The Travelling Engineer Problem

Some computer science geeks like to talk about the “Travelling Salesman Problem.”  This post has nothing to do with that, because as an engineer, my company almost never sends me to visit customers. Plus, when I travel, it’s typically to one destination, and back home.   For a few days this week, that was to the mother ship, er, main office in Ohio.

The problem, then, is this: what does “local” mean when you’re not at home?  At a restaurant on Wednesday, I had the option of drinking a beer from the Great Lakes (GLBC Rye of the Tiger), or from my home state (STBC Unearthly IPA). This turns out to be a pretty trivial choice, because the Great Lakes beer actually comes from closer to where I was sitting at the time than Southern Tier is to my house.  We’ll call that “good” (and it was tasty, too…)

On the “ugly” side are things like stopping at a gas station and buying snack food because I didn’t bring snacks with me from home.  That would have been the smart thing to do.  I was able to at least choose Snyder’s of Berlin (PA) chips, which puts about 200 food miles between the source and my purchase point along I-90.  I am not at all proud about the factory-farmed stick of processed meat-product that I selected to add some protein.  Nuts would have been a better choice, I’m sure. (Actually, eating my own fingers might have been a better choice, from both a health and flavor perspective.  But not while I was using them to drive.)

For regular meals, I had a couple of different options open.  The company kindly puts me in a very nice hotel which not only includes breakfast, but offers a “social hour” with food (even wine and beer) most evenings.  Last time I visited, they even had a local wine among the choices.  There have been times when (after a long drive and a long day at work, and no desire to go out again and find a restaurant) a few bites here has been enough of a meal.  Alternately, there are a number of very nice restaurants in walking distance of the hotel… and I did walk, despite the early spring thunderstorms.  One of the things that, for me, defines “very nice” is that they’re not chains, and that I’ve actually met and conversed with the owner at multiple of these establishments.  So in that sense, these are local establishments, and I feel pretty good about patronizing them.

For lunches, I took a different approach on this trip than in the past, by only eating half my dinner and having leftovers to bring into the lunch room.  (The “not stuffing myself” part was a wonderful side effect.)  One day this week, the company had a “picnic” (free food in the lunchroom) to celebrate baseball season – complete with bags of Cracker Jacks.  (For anyone my age who had them as a kid, you’ll remember these as “boxes of Cracker Jacks” from the Borden ownership period.  You may also remember them having prizes that aren’t crap. Thank you, Frito-Lay.) So that is another way of getting free food on the company.

Finally, a note on transportation is probably in order.  Why would I choose to drive 715 miles?  Isn’t that bad for the environment?  Well yes, of course it is.  My other options are: fly 872 miles (round trip), and then rent a car and drive another 70-80 mi; or drive 130 miles RT to the nearest Amtrak station, then take a train 660 miles RT; and drive 70 mi at the other end.  When you consider total BTU plus driving a fuel efficient vehicle (I averaged about 42mpg), the drive is about 2.2MBTU; the flight is 2.4MBTU; the train is 1.67MBTU.  The problem is, there is only one train per day, which leaves at 9:50pm and gets in at 3:30am… when there are no car rental places open.  And then where do you go? Even with “early check in” you can’t go to the hotel at 4am the previous night.  I did the train adventure once, and all of the late night limo services and other complications nearly doubled the total duration of the trip, making it completely impractical.

Someday, I hope we will have real passenger train service again – a stop in Ithaca, and more than one train per day.  I love trains, and would happily go back to this if it was a serviceable option.  But by the time that happens, I may be long retired from this job.


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