A Culinary Fable for Higher Education


In the city of Aroga, there were many, many restaurants.  They served diverse cuisine, and a diverse clientele.  Each maintained its distinctive character, and had a loyal, overlapping, following.  The Maisonnette D’Aroga served from the authentic pages of L’Escoffier, and was THE place to go for those seeking the best or seeking to make the best impression.  Gert’s Grill served wicked BLT’s, waffles and stew – and two could walk out after a satisfying meal with still enough change from a $20 to get a couple of ice cream cones on the way down the street.  Sometimes when one wanted to put on finery, the exclusive French restaurant suited one’s taste.  Sometimes when one wanted a simple greasy spoon the day before payday, the local hash house was just the right thing.

The local newspaper decided to hire a restaurant critic – the first ever in Aroga.  The critic had superb credentials, having studied at the Massachusetts Exemplary Culinary Criticism Academy, and having interned at papers in the northeast and in the San Francisco Bay.  Surely he was, so believed the editor of the Aroga Inquirer, the person to bring excellence, rationality and value to the hectic restaurant scene. 

And so “Drew“Andrew Solunstorp went about the task of eating in every restaurant in Aroga, inquiring about the quality of the raw material that each restaurant used, the quality of its china (or lack thereof), of its “ambience” and of the value.  And, also the fidelity of the cuisine of the each restaurant to the best in its class in the country.  Certain restaurants were first tier, certain were second tier, etc; and the select were in the top 10 of the Solunstorp Report.

Many diners of Aroga were enthralled by the Solunstorp Restaurant Reports; these reviews appeared so well reasoned and articulate, and clearly someone trained at MECCA and familiar with the global restaurant scene had the wisdom that they lacked.  Why waste time and money at restaurants that did not rank high?  After all, who would want to be seen coming out of a third or even a second tier restaurant.  So the top 10 restaurants – where in the past one could make a noon reservation for an evening dinner – were now booked two weeks in advance, and in certain third tier restaurants one could roll a bowling ball down the aisle at 8pm.  It was even rumored that some of these unfortunates would be closed down and converted into parking lots or landfills.

As time went by, one found that it became more and more difficult to get hash and eggs, egg rolls or macrobiotic vegetarian cooking.  After all (according to Drew) such restaurants simply did not “cut the mustard” and the Arogaites did not want to patronize these “lower tier” enterprises.   So, the dining scene in Aroga became bimodal, with elegant continental cuisine and fast food franchises, but little in the middle.  It was hard to find a good submarine sandwich anymore, and the businessmen missed the little “hole in the wall” that served great fish sandwiches every Friday.

Even those that survived found that they could only exist if they changed to suit Solunstorp’s taste.  He did not care for meat unless it came from cattle free-ranged in North Dakota, or for anything but marigold-yellow chickens, or for carnations on tables (rather than tulips).  Catfish and sloppy joes were so declassee; not to mention Gert’s scrapple or Hank’s Hashhouse red beans and rice.  So inevitably, menus started showcasing beef from North Dakota, yellow-fleshed chicken … and the funeral directors in Agora were delighted to find that carnations could be obtained much more cheaply. But the local butchers and florists and other vendors who did not fully stock items favored by Solunstorp also found themselves at the brink of failure.  The variety of offerings by the proprietors diminished to conform to Solunstorp’s idiosyncrasies.

But just as Gert and Hank were about to fold their tents and close up, they wondered  “why do we have to tolerate this dictatorship of taste and excellence”. Some customers weight some attributes differently, and even have different preferences on different days.  Why not let the customers know the consequences that arise from single-minded adherence to a sole arbiter of excellence and taste.  Shouldn’t people know that there is virtue in maintaining this diversity, and realize that not every proprietor can be in the top 10 on every scale (indeed there are some who can be “good” and even highly valued by particular customers without being in the top on any scale).  So scrimping their resources, they were able to inform the Arogaites of what would continue to happen by relying upon a single critic as the one metric that would be relied upon in their dining decision.  And indeed, the Aroga Inquirer saw what was happening and the editor (a bit of a gourmet herself) decided to hire a suite of additional restaurant critics (including some of the restaurateurs and even “ordinary” customers) to provide a richer perspective on the dining scene. 

And now, 10 years later, although Gert and Hank have both passed on to the eternal griddle, their kitchens and dining rooms are even more vibrant than ever – their sons, daughters, and cousins deciding to maintain their families establishments.  Yes, the Maisonnette continues.   But there is also a healthy heterogeneity of choices from the mundane to the marvelous (and the marvelous include restaurants to all tastes and prices).  The dining scene in Aroga truly flourishes again.

The academy has been participating in the disestablishment of our own diversity and strength by not simply tolerating but indeed cooperating with the activities of a few ratings and rankings compilers.  Many institutions have consciously and overtly tailored their development, hiring, promotion, tenure and fundraising decisions not to a collegially reached set of objectives and priorities, but to a perception of what they could do to raise their position in these ratings and rankings.

In the opinion of this writer, the net effect is unhealthy for the national academic enterprise.  If all the flowers in a field were tulips, the vista would be boring; if the only meat in a supermarket was prime filet, the menu would be limited and costly; if all of our students were brown eyed males from two parent families where both parents were attorneys or MBA’s, it would be a pretty dull classroom; if everyone only bought stocks that had gotten “A” ratings by a single broker, innovation and risk-taking would be stifled. 

Is it not leading to a pretty limited academic enterprise with many universities striving to achieve against the same metric?  I certainly think so.

Presidents, provosts, deans, department heads and faculty must resist the loss of academic diversity to which this lemming-like rush will lead. We have a responsibility to educate our constituents (students, parents, trustees, donors, legislators and alumni) that evaluating the “quality” of a college or university is a much more multidimensional, multiobjective and complex task than evaluating the ranking of a basketball team.  If we believe that universities and academic programs should set their own local objectives and measure their achievements with respect to these local objectives (as is indeed the perspective of many accrediting organizations) then how can we possibly tolerate, support and sustain a single (or even a small number of) ranking(s) that purport(s) to measure the quality of universities across the United States?  Yes, we need standards and guidelines and accreditation to assure competent performance and honest management, as much as local restaurants need health departments and police forces to assure minimal levels of sanitation and absence of fraudulent behavior.  But we do not need one (or a small number) of external raters to be the metric by which we all are measured.


Who is ready to be Gert and Hank?

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny – NOT

When I was an undergraduate biology major, a prevalent dogma was that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”.  This dogma, now discredited (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory) held that the stages that an embryo went through in development proceeded through the stages of evolution of the species.

In engineering education I have often noted some who believe that education should have certain features of this outdated recapitulation theory.  Since Professor X took courses A, B, and C, therefore in order for a student to become a good engineer, they must also take courses A, B, and C.  Balderdash.

The founder of my university, A.J. Drexel, said “The world will change and the institute must change with it”.  This quote must of necessity apply to the profession of engineering — “The world will change and engineering must change with it”.  Rather than recapitulating the evolutionary development of ourselves by taking courses A, B and C, they should instead take Q,X, and Alpha.  And maybe some students should take Q, W, and Zeta — a diverse engineering community (including an intellectual diverse one) will be more resilient solvers of future (unforeseen) challenges.

In my own career, I have seen the transformation from slide rules and mainframe batch computing to calculators to PC’s and distributed computation.  Who remembers nomographs?  Tedious simplification of theory to facilitate rapid computation is falling by the wayside in favor of efficient methods for numerical solutions of complex problems.

Once upon a time, environmental engineers worried about soot and dust in air, floating debris in water, and blowing garbage from open dumps.  While these remain problems in developing nations, and it is important that others avoid relearning tragic lessons of our past, our problems are now more subtle but no less insidious.  Emerging pathogens and chemical pollutants, new industrial activities (including exploitation of new sources of energy), facilitating sustainable development and resource (including water and food) management, and reinvention of aging infrastructure.  These will need a different set of tools then those that we learned, and certainly than our professors learned.

In the words of Mark Twain, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_recurrence).  The challenge of engineering education is to retain riffs from the past and use them to build a new symphony to educate students for the future.

The Environmental Pyramid

A powerful meme in environmental engineering is the pyramid.  I first encountered this when I was working on hazardous waste in the 1980’s.  In that context, the pyramid has the more preferable alternatives (e.g. waste prevention) towards the base.  In recent years, the inverted pyramid has become more popular, and I think it more preferable, since it includes the more preferred alternatives on the top.  An example of this in the waste management context is:



This meme has broad utility outside the waste management hierarchy, and integrates well with the general movement towards sustainability.  Let me give two examples.

In water supply when additional sources are needed, this meme might include (going from the top of the inverted pyramid to the bottom):

  • Use reduction (conservation) (most preferred)
  • Internal recycling (e.g. recycling within a building or block — for example, use of cooling water for toilet flushing)
  • System wide reuse (and possible dual supply)
  • Abstraction of water from a new source and treatment

In energy supply, a possible set of hierarchies might be:

  • Demand reduction (conservation, incentives, …)
  • Internal recycling (heat recovery; energy recovery from on-side discarded materials)
  • System wide re-engineering of energy consumptive processes and operations
  • Abstraction of new sources (with ranking based on environmental/sustainability metrics)

Using such memes, in making decisions it should be incumbent on decision makers (and their consultants) to indicate why upper levels of the pyramid might not be feasible, might be too costly, might impose other environmental risks, etc., before proceeding to lower levels of the pyramid.

How do we train/retrain students, practitioners and the public towards this goal?

A Reminder About Why We Care About Air Pollution

Headlines in the last week talk about the record levels of air pollution in Beijing. There is a nice article today in Discovery about how not only can air pollution cause significant human health effects, but can also affect plants, and air and water quality in distant locations.

This is a reminder of and reminiscent of many air pollution episodes that happened in the US of similar severity up to the 1970’s when environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act kicked in.  Perhaps the most severe and notorious of these was a 1948 incident in Donora, Pennsylvania.  It is unfortunate that developing countries have not learned from the mistakes in developed countries in avoiding massive environmental degradation in the name of so-called development.


(Image from National Library of Medicine)

Can the Good be the Enemy of the Best?

One topic that has been on my mind for a while is the issue of “sunk costs” and potential perverse effects.  Many of the elements of infrastructure (environmental or otherwise) are highly capital intensive.  Having made a particular decision to attack an environmental problem, the spent capital costs act as a deterrent (and perhaps even the technological choice has disincentivized our ability to go down an alternative path which may have even emerged later).  Of course at the time that the decision is made to adopt a particular solution, it may in fact have been the best (and not merely a “good” solution).

I don’t know literature in this area very well and am not sure how this might be approached.  I can think of several areas where clearly this phenomenon has occurred:

  • The use of combined sewers.  HIstorically, as I understand it (at least in some European cities — see The Great Stink of Paris), storm drains pre-existed, while frequently houshold sewerage was allowed to be disposed of in the streets.  When this resulted in odor and health problems, the idea of disposing of sewerage into the storm drains gained hold.  Of course, we now recognize that it would have been better (in terms of avoiding CSO problems, etc.) to construct seperate sewers.  However, having gone the combined sewer option, it has become very expensive to consider retrofitting — imagine having to reconnect every building in a large city!  Newer cities are invariability built out with separate systems.
  • It was once considered standard practice for chemical companies to dispose of their waste (perhaps in drums) in depressions or low lying areas on their property and bury them.  We now recognize, with Love Canal being the early signal example, that this practice (which perhaps was considered acceptable at the time) was really a vast environmental insult and has resulted in multi billion dollars being spent in hazardous waste cleanup.

There may be ongoing situations where such decisions are being made which may make later “best” decisions more difficult.  This is controversial, but it is worth considering a few examples of more recent or current issues:

  • Did the development of the interstate highway system and resulting impacts on patterns of habitation make it more difficult (or even impossible) to develop more sustainable residential and transportation systems?
  • Will the growing use of natural gas as a fossil fuel act to preclude more sustainable and desirable alternatives (because gas is currently considered to be “cheaper” – when externalities are ignored.  See my earlier post on the Commons effect.)

How can we guard against “good” solutions being the enemy of the best.  I don’t know.  Perhaps using concepts of adaptive management can assist. Perhaps implementing solutions on a distributed basis may help.  How do we account for potential transformative changes (which we don’t currently know) that may occur in the future into our current decisions?

I welcome and encourage thoughts and comments on these topics.

Garrett Hardin – Tragedy of the Commons – Key Papers #1

In this post, I will start a series of discussing papers that I regard as influential to environmental engineers (or at least to the areas of environmental engineering that I have devoted attention to).  The first paper I discuss is Garrett Hardin’s paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, which was published in Science in 1968.

Garrett Hardin was a professor at the University of California – Santa Barbara, who died in 2003.  Wikipedia has a very nice biography.  1968 was two years before the first Earth Day.  While Hardin’s main objective was to look at the problem of overpopulation, he tackled in his paper the subsidiary problem of why is there pollution.

Hardin’s central metaphor is the idyllic Commons — traditionally a plot of land in a village — in which anyone was free to graze their animals.  It was in the interest of every individual to maximize their use of the Commons (adding animals), yet if everyone behaved in such a manner, the Commons would be ruined beyond its carry capacity.

In economic terms, the negative externality of use of the Commons was not passed back to each individual fostering overexploitation.  Therefore there was no incentive not to overuse the resource.

Analogies to pollution control are abundant – if the ability to dispose into the air, water or soil is treated as a free asset, then there is every incentive to overexploit such asset.

What can be done?  Hardin suggests that, agreed moral coercion in the form of regulations, taxes, or regulation are needed, but he recognizes the inherent conflict between liberty and such strictures.

Hardin wrote a re-examination of the paper in 1998 – 30 years later.  He fundamentally reiterated the main messages, but realized that he perhaps should have titled his paper “Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons”.  He wrote (in 1998):

Its message is, I think, still true today. Individualism is cherished because it produces freedom, but the gift is conditional: The more the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment, the more freedoms must be given up. As cities grow, the freedom to park is restricted by the number of parking meters or fee-charging garages. Traffic is rigidly controlled. On the global scale, nations are abandoning not only the freedom of the seas, but the freedom of the atmosphere, which acts as a common sink for aerial garbage. Yet to come are many other restrictions as the world’s population continues to grow.”

Now, 45 years after the original paper, 15 years after the restatement, and 10 years after Hardin’s death, the message remains true.  Unrestricted exploitation of a commons will inevitably lead to tragedy.  So a central problem of environmental engineers interacting with policy makers is how best to preserve and enhance the assets that a commons presents while using the lightest footprint on individuals.

The Positive Effects of Disasters

Being in San Francisco for the Society for Risk Analysis in early December of 2012, having not been there since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 (yes, I was actually IN the earthquake) gave me a realization that natural disasters can have a silver lining in terms of the footprint of cities. I was staying at the Hyatt one block away from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. In 1989, this was an elevated freeway which, like all too many cities (including my current venue of Philadelphia) served as a physical obstacle between people and the waterfront. As nicely documented in Roughly Drafted, the quake demolished the freeway and tipped the balance in favor of those who wanted it gone in the first place.

Years later, the freeway is gone, there is a nice linear walkway in San Fran, and the Ferry Building itself has been transformed into a gourmet mecca (Ferry Building Marketplace)


image from wikipedia – GNU License

Other cities have had major disasters turn into positive planning and development opportunities. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (Wikipedia) destroyed much of the city. However, its aftermath provided the opportunity to develop the unique lakefront park belt that we know today (http://www.cityofchicago.org/dam/city/depts/cdot/ShorelineHistory.pdf).

Are there other examples of spinoff benefits that have occurred in other cities?

What lessons can we learn from this in the reconstruction of shoreline following Superstorm Sandy?