Swarfcast Ep. 3 – Part 2 of Miles Free Interview

By Noah Graff

Miles Free, Director of Research and Technology at the Precision Machined Products Association, opines on electric cars, economic patriotism and how American machine shops have evolved to thrive in today’s economy.

Question: Are tariffs aimed at China economic patriotism or a tool for the enemy?

Listen to Swarfcast in the player below.

Honda Assembly Plant in Liberty OH   (Dayton Daily News)



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Machinery Marriage

I often ask clients of our machine tool business where they make the most money in their businesses. They usually have an answer immediately, and it isn’t in the place where they are investing fresh money.

I’m frequently talking to folks who run multi-spindle automatic screw machines, usually cam-operated, in tandem with a host of other equipment. Many people regard these machines as antiques from the antediluvian epoch of manufacturing. These are machines that some folks say won World War II. For the uninitiated, that was the war in which we fought the Germans and Japanese, while the Russians were our allies. The world does have the ability to change.

The ironic answer I often get is that the multi-spindles make the most money, and the return on investment is off the charts because they were written off eons ago.

But the secret sauce is the knowledge of where they fit in the picture. Banging out a half million dumb parts on old Acmes or New Britains is a losing game. Increasingly, sharp manufacturers in Shanghai or Bangalore will make you bang your brains out. Subsidized steel in China and dirt priced brass in India make the simple threaded widget yesterday’s game. But, combining the raw machining strength of 6- or 8-spindle multis with the

finesse of twin-turret, twin-spindle CNC turning centers can turn 20 cent blanks into $2 medical or aircraft pieces. Running single bars through an Okuma or Nakamura will make you a bit player in a crowded cast, but combining those machines with the muscular multis that still can pull their not-so-insignificant weight, makes a potent combination that Shanghai and Bangalore can’t beat.


President Trump’s tariffs are an annoyance which could grow into a blister if they do not bring any fundamental shifts from the Chinese. American manufacturers, particularly steel users, are today’s sacrificial lambs as the Administration vaguely pushes for China to stop stealing intellectual property. The naïveté of somehow expecting Beijing to allow one of its biggest employers, the inefficient State-run steel industry, to suddenly erode because of the tingling jab of American tariffs is quite surprising. I fret that the strong U.S. economy has made an overconfident Trump start a fight without a clear endgame.


My son Noah is getting married next month and already receiving some gifts. It brought to mind a few memorable gifts my wife Risa and I received for our wedding that have lasted over the decades we have been together.

We still use our copper bottomed Revere Ware skillets and sauce pans almost every day. Amazingly, 48 years later, they are better than when we got them from Shirley Silverstein as a gift, because they have been seasoned. We seldom shine the copper bottoms, however.

We still have aluminum baking pans, perfect for brownies and cakes, which have remained as wonderful as they were when we received them more than four decades ago. Then there is the cookie recipe book that Risa refers to often and the old Better Homes and Gardens recipe book that never seems to age.

The ideal present does not have to last for 40 or 50 years. Luggage can be used hard for 5 or 10 years and happily discarded, and a sweater that you wear often has a finite life. My wife and I have our own good china, but she usually uses her mother’s china for Sabbath meals and special occasions.

We have several weddings coming up besides Noah’s. The Amazon gift certificate is an appealing surrogate for the special wedding gift that will be remembered fondly 50 years from today. Gifts also go out of vogue. Silver serving bowls seem like such an anachronism today. Who has the space for them to sit idly on shelves?

With wedding season at its peak, I am curious to know who has gifts that have withstood the test of time. Who has a great idea for a gift that will keep on giving or impart a memory which will last forever?

Question: Is running multi-spindles a losing game?

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Swarfcast Ep. 2 – Talking Tariffs with Miles Free

By Noah Graff

Listen to Swarfcast in the player below.

In Episode #2 of Swarfcast, Today’s Machining World’s podcast, Noah interviewed Miles Free of the PMPA (Precision Machined Products Association). Free is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the steel trade. They discussed how the recently implemented tariffs on raw materials into the United States affect the U.S. precision machining industry.

In the interview Free equated harsh raw material tariffs to economic sanctions on imports that the United States would inflict on an enemy like Russia or Iran.

If you want to learn about Trump’s new tariffs listen to this interview!

This interview was conducted in April, so at times Free will refer to tariffs as a potential threat rather than a current one.

Question: How are tariffs affecting your business?

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Pull the Goalie

By Lloyd Graff

Malcolm Gladwell recently put out a brilliant episode in his “Revisionist History” podcast series about his Number One rule for living — “Pull the Goalie.” (Click here to listen)

Gladwell interviews two of his buddies, Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown, successful Wall Street money strategists. They analyze everything. It’s what they do for a living and just for the heck of it. They test their offbeat theories with mathematical precision, looking for the absurd that carries the germ of truth. They love being “disagreeable,” espousing truth that defies the conventional wisdom and makes “normal” folks feel extremely uncomfortable.

They recently published a paper in which they argued that the hockey strategy of pulling the goalie to add an extra attacker when down by one goal with only one minute left on the clock was stupid. They argue that the goalie should be pulled with 5 minutes and 40 seconds left if a team needs to tie the score and force overtime. If the leading team scores on the unguarded net, so what, you would have almost surely lost anyway with the time worn strategy of pulling the goalie with only a minute left. If you end up losing the game by two or three goals instead of one, who cares. At least you gave yourself the best possibility of winning. They claim their calculations prove the “pull the goalie” strategy handily.

It makes exquisite sense if you think about it—in hockey and in life. The conservative “follow the conventional rule” approach is a recipe for failure and mediocrity. Innovative intelligent risk pays.

Courtesy of www.theglobeandmail.com

In sports, we see numerous examples of conventional wisdom being overturned today. The move to 3-point shooting, in some cases more than 50% of the time, has changed the NBA game radically. It is not uncommon to start a fast break and then pitch the ball to the corner for an open 24-footer, rather than rush to a contested goal near the basket.

In baseball the starting pitcher is now expected to go a maximum of six innings because “stuff” often starts to fade as the hurler reaches 100 pitches. Also, Major League hitters slug significantly better against pitchers they have already seen twice in a game.

In football the Philadelphia Eagles demonstrated that going for it on 4th down is often a better strategy than punting or attempting a long field goal.

But aside from sports, the “pull the goalie” approach is useful in business. I think people are too fearful about changing jobs and careers, and bosses are too careful about firing people. The comfortable path is to stick with the same company, the same team, the predictable career path, the boss you know. But if you think pulling the goalie is your rule for life, then making a shift before the conventional wisdom or your buddies tell you to do it might well be the right course.

Malcolm Gladwell uses another “pull the goalie” example in the podcast by bringing up horror film plots where a mother and two young children fall victim to a home invasion by a psychopath. When it becomes obvious to the Mom that she can’t protect her family from the intruder and her only chance at saving them is to flee the scene to go get help, what should she do?

Society as well as natural parental instinct would say that a mother should NEVER leave her kids when a predator is in the house.

But theoretically she should “pull the goalie,” do the unthinkable, the thing for which she might second guess herself forever. Otherwise, everybody dies instead of trying that one last chance to save the day.

The life lesson is to consider the odds, accept being uncomfortable, ignore the ostracism of your peers. Doing what’s easy, going with the crowd, might get you killed.

Question: When would you pull the goalie?

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Ep. 1 – TMW Launches Swarfcast

By Noah Graff

Listen to Swarfcast in the player below.
At long last, Swarfcast, Today’s Machining World’s podcast, is up!

Swarfcast centers around similar topics that readers have enjoyed in Today’s Machining World during its first 18 years. Wow, that’s awhile.

Each week, Lloyd and Noah Graff will interview colorful people who will give their take on the machining business and a whole array of topics that we think our readers (and now listeners) may find interesting.

In the first episode, Noah interviews Lloyd (his dad). Lloyd reflects on the last 60-some years of his life—as a 12-year-old kid submitting articles to Readers Digest, to trying out for the Chicago Cubs, to owning a used machine tool company and a magazine.

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Amazin Opportunity

By Lloyd Graff

Take a flyer with me today. This is a blog about change, race, real estate values and the chance to make a fortune if my left field projections are actually correct.

Amazon will make its decision shortly about where to build its new headquarters. It’s original home office will remain in Seattle, but its second home will be built somewhere else in America. Chicago is one of the finalists.

Consider the other likely candidates such as Boston, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington DC and Chicago. Chicago is only a 4-5 hour plane ride from Seattle, making it a strong candidate. Chicago has another big advantage. It’s offering Amazon a huge clean site that the city acquired following the financial collapse 20 years ago, the former Michael Reese Hospital. The site can be expanded to 100 acres. The beauty of it—is the beauty of it. It is adjacent to Lake Michigan near McCormick Place, I-55 and outer Lakeshore Drive. It is located on several rail arteries and accessible to downtown on lakefront bike paths. It is within biking distance of the University of Chicago, Northwestern’s Downtown campus, University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and Illinois Institute of Technology. Loyola and DePaul Universities are easily accessible too.

The Amazon Headquarters would mean eventually 14 million square feet of buildings plus the amenities and service businesses that go with it. A conservative estimate is 50,000 jobs will be spawned.

Amazon choosing the Michael Reese site would be a fascinating scenario because of the primarily African-American population that borders it on the south side of the city. Would the most valuable company in the world, Amazon, locate its $50 billion gem in a Black area of Chicago? I think so, because 100 acres flat against the beautiful lakefront land in Chicago trumps other considerations. Amazon will build its own neighborhood.

Chicago’s Former Michael Reese Hospital Site. Courtesy of The Chicago Tribune

America has changed enormously since I grew up a few miles south of the Michael Reese site. (Incidentally, I was born at Michael Reese Hospital.)

The racism that infected my childhood and colored the way I have looked at the world ever since is much different today. Barack Obama was President for eight years and his library will be built 15 minutes south of the Michael Reese site. I live in a southern Chicago suburb that’s more black than white. The Starbucks where I’m writing this blog has a 50-60% African American customer base.

Most of the Jewish people who once filled the four synagogues in the area I live in have died or moved away. Yet I am very confident that a new wave of Jews and other white people, even with children, will soon be moving back into my area, which is a 25-minute commute to the 100-acre Michael Reese site. This is going to happen even in the unlikely event Amazon does not opt for Michael Reese.

Apple will be building its own 50,000 employee second headquarters in a few years. One of the key factors a company like Amazon or Apple considers when building a new site is the availability of affordable housing in an urban area. Chicago ranks high in the nation on accessible affordable housing for potential younger employees.

Chicago’s Southside and the South Suburbs have available housing, lots of land, plenty of water, excellent transportation and infrastructure, and a desire to take advantage of it.

My old friends whose children have all left the area laugh at me when I outline my Amazon scenario, but the house flippers and real estate speculators are not laughing. They are buying right now. Better to be a little early than too late.

I make my living by identifying undervalued assets. Rarely have I seen an opportunity with such a big upside as the spin off housing of the Michael Reese development.

Question: Is racial makeup one of the first things you consider when buying property in a new neighborhood?

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By Lloyd Graff

Written June 19, 2018

This isn’t a blog I really want to write. But I feel like I can’t write anything else right now so I better just write it and get it out of the way. I’ll figure out whether I want to publish it later.

I am nearing the 10th anniversary of the heart attack that should have killed me just prior to Labor Day Weekend in 2008. I am a bit obsessed by the date. I can’t get it out of my mind.

Fortunately, I’m feeling pretty good physically, but the knowledge of the 10-year mark is driving me nuts. I know it is only a “date,” but 3,500 days since my friend and doctor Chris Costas wheeled me into the Emergency Room himself at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, IL makes me feel both grateful and vulnerable.

It is not like a “yahrzeit,” which in Judaism is an annual ritual of remembrance of a parent or sibling who has died. My case is marking my survival. There is a prayer in Judaism for that also—“the Shehecheyanu,” which is said to mark a special fortuitous event. You say it when a child is born, when the Cubs win the World Series, when you survive an accident or when you reach a milestone like living 10 good years following a heart attack. 


Tomorrow I have an appointment with my cardiologist, Dr. Matthew Sorrentino. It’s a routine long scheduled visit, but it is adding to the drama I’m feeling. I know doctors say they schedule appointments six months ahead to assuage the drama, to normalize the appointments that are built in to eliminate crises. I wish it always worked that easily for me, and this 10-year appointment which I feared might never come is now gratefully upon me.

I know I need to quickly move from fear to gratitude, but honestly I’m feeling those emotions sometimes simultaneously while other times alternating between them.

Writing this piece 22 hours ahead of my doctor appointment is therapeutic. It helps to identify my fear and massage it. I can’t make it vanish. I know that. I think of the events of 10 years ago every morning. Every day that I wake up and touch my wife Risa and identify a small tapestry on my wall eight feet away, I know I’m alive and get to experience another day. Doing 2,500 steps in 20 minutes on my elliptical energizes me further, and then taking a hot shower following it zonks me out. It’s a reflection of my life these days—up and down, gratitude and fear, the joy I feel about all the blessings I have, the knowledge that life is fleeting and health can be a vapor.

I appreciate somehow finding the strength to write this piece and your patience in reading about my daily struggle. I know I am not alone in experiencing these kinds of feelings.

I am fervently hoping to walk out of my cardiologist’s office tomorrow whispering the special prayer of gratitude and relief, the “Shehecheyanu,” with great feeling and a huge exhale.

(Fast forward to June 22.)

The appointment two days ago went great. My doctor at the University of Chicago said the 10-year mark is meaningless today with good diet, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors.

June 20 was a beautiful day.

Question: Name three things you are grateful for.

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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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