Stronger Together

I’m a strong believer in the inherent good-ness of most people. I believe that, provided the right conditions and circumstances, people move in a healthy, growth-oriented, and positive direction.

However, given imperfect circumstances, we cannot fully expect individuals to act in positive ways, ways that are prosocial, growth-oriented, and inclusive of others.

What we’ve seen in this election cycle is that many individuals find themselves in circumstances that leave them feeling unsupported. It is understandable that people in imperfect circumstances would want change.

In this election cycle, we had essentially two options. One, an individual who has spent most of her life working on behalf of disadvantaged individuals, and who presented a realistic case for steady, continual improvement. The same kinds of small steps forward we took under our current president, such as marriage equality, getting more Americans healthcare, and advancing environmental protections. This progress wasn’t perfect, but it advanced the idea that all Americans deserve to be on fairer footing.

On the other hand, we have an individual who is a well-known businessman. He came in promising change, and meanwhile gives voice to some of the most unfortunate and hateful sides of people. He does this while giving pithy catchphrases to all of the people and groups he speaks against. And these phrases caught on. He takes advantage of the anger and resentment many feel about a world that seems to decreasingly represent their interests, and provides convenient scapegoats toward which people can direct their anger.

I could never, ever bring myself to vote for the latter. He has demonstrated his flagrant disregard for the rights and respect of women, sexual and racial minorities, and those with disabilities, all while being tragically unqualified and eschewing even a base level of decorum. So the reality that this candidate has won the election is deeply troubling and discouraging to me.

I am entirely convinced that the next four years are going to be a giant setback in our nation’s history.

However, this election should also serve as a wake-up call to those who believe in the rights and dignities of all individuals. If there’s a chunk of our country who is hateful toward individuals that don’t look like them, that don’t love like them, that don’t live like them—that is a sign that we’ve got more work to do. We’ve got to keep working to build a country where individuals have the supports to get them out of tough situations when things aren’t going their way. A nation that provides safety nets for struggling individuals like it does for its struggling corporations. A nation that provides freedom for all not by letting us struggle on our own, but by realizing that we are all in this together.

Because while it may have been a campaign slogan, I wholeheartedly believe that we are all, as a nation and as a planet, stronger together.

Rewards Programs

I tend to avoid rewards programs. You know them, the kind that offer you points for spending money.

The reason is that rewards programs are designed to subtly change our behavior in ways that we don’t notice, and I am always trying to be more intentional in how I spend my money.

Rewards may seem worthwhile on the surface, providing cash back or points for things you’re already doing. Get some points for coming in and spending money, and once you have enough of them you can get something for free! It seems like a no-brainer if you’re already shopping there.

Yet these little incentives alter our decisions, making it just a little more likely that we’ll stop and spend some money when we don’t really want or need to. And of course, that’s their purpose: to get us to spend more.

It’s easy to think that we’re immune to this, but I think it’s difficult to not be affected.

This isn’t just rewards programs, though. Advertising emails from stores often make us think about buying things we otherwise wouldn’t, and probably don’t need. Triple points on our credit cards might make us spend a little bit more at the store. And so on.

That’s why I generally opt out of these programs. I think it’s a better thing when we can be more aware of our decision-making processes. And I don’t want to be any more influenced by these subtle forces than I already am.

New Year’s Resolutions

The prospect of a new calendar year prompts many of us to think about changes we want to make in our lives in the form of New Year’s resolutions. Or as is often the case, re-making resolutions from past years. New Year’s resolutions often get a bad reputation, mainly because many of us make them, but often we fail to follow through with them.

However, New Year’s resolutions, at their core, are no different from any other behavior change. Which is to say, it’s often quite difficult. However, this means that we can apply the same strategies to habit change throughout the year.

An important consideration when making a resolution is our why, our motivation for this change. If we’re making this change because of pressure from others, or because we feel badly about ourselves, our chances for success are lower than if we are making the change for ourselves. If we can come to the mindset that this resolution is because it’s something we truly want, and something that we’re doing for ourselves, our chances of success are much higher.

Of almost equal importance, however, are the environment and realities of the situation. Specific, measurable goals are much easier to track and feel progress toward than general goals. Getting in better shape (as a common example) is great to work toward, but perhaps better goals are reducing body fat percentage, or reducing overall weight.

Specific steps toward those goals are also necessary to think about. Taking our example of losing weight, this might mean sticking to a weekly calorie deficit or working out four times per week. And importantly, we must track our progress! But we also need to adjust our environment for these goals. Cutting calories is going to be all the more challenging if we keep unhealthy snacks around. And working out four times per week is going to be a drag if we don’t schedule the time for it.

All resolutions are going to come with setbacks, but these are part of the process. Instead of deciding that missing our goal one day or one week means that we’ve failed and that we are going to give up, we need to look at what caused that failure and make adjustments. Resolutions are a learning process, and we’ve got to allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes.

In sum, the best New Year’s resolutions are those we are making for ourselves, those we’ve thought about and planned for the concrete realities of, and those that we adjust and learn from as we go.

Further reading:


Soylent has been showing up in the news for the past year or so. This is largely because of its mission: to be able to replace your food. The Soylent website provocatively asks: “What if you never had to worry about food again?”


I found out about Soylent earlier this year, and was immediately intrigued. I’ve realized that I’m actually not that great at feeding myself. That’s a funny thing to say, but I fail to plan meals for a week. I often fall back on a few old recipes, and anything that doesn’t get prepared in the first few days after a grocery trip likely sits in my fridge until it spoils. And when I’m not sure what to make, I end up eating an unhealthy takeout or frozen meal. I know that it’s within my ability to improve at these things, but despite my awareness of this problem and the wasted money, I’ve failed to make any improvements. My current way of eating is a waste of time and food, so something that could end this cycle is appealing.

It seems a lot of people struggle with these issues. One solution to this problem is to teach people to purchase and cook healthy food. Another solution might be something like Soylent.

Soylent aims to be a meal replacement that is nutritionally complete. Soylent is still under active development, and will continue to be adjusted as people try it and provide more feedback. There is plenty of room for additional research on optimizing nutrition for individuals, and if Soylent plays any role in encouraging additional research and personal experimentation in diet, that would be a benefit overall.

Soylent became available for pre-order earlier this year, and I ordered a week’s supply for $85, which breaks down to about $4 per meal. If you subscribe to monthly shipments, the price is more like $3 per meal—cheaper than most takeout. I finally received my order of Soylent v1.1 a little over a week ago. The first order of Soylent comes with a right-sized pitcher and scoop. Soylent comes portioned by the day, so daily food prep involves pouring a packet of Soylent into the pitcher, pouring in the small oil bottle, and filling the pitcher up with water. Very simple steps for a day’s worth of food.

The flavor and texture of Soylent are largely unremarkable. The flavor is roughly that of a pastry without sugar, and provides a good base for adding other flavors if you wish. The texture is a bit on the gritty side, but doesn’t get clumpy like a lot of powders can. I don’t mind either of these things. However, I had a few of my friends try Soylent, and opinions varied from tolerable to unappealing.

For about four days last week, I consumed only Soylent and coffee. The most striking part about these four days was how unremarkable they were. I found Soylent very satisfying, and I wasn’t hungry in between meals. My energy was steadier throughout the days, especially during the normal post-lunch dip.

On Friday evening I ate Mexican, and the flavors really popped, likely a combination of some taste adaptation to Soylent, as well as more conscious attention to my meal. I continued to eat normally over the weekend, but I realized how much of the food I ate made me feel like crap. I found myself craving Soylent.

After this personal experiment, I don’t think that I see Soylent completely replacing food. However, Soylent is as easy to prepare as unhealthy convenience foods. And I see a ton of value in making the the easiest option healthier, and providing me the room to eat meals with friends and family when I choose. So while it is certainly not for everyone, I’ve gone ahead and subscribed to monthly deliveries.

Further Reading:

Feed Readers

Keeping up with the developments in any field can be a challenge, especially with so much information spread across so many sources. Frequently this information is accessible online, but it’s tedious to regularly visit each of these sites for new content. I’ve found this to be especially true with academic journals, where there are a whole series of publications relevant to me, each with their own website and own release schedule.

The best solution I’ve found to this problem is using a feed reader (also known as a news aggregator or RSS reader). This is an application or service that allows you to add the sites you want to keep up on, and read the updated content from those sites all in one spot. Each new item shows up something like a new message in your email inbox, extracting just the new content and displaying it as a new story. If this is a blog, you will see each new post; for a journal, it will usually be the abstract. Here’s an example:

Feedbin Screenshot

Adding sites to your reader is easy, with most services allowing you to just type or paste the URL to start following the site.

There are many choices for readers these days, including both standalone applications and online services, with both free and paid options. The two best options in my opinion are Feedly, which is free, and Feedbin, which is my personal choice and costs $3/month. Both of these services can be used from your computer, but are also compatible with a variety of mobile applications. My personal favorite is Reeder.

One of the unexpected benefits to using a feed reader for academic journals is that it actually makes reading journal abstracts enjoyable. At least for me, that’s something I didn’t often experience before.