Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Soylent and me

Like thousands of others last year, I saw the Soylent crowd funding last summer and the concept rang true to me. Sometimes you just need to eat. And if you are just going to eat to address your biological need to eat, it doesn't make sense to spend more time, money, and effort than absolutely necessary. Enter Soylent, which is intended to be a nutritionally-balanced meal replacement powder. How balanced?

Look at that nutrition information!

Why Soylent?

Over the last year or so, my wife and I have been fortunate enough to first have her mother stay with us to help take care of our child, then for us to find a nanny within a few days of the mother-in-law going home. Both my mother-in-law and our nanny are ethnic Chinese, but who lived their lives in Malaysia (our nanny having come to America about 30 years ago). Also fortunately, both are very good at cooking authentic Malaysian-Chinese food (the nanny having owned and operated a Chinese restaurant for 15 years), so my wife has been very happy.

Unfortunately for me, I'm sort-of a picky eater. Which isn't to say that I don't eat many different types of food (I like at least a half-dozen dishes from just about every type of cuisine that has a restaurant in Los Angeles), it's just that I'm very opinionated about the food that I eat. And when I'm confronted with flavors that are different enough from what I enjoy eating, I acknowledge that the food is not for me, and I find something else to eat.

When you take a picky eater (me) and add authentic Malaysian-Chinese home cooking 5-6 nights a week, you get a predictable outcome: me making my own dinner. But I am also very lazy, so most nights (4-5/week) I end up making myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. It was getting a bit old last summer when I saw the Kickstarter for Soylent, and my thoughts were: if it's any good, I've at least got something balanced enough to mix it up a bit with the PB+H sandwich.

How is it?

I received my 1-month supply of Soylent yesterday, after the pitcher and measuring scoop arrived last week. It would seem that for some reason or another I chose the "vegan" version, which differs from the non-vegan version by a lack of a supplementary oil included in the package. Not a huge deal one way or another, but great for me because it arrived yesterday as opposed to mid-May or later.

For some taste context, over the years I've bought and consumed a variety of different types of protein powders (mixed with water, watered-down fruit juice, or a watered-down sports drink), typically just before or after going to the gym. If you've ever had one of those protein shakes, you probably already know that they are pretty awful.

Long story short: Soylent is better than any protein powder I've ever eaten. (note that Soylent is not a protein powder)

Overall, the taste is fairly neutral, but still has a small tinge of what I'm going to call "whey uck". If you've had one of the whey protein powders compared with a non-whey powder, you will know what I mean. I won't say that it's a deal-breaker, perhaps being on the order of 5-10% as strong as the weakest-tasting uck I've had in a whey protein powder, but it's still there. Note: the 'whey uck' taste goes away when the drink is cold.

Texture-wise, it's a bit grittier than I would have preferred, but it's not unpleasant. Note that if you let it sit in the fridge (or anywhere else), it will start separating in a few hours, so be prepared to shake or stir before drinking if you are going to let it sit.

So far I've had two 12-ounce glasses. A glass and a half yesterday for dinner, and half a glass today with a steak+salad+glass of milk the wife decided to make for us. Surprisingly, I wasn't particularly hungry yesterday evening after drinking the Soylent (roughly 6:45PM), and I ate a typical-sized snack for me (11:45PM-midnight) before going to bed (about 1AM).

Being that I've not been eating it as my only food source, and I've only been eating it for the last 2 days, I can't say that I'm experiencing any physical or mental changes that some others have reported after long-term consumption, but it's also entirely possible that my diet (which normally includes 24-36+ ounces of milk/day) was balanced enough for my particular physiology and metabolism for it not to make a huge difference. Time will tell.

Final thoughts

As a very balanced meal replacement, it's definitely passable in terms of taste and texture. The dump + add water + shake process makes it difficult to beat in terms of preparation. Cost-wise, I'm not sure you could cover all of the nutritional bases that Soylent does with regular food at the ~$3 per meal price.

So far I've had a positive experience, and I hope that I don't grow to hate Soylent like I've grown to hate protein powders.

Update November 18, 2014:
For roughly the last 5-6 months, Soylent has actually replaced my breakfast of raisin bran + milk in the mornings during the week. I can get a little over 5 glasses of Soylent out of one package/pitcher mix, which gets me M-F on one pitcher. I know, the packaging says "consume within 48 hours", but I don't and I'm fine. It gets thicker later in the week, which gives me a little extra for my tough gym day during Friday lunch.

On the occasion where I have had cereal in the mornings since switching, I will usually get halfway through the bowl, drink the milk, and toss the remaining cereal. I don't know if it is the taste, but it feels like my body is telling my brain, "this crap isn't worth your time".

In terms of dinners, I will still sometimes have my PB + H sandwich (along with my requisite glass of milk), and even occasionally some Soylent,. But the wife has started to push for a bit more variety in her diet as well, so a few nights a week I'll get something more Americanized at home and/or pick up some takeout on my way.

I opened my last box a couple weeks ago, and I've got a few more packages left, so I need to buy more. I still don't feel substantially different in my energy or otherwise that couldn't be attributed to my going to the gym consistently for the last 10+ months, and on the occasion where I don't eat Soylent in the mornings for one reason or another, replacing it with something else (leftover pizza, ham + egg + cheese sandwich from the Trimana next to my work, 20 ounces of milk, cheesy scrambled eggs, ...) doesn't leave me feeling any worse than when I eat the Soylent.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Heartbleed and false equivalence

This morning I had the opportunity to listen to a bit of NPR, where a piece on Heartbleed was being discussed by Larry Mantle on Air Talk. You can read and download the piece: New report: The internet is too interconnected to fail. Medium story short: the segment and Larry have the apparent opinion that the way the collective technology industry handles these kinds of issues is "ineffective", comparing it to the the financial meltdown and its effects. I disagree, here's why.

Heartbleed is a huge "hair on fire" situation, no competent person on the tech side of things disagrees. Easily tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of IT professionals of one kind or another spent hours or days each dealing with the fallout of Heartbleed. The total financial cost of updating/replacing every piece of software/hardware that suffers from this bug globally is easily into the $billions, spread out over millions of organizations. Some fixes were as simple as updating and restarting a few pieces of core software, others required what can only be described as major surgery. And what is the result?

The internet is recovering pretty quickly. Unlike the financial crisis, the direct cause of Heartbleed can be narrowed down to literally a half dozen lines of code or less. That code has been fixed, in some cases the "heartbeat" feature that was the source of the bug extracted completely, millions of copies of OpenSSL have been updated or replaced, and a variety of professionals who build safe and secure software have come together to make the situation better - to try and prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. Are there still vulnerable systems? Yes. Will there be vulnerable systems in 6 months? Probably, just like there are still people using Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6. But thousands of technologically adept professionals are pushing as hard as they can to get as much fixed as absolutely possible.

Thinking back to what went on after the financial meltdown, can you see any difference? I can. The biggest that I can see is that none of the fundamental causes of the meltdown have ever been addressed. Banks are still extraordinarily under-regulated (as the Libor scandal showed), banks are still too large, banks are still trying to maximize profit via borrowing at low rates from the fed, banks are still leveraging, ... The only thing that has sort-of changed is that now the commoditization of consumer loans doesn't seem to happen anymore, and credit reporting companies are now paying better attention in those situations where commoditization occurs. But all of the fundamental things that banks do to maximize profit and to grow larger are still allowed.

While Larry may see parallels, I see almost none. The technologies underlying the internet that keeps us all connected to one another are supported and developed by passionate people who have every reason possible there could be to create and maintain a safe and secure environment for everyone. This point cannot be overstated. The people working on this do it because they know how important it is for it to be available to everyone. Some volunteer and some are underpaid. That's right, some people who design and build the core technology behind securing the majority of web servers in the world volunteer their time to make it better for everyone. If you haven't read this post from the finance guy at OpenSSL, you should.

On the other side of the coin, banks and the finance industry have no good reason to change anything, as they are still extracting immense value from the way the system is being run. Incomes among those in the finance industry are as high as they've ever been. And nothing has fundamentally changed in the finance industry to prevent anything like the meltdown from happening again.

If there is one thing to be learned from Heartbleed, it's that the global technology industry is pretty well equipped to deal with catastrophic failure. We (those of us in tech) fix the problem, prepare a variety of mitigation strategies to prevent a similar problem from happening again, and we move on to bigger and better things. We aren't done yet, but we'll get there.

Can you imagine if the finance industry was willing to fix itself to the same extent? I can't, but I'm a realist.