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The worldwide shipping crisis is bad. Here are some reasons:

  1. “Just in time” manufacturing, shipping, delivery, and logistics. For several decades, the whole supply system has been optimized for “lean” everything. On the whole, no part of it fully comprehends breakdowns outside the scope of immediate upstream or downstream dependencies.
  2. The pandemic, which has been depriving nearly every sector of labor, intelligence, leadership, data, and much else, since early last year.
  3. Catastrophes. The largest of these was the 2021 Suez Canal Obstruction, which has had countless effects upstream and down.
  4. Competing narratives. Humans can’t help reducing all complex situations to stories, all of which require protagonists, problems, and movement toward resolution. It’s how our minds are built, and why it’s hard to look more deeply and broadly at any issue and why it’s here. (For more on that, see Where Journalism Fails.)
  5. Corruption. This is endemic to every complex economy: construction, online advertising, high finance, whatever. It happens here too. (And, like incompetence, it tends to worsen in a crisis.)
  6. Bureacracies & non-harmonized regulations. More about this below*.
  7. Complicating secondary and tertiary effects. The most obvious of these is inflation. Says here, “the spot rate for a 40-foot shipping container from Shanghai to Los Angeles rising from about $3,500 last year to $12,500 as of the end of September.” I’ve since heard numbers as high as $50,000. And, of course, inflation also happens for other reasons, which further complicates things.

To wrap one’s head around all of those (and more), it might help to start with Aristotle’s four “causes” (which might also be translated as “explanations”). Wikipedia illustrates these with a wooden dining table:

  • Its material cause is wood.
  • Its efficient cause is carpentry.
  • Its final cause is dining.
  • Its formal cause (what gives it form) is design.

Of those, formal cause is what matters most. That’s because, without knowledge of what a table is, it wouldn’t get made.

But the worldwide supply chain (which is less a single chain than braided rivers spreading outward from many sources through countless deltas) is impossible to reduce to any one formal cause. Mining, manufacturing, harvesting, shipping on sea and land, distribution, wholesale and retail sales are all involved, and specialized in their own ways, dependencies withstanding.

I suggest, however, that the most formal of the supply chain problem’s causes is also what’s required to sort out and solve it: digital technology and the Internet. From What does the Internet make of us?, sourcing the McLuhans:

“People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside…”

We are all inside a digital environment that is making each of us while also making our systems. This can’t be reversed. But it can be understood, at least to some degree. And that understanding can be applied.

How? Well, Marshall McLuhan—who died in 1980—saw in the rise of computing the retrieval of what he called “perfect memory—total and exact.” (Laws of Media, 1988.) So, wouldn’t it be nice if we could apply that power to the totality of the world’s supply chains, subsuming and transcending the scope and interests of any part, whether those parts be truckers, laws, standards, and the rest—and do it in real time? Global aviation has some of this, but it’s also a much simpler system than the braided rivers between global supply and global demand.

Is there something like that? I don’t yet know. Closest I’ve found is the UN’s IMO (International Maritime Organizaiton), and that only covers “the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships.” Not very encompassing, that. If any of ya’ll know more, fill us in.

[*Added 18 October] Just attended a talk by Oswald KuylerManaging Director of the International Chamber of Commerce‘s Digital Standards initiative, on an “Integrated Approach” by his and allied organizations that addresses “digital islands,” “no single view of available standards” both open and closed, “limited investments into training, change management and adoption,” “lack of enabling rules and regulations,” “outdated regulation,” “privacy law barriers,” “trade standard adoption gaps,” “costly technical integration,” “fragmentation” that “prevents paperless trade,” and other factors. Yet he also says the whole thing is “bent but not broken,” and that (says one slide) “trade and supply chain prove more resilient than imagined.”

Another relevant .org is the International Chamber of Shipping.

By the way, Heather Cox Richardson (whose newsletter I highly recommend) yesterday summarized what the Biden administration is trying to do about all this:

Biden also announced today a deal among a number of different players to try to relieve the supply chain slowdowns that have built up as people turned to online shopping during the pandemic. Those slowdowns threaten the delivery of packages for the holidays, and Biden has pulled together government officials, labor unions, and company ownership to solve the backup.

The Port of Los Angeles, which handles 40% of the container traffic coming into the U.S., has had container ships stuck offshore for weeks. In June, Biden put together a Supply Chain Disruption Task Force, which has hammered out a deal. The port is going to begin operating around the clock, seven days a week. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has agreed to fill extra shifts. And major retailers, including Walmart, FedEx, UPS, Samsung, Home Depot, and Target, have agreed to move quickly to clear their goods out of the dock areas, speeding up operations to do it and committing to putting teams to work extra hours.

“The supply chain is essentially in the hands of the private sector,” a White House official told Donna Littlejohn of the Los Angeles Daily News, “so we need the private sector…to help solve these problems.” But Biden has brokered a deal among the different stakeholders to end what was becoming a crisis.

Hopefully helpful, but not sufficient.

Bonus link: a view of worldwide marine shipping. (Zoom in and out, and slide in any direction for a great way to spend some useful time.)

The photo is of Newark’s container port, viewed from an arriving flight at EWR, in 2009.

A few days ago, in Figuring the Future, I sourced an Arnold Kling blog post that posed an interesting pair of angles toward outlook: a 2×2 with Fragile <—> Robust on one axis and Essential <—> Inessential on the other. In his sort, essential + fragile are hospitals and airlines. Inessential + fragile are cruise ships and movie theaters. Robust + essential are tech giants. Inessential + robust are sports and entertainment conglomerates, plus major restaurant chains. It’s a heuristic, and all of it is arguable (especially given the gray along both axes), which is the idea. Cases must be made if planning is to have meaning.

Now, haul Arnold’s template over to The U.S. Labor Market During the Beginning of the Pandemic Recession, by Tomaz Cajner, Leland D. Crane, Ryan A. Decker, John Grigsby, Adrian Hamins-Puertolas, Erik Hurst, Christopher Kurz, and Ahu Yildirmaz, of the University of Chicago, and lay it on this item from page 21:

The highest employment drop, in Arts, Entertainment and Recreation, leans toward inessential + fragile. The second, in Accommodation and Food Services is more on the essential + fragile side. The lowest employment changes, from Construction on down to Utilities, all tending toward essential + robust.

So I’m looking at those bottom eight essential + robust categories and asking a couple of questions:

1) What percentage of workers in each essential + robust category are now working from home?

2) How much of this work is essentially electronic? Meaning, done by people who live and work through glowing rectangles, connected on the Internet?

Hard to say, but the answers will have everything to do with the transition of work, and life in general, into a digital world that coexists with the physical one. This was the world we were gradually putting together when urgency around COVID-19 turned “eventually” into “now.”

In Junana, Bruce Caron writes,

“Choose One” was extremely powerful. It provided a seed for everything from language (connecting sound to meaning) to traffic control (driving on only one side of the road). It also opened up to a constructivist view of society, suggesting that choice was implicit in many areas, including gender.

Choose One said to the universe, “There are several ways we can go, but we’re all going to agree on this way for now, with the understanding that we can do it some other way later, thank you.” It wasn’t quite as elegant as “42,” but it was close. Once you started unfolding with it, you could never escape the arbitrariness of that first choice.

In some countries, an arbitrary first choice to eliminate or suspend personal privacy allowed intimate degrees of contract tracing to help hammer flat the infection curve of COVID-19. Not arbitrary, perhaps, but no longer escapable.

Other countries face similar choices. Here in the U.S., there is an argument that says “The tech giants already know our movements and social connections intimately. Combine that with what governments know and we can do contact tracing to a fine degree. What matters privacy if in reality we’ve lost it already and many thousands or millions of lives are at stake—and so are the economies that provide what we call our ‘livings.’ This virus doesn’t care about privacy, and for now neither should we.” There is also an argument that says, “Just because we have no privacy yet in the digital world is no reason not to have it. So, if we do contact tracing through our personal electronics, it should be disabled afterwards and obey old or new regulations respecting personal privacy.”

Those choices are not binary, of course. Nor are they outside the scope of too many other choices to name here. But many of those are “Choose Ones” that will play out, even if our choice is avoidance.

[This is the third of four posts. The last of those, Zoom’s new privacy policy, visits the company’s positive response to input such as mine here. So you might want to start with that post (because it’s the latest) and look at the other three, including this one, after that.]

I really don’t want to bust Zoom. No tech company on Earth is doing more to keep civilization working at a time when it could so easily fall apart. Zoom does that by providing an exceptionally solid, reliable, friendly, flexible, useful (and even fun!) way for people to be present with each other, regardless of distance. No wonder Zoom is now to conferencing what Google is to search. Meaning: it’s a verb. Case in point: between the last sentence and this one, a friend here in town sent me an email that began with this:

That’s a screen shot.

But Zoom also has problems, and I’ve spent two posts, so far, busting them for one of those problems: their apparent lack of commitment to personal privacy:

  1. Zoom needs to cleanup its privacy act
  2. More on Zoom and privacy

With this third post, I’d like to turn that around.

I’ll start with the email I got yesterday from a person at a company engaged by Zoom for (seems to me) reputation management, asking me to update my posts based on the “facts” (his word) in this statement:

Zoom takes its users’ privacy extremely seriously, and does not mine user data or sell user data of any kind to anyone. Like most software companies, we use third-party advertising service providers (like Google) for marketing purposes: to deliver tailored ads to our users about Zoom products the users may find interesting. (For example, if you visit our website, later on, depending on your cookie preferences, you may see an ad from Zoom reminding you of all the amazing features that Zoom has to offer). However, this only pertains to your activity on our website. The Zoom services do not contain advertising cookies. No data regarding user activity on the Zoom platform – including video, audio and chat content – is ever used for advertising purposes. If you do not want to receive targeted ads about Zoom, simply click the “Cookie Preferences” link at the bottom of any page on the site and adjust the slider to ‘Required Cookies.’

I don’t think this squares with what Zoom says in the “Does Zoom sell Personal Data?” section of its privacy policy (which I unpacked in my first post, and that Forbes, Consumer Reports and others have also flagged as problematic)—or with the choices provided in Zoom’s cookie settings, which list 70 (by my count) third parties whose involvement you can opt into or out of (by a set of options I unpacked in my second post). The logos in the image above are just 16 of those 70 parties, some of which include more than one domain.

Also, if all the ads shown to users are just “about Zoom,” why are those other companies in the picture at all? Specifically, under “About Cookies on This Site,” the slider is defaulted to allow all “functional cookies” and “advertising cookies,” the latter of which are “used by advertising companies to serve ads that are relevant to your interests.” Wouldn’t Zoom be in a better position to know your relevant (to Zoom) interests, than all those other companies?

More questions:

  1. Are those third parties “processors” under GDPR, or “service providers by the CCPAs definition? (I’m not an authority on either, so I’m asking.)
  2. How do these third parties know what your interests are? (Presumably by tracking you, or by learning from others who do. But it would help to know more.)
  3. What data about you do those companies give to Zoom (or to each other, somehow) after you’ve been exposed to them on the Zoom site?
  4. What targeting intelligence do those companies bring with them to Zoom’s pages because you’re already carrying cookies from those companies, and those cookies can alert those companies (or others, for example through real time bidding auctions) to your presence on the Zoom site?
  5. If all Zoom wants to do is promote Zoom products to Zoom users (as that statement says), why bring in any of those companies?

Here is what I think is going on (and I welcome corrections): Because Zoom wants to comply with GDPR and CCPA, they’ve hired TrustArc to put that opt-out cookie gauntlet in front of users. They could just as easily have used Quantcast‘s system, or consentmanager‘s, or OneTrust‘s, or somebody else’s.

All those services are designed to give companies a way to obey the letter of privacy laws while violating their spirit. That spirit says stop tracking people unless they ask you to, consciously and deliberately. In other words, opting in, rather than opting out. Every time you click “Accept” to one of those cookie notices, you’ve just lost one more battle in a losing war for your privacy online.

I also assume that Zoom’s deal with TrustArc—and, by implication, all those 70 other parties listed in the cookie gauntlet—also requires that Zoom put a bunch of weasel-y jive in their privacy policy. Which looks suspicious as hell, because it is.

Zoom can fix all of this easily by just stopping it. Other companies—ones that depend on adtech (tracking-based advertising)—don’t have that luxury. But Zoom does.

If we take Zoom at its word (in that paragraph they sent me), they aren’t interested in being part of the adtech fecosystem. They just want help in aiming promotional ads for their own services, on their own site.

Three things about that:

  1. Neither the Zoom site, nor the possible uses of it, are so complicated that they need aiming help from those third parties.
  2. Zoom is the world’s leading sellers’ market right now, meaning they hardly need to advertise at all.
  3. Being in adtech’s fecosystem raises huge fears about what Zoom and those third parties might be doing where people actually use Zoom most of the time: in its app. Again, Consumer Reports, Forbes and others have assumed, as have I, that the company’s embrasure of adtech in its privacy policy means that the same privacy exposures exist in the app (where they are also easier to hide).

By severing its ties with adtech, Zoom can start restoring people’s faith in its commitment to personal privacy.

There’s a helpful model for this: Apple’s privacy policy. Zoom is in a position to have a policy like that one because, like Apple, Zoom doesn’t need to be in the advertising business. In fact, Zoom could follow Apple’s footprints out of the ad business.

And then Zoom could do Apple one better, by participating in work going on already to put people in charge of their own privacy online, at scale. In my last post. I named two organizations doing that work. Four more are the Me2B Alliance, Kantara, ProjectVRM, and MyData.

I’d be glad to help with that too. If anyone at zoom is interested, contact me directly this time. Thanks.





Three weekends ago, we drove from New York to Baltimore to visit with family. We had planned this for awhile, but there was added urgency: knowing the world was about to change in a big way. Or in many big ways.

The hints were clear, from China and elsewhere: major steps would need to be taken—by people, businesses and governments—to slow the spread of a new virus against which there was yet no defense other than, mainly, hiding out. Not only were quarantines likely, but it was reasonable to suspect that whole sectors of the economy would be disabled.

Since then, all that has happened. And more.

On the drive down we also tried to guess, just among ourselves, about what would be the second, third and fourth order effects of, for example, shutting down retail,  education or other social and economic sectors. None of our guesses came close to what has happened since then, or what the full effects will be.

As of today, sports, live entertainment, conferences, travel, church, education, business, restaurants, and much more are closed, reduced, forbidden or sphinctered to trickles of activity. Levels of economic and social anesthesia, and degrees of personal freedom (and risk) differ widely by state, county and municipality. As for effects, however, it’s hard to see far beyond the obvious: domestic confinements, closed stores, empty streets, trucks still rolling down highways.

Two weeks ago today, a few days after that weekend, my wife and I relocated our butts to our house in Santa Barbara and haven’t left since then except for two quick trips to a market (by my wife) and daily long walks in the woods (by me). We are also working more than ever, it seems, mostly on our computers and phones. This Internet thing timed its existence well.

As for writing, a rule I generally fail to follow is the one Quakers have for silent meetings: “Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence.” But what we have now, with this coronavirus pandemic, is the opposite of silence. I don’t know how to improve on that, so I’ll default for now to the Quaker option.

Leaders in business and government do need to speak up, of course. I hope you listen to them and make up your own mind about what they say. Meanwhile I’ll stick to sharing what I hope might be useful, inside my own communities. Also trying to get some work done in what I’m sure we can all agree is a very pivotal moment in world history.

Another thing we might be sure about is that there will be no end to books, movies and plays about this moment in time. I just hope it’ll be fun, in at least some ways, to look back on it.