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It is likely that the device on which you are reading these words (monitor, tablet, smart phone) traveled thousands of miles by sea before it reached your hands. The same can be said of the oil that was refined to become the gas in your car, the shirt you are wearing, and even some of the food you recently bought at the grocery store. In fact, “ninety percent of everything” in the consumer marketplace, to borrow from the title of Rose George’s fascinating new book, may reach us in this way – yet, few of us ever give much thought to how these goods move around the globe.

George is a young British writer who arranged to travel on a container ship from Europe to South Asia. Along the way, she learns of the complicated logistics involved, the hardships faced by the underpaid crews (including foul weather, lousy food, and the threat of Somali pirates), and just the sheer scale of the shipping enterprise that is largely invisible to most of us.

Check out Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate for an entertaining and instructive read. Also highly recommended on the same topic are Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger and the other titles listed below.


Amazon Says: Eye-opening and compelling, the overlooked world of freight shipping, revealed as the foundation of our civilizationOn ship-tracking websites, the waters are black with dots. more...
Amazon Says: Eye-opening and compelling, the overlooked world of freight shipping, revealed as the foundation of our civilizationOn ship-tracking websites, the waters are black with dots. Each dot is a ship; each ship is laden with boxes; each box is laden with goods. In postindustrial economies, we no longer produce but buy. We buy, so we must ship. Without shipping there would be no clothes, food, paper, or fuel. Without all those dots, the world would not work.Freight shipping has been no less revolutionary than the printing press or the Internet, yet it is all but invisible. Away from public scrutiny, shipping revels in suspect practices, dubious operators, and a shady system of “flags of convenience.” Infesting our waters, poisoning our air, and a prime culprit of acoustic pollution, shipping is environmentally indefensible. And then there are the pirates.Rose George, acclaimed chronicler of what we would rather ignore, sails from Rotterdam to Suez to Singapore on ships the length of football fields and the height of Niagara Falls; she patrols the Indian Ocean with an anti-piracy task force; she joins seafaring chaplains, and investigates the harm that ships inflict on endangered whales.Sharply informative and entertaining, Ninety Percent of Everything reveals the workings and perils of an unseen world that holds the key to our economy, our environment, and our very civilization. less...
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Amazon Says: In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge indus more...
Amazon Says: In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about. Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible. But the container didn't just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean's success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container's potential. Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe. less...
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Intermodal Railroading by Brian Solomon
Amazon Says: This richly illustrated history chronicles one of the most revolutionary developments in freight railroading during the twentieth century: intermodal shipping, or the use of c more...
Amazon Says: This richly illustrated history chronicles one of the most revolutionary developments in freight railroading during the twentieth century: intermodal shipping, or the use of containers to move cargo between trains, trucks, and oceangoing vessels. It was a development that transformed the movement of freight around the world, with an almost incalculable impact on American industry. Intermodal railroading in North America begins tentatively, with attempts at piggybacking in the 1930s, before moving on to more serious developments in the period from World War II through the 1960s, notably by Canadian Pacific and the New Haven and Southern Pacific railroads. After looking at early intermodal technology and traffic, particularly the formation of pioneering equipment manufacturer and provider TTX, author Brian Solomon turns to the contemporary period. His account of mighty changes in North American shipping ranges from the implications of deregulation and various railroad mergers, to the emergence of partnerships between railroads and trucking and shipping firms. In addition to railroads like Conrail, BNSF, and CSX, this comprehensive history features trucking, freight delivery, and forwarding firms such as J. B. Hunt, Sea-Land, Maersk, and K-Line. It also considers the importance of specialized modern rolling stock, motive power, loading equipment, and intermodal hubs including South Kearney, Seattle, Long Beach, Oakland, and Houston. less...
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Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee
Amazon Says: What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, at his adventurous best, he is out and about with people who work in freig more...
Amazon Says: What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, at his adventurous best, he is out and about with people who work in freight transportation. Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the "tight-assed" Illinois River on a "towboat" pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being "a good deal longer than the Titanic." And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839. Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author's warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character. less...
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The Colombo Bay by Richard Pollak
Amazon Says: In the face of killer storms, fires, piracy, and terrorism, container ships the length of city blocks and more than a dozen stories high carry 90 percent of the worlds trade. more...
Amazon Says: In the face of killer storms, fires, piracy, and terrorism, container ships the length of city blocks and more than a dozen stories high carry 90 percent of the worlds trade. This is an account of one ship's voyage and of the sailors who daily risk their lives to deliver six million containers a year to United States ports alone. Inside these twenty-foot and forty-foot steel boxes are the thousands of imports -- from chinos and Game Boys to garlic and frozen shrimp -- without which North America's consumer society would collapse. To explore this little-known and dangerous universe of modern seafaring, Richard Pollak joined the Colombo Bay in Hong Kong and over the next five weeks sailed with her and her 3,500 containers across the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. En route, this mammoth vessel called at Singapore and Colombo, passed through the Suez Canal (toll: $250,000), then put in at Malta and Halifax before tangling with Hurricane Karen on the two-day run to New York. Here is the story of the ship's unheralded twenty-four-man company; of the unflappable British captain, Peter Davies, a veteran of four decades at sea; of Federico Castrojas, who like the rest of the hard-working Filipino crew must daily confront the loneliness of being away from his family for nine months at a stretch; of Simon Westall, the twenty-one-year-old third mate, who reveals what it is like to be gay in the broad-shouldered world of the merchant service. It is a world where pirates in the Malacca Strait sneak up behind ships at night in fast power boats, then clamber aboard and either rob the unarmed sailors at gunpoint and escape into the dark or throw the crew into the sea and hijack the ship, plundering her cargo and sometimes repainting her and setting out to do business under another name and flag. It is a world where families desperate to get to the United States or Europe pay thousands of dollars to the Chinese Snakeheads and other criminal gangs, who secrete these wretched migrants in stifling containers; after a week or more at sea these stowaways arrive in the Promised Land either starving or dead. Pollak sailed on September 13, 2001, into a changed world, on one of 7,000 container ships whose millions of uninspected boxes suddenly had become potential Trojan horses in which terrorists could transport weapons of mass destruction into the heart of the United States. Throughout his riveting narrative, Pollak interweaves the insights of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, whose masterful portrayals of seafaring make the voyage of the Colombo Bay a dramatic reminder of what a hard and rarely reported life merchant seamen have always led out on the "unhooped oceans of this planet." less...
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