The healing power of Slack

Today I happened to watch Randy Pausch’s lecture on time management. It’s in the same breathless spirit as David Allen’s Getting Things Done work. And both of these, after all, are just the newest forms of time management techniques that have been around since Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies. At their heart, these techniques boil down to something like this: always have a goal, always be doing, always measure your progress against your goal. Waste not.

Inefficiency, or slack, is the sworn enemy of Taylorism and modern scientific management. And we have banished slack so completely that unexpected new problems arise. One example of this is traffic. If you look at the space between cars on a typical highway, you might conclude that it is inefficient. May we not, in the name of maximizing throughput, squeeze out that space? But even if you discount the safety issues associated with tailgating, researchers have discovered that crowding between cars contributes to flow-choking traffic jams. At a critical car density and speed, a simple tap on the brakes can initiate a backward traveling wave that ultimately locks up traffic somewhere upstream.

Here’s a video showing what these waves look like in practice.

How do you calm a traffic jam? Feed it space. Add more slack in the form of restrained acceleration, lower speed limits, and more space between cars.

That’s old news. Here’s something more relevant to our Recent (and Ongoing) Financial Unpleasantness.

Paul Kedrosky writes about where false efficiencies get in the way of market stability. Automatic rebalancing is a financial tool that guarantees a certain balance to a financial portfolio. When it gets out of balance by, say, 3%, automatic buy and sell orders are placed to rebalance things. This works fine when the weather is calm, but when the markets are in turmoil, and when everybody is using the same automatic rebalancing robots, destructive waves can result. What to do? Feed those robots a dose of slack. Turn down the rebalance margins to 6%.

Slack doesn’t get the respect it deserves. “Nothing” isn’t nothing. Emptiness is solid and alive.

And when times get lean, don’t fret. Help yourself to fat slice of empty pie. It helps. Just ask Bob.