The Romance of Engineering:

I loved this Popular Science article on designing a more hurricane-resistant nail, which Orin pointed to below. And if you can't see the romance in this, then you aren't my kind of romantic.

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The Economics of Long-Distance Relationships:

Economists Tyler Cowen and Tim Harford provide an important insight into the dynamics of long-distance relationships:

Here's Harford (quoted by Tyler):

Economist Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University, has pointed out that the Alchian-Allen theorem applies to any long-distance relationship.

The theorem, briefly, implies that Australians drink higher-quality Californian wine than Californians, and vice-versa, because it is only worth the transportation costs for the most expensive wine. Similarly, there is no point in travelling to see your boyfriend for a take-away Indian meal and an evening in front of the telly. To justify the trip’s fixed costs, you will require champagne, sparkling conversation and energetic sex. Insist on it.

And Tyler himself:

[To make a long-distance relationship work] you must confront the Alchian and Allen Theorem. The higher the fixed cost, the "higher quality" a trip you will both tend to seek. . . . More concretely, who would fly across the country for a mere kiss on the cheek?

But moving too fast is dangerous and ill-advised. And in the longer run you will each "expect too much" from each visit. Remember the old question: "Are We Having Fun Now?" The quest for continual high-quality excitement is not conducive to casual down time together, which is the glue which binds relationships together in the longer run. The Alchian and Allen Theorem is a potent enemy of the all-important "low expectations" and that alone is one good reason to keep transportation costs low in your life.

In general, I'm not sure that economists are the best people to go to for dating advice (lawprofs are probably even worse). In this case, however, I think that Harford and Tyler have definitely hit the nail on the head. The Alchian-Allen dynamic certainly helps explain the failure of quite a few long-distance relationships I have observed (obviously a scientifically representative sample:)). If only I'd had the benefit of Tyler and Harford's insights at certain earlier points in my life.

I'm far less certain about the validity of Tyler's proposed solution to the problem:

Do something else with part of your trip to the west (east) coast. Lower expectations for the visit. Meet another friend too, or set up some business, or give a paper at a scintillating academic conference. Yes you will have less time with your potential beloved, but the remaining time will get you further toward where you want to be. How much time does one need to fall in love anyway?

Doing two things on your trip almost always further increases the cost, and therefore might actually raise the expected utility needed to make the trip in the first place. Moreover, it will probably reduce the time you get to spend with your significant other from an already dangerously low level; this poses several threats to the viability of the relationship that are probably too obvious to describe in detail. You may not need much time to fall in love, but you do need it to stay in love.

On the other hand, I don't know anyone who has empirically tested what we may call the Cowen Corollary to the Alchian-Allen Theorem. Maybe it actually works! If you run a foundation that funds academic research, perhaps you would like to give George Mason University a grant for the purposes of studying this important issue. Think of the many doomed long-distance relationships that could be saved! Sadly, I don't think that relying on Head Conspirator Eugene's "romance of engineering" is going to solve the problem....

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. It Is Their Care in All the Ages
  2. The Economics of Long-Distance Relationships:
  3. The Romance of Engineering:
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It Is Their Care in All the Ages

to take the buffet and cushion the shock. It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.

My post about the romance of engineering reminded me of one of my favorite poems, The Sons of Martha. I'd blogged about it in 2002 and again in 2004, so I figured that it was time to do it again, both for its substance and for a reminder that great poetry can be written about many subjects.

The poem is a reference to -- and in some ways a criticism of -- a passage from Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42:

[38] Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

[39] And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.

[40] But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

[41] And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

[42] But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

The word "careful," of course, means "full of care." Here then is the poem; oddly enough, my favorite parts are the first two lines of each stanza (except the last), but of course you have to read it all:

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains "Be ye remov’d." They say to the lesser floods "Be dry."
Under their rods are the rocks reprov’d -- they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit -- then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger Death at their gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden -- under the earthline their altars are --
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city's drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren's ways may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are bless’d -- they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confess’d, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet -- they hear the Word -- they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and -- the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!

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