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