The Next Wave of Urban Growth

Where the Next Wave of Urban Growth Will Come From, the Harvard Business Review looks at a study from McKinsey, detailing the economic centrality of cities, vs. national economies.  Large cities and modest countries are now of the same scale, and cities are growing much much faster, economically.  If you’re going where the market is, most likely, it’s in a bunch of towns you’ve never heard of, each with a population of several million.  Mad change.

The Neapolitan Mob’s Most Dangerous Family

A character sketch of Paolo di Lauro, one of the Neapolitan Camorra’s former leaders.  Southern Italy it seems, like some parts of Mexico, operates with more than one quasi-state organization governing in parallel.  A tacit negotiation between the official and unofficial systems, which sometimes erupts into violence — ironically, at those times when the so-called “criminal” organizations have become weak.

Occupy Oakland’s Port Action

ZunguZungu’s account of the Occupy Oakland Port Action.  I really wonder how far this all will go.  It’s amazing how the informational connections we’ve created in the world are playing out.  How quickly things echo and get re-interpreted by new minds.  The derivative is still positive, so far as I can tell.

US Ikea workers complain about factory conditions

There’s some controversy over working conditions at an Ikea plant in Virginia.  Apparently wages start at $8/hr, with 12 days of paid vacation (8 of which are determined by the company).  Oh, and also you’ll often be informed Friday evening that you have no choice but to work over the weekend too.  And don’t even think about unionizing.  Sweet!  It’s just like we keep saying about all those workers in China that make our cheap plastic crap.  “At least they’ve got jobs.”  I sense that we’re going to have to re-learn all of the lessons about balancing the rights of labor and capital that we already learned so bloodily about 100 years ago.  Only now, maybe we get to learn it in the context of becoming an exploited low-wage nation in a global economy.  Ikea workers doing the same jobs in Sweden make $19/hr and get 5 weeks of paid vacation a year.  And they’re all unionized.

Moms market

Further developments in India’s commercial surrogacy market.  As the government mulls more detailed regulations, existing rules are already being neatly side-stepped.  For instance, sex-selection is not permitted in India, but it is in Panama, so the embryo screening is done on the isthmus, with those selected forwarded to the subcontinent for implantation.  Egg banks in India now stock a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds from international donors.  It’s a baby smorgasbord.  Gattaca, here we come!

The Missing Wikipedians

An interesting analysis of the cultural biases of the Wikipedia.  As participation by the developing world increases, we need to come up with a better way of assessing “notability”.  Especially with English, shared language is not shared culture or context.  We in the west may see Kenyan pop cultural references as unworthy of note… but that’s not how they see it!  Personally I’d rather see it become a truly global repository of knowledge.  The less insular we are, the better.

When do fuel costs actually matter?

Kim Stanley Robinson gave a fun talk at Google a couple of years ago in which he brought up the possibility of large, slow, wind powered live-aboard bulk freighters, among other ideas.  I was reminded of it by this post from Alex Steffen.  Especially for commodities like coal, grains and ore — non-perishable goods that get carried in bulk carriers — what matters is the net flux of materials and the predictability of supply.  More (or larger) slow ships can deliver the same flux as fewer high speed ones.  International contracts for these goods can span decades.  If fuel prices became a significant portion of their overall cost, it would be worthwhile to make this kind of ships-for-fuel substitution.  However, it turns out that fuel is a vanishingly small proportion of the overall cost of most internationally traded goods.


Our neighbors in Pasadena moved back to Thailand, and packed their entire household into a single half-sized shipping container.  The cost to get it from their home in SoCal to their home outside Bangkok was $2000.  Their combined airfare was probably a larger fraction of the cost of moving across the Pacific.  You can get a full-sized shipping container moved from point A to point B, anywhere within the global shipping network, for several thousand dollars.  If your cargo is worth significantly more than that, then you don’t have to worry about Peak Oil destroying your business.  For a typical container carrying $500,000 worth of goods, the shipping costs (not all of which are related to fuel!) represent about 1% of the final costs of the goods.  If fuel prices were to go up by a factor of ten, the shipping costs would still only represent 10% of the overall cost.  This would have an effect on business, to be sure, but it would not cause global trade to collapse.

Continue reading When do fuel costs actually matter?

The Box That Changed the World

The cost of moving a shipping container between most any two points on Earth is about $5000, and only part of that cost is fuel.  So if your container of goods is worth much more than that, then their price and the viability of your business is not going to be particularly sensitive to the cost of liquid fuels.  You can pack half a million dollars worth of manufactured goods into one of these boxes.  Increase the price of oil by a factor of ten and the cost of those goods goes up by 10%.  Annoying?  Sure.  World changing?  Hardly.