Soylent is for people

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

New Yorker: … I was relieved when factory-made Soylent arrived in the mail. It was basically Rhinehart’s formula, which I’d tasted in L.A.: a thick, tan liquid that is yeasty, grainy, and faintly sweet. Compared with the taste of my chocolate version, regular Soylent was pleasant. (Office taste-test results: “Naked protein shakes that are made of husks”; “One step better than what you drink before getting a colonoscopy.”)

I lived on the mixture, more or less, for a three-day weekend. Many of the tips I’d heard proved true. Soylent tastes better when it’s been in the fridge overnight. (A D.I.Y. user told me that this is “because the ingredients have been able to congeal.”) It’s more appealing after physical activity—when you’re hungry, you find that you actually crave it. The smell is a downside. On Friday, after a few hours, the doughy fragrance seemed to be everywhere—in my mouth, on my breath, my fingers, and my face. And the stomach takes a while to adjust to liquid food: by the afternoon, I felt like a walking water balloon.

Living on Soylent has its benefits, though. As Rhinehart puts it, you “cruise” through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: “There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.” Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings.

But that is Soylent’s downside, too. You begin to realize how much of your day revolves around food. Meals provide punctuation to our lives: we’re constantly recovering from them, anticipating them, riding the emotional ups and downs of a good or a bad sandwich. With a bottle of Soylent on your desk, time stretches before you, featureless and a little sad. On Saturday, I woke up and sipped a glass of Soylent. What to do? Breakfast wasn’t an issue. Neither was lunch. I had work to do, but I didn’t want to do it, so I went out for coffee. On the way there, I passed my neighborhood bagel place, where I saw someone ordering my usual breakfast: a bagel with butter. I watched with envy. I wasn’t hungry, and I knew that I was better off than the bagel eater: the Soylent was cheaper, and it had provided me with fewer empty calories and much better nutrition. Buttered bagels aren’t even that great; I shouldn’t be eating them. But Soylent makes you realize how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.

Rinehart spends a lot of time in Soylent discussion forums, discovering how people have tweaked his formula. He told me that he relishes criticism, as long as it’s evidence-based, rather than “emotional”: “Putting a lot of eyeballs on the problem is only going to help.” In L.A., after our stop at the taco truck, I accompanied him to meet some D.I.Y.ers: a group of students in Ricketts House, a dorm at Caltech, who he’d heard were subsisting on Soylent. …

… At Ricketts, Rhinehart asked the students if there were any more questions. Nick asked, “How do you feel about the fact that, after a lot of people eat Soylent, Soylent becomes people?”

Rhinehart smiled. “It’s pretty awesome,” he said. “I think about this a lot, actually.” He held out his arms, displaying his healthy torso. “I’ve been on it for a year now, and pretty much everything you see is built out of Soylent.”

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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