🎧 Containers Episode 8: Robots, Piers Full of Robots

Containers Episode 8: Robots, Piers Full of Robots by Alexis C. Madrigal from Containers
In the conclusion of this series, we peer into the future of human-robot combinations on the waterfront and in the rest of the supply chain. We’ll hear about the strange future of cyborg trucking and meet the friendly little helper bots in warehouses. The view of automation that sees only a battle between robots vs. humans is wrong. It’s humans all the way down.

The key to replacing jobs lost to robots and automation is going to be much more education, and we’re doing a painfully poor job of it. This episode is a bit more upbeat about the technology side as well as the human side of things. It’s fine to do the one, but it does a disservice to the other without the added complexities of the problems.

In sum, this was a great series of episodes that shows a lot of what the average person is missing about how global trade happens and how intricate it can be. It’s impressive how much ground can be covered in just a few short episodes. I recommend the entire series to everyone.

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🎧 Containers Episode 6: And They Won, They Won Big

Containers Episode 6: And They Won, They Won Big by Containers by Alexis C. Madrigal from Containers
It started with a puzzle: why were people in West Oakland dying 12-15 years earlier than their counterparts in the wealthier hills? The people in the flatlands were dying of the same things as the people in the hills, just much younger. Meet the doctor who helped make the case that air pollution from cargo handling was one big part of the answer, and the smart-dressing, wise-cracking environmental activist who helped to clean up the air. This is an inside look at the problems that come with being a major node in the network of global trade—and the solutions that people have devoted their lives to implementing.

This episode has a great example of a negative externality. Our current administration would like to paper over such effects in society, particularly when they involve non-whites, and call fixing such problems “over regulation” instead of charging the businesses and corporations which cause them to fix or clean them up. I’m glad this particular one was managed to be dealt with, but I can’t help but think about all the others, many of which we simply don’t know about for lack of interest or data to measure them. Far better if we call them citizen protection measures and fix them.

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🎧 Containers Episode 7: The Lost Docks

Containers Episode 7: The Lost Docks by Alexis C. Madrigal from Containers
It’s 1979 and containerization is sweeping through the San Francisco waterfront, leaving the old docks in ruins. As global trade explodes, a group of longshoremen band together to try to preserve the culture of work that they knew. They take pictures, create a slide show, and make sound recordings. Those recordings languished in a basement for 40 years. In this episode, we hear those archival tapes as a way of exploring the human effects of automation.

A nice bit on the human side of shipping, and in particular how things have changed for longshoremen.

As I listen to this and some of the culture discussed in the episode, I can’t help but wonder about how things change for the modern-day versions of longshoremen. So for example, a lot of programmers have some of this type of culture. I’ll admit it’s early days right now, but what happens to the class of programmers now fifty years on? Could make an interesting plot for a sci-fi story?

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🎧 Containers Episode 5: The America-First Ships

Containers Episode 5: The America-First Ships by Alexis C. Madrigal from Containers
American companies pioneered container shipping, but now the ocean freight business is dominated by foreign firms. Thanks to the Jones Act, a 1920 law, all cargo between American ports must be carried on American-made ships, so we do still have a fleet. But the ships are old and outdated. In episode five, we explore the tragic consequences of this "America-first" trade policy, beginning with the El Faro, which sank in October 2015.

For those who want to learn about poorly done America First policies, this seems to be a great example. Studying what the Jones Act has done to the US shipping business is an excellent case study. There is obviously a gaping hole in the market forces at work here and the Jones Act only seems to be making things worse.

I find it an odd thing to say about a podcast concerning containerized shipping, but this episode is just heart-breaking on so many levels.

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🎧 Containers Episode 4: The Hidden Side of Coffee

Containers Episode 4: The Hidden Side of Coffee by Alexis C. Madrigal from Containers
The coffee world has changed since Starbucks rose to prominence. Not only has the sourcing of beans acquired wine-like precision, but now there are many small, local roasters. How'd this all happen? Episode 4 brings you into the infrastructure underpinning third-wave coffee from a Kenyan coffee auction to a major coffee importer to a secret coffee warehouse in San Leandro with beans from every coffee-growing nation in the world. We’re guided by Aaron Van der Groen, the green coffee buyer for San Francisco’s legendary roaster Ritual Coffee.

Possibly the most interesting episode so far. This one has some specifics which I hadn’t read in The Box or seen in snippets in other places. I was hoping for more specifics like this throughout the series, but have been generally disappointed until now.

🎧 Containers Episode 3: The Ships, The Tugs, and The Port

Containers Episode 3: The Ships, The Tugs, and The Port by Alexis C. Madrigal from Containers
You know you’ve always wanted to ride in a tugboat as it pushes around a huge cargo ship, right? Well, that’s what we do in Episode 3. We go inside working life on the San Francisco Bay to see how brutal competition among shipping companies threatens the viability of the small businesses that ply the waters. Meet a tugboat dispatcher, a skipper, and the first female captain of an American freighter. It’s a case study in how globalization works and our first look at the challenges the port faces.

🎧 Containers Episode 2: Meet the Sailors

Containers Episode 2: Meet the Sailors by Alexis C. MadrigalAlexis C. Madrigal from Containers
What is life like as a modern sailor, a tiny person on a huge ship in a vast ocean? Here is your answer. Episode 2 brings you a rare look into the lives of two Filipino sailors, fresh off a trip across the Pacific Ocean. These are regular people doing heroic work to support their families. And without them, the global economic order doesn't work.

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🎧 Containers Episode 1: Welcome to Global Capitalism

Containers Episode 1: Welcome to Global Capitalism by Alexis C. Madrigal from Containers
Alexis Madrigal brings you the gripping story of how a new way of shipping stuff across the ocean fed the Vietnam War, destroyed America's great port cities, and created global trade as we know it.

Introducing Containers

🎧 What a Cool New Podcast About Shipping Can Teach You About Coffee | Bite (Mother Jones)

What a Cool New Podcast About Shipping Can Teach You About Coffee by Kiera Butler and Maddie Oatman from Bite | Mother Jones
That cuppa joe you just sipped? Its long journey to your cup was made possible by shipping containers—those rectangular metal boxes that carry everything from TVs to clothes to frozen shrimp. And there’s a whole host of characters whose lives revolve around this precious cargo: gruff captains, hearty cooks, perceptive coffee tasters, and competitive tugboat pilots. This is the world journalist Alexis Madrigal illuminates in his new podcast Containers. Alexis tells us how the fancy coffee revolution is shaking up the shipping industry, and reveals his favorite sailor snack. Bite celebrates its first birthday, and Kiera gets up-close-and-personal with a kitchen contraption that’s sweeping the nation: the InstantPot.

This is a cool new podcast I hadn’t come across before. This particular episode is a bit similar to my favorite podcast Eat This Podcast, though as a broader series it appears to focus more on culture and society rather than the more scientific areas that ETP tends to focus on, and which I prefer.

The bulk of this episode, which discusses shipping and containers (really more than food or coffee which is only a sub-topic here), reminds me of the book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson which I’d read in July/August 2014. (The book is now in its second addition with an additional chapter.) I suspect it was some of the motivating underlying material for Alexis Madrigal’s Containers podcast series.[1] The book had a lot more history and technical detail while I suspect Madrigal’s series has more of the human aspect and culture thrown in to highlight the effect of containerization. I’m subscribing to it and hope to catch it in the next few weeks. The discussion here is a quick overview of one of his episodes and it goes a long way towards humanizing the ever increasing linkages that makes the modern world possible. In particular it also attempts to put a somewhat more human face on the effects of increasing industrialization and internationalization of not only food production, but all types of manufacturing which are specifically impacting the U.S. (and other) economy and culture right now.

The InstantPot segment was interesting, particularly for cooking Indian food. I’m always intrigued by cooking methods which allow a modern home cook to better recreate the conditions of regional cuisines without the same investment in methods necessitated by the local cultures. Also following Alton Brown’s mantra, it sounds like it could be a useful multi-tasker.

h/t to Jeremy Cherfas and his excellent Huffduffer feed for uncovering this particular episode (and podcast series) for me.

References

[1]
A. Madrigal, “Containers,” Medium, 07-Mar-2017. [Online]. Available: https://medium.com/containers. [Accessed: 18-May-2017]
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