22.6.06

MASTERING MOMENTUM. There are advantages to moving stuff in quantity, whether we're talking about iron ore or people or lobsters or information. John McPhee, evidently a veteran New Yorker writer and Princeton faculty member, but we won't hold those things against him, collected a number of travel reports in Uncommon Carriers, Book Review No. 20. Mr McPhee goes on the road with an erudite chemical tanker (not to be confused with a farm pickup unit) driver , a towboat crew on the Illinois River (I must make a road trip to Starved Rock and file a report on the scenery and the waterway, it's a navigation challenge of a high order), a Union Pacific crew on the Powder River Line (Delay, Linger, and Wait, alluded to here), ship- and boat-masters on the world's most unforgiving ship simulator, old friends on Thoreau-era waterways of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and cargo-sorters in Louisville.

The common theme of the freight hauler is keeping something that is underpowered and underbraked in control while uninformed people operating small internal-combustion craft take long chances in close quarters. (Try stopping a ship in close quarters. A panic reversal of the screw will do nothing. A live-steam train scaled down as to weight as well as to dimensions will not stop in its own length if you shut it off The one I visited a few weeks ago will. Now bring a big rig down a hill using only your shifter to manage the speed. It's doable.)

One also learns that lobsters, like livestock, must rest and recover every 28 hours. Your Lobster-gram will have a lobster that has been tricked into thinking it is winter so as to keep it from molting, but it may have been kept in a holding tank for up to 10 days after being pulled out of the ocean, including those recovery intervals, so it won't taste like ammonia. They go from the coast of Maine to Louisville ... the UPS (I almost typed "United Parcel Service," but that's from my youth) sorting center to refit. Other products, some identified, some not, refit there. Somebody at UPS noticed a lot of traffic from individual consumers to service centers and offered companies the opportunity to set up a service center, or outsource the servicing to UPS, on the grounds of the service center. If you see a position announcement from UPS calling for a computer technician or an appliance repairman ... professionals study logistics.

The book compiles a number of Mr McPhee's articles in Atlantic and New Yorker, where there were some helpful illustrations. The book is not illustrated. The Atlantic version of "The Ships of Port Revel" included some illustrations that would put the ship simulator in context.


The small ones may look like your L. L. Bean duck skiff, but they weigh 7 1/2 tons and up (I know, ships are supposed to displace tonnage, but you don't want to fend off a 7 1/2 ton tanker simulator with your bare hands) with a small lawnmower engine for power and an index card for a rudder. (The classic Inland scows, which are notorious for their small rudders that can come out of the water on a screaming plane, have proportionately larger rudders as well as more maneuvering speed.)

In researching this post, I discovered reviews of this book from Town Topics, New York Times, and Washington Times, most of which find the lack of technical background unremarkable. It bothers me to read a book that offers an encomium to Great Lakes masters yet observes that "In swift-rising storms ore carriers have disappeared in thirty seconds." (After being in trouble for hours.)

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