Reserved Buoyancy, Down-Flooding, and Living Off the Grid

In my introductory post I promised I would be writing about my Grand Unifying Theory of Slack, but so far have only hinted at my notions around its importance.

I wrote the below last July, as a private email to a friend, after a boating accident crystalized some thoughts that had been rolling around in my head. His response was “Nice! If only there were some way you could express these views on a website!”

At the time I time I thought this was too disjointed and specialized to be of interest to The League, but in light of the last week’s events, it seems more accessible now:

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Reserved Buoyancy, Down-Flooding, and Living Off the Grid

The 34-foot Kandi Won, raised by float-bags after her tragic July 4th capsize and sinking

Reserve buoyancy is the term used to describe the unused buoyancy in a vessel, the buoyancy that will rescue her in the event of unusual circumstances that would (without reserve buoyancy) drive her down, past the point of return, resulting in either capsize or even sinking. Barges that navigate narrow channels do so with their decks nearly awash, all buoyancy devoted to the conveyance of cargo; vessels that navigate in the high latitudes, where rough conditions are the rule rather than the exception, have generous freeboard, “wasted” buoyancy that really isn’t wasted at all.

This Fourth of July three children were murdered by their father. [I later learned it was the children’s uncle who was operating the vessel.]

He murdered them by overloading his boat; it was rated for about 15, reports say he was carrying about 30. On a still July evening, Long Island sound can be as still as a medieval French canal, and an overburdened boat could be expected to navigate without incident. But Long Island Sound is not a canal, it’s an open body of water subject to all manner of conditions that can be classed as unexpected only in as much as the moment of arrival cannot (always) be known in advance. Sudden storms, ferry wakes, vessels operating conditions of poor visibility at unsafe speeds and/or without lights.

In this case the proximate cause of the murder seems to be a ferry wake. A large ferry can throw a wave of four feet or more, and more importantly, the wave will be very steep. A boat suddenly upset will throw her cargo (people, taconite pellets, loose water in the bilge) to the low side, where it does the most harm. Once the down-flooding starts — over the rail, or even through an open hatch — the vessel is doomed. The water seeks the low point of the vessel, dragging her down. The three children’s bodies were found trapped in the cabin of their father’s capsized and sunk cruiser. Tragic, and infuriatingly avoidable.


In his 2010 WIF talk, Nasim Nicolas Talibe talked about building financial systems that are robust, not fragile, and at the time you may recall that I wrote you a note about the difference between a cruising monohull and a racing multihull; the fineness of the edge a racing multihull operates on, the the consequences if she’s mishandled or simply unlucky.

Reserved Buoyancy, Down-Flooding, and Living Off the Grid

The racing trimaran IDEC, capsized off Shinnecock Inlet by a summer squall

Reserved Buoyancy, Down-Flooding, and Living Off the Grid

Our $279 Chinese-made generator, deployed to run our fridge the day after Sandy

We ordered a generator. At $279 for a 4KW unit, how could we say no? And we need it. Final assembly of MON TIKI will take place on a beach, and there will be some last minute fitting. A hand-saw would probably do the job, but being able to run a circular saw or power drill will be welcome and speed the process. With four guys at $15/hour, the generator pays for itself quickly. [In fact, final assembly took place on the grid at Montauk Marine Basin.]

Reserved Buoyancy, Down-Flooding, and Living Off the Grid

A Ford f-150 pickup

Not too long ago Steve Randy Waldman (@interfluidity) tweeted a link to an essay that asserted that Greeks aren’t lazier than Germans, that in fact they work harder. They work harder, but they live in an economy that is not as well lubricated by infrastructure, and so much of their time and effort is lost. When they go down to the auto parts store to get a whatzits for their Ford F150, they hear “next week” or “next month” or never.

Reserved Buoyancy, Down-Flooding, and Living Off the Grid

Between San Marteen and St. Croix, tied in and reading “What Hath God Wrought”

I have some experience with living off the grid. In the Winter of 2009-2010 I lived on my boat for seven months. During that time I made all my own electricity and collected most of my water from rain. What I can tell you from that experience is that there are a lot of things you end up not doing because your infrastructure won’t support it. You end up with a lot of free time, which is very nice if your mentally prepared to enjoy it, but it’s not especially productive, at least not productive in the way that a modern economy values it. You sit around a lot. You swim a lot. You read a lot of books. You sleep.

You are also a free-rider, because all of the things that make your lay-about lifestyle possible come from busy, buzzing modern economies where people aren’t wondering if there will be electricity to run their factories and stores. (We had a brief power outage at the boat shop this year. Four guys standing around with their thumbs up their asses while I tried to figure out what if anything we could do without power.)

In one of my earliest notes to you I told you how much I admired James Gleik’s concept of tightly coupled systems vis a vie modern computer-modeled commercial airline scheduling, and how it related to my own ideas about slack.

Slack is a slow growing species, like a tree. Without constant effort to beat back the weeds, slack will be overwhelmed, choked out, and then it won’t be there when it’s needed. Short-sighted commercial entities mistake slack for inefficiency and work very hard to uproot and destroy it.

Well functioning civic institutions work to preserve slack. A city might have extra snowplows. A university might have a arabic department. A public utility might have more repair crews that it needs during ordinary conditions. A boat might have high freeboard.

I don’t think the down-flooding has started (a person I admire wrote “small corrections would be sufficient, if they’re made in time”), but I don’t think there’s enough reserve buoyancy that we could stand another big upset.

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I do not mean to suggest that Sandy is the beginning of the down-flooding. Sandy is a blow, but not a mortal one. Even as the water is (literally) being pumped out, already you can see the “ship” (figuratively) starting to right itself.

I do mean to suggest that Sandy offers us a chance to think about our priorities and assumptions, and perhaps even make sensible adjustments.

 

 

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19 thoughts on “Reserved Buoyancy, Down-Flooding, and Living Off the Grid

  1. Great piece, Mr. Ryan. This is definitely where this libertarian sees the role of The State; people are terrible at assessing risk, and capitalism pushes towards as low of a freeboard as possible while still afloat. Which is fine in equilibrium but not when the system gets pushed off of it.

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    • I’ll second all of Kolohe’s comment. I think the state tries to do too many things, and I think it tries to produce too many things for which it could just act as the coordinator of private producers. But it’s a good source of slack. An imperfect one of course, so it can be critiqued endlessly for its imperfections there, but of course there are no perfect human institutions, and in its absence I think we’d find our degree of slack even more imperfect.

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    • Kolohe:

      People can be very good at assessing risk however it requires a brutal honesty about ones skills, the environment and the capabilities of one’s machine whether on the water or in the air. I grew up around aircraft and I took flying lessons in college where I quickly learned to be conservative in my estimation of my skills and my craft.

      As far as your statement about capitalism, that is moronic.

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      • Capitalism, or really, free markets, have a dynamic where efficiency is rewarded (pretty much above all else). Which, on net, is a good thing. Productivity enables everyone to have more stuff and quality of life, and creates wealth ex-nihilo.

        But if the system is too finely balanced, any perturbation will cause the entire system to fall apart.

        Another nautical design concept is having baffle plates in your liquid tanks. If you have too big of a free surface area, any roll will cause the liquid to slosh over to one side, furthering the roll and potentially creating a feedback where the entire vessel rolls completely over and capsizes. Similarly (I would argue), if you just have supply and demand – or simply just money – ‘sloshing’ around with any barriers, you can get to a point where it’s all built up on one side, puting the entire system at risk (as we saw in the 2008 financial crisis).

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        • That’s what I was gonna initially criticize. The idea that “People can be very good at assessing risk however it requires a brutal honesty … i>” is the type of argument I have a really big pet peave about. It’s that since it’s possible that people could these things, there’s no reason for them to not do these things.

          But what does “possible” mean in this context? It’s surely not an epistemic possibility. It’s a metaphysical possibility, which could only be realized if people were different than they in fact are.

          That’s a very prevalent, and entirely nonsensical argument, it seems to me.

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  2. Well put about slack, it also applies to supply chains where I saw an interesting article saying that the costs of failures due to insufficient slack in supply chains has been taken by insurance companies, who are pushing back. It does raise a question which also relates to the whole idea of disaster preparedness, how much to spend to mitigate things before they happen? Particularly if they may not happen for 30-50 years.

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    • There’s an entire branch of mathematics dedicated to this problem, Markov Chains. Classic problem: how many registers should a grocery store open? Let a long enough queue of shoppers form and the store manager should open another register. How long should that queue get before opening that extra register?

      There’s a family of EDI transactions related to this problem. Pfizer sells Listerine to large retailers. When existing inventories of Listerine fall to an agreed-upon threshold, a restocking order is automatically placed. But if product is moving fast enough, the threshold can be automatically raised.

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  3. Very nice and thought-provoking piece. I’ve had some unformed ideas about this for a long time now, that amount to

    * The market is very good at micro-optimization
    * There’s no reason to think that the sum of all the micro-optimizations is globally optimal

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        • Snowboarding and -skiing both have a couple (and surprisingly, fairly different) counter-intuitive non-instinctive things you have to learn to do. In skiing, you need to resist your natural instinct to lean back – you need to lean downhill, and lower your center of gravity over the center of the skis. Snowboarding requires you to use your front foot in ways that seem downright dangerous, if you ever want to reverse board direction – it took a little while to work up the courage to even attempt.

          I’m an OK skiier but a novice snowboarder, and I have been told that part of my learning curve on snowboarding, is unlearning my skiing habits.

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  4. A very nice essay with your trademark structure, Mr. Ryan. I now grasp the term “freeboard,” and its practical significance, much better.

    Hurricane Sandy’s economic impact will be vitiated by the role of insurance. Worth consideration for the libertarian and the progressive alike is the appropriate–and the feasible extent of–role of the government as a vitiator of risk.

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  5. You touch on two of my favorite subjects here, both of which are deserving of more time.

    US policy on the electric grid since the early- or mid-1990s has been oriented towards squeezing the slack out. Market forces were supposed to get rid of the excess generating capacity that vertically-integrated utilities maintained, and regulators of the monopoly distribution systems have become completely intolerant of excess capacity in any area (eg, crews and equipment for restoring broken lines). Reuters has an interesting story up about the shortage of replacements for broken utility poles hampering efforts to restore power post-Sandy.

    Almost everyone who goes “off the grid” still makes use of gear that requires there to be large cities somewhere that can develop and manufacture most of the stuff they use. One of my favorite pieces that ignored reality was by Doug Fine a few years ago. In designing his post-apocalyptic tribe, an electrician who could maintain the solar panels was high on his list. Not a word about carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, or any of the other basic skills that a tribe in a self-sufficient village would need.

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