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Industry Scuttlebutt

By Lloyd Graff.

Carbon3D’s Printer Printing an Eiffel Tower with Continuous Liquid Interface Production technology (CLIP).

Assorted thoughts while waiting for the Sweet 16 to unfold.

In our business world, 3D printing is the technology the lathe and mill guys pooh-pooh, but we should not be so complacent. The latest refinement substitutes layer by layer printing with a liquidy glop that is potentially much faster. The day is coming when shops will have both additive and machining technologies available and will offer the best option to a client. This will also be a tremendous marketing approach – offering both.


I wish I’ve seen a team that could beat Kentucky in the first two rounds, but I have not. I’m rooting for Wisconsin, but they do not have enough athleticism to beat the Caliparians. Kentucky’s depth and brute athleticism trumps Duke’s fabulous shooting. Gonzaga just isn’t quite good enough either in the front court or backcourt. Michigan State is peaking and probably makes the Final Four, but they do not shoot well enough to beat Kentucky. What people do not realize about Kentucky is that they play well together and they are young, but not that young. The Harrison twins are sophomores and play with maturity and total confidence. Willie Cawley-Stein is an upperclassman who plays with wild animal ferocity. He scares me – even on TV. I wish I could say it ain’t so, but Kentucky in a walk.


The data shows that American business is not investing in heavy duty capital equipment with a 15 year or more usable life. On the face of it this sounds like very disturbing news in the machining world, but I think we need to understand this statistic in context. Consider electric utilities. Utility companies used to build new plants every year or two. Same with oil refineries. Competition and environmental hounding have forced companies to get more efficient rather than build more plants and add more turbines.

Think about how you can produce more with less today. Capital gravitates to where it is more productive. Monster factories are rare today. If battery technology progresses the way Elon Musk and others think it will, we will be moth-balling oil refineries and traditional electric generating facilities, not building more.


March 24 was the day the Iran nuclear talks were supposed to end. I expect they will grind on as the Persians continue to play the Obama administration for the fool. If there is a deal, it is highly unlikely to be ratified by Congress. For Iran, it’s heads we win, tails we win. The Saudis and the shale drillers are playing the best card against the Ayatollahs by depressing crude oil prices.


I applaud Howard Schultz, Chairman of Starbucks, for attempting to initiate discussions about race relations in his cafes. The Starbucks I frequent in Homewood, Illinois, has 60-40 black to white clientele. Through the years I have made black friends there and had many great conversations with people who have darker skin than mine. I have written about struggling with my own racism in other columns, but I have used Starbucks as a safe haven for talking race. Starbucks is America’s meeting place. Thank you, Mr. Schultz.


Do you think you will use 3D printing in your shop anytime soon?

Who do you like in the NCAA Tournament?

Carbon3D’s Printer Printing an Eiffel Tower with Continuous Liquid Interface Production technology (CLIP)

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Work Hard, Play Hard

By Noah Graff.

Noah Graff in front of the Alps, Switzerland, March 2015

Two weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Zurich, Switzerland — a beautiful, unique, and expensive place that is probably hard to fathom for those who haven’t visited there. I believe when most people think of Switzerland what first comes to mind are watches, army knives, chocolate, scenery, military neutrality and bank accounts. All definitely have a significant presence in the country, but how do those things affect Switzerland’s inhabitants? How does it feel to walk the streets of an old European city boasting the highest per capita of Porsches in the world, a city that remained pristine during World War II while so many other European cities were obliterated? I was blessed to get a taste of this exotic place, as I was sent by Graff-Pinkert to meet with several machining industry customers nearby. The following account is little peak into my experience during a weekend in Zurich.

Predictably, on Friday night I had to try out the Latin dancing scene of Zurich, as I do in just about every place I travel. Catholics find the church, Jews find the synagogue and I always look for the salsa bar. Contrary to what one might think, the salsa scene in Zurich is serious. That night, a venue called X-TRA Club, about a 25 minute walk from my hotel, hosted a huge salsa night. The music was an excellent variety of Puerto Rican and Cuban hits, and the diversity of dancers was great. I met dancers from Germany, Austria, Ukraine, Cuba, and Peru, all expatriates who had immigrated to Switzerland to find prosperity.


Noah Graff salsa dancing in Zurich, March 2015

I got to know two Swiss girls while dancing, Katerina a tall elegant woman of Russian descent with with gorgeous shoulder length dirty blond hair, who had traveled to the club about an hour from Lucern, and Juliette, a cute petite woman with curly brunette hair in her late 30s living near the center of Zurich. Both women, like many Swiss salsa dancers, usually dance Cuban style salsa. I’m not very good at Cuban salsa so I taught them to dance my Puerto Rican style, which is much more common in the United States. They raved that I was a good teacher and we danced quite a lot as the evening progressed. Juliette and I definitely had chemistry on and off the dance floor — at least in my opinion. We bought each other several drinks, but she insisted upon buying a lot more rounds than me, partly because I’m only allowed to have one alcoholic beverage per evening do to a health condition. At the club, a glass of carbonated water cost 6 francs (the franc and dollar are virtually equal in value), a skinny can of Fanta cost 10 francs, and a cocktail such as a mojito (containing plenty of ice) was 15 francs, so you better not spill it.

When you talk with somebody about Switzerland, particularly in a city like Zurich or Geneva, it is almost a given that one of the first topics of conversation will be how damn expensive the place is. When you are trying to predict how much food will cost, just guess a very high number and then add a bunch more on top of it. A “reasonable” meal at a restaurant is 30 or 40 francs per person. I went to a casual Thai restaurant one evening and ordered soup, an entree, and a drink and it cost 45 or 50 francs. That same meal in Chicago would have cost $15 to $20. I will definitely have to explain this price disparity to our office manager when I finally turn in receipts from the trip.

At about 3:00 a.m. I left the club with Juliette, her friend Joanna, and Juan, a successful chef from Peru who Juliette works for part time as a caterer. We wandered over to an after hours bar called Mambo Cafe. The night’s activities at that point are a bit of a blur. A few final dances, me humoring a drunk Peruvian who insisted that he was “more American than I was,” and trying to rekindle any “chemistry” I could with Juliette. We all finally wrapped up our night at about 4:30 a.m. Google Maps on my iPhone guided me back to my hotel in about 30 minutes. It was a little eerie walking through the beautiful old city so late. The streets were quiet, with just a few folks walking around. Everybody assured me that it was about as safe a place in the world that one could wander late, so I felt pretty secure. After sauntering into my small hotel I recounted my evening to the 23-year-old front desk attendant who kindly brought me a croissant from the upcoming morning’s breakfast. He was a little surprised to hear about me getting to know some real Swiss people so quickly. The women I had met that night had bragged that they were more outgoing than most of their Swiss peers. Perhaps my experiences that evening were an anomaly, but I can only judge based on what I encountered. I told the front desk guy about the crazy prices of drinks at the club and he said they were par for Zurich. He said that his salary as a part-time front desk attendant at a small three star hotel was $30 per hour, and that the income taxes in Switzerland are minuscule compared to other countries. Of course, you can buy a beer in the U.S. for $3, rather than $15.

Question: Do you enjoy traveling for work?

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To Rent or Buy?

By Lloyd Graff.

The U.S. stock market has been acting like a yoyo. Up and down, up and down. The reason is understandable. Higher interest rates orchestrated by the Fed are perceived to justify lower stock prices, at least in the short run. The Fed Chairman, Janet Yellen, has signaled rather opaquely that interest rates are eventually going up, but she has been deliberately vague about when that might happen.

Wall Street traders are generally believing rates will go up within six months, but the statistics are so inconsistent it is leaving the markets terribly confused.

Unemployment seems to be plummeting, it’s currently at 5.5%, but wage growth is still sluggish. The income gap between rich and poor is growing. Huge numbers of people are incarcerated in America and when they get out of jail it is very tough for them to get jobs.

A large number of people have chosen not to work, many because their skills won’t earn them enough to live better than they are living on the various government subsidies available. So unemployment statistics are not a slam dunk for the Fed to raise rates to combat its bogeyman, INFLATION.

The markets keep asking – where’s inflation? It’s harder to find than Waldo.

Oil prices have been cut by more than half over a few months. The dollar has risen 30% versus the euro and the yen. Europe and Japan have cut their interest rates to almost zero, and some countries like Germany and Switzerland, below zero. So money leaps out of Europe and Japan to America with its strong currency and low rates but still better than zero interest rates.

The oversupply of almost every commodity except brains is pushing prices in the United States down, not up. Toyota has a lot of room to haggle on a Camry with the yen at 120 to the dollar and costs figured at 90 yen to the dollar. China is so glutted with steel it is stabbing Nucor and every other American mill in the gut by lowering prices. I know the specialty mills are holding up prices of bar-stock at the moment, but one wonders for how long. Corn is cheap, gasoline and natural gas are up from the lows, but $2 gas appears to be coming soon. Many of the jobs produced over the last five years have been from the presently waning shale boom.

So the Fed looks around and wonders why it should push up rates when American consumers are socking away money and Millennials are paying off college debt and not buying big houses in the burbs for kids they don’t have.

And the stock market yoyos. I get it.

An equally intriguing issue for folks in the machining world is, how do we play this new world of no inflation that may become disinflation and heaven forbid, DEFLATION.

Gary Shilling, the brilliant American economist, has correctly predicted the economy for decades. He thinks oil could go to $10 a barrel, at least for a little while, because of huge overproduction and lack of storage facilities.

What if everybody’s house lost 25% of its value, mortgages dropped to 2% for 15 years, and car prices dropped by 30%? It could happen.

I think there is a persuasive argument to be made today that we should be renters of capital equipment and real estate. This possibility scares me as a buyer and seller of capital equipment and a home owner, but I see the logic of being a renter today, if long term assets may deflate in value.

I know young people seem to prefer renting over buying these days, and not just because they cannot raise a down payment. It may be an important trend.

Renting capital equipment still seems to be the exception in my world, but if you are looking at a 3D printer, where technology is bringing prices down rapidly, it seems to make perfect sense to rent.

If I step back, the tug of war in the equities and bond market is fascinating, but for people making big bets on machinery and property every day, it is scary.

Which side are you on? Brian Beaulieu, who I wrote about 10 days ago, is confident that the big spending by Governments will keep the economy buoyant for two more decades.

Gary Shilling, also a great predictor, sees a deflationary trend, though he’s not buying a generator and waiting for the apocalypse. Is it a time to rent or a time to buy? To everything, there is a season.

Question: Is it better to rent or buy today?

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Confessions of a Happy Man

By Lloyd Graff.

George Baily from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

I am celebrating today for no good reason – except the best reason, I’m alive to celebrate 2140 days after my crucial heart artery, the left anterior descending (LAD), was completely obstructed. That should have ended my life, but it didn’t because a Muslim doctor in a Catholic hospital inserted a stent into a 63-year-old Jewish guy who’s Greek Orthodox physician personally wheeled him into the Emergency room. Only in America.

Every day since then I give thanks for the gift of living another day. I wish I could say I was joyful every day, but I’m not. I let trivial crap annoy me. I worry about the business and making money. I get irritated by the aches and pains of 70 years and not seeing and hearing like I did 30 years ago.

My grateful happy self kicks my negative grouchy self in the butt as my dual psyche wobbles on the balance beam of life.

I am thrilled to be alive each day and yet, still pissed off that every day is emotionally turbulent.

I feel incredibly blessed just to wake up and kiss my wonderful life partner, Risa. And then, a few minutes later, I’m struggling in bed with business problems and girding myself for a painful post knee replacement workout. And then I remind myself, “you’re alive, Lloyd, you’re loved and you love, get real, and I pull myself out of bed. I’m a happy guy. But I wonder why I’m not happier. Is this the blessing and curse of surviving till you have to start cashing in your IRA?

As a younger man I didn’t worry all that much. My parents were both big worriers and I used to think I was absolved from worrying because they were too good at it. When they died at 70 and 77 I think I unconsciously believed it was my duty to become a worrier. It was almost an unconscious worry transfer that I couldn’t wash or wish away.

I am not debilitated by my wrestling match of gratitude and fear, but it does make for a tiring day. I live with constant double vision because of seven retina surgeries. My two eyes don’t work together. It’s another part of my daily internal battle – good sight and near blindness. Sometimes I block the one bad eye with an eye patch, but usually I allow both eyes to work it out. Maybe I prefer the struggle because it’s reassuring to have two eyes, even if one doesn’t see very well.

I often make the emotional connection with Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Baily, in It’s a Wonderful Life, even when it isn’t Christmas. The strands of joy and depression ran through George. Most of the time he held off the fear, but it was a constant presence in his life. Ultimately, it took an aspiring angel to help him vanquish his internal demons that the hated villain Potter kept abetting.

The title of the film, with all its irony, feels like my story. My life has been wonderful. It is wonderful, I am so grateful. Why can’t I feel that way all of the time?

Question: Are you happy?

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When Students Run a Business

By Paul Nicolaus.

Craig Cegielski assists student Scott Bloom with a project at Cardinal Manufacturing.

With unemployment at 5.5% and baby boomers starting to retire it is vital for manufacturing to tap into the high schools and colleges for fresh talent. I believe making things and getting paid to do it is starting to resonate with young people in some communities. In Northern Wisconsin it is definitely catching on. -Lloyd Graff

At first glance it might seem odd that a business run and operated by high school students recently reeled in the Iron County 2014 Business of The Year award, but take a closer look and it becomes clear that Northwoods Manufacturing isn’t your average school program.

Based out of Hurley High School in the northern tip of Wisconsin, Northwoods Manufacturing has quickly evolved into a money-making venture that teaches advanced machining on metal and wood, develops professionalism, and increases students’ awareness of the manufacturing careers available to them following graduation.

Along the way, it gives students real-world manufacturing experience within a traditional school setting. Students can progress through the technology education program, create a resume and cover letter, and then interview for a job.

Once accepted into the student-run business, they are given positions ranging from welders and machinists to engineers and marketers, and related labor is performed using work orders and timecards in order to handle projects for local companies.

The jumpstart that made this unique setup possible came in the form of financial support from the Hurley Board of Education, the Hurley Education Foundation, local industry, and other community supporters, which produced over $80,000 in initial funds.

In addition to donated equipment, this pool of money led to the purchase of three new Miller 252 MIG welders, three Miller Sycrowave 210 Tig Welders, three Miller Thunderbolt Stick welders, a Clausing Lathe, Shopbot wood CNC, Sharp 3-axis metal CNC, and other tools.

“It’s really exciting to be in it from the ground floor and to see the enthusiasm from the kids,” says Mark Manzanares, tool room manager at Ironwood Plastics, who notes just how quickly the program has taken off. “When we first started to work with the school we had a three year plan,” he says. “I think in the first year we exceeded that three-year plan and we’re just continuing to grow with them.”

And thanks to field trips that have included tours of area companies and events like career day, which pairs students with local professionals, students are seeing local industry up-close and interacting with those who are currently working in fields they might just choose to enter.

“It’s amazing how much pride they have in their shop,” Manzanares adds. “The program not only teaches them about industry but also teaches them about the soft skills as well. You need to clean up your work area, you need to show up on time, you have deadlines to meet, and it’s really exciting to see them buy into that.”

The dynamic that has evolved is a win-win, notes Jacob Hostettler, metals instructor at Hurley High School. “By helping us, they’re helping themselves fill the jobs that they have in this area,” he says. “It works out for the schools, the students, and eventually down the line it will help the industry that is helping the schools.”

The success noticed early on in Hurley can be attributed at least in part to Hostetler’s student teaching experience at Eleva-Strum Central High School in the western portion of the state, which has an established student-run machine shop business called Cardinal Manufacturing.

“Once you bring relevance to the classroom all of a sudden the kids want to learn and it’s more exciting – it’s not just a project to get done, get a grade, and throw away,” says instructor Craig Cegielski, who initiated the program back in 2007. “Now there’s some real deadlines, some real quality issues, real customers and real money.”

Cegielski estimates that Cardinal Manufacturing will bring in roughly $150,000 this year, allowing the program to remain self-sufficient. This aspect may be heartening to other local schools who would like to run a similar program but simply cannot afford it. “We’re kind of solving that financial problem at a high school level and by doing this we’re producing more trained students that are choosing technical careers,” he adds.

With an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its graduating class heading on to manufacturing careers, Eleva-Strum Central High School is helping create a pipeline of well-trained, well-prepared students who are ready to head into the field or onto further education.

And it’s easy to see how a greater number of schools doing similar things could help tackle a larger issue. “Right now in the state of Wisconsin and the United States there is a big demand for the skilled trades,” he explains. “There’s all this talk about a skills gap. Nobody can find enough machinists, welders, or fabricators.”

Cegielski is eager to share what he’s learned along the way in order to address this skills gap. The creation of a detailed guide will soon be posted on Cardinal Manufacturing’s website, for example, thanks to a grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). The document will outline steps his program has taken in the hopes of making it easier for other interested school districts to hit the ground running.

Even though the model developed at Eleva-Strum Central High School is becoming increasingly sought after, Cegielski says there’s a realization that the program can continue to evolve, grow and improve moving forward. “We’re certainly happy where we’re at,” he says, “but we have lots of ideas on how this place can be so much better five years from now.”

Question: Would you want your kids to make manufacturing their career?

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Be Happy, The Economy is Good

By Lloyd Graff.

Brian Beaulieu led off the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA) San Antonio conclave last Friday morning. I have heard Brian and his twin brother Alan speak several times. His appearance was one of the primary reasons I decided to spend the winter weekend in Texas.

He has a remarkable record for predicting the economic future. I have bet on his predictions in my business and personal financial decisions and they have worked out.

This year Brian is very optimistic about the U.S. economy. He sees good business until 2019 at which point he envisions a short recession. For machining companies he sees the continual resurgence of the auto industry in the United States and Mexico. He acknowledged that many U.S. business executives don’t like or are afraid of going to Mexico. He recommended that they either get over it or find somebody else to go.

Brian Beaulieu says interest rates will go up 3% over the next three years, but he is not worried it will kill the economy. We will adjust to higher rates without much indigestion. But he is adamant that we should take advantage of the current low rates by refinancing home loans, buying cars or buying real estate.

He is worried about the stock market. He thinks there is a possibility of a greater than 15% drop that sticks around though he is not sure if or when it will happen. He would short the market with a  part of your savings to protect yourself from a prolonged downturn, but does not advocate getting out of stocks.

One of Beaulieu’s basic tenets is that we must  take advantage of the next three years of benign economic times to invest in change, develop new markets, get better at what we are doing, and improve our workforce. When the next recession comes in 2019 we have to be ready. If we are not going to prepare we should get out of the game. If we do not prepare to play a better hand by the next recession, we can survive by getting very lean and remembering the survival tactics of 2008-2009, but his preferred course is to develop a fresh part of the business that will be resistant to the 2019 downturn.

He repeatedly alerted us to the aging of the world population. The downside is the tremendous burden healthcare costs will exert on the economy. The opportunity is in taking advantage of the demands of aging. Medical products are big today, but they will really be growing 5-10 years from now. Orthopedic implants (I just had a knee replacement) are going to grow even faster than today.

I don’t know how many of you are getting into 3D printing, but it strikes me as a viable option to offer machining clients. We have been great at removing metal. I am sure we can add additive technologies to our bag of tricks. Just being able to tell a customer you are prepared to help them find the best method to make their product, even if it is not traditional machining, will enhance your image in the marketplace.

The message of Brian Beaulieu at the PMPA meeting was to be realistic about the economy and take advantage of it. Inflation is coming. Interest rates are low. Therefore, buy real estate and invest in a business. These are the two best ways to take advantage of what’s going on. Do not be timid. Be less concerned with pricing and more cognizant of quality and deliveries. Invest in people. If you cannot hire enough skills, build the skills in the best people you can find. Pay is going up. No worry. The issue is to get more value from the people in your organization.

Beaulieu has proved to be amazingly prescient in the past. I don’t think he has lost his touch. We have a wonderful opportunity to grow in the next 3-4 years, but it will be tough to find the courage and the people to do it.

Question: Are you optimistic about your job situation or your business prospects over the next 3 years?

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Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

By Jerry Levine.

How can Israel — a country of only 7 million, with no natural resources, enemies on every border, and in a constant state of war, produce more start up companies then Japan, India, Korea, Canada, and the UK? In Start-up Nation Dan Senor and Saul Singer describe how Israel’s adversity-driven culture does it — how they foster their unique combination of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.

The short, partial answer is: Israelis put chutzpah first! But more in-depth: their policies on immigration, R&D, and military service have spurred the country’s rise. For the US and others there has never been a better time to look at this remarkable and resilient country for some impressive and surprising lessons.

Israel is most noted for its high-tech developments, and ties to the likes of Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco; but their real start began 80-100 years ago in the low tech battle against the desert. In 1869 the “tourist,” Mark Twain, described the area as a desolate land — infertile and lacking water. But this infertile land eventually yielded to invention and technology, and more and more is now covered with agricultural fields and forests. Over two hundred and fifty million trees have been planted.

The IDE seawater desalination plant in Ashkelon produces 120 million cubic meters of water annually.

It started with smart water management. The first great innovation was trickle irrigation combined with water recycle and desalination. These techniques have now grown worldwide. On a recent trip to Ecuador, I was impressed to visit a huge rose farm with big signs out front indicating that it was operating on Israeli irrigation technology. Israel also leads the world in recycling of waste water; over 70% is recycled which is three times the percentage recycled in Spain, the second leading country.

When water wells were drilled in the desert, the water came up warm and salty — bad for irrigation, but ideal for fish farming! That technology has spread to the US Midwest, home to several huge talapia farms. In Israel they are called St. Peters fish. Here they are called talapia — different names for different markets, but the same technology and the same fish.

Not only was the environment hostile, so were their so-called friends and neighbors. Facetiously, the two real fathers of Israeli high-tech were the Arab Boycott and Charles DeGaulle. They forced the need for secure home-grown industry. Israel’s industry developed out of Israeli traits of tenacity, constant  questioning of authority, determined informality, and unique attitudes toward failure, teamwork, mission, and cross-disciplinary creativity.

Many Israeli start-ups fail, but their attitude is to bring failed entrepreneurs back into the system, use their experience and try again. By contrast, in the Far East, loss of face inhibits risk taking. This is not an Israeli characteristic.

Israelis, in addition to their unique attitude toward failure, constantly question authority. Their focus is on the mission, and their stress is on teamwork and cross disciplinary creativity. The authors relate a story at Intel where there was a great internal debate about the future of chip design. The Israeli workers argued for a different direction from their US supervisors. The Israelis persevered, and moved the company in a totally new, but winning direction. To the Israelis the fight wasn’t about winning the battle inside Intel, rather it was about winning the war outside, against the competition. This story epitomizes so many US union/management fights, where the union’s adversary is their management. Obviously, the focus for both sides ought to be uniting to win the war over the competition. But this doesn’t always happen.

Collaborative behavior comes from the military training, which essentially all Israelis — male and female alike — undertake. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) stresses a downward delegation of authority. The army has very few colonels and an abundance of lieutenants. The ratio of senior officers to combat troops in the IDF is 1 to 9. In the US army, it is 1 to 5. This culture generates more maturity and better judgement at lower levels of the organization. The authors doubt there is any other country in the world where the creative types all have done (and continue to do) national service. When hiring, Israeli businesses still look for private sector experience, but the crucial metric is the applicant’s military service — what unit was he or she with.

The authors draw an analogy to the 1967 Six Day War where the combined militaries of Egypt, Jordan and Syria (probably 10 times the size of Israel) boasted they were about to destroy Israel and drive all the Jews into the sea. At that time Israel did not have strong world-wide support. President Johnson counselled against a preemptive strike. He suggested they wait to be attacked first, and suffer some losses to garner world sympathy. Israel told the President “no,” struck first, destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground, and won the war.

So, what is the answer? What makes Israel so innovative and entrepreneurial? The conclusion is a set of contradictions: 1) aggressiveness yet team orientation, 2) isolation yet connectedness, and 3) being small yet aiming big. Also, it’s OK to try and fail. Success is better, but failure is not a stigma.

Many worry that Silicon Valley may be losing its creative mojo. I don’t know if that’s true, but I suspect managements worldwide are studying the Israeli model for guidance.

Question: Do you have faith that Obama can make a good deal with Iran on nuclear weapons?

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Not an American Sniper

By Lloyd Graff.

Lloyd Graff at Basic Training, 1968

My wife and I went to see Clint Eastwood’s film, American Sniper. We thought it was a well made movie, Bradley Cooper was superb as Chris Kyle, but we walked out halfway through. Two tours in Iraq were all we cared to watch.

For me, it brought back sad memories of my youth – the Vietnam War – the war I was supposed to fight in, but managed to avoid.

I did go into the Armed Services. I left for Fort Jackson in South Carolina for Basic Training on New Year’s Day 1968, but I went as a member of the Illinois National Guard.

I figured I had a better than 50-50 chance I would not go to Nam. I expected to come home in five months and go back to college, writing papers and taking exams, not shooting at Viet Cong in black “pajamas” waiting to ambush me in the rice paddies.

At Fort Jackson I was one of two Guardsmen amongst my training company of 300 guys. The war was at its peak and the Tet Offensive was starting. In my bunk there was a sense of fear and anger in the older drafted guys. For the young kids there was excitement in some, bewilderment in others. For the Hispanic kids there was a feeling of displacement. They may have been saying, “This isn’t my war, but I’m here, so I better learn how to be a soldier.”

I was a journalist by training so I tried to assume a bit of detachment. I wanted to record the details in my head to recount later. I also wanted to believe I wasn’t going to Vietnam to keep from freaking out.

In my bunk one third of the guys were older and had experience in college. They were all trying to figure out a way not to go to Vietnam. They knew I was Guard, but they showed no resentment toward me, which I found surprising. Were it the other way around, I think I would have been jealous.

The training sergeants were generally professional and fair, except for a newly minted one who had never gone to war. He hated me and devoted himself to torturing me when he could. He used crude psychological warfare, telling me that all the Guardsmen were going to be activated and sent to Nam. He was a really shrimpy guy, a foot shorter than me, from New York. He always wore his Smokey the Bear hat to make himself look taller, but I think he hated me even more vehemently because of a sense of inferiority over his height.

It was winter at Fort Jackson and everybody got sick. Some people wanted to end up in the infirmary, but that ended when one of my bunkmates went to the infirmary and never returned. It was announced that he died of meningitis. We got our first passes right after that announcement. I went immediately to the biggest hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, and marched into the Emergency Room. The doctor looked at my throat and gave me a shot of penicillin. He assured me I did not have meningitis, and I felt like a new man. I went to the Union of the University of South Carolina and luxuriated in the company of college students. I watched basketball on TV, I even called a sorority and told them I was available. Amazingly, some young women came to meet me and one ended up inviting me to a big dance.

Then it was back to Fort Jackson. I learned how to shoot a rifle, take it apart and put it back together. It was an old M-1, not the M-16, because the Army was short on rifles in early 1968. We got into good physical condition if we could stay healthy in the raw weather. We learned how to march and slither on our bellies. The highlight of Basic was the obstacle course with live ammunition being fired over our heads as we burrowed under barbed wire and traversed a 300-yard course that seemed like it was three miles.

I graduated from Basic in eight weeks and stayed at Fort Jackson for specialty training in “Communications.” I had thought maybe I could use my writing background, but “Communications” was stringing wire on telephone poles.

I became adept at climbing 35-foot poles using metal spikes on the insides of my legs. Got a lot of splinters, but it was easier than Basic and the weather was improving.

Things went fairly smoothly and it was looking like I was going to survive Fort Jackson, but on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. There were riots in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere. The National Guard was mobilized around the country. It was a terrible time in America but it also meant Guardsmen in big cities were needed to back up the police. I realized I probably was not going to end up in Nam like most of the guys I had spent four months with in South Carolina.

Selfishly, I just wanted to get home. I felt bad for everybody headed to Saigon, but I just wanted to not think about the killing. When I got home I hugged my parents and quickly left for college. It was a wonderful place to try to forget about the war and all the good guys who were sent to that awful place.

Question:  Where were you during Vietnam?

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I’ve Been Waiting So Long

By Lloyd Graff.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta. 2014

Major League Baseball Spring Training officially begins this week. This is a signal event for me stating that the teeth of winter will lift out of my groin in a few weeks.

To me the beauty of baseball endures. It isn’t just the game and the stars, it’s the talking about the game with friends. It’s the memories of seasons past and the opportunity to watch my grandchildren swing a bat and toss a ball around. It’s memories of Ernie Banks and Harry Caray and a thousand semi-forgotten Chicago Cubs. And now it is hope for a better season with better players and a new manager and pitchers who throw smoke.

I find parallels between business and baseball. The game is timeless in its simplicity, just like the tenets of business are simple but very hard to execute in the moment.

With performance enhancing drugs now apparently reduced significantly in the game, the home run has become an unreliable weapon. Few teams are built around sluggers when 38 homers is good enough to lead the league. Pitchers are more dominant with 96-mile per hour fastballs common and split finger pitches at 88 and unhittable. But this kind of velocity quickly kills pitchers’ arms. Today a starting pitcher hopes to pitch a strong six innings and then give way to a bullpen of flame throwers and trick pitch specialists to finish the game.

With starters usually happy to just pitch into the 7th inning you might expect the starting pitcher to have a reduced economic value, but the contrary is true. A reliable starter who can start 35 times a season and pitch 200 innings is one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the game. A 10 game winner who can keep a team ahead or within one run most of the time makes $10 million a year of he has staying power in the game and can reach free agency status with an intact arm.

Every team in Major League Baseball is attempting to develop a dominant bullpen with high quality role players to fill the seventh, eighth and ninth inning slots. The Kansas City Royals showed us in the playoffs of 2014 that a shutdown bullpen and decent starting pitching can take a mediocre team to the World Series.

This brings us to the value of a manager in baseball. In a very long season with highly paid young people of very different backgrounds (often half the players are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and increasingly Cuba) it is very hard to develop cohesion on the field and in the clubhouse. Teams that have a great manager and a Latin leader on the field like the San Francisco Giants did in the now departed Pablo Sandoval (signed with Boston) can play better than their players’ stats.

In the machining world, with the large number of Latinos on the shop floor, developing leadership amongst the Spanish speaking employees is crucial to the success of many firms I encounter.

Another change in baseball that has an analog in the business world is the emphasis on data analysis. Good managers in baseball have an a­nalysis of hitter success off various pitchers and where they are likely to hit the ball if they make contact. We see much more movement of defenses today than a few years ago. Good pitchers can dictate play by pitching to spots that match the defense. This makes bullpens even more invincible today because pitchers are fresh, relying usually on one pitch on which they have great control, with defenses set up specifically to combat players’ tendencies. I think many businesses follow the path of least resistance continuing to pursue products and customers who are low margin and high maintenance rather than focusing on new, juicier opportunities. Successful sports teams make changes quickly.  After Green Bay Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy’s terrible play calling against Seattle in the NFL Championship game he gave up his play calling responsibility to the Offensive Coordinator.  The Packers also have already cut the player who dropped the pivotal onside kick by Seattle. (I think the onside kick is a play that is under utilized. Teams should try it once a game and develop expertise).

With pitching so dominant today I am surprised that the super speedy running specialist is still rare on teams’ 25 man rosters. As single runs become super valuable in tight low scoring games against overpowering bullpens an unsettling base runner can tilt an inning. An analogous player in football might be a specialist in onside kicks. It would catch on.

Baseball 2015 is finally here. In the snows of January you think it will never come. When business stinks and you can’t seem to close a deal it feels like a winning streak will never come, too. Spring training means hope. It feels like I’ve been waiting a long time for this one.

Question: Have you been missing baseball this winter?

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The Smart Rat

By Noah Graff.

I recently heard a story on an NPR podcast called “Invisibilia,” which discussed the effects expectations can have on human abilities.

The story begins by describing a scientific test conducted on rats.

Researchers took several rats and put them in cages, arbitrarily labeling half the cages with “smart rat,” and the other half with “dumb rat.” Lab technicians who did not know that the rat cages were labeled arbitrarily, took the rats out and tested their abilities to finish a maze.

My inference, as I assume most people’s would be, is that the rats from cages labeled “smart” would do no better on average than the rats from cages labeled “dumb.” After all, the rats’ cages were labeled arbitrarily. But rat after rat, the ones labeled “smart” finished considerably better than those labeled “dumb.” So how did this happen?

Scientists theorized that the lab technicians, without thinking about it, treated the “smart” rats differently from the “dumb” rats, which led to the differing results. The technicians handled the supposedly smart rats with more care than those that were supposedly dumb, which led to their superior performance in the maze. Thus, the higher the expectations the technicians had for the rats, the better the rats would perform.

The NPR story centers around Daniel Kish, a blind man who from the time he was young was allowed by his mom to do everything seeing children could do. He was allowed to play outside on his own. He’d climb trees, cross streets, fight with other kids and even taught himself to ride a bike as a very young child. On his own, Kish trained himself to use a tongue clicking method called human echolocation which enables him to know where he is in space, much the same way bats navigate. By sensing echoes from nearby objects, people trained in echolocation can orient themselves by interpreting the sound waves reflected.

In elementary school, Kish met another blind kid who had previously gone to a school for the blind. This kid had been used to people constantly helping him function. People always had led him where to go and brought him whatever he needed, but when he was left on his own he became helpless. Schools for the blind are no longer in vogue today, as people have realized that not letting blind people struggle to function on their own is debilitating. Today Kish devotes his life to working with blind kids to teach them to be independent. He teaches kids do the type of activities on their own that he had taught himself when he was young, such as climbing trees, hiking, crossing the street and even riding a bike.

Kish says that the main obstacle he runs into in his quest to make kids independent is love. Parents understandably have considerable trouble allowing their disabled kids to become frustrated or perhaps even harmed by letting them struggle on their own.

I grew up with a learning disability which made me a slow reader and slow writer. I had to receive extra time on exams and go to special tutors, but my parents always expected me to get good grades and produce great work. They never said, “Maybe he’s just not good at school, so we shouldn’t put pressure on him to do better.” Instead, my parents gave me a ton of help, but they always treated me like a “smart rat,” making me believe that I was gifted and would do well, no matter how impossible the work seemed. I also think that by seeing their examples of academic achievement, along with those of my older siblings, I simply accepted that excelling in school was what I was supposed to do. If they excelled, why shouldn’t I?

Question: Did your parents’ expectations help you or hurt you?

Daniel Kish rides bicycle blind using echolocation

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