The Soylents of the Lambs

Durable, long-lived, dehydrated full-meal replacement products have a significant place in the future of human life on this planet as war and global climate change produce huge migrations and displacements. The problem of potable water is hard enough, and will become more challenging as wet regions dry out or become arid for parts of a year. But it's possible to sanitize water for drinking and convert sea water to fresh. It's a technological challenge, but it's not physically impossible, and some parts of it have been solved.

Getting sufficient quantities of food to the right places on the globe at the right time that is pest-resistant, stable, nutritious, and not foul is vastly harder. While there are many variants in the world today, most relief projects and ongoing aid to refugee camps involves food components, like beans, often requiring some preparation, and which may be deficient for a minimal healthy sustenance diet.

What if there were a product that required just potable water and little else, which could be used to feed tens or even hundreds of millions of people in a pinch? That would be palatable, nutritious, lightweight relative to calories for transportation, and non-perishable over long periods?

And what if highly compensated people were dying to eat it? That's Soylent and its ilk.

The Engineer's Food

I have a problem with what I define as an "engineering" mindset, though more precisely it's a mindset found most commonly among engineers—not all engineers engage in this way of thinking, whether they make software, products, or buildings. But I believe a mind that navigates to that sort of work also accepts approximation and reductionism gradually, because it is necessary. One has to break tasks down into solvable pieces to construct a new whole. This is extolled in all fields of engineering.

The trouble comes when reductionism comes without research—when a problem is approached de novo even when there is an enormous amount of information available about outcomes already. Nobody would build an edifice without using formulas that allow calculation of load, but many, many people will build a nursing-staff scheduling system without looking at how the system was previously handled and talking to those who use it. Existing users and and existing systems outside of mathematics and physics are seen as impediments to producing something more efficient than what it replaces.

I wrote about this in regards to Yahoo's new logo two years ago. Marissa Mayer seemingly ignored everything that has been learned about legibility over thousands of years, type design over hundreds of years, and human perception over decades of lab work to create a terrible logo.

Soylent strikes me the same way. Rather than do the tedious work of looking at past meal replacements and supplements, interviewing people in the field, and performing clinical tests, its developer, Rob Rhinehart, studied nutrition textbooks and read the FDA and other web sites, and "compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival," according to a 2014 New Yorker story. He ordered powders and pills and mixed them up.

He experimented on himself, decided the results were remarkable, crowdfunded turning it into a real product, raised a small fortune, and then went after venture capital. Soylent's brash claim that it could replace food (or at least some meals each day) became a statement of fact.

The New Yorker noted in 2014:

Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that it would be unwise to miss out on [phytochemicals]. “It’s a little bit presumptuous to think that we actually know everything that goes into an optimally healthy diet,” he told me. You can live without plant chemicals. “But you may not live maximally, and you may not have optimal function. We’re concerned about much more than just surviving.”

Soylent waved this concern off, and many competitors have since entered the market. The stuff is generally in scarce supply.

I've been skeptical and negative on Twitter to the extent that people ask me why I have a beef (or rice starch?) with Soylent or the concept. I don't. In fact, I want Soylent and its category to succeed wildly.

Food security

If they truly crack the code, they have the potential to improve global nutrition—whether it's a child in a refugee camp, a college student who would otherwise eat ramen and experience a form of affluenza malnutrition in the developed world, high-income programmers who are tired of food prep for some or all meals, or elderly with limited palates, digestion, and funds.

These meal replacements could achieve this without the usual problem of moving people up the food chain. Improvements in diets often include eating meat and other foods that have a disproportionate impact on the environment—better calories and more calories often mean a more intensive and worse use of the land to achieve them.

As insect-based proteins and algae-derived nutrients reach a commercial scale and are accepted, the efficiency of food production will increase enormously. Consumers in developed countries with middle-class incomes may reject them. Those who live in constant hunger or with constant food insecurity may embrace something that gives them enough quality calories to have the energy and fortitude to thrive. The developed world pretends that social programs provide enough food to those in want, when that's a patent falsehood we use to let us sleep at night. In developing countries, there's much less fooling about it.

No, my trouble with Soylent isn't its aim, but its journey. I want to see short-term and long-term independent clinical testing of results to validate the hype being generated. A sample size of one (the founder) or a few hundred (loyal adherents) or even thousands of happy customers isn't enough. This is a food experiment, not a food product yet. Rigorous testing and feedback will help shape these efforts into something real and beneficial—and profitable.

Some formulations by other companies are countering the reductionist approach of nutritional components by using real foods. Ambronite seems to be the leading practitioner. But at $9 per day for about 2,000 calories from Soylent, Ambronite's equivalent isn't competitive at $40 (four 500-calorie servings). I expect something closer in the middle in terms of non-reductionist ingredients (with the aforementioned algae and insect proteins as part of it) but at a lower price than Soylent outside developed countries will be a hit.

I don't criticize meal replacements being developed now. I criticize hype that may harm the health of those who buy into it until they're perfected.



It Takes a Hidden Village

I love Kevin Kelly's work and life, and had a great talk with him months ago for my podcast, The New Disruptors. But during his talk at the 2014 XOXO festival a week ago, I felt a distinct chill when, in describing his book Cool Tools, he said it was the work of two people over a few months, and then went on to note their use of Elance and other distributed work tools.

Tim Maly felt the same chill, and wrote a very interesting essay riffing on that and related issue: independent creators are dependent on the work of so many others, most of whom aren't afforded the same opportunities at advancement and independence. Tim followed the thread of labor down to the Chinese workers referenced in another talk by the creators of the NeoLucida; the two guys behind that project traveled to China and spent two weeks in the factory that was making their gear.

I know that Kevin didn't mean to disparage or denigrate the work of the hundreds of people who put in minutes or hours through various freelance/contract aggregation services. In fact, in our podcast, he spoke specifically about these folks (full transcript):

In the end, I probably redesigned at least 90 percent of the pages, but they were delivered at such a stage that it was possible for me to refine them. We were generating I forget how many pages a day from all the freelancers. They were first class. They were really great.

He also noted:

What it is doing is arbitrage. It’s matching the needs of one person with the abilities of the other in a very low friction way. I think that’s what really comes forward. Sometimes you don’t need necessarily the design power. You want something a bit more modest, and this is a way to kind of connect with that person very directly, very quickly within a matter of hours. I think that’s really the beauty of this system.

He can speak for himself, but from a similar position, I know what he meant: it only required a couple of dedicated people, not working exclusively on the project, to coordinate and bring it into being; something that not long ago would have required a team of several and a year and maybe an order of magnitude or factors above that in cost. He was the motive force; without his interest, energy, and money, the book would never have come to pass.

When I created The Magazine: The Book (Year One) earlier this year, it was my idea. I came up with it, coordinated it, raised the funds, hired people, and handled nearly all the details. But, of course, dozens of people were involved in it directly, tens of thousands at one remove, and millions at another.

The book required the expertise of a graphic design and production team of three and my contract editorial team of two (managing editor and proofreader); a few dozen writers, artists, and photographers; paper and ink, printing presses, postal and shipping services. You can crank the aperture wide or small about how many people were involved depending on what level of detail you want to discuss. Someone had to mine ore, smelt it, refine it, and stamp out machine parts for the equipment that embossed the covers of the hardback edition.

We are ourselves often cogs in someone else's machine. The lower level the task, the less likelihood we have to control our own destiny. I don't think Kevin has lost sight of that at all — he began his life's work by traveling the world to find disappearing societies and met people forgotten by everyone else. But our independence is always positional, relying on the constraints of others to make the raw stuff on which we depend.

The Math of Dunn: One

Wading into a political, legal, and racial issue isn't usually my speed. But I wanted to write something briefly about the Michael Dunn trial because I feel like I'm seeing bad information and logic spread across the twittersphere.

Let's start with the obvious: African Americans have a hell of a time receiving proportionate justice when they are defendants, and non-blacks accused of crimes against black people have a vastly easier time avoiding proportionate punishment or any punishment at all. I am in full agreement, and the statistics back up the anecdotes. Black people are convicted and pled at higher rates under more severity than white defendants for the same crimes. Drug charges for urban drugs more likely to be used by blacks have much higher penalties than those more typically used by middle-class whites.

And the use of "loud music" in all the headlines about this case? Jordan Davis and his friends may have been playing music loudly. That is what teenagers do. The issue was about one man's simmering violence in which he coolly loaded a gun and shot repeatedly at a vehicle as it drove away full of unarmed children.

"Loud music"? Please. I've seen tweets about the loud music indicating "disrespect" towards Dunn. This isn't about loud music just like the movie theater texting shooting isn't about cell phones. This is about a violent person who is willing to commit murder because he cannot control his own impulses.

Now, having stated that, I want to look at what precisely happened in the trial, to my understanding from the news accounts.

The jurors: I already saw a prominent person say that "eight white people" refused to convict Dunn of the most serious of five charges against him. That is incorrect.

The jury comprised 12 people: four white men, four white women, two black women, one Asian-American woman, and one man who identified as Hispanic. (Hispanic is a designation that can apply to any race.)

The charges: Florida requires unanimous decisions for criminal charges for conviction or acquittal. Dunn was found guilty of four charges (one for each of the kids he shot at and didn't kill in the departing car and one weapons charge).

On the murder charge, jurors could not reach unanimity on first-degree murder or second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter charges, which must be considered if they reject the murder charges. He was not acquitted.

From my reading of the trial, the defense did a remarkable job in causing doubt in at least a single juror's mind about Dunn acting in self-defense. Dunn didn't need to act reasonably in self-defense; only believe that he was so doing!

Only one juror had to disagree. Given that they found him guilty unanimously of four other charges, I can imagine a scenario in which the recalcitrant juror says, "He's going to jail for life, anyway. I think he had reason to act in self-defense in his mind, and I'm not going to vote in favor of any murder or manslaughter charges." The ways juries work, one or more jurors could have "traded" their votes on the other four charges to avoid deadlocking on all.

The mistrial: The judge declared a mistrial on the murder charge. The state attorney has said he will stage a new trial on that charge, even though Dunn will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in jail.

It's completely clear to me that the defense painted the situation in terms in which Jordan and his friends were guilty of being "menacing because black teenagers." That's the crux of the injustice. The jury outcome may have been based on a single juror or 11 of the 12; we won't know unless they decide to talk later.

But the doubt in one or more jurors' minds that let them deadlock (not acquit) on one charge yet reach unanimity on four others is where justice wasn't served.