Platonic Payments


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.


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


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 [latex]\phi[/latex], 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.


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 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.


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.


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


cross-posted here: in regards to the Vice / Motherboard piece here:

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

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


Cross-posted from the Soylent company blog at

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


This is a response to:, 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


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.


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.


1: Miller GT (2004), Sustaining the Earth, 6th edition. Thompson Learning, Inc. Pacific Grove, California. Chapter 9, Pages 211-216.

In Defense of New Food


Over the past few months I've gotten to engage with a lot of picky thinkers regarding soylent. I think people tend to make up their minds quite quickly, and then proceed to defend their snap judgments. As Stephen Pinker says, the mind is more of a spin doctor than a commander-in-chief, and it can be extremely difficult to change. In fact, trying to change it can simply solidify perceptions. This is one of many cognitive biases we are burdened with. For fun I've cataloged a few others, and explored how they may lead to a critical perspective of soylent. Even if you are supportive of the idea, it is crucial to be cognizant of our own biases, and the fallacies they can lead to. If you're on the fence, I hope you will at least agree that food could use some innovation.

System Justification / Status Quo Bias: The brain, seeking to conserve energy in the short term, has an irrational preference for the current state of affairs. The longer things have been a certain way the more difficult they are to change, and the harder it is to see inefficiencies. Food's necessity and ubiquity gives it a powerful status quo, along with massive potential for improvement. It is easy to lose perspective. Most of the world finds it weird that adults in the United States drink milk. Inuit would find it strange that one would own a cat with no desire to eat it. I wish eating organ meats were more common in the United States. I think they're delicious. There is nothing sacred about the way we do things. Improving food security, the health of those with an average income, giving more people the option to cook less and eat out more often, and abandoning the appeal to nature fallacy would certainly be a change, but it is one that is long overdue.

Appeal to Nature Fallacy: Nature is not on our side. Most of it is trying to kill us. Nature abounds with neurotoxins, carcinogens, starvation, violence, and death. It is technology that makes our lives so comfortable. We have a responsibility to protect the environment, but it feels no such responsibility for us. Technological innovations should be thoroughly tested and verified to be safe, and they are. Besides being an arbitrary distinction, being "natural" is absolutely no guarantee of safety, usefulness, or practicality. Today it is often the opposite. I think it's a little weird to eat food that comes from a tree. Do we still use leaves for clothing? Like diet, balance is key. I am glad to drink fluoridated water for the same reason I prefer the natural sky. It's healthier.

Essentialism: There is no magical mold objects are cast from. Every label is a lossy abstraction, and our world abounds with diversity. Even electronics like iphones vary within industrially controlled limits. Description is important, but no distinction should be sacred. Michael Pollan's "real foods" are like Sarah Palin's "real americans". It's good to have standards, and tastes, but labels can be problematic. More practically, our old foods can't really compete today. They are too expensive, inconvenient, and bland for most consumers. If we want people to be healthier we're going to have to beat fast food at its own game.

Anchoring: Anchoring is relying too much on one piece of information and having all further analysis tainted by it. This is partially my fault, since I called it Soylent. Many people hate the name and thus the whole idea. Part of the reason for the name was to demonstrate this bias. However, others point out trivial information like the alleged benefit of unknown phytochemicals, or even the color. Should we call off the mission to feed the hungry until we have thoroughly tested and categorized a few thousand more plant metabolites? It may not be perfect, but it's certainly an improvement. Also, the vast majority of phytochemicals studied have no biological role or a mix of marginally positive and negative effects. Some are even toxic or allergenic. I do not think cancer has not been widespread enough in humans long enough for plants to be selected based on their antioxidant properties. The benefit of lycopene is purely coincidental, and there is evidence it is the most potent antioxidant that exists naturally. Surely we can engineer better ones.

Binary Opposition: This is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. While a dream come true for a busy bachelor, I think most people would probably prefer soylent for breakfast and lunch and then have a nice dinner. My net enjoyment of food is far higher than it has ever been. Being in excellent health, never eating poorly, and still enjoying good food socially is a win-win-win. Exchanging my biological cravings for psychological ones has been intensely liberating. I still eat, but I have not been to the grocery store, cooked, or cleaned a dish in 4 months, nor has hunger ever led to stress. There is always a healthy, cheap, convenient option. I feel like the world's most food secure human. I carry a Nalgene of soylent in my laptop bag and only eat for pleasure. In light of this, eating multiple times every single day seems incredibly excessive and imprudent. Perhaps in the future today's eating habits will be seen the same way we see the smoking and drinking habits of the 1950's.

Argument from Authority: "Science", Feynman says, "is the belief in the ignorance of experts." I am not a doctor, biologist, or nutritionist. However, we all have access to the same information. Anyone can read a textbook. One does not have to take a class on something to know it, nor must one fully master a field in order to do something useful with it. People learn in different ways. Even when paying for a formal education I tended to skip class and self-educate. Graduation is no reason to stop studying. Research journals are going open access, Wikipedia is my television, and Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, and OpenCourseWare are lowering the barriers to information that used to be reserved for a select few. Like health, I would like to see a future where education is uncorrelated with income.

Ad Hominem: It doesn't matter who we are. Ideas should be evaluated based on evidence and principle, not source.

Reasonable Concerns

  • The initial sample size was small and the timeframe short, but the results are easily reproducible, as shown by the community site
  • One may think a liquid diet could affect the GI tract in the long term but gastroenterologists seem to agree this is not the case. The body turns ingested food to liquid quite quickly anyways.
  • It was a concern that nutrients can affect each others' absorption, but there have been no deficiency symptoms, and if this becomes a problem the amounts can be changed to compensate.
  • It was a concern that important gut bacteria would need the other substances in food, but fiber alone seems to do the job. In fact, it may be preferable to kill off some species, like the ones that turn chemicals in red meat in to unsavory byproducts.
  • I assumed I would quickly get tired of the taste but this does not happen. I accidentally stumbled on what the soft drink industry uses to make sure people never get tired of Coca-Cola, "sensory-specific satiety". If a taste is pleasant, but not very specific, the brain does not tire of it.
  • Contamination is not much of a concern. This is a solved problem in the heavily regulated food industry, with well vetted methods to ensure products are free of heavy metals and microbes, unlike anything I ever cooked at home.
  • The act of food processing does not destroy nutrition, but it does destroy flavor, which is carried by volatile chemicals. This is the only reason people assume "fresh" food is healthier. It's not. But it usually is tastier, for a day or two. It is completely possible to make healthy processed foods, there just hasn't been much demand due to this bias. As our understanding of the complex field of flavor science advances we will soon have tastier, healthier foods than ever before.
  • Healthy food is very difficult to define. My working hypothesis is that health is not about restriction or elimination, but balance. I consume a lot of calories, because I need them.  The minimalism is nice too. I believe that the gut bacteria that proliferates depending on the other "stuff" that's in food has a lot more to do with our health than we currently realize, perhaps our cognition as well.
  • Soylent is probably not going to solve hunger, obesity, and health in one fell swoop. But I certainly think it could help. And I certainly think these problems are worth working on.

Objectivity Bias: The tendency to see yourself as objective and others as biased. I fall prey to this one a lot, which is why I try to always place evidence over opinion, and remain open to criticism.

Other Criticisms

Demand for Omniscience: Some say this experiment makes no sense because we do not understand everything about the body. I think this is backwards thinking. If we do not understand something that is all the more reason to experiment with it in the pursuit of greater understanding.

Downplay Results: "The only reason you feel so much better is your diet is so much healthier than it was before." Yes. That's that point.

New vs Useful: How strange that some criticize this as being unoriginal, others as too weird. Obviously I considered other options before deciding to do this on my own. Nothing fit my requirements. There are plenty of liquids with calories. You'd probably be surprised how long you can survive on just cow's milk or beer, but you can't run a 5k every day on them. If you think something is a good idea and find the current options inadequate that may mean there is a lot of potential there. A good idea does not have to be altogether new, just practical. Soylent is certainly not a new idea. "Let medicine be thy food", advises Hippocrates, millenia ago.

Foodies: Most people cycle through their entire meal repertoire every 4 days, and precious few manage a balanced diet. If all of your meals are delicious and nutritious I ask you to consider what percentage of the domestic or global population has the means to eat exactly like you do. Remember, time is money. If eating at home was cheaper more people could enjoy nice restaurants more often, and I think they want to. When gas prices fall the first thing that falls with it is grocery spending, as people eat out more. We already have plenty of luxury foods, we need something with utility. People rarely go to restaurants alone either. It's not about the food. It's about the people.

This is Just Weird: Look at the current behavior around food in the developed world. Fad diets are in constant rotation, and the food industry follows suit based not on data, but demand. People staple their stomachs, freeze themselves, starve themselves, slavishly clean juicers, and drink weird liquid diets like Odwalla juice, which had a fatal e. coli outbreak due to a refusal to pasteurize (they do now). Eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental condition. Obesity and diabetes are out of control. Diets are unsustainable because they are too difficult. 95% of those that go on a diet quickly gain the weight back. Being healthy is about forming good habits and allowing yourself time off. Every organism makes decisions based on perceived energy expenditure. Humans thus consistently seek the cheapest, easiest solutions. By making the cheapest, easiest option for food the healthiest, and helping maximize the enjoyable aspects of social eating, soylent breaks the cycle of poor diet and makes users healthy by default. Currently health and diet are strongly correlated with income. I wouldn't say it's normal to have a perfectly balanced diet on the cheap. But I wouldn't say it's weird. Worrying about something as simple as food in the digital age is weird. If my behavior is making me happier, healthier, and reducing my environmental impact it should be encouraged, not mocked.

But I like food: I like beer, but I usually drink water. I love walking through the city, but I usually take the bus. I love conversation, but I still send a lot of emails. I find separating utility from leisure increases my enjoyment of both. Personally, I enjoy food, there are just many things I enjoy more. I get far more enjoyment out of a Stephen Pinker book or a jazz band than a fancy dinner. I'd rather build a ham radio or learn a new programming language than plan a meal. Asking me to cook is like asking a chef to program. It's not for everybody, but I respect their passion and skill. I want cooking to be a hobby and a profession, like photography, not a necessity. Now I have the freedom to spend more time on the things I want to do. When I do want a nice meal I'll happily pay someone to cook who is actually good at it.


I don't care much for cooking or eating but I care deeply about food. Food is how we extract energy from the stars. Food is all that staves off entropy. At this point my body is largely made of Soylent, and I couldn't be happier with it. We should solve the biological and logistical problems behind health and food security and then focus on making foods that are altogether new and wonderful. I see a bright future for food, but utility should come first. I think people would enjoy food more by needing it less, like having central heating in addition to a fireplace. I am not alone in having loves outside eating, either. Emerson wouldn't eat all day. Chomsky says he pays as little attention to food as possible. Biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini ate the same tiny meal every day and lived to be 103. Even Kanye West considers five star dishes ridiculous. Surely our minds can find more enjoyable activities than chewing. Despite all our innovation finding food still takes up a significant percentage of many individuals' free time and money. This is wrong. Busy people should be among the healthiest people alive. They're the ones who need it the most. Not having time to cook because you're working on your career or passion should be praised. If you never got hungry how often do you think you would eat? I find the pleasures of discovery, creation, laughter, learning, or pursuing a passion far more satisfying than a stomach full of ancestral food. Man was meant to do more than subsist.

get some at

Soylent Month Three


After three months I should be finding deficiencies, and I did. I started having joint pain and found I fit the symptoms of a sulfur deficiency. This makes perfect sense as I consume almost none, and sulfur is a component of every living cell. Sulfur is hard to miss in a typical diet so the FDA would have little reason to recommend it. A typical male physique has 140g of sulfur, making it the sixth most abundant element in the human body. Ten grams of sulfur from Methylsulfonylmethane cured me right away, and I now consume 2g/day. Sulfur is also what gives flatulence its characteristic odor. Most gas is just Hydrogen, but humans have evolved to be extremely sensitive to Hydrogen Sulfide, which is by the gram as deadly as cyanide, and produced by the bacteria in our colon. Before this change my gas was odorless. Releasing the equivalent of deadly cyanide gas from our anuses is a questionable design decision, nature. I have not experienced any other deficiency symptoms and am quite confident I am now getting everything I need, but I will keep testing.

I have been keeping better track of my physical traits. I'm holding steady at 180 lbs, and my muscle mass is about 46%, which is optimal for my lifestyle. I have 6.4lbs of bone mineral mass and am 63.8% water by weight, both normal. My body fat is currently 9.6%, which is a little too low for a non-athlete. Because of this when I do take the time to eat I converge towards bacon, which serves as an efficient source of fatty acids and happiness. Bacon is high in Oleic acid, the principal component of adipose (fat) tissue so it is great for increasing body fat. While the environmental effects of livestock farming do bother me, I think eating meat as rarely as I do is completely sustainable. However, bacon also has Palmitic acid, which is closely associated with cardiovascular disease so moderation is still in order. By the way, an acid is anything that donates protons. Only a few have corrosive properties like sulfuric acid, and bases can be corrosive too. Additionally, I track my sleep now, using a device called the "Zeo", an EEG headband that measures characteristic patterns of different sleep cycles. According to this device, I sleep like a baby, with an average "ZQ" of 104. Typical 20 year olds score 84.

I spent a week in L.A. to appear on a TV show and film the Kickstarter video. This served as a good control since I went without soylent almost the entire week. Though leisure food is fun, with no soylent in my diet the difference was clear. Cognition was the first to go. Patience shortened, attention dulled, curiosity waned. Socializing was more taxing, my inbox more foreboding. The physical effects took another few days. It was harder to wake up, the gym seemed much less inviting, and I gained a few pounds. Upon returning and going back to soylent I quickly bounced back, no harm done. I now refer to this as "low power mode".

Soylent has changed my relationship with food. Before I probably craved pizza and cheeseburgers because that was the easiest way to provide my 6'3" frame with the calories it needed. Now that my nutritional needs are always met I am able to appreciate food more for its flavor, and started really enjoying sushi. Sushi is especially interesting because there is such range and intensity of flavors, and it is so difficult, yet rewarding to make well. This makes it pricey, but I spend so little on food I can enjoy nice sushi once or twice per week. Fast food restaurants look laughably obsolete to me, like a Blockbuster.

I made a rather significant change to the formula, now on major revision 7. I've replaced half of the maltodextrin carbohydrates with oat powder, which has a much lower glycemic index. Oat powder is quite nutritious, and while not a raw chemical (I had to adjust several other ingredients to compensate), is very stable and inexpensive, should be fine for celiacs, and dramatically increases the fiber content, without interfering with the absorption of the maltodextrin. I underestimated the importance of fiber in a diet, and went from consuming 1.2g / day to 40g / day. The maltodextrin kicks in quickly, providing energy almost immediately, and when it runs out the oat powder takes over as an energy source. It also seems to improve the feeling of satiety, and affects the taste to be less sweet, which I actually prefer. I also added creatine, spurred by this study1, and Coenzyme Q10, a component of the electron transport chain with preliminary evidence for a variety of benefits. I made the decision to use whey isolate rather than the slightly cheaper concentrate / isolate blend. I am glad I did not just because my skin looks a little better and soylent is now lactose free, but crucially whatever was causing it to congeal after a few days must have been in the extras of the concentrate. My test has lasted in liquid form for 2 weeks now and is still holding steady. The flavor has dulled but it's still very drinkable. Flavor chemicals tend to be very volatile so it's hard to make them last, but they can always be added back in before consumption. I use ethyl vanillin, a synthetic form of vanillin that is more potent. Having soylent stable in liquid form could prove very useful. I'm currently working on kegging it.

I was intrigued to find that on nootropic days I craved about 15% more carbohydrates. This got me thinking, and researching. Our brain requires glucose and ions to operate, just like our muscles do. Perhaps processes and traits like learning, analysis, optimism, and self-control consume more calories than their lazier counterparts, and if the brain doesn't have easy access to them, they will be impaired. Neuroscientist Gregory Bems writes about how our brain optimizes itself to reduce its energy consumption as needed. One of the ways it does this is by framing new things in terms of old. Those who cannot form new pathways rely on old information, insisting that nothing is new. "Imagination," says Bems, "stems from the ability to break from categorization". Remapping takes effort. Asking someone to change deep-seated beliefs like political or religious viewpoints is asking them to run a mental marathon, and the vast majority of people cannot be bothered. Often only the youth, with healthy energetic minds stay in a state of flux in their viewpoints. However, the youth know so little in general it is often a trade-off versus our older, more experienced, conservative selves. It would be really nice to have both though, and I have met enough open-minded older people to know it's possible. Perhaps the real value of efficient food is not in making us skinnier, but having better fuel for our brains.

We no longer live in a hunter-gatherer society. I have no use for bulging biceps. No one in the United States plows fields or hammers steel by hand. It has all been automated. We need mental strength. We need creativity, patience, discipline, and humility. If people had more self-control obesity would take care of itself. Perhaps companies would be more productive if managers had more humility and employees had more discipline. These processes are abstract but they must have a physiological basis, and it seems intuitive that more difficult processes consume more energy. I fear many people who work primarily with their minds do not put much effort in to their health, and we are all missing out because of it.

The world has changed. We don't live anything like our ancestors. We don't work like them, talk like them, think like them, travel like them, or fight like them. Why on earth would we want to eat like them? Practically everything has gotten better over the past century but food has gotten worse. This is because food is a haven for reactionaries. Reductionism is not romantic, but everything can be improved once seen as the sum of its parts. If we can make transistors that are cheap, fast, and low power, surely we can make food that is tastier, cheaper, and more nutritious than anything that exists naturally. In the past food was about survival. Now we can try to create something ideal.


I promised that if I was still healthy after three months of soylent I would launch a Kickstarter campaign to bring it to the world. That time has come. The project is currently being reviewed and if approved I will post the link here, and tweet about it as soon as it is up.

edit: Since posting this I have heard from a number of additional platforms. I now realize crowdfunding has come a long way since Kickstarter coined the term 4 years ago. In light of this perhaps a different venue would be a better fit.

Email / Twitter / Discourse



What’s In a Tomato


What a strange state of affairs that we know the precise chemical makeup of distant stars yet we don't really know what's in our food most of the time. What makes a meal, and what makes it healthy, or unhealthy? I have decided to break down one of my favorite foods and try to look at what it's really made of, and why I enjoy it. Besides personal preference this is a good specimen to study because it is currently the world's most popular fruit, with over 145 million tons produced annually, is used in a wide variety of dishes, and as of last year has had its genome sequenced. Behold, Solanum Lycopersicum, the tomato.

Of course there is no "real" or essential tomato. Thousands of cultivars are produced in differing climates and conditions. Tomberry tomatoes are only 1/2000 the size of massive beefsteak tomatoes, though most are somewhere in the middle, around 5cm in diameter. Some variants are grown specifically for canning. Tomatoes are acidic, making them easy to preserve in a can, and canned tomatoes are sealed at the peak of freshness. This gives them a higher antioxidant content and preserves the vitamins and minerals, making them even healthier than their fresh counterparts most of the time.1

Tomatoes possess one of the most powerful known antioxidants, lycopene. Lycopene is a type of Carotene, substances which transmit light energy in photosynthesis. With the chemical formula C40H56, tomatoes produce lycopene from 8 instances of isoprene (C5H8), which is itself made from a series of chemical reactions called the MEP pathway in the chloroplast. Its long, straight structure lowers the required energy for electrons to transition to higher energy states. This makes lycopene effective at absorbing higher frequency, and thus higher energy, wavelengths of light, only reflecting photons with longer wavelengths, i.e. red light. This also gives lycopene, and the tomato, its characteristic red color. As an effective antioxidant, a substance that quenches highly reactive ions of oxygen, there is evidence lycopene has a wide variety of positive health benefits, including a reduced risk of cancer.

Like most fruits and vegetables, tomatoes are almost entirely water by weight. Here is an image showing the approximate contents of a typical tomato.2


The sweetness and most of the calories in a tomato come from the glucose and fructose, which add up to about 18 calories. The protein adds another 7 calories. The fiber is almost entirely insoluble, which accelerates the movement of food through the digestive system. It is not digested itself, but it does feed bacteria in the colon, which produce a variety of healthy products from it like short chain fatty acids. The "ash", pretend it's red, contains the lycopene, beta carotene (Vitamin A precursor), the minerals Phosphorous, Sodium, Potassium, Calcium, and Magnesium, and the trace elements, Iron, Copper, Zinc, and Manganese. There are also trace amounts of substances called "flavonoids", chemicals used in plant metabolism like quercetin and rutin. Despite extensive study, these flavonoids in tomatoes have been found to have no physiological role in humans.3,4 Flavonoids are a type of "phytochemical", non-essential chemicals produced by plants that may one day be found to have an effect on human health. Lycopene is generally accepted as an effective antioxidant but currently there is very little evidence others have positive roles. Some may even be harmful.5

I purchased this tomato at a farmers' market in San Francisco. It cost me 60 cents, which is about half the price of a supermarket tomato, and contains 25 calories. That's 2.4 cents / calorie. By comparison, a double cheeseburger from McDonald's costs 99 cents and contains 440 calories6, which is 0.225 cents / calorie, more than an order of magnitude more cost effective. It would cost me $130/day to live on supermarket tomatoes, $65/day to live on farmers' market tomatoes, and $6/day to live on cheeseburgers. It's no wonder the poor eat poorly.

The tomato genome was sequenced in 2012. It was found that the 'domesticated' tomato differs from a wild tomato by only 0.6% of its genome, and has about 900 million bases. By comparison, the human genome has about 3.2 billion bases. The tomato genome is unique in that relatively little of its genome consists of repeated sequences of information, which is common in plants. The researchers also found evidence that tomatoes, potatoes, and grapes likely share a common ancestor, and that the tomato has undergone two whole-genome triplications.7

I have experimentally verified that tomatoes are delicious. To test, I purchased two additional tomatoes from a supermarket, one grown in a greenhouse, one outside. Both were about twice as expensive as the farmers' market tomato, though nearly identical in mass. Both are softer and have a stronger scent than the farmers' market tomato. I blindfolded myself and took two bites out of each, picked at random, with a minute break in between after taking notes. The outside tomato was the sweetest, and softest. The greenhouse tomato was juicier, had slightly firmer flesh, and the strongest scent once I bit in to it. To my surprise the tomato from the farmers' market was relatively dry, firm, and bland, my least favorite. The greenhouse tomato was my preferred cultivar, and curiously appears to have noticeably more seeds inside. This sample size is small so if you do this experiment yourself please post your findings in the comments.

Flavor depends on a combination of the sensations of taste and smell. Volatile chemicals are released when food is chewed and react with olfactory receptor neurons, while nonvolatile chemicals react with special skin cells, taste buds, on the tongue. There is evidence the majority of flavor humans experience comes from smell. Azondanlou et al. found that of its 400 identifiable volatile chemicals, only about 30 contribute to the tomato's flavor. The taste comes from the glucose and fructose, identified as sweet, and citric acid, identified as sour. As onmnivores, humans enjoy the taste of sweets, which signify the consumption of carbohydrates, the body's primary source of energy. Carnivores, like cats, cannot taste sweets at all.

We are not the only ones vying for the nutrients in food. These tomatoes were likely already teeming with bacteria when I bought them. Don't worry though, our saliva and stomach acids make short work of them. Unless food appears or smells spoiled our defense mechanisms should have no problem rendering the food harmless. After a couple of days however the bacteria, thriving on the water and carbohydrates, reduced my tomatoes to mush and "spoiled" them. Scientists around the world are working to improve our tomatoes through genetic engineering, making them larger, tastier, more robust, more nutritious, and perhaps even more resistant to pathogens and spoilage.

When I was a child I kept a tomato garden with my father. It was a lot of work keeping the pests away, keeping them in sunlight without choking their stems, and watering them daily. The final product ended up being much smaller and blander than those bought at the supermarket, though of course that was not the point. Tomatoes, like transistors, are much better when produced at scale. Perhaps one day I will show my son how people used to produce food, but I'd much rather teach him to code.



Forms of Energy


The energy used by your computer to download this post, your screen to display it, and your brain to read it are all fundamentally the same. Energy can take many forms, and there is nothing particularly special about the kind that runs humans. Life is complex, but it always obeys chemical and physical laws. People used to believe in an "animus", a special form of energy that creates life but this idea has long since been debunked. For fun, let's take a look at what it really takes to give a person the ability to perform a seemingly mundane task, pressing a key on a computer keyboard.

This story started a very long time ago. Though the very earliest moments are poorly understood, it is generally accepted that our universe underwent a very rapid period of inflation about 14 billion years ago, transforming from an unimaginably dense, high-energy, homogeneous state to a plasma of quarks and gluons. Today quarks are invariably found locked up as the constituent components of hadrons like protons and neutrons so having a state of free quarks is very "strange". As quarks make up mass, gluons are carriers of energy. Specifically, they carry a fundamental force called the strong nuclear force which generally binds quarks together to form hadrons, in addition to gluing protons and neutrons together to form the nucleus of an atom. However, at this incredibly high level of energy both were free and continually colliding near relativistic speeds, creating and annihilating matter – antimatter pairs. At some point, for some reason, an important balance called the Baryon number was slightly upset and there ended up being more matter than antimatter, which eventually resulted in a universe made of matter.

The universe continued to expand and cool and eventually the other three fundamental forces, weak nuclear, electromagnetism, and gravity, separated and various other elementary particles began to take shape. Quarks began to settle in to their baryons, forming protons and neutrons, as well as their antimatter counterparts, but when temperatures dropped too low to create new matter – antimatter pairs, they mostly annihilated each other, leaving only the slightly offset balance of regular matter from before. A similar process then happened for electrons and positrons (anti-electrons), leaving the energy of the universe dominated by photons and neutrinos, which are the pure-energy products of these annihilations. This all happened in less than a second.

Some of the free protons and neutrons combined to form Helium, bound by the strong nuclear force, but most protons remained free and eventually combined with electrons to form the Hydrogen that makes up the vast majority of the atoms in the universe and our bodies today. As mass came to dominate the universe regions of slightly higher density eventually coalesced via the gravitational force, attracting ever more mass and increasing in density to form gas clouds, some of which reached high enough levels of density and heat to catalyze a nuclear fusion reaction. Hydrogen atoms normally repel each other due to the electrostatic force, but if the surrounding energy is high enough, a percentage can get close enough together for the strong nuclear force to cause their nuclei to fuse, since it is stronger than electrostatic forces at very close distances. This nuclear fusion releases the overcome electrostatic energy as a positron and neutrino, and forms Deuterium, which may then fuse with another atom of Hydrogen, forming Helium-3 and releasing a Gamma Ray, a very high energy photon.

The Sun is a huge nearly perfect sphere of plasma consisting mostly of Hydrogen and Helium, reacting in the core in the aforementioned way. However, since fusion happens only within the core, and the sun is very dense, the gamma rays are continually absorbed and re-emitted by the surrounding mass, taking tens of thousands of years to eventually reach the surface. At this point, each gamma ray is split in to millions of photons of lower energy, visible light. About 8.5 minutes later, some of these photons strike the surface of the earth.

All life takes energy. Without the intake of energy from the environment, an ordered system such as an organism quickly succumbs to entropy and death. Some forms of life have evolved to use the energy produced by the sun in the form of photons. Chlorophyll, for example, appears green because it absorbs mostly blue light, which is shorter wavelength and thus higher energy. The energy from a photon strips an electron from a suitable molecule, such as water, via the photoelectic effect. This ionizes and separates the hydrogen from water. The oxygen is then discarded and the ionized, or charged hydrogen and free electron are transferred to a substance such as NADP+, which becomes NADPH and is later consumed to generate ATP, via the Calvin cycle.

Besides ATP, the chief currency of energy for all cells, the Calvin cycle produces something very important for humans: sugar. Let's take corn for example. Humans have brilliantly optimized the growth of corn by introducing extra nitrogen in to the soil. This means we can cheaply convert the sun's energy in to sugar, or glucose, and then consume it for energy ourselves. After a human consumes this glucose, the small intestine diffuses it in to the bloodstream and a complex mechanism triggers the release of insulin, a protein whose job it is to transport the molecules of glucose to the cells that require them. The Krebs cycle essentially does the opposite of the Calvin cycle, using the glucose to produce ATP, the same molecule used by the plant cells for energy.

The brain, which also uses glucose for energy, "fires" a neuron, changing the electric potential along a pathway travelling down the top of the spinal column, down the arm, to a group of skeletal muscle cells in the forearm called the "lumbrical muscle". As our nerves make for poor electrical conductors, the signal must activate sodium channels on the way to the muscle in order to propagate. Eventually the signal reaches the junction between nerve and muscle, and activates an influx of calcium ions, which in turn releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, opening a channel for sodium and potassium ions, forming yet another electric action potential. This potential spreads throughout the muscle, releasing more calcium which binds to muscle fiber regions called Troponin.

This reaction changes the Troponin, which was previously blocking binding sites on the muscle filaments for Myosin, which in turn acts as a binding site for ATP. The ATP binds the the Myosin, causing it to release Actin, a protein serving as a microfilament to stabilize it, and the Myosin extracts energy from the ATP molecule via hydrolysis. Hydrolysis releases chemical energy by breaking the relatively weak phosphate bonds in ATP. These bonds are easy to break, but contain high energy electrons, which is how they introduce extra energy in to a system. This process causes the muscle to contract about 10-12nm, and is repeated as long as the muscle is signaled and there is sufficient ATP and Calcium to drive the reaction. The average key press distance on a keyboard is 3.81mm so it takes about 381,000 iterations per muscle fiber to perform this action.


What triggered the brain to fire the neurons? Information is also form of energy.