Who Owns Los Angeles?

los_angeles_1_compressed.jpg

“What is this you call property?”, asked Massasoit, the leader of the Native American Wampanoag tribe. “It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?”

Good question, Massasoit. Yet, due to a tragic combination of the pathogenic bacteria Leptospira and aggressive colonists the answer became irrelevant and the concept of land ownership proliferated through the majestic lands of the new world like a virus.

Today, the dust has settled and the iron horse has carried the white man to the west coast, where I currently reside. As I explored the wonderful city of Los Angeles I began to wonder to whom, exactly do I owe the pleasure of my environment? Who “owns” the dirt I stand on? So I did some research.

The “United States” is divided into 3,144 counties and county equivalents. Of these, Los Angeles county is the most populous, with over 10 million residents. The least populous, Loving County, Texas has only 82. Funny story, in 2006 a group of Libertarians attempted to buy up land and seize power in Loving County with the goal of establishing their ideals, but were thwarted by the local sheriff. The group is currently featured on a “Wanted” poster in the county’s sole courthouse.

LA County has an area of 4,751 mi2, divided across 88 cities and 2,379,680 parcels. However, much of the land is “unincorporated”, meaning it does not fall within the jurisdiction of an established city. If you would like to establish your own city in LA County you can apply to the LAFCO for as little as $2,5001. The information regarding parcel owner, location, and “assessed value” for collecting property taxes is maintained by the Assessor’s Office2.

Formats and Tools

Most, if not all, counties use GIS (geographic information systems) to maintain this data3. The LA office uses Microsoft Access for ownership and assessed value information, and the popular Shapefile format for geometry and mapping. ESRI (environmental systems research institute), founded in 1969, dominates land-use consulting with their popular ArcGIS software and Shapefile format developed in the early 1990s. A Shapefile consists of several different files, 3 of which are mandatory:

.shp – feature geometry as a set of either WKT (well known text) of WKB (well known binary) coordinates. Each of these entries can be one of several different simple datatypes such as

POINT (30 10)

LINESTRING (30 10, 10 30, 40 40)

POLYGON ((30 10, 40 40, 20 40, 10 20, 30 10))

MULTIPOLYGON (((30 20, 45 40, 10 40, 30 20)), ((15 5, 40 10, 10 20, 5 10, 15 5)))

.shx – index of positional geometry to allow quickly stepping forward and backward

.dbf – old school simple database format popular in the 1990s, here stores attributes for each shape

There are several optional files, the most important of which though is

.prj – represents the projection information of the coordinates in the shapes. More on this soon.

I performed extensive cleaning and simplification on the assessor’s office data as part of this analysis, the bulk of which was done with PostgreSQL and the fantastic PostGIS extension4.

If you want to follow along, say with an EC2 instance, first grab some dependencies.

 sudo apt-get -y install postgresql postgresql-contrib postgis
postgresql-9.3-postgis-2.1-scripts

Now let’s create a database for our geospatial data

createdb gis
psql -d gis -c 'create extension postgis'

Projections

The earth is not a perfect sphere. We represent it instead as a “geoid”, a mathematical object that, ideally, represents the precise shape of the earth if it were only under the influence of gravitation and rotation. While imperfect, the geoid, combined with satellite data provides a somewhat close approximation to the actual shape of the earth. The geoid works in tandem with different “datum”, which are coordinate systems used by regions to define a coordinate system consistent with the geoid. Today, improvement to the model and coordinate systems has led to the possibility of a single global standard for the globe, WGS84, that is gaining in popularity. Still, datums are typically more precise when defined only for a single region.

The datum used by the LA Assessor’s office is NAD1983. The naming convention originated with the first North American survey in 1901, based on an ellipsoid geoid model developed in 1866. The system was updated in 1927 based on surveys of the entire continent but using the same geoid, and updated again in 1983 using satellite and remote sensing data using GRS 80 as the geoid, the same model originally used by the popular global standard WGS84. If it sounds simple, it is not, but if you’re interested it’s a great reason to learn spherical harmonics.

spherical_harmonics

Just remember a datum is a coordinate system defined on a geoid, which is a model of the earth. Geoids and datums exist for other planets too, like Mars.

I re-projected the assessor’s office data from NAD1983 to WGS84 using QGIS. All projections have a corresponding SRID (spatial reference system identifier). Let’s load the shapefile into a PostGIS table, making sure to tell it the projection WGS84, which has an SRID of 43265. You can download it from me.

wget http://dwur9qzdkvp67.cloudfront.net/la_parcels.tar.xz
tar -xvf la_parcels.tar.xz
shp2pgsql -I -s 4326 -g geom la_parcels.shp la_parcels | psql -d gis > import.log

Basic Queries

Next let’s get an SQL prompt

psql -d gis

And run a simple query. This should improve performance a bit.

vacuum analyze;

Now let’s have some fun. What are the most expensive pieces of land in LA County?

select land_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels order by land_value desc limit 10;
land_value owner_name address_number street_name
252,479,578 CATALINA MEDIA DEVELOPMENT II 3000 ALAMEDA AVE
183,110,154 MOBIL OIL CORP 3700 190TH ST
154,291,320 BH WILSHIRE INTERNATIONAL LLC 9900 WILSHIRE BLVD
137,295,210 BP WEST COAST PRODUCTS LLC 1801 SEPULVEDA BLVD
136,879,311 WARNER BROS ENTERTAINMENT INC 4000 WARNER BLVD
135,354,000 NEXT CENTURY ASSOCIATES LLC 2025 AVENUE OF THE STARS
132,214,693 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS LLC 3900 LANKERSHIM BLVD
129,077,263 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORP 10201 PICO BLVD
126,062,515 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS LLC 3900 LANKERSHIM BLVD
122,666,461 TISHMAN SPEYER ARCHSTONE SMITH 3600 BARHAM BLVD

Entertainment and oil companies dominate here. That is land only though. I wonder which of these has the most expensive “improvement”, or building? Let’s use a nested query.

select improvement_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name from
(select land_value, improvement_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels order by land_value desc limit 10)
as lands order by improvement_value desc;

20th Century Fox wins with $265 million. Exxon Mobil’s sprawling refinery is assessed at only $19 million. Someone must be trying hard to keep property taxes low. Okay what about the most expensive properties overall? Combining land and building value?

select (land_value+improvement_value) as
total_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels order by total_value desc limit 20;
total_value owner_name address_number street_name
628,970,661 CHILDREN HOSPITAL OF LOS ANGELES 4550 SUNSET BLVD
550,125,487 KAISER FOUNDATION HOSPITALS 9343 IMPERIAL HWY
523,472,588 CEDARS SINAI MEDICAL CENTER 8720 ALDEN DR
521,206,676 TRS OF THE J PAUL GETTY TRUST 199 CHURCH LANE
515,115,546 TRS OF THE J PAUL GETTY TRUST 1200 GETTY CENTER DR
511,156,285 TRS OF THE J PAUL GETTY TRUST 0
511,156,285 TRS OF THE J PAUL GETTY TRUST 0
478,152,504 CENTURY CITY MALL LLC 10250 SANTA MONICA BLVD
477,297,278 HAY,DOROTHY L DECD EST OF AND 121 LA CIENEGA BLVD
475,058,030 ANHEUSER BUSCH INC 15800 ROSCOE BLVD
466,751,222 TRIZEC 333 LA LLC 333 HOPE ST
439,548,987 MARANGI,LEONARD M ETAL TRS LESSR 100 CONGRESS ST
439,000,000 COMMUNITY REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY 350 GRAND AVE
420,500,000 WILSHIRE COURTYARD LP 5700 WILSHIRE BLVD
397,617,220 DISNEY,WALT PRODUCTIONS INC 500 BUENA VISTA ST
396,907,059 CEDARS SINAI MEDICAL CENTER 127 SAN VICENTE BLVD
394,172,461 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORP 10201 PICO BLVD
376,000,000 2121 AVENUE OF THE STARS LLC 2121 AVENUE OF THE STARS
364,457,522 1999 STARS LLC 1999 AVENUE OF THE STARS
361,003,213 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS LLC 3900 LANKERSHIM BLVD

Hospitals monopolize the top spots. Healthcare is expensive. No surprise to see the magnificent Getty Center either. I wonder if the multiple entries are redundant or it’s worth $2 billion. Wouldn’t be surprised either way. Did you know it’s free? Free! Unlike the hospital.

getty_compressed.jpg

Let’s find another landmark. How about Dodger Stadium? We’ll use a forgiving string compare to make sure we match the street.

select (land_value+improvement_value) as
total_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels
where address_number = 1000 and street_name ilike 'elysian park%'
total_value owner_name address_number street_name
84,409,139 “REALCO INTERMEDIARY LLC” 1000 “ELYSIAN PARK AVE”

Dodgers stadium must be worth more than $84 million. How do the assessed values compare to real world values? Let’s use One Wilshire as an example. It sold in 2013 for $437.5 million and its assessed value is $297.5 million. Not too far off.

Now let’s use the aggregation function sum() and group by to find the most expensive cities by area in LA County. Since the city column is still a bit messy we’ll use having to eliminate the outliers.

select city, price_per_area from
    (select sum(area) as area, sum(land_value) as land_value, count(ain) as parcels, city,
    (sum(land_value) / sum(area)) as price_per_area
    from la_parcels group by city having count(ain) > 1000
    order by price_per_area desc)
as cities
city price_per_area total_value
MANHATTAN BEACH 110.6230954 12516203385
BEVERLY HILLS 82.13910857 22623901990
HERMOSA BEACH 60.45970815 5267669536
PALOS VERDES EST 47.59576314 4671096274
W HOLLYWOOD 44.57732453 2080465255
SANTA MONICA 43.00346533 26202224215
SAN MARINO 42.27213826 4967172261
LA CANADA FLT 31.25619651 3794539133
EL SEGUNDO 21.44013791 5831487943
BURBANK 21.05596602 17013420158
SOUTH PASADENA 20.63481846 3601284180
MONTROSE 20.56928866 560769462

I still want an answer to my original question. Who owns the most land?

select owner_name, count(ain),
sum(land_value)+sum(improvement_value) as holding,
sum(area) as lands from la_parcels
group by owner_name order by lands desc limit 10
owner_name parcel_count holding_value holding_area
U S GOVT 2695 406477416 33837253322
STATE OF CALIF 1387 271712949 2551166380
L A CITY 5498 1123805464 1586934789
SANTA CATALINA ISLAND 79 22222591 1504028479
L A COUNTY 1768 603224059 870795789
TEJON RANCH CO 59 5411765 703066562
L A CITY DEPT OF WATER AND POWER 2340 212220963 627091955
NEWHALL LAND AND FARMING CO 415 199329086 618742553
MOUNTAINS RECREATION AND 622 70849023 487140373
L A CO FLOOD CONTROL DIST 3916 54042362 448175685

By area huge swaths of the county is controlled by the federal and state government, with a few agriculture companies such as Tejon Ranch and Newhall Land and Farming Company sprinkled in.

los_angeles_2_compressed.jpg

More Advanced Queries

I wonder what percentage of LA County is not held by one of the 10 entities above or is unincorporated? Here we will use a view, which allows you to treat a query like its own table.

create view top_owners as select owner_name from
(select owner_name, count(ain),
sum(land_value)+sum(improvement_value) as holding,
sum(area) as lands from la_parcels
group by owner_name
order by lands desc limit 10) as owners

Now in order to select the lands these guys own we’ll use a join statement, specifying where the view and table intersect. Join by default is inner, meaning we’ll only get rows where the field matches. Now we can succinctly find the parcels owned by these entities.

select count(*) from la_parcels join
top_owners on la_parcels.owner_name = top_owners.owner_name

And finally use a union operation, which can combine multiple select statements into a single column.

select sum(area) from la_parcels join
top_owners on la_parcels.owner_name = top_owners.owner_name
union select sum(area) from la_parcels
43234395887
142503798431

About 30%. And finally what % of the land in the city of LA is devoted to public space? I think this is an important metric for any city.

select sum(area) from la_parcels where owner_name ilike 'l a city'
 or owner_name ilike 'l a city park' union select sum(area)
from la_parcels where city ilike 'los angeles'
1621548676
20341577058

8%. Not bad. Griffith park, Elysian park, MacArthur park, Runyon Canyon, Grand park, Vista Hermosa, LA has some fantastic public spaces. The largest green areas are owned by the federal or state government and are outside the city, though not terribly far. Due to lack of Zoning Code standardization it is difficult to get a good picture of what the lands are used for.

Spatial Queries

At last, we unleash PostGIS. Note that since we are using WGS84 our results will be in latitude and longitude rather than meters as above.

First it’s good to know what we’re working with.

select distinct GeometryType(geom) from la_parcels

The geom field is exclusively MULTIPOLYGON. If we want to work with simpler shapes we can unroll them with ST_Dumps() in to the POLYGON type.

Alright I wonder where is the geographic center of LA County? We’ll use ST_Extent() to roll up all of our geometries in to a bounding box, and find the X and Y coordinates of its center with ST_Centroid().

select ST_Y(ST_Centroid(ST_Extent(geom))),
ST_X(ST_Centroid(ST_Extent(geom))) from la_parcels
latitude longitude
33.80924996626 -118.29553231211

This result is from a simple box around our shapes. That is not very rigorous. Instead we should roll up all of our shapes together and form a “convex hull”, the minimum geometry that encloses them, and find the centroid of that. Let’s find how far the center of Malibu is from that point. Here we use a geometry constructor. the true in the ST_Distance() function gets us the distance across the geoid rather than straight through.

select ST_Distance(malibu_center, ST_MakePoint(-118.29553231211, 33.80924996626, 1))
from (select ST_Centroid(ST_ConvexHull(ST_Collect(geom)))
as malibu_center from la_parcels where city ilike 'malibu') as malibu

0.505358312522112 is our answer. That’s quite a drive. Especially in traffic.

Last but not least, I took the liberty of creating a web interface to this dataset. Moving around the whole dataset would be inefficient, so I use google maps and javascript to ask a minimal flask application, which in turn asks the database which parcels are within the bounding box of the map’s current view. The @ operator finds the geometries inside the envelope I build. The core query is simply:

select distinct
    ain,
    land_value + improvement_value as total_value,
    land_value,
    improvement_value,
    owner_name,
    year_built,
    address_number,
    street_name,
    city,
    state,
    zip_code,
    zoning_code,
    area,
    perimeter,
    ST_AsGeoJSON(ST_MakeValid(geom)),
    ST_AsGeoJSON(ST_Centroid(ST_MakeValid(geom)))
    from la_parcels
    where geom @ ST_MakeEnvelope(%s,%s,%s,%s)

The bounding box of the map is passed to the %s parameters. A few of the geometries are invalid so ST_MakeValid() helps us out there. The query is amazingly fast, around 12ms. Drawing on the map is the slow part. Google Maps has gotten too complicated. But it still works pretty well as long as you don’t zoom out too far and avoid residential areas. The american dream of individual home ownership is slowing down my app. Hopefully I can speed it up but for now you can play around with it here. Click on the geometry to see the value. Some buildings are broken up in to many individual parcels in three dimensions. That is the difference between an apartment and a condominium. In a condo, you own the parcel from the county.

borges

Conclusion

I was disappointed with how difficult it was to obtain this data initially and the poor quality it came in. Governments and constituencies of all sizes stand to benefit enormously from investment in modern software tools and stronger commitments to transparency.

While building I began to dream of having all the parcels of the United States in a single database. That would be a fascinating study, but the data is horribly spread about and fragmented. If you are interested in obtaining the data for your county, or another, and structuring it in to the same schema I would be very grateful, and promise to share the collected information. You can track the completeness of what has been gathered for California here. Please contact me if interested in contributing.

What if we had the data for other nations too? Could we put the entire world in a computer?

los_angeles_3_compressed.jpg

References

[1] http://lalafco.org/Forms/Application%20Form12-11%27.pdf
[2] http://assessor.lacounty.gov/extranet/default.aspx
[3] to the pedants that still insist on using “these data” give it a rest, it’s confusing to most people
[4] http://postgis.net/
[5] http://spatialreference.org/ref/epsg/wgs-84/
[6] http://postgis.net/docs/manual-1.3/ch06.html

Do you love databases? Soylent is hiring a Chief Database Architect.

Soylent Raises Money

total_recall

Three years ago I drove across the United States because I was looking for something. I wanted to join a community of benevolent technologists, laboring for the betterment of society at large. What I found were startups serving startups. I found billions of dollars of private education building apps. I found people with PhD’s eating organic, as if they were afraid of fertilizer. It frustrated me to see the fruits of engineering siloed in redundant electronics and digital advertisements, and it frustrated me to see food siloed from the culture of progress. Why did a tomato cost as much as a million transistors? Why have all our products gotten better and cheaper but food has gotten worse? Perhaps it doesn’t have to. Perhaps the food industry could leverage the forces of science and technology, rather than fighting them. And if it did, what sort of world could we create?

Two years ago today I decided to bet my life on the idea that food could be empirically rebuilt. I theorized that food and the body were reducible and a novel foodstuff could be superior to that which was naturally occurring. Three months of “Soylent” produced a remarkably healthy physiology, and continues to do so years out. Next, while the systemic advantages were obvious, I theorized that there would be consumer demand for such a product. Perhaps food focused on function, simplicity, and transparency would be a relief to a consumer burdened by a vain, frantic, confusing food market and culture. Turns out it was a good bet, and, while profitable, our growth has continued to accelerate and having more resources for expansion and research seemed logical. We are honored to accept an investment of $20 million led by Andreessen Horowitz, who has been behind us the whole way, with participation from Lerer Ventures, Index Ventures, and David Friedberg. Chris Dixon is joining our board. The money will be used to expand manufacturing and invest more in research.

However, the most beautiful theory can crumble under the weight of a single experiment, and the brightest idea can fizzle overnight if packaged in a subpar product. Making and shipping a million of anything is non-trivial, and yet we went from an idea to a shipped hardware product in barely a year, even achieving multiple iterations since. This is largely thanks to our COO, the indispensable Matthew Cauble. CTO John Coogan built an e-commerce powerhouse overnight, CMO David Renteln does the work of 10 men, and Julio Miles is the Steve Wozniak of branding. Without my friends I am nothing.

Similarly, Soylent would be a mere shell of a company without the support of our fantastic community. The patience and passion of our users gives our work meaning on a daily basis, and gives us the drive to do better all the time.

What is it that we have made? Quality without luxury. The world’s most useful and popular products are deceptively cheap and simple, deftly abstracting away volumes of complexity. This is the dream of Soylent, to be so useful it is taken for granted, like tap water or climate control.

The insatiable demand for Soylent is telling. Consumers demand and deserve a food system that is more transparent and more practical. Producers deserve the ability to develop and use new technologies and tools to improve their production. The environment deserves more than a modicum of long term thinking.

Like life, culture is in a constant state of evolution. Today cooking is manufacturing. Tomorrow it will be art. Domestic kitchens will go the way of the loom; the grocer the way of the bank teller. Dishes will be for satellites.

It doesn’t end there. The entire protestant ethic underpinning capitalism stands atop the inefficiency of food production. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat”. Shoving the largely unsavory business of food on to the weak was the genesis of social stratification.  Suppose we were fed from the eternal bounty of the sun, tireless fusion reactions creating all the energy we will ever need, structured, automatically, by the machines tailored to our exact requirements..

Look to history. The market, and most physical systems, obey the principle of least action. Why hunt for food when the food comes to you? Why go to the store when you can order online? Why order when you can subscribe? The automation of basic tasks frees the mind to focus on higher arts.

Humans are distinct from animals in that we possess the ability to increase our means within a single generation. The automation of food production is distinctly and proudly part of our lot as an intelligent species. Cows don’t seem to mind chewing all day, ruminants who never ruminate. Only humans have developed processing, agriculture, pasteurization, and fortification, all of which began with reflection and ended with serialization.

Food tradition is often upheld as an inalienable part of humanity or society. This is backwards. Society as we know it would not exist without food processing and humanity is unique in its capacity to break free of tradition. To structure is human.

We have successfully structured communications networks and antibiotics. Why are we putting up with the waste and violence of agriculture? Agriculture butchers billions of animals, covers over a third of the earth’s habitable land and uses 80% of our water supply. Every year. One day the vast swaths of polluted land will be free. Our Anthropocene will be beautiful, peaceful, and healthy.

The future of food is not the return to an agrarian society but the transcendence of it. In time Soylent will be synthesized directly from light, water, and air with designer microorganisms. Genetic engineering to enhance our microbiome, and eventually ourselves. I don’t know who was the first farmer, but I want to be the last. We will make food so cheap only the rich will cook.

Life Without Water

dune

Which is more valuable: diamonds or water? It’s clear to me. Water is the perfect product. It is endlessly useful, cheap, simple, ubiquitous, and beautiful. Water is essential to all forms of life and is used in every industry, not to mention its calming presence. As our species continues to shape the planet I find it increasingly important that we take pains to conserve the purity of this critical chemical. This is why, when my friend George McGraw of digdeepwater.org invited me to take the 4 Liter challenge I jumped at the chance.

The rules are simple. Do not use more than 4 liters of water per day. I also decided to track ‘virtual’ water usage. That is, be mindful of the water used to produce a good that is used, in addition to water used directly. Given that a single toilet flush takes over 6L of water, and the cotton in a pair of jeans takes about 7000L to grow, some changes to my life were clearly in order.

Hygiene

I awake the morning of the challenge and throw off my cotton sheets with disgust. From this moment on every drop counts. I brush my teeth without water and put on dry deodorant. Relieving myself in the toilet is not an option. For a moment I consider following Clinton’s advice: “if it’s yellow let it mellow”, but decide to go full Bukowski instead: “sometimes you just have to piss in the sink”. Could we engineer more efficient kidneys?

For number two I had to plan in advance. Inadequate sanitation is an enormous quality of life problem globally. The most popular toilet in the world is no toilet at all as 4 in 10 people in the world defecate in the open. Flush toilets use enormous quantities of water so I needed a way to make it unnecessary.

Feces are almost entirely deceased gut bacteria and water. I massacred my gut bacteria the day before by consuming a DIY Soylent version with no fiber and taking 500mg of Rifaximin, an antibiotic with poor bioavailability, meaning it stays in your gut and kills bacteria. Soylent’s microbiome consultant advised that this is a terrible idea so I do not recommend it. However, it worked. Throughout the challenge I did not defecate.

In lieu of showering I sprayed myself with AOBiome’s custom skin bacteria blend. Body odor is caused by the emissions of proliferating skin bacteria, as unique as a fingerprint. The Nitrosomonas eutropha taking over my skin now metabolizes ammonia into odorless nitrite and nitric oxide. Success! I wish I had a strain that excreted lipases, as my hair was still greasy.

Direct water usage: 0L

Virtual water usage: 0L

Clothing

My standard outfit is mostly cotton, which takes 20,000L of water per kg so I had to improvise. I did some research and settled on Nomex, a meta-aramid invented by DuPont in the 1960’s. Nomex is a fantastic material used in applications as diverse as circuit boards, loudspeakers, and clothing. Made via condensation from m-phenylenediamine and isophthaloyl chloride, its production uses no water. I found a Nomex flight suit on Alibaba and added a “Soylent” patch. I love it. It’s cheap, simple, comfortable, and fireproof, just in case. I also did no laundry of course, which would have used 170L.

nomex

Direct water usage: 0L

Virtual water usage: 0L

Food

There are some species that never drink water. They obtain it from the food they eat, or synthesize it biochemically. Humans only synthesize about 10% of their water needs which means I’ll need to drink some. I also need food, the production and distribution of which is the single largest burden on the water system by a mile. Agriculture constitutes 80-90% of the water used in the United States. A mere kg of red meat takes 15,415L of water to produce. I was a little crestfallen to learn that a single cheeseburger can outweigh using a high efficiency toilet for a year.[1][2]

To avoid this issue I consumed nothing but Soylent throughout the challenge. Soylent uses no meat or dairy and only 1.6L of water. To avoid dishes and their subsequent water usage I poured my Soylent one meal at a time in to a polystyrene cup, which takes less than 1L of water to make.[3] Soylent does not contain enough water in itself so I begrudgingly drank an additional 400ml of tap water.

If there’s anything as amazing as water it’s petroleum. My clothing and dishes take less water to make than they do to clean.

Dying to know the virtual water footprint of Soylent, we contracted an analyst at a Chicago think tank to run a study on the product. The complicated formula and numerous sources, as well as proprietary manufacturing and process information made this difficult and a bit imprecise. However, there was enough published data to end up with a conservative estimate. Rice protein was the biggest issue, given that rice is relatively water intensive to grow and is only about 10% protein by mass. Our rice processor claims they have a 0 carbon footprint and reclaim much of the water used but I couldn’t get many specifics. Not accounting for this we still ended up at 2030L per day of Soylent, which is about 50% of the virtual water footprint of the standard american diet (SAD), 4000L. Not bad. I bet we could lower it though.

Complete analysis here (criticism encouraged): https://s3.amazonaws.com/robrhinehart.com/soylent-water-footprint.xlsx

Final tally:

Direct water usage: 2L

Virtual water usage: 2031L

US Average:

Direct water usage: 1135L[4]

Virtual water usage: 7570L[5]

Conclusion

Water is the most popular beverage in the world, and still 20% of us are living without enough even to drink[6]. Our foods, our bodies, and our planet are mostly water, and yet, we are spoiling and wasting what the cosmos has made[7] at an unsustainable rate. I don’t expect anyone to live as I did during the challenge. Even I missed coffee and a hot shower. However, I do think it is important to be mindful of the network effects of one’s lifestyle. With water, as with most things, it is better to do more with less.

References

[1] http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use.aspx

[2] http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/Animal-products

[3] http://plasticfoodservicefacts.com/Life-Cycle-Inventory-Foodservice-Products

[4] http://www.epa.gov/watersense/our_water/water_use_today.html

[5] http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/change-the-course/water-footprint-calculator/

[6] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4787758.stm

[7] http://www.nature.com/news/earth-has-water-older-than-the-sun-1.16011

Footnote

It is possible that a substantial amount of earth’s water was synthesized by purple sulfur bacteria in the photosynthetic reaction

\mathrm{ CO_2 + 2\ H_2S \rightarrow CH_2O + H_2O + 2\ S }

This means we could manufacture water out of sunlight, CO2 and flatulence. What if we scaled this up?

Soylent Announces New Line of GMKs

alien_cat4

It gives me great pleasure to announce the first public release from Soylent X, our research arm focused on “solving the unsolvable”. After solving physical health with Soylent, we sought to tackle the elephant in the room of America’s healthcare system: mental health. Americans suffer from the highest levels of anxiety in the world. Research shows we’re lonely, stressed, overworked, and underpaid. While problematic overall, I find the gist of this trend encouraging. Work is the lifeblood of a thriving economy. Work has given us space shuttles, particle accelerators, and a booming finance industry. Work is the noblest of man’s pursuits, and just as violence has declined, economies have grown, and life has lengthened, I believe workdays will continue to get longer.

If only we could relax more efficiently, we could work more, and better, and be happier. Research shows people spend their free time with family or friends, wasting time and money at expensive parties, restaurants, and bars. These same people report relationships as a primary source of stress. Therein lies the problem. People are vexing. You are more likely to be murdered by a lover than a stranger. Gossip is ubiquitous and no one can be trusted.  The way we relax is only adding to our anxiety.

The solution? Cats.

Humans are social animals. We need to be needed, yet today demand a high level of convenience, ruling out the emotional distress of dealing with other humans. Originally incorporated in to society as useful vermin hunters, house cats have since been cultivated as baby replacements. It took centuries to domesticate feral cats in to playful, personal felines. To do so we had to rely on primitive techniques such as artificial selection and cross-breeding. New strains have been periodically introduced in order to provide consumers with greater selection, and today genetic engineering and synthetic growth lines allows for greater control, efficiency, and sustainability. This is why we are expanding our business to offer the world’s first Genetically Modified Kittens (GMKs).

The timing and the technology are perfectly aligned. The pet industry is growing rapidly, and is divided among thousands of local, independent, brick-and-mortar stores. Cats are the most popular pet in the world. A higher degree of customer service, control, efficiency, and sustainability is poised to disrupt a fragmented, entrenched industry. The explosion in 3D printing and hacking has made it clear that personalization and customization is the future of manufacturing. Furthermore, synthetic biology and tissue engineering technology have not only made the genome rewriteable, but embryos producible without the unpredictability and cost of a natural medium.

Our beautifully well-designed web site offers an intuitive interface to allow customization of nearly every aspect of your feline. You may even code one from scratch if you’d like and upload a CSV of Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). Options include:

kitten

Physical Characteristics

Hair Color
Eye Color
Ear Length
Mass
Solubility

Personality

Sanguine <> Truculent
Curious <> Oblivious
Pensive <> Negligent
Progressive <> Conservative
Astute <> Obtuse

For the “kitten connoisseur” our premium service also offers clones of celebrity cats. Note that these remarkably skilled felines, famous in their own right, could be a serious asset and should be seen as an investment.

Grumpy Cat – $15,000
Lil Bub – $50,000
Maru – $100,000
Keyboard Cat – Call for Pricing

Our companion product, “Soylent for Cats” is another innovation and a massive improvement over the status quo of feline nutrition. Perfectly balanced and optimized for the needs of your cat, Soylent for Cats is a genetically engineered mouse which has the precise nutritional balance needed by your cat. It also has no bones.

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Soylent for Cats is designed to be completely absorbed by your animal’s bloodstream, obviating the need for defecation and smelly litter boxes. Your cat will still pee. More than normal actually. But, thanks to a clever transgenic modification, it will smell like lavender.

Do not feed a natural cat with Soylent for Cats.

Customer service is our top priority for our GMK line. If you are unsatisfied with your kitten for any reason you may ship it back for recycling. GMKs come neutered and immunized, and arrive, beautifully packaged, in a chemical-induced coma. It may be a bit groggy for a few days but don’t worry, it will wear off, and testing shows it’s adorable to watch them stumble around.

  • Abnormal blood pH
  • Weak immune system
  • Banana rather than lavender-scented urine
  • Insatiable desire for human flesh

These will be fixed by the final release. I would also like to point out that the controversial paper published recently in Journal of Housecat Toxicology deliberately used the media to sensationalize bad science. The statistical methods were amateur at best and deliberately misleading at worst. The paper has since been removed by the editors. GMKs are completely safe and due to genetic engineering are far healthier and robust than naturally occurring cats, especially when fed exclusively with Soylent for Cats.

Cats are an excellent investment in social capital. Users have reported a 38% increase in social media likes and shares after incorporating cats into statuses and photos. Unlike friends, cats will not talk about themselves, ask you to pick them up from the airport, or analyze your facial expressions. However, they will eat you if you die in their presence.

The despondency industry in America is growing 7% year over year, and has not seen innovation in centuries. It is time for disruption. By providing a superior, customizable product over natural cats at a lower cost, Soylent Corporation is positioned to take a lion’s share of a fragmented market. According to our projections, the synthetic companion market segment is due to grow by playful leaps and bounds thanks to innovations in the underlying biotechnology of dependency. The future is meow.

Platonic Payments

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Paying is strange. Consider the following exchange:

        Me: Hello unfamiliar person. I would like to give you some fiat currency in exchange for the goods and / or services you provide.

        Clerk: Splendid! Let me just whip out this large, obnoxiously bright, unwieldy machine and get the banks involved in our newfound relationship.

        Me: That sounds reasonable. Surely Jamie Dimon did not make enough money last fiscal year and deserves a cut of your vanishingly low margin retail business. Please take this cold, hard, magnetized piece of plastic. The design reflects my personality and pecuniary worth.

        Clerk: I am obliged to thank you for handing me this trinket. Allow me to swipe it, the same way humans have read information off of cards for decades. You will also be required to sign a piece of paper because I honestly believe you may call your bank and vehemently deny purchasing this cup of black coffee.

        Me: Perfectly understandable. I love the feeling of generating potential evidence for a court case every time I want to buy something. I also demand a paper record of this transaction because I do my taxes with a quill pen and slide rule.

        Clerk: Yes quite common. Well, have a wonderful day, stranger I have interacted with but not touched. This large, black, computerized point of sale system symbolizes the technology-driven separation that grows between humans even when we interact in pers..

        Next Customer: Hello unfamiliar person!

Paying isn’t too hard. Swiping plastic takes seconds. It’s just too weird. Here I propose the way I would prefer to pay, optimized for low friction and high humanity.

The handshake, like currency, has been around for millennia as a symbol of trust. Unlike currency though, the handshake requires no additional hardware, central banking system, or card. It does not allow for a precise and safe transference of wealth, but it could, with a little help from our friend the bitcoin.

This is an idea I call “platonic payments”. 

To accept payments you wear a watch, or ideally it is integrated in to an existing watch like the Pebble. To pay you wear a ring, which contains a short-range rewritable RFID tag storing a single bitcoin address. The payee specifies the amount with two dials on the watch, one for dollars, one for cents. Both parties then shake hands, bringing the RFID ring within reading range of the detector, which uses the information to charge the payer’s bitcoin wallet. No fees. No slow hardware exchange. No cold plastic or large, expensive POS systems blaring light in an otherwise relaxing environment. I also think service establishments should just charge 20% tip by default.

handshake_sketch

Bitcoin addresses are nearly infinite and can be created, online or off, and disposed of at will. Thus an NFC chip in a smartphone could passively rewrite the tag with a fresh address every time you pick up your phone. The merchant software, either run on the watch or connected to a smartphone, would request the appropriate amount from the user’s bitcoin wallet with the public key. This is not built in to the bitcoin protocol but could be managed by a service like Coinbase, which could then verify the account is valid and securely transfer the private key.

This does face the problem of a change by both parties. However, if it started being built in to smartwatches and all users had to do was buy a cheap, stylish ring that barrier may lower. A payment method that didn’t force me to take anything out of my pockets or even carry a wallet, while increasing the humanity of a transaction sounds like a dream come true. I would even get my tag implanted so I wouldn’t have to wear the ring.

The other problem is the system still involves trust. Someone could skim your ring, grab the address, and post a request if they got close enough. Since each transaction involves a new address the hacker could only make one request, but it could be big. This could additionally be mitigated by only allowing transactions of a certain size or only keeping a small amount of money in this wallet, making skimming uneconomical.

Alternatively, Coinbase could ask the user to verify the transactions they made after the fact, but this would allow the payer to deny legitimate transactions. And that, is something I would love to test. If you knew you would get away with it, would you rob someone after shaking their hand?

High Frequency Dating

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The other day I realized there was something missing in my life, so I set out to find a solution. Online dating is in vogue, which makes sense. The internet already has no small part in satisfying most of my other needs. I was pleased to learn that the latest popular dating app, Tinder, now has an Android client. Besides forcing me to reactivate my Facebook account it seems simple enough. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that this was going to turn in to a massive time sink. Perhaps, I thought, I could optimize it?

I did some simple man in the middle packet sniffing to reverse engineer the Tinder API. It’s pretty simple. Send your location, grab a handful of images and user ids, and tell the server which ones you liked. I wrote a minimal python client in Ubuntu and began designing an algorithm to speed up the process a bit. The algorithm first segments the main image by finding all of the faces via OpenCV. If none are found the candidate is discarded. If multiple faces are found the end score will be the average of all of them. This seems to work since people tend to associate with those of similar levels of attractiveness. Facial attractiveness is surprisingly uncomplicated to quantify. Essentially, evolution has us seeking partners that are as “normal” as possible. Anything that is unusually big or small, any ratio that differs from \phi, or about 1.618, hurts the score. After the face(s) are identified in the image, a mask of 25 anthropometric proportion indices is overlaid and mean compliance is measured. This is also done with a custom OpenCV routine.

tinder_app

The client also has messaging capabilities. After a match is identified the algorithm sends a simple message “Can I have a dance?” inspired by Mos Def’s success with Ms. Fat Booty. If no response is received the candidate is discarded. If any response is received, it is ignored and a follow up message is sent “Haha okay then how about we go to a fancy seafood restaurant?”, inspired by the classic meat-for-sex exchange that is common in the animal kingdom as well as among humans. The client uses NLTK to judge an affirmative or negative response. From here an Odesk virtual assistant coordinates dates. This also handles rescheduling but conflicts are not an issue as you will soon see.

Come date night a Double Robot loaded with over 10 hours of pre-recorded content of me rolls up to a restaurant automatically chosen from Yelp based on reviews, distance, cost, and whether or not another double of me has a date there at the time (awkward). Reservations are made via OpenTable’s API. Everything from witty, non-offensive stories to mildly embarrassing personal traits to compliments are recorded. According to the logs candidates are often taken aback at a robot showing up, but a sincere recording complimenting their shoes immediately puts them at ease. Mostly, though, it asks questions and listens. The algorithm aims for a 4:1 ratio of listening to presenting. Based on tone of voice computed by DSP, the system knows which topics to go deeper on and which to avoid, organized in a tree structure in memory. If things are going poorly the emergency “tell me about your cat” routine is run and the microphone is muted to prevent the Speech to Text processor from running useless cycles.

the-double-robot

elacarte

The check is paid via E La Carte and a car is called with Uber’s API. If the algorithm has not been meeting its heuristics the candidate is driven home and the robot self-destructs after uploading its data to the cloud so future iterations can learn from its mistakes. If it has been going well an AirBnB room is insta-booked and the Uber drives there. Once in the room a music playlist is algorithmically generated with Spotify and the candidate’s musical taste gleaned from their Facebook likes. At this moment an Instacart driver should be arriving with a $10 bottle of wine and fresh strawberries and an Exec delivers a NeuroSky Mindwave 3 and a Vibease Smart Vibrator.

mindwave3

Both devices connect to the Double’s iPad via Bluetooth wirelessly and to the female directly. The female’s brainwaves are fed in to a Learning Vector Quantization Artificial Neural Network (FABIO). At first FABIO adjusts the parameters of the Vibease mostly at random, but partially based on previous experience. Based on feedback generated by the headset the system learns and adaptively adjusts the output parameters in order to maximize EEG amplitude. Unfortunately, the complex mathematical operations required by FABIO typically exhaust the Double’s battery in around 01:57-02:03 minutes, depending on the female. At this point the Double gruffly requests the female retrieve his charger. The robot records the candidate’s experience with a Go Pro 3 and securely uploads the video to a private Amazon S3 bucket.

At 09:07 in the morning an Uber is automatically called for the female and 3 days later she will receive a heartfelt e-card / receipt. The algorithm will also wish her happy birthday on Facebook and like the top 20% of her Instagram photos as they are posted and start getting a lot of other likes. This continues until her Facebook relationship status switches away from single.

card

Ahhh modern romance. Turing would be proud. Unfortunately I haven’t found the time to watch any of the videos since I’m too busy optimizing the algorithm.

Motherboard / Vice Soylent Video

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cross-posted here: http://blog.soylent.me/post/66807143901/this-morning-vices-brian-merchant-published-a in regards to the Vice / Motherboard piece here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8NCigh54jg

This morning, Vice’s Brian Merchant published a documentary video and accompanying article that outlined his experience living off Soylent exclusively for thirty days, several months ago.  Brian sought to recreate the scrupulous conditions of my initial Soylent test. Though the overall tone of the article was positive and he concluded that Soylent is something he will likely continue to use as a cheap, healthy, and easy staple meal, there were a few points that we feel require clarification. We encourage you to watch the entire video and read the article as well.

Merchant was able to run his 30-day test because of the Soylent Beta program, which consisted of small-batch Soylent production by hand, for limited distribution to friends and family, as well as journalists who expressed an interest in trying out early versions of Soylent.  The Beta program was incredibly useful for discovering weaknesses in our workflow.  At one point in the video, mold was discovered in one of Brian’s bags. This was due to inadequate packaging that we were testing at the time being punctured in shipping, allowing ambient moisture inside. This was one of several important discoveries from the beta program and prompted us to utilize more robust packaging. The beta program, along with our tenancy at the Oakland warehouse, concluded in early October, very soon after the Vice shoot wrapped. Our former landlord has been informed of our issues with the space.

We would also like to emphasize the fact that Soylent 1.0, the product for which we have accepted over $1.5M in preorders, will not be manufactured by hand by our executive team.  We have signed a purchase order with RFI Ingredients, a contract manufacturer with over 20 years of experience producing FDA-approved food products. Soylent is designed and regulated as a food, not a supplement. Their safety record is unimpeachable, which is one of the major reasons we chose to partner with them. To learn more about RFI’s certifications, please visit http://www.rfiingredients.com/certifications.asp.

We are grateful to be featured in a well-made piece regarding food security, design, and production. If one thing from the video is clear, food and people are always changing. The company and idea has come a long way in a matter of months, and we are devoted to producing the highest quality product possible.

Soylent Funding Announcement

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Cross-posted from the Soylent company blog at http://blog.soylent.me/post/64789154918/soylent-funding-announcement

It gives me great pleasure to announce that we have accepted over $1.5 million in seed capital from Andreessen Horowitz, Lerer Ventures, Hydrazine Capital, and Initialized Capital. This is in addition to the now over $1.5 million in pre orders our Crowdhoster campaign has collected since May. We have also not reincorporated since going through Y Combinator meaning Start Fund and the YC partners still own a portion of Soylent.

Like most things in life, I find it preferable to not have more than necessary, and capital is no exception. Given our revenue and vision it certainly would have been possible to raise more, but at this point I am more concerned with the people behind the investment than the money itself, and am very proud to have the support of the people we do. The amount raised was based on our projections and 18 month plan, and should carry us comfortably through the near term of product development, hiring, and the first stages of in house manufacturing, allowing us to lower our costs.

We have also enlisted the help of an illustrious group of advisers, including:

  • Dr. Pi-Sunyer, Professor of Medicine at the Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition and Co-Director of the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center
  • Balaji Srinivasan, Co-Founder and CTO of Counsyl, one of the first large-scale applications of genomics in medicine
  • Chris Running, CEO of CytoSport / Muscle Milk

These are humble beginnings for something that is going to be very, very big. Many will dismiss Soylent as a joke, a toy, or judge the book by its cover, but in time people will wonder how we ever got along without engineered foodstuffs.

The first computers could only be used by programmers. The first cars were unusable except by mechanics. Today one practically has to be a nutritionist to manage a balanced diet, and it’s just too much work. It should be automated. Billions of people are collecting recipes, buying ingredients, cooking, and cleaning, all in parallel, not for pleasure, but for survival. How wasteful. Imagine chefs soldering their own smartphones or architects knitting their own clothing. Cooking is a pleasant art for some, but it would be better to have an option, without having to compromise one’s health or wallet.

Soylent is that option. If you’re a food enthusiast you can have a simple healthy meal to hold you over until your next feast. If you’re short on time you can fuel your body in seconds. If you’re trying to save money Soylent is hands down your cheapest option in terms of nutrition per dollar, and will only get cheaper. Soylent is designed from scratch to be as healthy and sustainable as possible, the most refined food in existence. Though too early to tell what the ideal human diet is, it is certainly possible to engineer something better than what most people are living on.

Health is about balance; moderation. I still enjoy all my favorite foods. In fact, my mostly Soylent lifestyle makes my recreational meals more enjoyable than ever, now that I’m not bombarding my senses with the engineered indulgence of fast food. I hope the very idea encourages one to consider how balanced the typical human diet is and the potential of everyone having the means to eat, and live, well.

The Whole Food Fallacy

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This is a response to: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2013/08/20/soylent/, as well as some of the comments

In 1828, a young organic chemist named Friedrich Wöhler committed heresy.  Wöhler accidentally synthesized Urea, a component of many lifeforms, from inorganic components. At the time everyone knew there was a special “life force” that separated organisms from other matter. It was a long uphill battle to convince the scientific community, but eventually the evidence won out. Regardless, even today many laymen tacitly assume that the holistic makeup of lifeforms such as food rise magically above their constituent chemicals.

Everything is made of parts. The idea of holistic food represents the death throes of Vitalism, the fallacious assumption that there is something materially special about forms of life separate from other forms of matter. This is an easy mistake to make. Humans and animals move, breathe, and mate, unlike rocks or soil, but we’re all made of the same interchangeable forms of matter and energy. A stone dropped in to a pond will take the shortest path to the bottom. A human will take the shortest route to work, and cling to old ideas. Life is complex, but there is nothing about it that disobeys well understood laws of chemistry and physics. I am not sure if consciousness is reducible, but carrots certainly are.

Creating a lifeform from scratch is an elusive task, and though great strides have been made recently we still have limits in our understanding. However, you do not need to fully understand an organism to feed it. Bacteria grown in labs are always grown on a synthetic medium of nutrients called “LB”. Pets live on synthetic diets and are much healthier and long-lived than their wild counterparts. We don’t know how proteins fold but we do know all the metabolic pathways of a human, and our complete elemental makeup, thanks to elemental analysis. Even the grand diversity of the human microbiome contains conserved metabolic pathways. We do not yet know what the ideal diet for a human is, but our present understanding permits us to easily design a diet that is far superior to what most people are eating.

Humans have lived on animal flesh and the reproductive organs of plants for a long time, but food has been changing all along. And it still is. The development of agriculture, then preservation, then nutrition, then processing, and now even biotechnology have all vastly improved our food products and lifestyle over their natural forms and immensely increased the carrying capacity of the earth. In fact, the foods we thrive on today are far from natural. How do you think bananas reproduce without seeds? The United States began adding Niacin to bread in 1938, which largely eliminated the deadly disease Pellagra, and iodized salt likely has a lot to do with the steady rise in IQ seen in the last century.

This is not to say that all new foods are healthy. Many food companies design purely for the sensory experience of food, leading to products that are over-stimulating, unbalanced, or even addictive. I am amazed that we have cheap chocolate bars, which would have been a kingly delicacy not long ago, but I think we deserve new healthy options as well.

Now, to respond to Tim’s concerns:

Food is not a game – I agree. What food company is more concerned with the nutrition of their product than its sensory appeal? We are more serious about health than any competitor in the industry.

Meal-replacement powders aren’t new – Affordable food substitutes are. No MRP has been designed to be a sustainable source of nutrition. Furthermore, in terms of calorie per dollar, we are easily a factor of 5 better than any of them, and will only get cheaper. Competing with groceries is a new market. And it’s a big one.

Be careful with any terminology – Soylent is not a medical product and we make no medical claims. It’s not a diet or “cleanse” either. It’s quantified food. Soylent is healthy food without all the unnecessary parts. I suppose you could live on it entirely, but why would you want to? Leisure food is an important part of life and culture.

Epistemic arrogance – Elemental analysis has given us a finite, complete list of the elements our bodies are made of. This doesn’t tell us the different chemical configurations required, such as vitamins, but patients have lived for many years on synthetic diets in a medical setting. It was premature in the 19th century, but it’s overdue today. Again, beware of zero-risk bias. How nutritionally complete is the average western diet already?

Nutrition and people are not one-size-fits-all – Our metabolic pathways are largely identical. Everyone makes proteins out of the same Lysine and breaks down glucose polymers with the same enzymes. It’s the extra “stuff” in food that gives people problems. By removing that you can have something fit for almost everyone. Still, people need different amounts of calories. Everyone lives on water, just different amounts.

Other common criticisms from the comments,

We don’t know what we don’t know – Not good enough. Show me some evidence that “food synergy”, which sounds suspiciously like a “vital force”, is essential to thrive. The evidence to the contrary is mounting rapidly.

Why not just put the work in to eating “real” food? – Your computer is slow? Just be more patient. No. Make it faster. By automating the essentials of living we can enjoy life more. Less cooking and cleaning means more math and music.

I like Soylent. I use it all the time. My life is simpler, cleaner. My thoughts are clearer, my body leaner. I still enjoy my favorite foods, though my tastes have changed somewhat towards nicer, more flavorful kinds. I find eating is a lot more fun when it’s optional, similar to taking a road trip versus driving to work.

 I do not understand the negativity surrounding Soylent. Perhaps some people confuse matters of taste with matters of morality. Some have their cooking and eating habits and seem to be offended that mine are different. I do not think it is unreasonable to desire to eat on my own terms. I would never look down on someone else’s eating habits, but I do want people to be healthy. I reasoned that by making eating healthy easier, and cheaper, more people would do so, and it seems to be working. People are not going to stop eating poorly overnight. Perhaps we should make the easy food healthier, rather than asking people to mold their entire lives around it. If the existing options for eating well were adequate more people would do so.

Most meals involve little to no ritual or social experience. Most meals will be forgotten. If we had an ultimate staple food replace these we would be much healthier and happier and not have to worry as much about the nutrition of the experiential meals we enjoy for pleasure.

I do not enjoy grocery shopping, cooking, or cleaning dishes and I shouldn’t have to. I do not like to repeat myself and I do not like having things that I do not need. No one asks me to make my own clothes. Why should I be expected to make my own food? Of course I respect a good designer or chef, I just have other skills and hobbies. Food is great, but most of the time I find what is on my computer or in my books far more stimulating than what is in my refrigerator.

I find it very strange that people want us to fail, but it doesn’t matter to me. Things are getting better. Even the deluge of negativity from Hacker News is subsiding into mere grumpiness. A decade from now when everyone is healthier we’ll all have a good laugh about it.

Nothing to Fear

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Our world has gotten more complex, but it is safer than it has ever been. Paradoxically, it seems people are less comfortable than ever. Cancer is the new communist. It's in everything new that we don't understand. My mother is afraid of her microwave. Watching network news is gruesome. People overpay for food of inferior nutritional value and drink bottled water in their homes. I just don't understand. We still have problems, but overall things are pretty good right now. The middle class lives better than medieval kings. Life expectancy is higher than ever. Essential products are cheaper than ever. I think those that understand technology have a responsibility to explain it's purpose and safety to the world. Here I describe a few that I keep hearing about. Relax, technology is on our side.

Radiation from Electronics

Electromagnetic radiation, like gravity, is one of the four fundamental forces of physics. When an electron loses energy, it 'radiates' a photon. All light is radiation. Microwaves, and radio waves like those used by cell phones, are photons of lower frequency than light, and thus lower energy. At extremely high energy levels, like in a nuclear reactor, photons have enough energy to potentially break the chemical bonds in cells, damaging health, but even nuclear reactors are well shielded enough to ensure their next door neighbors have no ill effects. Short of an atomic blast, radiation is nothing to be afraid of. Furthermore, I consider modern nuclear reactor designs the safest form of energy production.

Chemicals in Food

A chemical is any substance with a defined chemical formula, like water (H2O). Everything is made out of chemicals, from gasoline to carrots. In fact, beta-Carotene is a hydrocarbon, like Methane. It is possible, and prudent, to add some additional chemicals to food that have benefits like improving shelf life. Spoiled food is dangerous and unhealthy. These chemicals are heavily tested and regulated by the FDA and the USDA, which ensures their safety in the amounts used. Agriculture uses safe chemicals as well, like anhydrous ammonia which vastly improves corn yield, and poses no danger to animals or the environment.

We also use chemicals like pesticides to improve the yield of our crops. Caffeine, for example, is an effective pesticide, and is consumed daily by billions. It is the dose that matters. I personally think the amount used in the U.S. is too high, since agricultural workers frequently fall ill, and countries like Sweden demonstrated a 50% reduction in pesticide use without a significant effect on yield.1 However, refusing to use modern fertilizers and pesticides entirely is imprudent, and by the time food reaches the consumer the levels are negligible.2

Just because something is natural that does not mean it is safe or healthy. All-natural, fresh, organic, gluten-free scorpion venom would sitll be quite deadly. Natural plants are rife with toxins and allergens and the source of most narcotics. 

If one does not trust the current evidence for the safety of these artificial substances, what level of proof would you require?

Hormones, Antibiotics and Processed Food

A hormone is a chemical that the body uses to control the behavior of multiple cells. Dairy cows already generate the hormone bovine somatotrophin in their pituitary gland. In the United States, about 20% of cows are given extra, which increases their milk production 11-16%. Milk produced by these cows is identical to that produced by untreated cows.3 This hormone has absolutely no effect on humans,4 though it does have negative long term effects on the cows,5 making the hormone's use an ethical question, not a human health concern. For what it's worth, I don't think it's worth it.

Almost all cows raised for meat in the U.S. are administered a series of 3 natural steroids, and 3 synthetic hormones, which increase their lean muscle mass. Despite extensive investigation by the FDA, there is no scientific evidence any of these substances have an adverse effect on human health at the levels used. It is easy to overdose rats with the hormones and scare people but it would be practically impossible to consume enough through meat to have any effect on a human. Pay close attention to the difference between in vitro (outside the organism) and in vivo (in a live organism) results.

Antibiotics of course increase the animals' resistance to disease. The FDA takes strict measures to prevent the development of antibiotic resistance6, and there is no evidence of any adverse health effects in humans.

There is no evidence organic food is any healthier than conventional food,7 despite higher costs. Food processing has a negligible effect on nutritional content.8 The calories from "raw" food and the calories from processed food are identical to the body. It is the amount that matters. Food that is processed can even have additional nutrients added in, like iodized salt, and fortified rice, which has gone a long way in eliminating deficiencies in the U.S. as well as abroad. In fact, canned fruits and vegetables are usually healthier than their fresh counterparts since they are sealed right after picking, which preserves the micronutrients.9

The economic and environmental cost of agricultural is a problem, but reverting to old tactics is not the solution. Technology is. Producing nutrition more efficiently and reducing its waste will do far more than expensive health food stores. It is preservatives and artificial sweeteners that have real potential to combat waste and obesity. If we want solutions we're going to have to stop being afraid of progress.

Genetically Modified Organisms

Humans have always been genetically engineering their food. We select the best crops from the previous season and plant those. This gives us bananas without seeds, yellow corn, and tasty carrots, which used to be a bitter white root. Modern genetically engineered crops are larger and more robust than their natural counterparts and may soon have a significant impact on global malnutrition. Golden rice, for example, includes beta-Carotene and could help the hundreds of thousands of children who die annually from Vitamin A deficiency. Genetically modified foods are of course heavily regulated by the USDA and FDA and are completely safe. In fact, controlling the evolution of a food is likely much safer than trusting it to evolve on its own, which could produce any number of toxins or allergens.

Like all technologies, GM is a tool, that could potentially be used irresponsibly. I personally do not think Monsanto is using this technology responsibly. The journal Nature devoted an entire issue to GM and seemed to come to the conclusion that GM research should continue, but should not be performed by competitive private industry. I think that is a reasonable compromise.

Fluoride and Metals in Water

Tap water in the U.S. is regulated by the EPA, which has even stricter standards than the FDA, which regulates bottled water. Heavy metal content is negligible. Your body can easily handle orders of magnitude more metal than you will ever get from tap water with no noticeable effects. Chloramine is usually added, which prevents the growth of pathogens and has no effect on humans. Fluoride is added as well, which is completely safe at the levels used and has been hailed by the American Dental Association as "unquestionably one of the safest and most beneficial, cost-effective public health measures for preventing, controlling, and in some cases reversing, tooth decay."10 I feel uncomfortable drinking non-fluoridated water.

Violence has Declined

Our ancestors were having the equivalent of a world war every few years. We have gone a generation without one. Violent crime in the United States has been declining since colonial times.11 The odds of being murdered in the U.S. is practically negligible at 4.8 in 100,000, and crime of every kind has decreased since 1991.12 Shooting sprees are rare enough to become international news. In fact, as safe as we are I find it difficult to justify the high incarceration rate, especially of non-violent offenders. Even our most violent cities pale in comparison to the murderous competition of the animal kingdom. We are slowly winning the war with ourselves and focusing on disease, hunger, and poverty. This is progress.

We Still Have Problems

There is still much work to do. Our energy consumption and impact on the environment is unsustainable. Some areas struggle with hunger, others obesity. There is still much too large a disparity of safety, health, quality of life, and education globally. We don't know how the mind works or how proteins fold. However, I believe in the second derivative. The rate at which we are developing technologies to solve our problems is acceptable. Every time I receive an issue of Nature I read the cover and cheer out loud. We are making progress. We are humans. We can do it.

Conclusion

Why do people insist on believing that things are getting worse? Perhaps it is an extension of the observation of local entropy, or a latent belief in an 'end times' that is present in most religions. In reality, our ancestors were starving, miserable, and ignorant and today we have abundant food and warmth and the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips. We have setbacks, but they are temporary. It does not take much perspective to realize that larger time scales invariably show improvement and progress.

Even life gets better. I am much more knowledgeable and experienced than my foolish high school counterpart. I look forward to the proficiency and stability that comes with age, and am optimistic about the tranquility and wisdom of seniority.

People today are much more likely to die from the complications of an unnaturally long, enjoyable life than war or famine. No one has ever been hospitalized by artificial sweeteners or fluoridated tap water. Curious what actually has been overwhelmingly linked to the onset of cancer, heart disease, and a host of other ailments? Stress. Our world is more peaceful, healthy, and productive than ever, yet people are terrified of it. To really lower one's risk of cancer one of the best things to do is stop worrying and enjoy your life and the people in it. The only modern idea worth being afraid of is the fear-mongering itself.

Given that we are continually receiving additional energy from the sun it makes sense that our planet would run up, not down. Despite what a tired mind would believe, things are going to get better, not worse. The future is going to be unrecognizably awesome.

References

1: Miller GT (2004), Sustaining the Earth, 6th edition. Thompson Learning, Inc. Pacific Grove, California. Chapter 9, Pages 211-216.
2: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/food/viewtols.htm
3: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030292781193
4: http://www.agribiotech.info/details/2010%20rBST%20article%20for%20NABC_Bauman%2009-15%20Final%2004.pdf
5: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC280709/
6: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry/ucm052519.pdf
7: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/organic-food-no-more-nutritious-than-conventionally-grown-food-201209055264
8: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/retn5/retn5_tbl.pdf
9: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20070316/canned-fruits-veggies-healthy-too
10: http://www.ada.org/2467.aspx
11: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2010/06/16/a-crime-puzzle-violent-crime-declines-in-america/
12: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/tables/10tbl01.xls