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Long Beach has temporarily suspended container stacking limitations (twitter.com/typesfast)
678 points by yblu 34 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 485 comments

Recent and related:

Flexport CEO on how to fix the US supply chain crisis - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28957379 - Oct 2021 (225 comments)

I am a member of ILWU 13. A couple thoughts after reading the comments:

The zoning change is for TEU storage outside the port. The port itself was not subject to that rule.

The Port of Los Angeles is a landlord and is not directly involved in operations.

Private companies, such as APM, EverPort, and others, rent piers/berths and are responsible for the actual operations and logistics.

Some speculation: recently I’ve heard of some ships not even waiting to load empty TEU’s as they normally would and instead they are immediately leaving for China, literally empty. I suspect this behavior is what turned the congestion we had before into the quasi deadlock we have now.

Seems like more of a tragedy of the commons, with each ship (A) assuming it's fine to leave empty because some other ship (B) will grab the empty containers. That's all well and good until (A) comes back, and then it sits there waiting like everyone else.

Going back empty works once. Or more times if you're headed to a different market, I suppose.

I thought the price for containers had more than quadrupled. How can leaving them behind be economic?

I believe that's not the price for the physical box but rather "a container's worth of shipping". Empty containers are probably going up in price a lot now too - I don't really see why Ryan thinks there needs to be military intervention here. A shortage of empties in China and a surplus in the USA will get resolved real quick by people on the ground (=within the latencies afforded by the slow speed of ships themselves) as there's money to be made there.

Is someone paying for ships to do this or are they doing their own calculations and realizing it’s cheaper for them to leave fast?

This is the question that ties into mine — if the economic incentives have changed (i.e. there is no penalty for renters of containers to not get containers back to their primary shipper) then this is a perfectly reasonable response to the change from Covid to today — i.e. the new game is moving the ship as fast as possible with no downtime. If the demurrage is still incurred, then there’s some other alternatives that do not appear to be completely without nefarious intent.

I can’t help but think these decisions are being made on some assumptions from data produced by buggy software algorithms…

Hopefully we’re doing better than that!

If a single extra trip is lucrative enough and at current rates it’s 5-10 regular prices that would make sense to forgo loading in the us and just hurry home

For awhile that’s beneficial to the shipper until all containers are empty in LA and none exist in China to fill.

pretty sure chinese companies will be happy to produce new containers for a small fee

I suppose at some point it becomes cheaper to melt down the containers and ship them back as raw steel to be rebuilt in China.

It might be other forces driving their decision. Maybe the ships are booked and are already late to pickup next load with penalty clauses for delay, or the port has other costs that mean it wants to speed up getting the next ship unloaded.

And what is the delay time if the ships decide to wait to load containers for the return?

TEU, for people like me who don't know shipping lingo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty-foot_equivalent_unit

Question: who is paying demurrage on these containers? Has that practice been suspended?

> ... recently I’ve heard of some ships not even waiting to load empty TEU’s as they normally would and instead they are immediately leaving for China, literally empty.

If this is happening, what would be the consequences of allowing even more TEUs to be stored on the US side?

Shit is going to take longer and be more expensive to come from China because when there isn't a TEU available you have to wait for one to be fabbed and pay for it.

Yeah but the ship operators don’t pay for this so everyone is optimized for personal profit not system efficiency

Everyone's focused on Ryan's comments about stacking, and the subsequent win there. Amazing job, Ryan, and thank you Robert Garcia for being a man to take one on the chin (for this solution not coming from your team) and for then doing the right thing. I am seriously impressed by not seeing any NIH (not invented here) behavior here.

But why stop there? Ryan suggested 5 courses of actions, and made it clear that we need to act on all of them at the same time. So far only the first of those 5 steps have been acted on. The rest of the steps are likely either bad or the people needed to act on them are doing that NIH bullshit (which I can understand to some extent given how much negativity is being directed at Robert Garcia). But negativity or not, if those are good suggestions, we need to act on them. Would love to hear any thoughts on how to mobilize support for quickly validating/invalidating those suggestions, and then acting accordingly.

If it's possible to cancel brands and individuals, it should be possible to do the same with politicians as well. I hope it doesn't turn out that we care more about certain individuals' views than the prevention of a nationwide and potentially even global crisis [1].

[1] From Ryan's tweet:

> I can't stress enough how bad it is for the world economy if the ports don't work. Every company selling physical goods bought or sold internationally will fail. The circulatory system our globalized economy depends has collapsed. And thanks to the negative feedback loops involved, it's getting worse not better every day that goes by..

For those who didn't see the 5 points, I've copied them below from here https://twitter.com/typesfast/status/1451543776992845834


1) Executive order effective immediately over riding the zoning rules in Long Beach and Los Angeles to allow truck yards to store empty containers up to six high instead of the current limit of 2. Make it temporary for ~120 days.

This will free up tens of thousands of chassis that right now are just storing containers on wheels. Those chassis can immediately be taken to the ports to haul away the containers

2) Bring every container chassis owned by the national guard and the military anywhere in the US to the ports and loan them to the terminals for 180 days.

3) Create a new temporary container yard at a large (need 500+ acres) piece of government land adjacent to an inland rail head within 100 miles of the port complex.

4) Force the railroads to haul all containers to this new site, turn around and come back. No more 1500 mile train journeys to Dallas. We're doing 100 mile shuttles, turning around and doing it again. Truckers will go to this site to get containers instead of the port.

5) Bring in barges and small container ships and start hauling containers out of long beach to other smaller ports that aren't backed up.

This is not a comprehensive list. Please add to it. We don't need to do the best ideas. We need to do ALL the ideas.

We must OVERWHELM THE BOTTLENECK and get these ports working again. I can't stress enough how bad it is for the world economy if the ports don't work. Every company selling physical goods bought or sold internationally will fail.


Funny how free-market, small-government, deregulation, rhetoric flies out of the window when own profit maximization short-terminism falls apart and everyone starts invoking centrally coordinated state intervention.

I wonder if some governmental bureau tasked with coordinating this market hasn’t been shuttered in the last couple years to some lobbyist great success…

I agree with you, but this isn't necessarily the best example. In this case, frankly part of this issue had to be resolved by relaxing strict zoning laws that weren't allowing space to be used in a way that the market demanded (offloading empty chassis). Such a measure falls under deregulation/free-market/small-government.

The other measures proposed (forcing railroads, national guards etc) are of course of a different order, but it's not clear they'd be necessary if the build-up of empty chassis at the port (because offloading in the nearby area wasn't allowed) never materialised into a massive bottleneck, because zoning laws were deregulated.

Those 2-high zoning laws aren't new, are they?

Presumably the port would've architected its systems to work within all sorts of constraints, come they from physics, or business, or regulation. The fact that one of them can easily be relaxed is immaterial to their failure to account for it in the first place.

Presumably, the regulation had reasoning. Likely unsightfulness. But also likely danger.

Will the port's insurer cover damages when a 3 or 4 high stack falls?

Unsightliness maybe, but also California is no stranger to earthquakes. Stacking up to 6 high sounds like a deadly and expensive game of dominos.

They can be stacked higher on a container ship when full. And ships are subjected to what someone could think of as a "quake" - waves.

for sure, but the harmonic characteristics of sea waves are rather different.

But yeah, you do have a point.

Sure, although most of the measures proposed are about a massive mobilization subsidized by government.

One could also argue that it’s still a brittle, overly lean organization if a landscape regulation tipped it into service disruption.

It was the international demand imbalance that tipped it into service disruption; the landscape regulation just set the conditions for the existing bottleneck.


2) Bring every container chassis owned by the national guard and the military anywhere in the US to the ports and loan them to the terminals for 180 days.

Loan them sounds like they want them for free.

What's the plan for the military to move containers during the 180 days if all their kit is loaned out?

But we don't live in a world of small governments and deregulated free markets. Without a regulation on stacking LA might not be at a point where any of those other measures are needed. A funny thing would be limiting yourself to approaches relevant in a system that doesn't exist.

Might, would… look, I don’t want to come up with a True Scotsman counter argument, but it does sound like one: blaming this mess on the single one restriction that seemed to exist.

Are we going to blame driving time restrictions next?

Next I'd blame environment regulations that banned older short-haul trucks from operating in the state, but that's besides that point. The point being: there is no contradiction between wanting smaller government and less regulations and wanting a mess caused by heavy handed regulations to be fixed by heavy handed mobilisation of resources.

Wasn't this mess made by the government's regulations in the first place?

Make it a port rule that container ships must be fully loaded with containers (full ones or empty ones) before leaving port, or they will be banned.

Make it fun as we’ve already got the military involved in step 2 - ships leaving without empties will be sunk.

I am no defender of government bureaucracy, but the fact we got the stacking rules changed in 48 hours is pretty crazy. I suspect more changes will come, but it may take some time. I'd let it play out over 1-2 weeks and re-evaluate.

Can't believe I am giving government delays a pass here... but I try not to look a gift horse in the mouth when we get near-immediate action from people who aren't known for solving problems with any sort of urgency.

EDIT: And I'm even a customer of Flexport!

The pandemic has shown the bureaucracy can move quickly when they want to. Although I'd argue the politicians share some of the blame for slow legislation when they want to avoid something. It's not always the behind the scenes bureaucrats that are the bottle neck.

The reason why the focus was on the first one is because that was the easiest and fastest to do (You only need local officials to sign off on it because its a temporary order and its also the simplest). 2 and 3 need the federal government to organize it, which as a large organization takes some time. 4 and 5 requires figuring out contract terms (who's paying whom, etc). These are much more complex and therefore will take more time. Oh and the tweetstorm was done on a Friday on the West Coast, so it takes some time to get the attention of decision makers on the east coast.

Also, isn't someone from the government supposed to be in charge of this? Shouldn't they be out there finding out what's happening?

It seems odd that no one has tried this, yet as someone who has worked in a factory, I can easily believe that the absentee managers have no idea what the hell actually goes on among the workers.

You need to spend significant actual time, to the point of working actual shifts, to get a clear picture of things sometimes. People have weird and wrong notions of what efficiencies matter sometimes, for example. Shaving a second off an action repeated thousands of times daily matters, shaving a minute off of a rare task that's not even done every day matters far less in comparison.

I am sure you noticed that Ryan gently exposed those in charge of not doing enough by repeating the ship captain's comments that Ryan's team was the first to ask to get a tour of the port from the ocean side. Granted, perhaps those in charge have their own boats or are using helicopters, but the lack of action does make me wonder.

Ryan probably understands freight and logistics better than the government decision-makers. Regulatory bodies don’t often think in terms of changing the laws, and have narrower scopes. I bet the Long Beach zoning commission never even realized that they could be causing the backup, because the 2-high policy has worked fine for years.

In a democracy, we are the government. People who know how to fix problems need to engage with their representatives, not just hope they’ll figure out freight logistics problems because they have a law degree.

Funny enough this is supposed to be the good side for lobbying. Politicians need input from people on the ground in industry.

Let's not forget the media. Renting a boat and talking to people at the port to see what's going on should be right up an investigative journalist's alley. The Silicon Valley guy is doing the job of not just one power center, but two.

Perhaps the fourth estate needs the microphones currently stuck on a ship somewhere.

Temporary logistics czar. 1 year term, with the second half being transition to normal.

He's been on maternity leave.

Does he mean negative feedback loops or positive feedback loops? Getting worse every day sounds like positive feedback, whereas negative feedback would keep things steady.

He means a vicious cycle, which is technically a positive feedback loop: The worse things get, the more they get worse. Negative feedback means when the system is working properly, an unexpected perturbation will cause the system to correct itself automatically.

But since the general public thinks of positive as good and negative as bad, he's using the word "negative" to describe a bad situation. This kind of thing bugs me because I know control theory, but it's really in the same category as "Is Program X an X11 client or an X11 server?"

People without a controls background typically mean "positive feedback" at all times, regardless of what words they use.

In a steady system the output energy scales based on the input energy. When there is feedback, the output adds/subtracts to the input, making it difficult to control the output with your inputs. Positive feedback adds to the input, making the output increase even as you attempt to reduce the input energy. Negative feedback subtracts from the input and forces you to increase your input energy to prevent the output from diminishing.

Uncontrollable positive feedback explodes. Uncontrollable negative feedback freezes.

I’d recommend that he just say “feedback” and skip the adjective.

Doesn't matter, real feedback loops are complex. ;-)

> I can't stress enough how bad it is for the world economy if the ports don't work.

Not for the world economy, but for Chinese economy, as it's what US companies make the most of their money.

What the current crisis shows the most is that just how close the US economy coming to a sever crisis, from well.... just missing the shipment of holiday toys from China.

If China can inadvertently move US markets through just messing up with shipping toys, imagine how bad a deliberate economic sabotage action would be.

You're missing an important point here - if US customers cannot get their Xmas gifts on time, they won't buy them (nobody is going to order Xmas gifts if they will likely only arrive in January of later). Facebook has about 5 million advertisers, and a material percentage of them relies on the Xmas season for their financials to work out on an annual basis. Millions of US business have deposited 7+ figures each in inventory deposits a few months ago, with the understanding that they will convert those deposits into profit by December at the latest. If that doesn't happen, how many of them will get bank loans to get them out of this mess? And how many people will lose their jobs with or without those loans? We truly are talking about a Lehman Brothers scale of a problem, and as Ryan pointed out, the only way to fix this is to unblock the ports. So if you're eventually going to have to do it, why not do it before millions of companies go out of business as opposed to only after that's happened?

So this is not just a matter of Chinese factories not being able to sell their goods (in which case their government will take care of them as they have done in the past). This is about US e-commerce businesses who can only fall back on their banks (and which are far more unpredictable in their generosity).

Ryan's idea to mobilize the military resources would have been a no-brainer and would have already happened in at least two countries I have lived in before.

One final detail - this may seem like a recent issue, and most of us only heard about the problem sometime in early October. In reality, the industry press has been covering this since at least March [1], when the backlog of cargo ships at LAX started exceeding 20 (it's supposed to be well below that). Now it's at over 70. So it's been 7 months with practically no action until a week ago. I am a Democrat, but this is not going to bode well for Biden.

[1] https://edisonreport.com/latest-update-on-the-global-shippin...

I laugh at the idea that the US military might be engaged domestically in helping Amazon and Ebay drop-shippers get cheap chinese crap to 5 year olds who will play with it for maybe a week before it breaks or they lose interest.

This comment explains all I needed to know about why so few people in this country are taking this crisis seriously. The understanding is that this is the Amazon drop shippers who are whining, so why bother? There are countless counter arguments provided by other commenters, so I will just add this - the analogy with Lehman Brothers is a gift that keeps on giving; when they failed, there were also people saying "it's just the rich folks who will lose their money."

So the idea that this is all about the drop shippers is laughably wrong. But throwawayboise does bring up a point that's worth discussing - what kind of crises are "beneath" the role and purpose of the US military? Is their role just to blow shit up, or is there an economic and humanitarian angle there as well? For example, if an earthquake took out an entire metropolitan area, would it be beneath all those soldiers to dig for human remains, or would they leave that to whatever the more appropriate branch of public service that would be (even with the understanding that joining forces would save more lives)? I know that in the other two countries I've lived in this would be a silly question - of course the military would roll up their sleeves. In the US, I genuinely don't know. The author of the above comment is obviously ignorant when it comes to economic matters, but when it comes to military matters, I wouldn't be surprised if his tone resonated with many others.

FWIW, Ryan proves that not everyone in the US thinks like that, and certainly all the people from the international community I've met wouldn't agree with throwawayboise either.

On the military topic, why would the military do something humanitarian for citizens? It was pretty clear the industrial military complex was voted back in with Biden, and that's better for business than something altruistic.

Generals make a living from becoming lobbyists for the complex, and without a commander in chief keeping them in check, it's business as usual. And obviously they can walk over Biden all day to do this.

> The author of the above comment is obviously ignorant

> If that doesn't happen, how many of them will get bank loans to get them out of this mess?

I think you have just affirmed what I have said.

USA is world's biggest, but an extremely fragile economy which is full of businesspeople too used to bailouts from a caring government. It's a bigger miracle it never seen major crisises from "encounter with reality" before.

> We truly are talking about a Lehman Brothers scale of a problem, and as Ryan pointed out, the only way to fix this is to unblock the ports. So if you're eventually going to have to do it, why not do it before millions of companies go out of business as opposed to only after that's happened?

I think it's essential in a capitalist market economy to let the market forces to do their job, and for Lehmans to pop from time to time. USA faces such a big crisis during every new "Lehman Brothers moment" exactly because it never lets its Lehmans fail.

Now, imagine China will embargo USA next time... Trade with USA is just a few percent of China's GDP today.

I did intern in BestBuy 10 years ago, and I know what insane portion of profit comes from around Xmass. I honestly want the US to really fail here, and fail hard, and have a Lehman moment again. It's vitally important for the US to finally have such crisis to turn the ship around, pun intended.

Or the next time, spoiled US kids will find out that there are way worse things in life than missing their new iphone 15 for christmas.

I don't disagree that the US made a huge mistake when it outsourced its production (for all the reasons you mentioned). But the solution is not to rip off the bandaid and view millions of businesses as collateral damage. You'll notice that the Chinese government is great at playing a long game, eg: Taiwan. We need to do the same.

The only way we can get better at long games is to examine what's driving our current weakness in that area. My guess is that it has to do with the dynamics of presidential terms. To get re-elected, you have to achieve something big in the first four years, and anything big will piss off the other half of the country and will make you lose the congressional elections at the end of your second year. So the solution is to either do something big that buys you favors with both political parties (literally nothing comes to mind), or to get it done in the first two years. China, in comparison, has been plotting the takeover of Taiwan for decades, and is very strategically, step by step, moving in that direction. If this was the US, the only option would have been a quick invasion or a start-stop effort every 4-8 years.

This isn't just Xmas gifts, it's servers, routers, hard drives, you name it, stuff that's vital for businesses. We have long delays for much of our IT infrastructure at my company due to this.

Well, bad for you to place trust in these people!

If you know there is a problem, why not fix it before the crash happens?

If the US fails really hard here, many innocent people will lose their jobs, homes and lives.

Truckers are leaving containers all over Los Angeles.[1]

Allowing stacking over 2 high is only useful if you have the equipment to stack over 2 high. A place that just stacks empty containers 2 high probably only has large forklifts. The special equipment for high stacking is far more expensive, and only bought if you need it.[2]

A more useful proposal is a "peel pile".[3] This is a system which assigns outgoing trucks an easily accessible container to deliver, rather than a specific container that has to be retrieved. There's an app for that. This is being implemented by IMC, the largest marine drayage company in the US. They say they're already up to 8 high stacks in the LA area. The higher the stack, the longer the retrieval time.

"This keeps drivers moving and productive, even if they don’t know the exact load they’re getting or the delivery location." So it's really dumping the sorting problem on drivers. They have no idea where they're going next. There has to be some way to separate containers by approximate location to make this work, so a driver knows how far they're going to be asked to take the thing.

How well this all works depends on how well the software organizing the stacking works.

[1] https://jalopnik.com/the-streets-of-los-angeles-are-overflow...

[2] https://www.bison-jacks.com/why-bison/blog/how-to-lift-a-shi...

[3] https://www.peelpile.com/

> Allowing stacking over 2 high is only useful if you have the equipment to stack over 2 high.

These are empty containers that are getting unloaded and stacked in order to free up the truck and its chassis for another load. The equipment for doing that stacking/unstacking is called an Empty Container Stacker [1]. These are different from a Reach Stacker [2] which will have much less vertical reach and are also different from Container Cranes [3].

[1] https://www.goldbell.my/material-handling-equipment/port-han...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reach_stacker

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Container_crane

Okay, how many empty container stackers are there in LA county?

Plenty. That isn't actually the important question or rather important problem. The storage yards are currently stacked X x Y x 2 and now they need to be re-stacked into something like X x (Y / 2) x 4 to free up space for more empties but that re-stacking has to happen from the edges. That will take a little time.

A couple strategic gaps between the stacks could make this process go much faster. The short-sighted lack of these gaps could make things slow going.

You only need a single lane free. You start on one side of the yard, and stack it to 6, then work your way across the yard building rows.


and does 7,500 container moves a day usually, but not in this environment, they are doing like 60% usual capacity.


How many cranes does the Port of Long Beach have? The berths at the Port of Long Beach's Pier G International Transportation Service terminal are equipped with 17 gantry cranes. Of those cranes, six have outreach of 19 containers across, seven have outreach of 16 containers across, and four have outreach of 13 containers across.

That's neat, but isn't this whole thing about stacking restrictions on empty containers?

My understanding of what the Flexport CEO said in their twitter thread was that the best example of the problem is the haulage company that's keeping its driver count * 3 empty containers around on-chassis (which I think means on wheels), just sitting in their parking lot, because they have nowhere to put their empties, because they empty-storage is maxed out at the 2-height capacity. All/most of the haulage company's chassis are now tied up with empty containers, which prevents them from being able to go pick up filled containers to ship, which stops the full containers from getting picked, etc.

> That's neat, but isn't this whole thing about stacking restrictions on empty containers?

It's stacking restrictions for empty containers in lots that are not at the port, I believe.

> on-chassis (which I think means on wheels)

In container shipping, a chassis is basically a trailer that accepts a container and can be pulled by a semi-truck or one of the utility vehicles they've got at the port to move things around.

If a chassis comes back with an empty container on it, and the port isn't accepting empties, you've got to leave it somewhere before you can grab one of the many containers sitting at the dock that have goods waiting to be delivered. If the dock yard is full of containers, they can't unload the boats. If the can't unload the boats, they can't load outgoing cargo including outgoing empties.

Stacking empties higher, especially away from the dock may free up chassis that frees up dock space, etc, that gets things moving and then the empties can come back. But, that only works if the storage yards have the equipment to stack higher; which probably they don't all have. The thread mentions a limit on stacking empty containers, but the zoning limitation is for stacking any containers, it's just that outside of the yards at the port, you tend not to store full containers. Once you get those on a chassis, you want to get them delivered either to the final destination or a storage yard at another port or a train depot, etc. Empties are a bit different; you'd prefer to load filled containers most of the time, so it makes sense to stack some empties from time to time; also a trucking company may want to have some empties to take to an exporter, etc.

Honestly, I had thought that both chassis and empties were fungible, kind of like with rail wagons. You count what goes where and if things are uneven over time, make some transfers to bring it back, but otherwise no big deal. But the thread says otherwise.

For US railroads, railroad cars may seem to be fungible, but someone owns each one and there's a settlements system running behind the scenes. The Association of American Railroads, via their Railinc subsidiary, is behind that, and all railroads that interchange traffic are members. There are standard rates.

How does that work for containers?

> How does that work for containers?

Apparently, it doesn't. I would have thought at least some shipping lines would have gotten together to allow for offsets and settlements and all that to ease logistics. Maybe the lines don't want to coordinate or enjoy the semi-lockin that returning a container to the line's yard means it's most convenient to pick up an outgoing container from that yard, or don't trust their inventory with each other.

If they are getting paid per delivery, it seems they could find a quarry or an unused airstrip to dump empties on for a small price.

When Tesla needs space urgently, they put up a tent. When the military needs to start a war they manage somehow to unload their tanks.

Come on, USA, we still know how to do stuff...

Without a permit? In California? lol

They don't own the empties, and it's in their contracts to return them.

All places I have done real estate development require permits for putting containers on your land, and it is not a quick process to get one. At the least, you usually have to justify why you need the container space and for how long.

And I cannot imagine a local zoning board wanting to go out on a limb to do something novel like approving containers just because a port is backed up.

As this is a short term problem and part of a national crisis ... just stack them up, and get them removed in the near future. Any place big enough to stack up enough containers to matter (stadium parking lot, dead airport, etc) isn't going to have neighbors that raise a huge stink immediately, and the wheels of zoning disputes take times.

Heck, budget the possible fines into your business plan for holding the containers. Delivery firms already budget for tickets from parking illegally to make deliveries. This isn't so far removed from that.

Exactly. Fix the problem, then ask for permission to do so afterwards.

If you can honestly say, "we fixed the problem and didn't hurt anything with our temporary fix" then the permission people who come along afterwards to fine you are going to have to think seriously about suspending the fine that your solution drew. Don't do anything criminal, but accrue a bit of civil liability: it will either be a cost of business, or will be forgiven.

As for contracts: If I am obligated to return the containers, but I dump them for a few weeks on a disused airstrip, I'm still going to, eventually, fulfill my contract, when the port allows me to.

No excuses. Fix problems, don't brainstorm reasons not to fix then.

> And I cannot imagine a local zoning board wanting to go out on a limb to do something novel like approving containers just because a port is backed up.

I can, if they get paid for it. Rent should be reasonable for short-term storage and unreasonable for long-term.

From a quick Google map look, I'd ask the National Guard to take over runway 8R of LGB. That would still leave plenty of runways there, including 8L, usable under the same wind conditions.

There is also a huge amount of land at Palmdale airport, 1h30 north of Long Beach.

A glut of empty containers is a stupid problem, but the solution can be stupid easy, if we choose to make it so.

Most of the stacks are already at 6 high https://www.tiktok.com/@stanimal18/video/7019310183545376006. The automated storage & retrieval system cannot go higher. Peel pile would be great if the empty containers did not have to be taken to Dallas. It is questionable if this is a government failure to zone empty buffer yards out in desert as there would be even less of an incentive to return the empty containers; changing the zoning at the secondary yards does not fix the underlying incentive issue and should only be put in place once the ratio of the rate at which new containers are being received to the rate at which containers are leaving begins to decline to accelerate the removal of the bottleneck. The storage fee needs to be raised to a point at which it is justifiable to move the empty containers out over processing fully loaded containers until the storage bottleneck is removed. Changing the zoning before figuring out the rate problem almost surely will just make the bottleneck worse. It would also be interesting to know if it would be feasible to make the containers able to be disassembled and multi-packed into an empty container.

Those 6 high stacks are the ones at the port. From the thread, there are plenty of smaller secondary lots outside the ports where empties are being stacked, because the ports won't accept them, and there's room. The zoning based stacking limit affects those secondary yards, but not the port yards. A real question is if the secondary yards have equipment to stack higher or if they can really only go two high, because they were limited by zoning anyway.

> It would also be interesting to know if it would be feasible to make the containers able to be disassembled and multi-packed into an empty container.

Not really; everything's welded together, and if you unweld and reweld, it's not going to be as strong. Plus that's a lot of labor. There are some collapsible containers, but those tend not to have sides or a top, which is not ideal for ocean shipping.

Each of the yards have unique constraints. Hopefully, the 2 to 4 increase is to be some sort of test such that the ability to stack 6/9 high is still within reason given it as the limit of the higher end stackers. Additionally, these https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSn-dT4EMcM do not require welding to transform; are quoted with the same strength, a quarter of the original size, and 20% more expensive in early 2017.

Okay, but fancy collapsible containers does nothing to solve the problem with all the containers piling up right now. That's a longer term solution at best.

It's definitely a long term thing. Some guys from my university founded a company around foldable containers in 2008 (https://4foldcontainers.com/). It's still not common.

The way I read the linked article, the idea is to use peel piles for drayage only. That is, for goods that is due for shorter trips within the same urban area, not for long-haul freight. I think it seems like a part of the solution by virtue of having some potential for lowering drivers’ waiting time and maximizing the speed of emptying out a fully stacked terminal.

> Truckers are leaving containers all over Los Angeles.[1]

There are so many of them, that they couldn't find a picture of one of them to illustrate the article

G/O media is particularly terrible with illustrations. They once had an article abut the ISS with a picture of Mir as an illustration.

I think they have a contract with a stock image provider, no photographer, and no one to seek out and license original pictures. Writer are probably asked to select an illustration in their stock image library.

I think it is a disgrace to journalism. The front picture is, with the title, the most important part of the article, do some effort FFS, or don't put a picture at all.

What is G/O media?

> G/O Media Inc. is an American media holding company that runs Gizmodo, Kotaku, Jalopnik, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Jezebel, The Root, The A.V. Club, The Takeout, The Onion, and The Inventory

- Wikipedia

> G/O was formed in April 2019 when Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm, purchased the websites from Univision for $20.6 million.

Is it just me or is that a shockingly low amount for those websites?

It is -- the sites sold for $135m in 2016 (out of the gawker bankruptcy) to Univision. Gawker media group was famously operationally well run and threw off lots of cash.

After Great Hill bought them for $20m -- presumably with a ton of debt, or something -- they then put an idiot named Jim Spanfeller in charge. Jim managed to get the entire staff of deadspin -- also a profitable, well run site -- to quit en masse. Said staff later started Defector and are running it as a coop, basically. Defector has survived a full year running on subscription fees and largely without advertising (or maybe entirely without?).

Over the past decade advertisers shifted spending onto deep targeting (benefitting primarily FB and GOOG) and re-targeting (benefitting any rando site with lots of pageviews) away from interest-based publishers.

Online advertising nuked most media company revenues.

That's the name of the company that publishes Jalopnik. Scroll down to the bottom, "Copyright 2021 G/O Media Inc".

You could have left it at the first five words.

> Allowing stacking over 2 high is only useful if you have the equipment to stack over 2 high. A place that just stacks empty containers 2 high probably only has large forklifts. The special equipment for high stacking is far more expensive, and only bought if you need it.

This begs the question: If container storage were the only bottleneck, wouldn't operators merely lease space further afield? There's plenty of space in Corona, San Bernardino, and environs that wouldn't take more than a 30 minute commute each way.

I can't help but feel like there are other confounding factors at play.

Sidenote... I think this might be the first time I've personally heard "There's an app for that" to essentially indicate "this is a solved problem" - even if in this case it does kind of mean "software exists to solve this problem" in a literal sense. We're only a decade or so out from when "there's an app for that" represented this cool new novel idea that you could install an app on your fancy new smartphone to do something useful. Now it's trivial and commonplace but I could see this slogan sticking around in our vernacular outside of its original context kinda like the save icon. Neat.

I wrote "there's an app for that" because IMC does have an app for that.[1] Also a web site.[2] Drivers need to be able to talk to the container dispatching system.

That's a side issue, though. As the number of containers in temporary storage increases, system throughput drops. So, once you get into overload, you're stuck there until you somehow reduce traffic or get more capacity. That seems to be the current situation.

It's not just at the US end. Shipify reports about 200 ships stuck waiting to get into Chinese ports.[3] (That article has a good overview of the situation.) At the China end, there's an empty shipping container shortage.

Back in July, US farmers were also complaining about an empty shipping container shortage.[4] Ship lines wanted to load up and get out, because the China->US rate is currently much, much higher than the US->China rate. So loading up containers at the US end apparently cost time and profits. The way empties are handled is driven by a system of economic incentives to not hold onto empties, and apparently that's not working well enough to get containers back to someplace useful. Someone has to pay to ship the containers back.

[1] https://apps.apple.com/us/app/imcs-mydriver/id1299727364

[2] https://www.imcsmartstacks.com/

[3] https://www.shiplilly.com/blog/container-ships-now-piling-up...

[4] https://www.farmprogress.com/trade/shipping-container-shorta...

It sounds like these are complementary solutions, no? Some yards have stacking equipment, some don't. It seems far more reasonable to let them become "sinks" for containers, which they'd gladly do and which would require nothing other than removing red tape, rather than requiring adoption of a more complex routing system.

Though efficient, this sounds incredibly stress-inducing for drivers, since it makes them even less able to plan ahead and know their future work schedule.

Couldn't large forklifts that have enough weight capacity to lift one full container and enough height capacity to lift an empty container on top of another simply pick up a stack of two containers from the bottom at the same time and put the two on top of a third, making a three-high stack?

the top one will fall off in the process, and most of the forklifts aren't meant for that angle of leverage

The driver has a cellphone no?

What if they stood the containers up on end?

The ends aren’t flat and the containers aren’t structurally designed for that. You’re putting twice the designed load for the bottom of the container on an end that wasn’t made to support that. I’d imagine it would do a fair amount of damage.

Then you have the problem of picking it back up again. When it's right-side-up, you can get under it. When it's on end, you can't.

> This is a system which assigns outgoing trucks an easily accessible container to deliver, rather than a specific container that has to be retrieved.

This is such an obvious thing. Do they really have people so incompetent they didn't think of that? Wow

There are truck driver shortages too. It’s a crappy deal for a truck driver to take a load which they don’t know it’s risks/payout or how long of a drive they will be taking, what they’ll do at destination, or if they’ll have a return trip.

Odds are you could offer truckers a special premium flat rate to clear the blockage - but it wouldn’t be sustainable.

California emission standards also disallow a decent portion of truck fleets from operating in the state. Source is an extended family member who owns a small trucking company in Midwest.

The Twitter thread said that the crackdown on illegal immigrants hit the California trucking industry hard since so many companies were using undocumented drivers to cut down on their costs.

Ah well, I guess that’s a nice opportunity to quote and paraphrase the meme: if you can’t make a profit while paying a living wage, the problem is not with minimum wage but with your business model.

Arguably this is more true in shipping than other disciplines. There are great economies of scale in shipping, and drivers/operators will be required regardless of wage. importing goods from low-cost areas, transporting goods with underpaid workers, and selling them in minimum wage stores doesn't seem like a great business model.

Do shoes need to cost $20 or do the workers need to be paid $20/hr to afford $60 locally produced shoes?

This is literally the same argument for why Uber/Lyft/Doordash drivers need to know the details of a fare before accepting, but a couple of orders-of-magnitude higher.

They don’t get paid if they are waiting too so it makes the job even less lucrative

my understanding is that not all containers pay the same (since they are different weights, have different destinations, etc.) and so this mostly screws over the driver who loses the ability to select the best offer.

Not only do containers not pay the same, but containers to the same location often don't pay the same. So many variables and often the driver is the one that ends up getting screwed in the process. I completely understand why so many simply refuse certain loads. And getting assigned a load you know nothing about before it's on your truck is a no go for most drivers.

Isn’t that a market failure?

I mean the rhetoric of free unregulated market is that the “homo economicus” would use total information and make fully conscious decisions.

Seems like some are withholding information to push other actors to make bad deals, externalize losses and generally speaking skirt from supply/demand dynamics.

No, it isn't. Most, or at least a very high percentage of independent truckers bid for cargo runs. Your cargo needs to get from point A to point B and weighs X amount and needs pickup and delivery at certain times. Truckers bid on the those routes and the the winning bidder gets the route.

If you don't want a delivery you don't bid on it or you set your bid high enough to make you want to take it. If no one bids on a delivery then the shipper raises the maximum they will pay and the process starts all over. Delivery location or pickup location a horrible place? Again, don't bid or bid high.

This is exactly the definition of a free market. Telling an independent that they must take the next load available without letting them decide if they even want it is not. That's being an employee. And shipping companies have spent years getting rid of their own fleets and drivers to push the cost to the individual drivers. And yes, there are a LOT of apps for this.

I thought that Flexport CEO's tweet stream was really great - had a ton of insightful, first hand information and made the problem very clear. Especially import was the feedback loops showing how the system was essentially deadlocked, in the classical sense of the term.

The guy is a bad ass. If he wanted to run for President, he would win. I am really not exaggerating - I had a chance to meet him a few years back, and at that time he was the most impressive person I had talked to in person for an extended amount of time (not based on credentials or achievement, but simply based on clarity of thought and new ways of thinking). I also know that PG rates him incredibly highly.

To give you a taste, this is him 3 years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjUs7o-TnjY. I remember watching that video the first time and being particularly struck by his insight on how entrepreneurial sales is different from regular sales [1], which I have been able to apply since then on a regular basis.

[1] https://youtu.be/hjUs7o-TnjY?t=2499

>The guy is a bad ass. If he wanted to run for President, he would win.

It's interesting to note that we had a president like this, and that was Herbert Hoover. Hoover's claim to fame before being elected president was saving Belgium from starvation during WWI[1], the dude deeply understood logistics and had lots of connections so was able to negotiate with all the parties to get humanitarian relief and set up his own NGO. I picked this up from reading this biography of him.[2] Unfortunately he's become only associated with fumbling the Great Depression.

[1] https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1989/spring/h... [2] https://smile.amazon.com/Hoover-Extraordinary-Life-Times/dp/...

Jimmy Carter was the other engineer-president. His post-presidential career has burnished his image a bit but on the whole engineers who become president haven't been too popular.

I've been meaning to read that Hoover biography forever.

A very interesting guy, for sure. People respected his acumen, but no one seems to have liked the guy. Like a surprising number of presidents, he basically lucked into the job.

I thought the humorous podcast American Presidents: Totalus Rankium had an excellent two-parter on him:

Part 1: https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-64j34-f045e3 Part 2: https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-zsqhc-f1a4af

Hoover didn’t just fumble it, he was absolutely committed to passivity. If only he had shown the same determination that he had for postwar relief.

> Hoover … committed to passivity

That’s a legend that is in fact not true. He actually laid the ground for most of Roosevelt‘s „New Deal“ policies. These policies were likely ill-conceived and turned a bad recession into decade long depression.



Please no more CEOs running for president. The government is not a business.

Please no more lawyers running for president.

A CEO who built or run an actual value-adding business (e.g Flexport) probably has more integrity, intelligence and aptitude than the average lawyer-who-seeks-politics who very often turn out to be snakes.

The government is not a business, but people can adapt, learn and re-purpose their skills. I think that the key, mistaken, assumption that you're making in your pushback is that general competence does not exist: people who are good at business are hyper-specialised for that environment and their skills will not carry over to governance. I think some people are really good at very general, cross-domain skills and should be put in positions to use their skills effectively.

Skills yes, but not their worldview. The fundamental duty of government to provide for its people compared to business' insatiable need for profit makes them incompatible.

There is no way for a food stamp program to generate a profit - that's entirely opposite from the point of it! Closer to home, you can tell when corners are getting cut for budget reasons that are penny-wise and pound foolish in a department at a businesses that treats departments that don't generate profit as a cost center, eg the IT department.

Businesses also have the luxury of firing poor workers. Government has no such luxury with their poor.

After four years of Trump, I know where you're coming from. But you're projecting the moral and ethical values of one person to millions of people.

Here's the thing - I've run startups that had a strong business, and those that haven't. While I would believe that my fundamental values never changed, I can tell you that I was far more tested in situations when we were running out of money than when we had 8 figures in our bank account. For example, how do you design a paid leave policy? With 8 figures in the bank, you really have to be a psychopath not to leaning on the generous side. But when you don't know if you can do the next payroll and the financial security of 100 people hinges on you hitting the next month's target... and then someone tells you about a family member who just passed away... Sometimes there are no good solutions, and you want to avoid getting yourself in those situations. So ironically, a hard-hitting CEO can sometimes lead to a better paid leave policy than a startup run by the most empathetic social worker in the world.

who would you rather have? a politician...?

> If he wanted to run for President, he would win

Yes. It would be great to have non-ideological leadership focused on solving practical problems instead of waging culture war.

> waging There's nothing wrong with pushing back, though.

Please expand on what you mean by "culture war"

As of late their has been a bit of a disturbing trend to ignore everything before the past 5 to 10 years, that is why I ask such questions.

I was an early customer of Flexport and got to talk to him on a number of occasions. I felt the same way about him. Total beast.

I work at Flexport, Ryan is the real deal.

At my last employer, we lost a ton of engineering candidates to Flexport - it was frustrating because we'd try to articulate the scope of the opportunity, but some combination of what Flexport is doing and the recruiting process meant you guys would win every time.

I wouldn’t want to compete with Flexport on “scope of opportunity”. It’s like AWS 10 years ago.

Happy hunting!

He didn't really address why there are so many unclaimed empties though. That seems like the real issue. Stacking them higher might work temporarily, but isn't the real problem the empties themselves.

Perhaps no one wants to ship them back because it's not economical?

> Especially import was the feedback loops showing how the system was essentially deadlocked, in the classical sense of the term.

This whole situation would make a great "systems design"-level tech interview question!

A little off topic, but these ports don’t usually store so many empty crates, so why do we have them now? Are we not exporting at the same rate? Is that even what empty crates are used for? I’m assuming they aren’t sent back to (mostly?) China empty. I read something about the prices to ship out of the US being very high, but isn’t the price coming in also similarly proportionally high, yet we still have a backlog of ships waiting to unload.

The demand became a lot more lopsided for several reasons:

* consumers were shifting spending from experiences that would've been COVID impacted (holiday travel, entertainment venues, restaurants) to online shopping

* industrial supply chains in Asia were the least impacted by COVID due to the relative lack of explosion in cases there compared to the rest of the world, so we are legitimately shipping more from there and exporting less

* a good chunk of the medical equipment that has been necessitated by COVID (e.g. masks) is made in Asia and that has made demand even more lopsided

* there was a ship backlog because COVID impacted how ships were getting unloaded, and at one point they weren't sending back ships with empty containers to reduce turnaround times, and now there are not enough containers in China and too many in the US.

Wendover Productions video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1JlYZQG3lI

Another poster said ships that would normally take empty containers back to China are now just unloading and leaving empty. If that's the case, it seems like it's trading short term gain for a longer term problem. Make them take the empties?

Nobody has to "make" anyone do anything in that situation. It's a classic supply/demand imbalance. Governments can't do anything here - even just getting them to pay attention to their own zoning rules required some random CEO in a boat talking to local workers then posting on Twitter. They aren't in a position to do anything better than the workers themselves can do.

Thanks a bunch, I think others have said it was the increased demand and I didn’t quite get it, or the scale of the lopsidedness it caused, until the way you described it!

> Are we not exporting at the same rate?

Yes. To quote JP Morgan's recent article "Dude, where's my stuff?"[0]:

> The surge in US import demand has led to a sharp rise in eastbound freight rates (see charts for Shanghai->LA and Shanghai->Rotterdam). However, westbound freight rates have not risen nearly as much, leading to an odd and problematic phenomenon: incentives for container owners to move them back to China empty to accelerate receipt of eastbound freight rates, instead of waiting for containers to be refilled to earn westbound freight rates as well. This further exacerbates supply chain issues, since US goods (i.e., grains) that were supposed to depart US railcars and warehouses for export remain in place, occupying space that US imported goods were destined for.

[0] https://am.jpmorgan.com/us/en/asset-management/institutional...

That explains why we're sending them empty, but why are ports clogged with them? Shouldn't it be pretty straightforward to load them onto the next ship?

I think the next ship hasn't been unloaded yet.

It is completely standard in the shipping industry to have lopsided routes, where one direction has 100% full containers, and the return direction a much lower percentage, like 50%. The shipping cost of different routes takes this into account.

And hence the extreme explosion in shipping prices, I assume. Anyone buying freight from China to LA now has to also pay for returning the empty. What I’ve been told is the price for shipping one container has increased 10-fold because of this.

Yes, it's cheaper to dump the container, and buy new one in China.

Sounds absurd, but that's how it is.

What are the challenges in crossing the Pacific Ocean by boat? How much hardware would be involved with making individual containers seaworthy? Disposable cargo ships, anyone?

Hmm. If anybody is sitting on an idea that needs used shipping containers, now might be the time to pick some up.

I looked into using them for construction as I am building a office / workshop, roughly the size of two 20ft shipping containers. As much as it may be glamourised on social media, it has a lot of limitations.

In my case it's actually cheaper and much more flexible to build it as you would a traditional building. I live 300 miles from the nearest port, so that doesn't help. I also looked into the container sized temporary buildings used on construction site, and they are made from scratch (not from old shipping containers).

Shipping containers are very useful for shipping and not very useful for much else.

I’ve seen businesses use them for stationary storage. I’ve assumed they use discarded containers that can no longer take the stress of freight. But yeah in general you’re right.

This would make a great "have a heart" trap for large animals.

> A little off topic, but these ports don’t usually store so many empty crates, so why do we have them now? Are we not exporting at the same rate? Is that even what empty crates are used for? I’m assuming they aren’t sent back to (mostly?) China empty.

My understanding is that the us doesn't send all that much back to china, and that it was a problem for a while but wasn't the bottleneck until recently.

I'm surprised it isn't worth it at some level to send a boat load (literally) of empty containers back? I know not every ship will just do the round trip China<->LA but presumably at least some number of them would.

The same podcast included a story about an entrepeneur _trying_ to ship empty containers but none of the shipping lines would eliminate the part of the lading contract that says they own the containers when you're done with it.

Anyways, right now the bottleneck isn't shipping containers in China, that was an early pandemic logistics story.

It is worth it in the grand scheme of things but there appears to be no mechanism to charge all the benefitting parties. There is cost shifting going on that’s creating bottlenecks

This is very bad for the rest of the world, and also for the US, since all the empty containers are stacking up there, then there aren't any empty containers available in China or anywhere else for exporters, so even getting your hands on an empty container can be very difficult or almost impossible, or they cost 2-3x more than usually.

Our container price went from $1,500 to $10,000.

If that is true the rates for empty containers should increase making it worthwhile for ships to bring them back again?

Elsewhere someone mentioned it’s cheaper to build a new container in China than to ship and empty one over from the US. Even if you are already sending the boat.

This sort of implies that it’s incredibly cheap to make the container, and/or it’s expensive to add that weight to the ship, and/or our ports are incredibly slow at loading empty containers onto ships.

Right it seems like if a ship leaves empty you might as well flatten all the containers because they won’t go back anytime soon. The solution is to make the ship pay for all that as a precondition to leaving empty

That would actually maybe be a good solution? If you leave empty next time port fee is double or whatever.

Jack up the daily ground rate for empty containers until the market solves the problem and clears them out.

Edit: e.g. chop them, pack the result into containers, and ship it to Asia to use as raw materials for new containers.

Is it possible China is subsidizing creating the new containers exacerbating this problem?

Nope. China has the steel. China has cheaper labour. China has more efficient logistics systems to move container from place it's constructed to a port.

The answer to China being better at 99% of manufacturing isn't subsidies, it's efficiencies.

But this isn't manufacturing vs manufacturing. It's putting an empty container on a ship that is already going somewhere vs clawing tons of raw material out of the Earth, processing the raw material, manufacturing a container, transporting the container.

Sure but you asked if they are subsidizing them, the answer is no. Is it cheaper than waiting to load empty containers? It could be depending on the incentives, even if those short-term incentives are damaging to long term prospects you would be surprised how short-term most businesses think. Biggest influencing factor I can think of right now is that many importers/exporters are willing to pay exorbitant fees to get product from China to the US. This is specifically acute in areas/industries that there are no other viable source, say for instance LiFePO4 batteries. These are absolutely key to a huge number of things happening in the world right now and are outside of a few very isolated plants (CATL has one in California) made entirely in China.

There are so many insane distortions happening because of supply crunch that subsidies and trade nonsense are actually starting to become irrelevant. (though I really do hope USA sorts their shit out, their China policy is fucking up the world for zero reason).

You've hinted at what I'm trying to understand. What incentives are actually in place that are impacting this behavior? My hypothesis was that the CCP decided it's going to flood the world market with containers by subsidizing them. Maybe that's not what is going on, fine. But what specifically is happening? It sounds like maybe you don't know either.

Turnaround time is by far the most important thing for ships, so the turn around at first opportunity instead of loading empty containers.

And in the middle of all that, Theory of Constraints in a tweet:

“When you're designing an operation you must choose your bottleneck. If the bottleneck appears somewhere that you didn't choose it, you aren't running an operation. It's running you.”


It's often said that ToC is a popularization of operations management knowledge that already existed at the time. Is there a better textbook that is more technical and not too dry?

I studied industrial engineering and don't recall "ToC" being covered outside of The Goal

Eli would have loved that thread…

Eli was a great man and mentor. I miss him almost every day.

Seems like all these tweets are about emptying ports so they - and the author’s startup - can go back to their business.

The rest of the systems’ profits and sustainability seem to be secondary.

Perhaps it might make sense to ponder if this super-lean truck-centric infrastructure wasn’t running too close to its breaking point?

Might be a good idea for big-gov to lend a hand but also impose some top-down decisions like: long term you will be rebasing your logistics onto a railroad based backbone.

There, and you’ve magically created a couple thousands well paying jobs in infrastructure build and maintenance…

Also call some operations researcher to copypaste a couple tiered caching algorithms onto this mess.

This. This right here is the voice of common sense. With fossil fuel-supply contracting in the coming decades and over-spread cities' infrastructures being impossible to navigate without transportation, the US will have no choice but to turn to rail. It's just a matter of "when", not "if".

Isn't the problem with rail that it's nearly impossible to build new rail lines? Especially in a way that isn't destructive to the environment? I'm all for rail in general, but it feels like the same environmentalist push that wants to get away from trucks is also the force that's going to block putting fairly environmentally damaging train lines all over the American west.

Yeah, you won’t get animals randomly wandering on the tracks if you lay them over concrete bridge structures, costs a tad more also in terms of concrete production emissions but you can offset that by running the trains on renewables throughout their lifetime

Sure - there's answers to a lot of it, but you're still talking about having to acquire a ton of land that's likely in the middle of nowhere and putting in a big construction project. It's not too dissimilar to the sort of work that's required, and the risks associated with, adding new oil pipelines, and those have been a complete mess of corruption and environmental and land-rights protests.

Really? I don't think you'd have the same problems.

Sure, randomly contrarian NIMBYs will fight to their last breath over anything, but one thing is an overhead train track, another is an oil pipeline with all the environmental hazards of an oil spill.

Of course, corruption and garden variety incompetence are a variable, but all large projects are vulnerable to that.

Sure, but it's not just the construction. The concern is the long-term damage of moving freight over the line and the potential for accidents later, just like oil spills. There's plenty of hazardous freight that could be a problem in the case of a derailment, especially with over-head tracks where a derailment would be far more catastrophic.

It's also not just contrarian NIMBY folks - there's plenty of pushback on putting lines through places for well-supported reasons. Nowhere is "the middle of nowhere." Someone lives there, often people who have been displaced to there because of bad policy elsewhere.

Would be nice to see a follow-up of exactly what this fixed. He mentioned only 7 of 100 cranes were in operation, does that mean more cranes will soon be able to operate because they have room to put containers?

Well, assuming enough truck terminals have stacking equipment that can actually pile more than 2 high, it should free up some more wheels to start pulling full containers out of the port. But who knows? And it’s hardly going to solve this problem by itself.

Is this related somehow to China refusing to take USA's recycling material?

IIRC shipping recycled material was super cheap. So many empty containers. Might as well fill them with something.

Why aren't empty containers shipped back to China? Boat has to go back anyway, right?

Did the empty containers pile up because no one was willing to pay to ship them back?

As I understand the shipping fee from China to the US is very expensive right now, so ships don't want to wait for ports to load empty containers on. They turn around ASAP to catch another shipment from China, leaving all these empty containers at destination ports.

Yep but every time you do that you basically permanently leave extra containers state side. Might as well flatten them because they will never go back

Since this is HackerNews, I thought Long Beach was a new up and coming Docker alternative.

What I would like to know is how it ever got to this breaking point? Is there no planning for such cases or continuous optimization? Or were plans presented to the government which just sat on it until it was too late?

My mental model is that regulations are decided on through a political process, and then no one looks at them until it becomes a political issue again.

zoning is very easy for local busybodies to capture, since normal people don't have time to give a crap (work to do, errands to run, kids to take care of, etc.). and those busybodies with the most time (older, wealthier) want very restrictive zoning. (see also: HOA regulations). the particular issue here is defined by local zoning.

Japan managed to arrest housing prices by moving zoning definition to national rather than local level, where local busybodies do not have the critical mass needed to do regulatory capture. Local areas can still decide what zoning to put where, but it's not nearly as ridiculously specific as American zoning can be. (e.g. you can sell lemonade out of your driveway, but not craft beer; or you can't run a hair salon, but you can run a daycare from your house, but only if you watch a maximum of five kids. etc.) California is now trying a similar tack by loosening zoning regulations at the state level.

What does any of this have to do with zoning?

The height that containers can be stacked on sites in Long Beach outside of the Port of Long Beach are governed by the city's zoning regulations. Until today the limit was 2 containers, and all of the sites were occupied so there was literally no more capacity in the entire city to store empty containers.

Today the 2 container limit was temporarily suspended which essentially raises the limit to 6 containers - the max height at which most stackers operate. That's a 3x increase in empty container storage capacity which should give the system some wiggle room.

The ceo of flexport rented a boat and toured the area and reported on issues people saw and reported to him. Very informative.

Tweet thread @ https://twitter.com/typesfast/status/1451543776992845834

Or threadreader


The renting a boat thing seems like a show. Hes got experts that should already know these things from other data sources. The boat thing is for simpletons in media to understand and spin

Taking time to stop and look at a problem is for simpletons? I don't think thats right.

There are a lot of broken industries/companies in which "experts" don't know shit besides what they learned in school from people with no actual hands on experience. Talking to the people on the job can be very efficient, I've seen it many times; people on top can be so full of themselves that they don't even want to accept they can be wrong.

A collection of workers who know their shit will always be much more valuable than an expert looking at graphs from his office if you know how to interact with them

Since it's on Twitter it's obviously partly a PR move but I wouldn't be surprised if it actually happened

The boat tour seemed like much more than a PR show to me. There’s a lot of power in (a) seeing things in person to add context to the understanding you’ve built remotely, and (b) talking to people on the ground who are first-hand experts on what’s working and what’s not.

It is interesting to see this up close, from a human perspective. I was on a boat to Long Beach from Catalina last month, and the container ships are just everywhere. I counted 25 in view from the just right side of the boat. Very spooky.

Some of these comments make sense, but this guy loves hyperbole.

> This is a negative feedback loop that is rapidly cycling out of control that if it continues unabated will destroy the global economy.

No, the global economy won't be destroyed because of backed up cargo ships in LA/Long Beach. Don't be ridiculous Ryan.

It’s not just LA and Long Beach though. Similar problems are happening at a lot of major ports, at least in the US.

Cool. Now we have more space to store the empty containers temporaly. Is this going to solve the problem or only save us a few days?

It doesn't fix anything, but it creates buffer space that can potentially be used to fix things that otherwise can't be fixed

Real-time 3D bufferbloat visualisation! https://netduma.com/blog/beginners-guide-to-bufferbloat/ uses traffic as the metaphor, but future articles will use shipping containers.

How is bufferbloat related to the situation at hand?

Larger stacks is a larger buffer.

Just as the network can only have a relatively small amount of traffic actually "in flight" but lots can be stuck in buffers - so likewise only a relatively modest amount of containers can be on ships in the ocean.

You need a buffer or every little inconsistency reverberates and it gets out of hand, but bufferbloat shows how too much buffering makes things worse not better. If your metrics say (and some trivial metrics do) that the huge buffer is better, your actual experience contradicts that as everything feels like you're wading through molasses.

I don't have any relevant expertise to judge what the right metrics are for international shipping, but it certainly raised my eyebrows that "Let's make the buffer bigger" is seen as automatically a good idea.

Of course, a network buffer is very different from a container port's stacks, maybe this genuinely is going to make a huge difference. I think more likely it turns out to make no real difference, but can be portrayed as a genius idea that just wasn't embraced wholeheartedly enough to be effective.

Mmmm. Doesn't necessarily hold as packets don't exist sans payload. You'd have to add an extra layer on top of the TCP logic to represent the logistical processes involved with moving packets to be filled with payload which are themselves not payload to places they are to be filled.

In a way, it sets off more token ring-ish bells for me for some reason.

The metaphor is that a container is data.

“Bufferbloat is the undesirable latency that comes from a router or other network equipment buffering too much data. It is a huge drag on Internet performance created, ironically, by previous attempts to make it work better. The one-sentence summary is ‘Bloated buffers lead to network-crippling latency spikes.’”.

Increasing buffer sizes (increasing the number of containers stored) can have perverse effects that make the situation worse - although it is obviously unclear what the effects in this particular situation could be.

Hopefully the Flexport CEO has read the situation and consequences correctly and his suggestion helps, although chances are it won’t help much. Alternatively it could exacerbate the problem e.g. stacking more than two high could slow down retrieval enough that it ends up being net negative because truckers are deadlocked.

Destroying empty containers is one type of dropped packet. Destroying or discarding container contents (e.g. food gone off, end manufacturer gone out of business, parts sourced elsewhere) is another kind of dropped packet.

Quite a few comments here seem to imply this is some obvious silver bullet to fix the problem, when clearly the problem is far more complicated than that.

Hm, I think that analogy is too much of a stretch to yield interesting results, to be honest.

I suspect that global supply chain actors follow very different dynamics from naive TCP congestion control implementations (i.e. additive increase, multiplicative decrease), of which Bufferbloat is an emergent phenomenon.

Also, the solution to bufferbloat isn't making the buffers smaller again (there is no generic "correct" buffer size as that depends on the end-to-end RTT, but this can vary across flows at a given choke point). What works is to either make buffers or the endpoints' congestion control algorithms aware of the phenomenon.

The thing is, we're trying to solve a 90 day problem, where the packets have an 18 day round trip. And once an empty container is parked in a parking lot (without the trailer it's sitting on) you can just leave it there for years with close to zero consequences.

The downside at this point is that all the retail items for this holiday season won't be on shelves for christmas, so the damage done to brick and mortar sales industry has already been done

Your comment seems to imply that you know what the underlying cause is that lead to this pile up in the first place. What is it?

Related response by opendna “I checked into the claims in this port thread. While the facts are broadly correct, the policy response is not. I'm going point to some other possible choke-points, suggest solutions, and explain why some of the suggestions are counter-productive.”


They should’ve used Kubernetes

* Own the bottleneck of your business.

* The most capital intensive process of your business should be the bottleneck.

* When you find a bottleneck not of your making, overwhelm it.

> The most capital intensive process of your business should be the bottleneck.

Can you explain what this means? You find the bottleneck, then invest the most capital to improve it? Or whatever you're investing the most is the bottleneck? Or something else?

I'm not a business person, but I assume it means this:

Say you run a factory making widgets, and the process has several steps. One of the steps requires a very expensive machine. That step is the most capital intensive. You want that machine to always be running at its maximum throughput. You do not want it to be idle waiting for some other step, otherwise that big capital investment is being wasted. When the machine is at maximum throughput then it is also your bottleneck.

Hence, you want the bottleneck to be at the most capital intensive process in the business, to maximise the productivity of your capital.

@Animats said > A place that just stacks empty containers 2 high probably only has large forklifts. The special equipment for high stacking is far more expensive, and only bought if you need it.[2]

Some facts:

1) Container Height: 8'6". Add approx 4" for the lift slots on the bottom.

2) Forklift with 22' lift available from Sunbelt = 3 Container Height / 50% increase in yard capacity https://www.sunbeltrentals.com/equipment/detail/1044/0550320...

3) Common "construction" type forklift with 39' lift from United Rentals = 4 Container Height / 100% increase in yard capacity. https://www.unitedrentals.com/marketplace/equipment/forklift...

And United has forklifts with even higher reach available.

If you order one now, the factory in china will ship it to you as soon as they can get it through the port in Long Beach.

Those don't look like they can lift a shipping container.

We lift empty containers with smaller forklifts at my place of employment. The target for this problem space is stacking empty not full containers.

Something to recognize.

Logistics can be somewhat thought of as a flow problem.

If demand far exceeds supply, and both supply and demand stay constant, the backlog will continue to get worse in severity over time.

For the problem to get better, either demand has to decline, or supply has to increase. However, the ability to expand supply seems limited in the short term. E.g. how long does it take to improve port throughput, or build new container ships?

Translating to the real world, think every ship stuck at the port removes another ship/containers from being able to pick up new goods which creates a self reinforcing problem.

Or thought another way, if the port can only unload 10,000 containers a day, and 20,000 containers a day are showing up, the number of backlogged containers will increase linearly with time.

Just yesterday we hit a record number of ships backlogged at the CA port, so I suspect this is exactly the situation we're in.

The free market will eventually solve by either supply throughput breakthroughs, or prices continuing to rise until demand destruction kicks in.

I want to lay a few stats out here. Retail sales has been ~20% elevated from 2019 levels since the pandemic started, primarily due to government benefits/stimulus checks.


Some is due to spending habits changing, but that's likely a smaller portion.

Check real personal income over the course of the pandemic.


Enhanced UI has ended, but it seems consumers are relying on credit now to maintain the same level of spending. It's not clear how long this will last, but it could be months, judging by the consumer loan data here.


Note that many consumers paid off debts with the stimulus, is why this chart dips at the end. But we're quickly climbing back. Given lower interest rates, it's likely this can persist a few more months at current trend.

I suspect this will end organically whenever consumer credit is maxed out, and demand falls. But at the same time, wages are increasing fairly rapidly now... Is it possible higher wages can continue to support this new level of demand?

Probably in part, but not entirely.

You can’t flat out say the rise in retail sales is due to stimulus. There are a lot of disruptions over the last year that have shifted spend from things like dining out and travel.

This chart tells you most of what you need to know.


This shows the insane increase in personal income over the course of the pandemic.

Many made more money on enhanced UI benefits than in their line of work. This is a known fact.

People in this situation have more propensity to spend the marginal dollar than higher income earners. Spending as a percentage of income inversely trends with level of income.

It's true that some percentage of retail spending is spending shifted from other categories, but given personal income data, I doubt that's the primary cause.

Also keep in mind, there was mortgage forbearance, rent forgiveness, and student loan moratorium (which is still ongoing I believe).

Those factors don't show up in income, but will shift expenses from loan interest to goods most likely.

I do know something else not specified by the chart.

Everyone's been stuck at home and purchasing consumer items that would usually be bought in bulk and supplied by employers, restaurants, etc.

Claiming it's government spending as the cause and not covid as the cause seems silly

The ability to spend is constrained by aggregate income and available credit in society.

Shifts in spending from services to goods can only alter consumption patterns so much.

Here is the Fed data on services spending: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PCESV

As you can see, services spending is equivalent to 2019 levels today, while goods spending is 20% higher.

Consider the level of fiscal stimulus, monetary stimulus through lower rates (cheaper credit), and expense reduction (moratoriums, forbearance).

The sheer magnitude of demand stimulation is frankly obvious, even without digging into the data. Of course, the data backs up this theory as well.

Saying it's "covid" isn't saying anything at all. You have to quantify what you're suggesting. What is the mechanism that can explain persistently higher goods spending? The data doesn't bear out substitution as the primary mechanism, either way.

There’s a backlog of savings from limited service spending that is being worked through right now.

Do you disagree that aggregate personal income was massively enhanced through stimulus spending? The facts show this.

You seem very intent on not considering that fact when it's the most obvious factor by a wide margin, with all of the data supporting it.

Are you aware of the size of federal deficit spending in 2020/2021? The level of monetary policy easing leading to more credit availability to consumers?

It's intellectually dishonest to attribute elevated retail sales solely, or even primarily to the substitution effect

You can see here that the trend line for imports is consistent for the past 4 years: https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/imports

So you could say that it’s the deficit (e.g. the big tax cut from 4 years ago) that precipitated to this.

My point is that “stimulus equals problems at the ports” is likely an overly simplistic answer.

How much upshifting in jobs has occurred?

Before the pandemic we talked about unfilled jobs looking for computer programmers and other higher paid positions. How many people moved from 'social' jobs to ones that required more skills but pay more?

You mean all those underemployed software engineers and all the trained programmers forced to wait tables because they couldn’t get a programming job?

That is not how I remember the world in 2019.

You took that the wrong way. Software engineers moved up. I've gotten 2 promotions since the pandemic started. I'm talking about people shifting industries in to ones that have been short staffed, like programming, and leaving the crap jobs behind.

Stimulus is a small part. The 6 Trillion dollar deficit spending over the last two years increases disposable income whether it consists of checks being mailed out to households or Pfizer or Boeing. It ends up in people's pockets and is not matched by a corresponding increase in taxes.


There is a huge parking lot near the Queen Mary / Cruise Terminal in my recollection. Perhaps that could be appropriated for a time. It’s far easier to relocate cars/shuttle passengers than to move shipping containers a great distance.

Build stuff here! I can’t imagine how much fossil fuel is being wasted in this process.

I'm not sure on the USA but I know that to clear such a logjam will require a lot of workers who might be casual workers. What's the expected impact on these workers?

surprised that the local busybodies responsible for the height limit haven't shown up and decried the new stacks as "luxury containers"

It seems like the Flexport CEO made this happen. Good on him. What an idiotic, self-inflicted wound. Regulation needs to crawl out of the stone ages.

Wow this could be really serious, who could have predicted the world economy could crash on too many containers brought on by an epidemic.

> Also containers are not fungible between carriers, so the truckers have to drop their empty off at the right terminal. This is causing empty containers to pile up.

What does this mean? The individual containers are owned by carriers?

Could this be allieveted also by agreements between carriers (or a merger)?

Or is there some other reason containers are "sticky" to carriers?

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