Five things I have learned this week #6

1 — Freight rates are shooting up. Whilst most Britons will look to Brexit as the cause, turns out we’re not that important in the global context — we don’t ship much in and out of the UK compared to many other countries. The rise is really down to the pandemic. The world’s governments, learning from their lukewarm responses to the financial crisis, have spent lavishly on their citizens, who in turn have spent lavishly. But in a normal economy where you spend on goods and services, the service sector has been shut down and therefore we’ve spent all of our money on goods.

With container volumes falling from January to May in 2020, containers and ships ended up in the wrong places. When demand picked up again in June, it rocketed — by Q4, container volumes on transpacific routes were up 30% YoY. But the backlogs started to creep in; COVID-safe working practices slowed down port operations, ships ended up queueing for longer and then skipping ports altogether to catch up on their schedules, manufacturing of containers themselves had slowed creating another shortage, some ships had to quarantine themselves due to onboard cases.

The end result is the price for shipping has quadrupled. The World Container Index for a 40ft container stood at an average of $1,300 at any time from January 2019 to May 2020. In July, the price went to $2,000, in September $2,500 and then to $5,200 over Christmas, where it’s stabilised.

2 —There is a Grape Nuts shortage in the US. Grape Nuts fall into that weird category of consumer products that, if they didn’t already exist, would never be created today. I can imagine the sales pitch: “Grape Nuts are tiny, tasteless, little bits of baked flour. It’s like a breakfast cereal, but comes in a small box meaning a serving is small, and eating them makes you feel like you’re cracking your teeth.”

And yet a lot of people (my parents included) have them in the cupboard, because they’ve always had them. They don’t really go off and they do add a little sprinkly crunch to your breakfast. I bought a box purely because the UK has no shortage, and am delighted to report they’re as weirdly addictive and teeth cracking as ever. Back in the 1990s, the branding looked like it was designed in the 1950s. There is now new branding, which looks like it was designed in the early ’90s. I look forward to buying a box in thirty years’ time and seeing branding designed today.

3 — My personal clickbait is articles on words in foreign languages that do not have a ready translation into English. My new personal favourite is ‘bàofùxìng áoyè’, a Mandarin word which roughly translates as Revenge Bedtime Procrastination, the concept of not going to sleep because the final hours of the day are the only ones that truly belong to you. Your entire day is owned by work, your evening requires cooking, cleaning, personal admin — but as the clock approaches midnight, you stay up too late because that’s your time for revenge on the tyranny of your schedule.

4 — Whilst enjoying some bàofùxìng áoyè this week, I ended up watching the opening half an hour of Tomorrow Never Dies and noticed something that obviously wasn’t remarkable back in 1997. After Bond, M and Geoffrey Palmer’s Admiral argue over how to deal with the situation, Bond, M and Robinson (one of M’s aides) take a car back to MI6. The time can’t have been later than around lunchtime, and both M and Robinson are holding glasses of whisky. In the car. Whilst discussing a national crisis. I don’t think they’d use those props today, which is a shame.

5 — In 2005 Maspro Denkoh, a Japanese electronics firm, decided to sell off its $20m impressionist art collection. Unable to choose between Christies and Sothebys, the firm’s president asked the auction houses to send a representative to his boardroom, where they would play Paper, Rock, Scissors to determine the victor. Sotheby’s decided to just guess, but the Christies representative, Kanae Ishibashi, took the game seriously and decided to ask the 11 year old twin daughters of one of her colleagues for some tips. Start with Scissors, she was told by Flora Maclean, one of the twins. “Rock is way too obvious and scissors beats paper.”

Instead of actually throwing fists, the players were asked to write their opening move on a piece of paper. Sotheby’s chose paper gifting Ms Ishibashi the win. Flora elaborated on her answer a decade later in an interview with the New York Times: “You never choose paper…it’s a weak move.”

Co-Founder of the Port of Leith Distillery