Container Monitoring and Supply Chains
On Friday, there was a Moment on Twitter:
Ryan Petersen is the CEO of Flexport, a technology company in the logistics space. In general, it’s very hard to determine what this type of company does from its website. However, the top-level story is clear: you pay them to make sure your supply chain works, and they do what is necessary to make it work.
His first recommendation was “override zoning laws for storage of empty containers” to address gridlock issues. Later that day, the mayor of Long Beach issued an emergency order doing exactly that. After months of watching politicians in Washington do nothing while negotiating a bill identified by its price, it is a breath of fresh air to see an idea go from inception to implementation in one calendar day.
Even a minimal display of competence and action is enough to gain fanatical devotion in today’s difficult times; the Hacker News crowd1 is filled with people ready to anoint him based on one good suggestion. Unfortunately, the other suggestions are not nearly as good. Step 4 of the plan is to go Ma Chalmers on the railroad industry.
But apart from that, the question must be asked: is it actually working?
The Actual Data
How many containers were unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles in the last hour?
The Port of LA’s website provides monthly data and claims that 903,864.60 TEUs2 were loaded in September. That number counts both containers loaded and unloaded; so around 450000 container arrivals. That’s roughly 625 containers per hour; higher at peak when you assume a diurnal pattern to activity.
They also link to a website https://signal.portoptimizer.com/ which claims to provide weekly data. However, as it provides a hard number of 139,415 TEUs for the period October 24-30 (aka “Week 43”; note that I am writing this on October 24), I must assume the statistics are estimates or requests.
That weekly data suggest there is not a current slowdown at the Port of Los Angeles at all; presuming the Week 41 data is correct, the bottleneck/work slowdown problem was solved earlier in October. It shows we are now seeing oscillations, which can be explained by predictable down-stream bottlenecks such as warehouse capacity.
Monitoring of other containers
If a Kubernetes cluster offered no better than one-week visibility on “CPU utilization”, I would either start laughing or start swearing. I’d like 2-minute resolution, downsampled to 1 hour for long-term historical data, with the option to enable 1-second resolution when troubleshooting.
Obviously data on “containers per second” is a bit too detailed. But why isn’t there data on how many containers were unloaded in the past hour?
The data may exist but not be public. Either vague concerns about “valuable business data”, vague concerns about “national security”, or vague concerns about “union objections to panopticon management” could kibosh the idea.
It might simply not matter to the management of the Port of LA how efficient the port is under normal circumstances. Surely time is money, and surely the various shippers would prefer other ports if dwell times were too high due to inefficiencies.
It might be difficult to obtain the data. Surely that’s not a real objection; crane activity is easily tracked. Certainly there is tracking for containers that is at least as good as Fedex/UPS consumer package tracking; and it can easily be aggregated.
I must assume the data does exist, and it is simply not available to the general public. What I cannot guess about is whether it is available to the state or federal government.
It seems everyone expects Pete Buttigieg to solve the problem. Yet it wasn’t McKinsey Alumnus Mayor Pete out on a boat, it was some tech CEO. Why?
I won’t bore you with theories of how the US government is sclerotic and ineffective. I’m sure readers can work this out on their own.
The various “why is Pete on paternity leave” complaints are not entirely accurate; Buttigieg’s 2 months of paternity leave has already ended. Also, the government is not just one man and a well-run department shouldn’t collapse if he is gone.
Also, port operations may be under the Department of Homeland Security. Alejandro Majorkas isn’t a celebrity, so nobody is complaining about him.
The final issue is that this may not really be a supply chain issue. It may be simple economics. Thanks to the various COVID-related stimulus packages, there has been substantial real inflation since January 2020; my estimate is 15%. That’s a main reason why the stock market hasn’t gone down in dollar terms in that period.
Yet retail prices have not adjusted. Everything is on sale, so people are buying more. Until prices go up, demand may outpace supply, and there will be shortages.
As this is not politically convenient for either Democrats nor Republicans, I expect it will be avoided as a discussion point as much as possible. The question of “why are we dependent on boxes coming from China” is also not politically convenient, even for Mr. Trump; while Trump may love the politics of being opposed to Chinese trade he surely understands that his supporters prefer having (Chinese-made) goods to not having them.
What is the Hacker News crowd? To the hoi polloi, HN is metonymy for YCombinator, which is causing gentrification or promoting Peter Thiel’s views or doing something else bad. To the tech industry, HN is known for infamous comments suggesting that nobody would use Dropbox because FTP + SVN can do the same thing for free.
Twenty-foot Equivalent Units. Containers that are not 20 feet long are counted fractionally.