Containers: The Ships, the Tugs and the Port

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We’re based in beautiful downtown Oakland, California, which is a port city on the San Francisco Bay. Massive container ships travel across the Pacific and end up here. From miles away, you can see the enormous white cranes that pull giant, uniformly-sized metal boxes off the ships. People say the cranes are the inspiration for the AT-AT walkers in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, but that’s not true. It’s just a good story to tell when you pass by on the bridge.

Roman Mars:
The Port of Oakland and its container ships have always captured my imagination, and it turns out they also captured the imagination of my colleague and friend, Alexis Madrigal.

Alexis Madrigal:
I went out and visited a ship that was docked in Oakland. And when I went out on the ship, I walked into this room that was all wood-paneled, and this kind of old Romanian captain walks in with his Marlboro Reds. He sits them down on the table, and he looks right in my eyes and he goes, “What is your intent?” I was… just thought I was in love. It was love at first sight. I was just like, “No one ever hears these voices. They’re so amazing.”

Alexis Madrigal:
So there’s kind of two head people on a ship. One is the captain. The other’s the chief engineer, down in the engine room. So, we looked at the bridge and we went back to that wood-paneled room, and the chief engineer comes in – another Romanian dude – and he goes, “You visited the head of the ship,” and he tapped his chest, “Now, visit the heart.” He takes us down into the engine room, where there are these wrenches that are five feet tall, and I really could not imagine not doing a series of stories after that. I went home, and I had some wine, and I was drunk tweeting, “How amazing would it be to just tell the stories of all these people in the supply chain,” and that’s how it happened.

Roman Mars:
Alexis decided to embark on an eight-part series called ‘Containers’, about how the shipping container has changed the global economy. We’re going to feature one of the stories from that series on the show today, but first, I wanted to talk a little with Alexis about what the world was like before the container, so before the 1970s or so, starting with the ports.

Alexis Madrigal:
So if you want to think about what a port was like in the old days, go, just look at the piers. Look at how they’re shaped. They’re these long kind of fingers coming off of the shoreline. Well, the ships would have pulled up into what – those are called finger piers – and then they would have unloaded their stuff. There would have been all these hundreds of people running around, and they would have unloaded their stuff directly onto those piers, which would have then gone into cargo sheds.

Alexis Madrigal:
So you’ve got guys working winches, kind of like little mini-cranes on the boats, and you’ve got all this stuff sort of stored inside the hull of the ship. That was the container. They’re dropping it onto the docks. Other people are fork lifting it around. Trucks are pulling up. There’s all these crews running everywhere.

Alexis Madrigal:
So, the notion of the docks – the waterfront – this sort of charismatic place that I think lots of people know and understand, it’s because there were all these people from all over the world, and the goods themselves, literally the stuff coming from all these places, is visible to your view. So, you can smell the coffee. When the spice ships come in, you’d smell the cardamom. When there was something that was disgusting, like hides that was being worked, you’d smell green hides being handled by people. You would have seen big rolls of newsprint moving around. Right?

Alexis Madrigal:
The way the world worked was actually sort of exposed to you, before it got re-put into factories and products and all these things. So, it was actually this incredible sight. I had an old longshoreman, graduated high school, but only high school, and he said, “There was an entire education about the way the world worked, just looking at the goods that were sitting on the docks.”

Roman Mars:
When people started shipping things in containers, goods could be loaded and offloaded more easily. The containers full of stuff could go directly from the ship onto trucks and trains, and everything was standardized all over the world. Containers eliminated a lot of inefficiencies from the system, and ports have completely changed.

Alexis Madrigal:
Your ports now are these long, flat berths. The ships come in, they dock, and then these largely white container cranes drop over them. Those cranes are really a wild thing when you think about it. The reason their necks are so long, that’s called the boom, is because the ships are so wide, and they go out over the whole ship, and then a little person in a little cab goes out all the way across the ship, and they look down through their legs. They drop this thing called a spreader onto these four locking mechanisms on the box. They pull it up, they bring it, they drop it onto a sort of intermediate truck that takes it into the holding yard. Then a drayage truck comes in, drives through West Oakland, spraying diesel all over the community, and then takes it out to a distribution center in Tracy or wherever it is. That’s kind of a pretty normal flow.

Roman Mars:
But containers didn’t just have an effect on ports. They had an effect on port cities all over the world, Oakland included.

Alexis Madrigal:
Because absolutely everything about the way that cities work and global trade works was changed by the system of containerization. Not just the box, but everything that went along with it, the locking mechanisms, the operations of the yard, the ships that had to be developed in order to carry more containers. It basically, one way that I’ve thought about it is, there were computers before and there was networking before, but then there was this thing called internet protocol that allowed a packet to be moved around, no matter what was inside them, and that allows for this explosion of networking. That’s essentially what containers do for stuff. You can just put any ‘X’ thing into a box and it can go to any port.

Alexis Madrigal:
As I was reading this defining work on this process of containerization, called ‘The Box’ by a guy named Mark Levinson, who’s in the series, there’s this huge role for Oakland. For most intents and purposes, Sealand is the first major container shipping company. They really get their explosive growth because of the Vietnam War, shipping things from Oakland to Vietnam, and that was so fascinating to me, particularly because almost immediately, they go to Vietnam to a container port built in Cam Ranh Bay, and then they start going back by Japan.

Alexis Madrigal:
As they go back by Japan, they pick up cheap electronics, and then come back to California and start selling them, and that becomes this dominant mode of trade in the world. It literally reshapes the world economy, and it’s coming from these three cranes that are sitting over there, still sitting there unused in the Port of Oakland. I just thought, “How is this not a better-known story?”

Roman Mars:
After you got started, after talking to your Romanian captain and drunk tweeting, what were you most surprised by when you started doing the story?

Alexis Madrigal:
I think there’s really two things. One is the incredible effect that containerization had on cities and it continues to have on cities. The first wave of containerization wipes out so many jobs in urban America, in urban coastal America. It really, really does bad things for a lot of cities. Like, that empty warehouse Brooklyn aesthetic. Those warehouses used to be full with goods and then containerization came along and wiped out all the warehouses, and that’s what created the ability to have these kinds of creative workspaces that you have now.

Alexis Madrigal:
So, that was one. I just had no idea that this happened all over the world, in London, in New York, in San Francisco, everywhere.

Roman Mars:
Even though the invention of the container wiped out shipping jobs all over the world, there was still a lot of people working in the industry. What those people do, and whether they will be able to hold onto their jobs as the shipping industry continues to change, is what Alexis explorers in episode three of ‘Containers’.

Alexis Madrigal:
You have all these people out there, whose jobs are linked in one way or another to things made around the world, and most of them tend to be in places like California, or Virginia, New York – these big coastal ports. Their jobs and what those jobs are, I mean, I had no idea, like, “What is it to work in a warehouse? What is it to work on a tugboat? What is it to work in a port?” There are no stories about these things ever. So the take-away, for me, is maybe sort of a collage of all these different work experiences and trying to get the texture of those lives and how those people see the world is kind of the point of ‘Containers’.

Roman Mars:
This is episode three of ‘Containers’, called ‘The Ships, the Tugs, and the Port’. Here’s Alexis Madrigal.

Alexis Madrigal:
You meet a lot of tough people near the docks, intense captains, burly longshoreman, salty skippers, rugged old-timers, but I want you to meet the most hardcore person I’ve met during my time reporting on the waterfront.

Lynn Korwatch:
I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll go in this career, in this industry, and kind of see what happens,” not thinking that this is my dream, to grow up and be a ship’s captain.

Alexis Madrigal:
This is Lynn Korwatch. She became the first female captain of an American cargo under remarkable circumstances.

Lynn Korwatch:
During those first years, I had the opportunity to sail initially as a maid on an oil tanker, and was in Southern California when a tanker blew up, and said, “Oh man, maybe this is really not the gig that I want.”

Alexis Madrigal:
So she joined the ‘Master, Mates and Pilots Union’ and began sailing on all kinds of ships around the world.

Lynn Korwatch:
I quickly kind of decided that going to places like the Far East and South America was a little bit more of a challenge. In the 1970s and early 80s, they had never seen women on ships.

Alexis Madrigal:
Every time she entered a port, she had to explain to skeptical dock workers that she wasn’t the captain’s wife and that the men had to listen to her. It was tough work. So she decided to try to work her way up at the American shipping line, Matson, which ran and still runs ships from Oakland to Hawaii and back.

Lynn Korwatch:
I had the opportunity, over the years, to advance to the chief mate’s position at Matson. They were very good to me, and when an opportunity came up to be promoted on a temporary basis to captain, one didn’t turn it down.

Alexis Madrigal:
Yeah, of course not. Why would you?

Lynn Korwatch:
You never knew when that opportunity was going to come along again.

Alexis Madrigal:
Only one hitch.

Lynn Korwatch:
So, despite the fact that I was eight months pregnant-

Alexis Madrigal:
There’s no doctor on board a container ship, let alone an OB, or a midwife, or a doula.

Lynn Korwatch:
I said, “Gosh, I think I got to do this,” and as you can appreciate, being pregnant is not a handicap or something that should limit your opportunities. It’s just something that happens, and you kind of carry on with life. So, that’s what happened. I was eight months pregnant, probably more than eight months pregnant, and said, “Yes, let’s go.”

Alexis Madrigal:
What was your plan if you’d gone into labor?

Lynn Korwatch:
It was kind of funny because my chief mate at the time had recently delivered his own baby in his car. So, he was delighted with the idea that “Oh man, I get to do this,” and, “Won’t that be really fun?” Needless to say, it didn’t turn into a reality, but what did kind of complicate the situation was, after I got off the ship, about five days later, I did go into labor and found out that, unbeknownst to me, that my son was breach.

Alexis Madrigal:
That means feet-first, which makes for a substantially more dangerous labor.

Lynn Korwatch:
So, should I have gone into labor on the ship, it would’ve been a much bigger challenge than I think any of us ever anticipated.

Alexis Madrigal:
That’s who Lynn Korwatch is, a down-to-earth, groundbreaking woman in the field of shipping, and a longtime part of the Bay’s maritime economy. She’s respected by all for her toughness and intelligence. Her track record made her a natural fit to become the head of the San Francisco Marine Exchange, which may be the oldest institution in all of California.

Lynn Korwatch:
So the Marine Exchange is an organization that was founded back in 1849 to really kind of track and monitor ships as they arrived in San Francisco Bay. We put the telegraph up on Telegraph Hill in order to communicate that information down to our maritime partners. We had several relay stations around the Bay, and primarily, we were moving that information around.

Lynn Korwatch:
There was a trading floor so that when we pass this information down to our membership, they were trading commodities right then and there on the floor. They knew that the ship had been coming from South America, or from the East coast, or from China because that would be passed through semaphore or through flags.

Alexis Madrigal:
It’s not a stretch to say that San Francisco and all the surrounding towns exist basically because the Bay had a good port. San Francisco became a part of the global archipelago of important cities.

Lynn Korwatch:
The waterfront area along the Embarcadero was where those breakbulk ships came, and that’s really where I think the economy of San Francisco grew, and grew, and grew.

Alexis Madrigal:
Nowadays, the Marine Exchange knits together the many different pieces of the current maritime economy. They’re the honest broker that everyone works with to address stuff like safety and trade, stuff like that.

Lynn Korwatch:
Our mission really hasn’t changed. We do exactly the same thing. We don’t control ships. We don’t direct ships. We monitor the ships because we do have management, part of our organization, as well as labor. We have become somewhat of a neutral provider for services.

Alexis Madrigal:
One of those services is that they publish a book, a book that kind of inspired this entire series that you’re listening to. It lists all the businesses that ply the waters, anchors, chains and deck fitting, barging, boating services, boilers, and water treatment. It’s not the kind of book you see much anymore. It’s spiral-bound with lots of tabs. It’s a book that’s meant to be used, and paging through it, you really see the variety of businesses who ply the waters and supply the ships, the people who bring supplies, and service lifeboats, and make ropes, and haul trash, and sell anchors, so many types of businesses that you need to have a functioning maritime economy. If the container ships are the big animals, these companies are the little nimble creatures that make the ecosystem work.

Alexis Madrigal:
What’s it like inside one of these small businesses? Who works these jobs? I wanted to know, so I called up a tugboat company listed in the Marine Exchange handbook. A few days later, I was sitting across from Ted Blanckenburg in a messy office inside a manufactured building right at the foot of the Bay Bridge. Let’s just say he was an adventurous young man.

Ted Blanckenburg:
I went to college. I spent a couple years in the army. I got on the modern pentathlon team. Running, swimming, pistol-shooting, fencing and taking a horse, hopefully, over a course.

Alexis Madrigal:
Ted works for AmNav, one of the tugboat companies that services the Bay. Like the rest of the maritime economy, tug-boating is inextricably linked with the business of global shipping. He’s also a world-class bullshitter and hilarious.

Ted Blanckenburg:
Oh, that’s a picture of me falling off a horse into a brick wall.

Alexis Madrigal:
He’s been around the tugboat industry for 30 years.

Ted Blanckenburg:
I was tending bar, and a friend of mine’s mother owned a tugboat company. My friend heard my line of patter from behind the bar, and he goes, “Oh, we got to get you on the air. We need a night dispatcher.” So, I started working three days a week. This was the best job I ever had, three 14-hour days a week, from four at night till six in the morning, and you could sleep a few hours on the job. That was a good gig.

Alexis Madrigal:
But the business of tug boating is changing. Their customers, the big shipping lines, have been locked in fierce competition with each other, and I mean, let’s be real, they’ve been in a race to the bottom.

Ted Blanckenburg:
The shipping companies in the past, probably since 2008, have been just losing their shorts, I mean, by billions of dollars a year.

Alexis Madrigal:
Two consulting firms, Drewry and Sea-Intelligence, estimated 2016 shipping industry losses at $8, maybe $10 billion.

Ted Blanckenburg:
Each one of those ships, it costs $150 million. So you have a big old investment and you’re not even making money. You’re going all astern. How they stay in business, I seriously don’t know. How they got to this point was, Maersk, which is the biggest shipping company in the world, they’re Danish, decided to build ships that were twice as big as all the other ones.

Maersk Promo:
Maersk Line’s new Triple-E class will be the world’s largest ships. A record 400 meters long and 59 meters wide. Triple E stands for energy efficiency, environmental performance, and economies of scale.

Alexis Madrigal:
A bunch of shipping lines followed Maersk’s lead in building mega, mega, mega ships. This created a spike in available shipping supply, and demand did not follow suit. So as you might expect, prices have plummeted. That’s meant really, really cheap shipping for people importing and exporting stuff. Historically, the Journal of Commerce says that it cost about 1,800 or 2,000 bucks to ship a box across the Pacific. Right now, the price for a big retailer is more like 700 or 800.

Ted Blanckenburg:
If you’re making brake pads, and pantyhose, and toothbrushes in China, and you’re shipping them over to Nebraska, they’re going to get shipped. Somebody’s going to ship them, and the shipping companies are really impertinent.

Alexis Madrigal:
That means they become desperate to somehow survive. They’re scared.

Ted Blanckenburg:
The number seven in the world went bankrupt.

News Clip:
Hanjin, Korea’s once mighty shipper, has applied for bankruptcy protection in the United States.

Alexis Madrigal:
Fewer calls means less revenue for all the companies that service ships coming in. The industry’s getting tougher and tougher to survive in. There’s no slack left in the system. The local companies have responded with consolidation themselves. AmNav, for example, was purchased by the Marine Resources Group, which became Foss Marine, which is owned by the Seattle-based Saltchuk Resources Incorporated, a conglomerate that controls 30 logistics businesses. Everybody needs some bigger entity for protection.

Alexis Madrigal:
That was before Donald Trump started at least talking about so-called America-first trade policy, in which presumably, more things are made in the United States and less things are made in Asia. If you’ve already got too much shipping capacity out on the ocean, and then the US suddenly starts importing fewer things, that could send an already stressed industry into implosive decline, and the blast radius could extend far beyond the west coast ports. 12% of US GDP, roughly $2 trillion worth of the economy, is dependent on goods flowing through the west coast. You mess with that and you’re literally gambling with the national economy, and yet, the little maritime businesses soldier on, doing the work, despite the corporate squeeze and the darkness on the horizon, just like all the rest of the companies and unions who make the supply chain go.

Ted Blanckenburg:
Every time a ship comes in, it’s like putting on a wedding. I mean, you’ve got a myriad of details, and you forget one, and it’s just awful.

Alexis Madrigal:
You got to notify the coast guard, and order up longshore gangs to unload ships, and line handlers to tie the big boat up. You need tugboats and a bar pilot to pilot the cargo ship into the bay, directing the movements of the tugs.

Ted Blanckenburg:
The ship shows up 12 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. A pilot will board and take it into the bay all the way to its berth.

Alexis Madrigal:
After I learned about the business, I wanted to see what the actual work was, like, “How does this work get accomplished? What does a tugboat do?” So I asked Ted, and he got me on a boat called the Patricia Ann. Will is the skipper of the Patricia Ann. Our job for the afternoon is to guide a medium-sized container ship, called the Cap Palliser, off the dock and out of the Oakland shipping channel. It’s tied up at berth 59 of the Oakland Container Terminal, and it’s a pretty standard two-tugboat job.

Alexis Madrigal:
We’ll be pulling it off the dock, taking it up to the turning basin, spinning it around, and probably getting released somewhere along the inner harbor. So this orange vessel ship up here, port side too, that’s the Cap Palliser.

Alexis Madrigal:
Though it’s not a large ship by the standards of the industry, it is enormous by any other standard. We cruise past the Cap Palliser, and Will snuggles to tug up against the dock to await orders.

Alexis Madrigal:
Waiting for the call, we look out at the big Oakland International Container Terminal, one of the busiest terminals on the west coast. There’s stacks of boxes bearing the names of the big shipping lines – Maersk, MSC, CMA, CGM, APL, Costco. It used to be that individual lines operated ships and their own terminals. Now, what are called stevedoring companies run these places, leasing the land from the Port of Oakland, and servicing a bunch of different ship lines. This particular one is run by SSA, Stevedoring Services of America. The guys unloading the ships are all members of IOWU, the longshore union. What we’re looking out at is a huge and highly diverse slice of the working class.

Pilot:
‘Calling tugs for the Cap Palliser, 50Charlie.’

Marc:
’50Charlie, Revolution, afternoon.’

Alexis Madrigal:
‘And Patty Ann, good afternoon.’

Pilot:
‘Afternoon guys, happy new year. Let’s go with 7-7.’

Marc:
‘7-7’

Alexis Madrigal:
‘7-7.’

Alexis Madrigal:
The first step is to hitch ourselves to the ship. We have a line on our tug that attaches to a line on the ship, and whether the tug is pushing or pulling the container ship, the tug stays attached on these ropes. These lines are very, very strong. I mean, they’re partially woven out of Kevlar.

Alexis Madrigal:
‘Once this line gets up, we’ll receive a signal, and then what I’ll do is I’ll come back and push on the side of the ship so that they can take in their lines, and the ship will still be pressed up.’

Alexis Madrigal:
We’re pressed up against the container ship when the longshoreman released the lines on shore. Our tugs are there to keep the ship from bobbing around until we’re ready to pull it off the dock. You often see tugboats in this position, pressed up at a 90 degree angle to the ships they’re about to work. Now it’s time to start pulling the Cap Palliser off the dock.

Pilot:
‘Patty, way easy.’

Will:
‘Easy way, Patty.’

Pilot:
‘Rev away easy.’

Marc:
‘Away easy now.’

Alexis Madrigal:
It happens almost imperceptibly. The ship is so huge, and it moves so slowly and smoothly, and the tug crew is so calm that I was not actually sure what was going on.

Alexis Madrigal:
‘Are we pulling that thing right now?’

Will:
‘So we’re pulling 13 tons on that thing.’

Alexis Madrigal:
Now that we’ve got the ship off the dock, we powered down to what’s called the turning basin. It’s a wide area of the shipping channel where we’ll spin the container ship, so to turn around to exit the bay into the Pacific ocean. We’ll be pushing from one side. In another tugboat, we’ll be pushing from the other side of this massive ship, causing it to spin like a revolving door.

Pilot:
‘Hey Rev, start to port easy.’

Marc:
‘Easy to port.’

Pilot:
‘Patty, easy toward.’

Will:
‘Easy toward, Patty Ann.’

Alexis Madrigal:
It’s an incredible moment, being right up against this thing. I expect it to crunch more or something, to really feel like we were muscling it, but it doesn’t. There’s no sound of metal straining. The tugboat about hardly seems to move. The water simply parts, and the wall of metal looming above us rotates. The last task will be to ride alongside the ship as we head out. The tugs act as brakes, so the big ship doesn’t get going too fast.

Will:
‘We’re going alongside right now, so mostly ships, they’re like, if you put it in terms of a car, their first year is eight knots or nine knots. Right?’

Alexis Madrigal:
Though that’s only 9 or 10 miles per hour, that kind of speed in a narrow shipping channel can rock the other ships alongside the dock, damaging them so the tugs dragged backwards on their lines.

Pilot:
‘Patty, stop and dry.’

Alexis Madrigal:
‘Stop and dry, Patty Ann.’

Alexis Madrigal:
We’re finally given our release to go home. It’s time to take our line in.

Pilot:
‘Yeah, Patty, Rev, you’re going to take it in now?’

Will:
‘Yep, we’re getting under it right now.’

Alexis Madrigal:
All in the move takes a couple of hours, though most of the action takes place in just a few moments. Soon, we’re back at the dock. The trucks had begun streaming in to pick up containers from another big ship that had come to shore. While bigger ships mean less business for the tugboats, it also puts pressure on the truckers. As a whole, they need to pick up more boxes, and they still only have the same amount of time, about four days, to clear the containers out of the terminal. That creates a bigger trucker demand spike, causing congestion around the port. In other words, fewer bigger ships make the water too empty and the land too crowded. At least here in Oakland, some places have done very well in the mega-ship era. In general, the trend among ports has been increasing centralization.

Alexis Madrigal:
So imagine a map of the world with lines connecting different ports, and the thickness of the line represents how much stuff gets shipped along that route. In the pre-container days, there’d be lots of skinny lines going all over the place. As containerization took hold in the 1970s, and later, China entered the WTO in the 90s, the lines connecting China to a few ports on the west coast get really fat, swallowing up other trade routes.

Alexis Madrigal:
The way it played out in the US is at the San Pedro Bay, which is where the competing but connected ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are located, began to dominate everyone. In 2015 for example, these two ports handled 78% of the import containers along the west coast, and for all the west coast ports, 62% of imports came from China. Damn near 50% of all the import trade from Asia to the west coast is just running back and forth from San Pedro Bay to China.

Alexis Madrigal:
I ended up talking all this over in a conversation with Tim Hwang, a Berkeley educated lawyer and local polymath who published ‘The Container Guide’, a wonderful little book on the shipping industry disguised as a dockside companion to spotting boxes. In ports as in ships, he said, everything has become about size and efficiency. Can you get big enough to stay alive and keep your whole maritime business ecosystem healthy?

Tim Hwang:
Oakland was able to survive for a period of time, but as technology gets better, the cost of choosing one port or another on the western seaboard, they all become a commodity. This is the same trouble that’s happened with the container companies themselves, the liner companies, where they’re basically selling this commodity which always is dropping. The value of it is always dropping, and there’s lots of incentives to overproduce capacity in ways that completely drive everybody out of business or make it so that only the largest companies that can squeeze tiny pennies out of huge numbers of transactions actually can survive.

Tim Hwang:
I wonder, for a period of time, basically, geography was the great protection of these ports, because they could eat up all the smaller regional ones, but not have to compete with much larger ones. But as boats get more efficient in the way they move, suddenly, they basically compete on the same footing with other ports, and there, then geographies sort of doesn’t help you anymore, right? What really starts to help you is like, can you really scale up the size of the port? Maybe Oakland just can’t expand fast enough there.

Alexis Madrigal:
Across the world, more and more businesses centralizing in fewer and fewer ports, and yet, they need to maintain the whole ecosystem of services, like tugboats and all that stuff. The import game is never going to be that much bigger for Oakland at this point, but they might be able to scale up their exports. That’s because geography remains important for them.

Alexis Madrigal:
Think of it almost like a watershed for cargo, a cargo shed, if you will. Oakland naturally drains the whole central Valley, not to mention Napa and Sonoma, which are some of the most important agricultural regions in the country. So the port officials want to expand on that strength, building a huge refrigerated facility that would allow Midwestern meat producers to put their pork on a train and send it all the way to the ocean, to the port. From there, it had shipped out to China. You end up with this capitalist virtuous circle. The efficiency of global shipping allowed for the production of electronics and all kinds of other stuff in China, which helped create their middle class, and now, that burgeoning group of wealthier Chinese people end up importing American goods, driving our own economy, but that only works if American producers can send those goods to China. If we end up in a trade war, those pork and wine exports are in trouble.

Roman Mars:
‘Containers’ is produced and hosted by Alexis Madrigal, with editing, production, and sound design by Jonathan Hirsch. You can find the eight-part series, I think they’re on episode five right now, on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts.

  1. Bernardo Mendonça

    Dear Roman,

    This episode is just incredible! I’ve lived for my whole life in port cities, born and raised in Recife/Brazil and moved for a while to Rotterdam/Netherlands. Been particularly interested in the port dynamics and how it affects the built environment. I’m working on a small thesis for my master’s program regarding the introduction of Technics associated with spatial housing development and the introduction of the container in the global trade is just the topic I was looking for. Thanks for the inspiration and if you could just e-mail me some sources of this research I would be forever in debt (my electronic address is just here).

    All in all, keep up the good work, I’ll keep up the good ears to 99PI!
    Kind Regards,
    BM

  2. Patrick

    I used to be stationed on an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, VA and was always amazed at the size of the container ships. Some of them I am pretty sure were longer and wider than our ship and aircraft carriers are pretty darn big. But no matter the size, even our ship had to have a harbor pilot to navigate from the ocean to the bay and tugs to pull us out of our pier and once again i was amazed two tug boats could move a giant aircraft carrier.

  3. Firoze

    That first female captain of an American freighter is such a badass!! Immense respect to her courage.

    Totally loving this episode, a very refreshing change from the usual fare on podcasts!

  4. Reading the “Container” book about 10 years ago made me think of the Internet in an entirely new way. I blogged about my ideas way back then — https://www.rss4lib.com/2008/08/rss-the-shipping-container-of/ — describing how RSS Feeds (then a novel & hip technology, now just plumbing to most people) carry news, information, podcasts — including yours! — and more to users. One simple standard format helped foster the information sharing bonanza that is the open web.

  5. Steve

    99PI is usually pretty open about the business side of podcasting, and yet you Give an entire episode over to the Container and don’t mention it’s controversial funding source even once? That’s disappointing. At least let listeners know Flexport’s role in making this.

    1. Shawn

      Explain please.
      I’ve listened to Containers series. I do enjoy it and see it as a love letter to industry. I assumed Flexport would be positive but I haven’t found the stories to be biased.

  6. Thomas

    Are you going to do an episode this year that is not push your underlying political agenda? We get it you don’t like Trump, I listen to this as an architect/designer. If i wanted to, i would watch SNL or CNN.

  7. Kevin

    Very disappointed in the Container series. It’s not about containers at all; at best containerization is a bit player in the series. You could easily remove every reference to containerization and the overall storyline would be the same. The books by Levinson (“The Box”) and Rose George (“Ninety Percent of Everything”) are a much better source of unbiased information on containers and how they’ve changed the world.

  8. I realize​ that this is a petty complaint, but here we go. Alexis Madrigal made the following statement: “The old longshoreman” had “graduated high school, but only high school”. What exactly is your point Mr. Madrigal? I understand that the comment was made within the context of of a monologue regarding the “education” one could receive watching ships getting unloaded. But WTF? Really? I can only imagine the person editing this episode barely being​ able to contain themselves at the thought of leaving this in and letting you come off like an elitist snob. I’m sure you’re a really nice guy. I mean, you know ,,, for a guy who attended university. LOL. Great show. I sound like an idiot whenever anyone puts a mike in my face too. I just couldn’t resist.

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