Book Report: Ecology of Fear

Angelenos worry about disaster a lot. At least that's the premise of Ecology of Fear. Los Angleles is prone to disaster, both in real life, in the movies, in books,... Maybe it's true. And yet. He cited many books showing how Los Angeles gets destroyed in popular culture plenty. He cited many books that I hadn't read. And he cited Dinner at Deviant's Palace, which I had read. Yes, this (pretty good) book takes place in a post-apocalypse L.A. But... the whole world of that story is post-apocalypse. The story just happens to take place in L.A. Oh, and I disagreed with his take on Bladerunner, too.

There was plenty of stuff in this book that wasn't about science fiction. He talks about earthquakes, fires, racial unrest. I just am familiar with the science fiction, I guess. And that makes me wonder how much he knows about the other stuff he writes about.

He's at his best when he writes about Angelenos' attitude towards risk. Shoddy buildings fall down in earthquakes, though everyone knows that there will be earthquakes. But people freak out when mountain lions attack, though those attacks are pretty darned rare.

And he convinced me that there are occasional tornados in Los Angeles.

Not his best book. I wish someone had warned me to skim parts that didn't seem relevant. Still, there were some good parts.

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Book Report: The Box

It's a book about cargo boxes. You know, intermodal freight containers. That was enough to get me to read the book. There's interesting stuff in here for economists, policy wonks, labor history folks, ... One thing that was missing was illustrations and photos--there are passing references to some physical designs for brackets, cranes, and joins that didn't work out. Oh well, what is in here is plenty interesting.

Regulation-haters will find plenty to point out here. Freight transport was covered with layers of regulation and protectionism. If you come up with a more efficient way to ship stuff, you might not be allowed to use it.

Some railroads sought to take advantage of the container not simply by lowering rates, but by changing the way they charged shippers. Since the onset of federal regulation in the 1880s, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had held firm to the principle that each commodity required its own rate, which of course was subject to ICC approval. With containers, though, the railroads were not handling commodities; the size and loaded weight of the container mattered far more than the contents. ... After four months of hearings in 1931, the commission ruled weight-based rates illegal. Although it found the container to be "a commendable piece of equipment," the commission said that the railroads could not charge less to carry a container than to carry the equivalent weight of the most expensive commodity inside the container. With that ruling, containers no longer made economic sense on the rails.


The ICC controlled almost every aspect of the business of common carriers--truckers whose services were on offer to the public. A common carrier could haul only commodities the ICC allowed it to haul, over ICC-approved routes, at ICC-approved rates. If a new firm wanted to begin service, of if an existing one wanted to serve a new route or carry a new commodity, it had to hire lawyers to plead its case at the commission. Any major change required hearings at which other truck lines and railroads had the opportunity to object.

In 1980, the ICC lost its rate-approval power, and things got smoother.

Shippers wanted to upgrade to use the new equipment, wanted to stop paying longshoremen. And few shippers wanted to share their savings with the longshoremen. This led to strikes. Those ports that got their act together early benefitted--because it turned out that the world didn't need as many ports in the container era. It took less time to load and unload ships, ships spent less time in ports, less ports were needed. Ports that deadlocked on their way to containerization lapsed into disuse. Previous labor wrangling had already led to bizarreness:

...a trucker delivering palletized cargo to a pier would have to remove each item from the pallet and place it on the dock. Longshoremen would then replace the items on the pallet for lowering into the hold, where other longshoremen would break down the pallet once more and stow each individual item&emdash;all at a cost so high that shippers knew not to send pallets in the first place.

When containers came along, the first reaction of some longshoremen was that there should be rules requiring that longshoremen unpack and re-pack each container. Before I read this book, I thought of Harry Bridges as heroic. Having read this book, I realize that I hadn't understood the scale of what he brought us. It's like he lifted us out of some kind of stone age.

Standards wonks might like the stories about how folks figured out which sizes of container to standardize on.

[Marad] voted unanimously that 8 feet should be the standard width, despite the fact that some European railroads could not carry loads wider than 7 feet; the committee would "have to be guided mainly by domestic requirements, with the hope that foreign practice would gradually conform to our standards."

So when I went to Japan and saw that they had smaller-sized cargo containers there, I shouldn't have been surprised. Determining standards for intermodal freight would affect maritime, rail, trucks--and these people weren't in the habit of talking to each other.

The history of shipping in SF bay shows up for a few paragraphs. how did Oakland get ahead of San Francisco?

Through the start of the 1960s, Oakland was a sleepy agricultural port one-third the size of Long Beach, Seattle, or Portland, and far smaller than San Francisco. Its waterfront was lined with industries&emdash;a dog food plant, a dry ice plant, a brake shoe factyory&emdash;that had long since ceased to be important port users. Oakland had almost no incoming traffic; typically, European ships would arrive at San Francisco, unload, and then sail across to Oakland to take on canned fruit, almonds, and walnuts for the voyage home. The Oakland Port Commission, a city agency, had issued its first revenue bonds in 1957 to repair a few old docks, but it had no grander plans. Then came an unexpected development. Officials in San Francisco, where Matson had based its container service to Hawaii, ignored Matson's request for a separate container terminal, because the city's port director through container shipping a passing fad. When Matson installed the world's first land-based container crane in 1959, it was built not in San Francisco, the West's greatest maritime center, but in Alameda, a small city within plain view of the Oakland docks.

Matson's operation focused the attention of Oakland port officials on container shipping. In early 1961, they learned of American-Hawaiian Steamship's application for government subsideies to build a fleet of large containerships. The vessels would run through the Panama Canal, mainly carrying fruit and vegetables from California canneries to East Coast markets. This was a natural cargo for Oakland to capture. Port director Dudley Frost and chief engineer Ben Nutter prepared two binders of facts and figures, added leather covers stamped "American-Hawaiian Steamship Company," and flew east in April 1961. Meetings with government and industry officials in Washington changed their plans. "Somebody said, 'Oh, forget those guys. They're no good. Go and see Sea-Land," Nutter recalled. "I said, 'Sea who?' " The cover on one of the binders was quickly replaced by one stamped "Sea-Land," and Frost and Nutter made their way to Port Newark. A Sea-Land executive stopped their presentation to inform them that it had already decided to run containerships from Newark to California. If they could offer a suitable site at a reasonable price, Sea-Land would establish its northern terminus at Oakland.

Oakland did more, too. They earned those At-At Walkers.

Part of the reason that Japanese electronics took off in the 70s? Because it was much harder for a shipping employee to filch small items from a cargo container, and cargo containers were on the rise in the 70s.

I learned a new shipping coinage. I'd already learned "Post-panamax", for cargo ships that are too big to fit through the Panama canal. "Malacca-max" is the author's word for a hypothetical cargo ship that's just barely big enough to fit through the Straits of Malacca. OK, I guess this book got kinda speculative towards the end. It's a fun read.

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Site Update: Los Angeles Photos

I took some photos in Los Angeles, though they aren't exactly photos of Los Angeles. Instead... uhm, museum-goers. They're photos of museum-goers. I must have been in a weird mood that week.

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Book Report: Giant Robot 53

In this most recent issue of Giant Robot, James Jarvis says takes a lot of obsessiveness to make things minimal.
If he decides to give up the art business, he could be a technical writer.

The article about the Hong Kong Noodle Co. was pretty good, too.

Because the process was automated in the '70s, all of the machinery is at least 30 years old. ... Those particular machines' identifying plates are rubbed clean from use, and it's impossible to read their manufacturer or model numbers.

Speaking of old things, I composed this entry on the 27th, but am trying to figure out how to use the time-delayed posting feature to delay publishing until the 28th. We'll see how that turns out.

[ Edited To Add: "We'll see how that turns out" I failed to delay the publish. Me=FAIL ]

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Site: Santa Monica / Venice Photos

I posted some photos and notes from my meanderings in Santa Monica and Venice. The summary: there may be wonderfully exciting things going on in Santa Monica and/or Venice, but I didn't spot them. But I had a nice time walking around.

Except that walking to the Orange County airport was a bad idea, even if it was just a short distance through a business park. If there was a proper pedestrian approach, I never found it. No photos of that part; all my attention went to traffic-dodging.

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Book Report: Shampoo Planet

I attended this meeting via video conference. No, I was not the guy in the gorilla suit. I have never ordered a gorilla-suited singing telegram. I figured that the concept is so wonderful that the implementation could never live up to it. But I have to give props to the folks at Furrier Courier of New York City--that was pretty fun. I would say that it was as much fun as a gorilla-suited singing telegram should be, which is to say, quite a lot.

Speaking of which, Shampoo Planet is a fun novel by Douglas Coupland. There weren't any gorilla suits, but there were other things. Malls. Diners. Los Angeles. Toxic waste. Following the arc of every other Douglas Coupland novel I've ever read, young people living in the modern world realize that they must understand old-fashioned ideas like "love" and "helping each other" to get by. I could read these things like popcorn.

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Book Report: the Psycho Ex Game

Question: Under what circumstances will Larry read a romance novel?

Answer: If one of the co-authors is Andy Prieboy. That's right, Andy Prieboy.

Question: Wait, is that a good reason?

Answer: As it turns out, yes.

In this eepistolatory novel, two creative Angelinos exchange email about their past slow-motion trainwreck relationships. Well, there's a framing story around the emails, so I guess I can't claim that it's just eepistolatory. But it's time that someone coined the phrase "eepistolatory novel," so there we are. Now we can start arguing about whether it should be hyphenated ("e-epistolatory novel") or not. What? Oh, right. The story.

The story drags us through the world of the LA music and/or television/movie crowds. But you should read it anyhow. It's sad; it's funny. If that's not enough to convince you to read the book, know this: there is a Psycho Ex Game web page.

The other writer is Merrill Markoe who probably is very good even if she never was a member of Wall of Voodoo.

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