paper airplane into a public mailbox slot from a distance of four miles.

Had a trip to the moon developed in conventional NASA fashion there would have been several missions prior to it in order to incrementally overcome the challenges of such a voyage, perhaps over the course of two years. It made sense to proceed with caution because just a year before, the Apollo 1 mission had ended tragically in a fire on the launchpad, killing the mission’s three astronaut crew members. In the summer of 1968 the odds of reaching John F. Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the moon before 1970 and beating the Soviets in the Space Race seemed bleak. But on August 3, 1968, while sitting on a sandy Caribbean beach, George Low, one of the most important engineers at NASA at the time, had an epiphany. Suddenly it dawned on him that with the right plan and some good fortune it actually was possible for NASA to send a manned spacecraft to the moon in four months, arriving at the moon on Christmas eve. Remarkably in a matter of days he was able convince NASA and the U.S. government to attempt this audacious goal.

Had the Americans not shot for the moon in 1968 they likely would have lost the Space Race. Many accounts say the Soviets would have been capable of attempting a similar mission only two weeks after Apollo 8 launched. By September of 1968 the Soviets had already successfully completed a circumlunar voyage carrying passengers of tortoises, wine flies and meal worms. Why not a person?

Around the world many people said the idea of sending a manned spaceship to the moon by Christmas of 1968 was a reckless suicide mission. Imagine if the mission failed. A person could never look at the moon the same way again on Christmas. They questioned risking innocent people’s lives by rushing a mission just to win bragging rights. And it was the MOON! I try to place myself at that time period and I think I might have thought the idea crazy as well. It’s still hard to fathom. The MOON—that sphere in the sky, literally another world. A person had to travel 250,000 miles in a tin can to get there. At the time, deep space was only something in science fiction, but it is a mind boggling and surreal concept for me even today.

Not to mention, this pie in the sky mission was conceived in the midst of one of the most turbulent years in United States history. Americans were divided. The war in Vietnam was escalating. Race riots and assassinations filled the news, and people feared the Soviets were ready to start World War III.

But when Apollo 8’s Saturn V rocket launched Dec. 21, 1968, the world looked up and united for a moment. The mission was unprecedented and in its own way, bigger than all the conflicts raging on the ground. The Pope blessed the voyage before takeoff, and 65 countries tuned in on Christmas Eve to witness the ship’s broadcast from the moon’s orbit, including the Soviet Union and East Germany. Apollo’s three man crew had agonized for weeks prior to the trip about what to say to the world if they indeed reached lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. They consulted with just a few people to prepare a speech, and the wife of one of the writers they contacted finally gave them an idea of what to say. The speech was kept in complete secrecy from everyone, including NASA and their own families.

The three astronauts read the opening passage from the first book of Genesis.

William Anders

“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

James Lovell

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Frank Borman

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

They ended with the captain Frank Borman saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

We find ourselves in another divided United States right now, maybe the most divided since the time of Apollo 8. Russia is still an adversary but seemingly less of an immediate threat to our existence. The U.S. now collaborates with the Russians and other nations on the International Space Station. NASA doesn’t launch its own manned rockets or Shuttles anymore. It hasn’t sent a man to the moon since Apollo 17, 46 years ago.

Elon Musk says he hopes his company, SpaceX, will send a crewed mission to Mars in 2024. How much will I care about it? Is that mission as hard to fathom today as sending a man to the moon was in 1968? Would reaching Mars be more of an achievement than Apollo 8 reaching the moon? Will such a voyage take a leap of faith like that of Columbus or Apollo 8? Will sending people to Mars unite today’s world temporarily like sending men to the moon did?

Question: Is sending people to Mars important to you?

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Current Change

By Lloyd Graff

How do you deal with change? I’m talking BIG CHANGE. Existential change in the way you do business.

We are witnessing it being played out every week now in the drug sales world. CVS is buying Aetna Insurance, Express Scripts is combining with Cigna Insurance, and Wal-Mart is exploring a deal with Humana. These mergers are defensive moves because the health care delivery business is living in mortal fear of Amazon making a big move into the industry, which most people see as ripe low hanging fruit waiting to be plucked. Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and Chase are combining efforts to develop an end run around traditional health insurance.

Many people more connected than I am think the machining world, particularly high-volume turning aimed at the automotive industry, will soon face similar existential change. This view is based on the growth of electric vehicles, which use significantly fewer machined parts than internal combustion powered vehicles. Automotive suppliers as well as companies involved in the oil and gas products and distribution industry face a long-term dwindling demand for the stuff they provide. This will also affect the metals business, from mining to melting to rolling and trucking.

The big shift to electric powered rechargeable cars and trucks will be more visible in five years because the Chinese seem to be committed to allowing only new electric cars to be sold in the country within a few years.

Smog in Harbin in northern China.

China is a 13 million car market. The country’s leadership, almost out of self-preservation, realizes air pollution is an existential issue that cannot be pushed off indefinitely.

The move to electric is a big step, and while it does not address China’s coal fired electricity plants, it will ameliorate air quality and show people that the government wants to make the country semi-livable.

A billion Chinese folks wearing gas masks isn’t my primary worry. I am concerned that my traditional machining company clients will be choking as they compete for dwindling contracts for beautiful, accurate machined components that connect the petrol to the engines in the Chevys, Toyotas and Benzes across the world.

These days I frequently address the big “electric” question to clients who I know well. The answers I usually get are the kind civilians probably give when they know an invasion is coming but don’t know when. The answer often goes something like this, “I know it’s coming. We discuss it every week, but we need to make money today, and today our business is terrific.”

What are some good options for folks (like me) who see very good business short-term by continuing to do what we are doing but are fearful about the longer term trend.

• Diversify. Find a business where your skills translate but is unrelated to the internal combustion engine. Medical, firearms, plumbing, construction and military are some areas of interest.

• Improve what you are doing now. Gasoline engines will be around for a long time even if new sales taper off, so prepare to get a bigger share of a smaller pie, especially the replacement market.

• Redefine your narrative. If you define yourself as an automotive supplier or a screw machine house, change your mission to a broader one or a more specialized one.

• If you are a company owner, fatten up your EBITDA and look for someone to buy your firm. Private equity companies are quite interested in machining companies these days. They like the cash flows and most of them are relatively short-term players. If you have a five-year window of growth in the machining world as related to oil and engines this is the time to fatten the cow.  If you are not an owner go work for a firm which has made necessary changes.

• As a wildcard countermeasure, invest in copper and cobalt stocks or futures. If electric really takes off, the price of copper and cobalt (lithium appears to be on the way out) will climb dramatically. The Chinese have been buying up copper and cobalt assets like crazy, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. If they hog the supply for internal use, the rest of the world will bid up the price for what is available.

• Be on the lookout for the next big thing. It could be additive manufacturing, urban farming, exercise equipment, underground living, water purification, or a million other possibilities if you can change your personal narrative.

Question: Do you think you will be driving in an electric vehicle in 10 years?

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