The Economics of Wasted Bread

It is still a shock to me when I end up throwing all kinds of bread from the full big blue bins at the food bank into the dumpster. The sight convinces me that there is something that is wrong with a system that allows such waste.   But, at the same time, it appears to me that the people in the business of selling food do not themselves think that there is an real problem that needs to be addressed.   It must be that there is money being made regardless of all the waste, and perhaps the organizations responsible for all this waste believe that this is still a pretty efficient way of operating when all factors that affect their bottom line are taken into account. So they keep charging along and doing what they do. It is only a volunteer at a local food bank dealing with the tons of food he is throwing away who is making this comment. So who really cares!

So here is what happens.   The food bank gets bread that is close to its expiry date from grocery stores. Since bread is a perishable product, it needs to be given out to people quickly once it gets here. The facility often ends up allowing people to take as much bread back with them as they want because they get so much of it, and because they do not want it to accumulate in the warehouse. The problem is that there is sometimes still too much bread left over, and the excess bread often needs to be thrown out into the garbage dumpsters – since there is even more bread being delivered to the food bank at the same time for the next day! If you tried to save all the bread that you got in the cooler you would not have the space for other essential items.

What must be going on is that the big grocery stores are, in general, putting more product on their shelves than they are selling.  They must know that they are doing this! For some reason they can afford the waste. They are almost certainly charging  prices for the bread that is much much more than its real value in terms of materials used and the cost of production. Because of their large volume of product, they are capable of operating a much more efficient system than a smaller mom-and-pop store, and they are also capable of selling this bread for a much lower price than the mom-and-pop store in spite of the tremendous amount of waste. Food is being thrown away in massive quantities! The only time you hear of the huge grocery stores running out of bread is when there is some sort of extraordinary event that is anticipated, most often related to the weather.

Isn’t there something wrong with a system in which we accept such waste without saying a word? This is especially galling when you hear of people suffering from hunger, and even starvation, even in these modern times.  Why do we not speak up?  Is it because many of us in this country who are relatively well-off do not see the real value of this kind of food, especially since it has become inexpensive to us? This kind of situation is not always simply a result of natural market forces. Think about farm subsidies and price controls that impact the price of grains.  Separately, think about competition between the big organizations with plenty of resources and small mom-and-pop stores that are trying to make their business work with a fundamentally different cost structure for doing business, where the big guys want to put the small guys out of business by flooding the markets with lower cost products.  Think about you and I trying to save a buck or two when we shop at the big stores, and our support of the system as it exists today.  While you could expect any economic system to have its own biases, there is something to be said about a situation where we end up with so much waste, especially when there is so much need.

How many of you grew up in a household where the value of food was emphasized one way or the other, the general idea being that you only took what you needed, and you always tried to consume what was on your plate without throwing food away? Unfortunately it seems that this principle does not easily scale to the bigger picture.  Or perhaps people do not even think in these terms any more.

A Study in Visual Perspectives

I had the opportunity to hike the Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire recently.  The 8.8 mile trail that we tackled started in the Lafayette Place parking lot in the Franconia Notch.  It took us up from the valley to the ridge and the mountain tops and back in a loop.  If you do this loop in a counter-clockwise direction, you climb up to the ridge using the aptly named Falling Waters trail.  You break out of the forest near the end of this trail at Little Haystack Mountain.  You then take the Appalachian Trail (AT) along the ridge for a while, proceeding to Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette.  This part of the hike is completely above the tree level and feels very different from the climb and the descent which are through the woods.  At Mt. Lafayette, you descend the mountain to the Greenleaf Hut following the Greenleaf Hut trail.  At this point one takes the Old Bridle Path trail back to the parking lot.

This is an amazing hike.  It is quite challenging with the steep slopes and the rough terrain, and it takes a good part of the day to complete the hike.  You have to be well prepared,  and the hiking conditions also change with the seasons.  We did encounter a little bit of snow on the trail even in May.  If the weather is bad, and I have heard that it can turn bad in a hurry even on a good day, you will be completely exposed to the elements as you walk along the ridge.

I took at lot of pictures during the hike, but the ones I have been coming back to look at most often on my computer are the ones taken along the ridge.  Because it is quite open out there above the treeline, you get a good lesson on visual perspectives.  I have pictures of certain sections of the trail taken at different times and from different distances.  When you look at something from a certain distance you get a certain picture in your mind of how the terrain might be and of the distances you will be covering, but as you get closer you may realize that the picture did not accurately represent reality.  Often times, you do not even realize the size of what you are up against until to get close to the object.  Here are a series of pictures focusing on the slope leading up to the top of Mt. Lafayette.  (In viewing these pictures I found that I could use the size of the patch of snow on the side of Mt. Lafayette as a reference of some sort.)

The first three pictures were taken from Mt. Lincoln by zooming in with the camera.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next three pictures were most likely taken from the small crest in the ridge closest to Mt. Lafayette. You can see this crest in the first and second pictures in the series of the three pictures above.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn both of these series of three pictures, I think it is the size of the people that could give you a better perspective of what you are dealing with.

Here are a couple of pictures that I think help with providing a better perspective of the vastness of the space that one is dealing with, especially because people are present in the pictures.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first picture below may make you think you are actually walking along a narrow edge for this section of the trail, but the picture below it clarifies that the edge is really not that narrow after all.  In fact, as you walk along the ridge you do not get the sense of this being a risky endeavor, a perspective that could prove to be incorrect and quite dangerous on a windy day.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you get up to the ridge at Little Haystack and look north along the trail you see Mt. Lincoln in front of you.   Mt. Lafayette is hidden behind Mt. Lincoln even though it is the taller of the two mountains.  If you were unfamiliar with the territory you would not know which mountain you were looking at and heading towards.  Some people may not realize until they get to the top of Mt. Lincoln that there was still more ground to be covered to get to the last stop along the ridge.  It is all a matter of the visual perspective.  Here is a picture that provides a little bit of that perspective.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think it is actually quite difficult for a person who is only looking at pictures to truly grasp what one is dealing with in reality.  You will appreciate the real challenge you are up against only while you are in that space.   You might try to capture the nature of that space with a series of pictures, but that is not the same thing as being in that space.

Here is a picture of the Franconia Ridge taken on the way down the mountain. (Click through to see the picture in its full size.)  At this point we still had a long way to go to get back to the parking lot from where we had started the hike. The Old Bridle Path trail from the Greenleaf hut descends along the ridges of the hills to the left of the picture.  The three peaks that dominate the picture are Mt. Lafayette (5249 ft), Mt. Lincoln (5089 ft), and Little Haystack (4760 ft). We walked the ridge from Little Haystack to Lafayette, a distance of about 1.7 miles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you are interested in viewing more pictures of the hike, follow this link.

Chances Are

It was Wednesday morning and I was driving along one of the back roads in order to avoid the rush hour traffic on the highway.  All of a sudden I sighted some movement out of the corner of my right eye.  There, ahead of me, was a deer that was rushing towards the road.  I stepped on the brakes, but quickly realized that chances of avoiding the animal were small.  As the car slowed down, and as I braced myself for impact, the deer jumped across the road and crashed into the windshield.  Amazingly the glass did not break.  The deer was thrown forward on to the road in front of me.  As I stopped the car, and cars began to line up behind me, it thrashed around on the road in a panic, as if its limbs were broken.  I feared the worst, but much to my amazement the deer eventually got up and ran back up the hill from which it had come to stop and stare at me.  I paused for another moment and then drove on.  Nothing happened to the car.

Our area is full of deer and crashes between vehicles and these animals happen often, but this was a first for me.  I always thought that this kind of an  experience would be unavoidable if I lived in the area long enough, and now it has happened.  If one believed in the fates, it is possible that you would conclude that now that you have had this one crash, the chances of having another one is reduced.  But the laws of probability in this case would lead you to conclude otherwise.  Each crash event is independent.  So nothing has changed as far as the chances of my hitting a deer in the future – not unless I do something radical to change the circumstances, like for example, moving to a place where there are less deer.  We all live with the probabilities of different kinds of disastrous events happening to us in whatever environment we happen to live in.  Such is life.  One does probably try to avoid thinking about the fact that the probability of dying is unity!

A few weeks earlier, while driving on the high speed lane of the beltway and slowing down for stopped traffic in front of me, my car was hit from behind by a Jeep Wrangler driven by a 19 year old with a provisional license.  The girl had been tailgating us and we had been observing her driving apprehensively through the rear view mirror.  Luckily I was able to anticipate what was about to happen and adjust my braking accordingly, while at the same time the young girl reacted as needed and managed to slow down before it was too late, so that the effect of the impact was minimized. Nothing disastrous happened and the girl got off with a talking-to. Events like this happen not infrequently where we live and we live with the probabilities.

A few days ago, while running down one of the trails in the local park, I happened to plant my foot awkwardly and twist it.  Most of the time, when something like this happens, I just get back in step, and I feel no ill-effect in my ankle because the muscles are quite strong from all the running I do.  This time was different.  My momentum took me downhill and off the trail and I crashed into some plants and underbrush beside the trail while trying to keep my balance. I managed to stop without falling. I was shaken up for a few seconds but my ankle was fine.  I got back on to the trail and went my merry way, in a little bit of a shock.  This could have been a disastrous episode.  Now, this was not simply a case of the laws of probability catching up.  I need to be more careful!

Is it all about luck, or is it the human element  that plays the most significant role in what happens to you?  I do not think I am superstitious, but think I will stay on my toes and try to be more careful about things.  And, NO, I do not have a death wish!

Up to Milepost 145

It has been a long haul, and the pace has slowed down quite a bit in recent years.  It has been my goal to cover the 184.5 miles of the C&O canal on foot at little bit at a time.  Living in an area that is closer to the Mile 0 marker in Washington, DC, it has been easy for me to cover the areas closer to home. The sections of the trail closer to Cumberland have been difficult to reach.  In addition to being far away from home, these sections of the trail also happen to pass through the boondocks.  Very few people live in these parts and the access points to the trail are more and more difficult to get to because you have to drive long distances on the narrow winding rural roads after getting off the highway to reach your destination.  It takes me a lot time just to get to the start of my walk. In May of 2014 I extended my coverage to mile marker 139.

Last Thursday I decided to extend my coverage of the trail by another six miles.  I drove up to Little Orleans on a dreary wet day to do the hike.  Little Orleans must have been a bigger town when the Western Maryland Railroad ran through it.  Lumber used to be the main product in these parts those days. Very few buildings remain in this area.  Bill’s Place is well known as a stop for food and drink for long-distance bikers riding the trails between Washington DC and Pittsburgh.  It is perhaps the only place of note left in town.  Bill was a well known character and ran the place from the 1970s (when the railroad was still running) until his death in 2013.  It still operates under different ownership.  I hesitated to enter the establishment by myself since I had heard that the local crowd in there could be quite rough. I will come back when I am with a bigger group.


The parking lot for the trail at Little Orleans is close to the location of the Fifteen Mile Creek aqueduct.  The Potomac river looked quite peaceful from the boat ramp area.


The aqueduct looked like it is in decent shape.


The flowers of spring were mostly gone, but there was still a lot of honeysuckle beside the trail.


The place was so remote that the animals did not seem to mind your presence.  The deer just stood on the trail as I ran towards it, and the rabbit continued to chew on the wet grass even as I got close to it.


I went past a couple of locks, including lock 57 which still had the remains of its lock house next to it.


I also ran past an abandoned railroad bridge where the Western Maryland Railroad used to cross into West Virginia.  When laying the tracks in this section, the railroad company had decided to avoid the bends of the river and take a straighter route using multiple river crossings.


The feeling of the wet woods was awesome, with the drip of water from the light drizzle creating a soothing background sound. The canal did seem to have a different feel to it in this section than I am used to.  Don’t know yet when I will get a chance to extend my coverage by another six miles.  Hopefully it will not take another year.


A Farewell To The King (7/18/2014)

I just heard that BB King passed away last night.  I happened to go for his concert in Washington, DC, in July, 2014.  This is what I wrote at that time…


It was March 2014 when I first heard that the king was coming into town.  Having been a fervent admirer of his works for a very long time, but not having seen him in person, I thought that I should make the effort to meet him at least this one time.  Here was a man who had given so many years of his life to the cause, and it was time to pay homage.

On July 17th, 2014, on an unusually cool summer evening, my friend and I boarded a Metro train at Shady Grove station to head out to the capital city of Washington DC to see the king.  I was looking forward to this, and in a moment of irrational optimism, I even picked up a pen from the kitchen counter before I left home – in the hope that I could get an autograph on the ticket that I had printed at home.  But, at the same time, I also had this nagging concern at the back of my mind about the well-being of the king.  After all he was 88 years old, and he was suffering from diabetes.  He had looked his age in recent times, and when he addressed his subjects recently, it was always from from a lonely chair on which he sat with his friend Lucille.  But, in spite of his age, the king had always brought a smile to my face.

That evening in Washington DC was a somewhat sad one.  I was probably witnessing history in some way.  It was not the B. B. King, the King of the Blues, the guitar god, that I had known, who was on stage.  It was not the performance that I had been expecting.  It was as if I was witnessing a passing, and it might  have been the opportunity for B. B. King admirers in the DC area to pay their respects to the great man for the last time before he set sail into the sunset.

One might have suspected that all was not right when the program started with a long set by the warm-up band, and an extended intermission that lasted more than half an hour.  Then the B. B. King Band came on and played a piece all by itself for about 10 minutes.  B.B. King only appeared on the stage after all that was over.  When the King shuffled on to the stage (with some difficulty and with the help of some other folks) the audience rose from their seats and applauded wildly in honor of the Man.  There was a sense of anticipation in the air.  But one began to suspect that things were not right during the first song that was played after he sat down.  It was essentially an introduction to the members of the band. BB talked most of the time.  Lucille, his guitar, sat on his lap with the strings untouched for the most part.  In fact there was another lead guitarist featured in the band who was picking up the slack for BB.  BB rambled along, talking to the audience in the front row most of the time.  He appeared to be very distracted.  The one or two occasions on which he actually played his guitar, it did not sound quite right, and perhaps BB also realized this and even stopped trying.  The rest of the band played on respectfully, as well as they could.  They were superb.

I think there were only four songs that BB “performed” during his set.  One of the songs was a simple sing-along that he did with the audience.  The song was “You are my Sunshine“.  His mind seemed to wander during the song and I had some difficulty making out what he was saying.  He did acknowledge that at his age he was just happy to be where he was at.  He said he was enjoying his time with the audience.  But too often he would wander off, again and again, and even try to start more conversations with people in the audience.  He was slowly losing the rest of his audience as the performance went on.

But there were also those occasional spots of brilliance during the show. BB would summon all his focus and energies to deliver the chorus lines for The Thrill is Gone or Rock me Baby.  As his voice rose with confidence, the superb horn section and the piano would also rise to meet the challenge, and there was this wonderful crescendo of beautiful sound that arose from the stage.  He could certainly still hit the notes with power like the B.B. King of old.  There were moments in time during the concert during which all my senses were heightened in anticipation of what could come next.  But such instances where infrequent. And what could have been never happened that evening.  BB could not sustain his energy.

As the evening went on the audience must have slowly realized what was happening on stage.  Most people were content to let BB ramble along in his own way because of the respect they had for the Man.  But there were also some who were impatient.  BB must have realized what was going on, and I suspect that it was on a couple of these occasions that he actually made the effort to deliver a performance.  But people also started leaving before the end of the concert.

As the band went into its encore at the end of the set,  B. B. King was in his own world.  He would not cooperate as the handlers came on stage to try to get him off.  The encore went on and on as people crowded to the front to get a closer view of the Man and to take pictures.  My friend and I departed as this scene continued to play out on the stage.  It was getting late and it was time for us to take the Metro back to our quiet suburban lives.

During the evening I also heard the news that a commercial jet had just been shot out of the sky, and that Israel had started its ground offensive into the Gaza strip.   It was a very sad evening indeed.  The thrill is gone.

The Unending Battle to Protect Audio/Video Content in the Entertainment World

It is quite interesting, and even amusing, to see how the battle for content protection in the entertainment world continues even to this day. It was not too long ago that the entertainment industry, including the content providers, the content distributors (cable, satellite, etc..), and the manufacturers of content viewing devices, i.e., TVs, came up with the strategy of making analog video interfaces in the High Definition TV sets obsolete so that high quality video recordings could not be made on devices like VCRs.  Digital interfaces with content protection became the industry standard. The content owners managed to force the issue so that you could not be a player in the business without following particular rules for protecting their content. Content distributors had to toe the line with the content providers to be able to receive content, and the manufacturers of entertainment viewing devices depended in turn on the rules created by the content distributors in order to connect to their networks.

But eliminating analog interfaces in itself does not prevent the ability for the customer to make recordings. The digital format is perfect for recording!  The key difference from the world of the analog video interfaces was that the Industry recognized that this time they were still in a position to create rules for making digital recordings, something that they were not successful in forcing on consumers during the time of the VCRs.  Strategies were being devised to try to limit and eventually try to disallow consumer video recordings via digital interfaces.   The initial strategy taken was to try to manage the process for making digital copies of content in the home, either managing the nature of the copying process allowed, or limiting the number of copies allowed, or disallowing it completely.  This was enabled through rules that a manufacturer would have to agree to to be licensed to receive certain types of content.     It has now gotten to the point where a consumer finds it difficult to even make a decent quality copy of the content for his or her use, or for archiving, when receiving content on a television set.

You would think that the gradual tightening of the screws by the content providers would make piracy more difficult, but the truth is that it is only changing the nature of the process.   While the industry comes up with technical approaches to try to make pirating more difficult, the only way that they can really try to stop the piracy is through non-technical means – by licensing agreements, by monitoring, by regulations, and by legal action.  But can they even keep up with the technology and continue to be successful trying to manage it?

One of the fundamental issues with preventing piracy of audio/video content is due the very nature of the product itself. Video is meant to be viewed on a device and all you have to do is point a recording device at the viewing device, and voila!, you have the ability to record what you are receiving. Once you have this content, the world of the Internet allows you to share this content to others, and applications such as Youtube further enable the process by making this functionality easy to implement. It used to be that the analog copies that were made by pointing a camera at a screen were not very good, but that technology is also improving. Furthermore, the definition of the viewing device is also changing. Entertainment can now be consumed in devices other than TV sets, devices such as PCs, and smartphones, and the quality of the viewing experience on these devices is constantly improving. Since these other devices are primarily meant for non-entertainment purposes, the ability of the entertainment industry to force the issue of implementing content protection measures in these devices becomes more challenging.

I heard recently that there now are some Internet vendors who have implemented applications that are actually enabling the live streaming of video from one consumer location to others. As a practical matter this enables piracy to take place very easily, for example, high value Pay Per View (PPV) content being received by one paying subscriber can be streamed to a bunch of non-paying consumers. This kind of capability parallels what Youtube did for recorded video content. The content providers have a hard time shutting down these types of operations because it could be argued that the primary functionality that these companies are offering is not related to commercial content and piracy. They are primarily enabling sharing of content in general. Shutting this kind of service would be equivalent to creating an industry ban, or regulations, on camcorders on which families make recordings of family events because these devices can also be used for piracy. What the content owners are limited to doing is trying to influence the operations of companies that provide the services in question or the devices used to generate the content. As an example, in the case of Youtube, mechanisms have been instituted to try to identify pirated content within the network itself.   The content owners could even try to force the camcorder or camera manufacturers to include features their products that would automatically prevent recording of protected content. (It is actually technically possible using a technology called watermarking.)

But, it could be argued that all of these efforts are for a losing cause. With the development of cloud technology, including network storage and sharing capability via applications such as Dropbox and Google Drive, content sharing becomes more decentralized and difficult to track.   It is not just Youtube that the content providers need to focus on and deal with. Until network snooping and monitoring protocols are implemented and made legal for commercial purposes, it will become close to impossible to monitor piracy in such a scenario. It can also be an expensive proposition to implement this kind of functionality.  And with an abundance of bandwidth available to for the consumer, and device capabilities improving in the home, such functionality will also become more and more practical to implement.   To the extent that attempts at piracy are achieved through technologies that are becoming more and more common, that are legitimately meant for general purposes other than piracy, the content providers will be at a loss to prevent it from happening from a technical perspective. The only thing they can do is monitor content on the Internet, try to identify sources of pirated content, and shut down each of these sources (or put the fear of God into the common man, like the RIAA tried to do a few years back) by resorting to legal arguments and processes. While it might be technically possible for the content owners to do all of this, the democratization of the piracy capability can make this a very daunting challenge for the industry going forward. At some point they may actually have to depend on the goodwill of the average person, and it will be a fine line for them to walk between offering a product for a cost that the consumer is willing to pay vs. making a “pirate” out of the consumer, and the need to spend tons of money on enforcement. At the end of the day, it is a cost-benefit tradeoff, and analysis is based on the perceived value of the product that the industry is providing to the common man. Hard to imagine all this fuss is over entertainment, something that does not seem essential for our survival.