Soylent, “The Future,” and “Food”

Last month, I was reading Jason Kottke’s site when I saw an ad for an intriguing product: Soylent.

Soylent 2.0 Ad, via The Deck

An ad for Soylent 2.0, as it appeared via The Deck.

When I first saw the small boxy ad with a brief text description, which is common to all ads powered by The Deck, I thought it was a joke. Did someone really make a food-drink called Soylent?1

Didn’t they not watch the whole film?

Soylent is indeed real. It is a food substitute, launched in 2014 by Rosa Labs, a Silicon Valley–type startup based in Los Angeles. It aspires to be the future of food.

It’s a Startup

After poking around the Soylent website, I was stricken by how much Soylent uses the lexicon of contemporary tech startups. The website promoting Soylent is mercifully responsive, peppered with little jQuery animations, and styled in the minimalist aesthetic that will someday soon date websites as “soooo 2013.” As you scroll down the page, you’ll find a requisite feature list, illustrated with those circle-masked images that are all the rage these days. The Soylent store is powered through Stripe, and there’s also a “sandwich” video.

Soylent Feature List

Your food has a feature list, illustrated with circle-masked images.

Spend more time on the website and you’ll wonder whether Soylent is a software platform, and not an actual drink. First, Soylent is versioned. The 1.x line was a powder mix, which has undergone several iterations. There are release notes charting the evolution. Though Soylent 1.5 is still for sale, the current 2.0 version is a ready-to-consume drink. It is, after all, a major upgrade. Second, they also open-sourced Soylent for anyone interested in mixing their own Soylent. Third, there is also a beta program to test future versions of Soylent. And lastly, there are the user forums.

It’s “The Future”

Some members of the Soylent Forums appear to belong to a sect of techno-utopian futurists who are determined to save time and money by cutting out food.2 Some active discussions surround pairing Soylent with MealSquares, another food substitute. Others wonder how to deal with the lasting hunger that comes from drinking your meals. But, by far, my favorite discussions come from the polyphasic sleep crowd, who have come to regard sleep as a waste of time and are interested in maximizing net-waking hours. (Full disclosure: I am a coffee napper.) One friend asked what these people are doing with all the extra time they’ve saved by not sleeping or eating: are they researching new ways to save even more time?

Another way to think of Soylent—packaging nutrition in a bottle—is as a social entrepreneurial venture. Mark Cuban recently tried to solve the food problem in America through sociocapitalism.

I asked a machine learning company to try to find nutrition databases of readily available, deliverable foods from Amazon and to cross reference those databases against the Amazon delivered price in one urban city. The goal is to create the least cost, deliverable daily or weekly menu of food that meets a high level of nutritional requirements for individuals and families.

Although I presume he’s referring to actual food, not necessarily meal replacements, it’s not a stretch to wonder if something like Soylent could be a compatible solution.

It’s “Food”

Despite being initially hesitant, I couldn’t stop thinking about Soylent. I succumbed to my curiosity and ordered a case.

At first taste, I thought “soy milk.” That’s not a stretch given the product’s name and that its primary ingredient is soy. A friend sampled it and reported a more nuanced tasting note: it reminded her of “soy milk left over after finishing your cereal.” That dispelled my first concern, whether it would taste bad. It doesn’t.

That same intrepid friend and I split a bottle recently, before watching Frederick Wiseman’s newest film, In Jackson Heights (2015). Our initial plan was to eat dinner after the screening and drink a Soylent tide us over until then. I even naively quipped about the movie, “it’s not like it’s going to be three hours long.” I was wrong. The documentary ran 190 minutes. I can report that while I was craving food throughout the screening, I didn’t get a headache, feel low on energy, or get “hangry.” I circumvented needing to eat so I could watch a three-hour film. That half-bottle of Soylent did its job.

While Soylent is technically food, it’s hard to see this as a sustainable and nutritionally complete food substitute, even if its stated aims are to be sustainable and nutritionally complete as food. Celebrated food writer Michael Pollan sees Soylent as little more than “Silicon Valley” hype:

Soylent! Soylent is not new. We had Nutrament; you can go to the diet aisle of your supermarket and find all sorts of equally disgusting food substitutes. The genius of Soylent is that it comes out of Silicon Valley, and anything that comes out of there is assumed to be new and technologically advanced and wonderful. But it’s nothing of the type.

Although the company is actually based in a Southern California, I take his point. Soylent is poised to “disrupt” food.

Future of Food is Food

The year before last, I regularly ate dinner at the dining hall at Fordham University. Having broken up with my girlfriend at the end of the summer, I was too depressed to make myself food. Also, because the faculty dining room was being remodeled, the university discounted our meals—to five dollars—so that we would eat with the students living on-campus. While I was excited to eat a cheap, balanced meal, I was surprised to see how many students bypassed the buffet and opted for only a bowl of cereal at dinnertime. Not even pizza or hot dogs could entice them away from Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Lee Hutchinson, an early Soylent adopter, jumped into the polemics of “food vs. ‘food’” and carefully judged it as a “tool in a toolbox.” In his article, he also considered the various people who struggle with food, both those who fear making it and those who don’t much like the taste of food. Soylent offers these people a simple solution: like the undergraduate students who ate a bowl of cereal before heading to their rooms for the night, presumably to study, to game, or both. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it solves the food problem for a while.

But that’s just it: it is ephemeral. The history of food diets—like technology and mass culture—are notoriously riddled with passing fads that don’t endure. Right now, it’s the era of Paleo and gluten-free. Next, we might eat only vegan and raw food. By the end of the century, someone might open an retro, early-21st century place that serves beef and pork. I’m not foolish enough to try to predict whether Soylent will be around in five to ten years. But, like the wave of hot new tech startups and the aesthetics of web design that accompanies that wave will teach us, the future of food might not be as futuristic as some might expect.

Soylent
A “nutritionally complete” food substitute that comes in a white bottle.

  1. I do remember seeing an ad for this a while ago, but this time it made an impression, both in terms of grabbing my attention and getting my money. 
  2. I really hope someone archives these discussions so that historians and anthropologists can study them in the future. 

OS X-Files

I have been slowly catching up with the tenth season of the X-Files, otherwise known as the thing that Fox needed to air after the NFC Championship Game wrapped up in late-January.

The fifth and penultimate episode of the tenth season, “Babylon”, bears an uncanny resemblance to the recent events in San Bernadino and the aftermath of gathering information from one of the terrorists. In the episode, a couple of young Muslim men detonate a bomb an art gallery in Texas, exhibiting a painting that depicts Allah “sitting on a toilet defecating radical Islamists.” One of the suicide bombers barely survives the attack. The FBI is interested if he has any information about a larger terrorist cell or a possible future attack, but because he is in a persistent vegetative state and imminently close to death, he is not talking. To gather any possibly useful intel, Mulder and Scully each separately try to “listen” to his thoughts to uncover any useful information.

This reminded me of the FBI and Apple.

I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a stretch to relate this to the protracted battle between the FBI and Apple. In both the real-life and the X-Files cases, the FBI is seeking information from a “dead” terrorist. The real FBI is asking Apple to defeat its own security protocols to unlock his phone, while the TV FBI tries two different methods to read the bomber’s mind. To no one’s surprise, Mulder’s method seemed a lot more fun than Scully’s: we see a few familiar faces during “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Mulder.”

I won’t spoil how they try to get the information or whether they succeed, but I wonder what kind of software can the FBI compel someone to write to read someone’s thoughts. Is that covered under the “All Writs Act,” too?

Los Sures Screens and Lives, at NYU

Ten summers ago, I taught a six-week summer class at NYU on New York Independent filmmaking. The class was based on my own interests in New York City as an historical center for independent, experimental, and avant-garde filmmaking. This fact was a key factor in my moving here after college.

Looking back, there were three distinct highlights:

  1. We screened the full three-hour, two-screen diptych of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls.
  2. Nick Zedd shook me down for money, years after I ran the course, because he had learned that I screened his films in this class.
  3. I saw, for the first time, the Diego Echeverria film Los Sures, a 1984 documentary of the then-Puerto Rican enclave of South Williamsburg. The film’s title is Spanish for “the Southsiders” and refers to the residents who dominated the neighborhood in the 1980s.

Over the years, Los Sures has reemerged through the efforts of Brooklyn-based UnionDocs. UnionDocs remixed the original film and created an immersive documentary project called Living Los Sures. Both films screened at the New York Film Festival in 2014, thirty years after the Echeverria film premiered there.

The original film is remarkable today because it documented a part of Williamsburg that has undergone radical changes over the last thirty-plus years, and the Living Los Sures project attempts to excavate and preserve the culture of the Southside.

Tomorrow, the Cinema Studies Department at NYU, is screening the 1984 film and hosting a presentation about the current and ongoing Living Los Sures project. This is a rare opportunity to see this film. Until the original film is available for purchase, you’ll have to settle for screening a 16mm or VHS copy at the New York Public Library.

Admission to tomorrow’s screening is free, but seating is limited.

Living Los Sures

  • March 3, 2016
  • NYU King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, 53 Washington Square South
  • Free
  • More Information

Becoming Mike Nichols, Reviewed

One of my first undergraduate film courses was a director’s class on Mike Nichols. As a nineteen year-old I didn’t know much about him other than he had directed The Graduate (1967), which I knew mostly because of the Simon and Garfunkel score rather than the film itself. On the first day of class, I learned that Nichols had a long career in theater and, that because the instructor, Meredith McMinn, also had an extensive theater background, she was interested in exploring the film work of a theater impresario. Nichols, who passed away in 2014, was still alive and working at the time, and this class was a rare opportunity to celebrate a filmmaker producing a new film at the time, just down the road in Hollywood.

Ultimately, I dropped the class in the second week. As a product of a working-class family, I was inherently suspicious of The Theater, and as a novice film student, I recognized that I should first take a history or genre class before delving into a “specialized master” class. I might have also picked up an extra shift at my campus job because, at the time, I could have really used the money. (Some things never change, I guess.)

Although I didn’t stick it out, I never forgot the two films we studied during my abbreviated enrollment: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, easily two of the finest films of the 1960s.

Those two films comprise the bulk of Becoming Mike Nichols a newly premiered documentary on HBO, which you can also stream on HBO Go and HBO Now. Documentary might not be the best description: it consists of two separate on-stage interviews with Jack O’Brien and is richly illustrated with photographs and extended clips from Nichols’s oeuvre. Think of it as an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio with a bigger budget for rights clearance.

As the title suggests, Becoming Mike Nichols focuses on his early work. It allows the conversation to explore Nichols’s most formative and creative years. Though Nichols worked in both stage and screen over a six-decade period, the documentary only chronicles his early work in the 1950s and 1960s: his improv acts with Elaine May, his early stage work directing two very celebrated Neil Simon plays, and his learning the film medium with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. The results of these on-the-job training exercises were nothing short of critical accolades in the form of Grammy, Tony, and Oscar awards.1 Would it glib to characterize Nichols as a “quick study?”

Becoming Mike Nichols smartly sacrifices breadth for depth. It was much more engaging to watch his reminisce about this early work than it would have been to review his later work. Wolf (1994) wasn’t a bad film, but it was not going to get you a master class, either.

Becoming Mike Nichols
A lively conversation between Jack O’Brien and Mike Nichols that focuses on the “best years” of the late director’s work on stage and on screen.

  1. He would get his EGOT in 2001 with an Emmy Award. 

Free Museum Admission for Pratt Institute Community

One of the best yet under-advertised features of being an NYU student–or a member of its faculty and staff—is the free admission to New York City–area museums. Some of the highlights include the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the New York Historical Society.

Last week, Pratt Institute announced that its students, faculty, and staff can enjoy free admission to the following museums:

Admission is also extended to alumni at the following museums:

  • Brooklyn Botanic Garden
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Whitney Museum of American Art

As the weather gradually begins to warm, it’s really tempting to visit a few museums before cycling and softball occupy my free time come spring.

Related: See my earlier blog post about NYU’s Museum Gateway.

A Simple Software File

Yesterday, a court in California ordered Apple to assist the FBI with bypassing the iPhone’s encryption and security features to recover the data stored on an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino gunmen. The court order requires Apple to write and install a special software file.

This software file, which one astute observer labelled as FBiOS, would enable the FBI to…

  • bypass the auto-erase (“poison pill”) feature that kicks in after ten incorrect password attempts;
  • enter a series of passcodes electronically, without doing so by hand on the iPhone touchscreen;
  • eliminate the delay that the iPhone introduces after more than four incorrect attempts.

Apple vigorously opposes the order and has vowed to challenge it.


Evidently, there is a fix to Error 53 that angered the world this month. iFixit has learned that replacing the display on a newer iPhone requires that both the Touch ID sensor and the cable joining the sensor to the display panel be paired. Before, the best practice for replacing a broken display screen was to replace the whole display assembly, including the cable that connects to the Home Button (which is now the Touch ID sensor). When a new display assembly is installed, the new cable attached to the Touch ID sensor will not match, thus bricking the iPhone. Apple does this to prevent a fake Touch ID sensor from allowing unauthorized access to an iPhone.

iFixit’s solution to fixing “Error 53” is to remove the old Touch ID cable from the old display and transplant it to the replacement display assembly.

Did you catch that?

After showing us how simple it is to regain access to your iPhone by matching the Touch ID sensor to its cable, the iFixers insist that Apple needs to hear our voices and to write a “simple software tool”:

The request is simple. What we need is a software tool that allows you to re-authenticate your…new Touch ID cable and the Touch ID sensor with the Phone. If they make that simple software tool available, it will un-brick these thousands of phones…

Presumably, iFixit’s request for Apple to write a software tool to bypass security will have to wait until Apple finishes dealing with the FBI’s request for Apple to write a software tool to bypass security.

Update: Apple has in fact released iOS 9.2.1 that fixes “Error 53,” though Touch ID will remain inoperable unless repaired by an authorized Apple service provider.

Three Juans for the Price

This Sunday, at Shea Stadium BK, no particular order…

  1. Juan Wauters
  2. Tall Juan
  3. Me

Okay, fine. I’m not actually on the bill because I’m not performing. But I understand that there’s karaoke “all night” and the next day is President’s Day Washington’s Birthday, so all bets are off.

Juan Wauters and Tall Juan

  • February 14, 2016
  • –Midnight
  • Shea Stadium BK, 20 Meadow St, Brooklyn
  • $10.00
  • Buy Tickets

iPhone “Error 53,” or Security > Convenience

In information technology, there’s almost always a tradeoff between security and convenience. The more convenient something is to use, the less secure it is. Otherwise, you could leave your front door unlocked, leave your car running, and have 123456 be your password for everything. However, as you know, that is far from secure. You need to lock your front door, you need to turn off the ignition, and you need to have unique, strong passwords for each of your online accounts. This inconvenience yields some measure of security.

The Guardian reported last week about a “fury” from iPhone users against Apple for bricking iPhones that have had their screens replaced by an unauthorized, third-party repair outfit, which inadvertently tampered with the Touch ID sensors during the repair process. Thereafter, the phones stopped working altogether.

The Device Shop on Mercer St, New York City

If I were to open a repair shop, such as this one, I would call it “Error 53.”

According to various users quoted in the article, an iPhone 6 or later will report an “Error 53” and not function if a third-party repair person has replaced the screen or the home button and if the user has upgraded the phone’s operating system to iOS 9. The issue is prevalent enough that iFixit reports over 180,000 queries to their user forums about “Error 53.” The maligned users and Miles Brignall, the Guardian author who reported on the “fury,” all but accuse Apple of bricking these repaired iPhones in order to force users to only repair their phones through Apple or to buy a new replacement.

Could Apple’s move, which appears to be designed to squeeze out independent repairers, contravene competition rules? Car manufacturers, for example, are not allowed to insist that buyers only get their car serviced by them. Apple charges £236 for a repair to the home button on an iPhone 6 in the UK, while an independent repairer would demand a fraction of that.

Pointing to an economic motive is all too simplistic. Although Apple is certainly concerned with being profitable, these accusations always surface when Apple does something to “brick” someone’s computing device or peripheral. It happened when Apple…

  • replaced the serial port with USB and rendered a lot of printers obsolete,
  • eliminated the floppy disk drive in favor of optical drives on the iMac,
  • replaced SCSI with FireWire,
  • eliminated swappable batteries in their notebooks,
  • and, most recently, replaced the 30-pin connector with Lightning.

And when these changes occurred, critics accused Apple of doing so in order to sell expensive adapters.

Instead, these are moves to destined improve the product and the experience. USB and FireWire were far superior to the serial port, ADB, and SCSI, as Lightning has been over the previous 2001-era iPod connector. Similarly, the only reason anyone ever needed a swappable notebook battery was to work longer than two hours, and the built-in batteries in the newer notebooks far exceeded that runtime, making toting those bulky batteries obsolete.

In this case, “Error 53” is to protect the security of the device. An Apple spokeswomen, quoted in the article, says as much:

We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorised Apple service provider or Apple retail store for changes that affect the touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. This check ensures the device and the iOS features related to touch ID remain secure. Without this unique pairing, a malicious touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave. When iOS detects that the pairing fails, touch ID, including Apple Pay, is disabled so the device remains secure.

Emphasis mine.

However, Brignall scoffs at this explanation, labelling it overloaded with “jargon.”

But, to any reasonable technologically competent person, this explanation is certainly sound. Apple’s own philosophy is that iPhone users store all kinds of private information on their devices, and that is Apple’s responsibility to prioritize the security of that device, even at the expense of user’s going to the corner repair shop to fix a cracked screen.

MyAmbulancePayments Website Needs an Ambulance

When I dislocated my pinkie finger nearly three years ago, I had a little taste of the American Healthcare System. It was gross. A teammate walked me from Central Park to the emergency room at Mount Sinai–St. Luke’s Hospital. There, the attending physician…

  • ordered a sets of x-rays to determine whether my finger was broken. It was not.
  • yanked my finger back into place, which immediately straightened the digit and made it stop looking purple.
  • ordered another set of x-rays to make sure he didn’t break anything. He didn’t.
  • bandaged my cut.
  • administered an intravenous antibiotic to prevent any infection due to my open wound.
  • prescribed an oral antibiotic for even more protection against infection.

The bill for this treatment was over $6,000.

Once my health insurance reviewed the charges, the hospital immediately reduced the bill to about $2,500. (Imagine if I didn’t have healthcare insurance. Thanks, Obama!) The insurance covered most of it, and I was stuck with the co-pay and the deductible, which amounted to about $600. I eventually paid the bill over time through a hospital collection service’s website. I remember the website looking atrociously dated, but it was at least functional enough that I could save a few postage stamps and pay with my AMEX card.


Earlier today, I was helping a relative pay for an ambulance bill, and the website for paying the ambulance bill demonstrated to me that the hospital collection industry is due for an upstart competitor to enter this field. As of today, their website has four critical problems:

First, go to myambulancepayments.com/. Did you get a 404 error page? I did.

ambo-01-404

Silly, me! I neglected to prepend www to the URL. I should do that because this website predates the convention of not requiring www to connect to a website. I think that has been standard practice since about 1998.

Second, there’s a warning from Safari that my connection to the website is not secure.

ambo-02-safari1

It appears that their SSL certificate expired a few days ago, on February 5, 2016. Did they forget to pay their certificate authority? Ironic, isn’t?

ambo-03-safari3

I know what you’re thinking: “who uses Safari?” Perhaps I should fall in line and use Chrome.

ambo-04-chrome

Oh, my! That Chrome-generated error page looks even more alarmist that the Safari error page.

Third, though I’m advanced enough to recognize the risks and not enter any personal information, such as my name, address, or credit card information, I proceeded to site.

But, wait… why am I here in the first place???

Fourth, in my Safari installation, which doesn’t have Flash installed and doesn’t load any such content, I noticed some missing Flash content and a plea to install it.

ambo-05-safariflash

Since Chrome still supports Flash, though maybe not for long, I see that the all-important Flash content is some propagandastic animation, reminding you that you should pay up because they saved your life.

ambo-06-chromeflash

At least, for the many, many people using a mobile device, none of which support Flash, they’ll be spared this visual reminder of the Hobson’s Choice that is the American Healthcare System:

Get in and pay up, or else…

My First Online Course with Google Classroom

Earlier this week, I submitted the grades for my first online, winter-session class. As I wrote earlier on this site, this was my first experience with a fully online course, either as a student or as a teacher. Aside from speaking with a couple of students who have taken online classes and colleague who has taught a language class over the Internet, I developed this course in a vacuum. This was both liberating and challenging. I felt free to use whatever tools I wanted, but I was also plagued with the uncertainty of whether I was doing things The Right Way, or what technologists refer to as “best practices.”

Since I have taught this class face-to-face for several semesters, I adopted the course into twelve media technologies. Each media technology constitutes a learning unit. The structure is basically as follows:

  1. Manual to Mechanical Media
    1. Writing
    2. Early Print
    3. Mass Print
    4. Photography
  2. Electromechanical Media
    1. Telegraph
    2. Telephone
    3. Motion Pictures
    4. Sound Recording
  3. Electromagnetic and Digital Media
    1. Radio
    2. Television
    3. Computers
    4. Internet

My colleague, who I’ll refer to as Claudine, suggested that I divide the class into a series learning units, each consisting of objectives, assignments, and assessments. I took her advice and, for each media technology, I assigned students to…

  1. audition a short introductory lecture that explains the media technology and emphasizes impacts of that technology on the society that adopted it,
  2. read a chapter from Irving Fang’s textbook Alphabet to Internet and a condensed version of an article from the fifth edition of the anthology Communication in History,
  3. take a quiz on the material.

After studying four media technologies, I assigned students a midterm exam consisting of essays.

The course was mostly asynchronous. Because the course was online, I wanted to provide students with some flexibility. Nothing about the course was live. They did not have to “tune in” to a lecture. Everything was designed to be completed at his or her own pace. However, because the winter session schedule was so compressed and had to “squeeze in” an entire semester’s work in three weeks, I did require students to complete four learning units per week to keep apace.

Here’s how I set up each learning unit of the course: