One More Day in Laos

Ah, jeez.  Chicken feet.  I hate chicken feet.  They are worse than eating dog.

We were on our way to look at some land in Laos to lease for project I am working on.  Let’s just say that it is a bit of land, and unbelievably cheap. Thanks to the Communists, I guess. Before we went to have a look, we had to stop to see the village chief.  I like that.  He was noble looking enough and smiled.  His wife served the food while we sat on wobbly plastic chairs on a cement floor, sort of like a porch. The kitchen and bathroom (the outhouse) are always outside. There were pigs, goats and chickens running around.  There was one pig in a pit next to the eating area, where food was prepared.   I guess he was dinner for next week.  There was a goat watching me, front legs on the upper step, looking ready to charge.  I kicked a chicken out from under the table like it was a cat.

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I like these kind of adventures. Its more fun than hanging out in a fancy restaurant in New York City with a bunch of Republicans making a deal. But when his wife put the bowl of chicken parts in front of me I would rather have been anywhere else. I try my best to eat whats placed in front of me in situations like this, but I have gagged on chicken feet in the past. Dog, horse, monkey, bugs, live fish; I have tried it all.  To make it worse, there was a chicken head just under the foot, split in half as if a viking warrior had come down with a blow of his sword and split his skull cleanly in half. Oh, stop whining.  You just have to read it.  I had to eat it.

The toes are the worst part, so i decided to start from the ankle and work my way down. Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph, pray for me.  Help me get through this day and I will go to church again.  Chicken feet are like chewing on someone’s nose. I gnawed down a way, then couldn’t do any more.  The Chief watched me, as if it were a test of manhood.  I hope I passed. The Thai people looked in admiration.  (For the record, I never eat fast food or factory food. They think Falangs can only eat McDonalds and KFC, and can’t handle spicy food.) I found out later, they had brought some Thai food along, just in case I couldn’t eat.  The sticky rice was pretty good, but everyone reached in with one hand, and ate it with the other.  I watched carefully so I wouldn’t use the wrong hand.

Just as I thought I was finished, the chief’s wife brought out a bottle of something that looked fierce, and I suspected was some sort of Lao white lightning, but it was red rather than clear. She poured some in a glass, handed it to the person on her left who drank it.  She refilled it, working her way around the group, same glass. That shouldn’t bother anyone.  No germs could survive. The drinkers all tossed it back, turned red, started to sweat, and then reached for a bottle of water.  The guy who was two over from me tossed his back like a pro, and I asked, him, what it tasted like. “Gasoline.”


Now, everyone who knows me well who reads this knows I don’t drink and haven’t for a long time.  Those who are the Facebook friends from days long ago might think, “That makes sense.  He shouldn’t.” I wasn’t going to drink that stuff, custom or no.  I looked at the Thai person in charge, and signaled, no way.  He waived the chief’s wife off, and I was saved.  I escaped, off by myself, as they started the second time around with the bottle.  I  went past a pig or two on the way to the outhouse, which I have to admit was about as clean as you could get an outhouse.  I walked around the village a bit, stared at by kids who had likely not seen a white man.  I liked it. I always do.

After a bit, the whole entourage came out, in a wagon pulled by a rice plow, everyone standing inside.  It was like a hay ride, but the wagon was small and I had no idea what was in it last. I walked behind the wagon for as far as I could.  When we got to the point where we turned to head through the rice paddies before heading up into the jungle, I climbed into the back.  That didn’t last long, as the wagon got stuck in the mud, and everyone had to get out and walk, me in my new sneakers, no hiking boots.

Well, we saw what we needed to see.  Life is just one adventure after another.


A Working Life Chapter 1

Life was easy back then. It wasn’t simple, but it was easy.

I am in  my mid-60’s now, and grateful.  I worked through one of the most interesting and transformational periods in the history of the United States. I think there were two periods, and they ran sequentially, without a break. My father lived through one, and I, through the next.  Now, I think we are on the edge of a third. The first was built on blood and steel, the second on the wave pushed up by the first, sustained by silicone and software. The one to come, I think, will happen as the wave crashes and falls.  I hope as it dissipates, the released energy will power our growth instead of smashing what lies in its path. I am not confident.

I can’t see any historical period where so much happened so fast to those who invent things, and those work in factories making them, and those who fight to preserve, and take them away.  I was lucky, and lived through the best of it. I worked with fascinating people in Asia, the U.S, Europe, South America and the Middle East on interesting projects in plastics, automotive, aerospace, foundries, steel, smelters, electronics and mining. I learned a lot in spite of myself. I Have earned enough to consider myself fortunate, lost it all, then earned enough back; not nearly what I had, but enough.

I thought I was lucky to see the world while helping engineers.  What I really saw was an evolutionary change that few are aware of, but everyone is feeling and fears. My father saw the beginning.

My father was educated in a one-room school house in Colorado, near the New Mexico border.  His family was poor, but it was a good family.  The one room adobe school was at the end of a dirt road at the base of a rock-strewn mountain.  There was no electricity until the mid-30’s, and kids from a long way off walked or rode horses to school, including a girl who was a descendant of Kit Carson, who my dad had a crush on.  Nearby, my father and his brothers took a horse-drawn wagon to a spring to fetch water for the school and their home. After the three of them left for the war, my grandmother, Mollie, and my grandfather, Sam, had a hired man fetch water with a truck. As a boy, Uncle John was charged with chasing the skunks out from under the school.  He got twenty-five cents for each pelt if properly tube-skinned. My dad lit the stove while John shot skunks, as he knew how to drop them with a .22 round before they sprayed.

The twenty or so kids had the same teacher from grades 1-8.  She clearly did a good job. These kids went on to do well in engineering, medicine, and life, but there was a war to fight along the way. Uncle John, joined the Army Air corps, my father went into the Navy, and Uncle David, the Marines.  Between them, they had over 25 battle stars, my father and Uncle David, for Iwo Jima, while David landed on the beach and my dad was on a battleship 1000 yards off shore, his younger brother running up that deadly beach. Uncle John flew over Asia and Europe. They were the first Allen’s outside the United States (unless you count Texas) since the first one set foot in North Carolina in the 1660’s.  My grandfather, Samuel Ross Allen, was born in Belton, Texas, in 1888, and, to the best of my knowledge, never went beyond Texas, New Mexico, or Colorado.  He was a poor dust bowl farmer with a large family, and died at 58.

I was nothing like my father.

I knew little of his life and his culture. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer. I knew nothing about hard work at an early age, and I knew nothing about working for food in a dusty field.  I knew nothing about thinking that a war was a way to get out of chasing cows on the back of a horse in a snow storm, wearing nothing but a flannel shirt stuffed with paper in a futile attempt to keep warm.  My generation went to war under justifiable protest, and his, because it was the right thing to do. There was a wedge between generations, generations that came to look at the the same things, but never to see them the same way. Mine is arrogant enough to think it is always right, never taking the time to imagine what it was like to walk a mile in their shoes.  We are, frankly, selfish and narrow minded, no matter how much we prattle on about diversity, inclusiveness and more day care centers and money for education, without ever asking how and why a one room school house worked so well.

Compared to him, I was weak. I grew up feeling that I deserved things. Life came easy for me and my generation, but I thought it was BECAUSE of me.  My father and I didn’t get along well.  We fought a few times.  I was hit with an open hand a few times, took it and stared back. Once, he hit me with a fist, and I hit him back. Then I took a beating. I don’t remember what it was about, but I was hard to handle. The time came for me to keep my head down, then get away.  I was 18, and a week after I finished high school, I was in the Navy. It was 1968.

The U.S. Navy had modern submarines and ships, but an aircraft carrier, two battleships, and a few destroyers were left over from World War II, with plenty of ammunition to fire from 5 and 16 inch guns into Vietnam. IMG_0023

I was a good submariner, but not much of a sailor. I learned a lot, the technology was easy and interesting, but like most things, it took me years to figure out just what I had learned and its value. I was a boy running a nuclear power plant. When I look back, I am surprised at the effectiveness of training which can teach boys to do such things, and do them well. The United States Navy had the best and most effective training I have ever seen. I tried to emulate what I had learned to teach engineers as I moved on. It became part of me. I hope the training is as good today. I suspect it is better, as today they teach kids like my niece to run machines on ships at sea far more sophisticated.

It was hard to be a good sailor or soldier then.  It was difficult to wear a uniform that set you apart from those who had been your peers, but whom you could never be like again. You saw things different, but I never saw them like my father did. I respected the Navy, loved my country and its people, but have come to fear my government. I learned that governments do two things well; take your money and take your life.  I have seen man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.  It is independent of race and culture. There are a few tasks we are stuck having government do.  I prefer to keep it to as few as possible, because I expect little, and fear the motive. I trust people in a factory far more.


I left the military, went to college, got an engineering degree, mostly paid for by the G.I. Bill, a bill intended for guys like my father and his brothers.  I deserved it, I thought. I was able to make my way through school without taking any money from my father, but it was easy to get a part-time job that paid enough to get by, and to drink plenty of beer on weekends.  A good education was cheap back then. You didn’t have to borrow money. A few years later, I spent more on day-care than I had on college tuition. I thought it was the way it was supposed to be, but had no idea it was because of guys like my father, and a post-war economy that wouldn’t last. In retrospect, I feel naive, but at least I think about it more than the people we elected. I know; that’s a low bar.

I graduated in the spring of 1977, looked in the local newspaper, The Erie Times, circled a few ads, applied to about ten jobs, and was offered more than one.  Getting a job was easy back then. I took a job at an interesting company, for $13,000 a year.  I bought a car, with payments of $79 a month.  I rented an apartment, and by the time I was 30, bought a house for $32,000, and was soon earning $30,000 a year.  Earning your age meant you had “made it,” that you were on your way.  This reinforced that I was getting what I was due.  I deserved it, by God!

I was smart, and learned quickly, but so were a lot of other guys.  Smart guys were easy enough to find. Yes, it was guys.  There were hardly any women running factories in those days.  There were a lot of black guys working in them, but few were helping to run them.  One black guy, the next door neighbor when I was a boy, had a high level job at GE.  He was an extraordinary man, in a world of smart guys. He had to be. We should have found a way to include minorities before the government got involved.  We would all have ended up much better off.  A good capitalist should have done it for no other reason than minorities and women buy stuff and see things in a different way. Seeing things different from the way I do is interesting to me. Even today, I don’t spend much time hanging around guys like me. What’s the point? Seeing things in different ways has become part of me.

If you just showed up at work back then, put in a little effort, you could make a good living. I was making my way up the middle class, a place I thought I deserved.  There were workers in the factory who could support a family, maybe not so well, but the work was dependable even if some of it a drudge.

My first job was an easy place to work for me, but once again, I didn’t know it.  We mostly made plastic milk crates in several cities in the U.S., with a few clever twists, and knew we would make a few more every year.  Brad, the guy who took the company over from his father was strange, but clever.  He was also smart, but clever matters more than smart. He was a good man, but haunted in more ways than one. Life has taught me that haunted people are often the most clever among us. So has history.

Brad was one of a very few haunted men, who I think, clever enough to develop a good idea, hire a few smart guys, build a factory or two, and keep it going.  He thought he had something to prove to himself. You try to prove something to yourself, do it, then change the criteria. It’s nigh impossible to do enough to prove enough to ourselves if we are haunted.

There were lots of guys like me, smart, young, who were able to keep the place running, week after week, and year after year.  We didn’t need to be clever. We just wanted a little more.


The older I get, the more fondly I think of Brad, and what I learned from him. He certainly is unforgettable.  He hired people who could really sell, and he knew how important it was. I remember, one day, sitting in his office in Los Angels with a few other guys talking about ways to spend his money on some silly project.  Brad half-listened, jumping up and down, sliding the glass partition open and shut to order Suzie to do some damn thing, breathing hard, and snapping his teeth.  The harder he breathed, the closer he was to saying something.

“Nothing happens until something is sold.”  That’s all he said. I had no idea what in hell he was talking about at the time.  I do now. Go sell it, whatever IT was, then do it. Sell it first.

Now, in my own little company, I try to get a purchase order for one dollar. If I can do that, I can get another, and another.  I watch others flail away trying to make a million dollars, while I want to earn a buck.    Way back then, I resented the sales guys.  After all, they weren’t as smart as I was. They just dressed better, and were all better looking guys.  But they could sell, and nothing happened until something was sold.  If they didn’t sell, there was nothing for me to do. Brad knew it, and knew how to hire the right guys to sell. To me, I still thought in terms of what was fair…fair to me.

Brad had a few other clever ideas. One was crazy.  He decided to buy a business that was making components for hard drives in the days when it was a new product.  He was also crazy enough to give me the most senior manufacturing management job.  I had no idea what in hell I was doing, and was too foolish to admit it.  If I had, there were guys to help, like Tim and Mike. However, I was lucky, and learned a lot, especially from a couple of guys in the tool room.  I was able to put what I learned to good use in the next few years.  I was lucky.

We were machining parts for one gigabyte hard drives back then, that were as big as apartment-size washing machine, selling for $40,000.  Today I can give away a 128 gig thumb drive with my company logo for customers to hook onto a key chain.

In Brad’s primary business, the one before he decided to buy the company that made hard drives, you could project sales for the next year based on the last. It was easy, and you weren’t likely to be far off, so at the end of the year, you could easily congratulate yourself about how smart you were.

I was just learning to use an electronic spreadsheet back then. I remember working with Alan to figure out what it meant to “replicate” numbers and formulas down a column.  A year or so before that, I was using thirteen column green accountants paper to project (guess) at budgets. The speed at which you could make a change was based on how fast you could use an eraser, pencil and a calculator.

Electronic spreadsheets are something my father never learned. It involved typing and he wanted nothing to do with it. When I was in about the 9th grade, I signed up for Personal Typing. When my father found out, he said, “No son of mine is going to learn to type,” and threatened to pull me out. How was I supposed to know that Real Men Don’t Type?

Nothing came of it, but I made sure I didn’t get a good grade.  I only took the class because Jim, Mark and I thought there were lots of pretty girls in there. I think my father must have feared that any desire to learn to type meant that I was sweet on Jim or Mark. Years later, when Dad took a job in San Francisco for the Southern Pacific Railroad and had a gay secretary, I reminded him of that episode.  He was far more tolerant at that stage in his life, but clearly had hoped I had forgotten.

Neither Brad, Mike nor I had any idea that everything we were machining for hard drives would be obsolete in 6 months.  We had no idea that the business, that business in general, would change so fast. We should have. The sales and profit projections on that new spreadsheet thing were silly. Not only did we need to learn to make and sell things as they were being invented, we had to have access to clever people, and lots of them, to do it. Then it wasn’t the sales guys that mattered as much as the engineers who could change the factory around on a dime, and make a profit with increasing competitive pressure.  We didn’t have it. I didn’t know it then.

I think Brad learned, slowly, to face his own shortcomings, and came to depend on Mike to compensate. Brad came to trust Mike, who was smart, and worthy of Brad’s trust.  Mike became clever. Mike didn’t gossip with those who didn’t matter.  He had a level of humility, or at least exhibited it, that was beyond his years. Clever, I think, is latent, not learned, but must be developed and fostered to flourish.  Mike pulled it off. I wonder if he knew what he was doing at the time. I didn’t.

Manufacturing and industry were on the cusp of a revolution.  The products made in the USA were going to change and change fast.  I had no idea what was to come.  I don’t think Bill Gates, Andy Grove or Steve Jobs did either. They had clever ideas; extraordinary ideas.  Were they also haunted?  Jobs was.  It was to be the best of times, and the worst of times. Things happened, and a lot of people suffered while many got rich. Although techies got rich, not many got into the middle class as a result of what was to happen. Politicians took credit for the best, and blamed capitalism for the worst. It happened fast. I know what happened, and why.  Politicians don’t.

I was in the deep end of the pool then, in over my head, at least then, and so were a lot of other people. I was escorted to the door, lucky or smart enough to know some of what I didn’t know, determined to move on, to learn and to protect myself. I did learn or develop this thing called clever, and ultimately find my place. Maybe clever comes from failure. I did fail, but learned to fail and fail fast, then move on. My place was in the factory, a place I liked, and learned to be among the best in a very narrow field.  I was no manager, no general manager.  I am a specialist, in a field that has only a few.  It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be the best, it was that I liked factories, liked making things, liked making them run better, and and was liked with the people who worked there. Factory people are special.  They are the reason there is a middle class.  They really do add value. I know it, and I help.

The New Science of Fixing Things

We got good at it.  It was fun. We got to be the best.

Chapter 2 A Japanese Machine Tool Company  soon

Chapter 3 An introduction to Consulting  a little later…

Chapter 4 Founding a Consulting Company..after that..

Chapter 5 The New Science of Fixing Things  A project or two


English or Metric?

IMG_1705I live on my sailboat in the Caribbean.  Now I am in Panama.

I asked the local maintenance guy to change the zincs (sacrificial anodes) on my boat, a task for a diver.  There are zincs on the end of the prop, the rudder support, the prop shaft and the bow thruster.  The diver was from Spain, and the guy he dives for is from South Africa.  There is an Englishman on the next boat over with an accent so thick, I just nod and agree with him.

I handed the South African boss the zincs and he asked if I had spare stainless steel bolts. I said I did, and fetched them.  He asked if the boat, an Island Packet 445 made in the  USA, used that “stupid American measuring system.”

I replied, “It’s not American system.  The damn English gave it to us before we threw them out. And the bolts are metric.”

The Englishman, who was drinking beer because it was just past noon, jumped in, “At least we had enough sense to get rid of it. You Yanks will never be able to do science as long as you keep it up.”

I made a comment about the French having start it with Napoleon, which starting a series of trading a few more offensive and politically incorrect shots.

The Spanish diver came up, and said one of the bolts he was trying to reuse was bent, and he needed a new one.  He handed it to the South African. I looked down from the deck of my boat, and asked, “Is it an M6?”

He gave me a dirty look as if I didn’t know bolt sizes from afar. “It’s an M4.”

“How long?” I asked.

He replied, “About an inch.”


It was dusk.  I was walking through Bocas town with Toni wearing short pants and a t-shirt, a ball cap, and my backpack with chancleta on my feet. Willie stopped his rusty old bicycle next to me and said, “Weed, Weed?”

I find it a bit odd that he even asks me, a man in my mid 60’s. Then again, why not? Lot’s of gringos still smoke dope. “Look, Mate, give it a rest. No, I don’t want any weed. You ask me every night, and I tell you the same damn thing. That was in another lifetime. Don’t you recognize me as the guy who always says, no?”

His broad white smile opened across his black face. “And I always tell you white people all look the same to me.”

His lack of prosperity doesn’t say much for the drug trade, but he has reached a level of infamy, as everyone in town knows him as Weed Willie.

I like nicknames.  Maybe it’s because I never had one. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time remembering names, but never forget a nickname. With a name like John, you would think I would need one to differentiate me from others in a place where there are a lot of John’s and no one knows your last name.  When I was in the Navy, I was called by my middle name, Ross, but that’s not a nickname.

Here in Bocas, there are those who are great friends, and have been great friends for years, but don’t know your last name.  I like that.

There is Hostel Heike, who owns a hostel, of course. That’s a good nickname.  It speaks to her character as well as what she owns.  I bet she is from Germany.  There is a hostel in town called Hostel La Vista.  That’s a great name.  It sticks with you. I wonder if Hostel Heike owns Hostel La Vista.  That would be perfect.

Chris Fish sold fish, of course, but he can’t get fish anymore from Panama City, so now he makes sausage.  I wonder why he isn’t called Fish Chris, or if he will be called Sausage Chris before too long.  Its too bad about the fish.  I liked him. He was careful to make sure he only had fresh fish from the sea. He told me not to eat tilapia, junk fish raised in tanks fed chicken waste, or the trout, farmed in Chirique since they are fed liver pills loaded with chemicals.

There is also Wifi Gary. He installed the wifi in the marina, and is always fixing it and upgrading the equipment.  Gary is about my age, clever and friendly.  He is clever enough, I guess, to keep getting calls to fix it.  I wonder if he bills by the hour.  Gary is building a grocery store on Red Frog to expand his empire.  I wonder if he will get a new nickname.

Last week, I stepped onto the water taxi to town at the Red Frog Marina dock.  DC was coming down the dock (that’s his real name) asked where Gary was.  One guy said that he was on his way to Almirante in another boat.

I said, “Which Gary?”

DC said, “Wifi Gary.”

“I just saw him up in the villa reception area on the phone.”

Nicknames are much better than last names. They set you apart, especially when no one knows your last name.

A few days ago, someone asked me if I saw the infection on Skinny Bob’s leg. No, I hadn’t, but I have no interest in Skinny Bob’s legs when he DOESN’T have an infection. However, the reference to Skinny Bob was all I needed to get the picture.  Here in the tropics, you really can get an ugly infection. Skinny Bob had such a bad infection, he put out a call on the local radio for help in getting anti-biotics.  I haven’t heard about him lately.  I hope he is OK.

There are sailors here in Panama from all over the world.  The people from New Zealand have the same nickname.  You guessed it; they are all called Kiwi.  There is Kiwi Dave, who is a great welder, if you can find him. Now, I hope no one gets offended, but I never met a Kiwi or an Aussie who wasn’t at least half crazy, but in a good way. Actually, I don’t care if you do get offended.

There is Diesel Jeff, who is the best around if you need your engine fixed.  Jeff is short.  Nowadays, no one gets nicknamed based on size or shape.  People get too easily offended. Years ago, if you are a big guy, you might get nicknamed Tiny. No one would want to be called Tiny Tim.

When I was in the Navy, I had a good friend named Shelby Berryhill.  He was an Indian, the kind with feathers, not dots.  He was called, Chief, of course.  Back then, all the Indians were called Chief, just like the Juicy-Fruit chewing Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I subscribe to a weather service for sailors. A guy named Stormy does the forecasts.  See?  I can remember his name.

Gee, I wish I had a nickname.

I Hate the Yankees

Everyone has a story. Most people have an interesting story if you can get them to tell it.

Late one day, I was walking to my room after checking into the Hilton in Detroit.  I like to chat up pretty much everyone when I get a chance, so I said hello to the chambermaid in the hall and asked how she was. She was timid, not used to the people in the hotel talking to her. I guessed she was not from the United States.  Few people who clean hotel rooms are, and I fear she was used to the guests ignoring her.

That’s enough of a reason for me to say hello, to show a bit of respect, merely by acknowledging her, usually enough to make a person feel welcome.  I tried to place her country of origin and couldn’t, so I asked where she was from. She hesitated, then I knew it was from the Middle East. Middle Easterners always hesitate; they assume that I hate them.  I waited, and she said, “Iran.”

“Do you like the Tigers?” I asked?

“No, I like the Wings,” she said proudly.

“You are going to make a good American,” I told her, and she beamed.

The next day, I was in my room working when she came by to clean.  I got her to tell me that she had been in the U.S. for a few years, that she worked two jobs, her husband two more, and that she had two children in school.  She worried about her kids fitting in, that they were becoming too American too fast.  Her daughter was going out with am American boy, and she, of course, worried about her.  Her children sound like Americans when they speak, don’t care about there own language, and perform among the best in their class.  She feels badly that she is hardly there for her kids, and has to work so hard.  I said, that it is the way immigrants become American, and that I hoped her children were very successful and took care of her when she was older.  She deserves it, for she is making sacrifices for her children so they can live in the United States.  Living here is not enough. Becoming a citizen is not enough.  If you come here, you need to become an American, and they are trying.

Her family likes the Wings, while I hate the Yankees.

When my son was a boy, he once said, “I hate that.”  I have no idea what it was that he hated that day, but my then-wife took it as an opportunity to say, there would be no talk of hate in the house, and went on as to how, “Hatred corrodes the vessel that holds it.” There was an exception, of course, when it came to the Yankees.  We loved to hate the New York Yankees,  as did my parents and grandparents.  We grew up loving the Red Sox. You had to hate the Yankees if you were from New England.

Now, this was all good natured form of hatred, if there is such a thing.  Players could go from one team to the other, but it does seem as if the flow of great players has been from the Sox to the Yankees, starting with Babe Ruth.

Red Sox player Johnny Damon professed his dislike for the Yankees and was quoted as saying, ”There’s no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they are going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need.” — Johnny Damon, May 2005

The traitor Damon then went to play for Steinbrenner’s evil empire, and a t-shirt was soon seen around Boston with his long-haired image, and the words,

Looks Like Jesus

Throws Like Mary

Acts Like Judas

It still annoys me after ten years. He even shaved his beard and cut his hair to look like a Yankee.  Damnit.

It’s the American way to change teams, but the loyalists have to continue to support the home team. The right to change teams often comes with a fight. Curt Flood refused to accept a trade, challenging baseballs reserve clause all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Flood lost, but shortly thereafter, free agency became part of baseball.

It might be painful, but the freedom to change teams is the American way, even if it is to the Yankees.  This rivalry is so old and so strong, the TV broadcasters like to show a couple, husband and wife, one tricked out in a Red Sox hat and gear, the other in Yankees pinstripes. Its perfect.

When I lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, there was a guy from Iran who ran the Oriental rug store on Congress Street.  He married an American woman.  I ran into him often at Starbucks. His mood ran hot and cold, depending on the Sox and the Celtics. Once in a while, we sat and talked, and I asked him questions about Iranian politics.  Once, I said, that I thought it was a good deal that he could have more than one wife. He looked at me, and said, “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about.”  He complained that his one wife and several daughters never paid any attention to him.  Welcome to the American team.

It’s the American way to allow anyone onto the team who can play the game. It has not always been that way, and we need to work to make sure the American team adds players as soon as they can play.  There is no reason, ever, to keep people off a team who can play.  Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play major league baseball in 1947, the date many people use to recognize when baseball was integrated.  It was really the ridiculously late date of July 21, 1959, when the Red Sox added Pumpsie Green.  Neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees, both late to integrate, could win against teams that had. As a Red Sox fan, it pains me that the Sox were dead last in integrating.  They can never say, “wait until next year.” That game is in the record books.

I wonder at the irony in Curt Flood fighting baseball’s reserve clause a mere ten years after Pumpsie Green played for the Red Sox.  Flood is not as recognized as Robinson, but I imagine every adjective used to demean Robinson was also directed toward Flood. It was Flood, the American, who changed the American way in America’s sport.

After you make the team, changing teams is a big decision. When my mother, an Irish Catholic, married my father, a Scottish Methodist my Irish descendant grandmother, Maize Donovan,  seethed quietly. She had lived in the Irish section of Boston. Nor did she like it when my mother’s sisters married men whose families had come from Italy. At least they were Red Sox fans. Soon, however, she loved my father and my uncles.  It is American to marry someone from another religion or race.  It is what we do. Our children are all mixed up.  Good for us.

Americans don’t have a problem with immigrants. They like them. They understand that the country is based on immigration, and that America has a culture of inclusion, perhaps not as good as it should be.  It is not just what we strive for; it is what we fight for. A culture of inclusion, however, means that once you come here, you have changed teams.  We want you to get onto the American team. We will even give you a generation or two.  I wish we would figure out how fast immigrants could get onto the American team. If there are too many too fast, then we end up with isolated communities, based on a culture that is not American.  It won’t work.

Americans don’t care if you bring your religion with you. I suspect there are more religions in the United States than in any other country.

We believe in freedom of religion, as long as it is a religion of freedom.

Bring your religion of freedom.  Just don’t cut women, make them enter by another door, or prohibit intermarriage. Don’t tell a woman she cannot do something because she is a woman.  That alone leads to third-world backward cultures dominated by stupid men. No society can advance by holding back women.  If you inhibit the freedom of anyone from doing anything because of race, sex, or sexual orientation, then I don’t want you here.  Frankly, get out. You will ruin America.

You cannot bring your laws with you.  We have our laws, laws fought for in a Civil War, World Wars, and Civil Rights wars, where men, women and children have died, sometimes by our own hand.  We will fight again if we have to, reluctantly, but test no American in his will for freedom.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Founding Father’s set a high bar, a bar even they did not clear. Yes, we can do better.  But we can never lower the bar.  If that bar is lowered, there will be no America.

The Catholics don’t measure up, you say? It would be American for women to be priests. We are getting there, too slowly for me.

Last night was New Year’s Eve. I went to Catholic mass at a small church in Bocas Del Toro, Panama with my Panamanian girl friend who is descended from China, and is Catholic.  One priest was from Panama, one from Vietnam, and one from Spain. There were people in the simple church descended from Africans, Indigenous Indians, Chinese, Spanish Panamanians and a few Europeans, like me.  I was the only man wearing short pants and sandals.  I hope my mother wasn’t watching from heaven. I would have tried to justify my attire by telling her Jesus wore sandals. People from all over the world were there, cultures mixed but parts preserved, making one culture in one Church.

I liked the mass.  The music was Latin and fun.  There was lots of clapping and swaying, mostly by the black people and a group of Chinese girls. Only one woman wore a veil. That’s her choice.  No man can tell her what to wear.  I recall that my sisters and mother had to wear scarves to church.  I also remember a feeling of superiority that I, as a boy, was exempt.  I was an altar boy at St. Rose in Topsfield, Massachusetts, and girls were not permitted to serve.  Today, I would refuse, but today, girls can serve. It is an important message to boys.

If you want to be American, then your old culture has to fade into the mixed-up American culture. My ancestors didn’t like it, but they had to accepted it. It makes us who we are, and it makes us stronger.  Your culture will be absorbed, and change America for the better.  However, if you come to America, and you build barriers to becoming American, isolate, and refuse to join the team, then I fear for my country.  We will lose the essence of who we are, a people who are comfortable with changing our core, but not our core principles of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and the Freedoms described in the Bill of Rights.

The woman who changed the sheets in the Hilton likely had more education than the people who slept in the beds. Maybe that is the price she has to pay, having escaped a country where she was no longer safe. She might have to give up the hope for her daughter to marry a nice Iranian boy of the same religion. I hope her daughter’s children will be American, and nothing else. I hope they like the Tigers, hate the Yankees, and root for the Red Sox if the Tigers are out of the running.

If a Picture is Worth 1000 Words…What Do You Do When You Need 100?

If it were not for the electronic gadgets we have available today, we couldn’t do what we do for a living. Only a few people would live on sailboats, what I do when not making a living helping people around the world with quality, product performance and reliability problems.

We need to communicate with people around the world as readily as we can with the folks next door to do what we do. This has only been possible for a few years, even though we accept it as normal today. I remember being astounded when sending my first fax by using the telephone, which took several minutes per page. Before that we had to use snail mail for documents, and expensive international phone calls for talking, always through AT&T. David lives in England, Tobias in Germany. The biggest impediment to communicating with one another now is that someone might be in bed. In 2015, we worked for clients in a dozen or so places in the United States, Germany, Italy, China, Mexico, and a few other places as well. When a client contacts us, we go. When they want to communicate, we need to be available.

Our seminars and slides are stored in Dropbox. We now scan documents with Scanner Pro on I-pads, and use GoodReader as a filing system. Everything is backed up in a cloud, and somehow, my Mac, IPad and IPhone all stay synched.

I am currently in Panama. I just sailed from Red Frog in Western Panama to Colon, near the canal, but I won’t stay long. I have to decide if I am going to sail to Trinidad in the Eastern Caribbean, leaving before the Christmas winds, or through the canal, northwest to Costa Rica, then to Tahiti in January or February. And I will still manage to get my work done at The New Science of Fixing Things.

I admit I am a far more dependent on technology than I should be. I principally use electronic charts. Years ago, I learned how to use a sextant, but forgot, a wonderful tool replaced by a GPS and a chart plotter. I took pride in surprising the instructor as we sailed from Bermuda to Virginia, consistently able to find our position within a few hundred yards, and always within 2nm, while others were off by far more. Now I could do as well with a sextant as a chart and a dart.

I learned coastal navigation with a hand-bearing compass and paper charts. I used to mark my position when anchored with that same compass, check it and plot it with a pencil every 15 minutes until I was sure the anchor was set. Now I toss my big Rocna anchor off the bow, set the scale on the chart plotter so I can watch as the boat traces a path and moves in 6-foot increments. I set an alarm to go off if the boat moves more than .1nm and the GPS does the work. The compass, and a spare are behind me as I write this at the navigation station on my boat, Ariadne. I would be embarrassed to admit how long it has been since I used them.

Even with my dependency on electronics, I try to avoid the addiction of electronic gadgets we depend upon. I rarely carry a cell phone. I don’t want to be in touch all the time. Frankly, I am not that important, and what you want to talk to me about can wait. I don’t want a picture of what you ate this morning and I am not much interested in the details of your personal life in an instant message or Facebook. I don’t want to walk down the street texting. I don’t want to chat with you. If I am in conversation, I want to engage, to look you in the eyes. I won’t talk to you if you delude yourself into thinking you are multi-tasking, texting while talking, which means doing multiple things poorly.

Gadgets make it harder and harder, but more important to find peace. Peace comes from the comfort I get from simple things, from walking in the jungle near Bocas Del Toro listening to the parrots, or anchoring in Bluefield, a place with no Wi-Fi or phone service, where I hiked and swam under a waterfall a few days ago and bought a few lobsters from the Indians as they paddle alongside in their kayukas. It means turning the phone off when I write.

I find peace by taking the time to see things, which means to spend uninterrupted time when things matter, things that I enjoy seeing, or things that are important to see. Seeing does not mean looking.

Looking means taking a photograph with my phone of a parking place at Logan Airport, so I won’t loose the car. I don’t care to see a parking place, only to look then move on. (I don’t own a car now, but I have a nice dinghy with a 15HP Yamaha.)

I can often see what I need to see with a pencil and paper and a bit of uninterrupted peace. A pencil and paper are ancient devices with a proper place in today’s world of engineering. The best engineers I know keep notebooks. All of them can make a sketch, without exception. Can you? Do you know when to draw a sketch? Do you know when to take the time to draw? Do you know how powerful a sketch can be? Do you know how to make it powerful?

The picture below is a sketch of a cutlass bearing and the zinc on the prop shaft I drew into my boats logbook.

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Shaft Zinc and Cutlass Bearing

I could have looked and taken a photo, but I chose to draw it and see. Drawing takes a bit of time. I like to draw because it helps me to see. I like the peacefulness it brings to me (when the gadgets are off) and I like knowing that I am learning what I need to learn. A drawing has only what I want to see. A photo has too much information, too much to look at, and not just what I choose to see. A photograph doesn’t come with labels or notes on the important parts.

“But I can’t draw,” we often hear.

“Then you cannot see,” I will respond. If you cannot see, then you cannot understand. If you cannot understand, then you cannot fix anything. The good news is, that drawing a cartoon is a powerful and simple way to start any project. And, you can draw. Get to it.

Just draw what you see. With a bit of practice you will get better. A drawing can be crude. It might be done on the whiteboard. I think it’s more difficult on a whiteboard, because you are usually trying to draw while others are talking at you, but sometimes, you have to. What matters is that you took the time to see, not just to look. A cartoon shows that you are taking the time to learn.

Whiteboard Work.  It has mine and David’s handwriting

David drew the following cartoons while working on a difficult project in Germany. It took some time, but he needed dedicate the time to the drawing, to really think through the function and to get it right.

From David’s Notebook
Also from David’s Notebook
One from my notebook

Solving engineering and technical problems requires a process of some sort. The best process is not one that is made up with the idea of using a bunch of tools, but one that is developed over time…years…and then written down by the experts who developed it, and used it.

For years, after we solved tough problems at The New Science of Fixing Things, people asked, “How did you guys learn to do that so fast and with such insight?”

I shrugged, and said, “We got old,” meaning we have been doing it for years. One person told me, “You have said that before and it is not helpful. You need to take the time to figure out what you guys do and how you do it then teach it. What you have is valuable and needs to be captured.” He was right.

We think we have captured it, and now teach what we do better than we ever have, based on the 8C process below.

8C Process From d-TACTICS Workbook


What we discovered as we looked at our notebooks is that every project started with a sketch, a cartoon, the first step in d-TACTICS for Matryoshka Characterization with small multiples, and z-STRATEGIES, energy concepts for machine performance and reliability

A proper cartoon is an effective learning tool. It provides the opportunity to begin to see not just to look. It is the beginning of gaining insight into how stuff really works. Insight and understanding is often a pleasant surprise.

For those who want to do what we do, start with a cartoon. We will be happy to teach you the rest as well.

“The growth and transformation that has occurred in our Technical Problem Solving group over the last 18 months just simply blows me away! This transformation, I owe a largely to your, David, and now Tobias’s teachings.  Clearly you got it right and I’m certain TNSFT will leave a lasting legacy well beyond our years.  My only regret is that I was not able to successfully fight the head winds here to begin this journey 8 years ago when I wanted. I can only imagine what the organization would be doing right now.  I really look forward to our growing partnership as we move forward together in the future.  Thanks again for all of your help!”

You are welcome, my friend. Thanks for the chance to work with you.

Last Night in Shanghai


David, Tobias and I finished a two-week d-TACTICS workshop in China yesterday. Together we took the subway and the maglev train to the airport. The train was fun. We reached 300kph while looking out the window at the cars stuck in traffic, blowing horns like the Chinese like to do. It took 7 minutes to get from Central Shanghai to the train platform between the two terminals. The total cost of the trip from the far side of Shanghai was about $7 for the train and 70 cents for the subway, compared to $80 to go the other way in a taxi.

Tobias managed to get a late flight back to Germany last night. David left for London this morning, and I will leave tomorrow for the U.S. then back to Panama. I have to go to Alabama to pick up some spare parts for my sailboat, which I left at my sister’s house, then head for Panama and back to the Ariadne, my sailboat.

I am in the Shanghai Pudong Ramada Hotel at the airport now on the 7th floor. This is my third trip to China in the last 8 weeks. I reached Diamond level on Delta airlines this year, a reward I hope never to get again. Yesterday, I got a call from one more client to come to help with a problem. I turned them down, as much as I wanted to stay, but I think I wanted to go home. I have made a lot of sacrifices over the years when people have called, rarely if ever having the sense to say, “no.” I am 65 years old. It’s time. Even David and Tobias said to go home.

The sky is as clear a New Hampshire morning, a rare event here in Shanghai. In one direction from my 7th floor room I can see the runway, with one large plane after another taking off for cities halfway round the world. When I look the other way, there are so many ships carrying freight that every day looks like the Invasion of Normandy, or perhaps the Battle of Leyte Gulf since we are in the Pacific. Can the demand for goods around the world really be so large? Who is buying all that stuff? Does it all have to be made in China?

Maybe, just maybe, there are a few things on those ships The New Science of Fixing Things helped make a little better. Maybe there are engineers in the factories where we have worked and taught, who can make things better and are more reliable. Maybe there are a few folks here in Shanghai who will remember us after we fly away, because they had fun learning to do their jobs better, faster and are confident in the products they make.

I hope so. It really matters to me. It seems as if the fundamentals of making things aren’t so fundamental any more. But we have fun teaching it and I am grateful for those who invite us to work with them. I am the luckiest engineer I know. I like the work, and the people we work with around the world.

I know when things started to get more confusing for manufacturing engineers. It was when we replaced, or tried to replace, sound reasoning with computers and thousands of data points when only a few will do. Projects that should take an hour or a day often take a month or a year, by people who make claims about continuous improvement and six-sigma.

We had a couple of projects this week that were rather simple (just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it is easy.) Simple projects, properly told in a story are very revealing. Simple projects teach us the fundamental principles we need to adhere to when the tough ones come along.

One project was claimed as a run-out issue on a shaft-pinion assembly. (It still gets under my skin when someone calls a problem an issue, but these folks are Chinese and heard this nonsense from Americans, so I meditated for a second and let it go.) Just as we always do at the beginning of a project, we have to sit through a presentation of useless statistics confused with problem solving tools. We looked at a process capability analysis of run-out which came from measuring lots of parts, revealing nothing useful, but claims of stability or lack thereof.

You cannot diagnose anything based on measuring shaft run-out. It can’t be done. There is a simple test for how helpful a measurement system is for diagnosis. If the value is calculated, then don’t use it. (There are exceptions, and we know them all.) Run-out is generated by setting an indicator on a shaft, rotating the shaft 360° and reading the full sweep of the indictor; in other words, subtracting the smallest value from the largest value. It’s calculated, and looses useful positional information.

I read Keki Bhotes book on World Class Quality 25 years ago, and knew that what he was proposing in the infamous rotor shaft case he copied from Dorian Shainin was flawed. It was flawed because he used the shaft diameter, a measurement that is independent of how the machines tool created it. A lathe creates a point in space some distance from the axis of rotation, a radius. Thus, a diameter is a sum of two radii, a weak approach to professional problem solving. Simple enough. Unfortunately, Keki used this case to teach multi-vari to thousands over the years from a starting point that has little to do with the action of the machine, but rather a universal decomposition into within part, part-to-part and time-to-time.

In the new shaft run-out case and the old rotor shaft case, the measurements reveal nothing about the machine action that created the parts, which is the whole point of this level of technical problem solving. No one teaches it properly…well, we do. It’s the primary focus of our d-TACTICS workshops.

In the shaft run-out project this week, the measurement of run-out was not only of little help (other than for quality control) but the measurement of run-out improper. They were being measured while located in a VEE block, not on center.

I asked them to select three shafts, number them, and chuck #1 into a milling machine. Once in the milling machine, I asked them to properly locate and zero the indicator, mark the shaft, then rotate 90°, mark the displacement again, then repeat at 180° and 270°. Next, do the same thing for the rest of the shafts. Then, of course, we plotted the results of the three shafts, starting at 0° then 90°, 180° and 270°. The plot below shows the results. As always, a list of numbers never has the power of a picture.

shaft shape ccccc

Once that part of the task was finished, the shafts were inserted into the pinion using the normal process. Next, each assembly was checked again at the four positions where the displacement was measured and recorded. The values were plotted. The redlines the shaft shape as it was received, the blue the same positions measured after the pinion was installed. Have a look. Is the run-out a function of the INPUT (shafts) or FUNCTION (assembly process?)


Since we know small sample sizes are effective, and most people are trained to sample lots of parts, one guy asked if he could measure a few more to gain a bit of confidence. I relented, as long as he was willing to look back upon completion and tell me how much value the additional parts (and time) really were worth. He did, and admitted it had little value, but did make him feel better. However, I drew the line when he said they wanted to calculate the correlation coefficient. He did it anyway when I wasn’t looking.

That reminded of a somewhat tough but interesting job we had a few months ago in Beijing, the details of which are not important. As part of the job, I asked the folks in the CMM room to measure the shape of an inspection cover for a large gearbox. I specifically asked for shape, not flatness, as flatness is a series of numbers, a calculation. (Now you know calculated values are trouble.)

I couldn’t talk to the CMM folks (Chinese), so I drew a picture with three cones to locate the part, showed him were to zero the CMM, and put a point on the cover where I wanted each reading. I think I wanted about 7 points along the long sides, and maybe 5 along the short sides. I would have done it with a dial indicator, (a clock if you are English) but they didn’t have one. Hardly anyone has the hand tools I want any more, the basic tools for simplicity and speed that give us the ability to take our own readings, to think through what measured values are telling us in a story as they are revealed and plotted on a sheet of paper, rather than a list that shows up in your email. These days we have little choice but to use beautifully precise and accurate, but often, unnecessary machines that can stand in the way of the craft of problem solving.

A few hours later, I was handed a thumb drive. I inserted the drive into my Mac, and was annoyed by a string of thousands of numbers when I only wanted a few. I went back with a translator, careful not to offend anyone. They had no cones to establish the datum as I wanted, so they used the CMM machine to find a datum. They then used a scanning probe, thus tens of thousands of numbers that breaks every rule of “keep it simple.” I went back to the conference room, picked out a few numbers and deleted thousands more, drew a picture and saw all I needed. The plate was distorted, and appeared to distort where the handles were welded on. The bolt torque was used up to straighten the plate instead of squeezing the gasket and water leaked into the gearbox.

d-TACTICS is the first in a series of our workshops, where we teach these principles if factories, followed by d-STRATEGIES, also a workshop in a factory.

z-STRATEGIES builds on these principles. It is taught using machines we have built, based on principles of machine performance, learning how make machines run better, last longer, and have some fun.

Now it is dark. I can see the navigation lights on the ships out the window of the hotel here in Shanghai, and I will head for home when I wake up. When I get home, I will get onto my sailboat, and head for Dolphin Bay near Boca Del Toro and take a few days off.

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Virginia Mary Allen August 18, 1920 – November 11, 2007

When Mom passed away on Sunday morning, one of the many kind nurses at the hospital said, “I am sorry for your loss.” I was sad, but in those very spiritual moments after Mom was just getting to heaven, I felt more at peace than sad. I also felt an over powering feeling of gratitude. I had had two wonderful parents for well over 50 years. I had a mother who loved me. She told me so, and I will never forget how much she loved us all. I kissed her goodbye, then put my cheek against hers and held it there. As I moved away, she said her last words. “You need a shave,” then she laughed through her pain.

What defines a good life? Work? What you save, or collect? What is it, that each of us can look back on, that defines our life, one thing that has been consistent from childhood? For Virginia Mary Donovan Allen, wife of James for 60 years, mother of Jane, John, James, Christine, Robert, Lucille, grandmother of 13, and great grandmother of 4, it is an easy answer. Her life centered on maintaining conscious contact with God in spite of what stood in the way. That defined her life, and the way she left it. She fought faithfully to the end.sc000c552602

Mom was proud of her Irish-Catholic roots in Boston. She was proud to be a Democrat, and loved John Kennedy. She liked the Red Sox and Ted Williams. She watched the series this year, and was happy when the Sox won. Her home was New England, and she missed it. She graduated from Girls High School in Boston in 1937, when she was only 16 years old. She liked to hear the names of the towns and the streets, and I called her when in Boston, just so I could say them to her.   Chelsea, The Back Bay, West Roxbury, Chestnut Hill, Mass Ave, the Cape, Tremont Street and Hackensack Road, where she grew up, where she was married, and where she had her first four children. It is where her parents, John and Mary Ellen Donovan, and sisters, Ruth and Lucille, were born, and where her grandparents landed when they came from Ireland. It is where she met our father, James Ross Allen when he returned from the war.


Mom told me she hoped to go back to Boston twice more. Jane’s son, John’s wedding is this weekend in Massachusetts. She said she wanted to go to her grandson Sam’s graduation from engineering school in Worcester, Massachusetts this spring.

Mom always had hope, and it was through God that Mom found hope, both in life and in the face death. She was afraid, but her fear passed as she made her final peace with God. She knew that she was ready to face Him, and with whom she is now, in peace and without pain. Mom suffered for most of this year. Jay, Lucille, Bob, and especially Christine sat with her, and helped her week after week. Mom’s good neighbor, Elvis McCann, was helping us move a few of Mom’s things a day or so ago. He told Lucille and me that sometimes those of us who are loved the most suffer most, to prepare the way for those who remain. He said, maybe it is God’s way of getting us prepared, to be grateful when they are finally relieved of pain. That helped.

When we talked during one of our last conversations, Mom asked about my own spiritual values and strength. Once again, she wasn’t thinking of herself. For her, and myself, I will renew those values she tried so hard to instill in all her children. Oh, she was clucked a bit when I told her about the small Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, and how I liked it. She did seem pleased, however, that I attend church and pray. She asked if I bring a sense of spiritual values to my own son. I promised to do more. I consider it to be one of my failures in life. She wasn’t just talking to me as she said these things. She was talking to all of us, because she knew I was going to write this down. Hope, in times that seem hopeless, centers on faith, and, as Mom would say, seeking peace through God. That is a lesson we might all try to remember, Mom, as we think of you. When there was no hope for life, she had hope for eternal life with God. We also know you live on in us, and we will cherish what you taught us, and did for us. She knew that her great granddaughter, Lillian Virginia Allen was born just two weeks ago in Sacramento, and was pleased to hear her name.

There is another important lesson from Mom. She was frugal. I don’t think she ever wasted a dime.   She invested wisely, and did well. Mom wasted neither money nor time. She recently started a small investment contest with her children. Each could buy and sell stock, with everyone’s results posted each day by Jay. The results, as of last week, were no surprise. Mom was in the lead by a fair margin, and had been in the lead from wire to wire.

She managed the money in the house for over 60 years. She raised six children, and like many other women from her generation, did most of the work without a lot of help. She moved her family more times than I care to count. She bought and sold at least eight houses but managed to live in one house, one home, here in Roseville for nearly thirty years. She moved our family from the US to Germany in 1960, and back. Mom rarely asked for help. In the last year of her life, she depended heavily on Bob, Christine, Lucille, and Jay. They each unselfishly gave a lot of themselves to help her.

Virginia was a good friend, and a devoted friend. Her friends called her Ginny. She had a Christmas card list that has only added people for years. She met with her best friend, Odrene Reagan, when the family gathered in New Hampshire to celebrate Mom’s 80th birthday. She had known Odrene since they were pals in Girls High School in Boston in the 1930’s, and always loved one another. They were so much fun to listen to! They acted like the girls they were so many, many years ago.

I remember when we had only one car in the 1950’s. Mothers really stayed home then. I think Mom went out shopping just once a week until 1959 when, for the first time, we got a second car. On Saturday morning, she and Jane took off, loaded up with groceries, and Mom made them last. On Sunday, every Sunday, we all went to Mass and communion, girls in dresses, and boys in matching suits and ties. We came home, and had Sunday dinner together. It was just done that way. St. Anne’s Church in Groesebeck, Ohio and the Catholic school were at the center of our early family life. On Fridays, we ate fish. One Friday, Dad brought a Protestant home. He brought a bologna sandwich, not wanting to eat fish with the Catholics. Mom made him eat it on the porch.

As I look back on her life, I admire how she lived. She kept her life rather simple. She collected things; Hummel’s, plates, coins. She was a great dancer. We loved to watch Mom and Dad dance. They were great together. For 50 years, she had a bird feeder near the windows. She was a good cook, and always had a leg of lamb and a cheesecake for me when I came to visit from some far off place. She was an avid reader, always ready to trade a book with a friend. She played bridge, and was good at it, and loved winning a few cents from her friends. She learned to use a computer in her late 70’s. She played online bridge, balanced her checkbook, sent emails, and found a few web sites she liked. She somehow managed to ruin a few computers, and cried when she had to do without them as Christine or Lucille fixed them or got new ones. Mom had pictures of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all over the house. Mom kept order in all she did. She did the crossword puzzle every single day for as long as I can remember. She never left the house with a dirty dish in the sink, and never woke up to last night’s dishes. Not once.   Mom was a good story-teller. She loved to talk about her life as a young woman in Boston during the war, when she worked at the C. E. Fay Company and even told a story or two about her boyfriends, like the rich guy that owned the pecan ranch in Georgia she could have married. It was like listening to history.

I understand, however, one bit of frustration she lived with. Mom, I think, was brilliant. She never had much of a chance to use that gift outside the house, and I think it bothered her. Dad knew how smart she was, and knew she was smarter than he was. Now that she is at peace, I think she would ask those of you who have the same gift, to do your best, but keep hope and God at the center of your life.

I told Mom how I would write this, and that it would be about hope and her conscious contact with God. She was in a hospital bed, with hardly single possession of her own. Mom reached into the pocket of her hospital gown and handed me this Catholic Devotional given to her by her friend, Barbara Turner, also from this church, who helped her more than she will ever know through her last days. Her help also gave our family a measure of comfort. It is fitting that Mom valued this book so much, and gave it to me to use to write this.

I think Mom would want me to keep this short. Sorry, Mom, I didn’t. She never wanted to be a bother to anyone, and I suppose she would want us to get on with life. And as we do, love one another a little bit more. I think, however, she would like it if we end with a prayer from this book.

Let Us Pray

Grant that we beseech you, O Lord God, that your servant Virginia Mary Allen may enjoy perpetual health of soul and body; and by the glorious intersession of the Blessed Mary ever virgin, may be delivered from sorrow and pain and rejoice in eternal happiness through Christ, our Lord. Amen

Goodbye, Mom

Now That I’ve Lost Everything to You

It was raining when I took the water taxi to town. My clothes were damp from the rain, but it wasn’t cold enough to be annoying.

I walked through town and got even wetter, not caring, and found the things I needed; bananas, a plantain, fruits and vegetables, a piece of snapper, and a bottle of some stuff Jody told me would clean the green mold off the ropes on the boat. I can’t imagine that anything will keep the mold at bay, as it has been raining so much. I left a 5-gallon pail on deck and it was full in a few days.

I stopped in La Buga. They make good smoothies, so I ordered one, but drank it fast. The music was loud and meaningless and a parrot was screeching. I wanted some peace. I headed down the street to Leaf Eaters, a vegetarian restaurant over the water, and hidden behind a store with folks who have fun working there gringos who have been here forever and speak Spanish. They have wifi, but won’t let people Skype or talk on the phone. My kinda place.

I ordered a burger and fries. They laughed and gave me a hippy bowl. The seat of my pants had soaked through from the wet painted plank that passes for a seat on the water taxi. I sat and looked out over the bay to the mountains separating the Caribbean from the Pacific, and thought it would clear before long.

Cat Stevens was playing in the background, just loud enough for me to sing along without anyone noticing.

Now that I’ve lost everything to you,

You say you want to start something new,

And it’s breaking my heart you’re leaving,

Baby I’m grieving.

But if you want to leave take good care,

Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear,

But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there.

Unlike the noise at La Buga, this song means something. I flashed back to years and years ago, places I have been, and a woman or two I have loved and lost, or who lost me. The rain helped my mind wander to Maine, Massachusetts, and the Isles of Shoals, a back porch, a moldy couch, and a few old friends.

Four-Plus One Streams of Wealth: Stream 3 and 4

Four-Plus One Streams of Wealth: Stream 3 and 4, Create The Great Middle Class While Plus 1 Provides Little Benefit

The British Empire can safely lay claim to be the source of the industrial revolution. It’s easy to trace the development of useful science from Italy where Galileo showed those who would listen that the earth was not the center of the universe, to Northern Europe and Tycho Brahe, after the Catholics chased good science from Italy. England picked it up, and Isaac Newton, born the year Galileo died, discovered proper physics models which began to have an effect on how people made stuff and how they lived their lives. It is worthy of note that it only took a generation or two to get from flawed but ingrained and useless models of physics to Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion, and applying them in an industrial revolution a short time later.

Unlike most revolutions, no one intended to start this one. A few clever folks invented some machines, the most important likely the steam engine principally used to drive all kinds of other machines by turning a shaft and hooking up pumps, machine tools and soon, generators, all to do more work faster. More machines were invented, and manufactured, needing more and more technicians and artisans and workers. Certainly there were a few greedy folks toward the top, but there was a lot more real work being done, technology being developed by clever people at rapid rates, and a lot of people learning skills and trades, as well as a few people being exploited. Machines alone were no cure for man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, but there can be no argument that the human condition has improved greatly by the mechanical artisan and hammer and tongs under the umbrella of capitalism.


Kings discovered it would be cool to run a fountain or two, while others did more useful things. Before long, the engines needed to be more efficient and lighter, as they were being attached to other devices such as paddle wheels and locomotives, mining machines, making steel then building long-span bridges. Factories were needed and built, and people got jobs. The workers were sometimes exploited, as factories became another place for man to demonstrate inhumanity to his fellow man, but the better side of man came out as time progressed. Yes, we still exploit our fellow man. I have seen it, but where it is a matter of course, there is no sustainable middle class.

indian guy

Up until the Revolution, wealth for the masses, what there was of it, had been based on grow-and-cut, and grow-and-kill, Wealth Streams 1 and 2. These were short economic chains, with most growing being done in the outlying regions of a village, and selling in the village.

Families were well suited to these first two streams, grow and cut and grow and kill. When grow-and-cut found more demand in the days before mechanization, slaves often became the source of labor. It is interesting, but another matter, that slave labor impeded industrial progress in the U.S. The North employed machines while in the South, slave labor was so ingrained in the culture, mechanization was avoided. The South would have been called “third world” if there had been such a distinction.

As the industrial revolution progressed, a middle class developed. Industry is the source of a great middle class. I argue that without it, there will be no sustainable middle class. Those speaking in terms of a post-industrial society are delusional. A middle class is critical to a free democratic society. Putting it at risk puts the country at risk.

Drill and pump, the 3rd Stream

As industry developed, fuel was needed. Coal and wood had been the primary source for powering early steam engines in England.

The atmospheric engine invented by Thomas Newcomen might have been about 20 horsepower, and burned up an acre of English trees in a day. At that rate, England was stripped of trees in short order. It didn’t take long for clever people to make more efficient engines and find alternate sources of fuel. Clever Americans now got in the game.

Robert Fulton mounted a steam engine onto a boat in New York. It was the first power plant mounted onto a moveable platform, providing the ability to transport goods upstream.

Coal and wood were still the primary source of fuel until someone in Pennsylvania discovered that drilling a hole in the ground provided better fuel with less of a mess. Oil, it was discovered, could be refined into all kinds of beneficial products, and the third economic stream, drill a hole in the ground and refine the product, was developed. This third stream of wealth was longer than the first two. It also required capital to drill, transport, and refine. This was different than growing, cutting, and transporting to the market in town. The wealth it created was substantial. A few people became extremely wealthy, but a lot more found employment doing real value added work, providing economic hope. The third stream of wealth was not really independent of the fourth. Each needed the other.

Mine and Smelt, The 4th Stream

Mining and smelting, I think, can be credited as the source of the great American middle class. It is the longest economic chain, starting at a mine, then smelt to billets, to steel shapes, to suppliers of parts for autos, aircraft, houses and everything in between. It turned the United States into a world power. In 1938, the U.S. had the 18th most powerful military, right behind Portugal. Few thought the U.S. could become a mighty military force in so few years.

Within a short time, the most powerful military came from the greatest manufacturing powerhouse the world had ever seen. The U.S. economy grew at a rapid rate, employing millions of people, and bringing them out of poverty to the great middle class.

The fact is that the American middle class grew from the ability to work in factories, and in no other way.

Now, the question becomes, how to we preserve a middle class? I submit that:

  1. No free society has ever been created or sustained without a middle class.
  2. There has been no middle class without a strong manufacturing base
  3. The manufacturing base is declining in the U.S. as manufacturing is exported. It is not due to greedy capitalists, but foolish government tax policy.

My father, like so many others, left a farm in early 1942 to join the Navy, fought in the war, then headed for General Electric making aircraft engines in Massachusetts. He had no extraordinary skills, just willingness, and culture of hard work learned on the farm, and a knowledge of poverty that he had no interest in repeating. He grew confident in GE. It would always be there, that hard work would sustain him, and provide for his large family. It was the American way; from farm to fighter to factory.


The Plus 1 Wealth Stream

Laptops, IPads and IPhones Create No Middle Class

Next to my MacBook Air in the hotel where I write, I have two IPhones, and a new IPad (I gave away the old one.) I bought my first Mac in 1985 and have likely had 25 since then. (I have never bought a machine that runs the MicroSuck operating system.) One of the IPhones is an IPhone 6. I bought it unlocked from Best Buy for about $800. Kids all over America are addicted to them at the expense of books, but that’s another matter.

$Billions are spent on these gadgets. I submit that the hardware might be worth $200 including the labor to put it together. It is cheap labor, mostly pick-and-place, nothing clever required. The workers are paid barely above slave labor, none of it in the USA. The balance of my $800 went to the clever folks who invented and developed the IPhone. Unlike machines from Wealth Streams 3 and 4, such gadgets like IPhones and IPads have a very short economic chain with most of the money remaining at the top of the stream. I don’t care if people get rich. Good for them. However, we shouldn’t be delusional about the contribution to sustaining a middle class; these machines are clever, but don’t help the middle class.

As far as tech sector being a jobs engine is concerned, reputation is not the reality. As advertised, technology creates great wealth; that wealth, however is distributed among a small slice of society. There is a bright green line between those who make millions and the remaining minions. Put simply, the tech sector can create wealth without creating a lot of work. Nishant Bhajaria

Delusional politicians, however, think that hi-tech will save their cities. Pittsburgh touts its resurgence as a center of hi-tech. How’s that working out for ya, folks from US Steel? The government thinks they can go to school for a few weeks, then get a job in hi-tech.

As I listen to Fox News here in the hotel, the Senate is debating a trade bill. The usual approach is for Democrats to want to raise taxes, Republicans to cut them. I argue for another approach.

Taxing Wealth Stream Plus1


IPhones and IPads will never be made in the U.S. The labor is cheap and is not creating a middle class. These jobs are the equivalent of working at McDonalds. They belong outside the U.S. providing jobs for those trying to extricate themselves from the 3rd world.

Because of the concentration of wealth from these gadgets, they should be taxed accordingly at the point of sale.

Apple is a great company and locates its headquarters fort tax purposes outside the U.S. I don’t blame them. The U.S. Government taxes companies at the highest rates in the world and has chased a lot of good companies out. It isn’t cheap labor as much as high taxes that keeps good companies out. Apple has billions in cash, but provides few jobs for the middle class, especially in proportion to their revenue. Most of their products do nothing for productivity unless you consider the ability for girls and boys to remain in touch on WhatsApp as important.

Tax these gadgets accordingly at the point of sale. Apple can leave their chest of gold wherever they want.

If taxed IPhones are too expensive for Dad to buy one for each of his three kids, good. They can read a book.

A Solution:

I propose for companies in Wealth Stream 3 or 4 that taxes cut to zero (0% Tax) if

  1. If the sum of direct labor, depreciation, utilities and raw materials is greater than 40% of revenue.
  2. Raw material is purchased from a company upstream, and sold to a company downstream.
  3. The last company, and only the last company in the wealth stream pays tax on profits, as they sell to the consumer.

Take, for example, a company in the automotive supply chain that produces starter motors. The raw material is purchased from copper and wire suppliers, steel mills for sheet metal, forges, casting houses, etc. They sell to GM, Ford, Honda, and BMW. The pay no U.S. federal income tax. GM, the last company in the stream, sells the starter motor to the consumer as part of the automobile. As a result of its position. last in the chain, GM pays a tax on its profit.

Exxon, on the other hand, drills and refines. For the most part, Exxon sells to the consumer at the pump, so would be taxed.

Think about this just like any stream. Diverting water (capital) from the stream at multiple points along its path reduces that which is available from productive activity along the stream. Leave capital in the stream, especially if it performs the critical task of creating and sustaining a middle class through capitalism, which is far more productive than any government activity.

What would happen? Companies who have moved off shore would be tripping over themselves to build factories in the U.S. The demand for labor would skyrocket, securing the place for millions in good middle class jobs that require skill and training for making things.

Tax revenue would increase because good American workers would be collecting paychecks by working, not from government, paying taxes on earnings instead of collecting government checks.