Civil Engineering becomes “mud. And there is always mud.” Boxing is “hit. don’t get hit.” Economics is “incentives matter. Opportunity costs.” If you can get your mind around those two points then you’ll be doing better than all too many professional economists.
The first is obvious, people react to what they’ll get from doing or not doing something. The second is rather more subtle and it’s something that economists really do insist upon. The cost of doing something is whatever you give up to do that thing.
The cost of making love to your mistress is not making love to your wife that afternoon, not unless your lifestyle is very much more exciting than that of most of us. Being slightly more serious one of the costs of going into business making mobile phones is not being able to use the capital, the buildings, the land, to make cars.
We’ve had to give up our ambitions to be Henry Ford in order to be one of the Ambani brothers (preferably the one making money).
There are always opportunity costs because we can always be doing something else other than what we actually are doing. The cost of whatever it is is whatever it is we give up to do it.

That mistress and wife point is probably one that makes more sense to an older, rather than younger, man.

24 thoughts on “Elsewhere”

  1. Yes. because it’s physically possible for a younger man to pleasure his mistress at lunchtime and service his wife in the evening. Its labour-intensive and gives up the opportunity to go to sleep in front of the tele, but do-able.

  2. Water is more fun to play with in civil engineering. Drainage is something a lot of people don’t understand, which is odd given the behaviour of water is pretty obvious. A friend once told me you can seriously disrupt design meetings by asking “But where does the water go?”

  3. I find it scary how much water can be held in soil and clays. So much that a tremor from a little earthquake can turn wet clay into a liquid. Doesn’t happen often thankfully.

  4. Makes me hanker for the days of Lonrho and the buccaneering Tiny Rowland, who simply didn’t accept you couldn’t be doing everything. Companies are all so boring these days.

    Also puts me in mind of Dilbert’s Point-Haired Boss, asking “why can’t we specialise in everything?”

  5. If opportunity costs are one of the big two pillars of economics, presumably there has been plenty of work done on how to calculate the costs and assess their impact on economies.

    Every time I think about it things quickly become a confusion of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The Romans did something other than exploit the steam engine, and thus simply had no idea what they lost by not having a steam-industrial age. And there were almost certainly other possibilities not explored that are unknowable due to being lost in time (like tears in rain – sorry).

    So how can we ever know the costs of choosing one path over another?

  6. @PJF

    I have read somewhere, possibly unreliably, that the Romans would have been unable to exploit the Hero’s steam engine and its derivatives-that-never-happened on account of lacking the necessary engineering precision.

  7. But what comes first, the engineering precision allowing the steam engine to be exploited, or the wish to exploit the steam engine pushing improvement in engineering precision.

  8. jgh,

    Pretty sure the precision comes first, the opportunities next. I don’t think think anyone had the faintest idea what impact Whitworth’s screw would have.

  9. The main practical benefit of Babbage’s efforts to build his difference engine was to encourage the precision of engineering.

    Mud or Water? Well, take away the water and there won’t be any mud.

  10. I’ve seen Roman precision in Roman jewellery. The Romans didn’t lack precision.
    Jewellery can give you a pretty good handle to assess historical tech. We don’t use much different tech now to 2000 years ago. So you’re looking at alloying, metal joining (soldering & welding), annealing, wire drawing, sawing, drilling, casting, turning, filing…. You could knock up a fair piston steam engine at a goldsmith’s bench. Albeit a very small & expensive one. So, if they could do it, so could we.

    And, incidentally, you can stick most of those famous learned Greeks up your arse on the way past.Tradesmen were doing displacement, geometry, etc centuries before a bunch of kebab restaurateurs wrote it down & claimed it as their own. And were doing them right through the Dark Ages whilst the learned monks were calculating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin…. they were incapable of making. You learn Archimedes Principle building boats or assaying gold, not in a jacuzzi..

  11. You’re wrong TimN. Whitworth’s threads just made screws standardised across manufacturers. Engineers got on fine, each using their own standards. Early screw/hole pairs were unique. Didn’t stop them working.

  12. Out of interest, Tim, have you ever done any get-your-hands oily, back to basics, make-the tool-to-make-the-tool-to-make-the-tool engineering? Most paper engineers haven’t. One does a lot of rediscovering the history of engineering along the way. By necessity.

  13. BiS

    I think the “precision” claim related not to the ability of craftsmen to do fine work, a skill that long predates the Romans, but for engineering tolerances to be consistently met in a reproducible manner. As Tim N says, even the very idea of standardisation was revolutionary when it first emerged. As a separate issue, albeit closely related to standardisation, at what stage had the necessary measurement accuracy evolved for a plan to be followed?

  14. Tim Newman said:
    “I don’t think think anyone had the faintest idea what impact Whitworth’s screw would have”

    His wife or his mistress? (to take us back to the original post)

  15. Have you ever done any get-your-hands oily, back to basics, make-the tool-to-make-the-tool-to-make-the-tool engineering? Most paper engineers haven’t.

    Back in the day, they used to spend 8 months making Royal Naval graduate engineers do stuff like this before they were allowed out to play with real ships (or boats).

  16. @Bongo

    “I find it scary how much water can be held in soil and clays. So much that a tremor from a little earthquake can turn wet clay into a liquid. Doesn’t happen often thankfully.”

    Interestingly- dry cargoes in bulk vessels liquefy, if the particle size and vibration is correct. Very dangerous, in the same manner as free surface effects, in heavy seas.

  17. @Surreptitious Evil, July 30, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    “Back in the day…”

    MINI (cars) do similar on their apprentice scheme. imho very sensible.

  18. I think Rolls Royce (aerospace) still make their apprentices do practical “making and fitting” exercises before allowing them to do anything much more interesting.

    The interesting thing with steam engines is just how crude they can be and still produce meaningful amounts of power. I’m pretty sure the Roman’s had good enough technology to build a pumping or winding beam engine. Had they done so and realized the advantages of mechanically powered equipment, increased engineering quality and precision would be the natural outcome.

    I’m not sure if the Romans generally understood the actions of expansion and condensation with regard to steam – from which beam engine technology came. The Greeks had played with very crude steam turbines, but to make a turbine large and efficient enough to work effectively was probably beyond their powers.

    However, most critically, coal wasn’t hard enough to get to seriously drive technology to make it easier to mine, and there was enough burnable wood around it wasn’t that heavily in demand anyway, and labour is cheap when it comes in the form of slaves.

    Had the Romans needed to start “deep” mining coal in a serious way, I think the steam age might have occurred then – as it was, they left it for 18th century Brits to develop instead.

  19. The last point is crucial, technologies often only advance when they become cheaper than the currently-used alternative. When slaves are a penny a dozen, who’s going to spend thousands of sesterti on a mechanic contrivance.

  20. I think the Prole & jgh have it with the “need” aspect. The Romans were very capable. But they weren’t hitting problems needed an advance in their tech. But that’s not to say they couldn’t have hacked it.
    It’s why I mentioned back to basics engineering. Do some & you come up with some problem solution you later find was around a century ago. There’s nothing particularly clever about it. It’s an obvious answer generated by the problem itself & what you have in your mental toolkit to work with. You’re just reprising what some other bloke did in the same situation.
    When I used to do this stuff, we had a gold Byzantine necklace to renovate. Property of the V&A. The filigree on it was too fine to solder using a gas flame. Warm it & the solder capillaried up the filigree or it just melted . Always a problem soldering something small to something larger. The small gets hotter quicker
    The answer turned out to be to paint the surface you wanted to join to with a metallic salt solution then carefully heat the piece in a kiln. The alloy melts at a lower temperature than the native gold. Get the temperature right & the metal in the salt alloys with the gold at the point where the two pieces touch & causes it to melt. Voila! Soldered just where it needed to be soldered.
    Nothing got invented there. Just rediscovering how the Byzantine craftsmen soldered fine filigree. The howto was implicit in understanding alloys. Much the same alloys as they used.

  21. Eugh.

    Tim. Don’t give the engineers a chance to explain engineering. Leave it out of all future pieces trying to explain popular economics.

    Look what you’ve done to the thread!

    Take advice from that lawyer in the paternity case of Dilberts freak child in the to series….

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