The Chalk Mark

You’ve probably heard the story in various incarnations. An old Navy chief, an engineer, an auto mechanic – you name it – he’s called in to diagnose a problem with some sort of engine or device. He puts a chalk mark on the machine showing where to make the repair, and sends a bill for $10,000, most of which was for knowing where to put the mark.

I always thought this was an urban legend, it appears that there may be some truth in it, if an article at the Smithsonian is to be believed; obviously no source is above scrutiny, but I know that the Smithsonian does its best to be accurate, factual, and scientific in its reporting, hence I thought it was worth sharing.


Charles Proteus Steinmetz circa 1915 – Wikipedia

From the Smithsonian Article:

Before long, the greatest scientific minds of the time were traveling to Schenectady to meet with the prolific “little giant”; anecdotal tales of these meetings are still told in engineering classes today. One appeared on the letters page of Life magazine in 1965, after the magazine had printed a story on Steinmetz. Jack B. Scott wrote in to tell of his father’s encounter with the Wizard of Schenectady at Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn’t solve some problems they were having with a gigantic generator, called Steinmetz in to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. According to Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.

Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.

Steinmetz, Scott wrote, responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:

Making chalk mark on generator    $1.

Knowing where to make mark         $9,999.

Ford paid the bill.

The story fits well with what is known about Steinmetz, a mercurial genius of engineering. Unless we can get the plans for Professor Waxman’s time machine, there’s no way of verifying the story, but this iteration of it has a ring of truth.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Telling a story with one picture


I saw this photo on reddit today, and then discovered that it’s been shared hundreds of times. I have not found an original source, nor a definitive description, but the words most associated with the image tell the story of a poor Philippine farmer who sacrificed much to put his son through college. Upon graduation, the son expressed that his father was his greatest pride. Some captions indicate that the boy’s mother died in childbirth.

As mentioned, I can’t verify any of that [1]… but the picture seems genuine, and doubtless represents the efforts that millions of parents around the world have made to ensure that their children have a better shot in life than they did. It speaks of love, devotion, and sacrifice, and warms my heart beyond description.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] Note: if anyone who happens to read this knows of the original source or background for this image, shoot me a comment and I’ll update the post.

Reaching for the brass ring

In modern English, “grabbing the brass ring” or getting a “shot at the brass ring” means to go for the gold, or to strive for the best possible reward. The phrase has been found in dictionaries as early as the late 19th century.



Coney Island, 1958, photo by Harold Feinstein

The phrase originated with carousels in the late 1800’s; according to Wikipedia:

 “A brass ring is a small grabbable ring that a dispenser presents to a carousel rider during the course of a ride. Usually there are a large number of iron rings and one brass one, or just a few. It takes some dexterity to grab a ring from the dispenser as the carousel rotates. The iron rings can be tossed at a target as an amusement. Typically, getting the brass ring gets the rider some sort of prize when presented to the operator. The prize often is a free repeat ride.”

I grew up in New York in the 50s, and the first carousel in Central Park was opened in 1871. The current one, the Friedsam Memorial Carousel, was  installed in 1950, but I don’t ever recall a brass-ring device; if they ever had one, it must have been removed earlier before its relocation from Coney Island.


It’s a great analogy for life. To get that brass ring, you have to stretch, to reach out, to take a risk. Those who sit on the inside, or who watch that little dispenser go by ever turn without reaching for it, will never know what it means to succeed, or even to fail while trying.

Finding our dreams in life is often difficult because we’re too busy living our fears, but one thing is certain: reaching for the stars will always get us farther than sitting in the mud.


Go ahead. Reach for the brass ring.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Joy of being Different.


A lot has been written, both in print media and on the internet, about the importance of being different, or simply being yourself. My first encounter with this philosophy came in high school and we were studying Walden, hence the world view of Henry David Thoreau. He stated famously,

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

I agreed with it then, and I agree with it now. It’s far more important, in my way of thinking, to find happiness and fulfillment in life by following one’s heart and one’s dreams than to march in lockstep with the rest of the crowd for the sake of comfort and security. Unfortunately, most of the business and corporate world worships conformity. The image below graced the front of Scott Adams’ Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook.


For most businesses and large corporations, the working philosophy is “don’t make waves, don’t be different, or (as they say in Japan) “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”


“Deru kui wa utareru” – found at Nichiren Buddhist. “Japan is a country that typically prides itself on conformity, and sees anyone who is outspoken and holds different views to popular opinion as a potential threat to the rest of the group.  This lone voice must be knocked back into line.  It doesn’t even matter if the difference is the teaching of a great philosophy or something that can be harmful to society, as long as you are different from the mainstream, you must be put in your place.”

Indeed, other thinkers have an entirely different take on originality; In  his 1999 novel Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk wrote: “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everybody I’ve ever known.” Palahniuk is certainly correct in positing that we are all heavily influenced by our environments and whatever we have incorporated into our encyclopedic knowledge of our surroundings, but I disagree that originality is a scarce commodity. Much of it is simply drowned out in the vast sea of conformity that surrounds us. And like any other skill, the art of thinking creatively can be taught, and learned, and practiced, and developed.

A good example of thinking “outside the box” is the classic nine-dot puzzle.


The challenge is to link all 9 dots using four straight lines or fewer, without lifting the pen and without tracing the same line more than once. Like “Columbus’ egg,” the solution is easy when you know how, but many people will struggle with the puzzle because they can’t get their minds outside the borders created by the dots.

The traditional solution (although there are others) is below:


Other organizations, among whom are found religions, are also opposed to the concept of free thought. The cartoon below by Calvin Grondahl describes almost exactly my mother’s experience in Sunday School as a young girl:

Maggie Church


As a result of this and some other similar experiences, she never darkened a church door again.

The good news is that even in the corporate world, there are those who promote, foster, and encourage difference. Apple Computer is one of these. I remember well the 1984 advert which launched the Macintosh line:

Apple’s philosophy has continued to celebrate difference – the following dictum is often attributed directly to Steve Jobs, but was in fact written by Rob Siltanen with participation of Lee Clow, and used in a couple of different advertising campaigns:

The Crazy Ones

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

To me this makes a lot of sense. One of my Facebook friends posted this today, which got me thinking down these lines in the first place:


Another one which I saw earlier and saved off is below:


Naturally, we’re not talking about real mental illness here, which is no laughing matter, and which continues to get short shrift in social and health circles – but rather the simple joy of being oneself, regardless of what the world around you happens to think. Dr. Seuss had it right,



and Fred Rogers spent a lifetime encouraging children to celebrate their uniqueness:


Naturally, for every good philosophy there will always be caveats:


This notwithstanding, the purpose of our existence is to find joy. It is my firm conviction that Tony Gaskins was right when he said,

“If you don’t build your dream someone will hire you to help build theirs.”

Given the emphasis on conformity, and the difficulty in breaking out of society’s molds and expectations, it should be a given that it’s not easy. But I know for a fact that it’s worth it. I have never been happier than when I was being my own vision of who I should be, rather than trying to shove myself into someone else’s mold.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

20 Things the Rich Do.

A recent blog entry by Dave Ramsey quotes Tom Corley, on his website, outlining a few of the differences between the habits of the rich and the poor. I have summarized these differences in the table below, which makes the comparison a bit more readable.

Percent of Wealthy Activity Percent of Poor
70 Eat less than 300 junk food calories per day 97
23 Gamble 52
80 Focus on accomplishing some single goal 12
76 Exercise aerobically four days a week 23
63 Listen to audio books during commute to work 5
81 81% of wealthy maintain a to-do list 19
63 Parents make their children read two or more non-fiction books a month 3
70 Parents make their children volunteer 10 hours or more a month 3
80 Make Happy Birthday calls 11
67 Write down their goals 17
88 Read 30 minutes or more each day for education or career reasons 2
6 Say what’s on their mind 69
79 Network five hours or more each month 16
67 Watch one hour or less of TV every day 23
6 Watch reality TV 78
44 Wake up three hours before work starts 3
74 Teach good daily success habits to their children 1
84 Believe good habits create opportunity and luck 4
76 Believe bad habits create detrimental luck 9
19 Believe in lifelong educational self-improvement 5
86 Love to read 26

There’s no question that these are habits which will improve one’s mind and create an environment where the chances for wealth-building are increased. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get rich if you do every one of these things (or don’t, as the case may be), but your odds of strengthening your position in life are radically increased.

I will be looking at this list closely as I determine what worked during this past year, what didn’t work, and what’s next.

Apparently Dave’s blog post attracted a storm of ignorant and negative comments, so he added some commentary which is worth the read.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

A thought for the season.

I have many, many friends around the world. Some are people of faith, others are people of reason. All have something of value to contribute to the conversation. With no intention to take from anyone’s tradition, I share this sentiment today from our family to the world.

Innsbruck - Goldenes Dachl at Christmas

Wishing you the greatest of peace and joy during this sacred Christmas Season.
Whatever your walk in life, may this time bring you greater strength and insight for the coming year.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

My favorite flash mobs.

Flashmobs have all sorts of different reasons for taking place, but some of the ones I have seen lately are real movers. I just thought I’d share a few of my favorites, because I feel uplifted any time I watch one of these.

Someday I’d love to participate in one, or at least be around when it happens.

Best visit to Williamsburg, Virginia.

Best coin ever spent. Sabadell, Spain.

Best button ever pushed. It’s an advert, but who cares.

Best visit to a train station ever – Antwerp, Belgium.

Best “What the hqiz just happened” moment – Québec, Canada. The message may be a bit heavy-handed, but it’s valid just the same.

I hope these please you as much as they did me. One of my favorite parts of these are watching the expressions of the audience; you can tell who enjoys life, and who has a bit of baggage they could perhaps stand to shed…

The Old Wolf has spoken.

A Thought from Matthew King (1902-1989)


King was a respected elder of the Lakota nation.

“We don’t give money to God. We give Him our prayers, our thanks. And sometimes we give Him the only thing that’s really ours; our flesh, our pain. That’s what the Sun Dance is all about – giving God our flesh, our pain, and – never forget – a prayer of thanks.”, “The only law we obey is the natural law, God’s law. We have the Black Hills for our church. We have the wind and the rain and the stars for our Bible. The world is an open Bible for us. We Indians have studied it for millions and millions of years.”

Matthew King has spoken.

Whose film is it, anyway?

A few years ago, I became aware of a beautiful short video entitled “Historia de un Letrero” (The Story of a Sign), by Alonso Alvarez Barreda. Each year, the Canadian National Film Board, in cooperation with the Cannes Film Festival “Short Film Corner” and YouTube, hosts an online competition where 10 short films are posted on YouTube, and the winner is selected based on the number of “likes.” The 4th such competition in 2008 earned this short video the prize. It is truly deserving.

The version with the most views seems to be this one at ZappInternet, but I’m not sure if it’s the original or not, and Zapp’s videos won’t embed properly at WordPress, so I chose the one above.

However, in hunting around for the original version to share with you, I ran across this extract from a Mexican television show which claimed that the film was a bald-faced plagiarism of another work, a Spanish piece entitled “Una limosna por favor” (An alms, please) by Francisco Cuenca Alcaraz, which featured at the 2006 Notodofilmfest, in the category of films under 30 seconds.

You can judge for yourself – the idea is, evidently, the same. However, despite the Mexican production’s sensationalist umbrage, the concept of reworking an idea in a new format is old news in Hollywood; just about every Disney fairy tale was written by someone else and already done in another version by someone else. Alvarez himself never claimed to be the originator of the idea, and the Cannes award is not for original screenplay but for overall creative impact.

No such screams of anguish were heard when Historia de un Letrero was remade in English by redsnappa on behalf of Purple Feather under the title “The Power of Words.”

This film was almost an exact duplicate of Alvarez’ work, but set in Scotland instead of Mexico, and indeed billed itself as an homage to the previous film. From all I have been able to determine, the issue of plagiarism is moot, as even the 2006 clip is based on a folk story that significantly predates it.

Whichever version you prefer, the story is both powerful and moving. Thoughts are things, and words have power. Use them for good.

The Old Wolf has spoken.