Book Report: Down at the Docks

Back in 1999, I traveled in New England. I told intrepid traveler Tom Manshreck that I was going to visit New Bedford. He said ""Yeah, man--New Bedford used to be a good place to go to--to get shot!" but that it was better now. The book Down at the Docks is about those aspects of New Bedford which made it a good place to get shot.

This book is... it talks about the people of New Bedford. There are a few, uhm, protagonists, locals who the author talks to. The book has slices-of-life from these folks. It also has swaths of city history. These are not nice people. These people are scary. New Bedford used to be a good place to go to to get shot. Murder, you bet. Rape--famous for rape. (And, in one incident, a rally in support of some rapists.) Junkies stealing anything that's not nailed down. Non-junkies stealing plenty, too. Sinking boats for insurance fraud. Setting fire to factories for insurance fraud.

Along the way, some darned good writing about some darned interesting people. Terrible things happen, but you can't look away, the book carries you along. Very recommended, but it helps if you have a strong stomach.

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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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Book Report: Grayson

I read this book because it was an Amazon recommendation, albeit a tepid one. Wow, what a great book! Remember Lynne Cox, the lady who swam to Antarctica? She wrote this book about a long swim off the coast around Catalina. Along the way, she runs into whales, a nice bait salesman, dolphins, life guards, anchovies, sunfish, and offshore oil platforms. There's stuff about gray whales, and where they fit in with other whales. There's stuff about training for long-distance swimming. There's stuff about the power of positive thinking... but not too much, fortunately, since I'm such a cynic. I've liked other things that Cox wrote about the feel of swimming in the ocean--observing the currents, the water, the life. This book pretty much all takes place in the water, and so there's plenty of that. It's a short book. If it were fiction, it would be a novella rather than a novel. It's a quick, fun read; check it out.

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Out on the Bay Today, Yay! (1)

On the ferry to Angel Island. I'm holding the camera tilty, sorry. That line of low yellow buildings behind me--that's Fort Mason.

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Book Report: The Cruise of the Acheron

Sheila Natusch did a lot of research tracking down logs and reports for this description of "her majesty's steam vessel on survey in New Zealand waters 1848-51". She figured out that two documents in two libraries on two continents were in fact two ripped-asunder halves of one whole document.

The voyage itself is probably only of interest if you want to read about a ship sailing around colonial New Zealand. There are interactions with colonists. There are observations of natives. I occasionally enjoy reading about that sort of thing. You might not not. I liked the fact that the captain was named Stokes and it was a steam vessel, yes I did.

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Book Report: Signal & Noise

Of course you are glad that John Griesemer wrote a novel around the laying of the first transatlantic undersea telegraph cable. But you're also thinking A telegraph book would be far too nerdly to discuss at my book group. I won't bother reading this one.

Well, do not hang back. Dive into this book. Though it is built upon a nerdly subject, it is Literature. Did you notice that capital 'L'? I meant it.

This book has themes running through it. The main characters are obsessed with various signals. One wants to build a cable. One wants to paint a mural. One wants to speak with the dead. One wants to achieve astral projection. There is a theme of tricksters using do-nothing impressive-looking new-fangled devices to fool the public.

The reader stays amused: There are quirky characters. There are raunchy scenes. There is triumph, treachery, art, and arson. This book has everything you want, and nothing more.

All I want now is a sequel. Maybe taking place a few decades later, set around the retrieval and repair of a faulty undersea telegraph cable. It could have loving, detailed descriptions of some advanced grapnels. And characters obsessed with dredging up pieces of their past and trying to make them right. That would be awesome.


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location location location

As we waited to get into the puppet show, Tom and I made small talk. I told him that I'd finished reading Linda Greenlaw's Lobster Chronicles, about her adventures getting re-settled at Isle au Haut. Tom laughed. He'd read that book during his big road trip--the one from California to Nova Scotia and back. He'd read that book while in Maine, a ferry ride away from that Isle. So Tom reads a lot; and he reads with style and/or topicality.

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