Soylent

I haven’t been keeping up with the phenomenon known as ‘Soylent’, except when today I just read the news that they have been able to raise a $50M funding round for expansion into new markets as well as retail.

Why is this news?

Well, Soylent is something that is coveted as a food product by overworked millennials who seldom have time to cook for themselves. As such, it is very popular in the elite circles of Silicon Valley. Not surprising, then, that the investors in this food product are all people known in the Valley for making money off software. The company itself is the brainchild of a software engineer from that area. When someone in the family raises money, and that too, in the millions, it is sure to make some news.

I really like how they describe Soylent as ‘addressing one of the biggest issues we face today: access to complete, affordable nutrition’. How did we manage to come to a point in time where pre-packaged powdered nutrition is somehow more affordable than plants that grow in the dirt?

This reeks of hype through and through.

Soylent isn’t even the first meal-substitute – there are countless others. What it does have going for it, though, is that there is a face behind the product and the face isn’t that of a woman. Slimfast comes to mind. It is a meal substitute (although, you still have to include at least one regular meal in your diet), but it has become synonymous with female weight loss. At this point, if you tell someone that you’re on the ‘Slimfast diet’, they’d think you were a woman trying to lose weight, instead of assuming that you’re just time-starved and trying to access affordable nutrition (it is not affordable, though).

For investors, the popularity of the product means a shot at getting bought by a big name FMCG company. It is also a healthy segue from the technology landscape where almost everyone is building an AI or a VR app, not to mention the quantified shortage of skilled people not working for a major multinational company in the Valley.

Is it healthy?

Of course, not. Processed food never is. None of the investors themselves rely on Soylent for their sustenance. It is something that is ripe for the scalability problem that technology investors love to solve, though.

And, it has a brilliant name.

Blogging and the Spread of Truth in the Age of Platforms

A lot of people have proclaimed that blogging is dead, that it doesn’t generate any traffic, and that no one reads blogs anymore. Personally, I don’t know the last time I kept up with a blog on a regular basis like a few years ago. The problem is not the lack of people who share their ideas. Rather, as more people take to ‘social media’ and instant messaging, there remains very little incentive to write out a well thought-out post to be shared. This means that people now spend less time on long-form writing than they do on just sharing snippets.

Indeed, if you search for something of interest, you are more likely to find SEO-fied links on the first 2 result pages about products or advertising than any relevant read. As more and more advertising money flows into search advertising, there is an SEO economy being created where the only winners are websites with a huge advertising and/or SEO budget.

At the same time, a lot of platforms are being created to help people express themselves. Facebook being in the forefront, trailed by companies like Medium. There is no dearth of hosted blog providers who have adopted the Twitter approach of follows and likes to float more popular posts towards the top. A lot of companies boast of using ‘AI’ to figure out what content would prove to be sticker and hence generate more clicks for the authors.

People don’t even read newspapers anymore. On a recent Facebook exchange, I was reminded by a ‘mainstream media’ sceptic that newspapers, or dead-tree publications, as he likened them to, are not the only way to procure your dose of daily news. Indeed, what was once seen as blogging is now increasingly also the format used to report news. It’s the ease of sharing and embedding advertising that makes online blogging a wonderful substitute to subscribing to a printed/electronic newspaper.

So, why were blogs such a wonderful thing?

You could always count on a multitude of blogs positing different approaches to solving a particular problem or educating you about a topic from all perspectives. Stuck trying to figure out how your country’s foreign policy works? Just read up a few posts by passionate bloggers who breathe foreign policy and are eager to share their opinions and understanding.

Newspapers are feeling the heat, too. While a lot of them have established credible online and digital distribution systems, right down to monetization, they simply cannot compete with the phenomenon of click driven ‘fake news’. Whereas in the past people were careful to not treat a certain blogger or website as the face of truth, now that social media has made blogging a more mainstream way to distribute facts, now this area is getting murky. A lot of these websites are primarily content aggregators that they incredulously ingest from other similar websites or persons. What generates clicks are headlines. What’s the incentive to even hire and perform true journalism any more if truth is difficult to swallow and also does not sell well?

Using social media and these blogging platforms is much easier than ever because you don’t have to worry about the technical nitty-gritty like security and maintenance. At the same time, most of these platforms are free to publish on as they make money through advertising. Their currency is likes and followers. You, as an author, feel you’re getting enhanced reach.

Yesterday, I even watched live an incoming president of a developed country dismiss a credible and historic news channel as the purveyor of ‘fake news’.

There is a huge problem inherent with the ‘platformization’ of the web – censorship. While I have not had the pleasure of living in an authoritarian state, a lot of people have that misfortune. Platforms have to follow local laws, which change abruptly based on who is controlling the government. If they don’t follow these laws, they lose the market and hence the money. There are rumors that Facebook is working on a special censorship tool for the Chinese market that would allow them to enter it and hence make a ton of money from the world’s most populous market. Recently, they also started censoring posts and notes that were written unfavorably towards the government in The Philippines.

Apart from censorship, since you don’t control the platform and the laws change abruptly, you can never be sure that your news/content would outlive the platform or would not suddenly be deleted one day.

Solution – let’s get back to the basics. Have a friend set up your blog for you. Because if you control your platform you control your freedom of speech. If your hosting provider tries to censor you, there are others that would offer you refuge. The web was built to be run that way.

Here is something I shared on Facebook when the platform was accused of spreading fake news:

To say that the problem is just ‘fake news’ would be trivializing it. To say that the problem of ‘fake news’ could be solved technologically would be fooling everyone.

There are multiple issues – one of them being conflict of interest. Facebook makes money based on clicks. Fake and sensational information generates more clicks. Any technological solution would be at odds with the objective of maximizing clicks and visits.

AI is another example of Silicon Valley’s bubble. By nature, AI and henceFacebook‘s approach of creating algorithms, would always lag behind trends in society/pop culture. AI is a cute term for big data collection. This makes it implicit that any intelligence is created after the trends go mainstream. AI is the reason why everyone’s news feed is messed up and also why FB insists upon not showing posts chronologically. That impacts click-throughs. When FB talks about AI, translate it to – process of prioritizing paid posts and external links over user-generated content in a way that it’s less obvious and annoys you just a tad less than to the extent of making you quit. 

The best way to use FB is to use it like a repository or a blog. That way chronological order wouldn’t matter much. Stop using the feed. Organically search for posts and pictures. Facebook makes it near impossible, but switch your feed to show posts in their chronological order.

Most importantly, don’t make it the only place you seek out information. The web is huge.

If you have to share something, first consider the possibility of adding something more or even saying it in your own words. The less time and effort you put into what you share with friends and family, the easier it gets for any AI to win over humanity and to further the gap between the elites and the ‘losers’.

AI’s currency is your lack of time and effort. Make it clear that you’re the boss of your profile 

Now, more than ever, it is important to start reading credible news sources. If you can’t afford a newspaper subscription, find out the nearest library that has one. If you read something online, make sure you can verify its authenticity by checking other sources. If you’re still unsure, ask someone else.

When more people blog and share their ideas, rather than mere snippets or forwards, the whole country moves forward. Free exchange of ideas enables the society to move forward and to settle differences through intellectual exchange. More opinions enable better policies.

The least we can expect from a developed civilization is the facilitation of free and uncensored exchange of ideas.

Migrated to DigitalOcean

This blog is now fully hosted on DigitalOcean. If you didn’t know, DigitalOcean is one of the ‘cloud’ providers, the main benefit being that it is really simple to set up. Unlike Amazon or Google, the pricing model is really simple, and unless you need all the bells and whistles that these other folks provide, the functionality is really good. They use KVM to provide you root access to a Droplet (in their parlance) that you can configure any way you want. I also liked that setting up a fully functional WordPress server was a matter of a single click from their application directory.

So, the benefits –

  • hosted in Amsterdam
  • full native IPv6 support
  • virtual hosts that I can set up on my own whims
  • free SSL setup using Let’s Encrypt

 

Oh, and it’s a whole lot faster than my previous BlueHost setup which was mind-bogglingly expensive. The IPv6 is a nice touch, although I am not sure why Ziggo still does not provide connectivity. They only had a decade to plan for it.

One thing that I really like about DigitalOcean is the Snapshots. All I have to do is turn off my server (which isn’t really that bad since I hardly have enough traffic) and create one. These are completely free and are manual, which means that you can take as many and as often as you want. If you want to restore your server to a previous configuration, you just fire up a new instance using one of your saved snapshots. You could even move them around in different geographical areas. Regular automated backups cost money, though.

Setting up encryption was really easy with Let’s Encrypt. If you have a server, there really is no reason to not do it.

Do give DigitalOcean a try – they also have free trials. I am sure you’d love them as much as I do! If you have any questions about my setup, write in a comment below and I will share my learnings!

Why the Founders Visa could suck

If you have been following blogs of people associated with the technology and entrepreneurship industry (yes, entrepreneurship is also an industry) with any level of intent, you MUST have heard of the Founders Visa movement. Predictably, the ‘grassroots’ effort has been gaining a lot of momentum thanks to Twitter.

The premise is that if you’re a budding entrepreneur with viable investment money on hand, you should be able to freely come to the US as a nonimmigrant to start your business. Hitherto, the only ways to come to the US without having been born here have been through a buffet of non-immigrant visas or being able to secure work in the country. The latter has always been classified as a dual-intent visa that allows you to also apply for permanent residency through employment based green cards. Notice the importance of intent. If you’re a student and you give the guy at the consulate the impression that you’re going to find a job after graduating, there are grounds to reject your non-immigrant visa.

This becomes an important issue to consider when you realize that MOST of the successful companies in the US were started by people who first came to the US on these student or other non-immigrant visas. Statistically, most successful startups are also conceptualized and governed by people in their late 20s or early 30s. Also, quite a few, if not all, entrepreneurs work for a while IN THE USA before they think, ‘Hmmm, I should start a business doing this’.

MISTAKE 1: Emphasis on intent

Now, once you’re in the USA, you complete your education from one of the top schools in the world. Even though you hardly have any American students in your Algorithms class, you are optimistic, and you get that degree. But wait, you get one more just because you love being in school. And here you are, one of the brightest people around, have a potential career, have a strong head on your shoulders, are optimistic, etc. What next? You apply for a job! Yey, right? No. Because…you’re now a potential immigrant, are suddenly a bad guy because you’re trying to reduce wages, and worst of all, you aren’t American. You are in line for a work permit.

MISTAKE 2: Treating international graduates like first time immigrants

But, before you get a work permit, you have to be worthy enough for a company to spend more than $3k on lawyer and application fees for you. On top of that, thanks to the xenophobia and immigration backlash, they have to contend with the fact that the other employees might link your getting hired to their kin losing jobs. I know it’s ass backwards, but bear with me. In the quest to get a work permit, who wins? Half of that $3k figure is actually lawyer costs. In a country where the insurance company makes more than the doctor this doesn’t surprise me one bit. Compare this to Canada, where just like healthcare, you don’t need a middleman to file your paperwork.

MISTAKE 3: Making it hard to actually get a visa

Now you have a visa, a job, and are making some money. You’re being a good non-citizen – paying more taxes than citizens (you can never avail a lot of benefits reserved for citizens), contributing to the society, making kind donations for the needy, obeying the civic laws, etc. Then, you realize that you’re actually good at what you do, and there’s a lot of sense in starting a business. Well, welcome to America! You can start a business but you cannot work for it! We like passive investment, but you cannot do anything more than putting in money. Which means, you’d have to have a full time job, worry about keeping it, all the while as you struggle to start your company and make it profitable. You have a choice – move to Canada or Chile while you’re still young or live the American H1B dream.

MISTAKE 4: Wanting the best but doing nothing to keep them here

So you eschew the idea of starting a new enterprise until you are a legal permanent residence and don’t have to worry about being employed all the time. Well, there’s an app…err I mean paperwork for that. And, if you are a citizen of China or India, you are looking at almost 6-7 years of patiently waiting before getting anything back out of that paperwork and large amounts of attorney fees. Depending on when you file for your permanent residency, you could all but forget about marrying that girl you knew back home, because she could marry you but not come back with you. Splendid.

MISTAKE 5: Making timely legal immigration some sort of a pipe dream

Once you get that ever so elusive green card, you’re fed up, tired, old, and the torture you faced has made you an immigrant hater yourself. Then, there’s the added pressure of hearing about all those successful peers that went home when there was time and made big bucks. So, what do you do with that green card? Well, you use it to help your retired parents spend the rest of their life with you here in America where you nearly got everything you wanted when you wanted.

There was a time when people actually went through all this effort, because frankly, there was no better place to work than in America. Things have changed A LOT since then. There’s a mass exodus of young non-immigrants from the US to other countries. These people came here, got educated, loved working hard, met great people, but they don’t want to toil away for a piece of paper that still wouldn’t release them from the xenophobia that they so wanted to overcome.

So, where does the Founders Visa fit in? Some say it should be an entirely new visa that looks at you as a capable entrepreneur, gives you a few years to prove it, and requires some amount of backing by established investors. If you fail, you leave the country.

Are you fricking serious? I am sure that’s so enticing.

Some argue that it should be an extension of the EB5 permanent residency category. The category that lets you come to the US, no holds barred, for a mere amount of $1,000,000 ($500,000 through a rural investment). That’s really it. Invest that amount of money and you’re guaranteed a happy retirement in the United States of America! All it takes is 2 months of paperwork and lawyer fees. Splendid again.

You know why the Founders Visa proposal sucks?

IT IS STILL A VISA AT THE END OF THE DAY

You are not inviting any talented people to the country by making such an entry conditional on their being successful. Are you serious? Do you ever go out during the day? Do you have a social life? How do you explain the pressure on these entrepreneurs who have to compete with undocumented immigrants (who, by the way have it way way easier)?

How many entrepreneurs would come to the US just to take a risk when Canada would simply look at their education and give them a permanent resident status? Do you think they would leave their families behind?

More importantly – How do you define success?

The Founders Visa suffers from all the mistakes mentioned above. Congratulations, you didn’t provide any solution.

IT IS STILL A VISA

Addendum: I realized later that my post might come across as starting off with the mistakes in the new proposal. That is not true. The main reason I list the problems with the current policies is that I believe they should be addressed before we start baking a second layer of our cake. Also, I believe that if the intent of the visa is to attract people who have never been to the US before, the facts that it is still a temporary permit and that it banks heavily on the beneficiary being successful are also the flaws of the proposal.

If the intent is to keep the bright people from leaving, then the mistakes listed need to be addressed. There’s just too much hard work involved in being successful, and the headache of worrying about a stable US presence just makes the proposal not worth it.

The Apple Hype Machine™

Today, Apple introduced the next version of the iPhone, labeled ‘iPhone 3G’. As always, the fanboys were intrepidly forecasting the new set of features and capabilities that this new gadget would include. For the most part, they got what they wanted, and coming from Apple, I think it is a good deal.

A list of what’s ‘new’ – 3G support, cheaper, built in assisted GPS.

Every other new feature is a software feature that would be provided free of cost to the people who already bought the first version a year ago. I am currently beta testing the new firmware, and it is a step up, definitely.

What amazes me though, is the blind trust some people have for Apple. Steve Jobs compared the browser on the iPhone with browsers on phones that were at least 2 years old. He completely side-stepped the modern browsers on Windows Mobile, or even BlackBerry devices. For the intelligent consumer, it doesn’t mean a thing, but for the average dumb/brainwashed consumer, Jobs’ word is gospel. The Safari browser on the iPhone is NOT at all the fastest mobile browser.

Another example – as is the case with all things Apple, there were rumors floating around just before the keynote about the new model having various features like MMS (which has been a staple feature of all phones since the early 2000’s), video conferencing, higher resolution camera, better Bluetooth support, etc. But, ultimately, nothing of that sort came even close to being announced. People are happy, nonetheless, or rather the fanboys are.

On top of this ludicrousness, ATT thought it would be a good time to bump the rate of the data plan from $20 a month to $30 a month. This makes an entry level plan for the iPhone cost approximately $70 a month before taxes. And I thought that communications was getting cheaper everyday.

I love Apple’s products just because they tend to be minimalist, but I have a major grudge against their false, unethical, inaccurate marketing. I also abhor fanboys who have every possible justification for skipped basic functionality.

That said, I am going to create an interesting app one day for the iPhone 🙂

I am now a licensed Amateur Radio operator !

I finally took the plunge into Amateur Radio and successfully qualified for the Technician Level license on the 12th. Although, I am still waiting for my license to arrive by mail and the call sign to show up on FCC’s website, I am also preparing to qualify for my General Level license, which would give me access to almost all the High Frequency bands for very long distance communications.

The preparation was pretty easy, and between purchasing the study guide and passing the license exam, I spent about 15 days. The Technician level is supposed to be an easy entry path for anyone interested in being a Ham. On the other hand, the General and Amateur Extra levels require much more intensive training in the fundamentals of radio communications, engineering, and regulations. It is definitely to my advantage that I have a degree in electrical engineering with extensive coursework in radio theory and antenna design.

There are exam sessions organized by volunteer examiners several times during a week, and all it takes is a simple email/phone call to register. The exam session I attended was organized at the Police Station/Courthouse in Wake Forest. I got a perfect score on the exam! The VEs coerced me into taking the exam for the General level license on the spot, even though I wasn’t prepared, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to qualify for that. Needless to say, I am happy that I am now a “ham”, and look forward to graduating to the next level very soon!

Now that I have my license, I intend to complete the requisite courses mandated by the Department of Homeland Security, and successfully enroll in the ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) and the RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service). Other than volunteering, my other interests at this point are DXing (contacting other fellow hams around the globe), antenna design, and digital communications. There are a multitude of clubs and organizations around the globe, and regular events/conventions are organized on a fairly regular basis (hamfests, Field Day, nets), which makes it very easy for beginners to get their feet wet.

If you are interested in becoming a ham, too, please don’t hesitate in sending me an email for further information/guidance!

UPDATE: I just got my license information from FCC. I will now be known as Saurabh Garg, KI4WAH !