A Month of Buying (Practically) Nothing

Posted on 07 February 2016 by Joseph

A couple years ago I read a not-particularly-good book I picked up at the thrift store called Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. The merits of the writing and conclusions notwithstanding, the concept piqued my interest. The family of the book swears off the purchase of anything not deemed a necessity. For them, this meant they could purchase nothing but groceries and "essentials", a term meant to capture the things that they need to survive. Essentials are things like toilet paper, medicine, and - if I remember correctly - Q-tips. That precludes everything else, including not only goods but also services. No new clothes, no new appliances, and the like, but also no going to movies, no yoga classes, no dining out, no drinks at the bar. Though I remember the book being pretty banal, the idea seemed like a good one, and I added an easier version of it to my 35 by 35 list - go one calendar month without buying anything.

At the beginning of every year, I try to convince myself that I am not an alcoholic by abstaining from the drink for the first two weeks of January. Some years I do better than others. This year, I realized I could make double use of my drying out, and the barrier to my normal social life that it represents, as motivation for my month of "drying out" from consumerism. Interestingly, I realized this after I had a couple bottles of champagne on New Year's Eve, and declared my intention to my also-inebriated companions.

I woke up the next morning with all the joy that drinking a gallon of champagne brings, slept in until an hour that my college-aged self would have found acceptable, and had a quiet day puttering around the house after finally crawling out of bed. That night, I realized I had completed a full day of both goals: no booze, and no buying anything. I also realized that I needed some rules to follow, so I somewhat arbitrarily chose the following:

  1. Groceries are fine, but prepared food is out. This line is very arbitrary - is bread a prepared food? - but I felt like the judgement line was clear enough. I could buy bread, I could buy deli meat, but I couldn't buy a sandwich.
  2. Short-term consumables are fine, and these comprise my "essentials" list - medicine, toilet paper, essential toiletries, and nothing else.
  3. My existing services would not get cancelled, so the gym was in, Netflix stays, and I don't have to open source all of my Github projects.
  4. Everything else was out. No food or drink at restaurants and bars, no movies, no Amazon, no new services, experiences, or shopping of any kind.

I decided to take individual cases on an individual basis, with the default being "no". In reality, only a couple of issues came up. Could I eat chips or other communal food at a restaurant? (no) Could I buy a new faucet when my kitchen sink sprung a leak? (yes) As an amazing Christmas gift I had received a ticket to a Scotch tasting that fell in the month of my austerity - I decided that was in. I decided gas for the car was OK too, though I tried to limit my driving to necessary trips. After the first two weeks, I also decided that grocery-store beer was fine. Hey, I went two weeks, I can quit any time.

In retrospect, it wasn't really that hard, and I could have extended it indefinitely. The hardest part was the slightly jarring shift in my normal social life, at least for the first couple of weeks. It's a little funny how much of my interaction with friends revolves around getting drinks or food. Instead, we spent time at each others' houses (at least, for the stuff I was invited for - I'm sure they were out having a ball), watching movies, playing games, or going for walks. After the early confusion, it was really nice to be able to simply spend time with people I love instead of having to shout over yet another blown-out bar speaker blaring terrible music.

Another totally unsurprising outcome was that I spent way less money than I normally do, though that wasn't the goal of the challenge. I'd guess I spent roughly half of my normal amount, which is already low by many people's standards. Almost all of the money I did spend went to groceries, as might be expected.

As a sidenote: I've used that saving as justification for buying myself a home theater projector in support of two of my other goals: watching all the films on both the Sight & Sound Top 250 list and the AFI Top 100 list. I did some research and decided the Optoma HD141X was the best low-budget projector for the space I have, and I am unbelievably excited at the prospect of a 107" screen for watching history's greatest films.

Verdict: not a very hard goal, got to spend some quality time with my friends, and saved several hundred dollars. I'd say it's probably worth giving it a shot, particularly if you are a big spender or trying to rein in your soul-crushing commercialism. And it's way easier than the beer mile.

A belated retrospective of 2015

Posted on 22 January 2016 by Joseph

If I had to choose a unifying theme for my 2015, it would have been exploration. Travelling, learning new things, and meeting new people all played prominent roles in my life this past year. In addition to the things below, I also accomplished two of my 35 by 35 goals: I ran a beer mile, and I flew in a helicopter. Both fun, but not really the most exciting things I did this year.


  • Went on an amazing, 2-month-long road trip across the US and back with Cassie. I took the first 10 days off, but spent the rest of the time working remotely - finally taking advantage of the amazing flexibility that offers. Our path took us south to Dallas, then across the southwest with a majority of the time spent in Utah, then up the Sierras, through California to the Pacific Northwest. We spent a week in Portland, I spent a week in Olympia while Cassie hopped to Alaska, then we spent a week in Seattle before driving to Denver to spend our final week. It was an amazing trip, we got to see so many amazing places, and I got to spend time with some amazing people.

  • I bought myself a wet shaving kit and learned how to wet shave. There is definitely a flow aspect to wet shaving.

  • I learned to sharpen a knife to an edge sharp enough to shave with. I used one of these stone sets , and spent a lot of time practicing, but now my knives are all scary sharp.

  • I built several semi-major projects in functional languages. Specifically, I built a risk scenario DSL for work, and I built an in-memory RRD-style time window database, both in Haskell.

  • I got back into running for a while, exclusively trail running. Trail running is a different game entirely, at least around here where a run will routinely take you over 1000ft of vertical gain. I ended up doing some of the longest runs since my last half marathon.

  • I took my first yoga class, and then ended up doing quite a lot of self-directed yoga. More generally, I took some agency over my (terrible lack of) flexibility and invested the time to improve it.

  • I made over $1000 in passive income, primarily from dividends on ETF investments.

  • I learned how to play the amazing game Diplomacy and played two games with a group of friends. Diplomacy is easily the most intense game I've ever played. In short, to progress in the game you are required to ally with some players, to the detriment of others. The outcome speaks to all sorts of deep-seated feelings about friendship, betrayal, and loyalty. It is the only board game where my heart has been pounding as the moves go in, in the knowledge that people I know in the real world may be genuinely angry with me as a result of my choices. Despite that, playing also helped me with another of my goals for 2015: stay in better touch with my close friends.

  • I studied quite a bit of Spanish, first with Rosetta Stone, then with Duolingo. I am still a long way from even conversational fluency, but I am definitely improving.

  • I got to spend some time with my little sister in her natural environment, meet her friends, and see what her life is like.

  • I travelled quite a lot for work and spent more time interfacing with other companies. This was both good and bad.

  • I spent some time learning about the foundations of distributed computing, reading some of the Dijkstra Prize papers and other recommended papers, as well as a lot of blog posts and short books. I think the topic is fascinating and it's very relevant to the things I have been working on lately.

  • I read quite a few books, maybe 25 or so, including some really good ones:

Things that happened to me

  • My identity was stolen and used to submit a fraudulent tax return. Dealing with that spurred me to write an angry and as of yet unpublished polemic on the subject of victim blaming for identity theft.

  • There were some major startup-y events at my place of employment, though I can't really elucidate.

  • I tore a pulley in my left ring finger, taking me out of the climbing season.

Failed goals

  • Write 100 startup ideas I wrote maybe 20, though I fleshed out a couple well beyond just writing them down.

  • Boulder V7 outdoors I was SO CLOSE to doing this, then I tore a pulley D:

  • Run a sub-20m 5k If previous experience has taught me anything, it is that I need to do speed training to get fast at a 5k distance, and my trail running did not cut it. Also, sometimes I kind of hate running.

  • Finish the LA Times PoMo List I didn't really even give this one a good try tbh.

  • Learn about and build microservices I kind of forgot about this one, but I resurrected it at the beginning of this year. I have been working on microservices in several languages since the first of the year (albeit with purely pedagogical aims).

  • Learn to cook some sauces This was just lazy.

New goals for 2016

  • Read the rest of the Dijkstra Prize papers
  • Read the papers Nancy Lynch suggests for her her distributed computing course
  • Make $2000 in passive income
  • Continue to study and improve at Spanish
  • Boulder V7 outdoors
  • Finish the AFI Top 100 list
  • Learn to ride a motorcycle
  • Go one full month without buying anything
  • Sew something pretty good
  • Create another major project in a functional language
  • See all of my close friends
  • Run 10 miles in one sitting
  • Write 12 things and publish them
  • Release one of my side projects
  • Floss 300 days
  • Participate in a food-eating contest
  • Make Tonkatsu ramen
  • Get better at chess

Several of these are goals on my 35-by-35 list, and several others contribute to those goals. I'll be 32 this year, so I need to get crackin'!

Riding in a Helicopter: 33 left to go

Posted on 27 September 2015 by Joseph

I don't remember why I decided that riding in a helicopter was such an interesting thing to do. I mean, I do think it's interesting: not many people have ridden in one, it seems slightly dangerous, and flying is generally awesome, particularly when you are low to the ground. Whatever the reason was, though, it made it into my 35 by 35 list, and so it was going to happen.

At some point, I read the list to my mother, and she mentioned that in Myrtle Beach they had billboards for a $20 helicopter ride (NB: I am not promoting that service, they just have the billboards). Why not go as a family? That particular trip, time and weather didn't permit and the idea got put on the back burner for later. Also, the service linked above offers $20 rides per person for a 2 mile ride. Not very impressive, but relatively cheap nonetheless.

A month or two later, I get a call from Moms, who informs me that she was at a benefit for the excellent Smith Medical Clinic, a free clinic in Pawleys Island, SC. Part of the benefit was a silent auction, one of the prizes was a helicopter ride for 3, and she had won the prize! She didn't really have any details about it aside from someone to call to schedule the ride, but it sounded great and we planned on going while my girlfriend and I were in town for our annual trip down for the Fourth of July. We called and scheduled it, weather permitting, for the Monday following the 4th (and what ended up as the day after my beer mile).

The morning of, the weather looked great so Mom, Cassie, and I headed into Georgetown to the address provided. We didn't know exactly what to expect, but were thinking it would be something geared toward leisure - we were wrong. The address turned out to be headquarters of Rotor Blade, a company that specializes in, among other things, trimming the trees along power lines using a 30-foot-long saw hanging from a helicopter. At the location in Georgetown, they also manufacture the blades. Seriously, go check out the videos on their site, it's crazy stuff! We spoke with the person at the desk in the office and she told us that our pilot, Dee Haddock, wasn't around yet. It turns out that Dee is one of the founders of Rotor Blade, though he is also a recreational pilot, and he and his wife donated the flight to the silent auction.

After a few minutes, Dee showed up. He introduced himself and asked where we'd like to go. At this point, I was still thinking it'd be a short flight akin to the one described above, and I suggested we fly out over Winyah Bay. Dee chuckled and said that we were practically already over Winyah Bay, and that he'd just fly us around some. We crossed the street to the Georgetown airport, and Dee met us there with the helicopter, a Robinson R44.

We loaded up in the helicopter and took off. The ride was much smoother than I had imagined, both during takeoff and overall. We flew up over the airfield and then into Winyah Bay, an extensive estuary where several rivers meet the Atlantic. Dee pointed out old rice paddies, now used mainly for hunting or overgrown entirely.

We followed the bay out to the ocean then cut south, following the coastline. We saw a nature preserve that is an important sea turtle nesting area. Dee told us about how wild hogs were introduced to the island decades ago for hunting and now pose a threat to the turtles. He and his brother flew a helicopter there and killed several of the invasive hogs. It's unclear to me whether they were shooting from the helicopter or not, but pretty cool.

After a short while, we cut back west over the Muddy Bay area and the estuaries. We flew all the way down to McClellanville, marked by the lighthouse and cut up into the mouth of the inlet there.

From McClellanville, we turned around and headed back across the estuaries, up to Winyah bay and then north along the ocean, through Debordieu and up into my hometown, Pawleys Island. We flew over my parents house, over Dee's house, over my childhood house, and over the river before heading back to the airstrip

All told, we were airborne for well over an hour and flew close to 100 miles. It was an amazing experience, and if you get the opportunity to do something similar, jump at it. Thanks to my mother and to Dee for giving me the opportunity, and thanks to Cassie for enduring an hour of motion sickness to experience it with me. This ride marked my second on my list of 35 things, only 33 to go!

The Beer Mile: Down to 34 by 35

Posted on 07 July 2015 by Joseph

When I was a student at the University of South Carolina, someone mentioned to me that a mutual friend of ours had set the South Carolina record in the beer mile. "What's a beer mile?" I asked.

It turns out that a beer mile is a chess boxing-like hybrid sport, simultaneously testing one's fleet footedness and ones beer chugging ability. The event begins with the competitor opening a 12oz (or more) can/bottle of 5% ABV (or more) beer in the staging zone. The brave soul then chugs the beer as quickly as possible before beginning a quarter-mile run. At the end of the quarter mile, the competitor opens a second beer and repeats the performance, and likewise for a third and fourth lap. Vomiting before the completion of the fourth lap results in a penalty lap, though no penalty beer. The complete rules fill in the other details.

My friend, the apparent SC state champion beer miler, seemed uniquely suited to the event: he was both an NCAA 1600m runner and a heavy drinker. Perfect for the event. Word on the street was that he had run it in some mind-boggling time like 6:30 or something. Really crazy, but not my cup of tea. I forgot about the beer mile.

Last year, my interest in the beer mile was renewed when someone told me about a race in which you eat an entire French dinner, with a course after each leg of the race [citation needed? can't seem to find the race on the internet]. I remembered the beer mile, and put the event in my 35 by 35 list, ensuring its completion (or at least, that I wouldn't forget it about it). It wasn't until six months ago that I got serious about it. I floated the idea to my friend Jacob who, like my college beer mile champion friend, was both exceptional drinker and runner. He loved the idea, and we ended up talking about it often. He found this insane video of what appears to be the world-record beer mile, and we were inspired:

We started talking strategy. Where and when could we do the run such that we wouldn't get hassled under Virginia's archaic public drinking laws? The track was the obvious choice, but when? The track is almost always populated, so we never came to a consensus. Instead, we both found ourselves in the Myrtle Beach area over the Fourth of July and took it as a sign.

The Sunday after the Fourth, Jacob met me at my parents place. We originally intended to run on the beach, but the combination of high tide and lots of people pushed us onto the road instead. Our enthusiasm was infectious, and my family and some friends came out to cheer us on (actually, laugh at us) and time our attempt. My buddy Geoff also decided to run. We lined up and GPS'ed a 0.25mi course. We acquired a case of the classic, Bud Diesel, like our hero in the video above, set up our cans, and prepared ourselves mentally and physically. Even at 9AM it was crazy hot, and we were sweating before we started. Here's us lined up to go:

Someone counts us down and fired the starting pistol. We grab our first beer and chugged it down. The beer is pretty warm, as it had been sitting out on the driveway while we did all our preparation, and it foams over the top of the can. Not a good sign. Regardless, we all did pretty well on the first lap. We get back, pop the second top and start drinking. The second one is much harder than the first. By this point, Jacob is already in a commanding lead, with Geoff and I roughly neck and neck. The second run felt pretty awful, and as I opened the third beer I announced that this was the worst I had ever felt from any exercise ever. Also that I felt like a giant bubble. I was having trouble burping to get rid of the carbon dioxide in my stomach, and it was not going well. I slogged slowly through the third beer. I thought briefly about giving up, throwing in the towel, but I reminded myself that the list item was complete a beer mile, not attempt a beer mile. Right before I finished my third beer, Jacob crossed the finish line on his final lap, and the support crew announced his time: 10:05. He slowed down and immediate yakked up a bunch of foamy lager.

I took off running while he was still cleansing himself of impurities. I pushed on, barely running with a belly full of foam sloshing around. I hear everyone yelling, and here comes Jacob passing me on what turned out to be his irrelevant penalty lap - you only have to run a penalty if you puke before the race is over. I finish my third lap. I open the fourth beer. I stare at it. I drink some. I feel terrible. I am sweaty, my stomach feels awful, its 9:10 in the morning, the sun is beating down. Geoff is beating me. Somehow, we both finish our beers and take off running, Geoff a few steps ahead. I see him slow and bend over, and he loses it, booting in the middle of the road. I realize I am going to do the same and turn into some bushes.

I puke and it's nothing but foam, two big throatfuls. It all comes out in the second one, and like magic I feel totally fine. This is seriously the highest gain in personal wellbeing I have ever experienced. Plodding ahead, I was completely overwhelmed by how terrible I felt; after my moment in the bushes, I felt... well, maybe not quite 100%, but super good. I take off sprinting, hit the turn, pass Geoff. I am actually running for the first time since the first lap! I cross the line and immediately turn for my penalty lap. I am really running hard, and I finally finish the race! I don't even feel that sick, though I am totally out of breath after sprinting a half mile. My dad jokingly hangs a leftover race medallion from a previous half marathon around my neck. Here's me after the race:

My penalty lap time turned out to be 1:38, which isn't really that bad for the last of five quarter miles. Here are my splits:

Each split includes the preceding beer as well, so beer 1 + lap 1 took me 2:07. As you can see, the third lap (really the third beer) was the most brutal by a wide margin. As a bonus, Geoff was wearing his Fitbit, so we also have all kinds of cool stats from his run. Here's the output:

So there we have it. My first beer mile, and my first item off of the 35-by-35 list. Hilarious, gross, difficult, incredibly painful, and lots of fun. No regrets.

35 By 35: My plan to be awesome in 5 years or less

Posted on 29 October 2014 by Joseph

A couple months back I turned 30. Like it or not, resist it or embrace it, at least from a numerological standpoint it is a serious milestone. About three weeks prior to my birthday, I was talking to my younger sister and she mentioned that she had finished putting together her 30 by 30 list, a list of 30 things she wanted to accomplish by the time she reached my venerable age.

Naturally, I wanted to put together a similar list, but I realized that I would have to accomplish something awesome every day (and two some days) for the rest of the time before my birthday. Rather than pigeonhole myself into 30 pieces of low-hanging fruit, I decided to give myself another 5 years and create a 35 by 35 list. Strangely, it has taken from then until now to complete the list (maybe the list itself should have been on the list? meta.).

Without further ado, by 35 I hope to...

  1. Surf in the Pacific
  2. Live abroad
  3. See the Aurora (either one)
  4. Automate all of my income
  5. Speak basic conversational Spanish
  6. Boulder V8 outdoors
  7. Redpoint 5.13a outdoors
  8. Learn to ride a motorcycle
  9. Cook a whole pig
  10. Read all of Terry Pratchett
  11. Build a beautiful piece of furniture
  12. Finish the LA Times PoMo list
  13. Finish the Time book list
  14. Finish the AFI Top 100
  15. Kill, dress, clean, and eat an animal
  16. Play music for money
  17. Write some songs I really like
  18. Run a sub-20:00 5k
  19. Brew an excellent beer
  20. Complete a beer mile
  21. Learn to serve a tennis ball
  22. Play Chopin op. 48 on the piano (this will be nigh-impossible)
  23. Go to Cuba
  24. Ride in a helicopter
  25. Eat at a 3 Michelin star restaurant
  26. Learn to sail; sail on a long trip
  27. Get a fully tailored suit
  28. Play a full game of Diplomacy in person
  29. Finish the Sight and Sound top 250
  30. Climb a big wall and sleep on a portaledge
  31. Finish a whole NYT Sunday crossword in a single sitting
  32. Start another startup
  33. Close the Heavy Grips 250lb gripper
  34. Be part of a successful startup exit
  35. Go one full calendar month without buying anything

Maybe this post will keep me hungry, who knows. Wish me luck!

Copyright © 2016 Joseph Turner