A Review of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Posted on 09 April 2016 by Joseph

This post is largely inspired by a post by a friend of mine that inspired me to start writing reviews and summaries of (nonfiction) books I read.

I just finished reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. I picked up the book after seeing it mentioned several times on Hacker News and Reddit, the irony of which didn't dawn on me until I had finished the book. The genre of accessible books on results in experimental psychology has been a favorite of mine since reading one of my favorite books, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and this book did not disappoint.

The subject matter of Influence is the "weapons of influence" used by what Cialdini calls compliance professionals - salespeople, politicians, and anyone else who can benefit from manipulating people into compliance. More generally, it explores shortcuts or weaknesses in all of our minds that can be exploited to get us to agree to something without giving it full thought. As evidenced by the testimonials on the dust jacket (also slightly ironic given the results within), the book is very interesting to marketing and sales professionals, but it also has value for anyone looking to make better decisions about pretty much anything that someone might talk you into. I've included my chapter-by-chapter summary below, along with some commentary of my own.

One interesting thing about the results that I didn't find in the book is that, at least in a sales setting, some of the "weapons" apply at different times than others. For example, "social proof" is largely used to influence people near the top of the funnel, while "scarcity" is largely used as a closing tactic. It would be interesting to categorize all the results in this space in that way, and create a taxonomy of the compliance tools from the perspective of different types of persuasion - political campaigns, sales manuals, marketing strategies, religious indoctrination, the techniques of pick-up artists, etc. In other words, flip the layout of the book around and show how the different techniques are used at different layers of the processes. Future work?

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Chapter 1: Weapons of Influence

Many animals exhibit fixed-action patterns, sometimes complex patterns of behavior that are reliably activated by an often simple trigger. Mother turkeys' protective, maternal behavior is triggered by a specific "cheep-cheep" sound produced by their young; however, they can be tricked into acting motherly to a stuffed version of a natural predator with an embedded tape player that makes the same noise.

Humans have a similar response, though the mechanism is more complex and is often learned. In both cases, the behavior triggering is a shortcut of sorts, a usually-correct way to respond to a situation without cognitive load. Much of the time, the shortcut works well, but often it can be exploited or misinformed. Particularly as our daily lives become more information-rich and we are faced with more choices, these shortcuts are crucial to living happy lives. We need tools to help us understand when the shortcuts are engaged and whether we should scrutinize a decision if so. In the animal kingdom, some animals have learned to exploit the automatic response to another species' triggers; likewise, some humans (compliance professionals) exploit our automatic behavior. This is especially powerful because the results of these triggers, these weapons of influence, are usually subtle, changing our actions without our conscious knowledge.

Each of the next six chapters presents one weapon of influence in depth.

Examples and results.

  • People are more likely to grant you a favor if you provide a reason; however, the reason doesn't have to be a good one, and we instead will respond to the word "because" regardless of the reason.
  • People have a shortcut that tells them "expensive = good".
  • The contrast principle states that if we are exposed to two items in sequence, if the second is different from the first our perception will amplify the difference. This can be used to sell by introducing an expensive item before a less expensive one - the second will seem like a deal, or for upsells where a small add-on item seems insignificant in the face of a large purchase.

Chapter 2: Reciprocation

The rule for reciprocation states that we feel obliged to repay anything another person has provided for us in a similar way. This rule is pervasive across human cultures, and the sense of obligation it creates is very hard to resist and is thus very powerful. It can overcome feelings of dislike or unwelcomeness, and it applies in all sorts of different situations.

Another aspect of the power of the rule lies in the fact that anyone can offer us a gift, creating an uninvited but powerful debt the receiver feels obligated to repay. In other words, there is an implied second rule: an obligation to receive; as a result, the power to create the feeling of debt is in the hands of others, making it easy to exploit.

There is another type of asymmetry to the rule as well. There is considerable flexibility in the obligation to return a rule "in a similar way," and this can be exploited by compliance professionals to produce better returns than the gift offered. By asking for something specific while within the time frame of the rule, a calculating individual can get a response that is much more valuable than their own outlay.

Another manifestation of the rule is the obligation to make a concession to someone who has offered one. This, combined with the contrast principle, results in a combined technique - rejection-then-retreat. In this technique, a compliance professional makes a larger request, likely to be denied, in order to set up the smaller target request. The combination of the contrast of the smaller and larger requests along with the obligation to return the concession often results in a "no" becoming a "yes". The smaller request doesn't need to be small for this to be effective. This technique makes it hard to lose - you can either sell the big ticket, or you can retreat and have a high chance of selling the small ticket. Additionally, by giving a concession in response, one will feel more responsible for and happy with an arrangement. This likely has to do with the principle of commitment and consistency in the next chapter.

The best way to protect ourselves from the rule of reciprocation is not to refuse every gift we are given. Instead, we should seek to recognize when a gift is being used as a compliance device. In those situations, we can redefine the gift as what it is - a compliance tactic - and evaluate the rest of the situation as though we would had the gift not been given.

An interesting idea is to combine rejection-then-retreat with further contrast-principle-utilizing upsells. By tacking on extra items, it may be possible to turn the small-ticket item - which the prospect now feels somewhat obligated to accept - into a large ticket sale.

The rule of reciprocation has been theorized as one of the key points in the development of sophisticated human cultures. It produces a kind of trust between individuals, allowing them to establish relationships without fear of loss.

Reciprocation seems like its best used at the crux point of a situation - at the buy decision, basically.

Examples and results.

  • Christmas cards sent to random people often resulted in Christmas cards back, even though the people didn't know the sender.
  • Bringing a random acquaintance a Coke resulted in the acquaintance purchasing more raffle tickets than if they didn't recieve a Coke.
  • Hare Krishnas offer (push, really) a small gift, usually a flower or book before asking for donations.
  • Politician back-scratching creates a sense of obligation for a future favor. Individual and corporate gifts to politications may also attempt to trigger the reciprocity rule.
  • "Free samples" aren't really free - they expose the public to the product, but they can also trigger the reciprocity rule.
  • Rejection-then-retreat A retreat from a denied, significant request often results in the retreat from the "no."
  • Rejection-then-retreat to get the names of friends the salesman can use if a prospect doesn't want to buy.
  • Watergate was (sort of) rejection-then-retreat from an earlier, more harebrained scheme.

Chapter 3: Commitment and Consistency

We feel a very strong desire to be consistent with our past actions. We are often unaware of this desire though, resulting in behavior that is outside what logic would dictate. This slavish consistency with our own actions is triggered by a commitment to a course of action, particularly a commitment we perceive as public. In a way, these commitments alter our own image of ourselves, which is a subtle force in all future actions. This quiet power, combined with the automatic nature of the consistency response, makes commitment and consistency a major tool for compliance professionals, and one that is hard to resist.

Written commitments have particularly strong power over us. In general, the more active a commitment is, the more effort required to make it, and the more public it is, the more powerful it is. In order to really internalize a commitment, we must accept it as our own behavior, which means we can't attribute it to an external force such as a large prize. By internalizing our commitments, we build additional structure to support our decisions, and this can be exploited. By initially providing and withdrawing a good reason to make a decision, compliance professionals can urge us to the decision. The key lies in providing enough time to justify the decision to ourselves for other reasons.

To avoid letting our consistency be exploited, we don't eliminate consistency - it is a valuable tool for eliminating cognitive load. Instead, we have to rely on our intuition. If we feel, deep inside, that we are being foolishly consistent we need to take the time to more carefully evaluate the situation and produce a response based on logic rather than one based on consistency.

Consistency seems like it is best used at the marketing phase, when it is the least obvious and therefore the least easy to avoid. Because its effects penetrate far into the future and result in deep internal changes, an early commitment can result in far-reaching effects. Obviously, it is also applicable later in the cycle, but the effects are easier to ward off.

Examples and results.

  • American POWs during the Korean War were convinced to write anti-American or pro-Communist essays and do all sorts of things based on some sophisticated commitment mechanisms employed by the Chinese.
  • Horse race bettors are more confident in the chance of their horse winning after placing a bet than before.
  • A bystander was much more likely to stop a thief if asked earlier if they would watch the belongings.
  • Toy manufacturers create artificial demand for specific toys around Christmas, then limit availiability until after the holidays. Promises to children result in sales later.
  • Getting people to abstractly commit to charitability on the phone earlier results in much better results if asked to volunteer later.
  • A commitment to driver safety resulted in a large number of people agreeing to put up a billboard in their front lawn.
  • Testimonial contests encourage all who apply to believe in the product they are writing about.
  • Writing down an estimate results in a much stronger commitment to it.
  • Hazing rituals inspire individuals to have very strong commitment to the cause for which they are hazed (effort results in stronger commitment).
  • Children will better internalize lessons that aren't accompanied by a threat (or, presumably, a reward). This may be different for different children.
  • Lowball Offer a car for a low price, then wait a while, the retract the offer. People will build up their own reasons for agreeing to the purchase in the first place.
  • Performing an interview that encourages the person to respond in ways favorable to the overall goal - for example, an attractive woman interviewing men about their social habits in order to sell Zagat's or something - then asking for the sale.

Chapter 4: Social Proof

The principle of social proof states that when we are confused about the best course of action, we take our cue from the actions of those around us. Like many of the other weapons, it serves a valuable purpose but becomes an issue when we respond to it automatically, regardless of other factors, such as whether the social proof is genuine or false. Often, the "social proof" we are actually getting is the result of a group of people all looking for social proof and trying to play it cool. This leads to "pluralistic ignorance," in which a whole group reads the wrong social cue. This is likely the cause of bystander inaction. The two key drivers for social proof are uncertainty, which motivates the examination of social cues in the first place, and similarity, in which we prefer to take our cues from those most similar to ourselves.

In order to best protect ourselves from false social proof is to be sensitive to when the cues we are receiving are incorrect. This can occur because the social data has been made up - such as in the case of a "man on the street" testimonial for a product - or in the case where social proof is being interpreted incorrectly in a recursive way by a growing group - as in the case of bystander inaction.

Examples and results.

  • Canned laugh tracks are attempting to make you laugh via social proof.
  • Bartenders throwing a couple bucks in the tip jar at the beginning of the night.
  • Advertising and marketing techniques claiming things are 'fastest growing' or the like and man-in-the-street interviews and testimonials are meant to engage the principle of social proof.
  • Children who see other children playing with dogs are way less likely to be scared of dogs, even if they see the other children in a video.
  • Pluralistic ignorance When a group of people are all attempting to read social cues but end up reading everyone else playing it cool while they try to read the crowd.
  • Bystander inaction is an example of pluralistic ignorance: everyone is trying to evaluate the situation, but mistakenly reads the others' calmness as indicating that the situation is fine.
  • Three-person groups are less likely to report a likely fire than individuals, particularly if the group contained people instructed to ignore the smoke.
  • Uncertainty triggers the need for social proof: when someone is clearly hurt, people almost always help even if it is dangerous; however if it is unclear that there is an emergency, far fewer people help when there are other people not helping.
  • To get help in a crowd, single someone out, tell them you need help and ideally tell them what help you need.
  • Similarly: school anti-smoking efforts are much more effective if lead by peers.
  • Werther effect Public evidence of a suicide, such as reporting in papers or the news, results in other people committing suicide. The imitation suicides are often committed by people similar to the original victim. This may also be true of homocides.
  • Cult suicides are often rooted in social proof. The People's Temple suicides were thought to be largely a result of Jim Jones moving the cult to Guyana, making the only similar people around the cultists themselves.
  • Claques are groups of opera-goers that are paid to applaud - canned applause for live shows.
  • Traffic jams are sometimes caused by two drivers signalling to get over, which drivers behind interpret as social proof of a lane blockage further up.

Chapter 5: Liking

Unsurprisingly, we are more likely to comply with the requests of people we like. This liking can take the form of friendship or another existing relationship, or it may be as simple as one of a number of factors that cause liking quickly and reliably without the development of a deeper relationship. These factors include physical attractiveness (how good looking is the person?), similarity (in what ways is the person like us?), compliments (how much does the person seem to like us?), contact (how familiar are we with the person or the request?), cooperation (how much help have we given this person?), and conditioning / association (what other things is this person or request like? what are they associated with and how do I feel about those things?).

Compliance professionals leverage our close relationships to gain compliance via association with our friends and family. They also leverage the factors above by making us like them in order to tap into those feelings. In order to resist the automatic effect of these feelings of liking, we need to notice when we are liking someone more than we would expect, or when that liking is being inspired in the context of a compliance request. The stronger the feeling, the more wary we should be. Once we notice the feeling, we must try to distance our liking from the compliance request in order to make the best possible decision.

Examples and results.

  • Tupperware parties and their ilk leverage our friendships to sell products.
  • Halo effects When one positive characteristic of a person or thing dominates the perception of that person or thing.
  • Example of attractiveness: attractive candidates got more than twice as many votes as unattractive ones, but the voters didn't think the appearance of the candidates mattered to them.
  • Attractive criminals receive lighter sentences than ugly ones.
  • Example of similarity: Studies show that we are more likely to help people who dress like us. Another: salespeople find similarities with us in our background or interests.
  • Typically people prefer a photo of themselves that is flipped horizontally because it matches their image of themselves - the one they see in the mirror every morning.
  • In contrast to the contact theory, school desegregations often result in negative race relationships because of the nature of the environment. However, forming cooperative groups in which students of different races work together has promising results (cooperation vs. contact).
  • Good cop / bad cop works on several principles: contrast and liking.
  • Example of association: people often personally dislike the weatherman for delivering bad weather news. Another: (presumably straight) men who see car ads with good looking women thing the car is faster, better looking, and better designed.
  • People perceive things as more favorable while they are eating.
  • Sports fanaticism can be seen as a case of trying to associate onesself with the city or team's success; likewise, sports fans distance themselves from recently unsuccessful teams.

Chapter 6: Authority

We all have a ingrained feeling that we have a duty to authority. This feeling is very powerful, and applies to situations where, as outsiders, we would never think it would, such as inflicting pain to others. Furthermore, this feeling of duty is very robust, and persists even when obedience clearly means doing things we find distasteful. Interestingly, the actual authority is less important than the perceived authority. In other words, we respond to people in doctors coats, not to the MD. Titles, dress, and other trappings of authority (expensive cars, uniforms, etc.) all play into this sense of authority.

Resisting this effect is complicated, as, like many of the weapons of influence, it often happens without us noticing, and we are often unaware of how powerful its force is. Additionally, it often provides the correct information - doctors, lawyers, and the like often have guidance that is better than our own. The trick is to first carefully evaluate when we are dealing with real authority. If the authority is false, we can react accordingly. If it is real, we need to evaluate how likely it is that the authority is dealing with us truthfully. We can use other information and our own intuition to make this evaluation.

Examples and results.

  • Milgrim experiments Under a wide variety of conditions, people were willing to inflict pain on other people when prompted by an authority figure.
  • Brian Wilson laid on railroad tracks to protest shipment of weapons to Nicaragua; the soldiers running the train ran over him.
  • Trained nurses will often follow the directions of a doctor, even if it's on the phone and the request flies in the face of their training.
  • Sanka advertisements use an actor who portrayed a doctor to extol the benefits of decaf coffee.
  • This that are important are perceived as being larger; the reverse also holds true.
  • People on the street are more likely to comply with an odd request if the requester is dressed in a guard uniform.
  • People are less likely to honk at bad drivers in nice cars.

Chapter 7: Scarcity

The perceived value of an opportunity is inversely proportional to its availability. In general, loss is more motivating than gain; for each person, the multiple is different, resulting in a spectrum of risk-oriented behavior. Both first-order (how rare is X?) and second-order (is X becoming rarer?) scarcity affects our perception. Compliance professionals can artificially limit availability or create the perception of limited availability to gain our compliance. Alternatively, they can create deadlines for an opportunity in order to take advantage of our scarcity response.

The theory of psychological reactance posits that the loss (or impending loss) of our freedoms increases our desire for those freedoms and associated goods and services. This may be the source of the "terrible twos" in which toddlers can't seem to be satisfied: any change in their state results in some perceived loss of freedom. This also may be the cause of hoarding in response to limits imposed on ownership of an object (e.g., incandescent bulbs fairly recently). This type of hoarding also extends to censorship - the limiting of free access to information - and to judges' instructions to disregard certain evidence presented. The combination of this information scarcity with opportunity scarcity is a powerful compliance tactic: let the mark know that the information about the scarcity of the opportunity is itself limited, insider information.

Evidence suggests that combined first- and second-order scarcity produces a stronger response than either alone. Specifically, things that are newly scarce are perceived as being more desirable than things that have been scarce for some time. Another condition that heightens a feeling of scarcity is when the scarcity is caused by an observable demand. In other words, when we see the demand that is causing the scarcity, we desire the opportunity more.

To escape our scarcity response, we must first identify the increase of desire caused by scarcity. When we find ourselves in that situation, we need to consciously distance ourselves from the desire to possess the item and evaluate the intrinsic value of the item instead.

Because of the short-term effects of scarcity, it seems like it is most applicable in the 'close' phase of a transaction, after the initial interest but while the item is still being evaluated.

Examples and results.

  • The desire to answer a phone call when someone is physically with you is the scarcity principle at work.
  • Collectibles are often valued on their scarcity; arguably the whole joy of collection is in possessing scarce items.
  • "Limited number" and "limited time offer" are both compliance tactics utilizing scarcity.
  • Psychological reactance We react to the loss of behavioral freedoms by desiring to perform the limited behaviors.
  • Toddlers prefer toys that are blocked by an obstacle.
  • Romeo and Juliet is an example of scarcity in effect - the parental direction to end their affair strengthened their desire for it.
  • After limiting a certain kind of detergent in Florida, residents hoarded it. Additionally, they rated it as better than other detergents.
  • Hearing that a speech proposing a certain topic would be banned, more students supported the topic itself.
  • Young people seeing an age-restricted book desired it more and thought they would like it more than the non-age-restricted version.
  • A UChicago Law School study found that jurors awarded more to a woman injured by a careless driving defendant if the defendant had insurance - and yet more if they were told to disregard that he had insurance.
  • A study had participants rate cookies under several conditions; scarcer conditions produced better ratings in this order (least to best average rating):
    • Ten cookies in the jar
    • Two cookies in the jar
    • Ten cookies in the jar, but then eight were removed in front of the participant, saying the experimenter had made a mistake
    • Ten cookies in the jar, but then eight were removed in front of the participant, saying that the other participants needed them
  • Riots often result from degrading conditions, not necessarily bad ones - race riots, Gorbachev's coup, etc.
  • Bringing in a second buyer - real or not - often motivates the sale of a scarce resource (homes, appliances, cars, etc.)

Epilogue: Instant Influence

A common theme in all the weapons of influence is that we often make decisions based on a very limited subset of the information we have. Unfortunately, our modern lives all but require us to do this to function at a normal level. All signs indicate that this frantic pace is increasing rather than decreasing, which means we need to be ever more reliant on these shortcuts. Unfortunately, these shortcuts can be exploited by people playing outside of the rules of safe evaluation. In this case, we should actively counter-attack: don't buy products leveraging these weapons in an unfair way; boycott television that uses canned laughter; don't vote for politicians that exploit us. We need our shortcuts to survive, and we need to out and ultimately stop those who would exploit them.

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.

Copyright © 2018 Joseph Turner