Fitzcarraldo in a Bottle 2021

Photo: Andy Orin

Eight years ago I thought of one of the only good ideas I’ve ever had: I should make a ship in a bottle depicting the ship from Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about a deranged but determined opera lover played by Klaus Kinski.

In attempt to raise money to build an opera house in a small Peruvian city, the titular character tries to gain access to an untapped source of rubber trees by dragging his steam ship across land to another portion of the river. The production was fabulously calamitous — there were multiple plane crashes, Mick Jagger shot a whole part and then dropped out, the thousands of native extras were questionably cared for, a guy sawed off his foot when he was bit by a snake, Kinski was a bigtime freako — but the film is best remembered from the scenes depicting the ship being dragged up a hill. Not a model of a ship or anything like that — they just literally did the thing to film it, portaging a massive 320-ton ship across land, uphill, in the jungle.

It’s one of my favorite movies.

I also love ships in bottles. Not specifically the mystery of their construction, but the complexity and tedium required to create that mystery around an object that is completely useless. They’re little works of sculptural art that also perform a magic trick by existing in an impossible space. That being said, just depicting the Fitzcarraldo scene was more important to me than constructing it with any guise of traditional ship-in-a-bottle trickery. I was particularly inspired by this bottle depicting Jaws. A movie! In a bottle! A movie-ship-in-a-bottle!

In 2013 I drew this on a post-it note:

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I briefly looked for existing model kits of similar ships but didn’t find anything that would work. So I modelled this ship in Autodesk 123D (a free design app which no longer exists):

Six years later in 2019 I printed the model about three inches long using Shapeways:

In “smooth fine detail plastic.” Photo: Andy Orin

There were two factors in deciding that scale: first of all, it needed to fit through the neck of a bottle. And secondly, a smaller print is cheaper (this cost $21.69 and scale increases price exponentially-ish). In 2013 I did toy with the idea of slicing the model so that it would be glued back together inside the bottle, piece by piece, but as I said, performing the traditional construction magic trick wasn’t that important to me.

And I didn’t have a bottle yet anyway. No rush.

This month I happened to have a glass jar from a soy candle that was just about right for this scale. (What’s… the deal... with soy candles? Are normal candles a big problem we need to solve? Are soy candles…. edible?) Jars are obviously less compelling than narrow-necked bottles but it was good for the purpose. A little clay and a bag of miniature trees (insert referral link here) and I had this:

Do you like my improvised light box? Photo: Andy Orin

I’m not over the moon with the outcome but I am over the hill. It looks fine; if you know the movie you know what I’m depicting. I don’t plan on working on it anymore unless I happen across a good model kit that compels me enough to increase the scale of the whole thing.

Why did it take eight years? Did my creative vision persevere through years of setbacks? Did I need time to germinate the idea until a plan bloomed? No! It was a low priority and time was abundant.

There are no lessons about stick-with-it-ness here, pal. This isn’t even a pandemic project; I just have the stupidest long-term goals around.

The Case of the Missing Coat Hangers

Illustration: Andy Orin from a Le Samourai screenshot.


Getting packages reliably in New York City depends entirely on where you live. Not your neighborhood, but your building. Some have lobbies, some have stoops, some have nothing but a door that opens directly to the sidewalk. Some have doormen if you can believe it.

I reside in the Belvedere, a large, squat, six story building that dates to 1924. Not that anyone calls it the Belvedere, but that’s what it they wrote on the front in cement when they put it up around a hundred years ago. It has a big empty lobby where there probably used to be a kid in a bellhop outfit and about 70 apartments above. All good and fine for general living. But I’ve always had a hard time getting packages delivered. Delivered to me, anyway; they deliver them somewhere. Most things just sit in the lobby by the mailboxes but some things do not.

A few days ago I ordered some coat hangers to clean up a messy closet. (Technically it was a “hanging organizer,” but let’s keep it simple for rhetorical sake.) It was from Amazon, and was scheduled to be delivered the next day just in case it was a dire closet situation and Marie Kondo was at my neck.

Indeed the following day the package was dispatched, and I checked its status every so often while I worked. Around half past noon, it was delivered. (Funny how all the delivery services use a passive voice; it never says ‘a person handed you a box’, it just says that the ‘package has been delivered’.)

But first let me tell you about the police who knocked on my door in April holding a scrap of cardboard. A worrying sight. They explained that they had caught a package thief fleeing from our building the night before. Around 2am or so a man got into the lobby and rummaged through the mail, helping himself to whatever looked enticing. But the building’s super intendent somehow caught wind and chased him out. A good man, perhaps one of the only good building supers. The police subsequently caught the thief and his cache of nicked packages, and among the detritus was a shipping label with my address. So the police knocked on my door the next morning just to let us know.

As such, whenever I am expecting something to be delivered, I try to be expedient when retrieving it from the lobby.

When the coat hangers arrived I went down to the mailboxes and found nothing. Nada. No note, no boxes. Unfortunate, but not a big ticket item. The absence of coat hangers is no tragedy. Prior to this, in all the years of chasing boxes I’ve only had one thing go missing, for-real missing: an iPhone. An iPhone! Practically the most valuable thing you can mail. Like slipping an gold ingot into a mailbox. But this isn’t about the iPhone.

I went back to my apartment to check the delivery status again, to see if they left any specific detail of where it was left — ‘by the door’, ‘in the mailbox’, etc. — and there was none. But this particular shipping company provided something new with the delivery notification that I hadn’t noticed before going downstairs: a photo.

Photo by Lasership

That’s not my door.

No clear number on the door either, though the hallway is recognizably somewhere in my building. But it reminded me of the missing Indian food.

Last September I ordered Indian food for my birthday. When the delivery person arrived outside the building, he called my phone to let me know. I went down but there was no one there. Assuming he had gotten inside and I just missed him, I went back to my apartment — and there was no one there. He called my phone again and said he was outside my door, where he certainly was not.

So I walked down the hallway and heard him in the distance, on the other side of a fire door that separates the left and right sides of the building exactly in the middle. He was standing outside of an apartment door with no number that he had incorrectly guessed was mine. In fact, I had to show him my phone to prove that I was me and not some meddling neighbor trying to steal the food. I haven’t ordered from them since. Too much work.

But I knew why he thought that was my door. For some reason this building, the old Belvedere, has all the odd numbered apartments on one side and all even numbers on the other. I’m an even number, so my immediate neighbors are 2, 4, 6, etc. My apartment number is 8.

The man with the Indian food followed the numbers and went to the door next to 7, a door that just happens to have no legible number. But it’s over in odd-numbered land where the odd people live so the door next to 7 is 9, presumably. Or 5. I don’t know if other hundred-year-old buildings are like this, but that’s how they designed things at the Belvedere. All the odds on the right, all the evens on the left.

So when I saw the photo of my coat hangers outside of a door with no clear number, I had a hunch. Even though the address wasn’t visible, it was next to the perpendicular swinging doors that separate the building exactly in the middle, between the left and right side of the building. Odds and evens.

Sure enough I went down the hall to the same door where I argued for my Indian food a year earlier and found my coat hangers.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now that the lost iPhone might have ended up there too, at the door with no number. But that’s another mystery. Someone signed for it and left the initials “OA”, according to the post office. (Perhaps a clue, but those are also my initials, reversed, so that might be a dead end. It could also be Brit Marling.) Lucky for me the cell company replaced the lost phone (and mailed it directly to the post office for pickup) so that case is all hung up as far as I’m concerned.

But if you’re ever in the Belvedere and run across the no-number door in the odd hall, ask them about it for me.

Fitzcarraldo-in-a-Bottle Recorked

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In 2013, I had an idea to make Fitzcarraldo’s ship in a bottle. I had planned to 3D print a model, maybe in modular parts so it could actually fit in a bottle, and designed a fairly simple model of the ship in one of Autodesk’s free apps. Then I got a little busy in the intervening years. I am now less busy.

(Fitzcarraldo, a film by Werner Herzog, follows a fanatic’s dream of funding an opera house in the jungle by harvesting rubber from trees in an untapped territory, but to reach them, he needs to drag a boat across land where two rivers almost meet. Herzog famously filmed the sequence by actually doing what’s depicted: dragging a giant boat up a hill.)

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Werner Herzog.

So obviously the bottle would depict that scene, with the boat mid-hill.

I got to thinking about it again, and decided to see what sort of new 3D printing materials Shapeways has added since I last tinkered. They now offer a “fine detail plastic” that’s particularly well-suited for scale models and miniatures.

Another reason I hadn’t done any more work on it in six years ago simply was the price; at the time I uploaded a 6″ version, but printing a nearly banana-sized boat would cost $100 today (and significantly more back then, but I don’t remember how much).

So I tried a 3″ version, and it only cost $21.69 in fine detail plastic. Sure, why not. (Plus shipping and taxes and a expedition fee unless you are very patient, making it thirty something dollars altogether.) That’s where I am now.

DSC_8003web.jpgI haven’t found the perfect bottle yet. The boat is specifically 2.7″ and .99″ tall at its highest point, the smokestack thing. I’m thinking about something like this:

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That’s about 3″ long; it would be a pretty tight fit if I want a substantial hill in there. A little bigger and I might be able to fit some little trees in there too. And the wide neck is essential, since I’m not actually bothering to assemble the boat in the bottle. More of a ship in a jar.

So now I’m just thinking about jars, looking at jars. I can go ahead and paint the ship (although the translucent plastic is itself fascinating, maybe good for a ghost ship).

But I’m in no rush, so it might be another six years before I stick a cork in this idea.

Do Allbirds Give You Wings?

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After seeing advertisements for Allbird shoes everyday on Instagram and Facebook and countless other webpages for a year, I bought a pair. I knew what they were before I ever saw an ad because I regularly read the sorts of publications that cover things like a shoe startup company. But seeing them every single day, in video ads with toes wriggling in soft wool, got to me. I needed to experience the future of feet.

Did they reinvent the shoe? Is wool the future of shoe tech? Will these shoes change my life, foot-wise?

No, not really, but they’re fine. They are soft. They are comfortable. Maybe more environmentally-friendly in some regard?

The shoes are different from most shoes in that their top shell is made from wool. It’s more dense and thick than a sweater or something, but it is indeed a woolly material. Thus the shoes lack the rigidity of most sneakers that are made from plastics and rubbers and artificial materials. That’s a plus; there’s no need to break them in. There are no new-shoe-blisters because there’s just nothing in there that’s rigid enough to rub you the wrong way.

The sole is a nice squishy foamy sole, good for everyday use. I have some Adidas running shoes with soles that are slightly more rigid, and I think the Adidas feel a little better for actual running… if running was something I did. Maybe it’s the more aggressive profile of the Adidas–thick heel for impact tapered toward the front–but the Adidas shoes feel more designed for GO FOWARD! motion. The Allbirds are called runners, but feel less runny. Which is fine, just less go-forwardness. I opt for the Adidas when I know I’m going to be walking a lot.

And some people wear them without socks. Feels wrong to me! But you could. I’d imagine they’d feel like dirty socks very quickly, but they are also machine washable.

Allbirds have a unique, unremarkable aesthetic; they’re a shoe with no visual flare beyond ‘shoe.’ No stripes or stars or reflective bits. Kind of reminds me of Odo from Deep Space Nine, a shapeshifter who, for some reason, couldn’t quite master a human face, so his face looked like melted silly putty without wrinkles or defining features. Just the idea of a human face. Just the idea of a shoe.

Odo, the featureless face guy. The Allbirds of faces.

And the laces are oddly stubby.

I’m fairly ambivalent about the look; I bought the aforementioned Adidas shoes because they came up on Zappos when I clicked SHOE, because I needed shoes, for walking in. Some people, the sneaker people, think Allbirds are grotesque business casual things. Not wrong! Not bothered! (Also, Allbirds are popular among Silicon Valley types.)

They are fine, they’re fine. Fine. I’ve been wearing them for a few weeks and they are still comfy. No doubt about that. But–mostly because of their indistinct, perhaps orthopedic look–they do not exactly spark joy. They look like something a grandpa from the future would be wearing in retirement. Futuristic grandpa. Fine.

So put on your Allbirds, jump on a Bird scooter, and ride into the future, gramps! It’s woolly there.

(An editor would tell me to write a better kicker [a kicker is the last sentence in an article]).

So here’s the kicker: shoe.

(Shoe is the thing that kicks.)

Throw Me the Idol!

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Adam Savage occasionally mentions what he calls “everyday cosplay,” a casual use of movie-related clothing in everyday life. Sometimes he wears replicas of Captain America’s gloves, for example, as just normal gloves. Sometimes he wears NASA jackets. And of course Savage often wears a wide-brimmed hat, no doubt influenced by Indiana Jones. I have my own bit of Dr. Jones kit that I use almost every day: the bag.

Jones wears it in all the movies (somewhat curiously under his jacket; I guess that keeps it from swinging around too much while he’s doing all that adventuring). It’s probably most clearly seen and utilized in The Temple of Doom when he’s carrying the Sankara stones and they burn through the bag. You might call it a satchel bag or side bag or whatever, but it’s actually a specific, unique thing: a British World War II gas mask bag called a Mark VII. If you google it you can find dozens of places to buy various reproductions, as Indy is a pretty easy and popular costume to put together. I got one from Todd’s Costumes. (It’s not a vintage bag from the war, but an accurate recreation of one.)

Is a gas mask bag really the best option to carry around my bits of daily junk? Not really. There are a few odd quirks in its interior design, being that it’s literally for gas masks. There are odd metal gaskets at the bottom for ventilation (though useful for a wet umbrella!), and a few bits and bobs of ambiguous metal and string.

Satchel Bag worn by Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

I had to modify the interior a little bit to make it actually usable; the interior was separated into two horizontal pockets–obviously for whatever mask device it was designed for–so I cut the bifurcating flap of material to create a single, open space. It also has a couple of little other pockets that can hold earphones or a pen. Otherwise it’s just a small tote bag. But it looks cool. It’s too small for something like a laptop or even a full-sized magazine. But it looks cool. It can hold a book! You bet I toss a Chipotle burrito in there like it’s an ancient fertility idol.

At first I used a strap from another bag I own–a vintage Soviet map case that I happen to have–but I didn’t have an elegant way to attach it so I eventually bought the leather strap from Todd’s Costumes as well. But! The leather was bright and clean and new when it arrived; of course it was new, but I didn’t want something that looked brand new. So I flexed around to loosen the rigidity of the leather, roughed it up with sand paper a little bit, and stained it a darker brown color that seemed truer to the movie, or at least more like a vintage object. And it’s corny, but I like that it’s unique that way; my stupid Indiana Jones gas mask bag is now one of a kind, and looks the way it does because I weathered it that way.

So what’s the point of using part of a movie costume that is less usable than a bag that’s actually designed to be a daily bag? Does it make me feel like Indiana Jones when I’m buying batteries at Walgreens and carrying them home in my accurate gas mask bag? Yes.

The Cake Outside the Door

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The other day when I left my apartment to run some errands I stepped out into the hallway and there was a cake outside the door.

A boxed cake, an Italian panettone. Not a freshly-baked cake but a sort of seasonal coffee cake with the requisite shelf life such that you can buy at retail stores. I picked it up to check for any notes or addresses to explain why it was here (I don’t know anyone in the building; you nod and say hello to people, good morning, to 80 or so other people, but I don’t know anyone who might gift me something), and there was no note. Just a cake, in a box, outside my door.

I thought, perhaps, it was from the immediate neighbors. They accidentally set off the fire alarm in the hallway just a few days ago, and perhaps this was some kind of penance, penance for making us step into the public light in pajamas to check if we were going to die or not. But there was no note! (And we did not die.) No hi sorry here’s a cake from your neighbors! Nothing! Floor cake, and that is all.

I thought, perhaps more likely, that the cake was intended for a different apartment, and the person just got the number wrong. Intended for a different apartment that would understand an unmarked cake at the door. But what could I do to rectify the location of an unmarked cake?

I also considered that there are some kids in the building, frenetic children who run through the hallways and bounce off the walls and play in the lobby, and perhaps they placed it there for whatever reason. Like some kind of ring-the-doorbell-and-run game. Here’s a cake! Suckers! A reverse dine-and-dash.

So without any clear resolution, I brought the floor cake inside. What else could I do?

I share a two bedroom apartment so I waited until my housemate got home before I chose to eat, dispose off, or give away the item; perhaps floor cake was entirely comprehensible to her. (And though I was distrustful of the cake, I would have definitely just eaten it anyway.) I was right to wait, because the explanation was mundane.

There’s a place in the lobby where people sometimes put free stuff; books or whatever. A box of coat hangers. Children’s toys that have run their attention span. Dianetics.

I said to my housemate, I found this cake, someone brought us cake? And she had an explanation. Someone has placed the cake in the lobby, in the free zone, and these particular types of cake were a recent topic of conversation at her work. She was curious. So she ran back up stairs with the cake but needed to catch an Uber so she just left it outside our door, as you might with any package when you have places to be, things to do. Deals to make! Modern businesswoman! Catching cars, finding cakes!

Oh.

That was a little disappointing–no one intentionally gave us cake–but also a little gratifying in its explicit unremarkableness. Which is the only lesson I have, the only kicker: the explanation for everything you don’t understand is probably more boring than you expect it be.

I Can’t Stop Watching This Clip of Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody is a silly cartoon movie starring fake teeth. It’s not good, but it is popular. I can see why; it’s not not entertaining! Particularly if you enjoy the music, which carries the movie along with Rami Malek’s wholehearted dive. But it’s all an absurd mess that glosses over reality and is haunted by the spectre of its director, Bryan Singer, who was fired from the production before filming completed. The band might also be partly to blame, the Actual Queen band, supposedly wanting to make a movie that was innocuous to all legacies involved.

So it’s not surprising that the entire thing feels like a weird fever dream. I half-expected interstitial placards that just said SCENE MISSING. Nonetheless they finished the film. And now it’s an Academy Award-winning film, including a gold statue for editing.

Before the awards, this clip was widely circulated online as an example of how messy it all is (what’s with the glossy surreal color grading, by the way?), particularly the editing:

And yeah! The pace of cuts is obviously absurd; it’s just a calm conversation around a table but it feels like there are at least 50 different shots in 82 seconds. You might expect wildly fast cuts in an action sequence, but not tea time.

But people kept pointing to this clip as an example of terrible editing. And I kept watching it over and over to find a glaring error. Any cut that just doesn’t work. And… I couldn’t! Is it… is this editing actually fine?

The whole scene and everyone’s place in it is completely comprehensible. It reads fine; I know where everyone is around the table. With most of the characters framed following a basic rule of thirds, my eyes are never not in the right place during the fast-paced cuts.

Have I gone mad by watching the same clip seventy dozen times? Probably.

I realize that the sheer number of reaction shots is preposterous. It seems to me it would have been a simpler to set up a couple wider shots where you can see multiple characters without making cuts. Instead, there are about 6 or 7 different camera set ups for this one scene around a table. Individual shots for almost every character is not how I would do it! But the editing never takes me out of the moment.

Aside from watching this one scene over and over like a zoetrope, it is difficult to discern how much an editor’s decisions help to elevate a movie. It is laborious and almost invisible work. It is as if the only people who really know how much work the editor has done are the director and the cinematographer and their teams, who know what was shot, and what was not.

But he got the votes, and now John Ottman, the editor of Bohemian Rhapsody, has an Oscar.

Update: Here’s a good examination of why this scene is crazy and how it could be less crazy.

It’s wild that Dragon Ball is so mainstream now. Even the video game is mind-blowing. I had to scrounge the dark web for postage stamp-sized Real Player videos in my day. (And actually there was a Spanish translation–the entire series!–that aired around the year 2000 down in San Diego and Tijuana. That version even had all the original music!)

Anyway, Goku. That’s the whole blog post, thanks.

I’m Mad at Heart

 

Today’s blog is about interface design, foolish tech optimism, and the horror of reality. Reality–not great! Some good stuff. But social networks want you to log on a feel good! Smash that like button! Click the heart! They tend to prioritize positivity by design.

The other day I saw a journalist post a story about an atrocity, and my broken brain noticed something peculiar, unrelated to the story itself.

At the time, the post had been retweeted much more than ‘liked’ or favorited or hearted; that’s sort of a rare thing on Twitter, when clicking the heart button is the less significant action. Popular posts tend to be ‘hearted’ a zillion times but retweeted less, because retweeting commits a post to your feed, as though you’re saying the same thing. But not a lot of people were ‘liking’ this story about Native American’s struggling with the government shutdown. Because it’s not a fun topic to like! (The ratio has since leveled off, which undermines my whole point, but bear with me.)

Social media platforms have designed this sort of positivity into their interfaces. I’ve noticed the same thing on Medium (disclosure… a company I do contract work for). On that platform, you can “clap” for an article to show that you read it or you care about it. People click “clap” if they like something. But if you publish some ugly truth–maybe a deep dive into the Rohingya genocide, for example–positive reinforcement feels a little strange. Feels weird to clap for genocide even if you’re trying to express support for the work. More notoriously, a couple years ago Twitter changed their ambiguous ‘star’ button into a heart. That was particularly annoying because a heart is more loaded than even clicking ‘like’; you might recognize something as being important without wanting to blast a Valentine’s Day card at it.

This is all to say that most platforms, in trying to foster positive discourse, inherently discourage engagement with things that are not nice, even if they are important.

Fewer likes, or faves or hearts or lucky charms, sometimes mean the article will be circulated less, depending on whatever algorithm is in charge. It’s basically a user interface challenge–how do you indicate your attention without also expressing a specific emotion?–but it affects the way BILLIONS of people share and consume information.

There’s room here for an aside about what you might call “inspiration porn”–a troop comes home and you won’t believe what happens next, a dog did something amazing when little Timmy yadda yadda, this whole town rallied around some idiot. Upworthy famously rise and fell trying to appeal to this quirk in the algorithm, but it’s still a spammy genre of Dumb Things You See on Facebook.

Of course Facebook diversified it’s responses to include cute illustrations that range from sad to mad to heart and the old fashioned like. Even so, clicking sad face emoji feels like a bizarre way to engage with difficult information. But I realize a neutral symbol wouldn’t really make sense either. I would not click uh… Ball… or Triangle… or whatever.

I don’t have a better way; it’s just something I was thinking about. Please like and subscribe!

I Drank Soylent for a Month and There Was Nothing Interesting About It, Not Even the Poop

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Some time in late November I decided to order a tub of Soylent, the foodlike meal-replacement powder. My reason, aside from curiosity, is that lunch is always a pain to procure. I work from home and can’t just carelessly walk to some overpriced midtown salad joint that caters to office workers. And I don’t particularly want to spend too much time making anything; the emotional labor of designing a sandwich is too much to bear!! So I thought of trying Soylent.

No, of course I had no intention of eating Soylent exclusively. I just wanted a stupid thoughtless meal in the middle of the day! Soylent is a stupid thoughtless meal in the middle of the day.

It’s fine. It’s fine! It tastes sort of like raw cake batter. Like when you lick the mixing blade when mom is making a cake. It didn’t even make me do weird poop.

The stupidest part of the endeavor was that also I bought a ‘Blender Bottle’ at Target to prepare for my Liquid Journey, but the only one in stock was made of some carbon fiber metal alloy fancy crap that cost like $25 bucks. It’s just a water bottle but it has a cheap metal sphere thingy to do the blending when you do the shaking; honestly some ice cubes can do the same thing in any bottle. I hate spending money but I needed to commit! Commit to being a Shake Guy! Harnessing the power of the sphere! Call me William Shake Sphere!

The Soylent itself is $34 for 12 meals (if you consume 400 calories, the recommended meal size). Which means it’s cheap, but not necessarily cheaper than a bowl of cereal or whatever. I got the cacao flavor. Tastes like cold watery chocolate cake batter. Fine! Lunch sorted for a few weeks. I tried adding a little chocolate syrup but it didn’t really blend in the right way? Because you add water to the Soylent powder, and syrup needs milk, not bland-ass water! Chocolate syrup cannot collab with water. One time I poured coffee into the mix and it was abhorrent! I shouted CACAO!! into the wind. But plain cacao Soylent with water and ice was fine.

I didn’t quite finish it; you’re supposed to consume the Big Jug within 30 days of opening and when I got back after the holidays it the remaining Dust Food smelled a little off (as I bought it over a month ago). I think it was still fine but I was worried about invisible mold or, whatever. I’m not food scientist. Not even a food grad student.

I have not ordered more. But I might! Perhaps! It is more convenient that my current lunch habit of hoping, absolutely praying, that I have some leftovers that I don’t remember and then eating crumbly granola bars while gazing out the window like a sorrowful granola ghost in a William Shakesphere play.