Personal and collective responsibility for food waste — and other “wicked problems”

Image result for food waste plate

Image result for climate change

Food waste and global warming: two sides of the same wicked coin

It’s impossible to spend much time here at SESYNC without hearing the term “wicked problem.” I wasn’t familiar with the term when I first got here, so I quickly read up on it. Turns out, it is a common term in the environmental literature, coined originally in the 1960s in a Management Science editorial, that refers to problems with a certain set of characteristics. Wicked problems can’t be stated in a simple way. They have no absolute right or wrong solutions, only better or worse ones. There is no way to figure out the solution to a wicked problem by trial and error — every solution you attempt has to count. Wicked problems are all unique, but every wicked problem can be described as an outgrowth of a different unique problem. Global climate change would be the premier example of a wicked problem — it defies every attempt to solve it, there is no agreement on the best approach, and as time runs out the constraints on solving it become ever more difficult. Other examples include pandemics like AIDS, the opioid crisis, and global inequality.

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Why do we waste so much food?

GI Market food waste.jpg

Food waste is the trademark problem of our culture of abundance. Pouring huge proportions of our precious land, soil, water, and energy resources into producing food, and inflicting damage on the environment in the process, is necessary to maintain human life. But constructing an inefficient food system that throws out about 40% of the food we produce every day — that is a trademark of our culture of abundance, profligacy, and waste. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the problem without some comparisons, so here goes:

  • Six garbage trucks full of edible food are wasted every second.
  • The average American citizen is responsible for roughly his or her own weight in food waste each year.
  • Some estimates of global food waste come out to roughly the weight of 10000 aircraft carriers annually — or 2700 Empire State Buildings — or 150 Great Pyramids of Giza — take your pick.
US Garbage Truck.jpg

How many garbage trucks full of food waste would it take to fill up the Great Pyramid?

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R functions to bind together lists into a data frame: yet another plug for the tidyverse

When working with large datasets in R, I often have to split data manipulation jobs up into a large number of small tasks which I run in parallel on my university’s computing cluster. Once the tasks have all finished running, I load the output into my R workspace. Each task’s output is usually a single data frame, and I define a list with each element being one of the data frames. The next step is to somehow bind together the list of data frames into a single data frame. The data frames all have the same number of columns and the same column names, so they can easily be put together with R’s rbind() function.

The “naive” way of doing this would be to put rbind() into a for-loop. Here I make a dummy data frame into a list by copying it many times to demonstrate.

foo <- data.frame(a = rnorm(100), 
                  b = runif(100), 
                  c = rlnorm(100), 
                  d = rlogis(100))
foolist <- replicate(n = 10000, foo, simplify = FALSE)

Binding these data frames together in a for-loop is really not recommended, because it is both extremely slow and uses a large amount of RAM, because the entire constantly lengthening data frame is read back into the memory with each trip through the loop.

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Paradise on the forty-fifth parallel


This is your standard camping trip report (I will limit myself to no more than 2 social/environmental critiques). Mary and I spent a long weekend on Manitou Island, ten miles out in the brilliant waters of northern Lake Michigan. The short version: it was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been.

After over a year living in south-central Michigan without making the trip to the northern part of the state, we finally used my birthday as an excuse to head up there. The trip started with a relatively short drive from Lansing to Leland, near the tip of the Leelanau peninsula, roughly where the tip of the ring finger would be on the mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula. Leland is a touristy fishing village squeezed into a narrow strip of land a few hundred yards wide between Lake Michigan and a smaller body of water. I’m not sure how much of it, if any, is still operational other than as gift shops and quaint restaurants, but the gray, weather-beaten fishing shacks looked authentic enough. We boarded the good ship Mishe-Mokwa, a ferry that took us on the hour-long journey through choppy waters. Mary got a little queasy when we ventured to the upper deck of the lurching boat to get a better view of our approaching destination, North Manitou Island.


Playing cards amid a pile of packs while waiting for the ferry in Leland


The Mishe-Mokwa pulling into the harbor to swap passengers

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“There is a sort of magic in the drama of the mile” *

tl;dr version: this is a shamefully self-absorbed blog post in which I brag that I ran a mile in under 5 minutes the other day. If you care to learn more, read on.

In a (not altogether rare) moment of introspection back in September 2016, Mary and I were talking about our plans for the future. As our careers develop and our lives go on through the stages of adulthood, and possibly in the future parenthood (no guarantees, Mom and Dad), our responsibilities are increasing. I realized that I had a couple of regrets, self-improvement goals that I had always wanted to do but not ever committed the time to. One was that despite being relatively adept at learning languages, I had only learned one fluently (German) and one decently (Spanish). The other was that I had never run a sub-5 minute mile. The closest I came was 5:10 in college. Almost as soon as I had those thoughts, I realized that those two things did not need to be regrets. They were both attainable goals–but both are skills that fade with time, so I immediately began to pursue them. I decided to go for the athletic goal first, followed by the linguistic goal. A few days later, on September 4, 2016, we headed to the running track at Clay High School north of the Notre Dame campus in South Bend where Mary timed me in a mile run.

can you name all of my running idols?

The mile is a very interesting distance for running. It’s one of the few non-metric distances that is still contested internationally–although it’s being replaced by the 1500m or 1600m run. One mile is exactly 1609.344 m, for you metric aficionados. That’s four laps around a standard 400-meter track with a couple extra steps thrown in. It requires a unique balance of aerobic endurance and anaerobic speed. Having neither of those things in sufficient quantity, I painfully eked out a time of 5:53. That marked the first time over the next 10 months that I would wear out Mary’s patience complaining about how slow I was.

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Rally ’round the (ironic with a meme of Neil DeGrasse Tyson) flag

The above title is given with apologies to Steel Pulse.

This is a little late to be completely relevant, and any number of scientists and non-scientists have already weighed in on the March for Science, but I decided to add my opinion to the mix. First, I want to express my admiration for all the people who worked so hard to organize the event and who are continuing to promote the values and goals of science.


The crowd in front of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing

Last Saturday, the wife and I headed to the satellite rally of the March for Science being held on the grounds of the State Capitol in Lansing. This was after a brief period of soul-searching on my part. I read some of the arguments (advanced by scientists) both for and against the March for Science, and I found merit in both sides. I strongly support the aims of the March for Science. That includes: maintaining the well-earned privileged status of scientists as voices of expertise to guide important decisions in government and society, making sure that researchers have adequate funds to expand human knowledge and serve applied goals, and mobilizing activists both among professional scientists and the public as a whole, in this time of urgent crisis. On the other hand, I appreciate the argument that the case might be weakened by portraying scientists as activists with a left-wing political bent, because well-paid propagandists have implanted the meme in people’s minds that science is part of a nefarious elite liberal agenda. At first, the latter argument held sway with me. I agreed with the goals of the march, but felt that the march itself would undermine those goals.

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A dark day

My feelings last night and into this morning include: anger, resentment, sadness, isolation, and existential fear. I doubt this post will be very eloquent or really express my feelings and thoughts well, but I wanted to write something down. Sadly, I am physically far from any of my loved ones today, which only adds to the black mood.

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Women in science, and science studies

I know that it is a little bit tone-deaf for a man such as myself to opine on topics like this, but I really would like to express myself and I hope it is not interpreted as mansplaining. I just finished reading an article on The Atlantic, provocatively titled “The Constellations are Sexist.” The article itself was more or less forgettable clickbait, but it raised a number of issues that made me want to formulate my thoughts and respond. The article, linked here, correctly points out misogynistic and sexist aspects of Greek mythology, the historical scientific establishment that excluded and minimized the accomplishments of female astronomers, and the macho culture of space exploration. Unfortunately, it does so in a superficial, flippant way that makes some sweeping claims, claims which were immediately pounced upon by all kinds of trolls, but also more legitimate members of the internet commentariat. With regard to the article itself, there are two main points that I want to bring up: first, my personal experience as a card-carrying member of the (male-dominated, and particularly white-male-dominated) scientific establishment, and second, my opinion on science studies and the humanistic critique of the scientific enterprise.

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Midwest livin’

I’ve been living in the Upper Midwest for a total of about a year now, off and on, including a few stints with Mary in South Bend/Mishawaka, Indiana, and now in East Lansing, Michigan. I can’t say I have fully experienced the place, since I’ve mostly made myself scarce by the time winter rolls around. However, I think I have been here long enough to have developed some impression of the character of this area. Of course, Michigan is probably most known for being the buckle of the Rust Belt, with cities blighted by abandoned factories, run-down houses, crumbling infrastructure, and decay. That’s sadly what happens when we hitch our fortunes to globalized capital. Lured by the short-term prosperity it brings, local governments abase themselves before corporations, allowing them to loot the public coffers with tax breaks. But the moment that shareholder profits would be maximized by offshoring all the manufacturing, the capitalists peace out. It is the capitalists’ responsibility and their duty to do that, in this broken system—their responsibility is to their shareholders, and that’s that. However, the government has been way too lax in its responsibility to the citizens who can no longer survive without steady employment, instead vilifying and shaming people who need to use the (dwindling) social safety net. As a government-funded postdoc, I’m pretty insulated from all that, but it is sad to see these forgotten citizens trying to get by when both the “free market” (sarcastic quotes) and the government have screwed them over.



The rail station in Niles, Michigan (built 1892)

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A (possibly futile) plug for civil discourse

I would like to briefly comment on an issue that is causing me a good deal of personal anguish at the moment. Recently, I have seen a lot of posts on social media deriding “progressives” who are threatening to withhold their vote from Hillary Clinton as some sort of protest for what they see as corruption. Of course, the personal vendetta that some people seem to have against Hillary Clinton is misguided and pointless. I have taken up residence in an important swing state for the 2016 election (Michigan)—here it would be especially moronic for a reasonable person to vote for anyone except Hillary Clinton. However, what bothers me about the things I have been seeing on social media is that it is now fashionable to cruelly deride anyone who is uneasy with the constant rightward drift of the Democratic Party as an out-of-touch, privileged elitist who is so insulated from hardship that he or she would not even mind if Donald Trump were elected president to “prove a point.” I agree with this point to some extent, although I am not entirely sure that there’s not some “straw man” element to it.

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