Monday, December 1, 2008

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

Discussing texting and the abbreviations 'NASA' and 'NACA' with a friend the other day got me to thinking again about how I miss being part of the space program and the aerospace industry. A life regret I guess. I suppose I could still pursue it.

I am still – to this day – intensely proud of my degree in Aerospace Engineering & Mechanics, a true dual degree (aerospace engineering is one discipline, and theoretical mechanics, a discipline which no one really understands when you tell them about it, is another) and the last one offered by the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology in 1981 (I don’t know what they call the degree these days). My diploma hangs in my home office where I can see it as I sit and type. I still love to tell people I’m an engineer by training, and when they ask what kind of engineer, I feel a flush of pride when I tell them, "Aerospace." This is not an ego thing, this is a validation-of-self thing.

As a twenty-something young man, all I ever really wanted was to be an engineer. In those days I was always happiest while working alone in my office, doing design calculations. I remember late afternoons, sitting at my desk, with a set of blueprints effectively forming a desk blotter, and with my trusty Hewlett-Packard calculator and a yellow pad of my company's custom printed engineering paper, figuring out the geometry or calculating the stresses on whatever part I was designing at the time.

Of course, the calculator and pad of engineering paper were soon overtaken by the PC and spreadsheet programs like Excel, but – indicative of my true nature – these days I enjoy working with Excel and my CAD system at work. I design jewelry with the CAD system and I do all my custom job costing and other financial analysis with Excel templates I’ve set up.

I suppose I should be paying close attention to these feelings as I contemplate the next phase of my work life.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hello all, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Something this morning is compelling me to put down some thoughts about Thanksgiving. I receive a daily electronic newsletter on business, entrepreneurship, and personal growth. All this week, members of the staff have been taking turns listing their top ten favorite things about Thanksgiving – more to the point, the Top Ten Things they’re thankful for.


For me, as the youngest of four kids spread over 17 years and flung to the four geographic winds, “over the river and through the woods…” has often meant a car trip of 500 to 1000 miles or more: Manhattan, Kansas to Denver, Colorado; New Paltz, New York to Wamego, Kansas; Albert Lea, Minnesota to Chicago; Albert Lea to Lufkin, Texas; Albert Lea to Wamego; Minneapolis to Wamego; Minneapolis to NE Colorado.

Each one of those trips was a long ride in a cramped car, with family not seen in many months and perhaps a couple of years waiting at the other end. I remember listening to self-help books on tape for 1100 miles on my way from Minneapolis to Colorado one year. Another year I had my two small kids, Caitlin and Melissa, sitting in the back seat with stacks of library books, crayons, and toys piled high around them as we cruised through the grey Iowa landscape. When I was young, my parents and I made a loooooong road trip from Albert Lea to East Texas to see my brother Jack and his wife, Carol. Man! I thought that trip would NEVER end! Lufkin, Texas stole my heart however. What a beautiful little city, tucked into the pine woods of East Texas .

And of course, the food. My Mother’s “wet bread” stuffing, which wasn’t stuffing at all because we never did a turkey in those days. “Dressing” is a better word for it, made in a Corningware casserole and baked in the oven, and it was delicious! I wish I had the recipe, but I wonder if I could repeat the dish. Mashed potatoes and gravy… yummmm! Ham or ham-loaf, our family Thanksgiving meat of choice – I didn’t learn what turkey tasted like until I was 19 years old! Peas, green beans, and – OH YEAH! – turnip potatoes, those weird orange mashed potatoes with turnips mixed in and all mashed up together. I never could eat those… couldn’t get past the color. And rolls, and sweet pickles, and olives… and cranberry sauce. My Mother alternately tried making cranberry sauce from scratch – which never jelled – and serving it out of a can. To this day, it really isn’t Thanksgiving for me without cranberry sauce in a lovely crystal dish – with the tin can’s rippled sides molded into the sauce. (Side note: every year my sister still tries to make cranberry sauce from our Mother’s recipe. When we talk across the miles on Thanksgiving Day, she always gives me the report on whether the sauce jelled. She’s always a bit disappointed when it does.)

Which brings us to family. Family is perhaps what we, each and every one of us, are most thankful for. Health, security, world peace, a good hair day, and a clean, ironed shirt are all blessings of course, but having family makes the absence of one or more of those tolerable. I remember the first Thanksgiving that I was able to out-eat my big brother. Paid for it later of course. I remember the time I thought I had to eat everything my kids left on their plates (after cleaning my own) so the food wouldn’t go to waste. Paid for it later of course (ooo… that was a bad one). I remember being a little kid, basking in the warmth of laughter, snacks, and a game of Parcheesi, listening as my family caught up on all the happenings of their separated lives, rejoined for a few days in the late fall of the year.

I remember so many Thanksgivings, traveling in a car across a cold, snowy or icy landscape – west Kansas, Iowa north to south, never-ending Nebraska east to west, Pennsylvania-Ohio-Indiana-Illinois-Missouri, with Family at the other end of the trip. Hugs and handshakes, carrying the suitcases in out of the car, spilling over with news of our lives, and never enough time to get everything covered. But it’s OK. Family understands… and now we have e-mail and cell phones and web videophones, if we remember to use them, all relatively free to use so we can keep up between Thanksgivings.

To you, all my family and extended family, I hope this little missive, describing what I remember and what I’m thankful for, has jogged a few memories from across your years, and helped you reflect on what this holiday means to you. You all mean the world to me!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Brief, Incomplete, and Possibly Imprecise History of Adams™ Reels

Adapted from two e-mails I recently wrote in response to inquiries about the reels, the man, and the company I briefly owned in 2003.


I’ve had a couple of inquiries about Bill Adams and his reels lately, so I thought I’d create this post while the information is still fairly fresh in my mind.

I’ll cover the reels first: They are made of lightweight 6061-T6 aluminum, hard anodized black on the side plates. The anodizing is then machined away on the rims and the “S” handle. The center axle/ spindle, pillars, and all screws are 303S stainless steel, the gear is brass, and the bushing/ bearing is Oil-Lite®. There are a few small internal parts that are non-stainless steel. The rest is aluminum, so unless the reel has been around salt water or was stored wet or never cleaned, corrosion should not be a problem.

The spool is CNC (computer/ numerical control) machined (actually, when I made the reels, virtually all parts were made on CNC lathes and machining centers). Bill always hand finished the spools to remove the machine marks before anodizing. (This is death for anyone trying to sell these at a profit – the hand finishing takes too much time and is a real pain.) My shop and I figured out how to use tool selection, ultra-high tool speeds, and unique automated polishing techniques to get the finish we needed without the hand work. Make sure the reel you’re looking at is nicely finished, with no tool marks under the anodizing. Once anodized, there’s no going back.

Bill hand fit all the parts when he was making them. He made all parts on a small mill and two small lathes in his bedroom-sized shop, which was attached to the back of his house. Such parts need hand fitting during assembly. This is important to note should the reel ever need service or if you purchase a spare spool later on. If you ever do that, be aware that the new spool may need to be worked on in order to fit the reel, if the reel is of Bill Adams vintage (roughly pre-2002). CNC techniques standardize parts and reduce/ eliminate the need for hand fitting.

The reels were always a little wide for my taste and I believe Mr. Lacey, who currently makes the reels to Bill’s specifications (see below), is now offering a ¾” wide reel, at least in the 2-¾” size. I think that’s a great idea, and had plans to do that myself when I owned the company. I also had plans to use the wider frames for a large arbor version, and I think Mr. Lacey is also offering something like that. I think they now get $465 for a reel and $200 or more for a spool, so the price you’re being quoted isn’t bad, assuming the reel is in good shape.

They’re a delightful little reel for small to medium fish. They have only a click-pawl drag (and a light one at that). They work fine on smaller streams while chasing fish up to a pound or two. They look great on a cane rod and have some modern features (a palming rim and the ability to quickly change to a spare spool) that make them easier to use. I know people who’ve caught bigger fish – up to five pounds or more, but it’s a challenge to land such a fish. The reel does have a palming rim, so a fisherman who has good technical equipment handling skills can palm the spool to augment the drag and stop bigger fish.

The bottom line is you’re not going to break one of these reels unless you run over it with your car. They are held together with screws however, so they can theoretically work loose from time to time (I’ve never experienced this with mine, and I’ve fished them since 2002). If you chase bigger fish, or fish salt water at all, I would not recommend the Adams, but if you fish smaller streams chasing fish up to 15” – 20” and like traditional tackle with some modern design features, this is a great little reel. I wish I’d been a better business man in those days. I’d love to still be making them.

Now the history:

I'll try to remember as much of Bill’s story and the story of Adams Reels as I can without digging deep for my notes (which are God knows where). So, caveat emptor on some of the details.

Bill Adams was trained as a tool & die maker and was in the Navy on, I believe, a light cruiser during WWII. When the war ended he went home and eventually went to work for AMF, servicing bowling alleys. He was a fisherman and tinkered with reels in his spare time. He generated several designs and prototypes before coming up with the present design. He knows/ knew most of the reel makers around New England - you may know he lives northeast of Albany, NY, near the little town of Cambridge - and they all talk, or did in those days.

Bill really liked the classic look of the 'S' handle, but liked the newer development of a quick release spool. Upon the encouragement of friends in the business, he developed and standardized the current design sometime in the early '90's, I believe. The design is patented, but (I think) the patent is weak and there are some irregularities with it.

Bill made the reels himself in a small shop off the back of his house near Cambridge. He made most parts by hand or typical machining methods (lathe & mill), but had the spools CNC machined at a local job-shop. As he got older he was looking to sell the company. I live in Minnesota and learned about him from a local fly shop owner who’d tried to purchase a couple of reels from him and had heard the company was for sale.

I got ahold of Bill to discuss a possible purchase of Adams Reels. Bill was indeed interested in selling, so I bought a sample reel to inspect and test-fish. I was quite pleased and impressed with the reel and subsequently made a couple of trips to see Bill, the first in late summer of 2002 to see his operation, and again in January of 2003 to consummate the sale, pick up the assets of the company - existing parts, tooling, plans & documentation, the above-mentioned patent, etc. - and to document his manufacturing process as best I could. When I took over manufacture, I redesigned a few parts and had all parts CNC machined, and that eliminated the hand fitting.

Unfortunately, I misjudged how to market the reels - misjudged the market altogether for that matter, and spent waaaay too much on big-time magazine advertising with no increase in sales over the numbers Bill had seen. Thus, I could only keep the business going for about a year. Through the purchase agreement I had with Bill, if the business failed, the assets that I took posession of reverted to him. That indeed happened, at the end of 2003. I spent the week between Christmas and New Years packing up boxes and shipping stuff back to him.

(A little aside here, these things are incredibly expensive to make in small quantities, paying modern US shop rates. That's why you see so much going overseas, to China and elsewhere. And that in turn is why you can now find a very good machined reel still in the $100 range - foreign manufacture. And it's also the biggest reason why you don't find a lot of these reels around anymore. I think if someone was a hobby machinist and didn't need to turn a profit, they could make a nice side hobby business out of reels - these or any other. And of course, that's what is happening with all these modern classic reels. They’re all boutique reels, made in small numbers by machinists, and appealing mostly to connoisseurs.)

I believe Bill made reels for another year or two. I'm not sure though, as I lost touch with him (I frankly was pretty embarrassed about my lack of business performance). I didn't know what became of him or the reels until they showed up in LL Bean's fly fishing catalog a couple of years ago. I know he'd also previously approached Orvis about the reels (Cambridge is near Manchester, VT). I mean no disrespect but I have to say the reel in the photo in Beans' catalog, and also on their catalog website, was of inferior finish. You could see machine marks all over it. I was surprised LL Bean would use such a photo. As I said above, make sure the finish on the reel you’re considering is good.

As alluded to above, a cane rod maker in Georgia by the name of Gary Lacey is apparently making the reels now. I believe he's the same one who made (makes?) them for LL Bean. The gentleman at Just Reels (I can't remember his name - Jim Williams, I think) notes that he hasn't gotten any reels from Mr. Lacey in quite some time, so I don't know the situation there.

That’s an overview of what I can remember about the history of Bill Adams and Adams Reels. There are obvious holes in this history, and some of the facts may be a bit vague, but it’s the overall story. I have to say, I’ve found this exercise inspiring! It’d be fun to pull together a real history of Bill Adams, his reels, and his company.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Been There... Done That

I received a couple of posts from my friend Bob the other day. I’ve repeated them below, followed by my thoughts on his thoughts.


From: Bob
Sent: Thursday, August 28, 2008 12:03 PM
To: Ed
Subject: Indifference

I think I've figured out at least one reason (out of many probably) why things I've been interested in, in the past, such as the Olympics or political conventions, don't interest me as much now.


As a grade-schooler and later as a teenager, we kids would sit before a radio, and later a TV, with the names of the presidential candidates written down and we'd write the vote totals down state-by-state for the candidates. And we'd be excited, particularly if some of us favored one, and the rest of us another. There were other things over the years such as King's "I Have A Dream Speech" which always moved me.

Today, I had MPR on and this hour they were to memorialize King and play his speech. I turned it off and felt immediately puzzled, then recognized the feeling - more of "been there, done that."

There are other factors too in each of these various things in life that we Americans watch, listen to, admire etc. But new things come along to become interested in and something else has to give way time-wise and major interest-wise.

But that's for the old geezers like me. We have to continue to educate our young in many, many aspects of our American life, serious and frivolous.


From: Bob
Sent: Thursday, August 28, 2008 12:09 PM
To: Ed
Subject: Footnote...

To my boring introspective.

For many things these days, the outcome seems to matter more than the process. I'm quite interested in the outcome of the election, and although the process can be quite annoying at times, the outcome is more interesting. Liked to follow Phelps's results and root for him, but didn't want to watch particularly.

On the other hand, the process my grandson is undergoing week by week and month by month and year by year is incredibly interesting.



I thought these two e-mails of yours were pretty good analysis. I think you hit it on the head. I suffer(?) from much the same thing. New things come along to grab our interest. I believe in life as chapters, and a been-there-done-that feeling makes sense in that light.

I think even your example of results mattering more than process (I assume you mean to you) is largely a case of been-there-done-that. The fact that watching the process of Julian grow and mature is “incredibly interesting” to you is, I think, a case of NOT having been-there-done-that for quite a long time, 30+ years in your case. Thus it is new, and because he is your grandson, he is extremely important to you.

The high profile example of this in my own life is trout fishing. Ten years ago, I lamented that I could get out no more than 10 or 12 times a year. Now it’s 3 or 4 and I don’t miss it all that much. When I do go, I wonder why I don’t go more often, but away from the stream there seem to be too many other things that grab my interest or request / demand my time and attention, not the least of which is our current, ongoing attempt to grow a business, and the myriad of tasks and learning that go with it.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cohiba Daydreamin’

With apologies to one Mr. James W. Buffett of Pascagoula, MS

My wife Lisa and I just got back from Cozumel, that beautiful little beach & jungle island jewel off the coast of the Mexican Yucatan peninsula. We try to go back there every few years. We love it – the weather, the warmth (especially this time of year), the laid back attitude and lifestyle, the beaches, even the humidity! This particular trip was, more than anything, a beach vacation for us. Other years we’ve taken the offspring along, or only gotten to visit for a few hours from a cruise ship. This year was just us and the shopping and the beaches… and some restaurants… and a series of bizarre incidents involving cigars.

We saw and did so many different things that my mind is a numbed blur of memories. We saw a good sized lizard of the JC variety, running on his hind legs like a bandit across the road in front of us. We saw a HUGE iguana draped down his owner’s front from shoulder to ankle, waiting for an unsuspecting tourista to take his picture.

One day we went on an ATV tour of the interior of the island. We jarred our bones on the rocky trails, and saw cenotés (the mysterious underground streams & lakes of the Yucatan), caves, and iguanas, and ate a lot of dust from the machines just in front of us. Curiously, Lisa didn’t really like the trail and at one point, simply drove off into the bush. That got her in trouble with the tour operators, who warned her, “Señora, the road is THEES way!”

Another day we went shopping in town, lured by the attractions of $1 cerveza, vulgar T-shirts, and cheap silver jewelry. And who knew that differences between countries in pricing structures, import tariffs, etc. would mean that one can get a Rolex or Cartier watch for just a few hundred dollars?

We had two windy-wild ferry rides, to and from Playa del Carmen, that bracketed a nice stroll down Playa’s famous 5th Avenue. While there we saw an unusual bunny-lizard-lizard-bird act and we have photographic evidence to show that we weren’t under the influence of the local tequila.

There was an older gentleman at the restaurant where we ate lunch one day whom we thought was marvelously color coordinated, with a turquoise straw cowboy hat and a turquoise and green striped shirt. Then he stood up to reveal his red, white, and blue, stars & stripes shorts – apparently not yet a “fashion-don’t” while on vacation in Mexico.

And of course, the beaches. Our perennial favorite has been Playa San Francisco – San Francisco Beach. When we first stumbled across it in 2001, there was one sleepy little beach club and very little else. Through the years, it’s grown, gotten competitors on both sides (Paradise Beach Club and Carlos & Charlie’s Beach Club), and is a whole lot noisier. Still, the sand and water are to die for and for a day it was great to be back on familiar ground – or sand. We met some nice folks off a cruise ship, and had a relaxing sun-drenched afternoon filled with interesting conversation, boat drinks and cerveza. Best of all, I was able to successfully conduct a discrete beach-side negotiation involving several of the legendary Cohiba brand cigars imported from a rather large, but relatively unknown island in the Caribbean known as Cuba.

We got bold the last couple of days and rented a little four wheeled unit called a Rhino. This is kind of a four wheeler but with a body, a roll cage, and two seats side-by-side. No rear-view or side-view mirrors though. I tell ya, lack of mirrors and sharing the road with jeeps, taxi-vans, mopeds, busses, and even semis made this little machine one wild ride!

While tooling around the island one day we came across Playa Palancar, the beach opposite the famous dive reef of the same name. To get there you pull off the main road and drive a small dirt track across about a half mile of back water, jungle and swamp. This trip was much more interesting to us after we learned that there are salt water crocodiles in the area. However, the beach club was quiet and well removed from the cruise ship traffic, being located at the south end of a $40 round trip taxi ride, and the cerveza and boat drinks were nicely chilled. Best of all were the wide expanses of that incredible neon-electric blue-green water the Caribbean is famous for. Playa Palancar is our new favorite beach.

All in all, this was a good trip and we can’t wait to go again. In fact, ever since we got back we’ve been wondering why the hell we came home.

Oh, the Cohibas? Tragically, all were lost in a series of small, mysterious fires. For reasons I’m sure you can understand, I am unable to identify the arsonist or the exact circumstances surrounding the blazes. The only thing I can say for sure is the culprit must have been well paid for his work. He was wearing a shiny new Rolex.