Real-Time Search

This morning, while staring at the day-job workload waiting for me in the form of GitHub tickets, I started thinking about a problem on 10Centuries that I have long wanted to solve. It's a topic that has come up again and again over the years, and I think it's almost "solved". The problem of course, is search.

Search on a website is theoretically pretty simple. People enter some words in a field, those words are checked against the content in the database, and results are returned. In its simplest form, only the exact search term is sought. This means that if I were to ask for all posts containing the words bright and yellow, I would see only this result as there is an exact match for "bright yellow". But if I were to ask for yellow and bright, nothing would come back. This is clearly suboptimal, so it's better to have all of the words split apart, with results that include all posts with the words bright or yellow, ideally scoring the posts in such a way that the above-referenced post is at the top of the list. A lot of effective software uses this weighted search result method to return relevant results, but I wanted to do something different still.

I wanted people to see something instantaneously.

The New Search Box

One of the tricky parts of instantaneous results is dealing with network latency, server load, and all sorts of less-than-desirable problems that can make a theoretically semi-decent idea practically untenable. More than this is the general response times of the service. Most people can type several characters per second. Sending multiple calls to the API just for the illusion of supplying decent results in realtime seems silly. So I decided to go about solving the problem a little differently: a subset of every post is loaded into memory and called when requested.

This blog post is number 2,428 in publication order — so long as I haven't back-dated anything since this post went live — and the average size of each post is roughly 618 words. That's 1.5-million words. A crazy number one might say, but then I have been blogging for almost a decade. 150,000 words a year is nothing compared to the number of words that have been published on various social networks, forums, and IRC channels over the years. Loading all of these words into a browser would be absolute overkill so, instead, I am loading just a subset of the words that constitute a post. As people type their search query into the box, the browser scans through the data stored in memory, finds matches, scores them, and then updates the results. People with relatively recent hardware will see that the operations are pretty much smooth and responsive. People with hardware as old as this blog ... will unfortunately suffer some stuttering. People searching other 10C-powered sites will likely not notice a hiccup at all.

The browser is working with a subset of the posts, though. What's not included? The content.

For the moment, search will pull from titles, URLs, tags, and author names. Future updates will include the content of the pages and posts. Yet before it can happen, two things must first take place.

  1. I need to see that people are able to use the search in any browser on any platform. This is still in testing.
  2. I need to create a cached result for every post that contains just a single copy of every word in the article, excluding certain common words in various languages.

Once these two things are done, then I can build on the existing search tool in order to provide much better, more specific results.

In the meantime, people using the default blog theme on 10Centuries will see an "Archives" link in their navigation bar. Every post will be listed in reverse chronological order, and the search bar up top can be used to quickly find published items. If you don't see this link, it's because the cache for your site has not been refreshed. Simply write a new post (or update an existing one) to force the system to regenerate your website.

This isn't a perfect solution by any stretch of the imagination, but it solves a number of problems that I've been thinking about for quite some time, and it does it in the browser rather than taxing my own servers with Google-like search speeds. Hopefully this same search method will be employed in every theme going forward.

Abundance

Last week I was having a rather heated discussion with a pair of software developers who enjoy working on really big projects. Big, in this case, does not necessarily mean that the programs they make are feature-packed management systems that cater to everybody, but instead software that builds on the work of hundreds or thousands of people around the world. This is the antithesis of how I write software, and often a bone of contention. My software tends to lean heavily towards a minimalistic approach. So much so that I will often write close to 95% of the code that makes the tool work. Many developers see this as a glorious waste of time and make extensive use of frameworks and libraries of code that are available online. By plugging these various elements together, they can often have the core of an application built in a weekend or less. For the developers I was debating with last week, they built a scheduling application in a week. I had done the same but needed two weekends. Their web application weighs in at 4,291 kilobytes in total. Mine is 312 kilobytes. They both accomplish the same top-level goal, but only mine is able to work on browsers from 2007 and smart phones. Which one is "better"? Does it even matter anymore?

A lot of software developers I've spoken to over the last few years tend to lean heavily towards speed of development over speed of execution or efficiency. When their projects become computationally intensive, the most common response is to "throw more power at it" rather than asking themselves how to make the most of the hardware people actually have. Given the incredible surplus of computing infrastructure we have around the world, this attitude certainly follows the same pattern we see with other commodities when presented with a seemingly limitless surplus: use as much as you can get and to heck with the consequences.

We can see time and again how people's perception of resources have changed when presented with an oversupply. An abundance of electrical power, food, clean water, education, telecommunications networks, fossil fuels, and human labour has made it possible for us to create the world we have around us, and we waste a large percentage of these resources without a second thought. It's really no surprise that people are treating processing power the very same way. My perceptions of how we should use this resource are on the fringe, much like the ideologies of people who do their best to live green or completely off the grid.

The unbridled use of software has pushed hardware to where it is today and some pretty amazing things have become possible as a result. Entire worlds of visual splendor and imagination can be rendered in real time to act as a background in video games and big-budget movies. Complex problems involving weather prediction can run again and again, allowing agencies to notify communities that might be affected by exceptionally strong storms. Our words can be transcribed as text despite heavy accents and other verbal aberrations. Heck, in the next 25 years we're expecting that the confluence of better hardware and software will put untold millions of people out of work as unskilled manual labour jobs are replaced by incredibly dexterous robots and 3D printing. It's been said for decades, but we really are on the cusp of becoming a post-scarcity world, where just about anything we want can be provided relatively cheaply, when and how we want it. More than this, there is already a great deal of work being done to create software that writes itself. In the next few years it may become commonplace for anybody to pick up their cell phone and ask its digital assistant to create a program that will solve a specific need.

Computer, create a program for the robotic mower to cut a fractal pattern into the lawn and send the drone up to take a time lapse of the work. Oh, and post the completed timelapse to YouTube with some catchy music when it's done.

It's just a matter of time before this sort of situation is commonplace and people begin exploring a whole new set of boundaries for software development for the hardware they have, and I believe this will also be the point at which many people stop being willfully ignorant of technology and hop in to shift some paradigms. The code will likely be inefficient as heck and require a lot more processing power or memory than a custom-crafted solution but, at the end of the day, it won't matter anymore.

When the barriers to entry are stripped away, people are capable of some pretty amazing things ...

... and I'll be out of a job, if I'm still working as a software developer when we reach this point.

What comes after this is anyone's guess, though I do hope that we -- as a species -- see little point in continuing the chrade of working 40 hours a week to support a family or desired standard of living. Unemployment rates will undoubtedly grow around the world as more specialised machines begin making products on-demand, reducing a great deal of waste and human error. Warehouses full of finished products will be less necessary, as will shopping malls consisting of big-box retailers.

We'll still need people of various professions, but the days of the unskilled worker are numbered. Part time jobs may pop up every now and again, but they won't be as common as they are today. This is going to very quickly lead to an interesting problem: an abundance of time.

History shows that societies dramatically change with the introduction of abundance, and new forms of art and entertainment become possible as a direct result of that abundance. What might we do with ourselves if presented with a 4-day work week? How about a two-day work week?

This is a topic for a future blog post.

To DDP Or Not To DDP

Last year I took part in the Dog Days of Podcasting challenge, making 35 episodes for the run and having some good fun in the process. After the final episode was published, I compiled all of the show scripts, notes, and audio files into a digital book that was — for a short time — available in Apple's various stores. I learned a lot of things in the process, and was introduced to a number of other podcasters who have since become regular voices in my ears while commuting to and from work. As the start of this year's run comes around, I'm wondering if it makes sense to participate given how little free time I have during the day.

For the 2015 run of episodes, I was working irregular hours with large gaps in my day where it was possible to record, edit, and publish in tiny increments. Now that I'm no longer (teaching) in the classroom, my available free time has all but dried up. Each of the 35 episodes last year required roughly four hours of work. That's four hours each and every day, with the majority of the time going towards research. I just can't afford to set aside that much of my day right now.

But there are options.

I've been toying with two ideas for the last few weeks and have even recorded a few episodes of each theme. The question I have is whether I can make 35 of them for a daily publication schedule.

The first idea is one that focuses on the sounds around Japan. More specifically, the machines that speak to us and how loudly they speak to us. Some existing episodes include announcements from the Shinkansen, invitations from vending machines, warnings from trucks turning at red lights, and the like. You really have to live here to see just how excessive it can be. Every episode is exactly 180 seconds long, making it short enough that people could quickly listen and move on.

The second idea is a play on that phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words". Essentially it's a show where I use exactly one thousand words to describe a photo that I've taken that day. The podcast will not include the photo, but instead a link to an image. The premise is simple: let me describe a photo while you imagine what it looks like, then you can see the actual photo to check how accurate my description was.

It's sort of like a silly game, and one that people might enjoy playing along with. This second idea is one that I could probably do indefinitely as it involves describing something that I will have a lot of context for to people who have probably never been to this little corner of the planet.

Which one would you rather listen to? Are either of these program ideas interesting enough to maintain a following for 35 days? Let me know on 10Centuries. If you don't have an account, just get in touch via the contact form. I'd be happy to extend some more invitations.

Subconscious

Last night I experienced a very vivid dream contemplating an idea that has been mostly absent from my mind over the last six months. The dream was so vivid that I can say exactly where I was on a map even though I've never actually been to that location in person. It was about 20km south of where I work and next to the ever-powerful Kiso River.

I Was Here

I had with me a bottle of NyQuil and a litre of Yebisu Premium Malts, a dangerous combination. I consumed both items, sat on the side of the water for 15 minutes while enjoying the sun on my skin, then started swimming across the river until I went under ... and then I woke up.

Dreams like this are nothing new, and I can still vividly recall the very first time these sorts of thoughts entered into a dream. I was 8 years old, walking through Redhill Creek near the apartment where my father and I lived. I remember the fresh smell of the trees, the odour of the greenish water, and the sound of the insects that thrived in the narrow patch of nature. Then there was that one place where, if you weren't paying attention, you could jump right into the lazy creek and crack your head open on the jagged rocks just a few centimetres under the the water.

I Was Here, Too

I remember jumping ... and waking up. When I woke up I fell into my bed, as though I had been floating a little off the mattress. In reality, I had probably just lifted myself with my elbows and fallen because my muscles relaxed.

Every so often these dreams take shape in my head, and every time my dream self decides to go through with the act of self-cannon as though it were the most natural decision in the world. But why? Do other people have dreams like this but keep them secret? For 30 years — nearly three quarters of my life — dreams like this have played themselves out in my head. When I've told some people about these the resulting comment has always been the ever-preachy: "You need help".

Is it really such a bad thing to dream of one's demise when it comes by their own volition? Would this not be preferable to dreaming of being in a plane crash or in a space craft that is incinerated while journeying through the upper atmosphere? I'd rather be in control of my final moments than simply a passenger with nothing to do but play witness. But maybe this is what bothers people the most.

These sorts of dreams tend to happen more often when I have no idea what my future has in store, or when I'm under an excessive amount of stress. Right now the latter is more accurate as deadlines fast approach at work and various parties are dragging their feet or otherwise refusing to respond to emails and requests for information. The recent diet isn't helping matters, either. I tend to run low on energy several times a day as the body tries to adapt to a lack of sugar and it's not having a very positive effect on my general outlook.

I have no plans on actually re-enacting any of the fatal activities from these dreams, but I do wonder why it's a recurring theme. Surely there are better ways for the subconscious to share its messages than building a world with such clarity and realism that waking up comes as a shock ... or maybe that's exactly why the subconscious does it.

Feeling Blasé

Like billions of people around the world, I work really hard to accomplish the various goals and requirements that accumulate over time. Last week I managed to put in 68 hours for the day job, 21 hours for 10Centuries, 7 hours for podcasting, and who-knows-how-many hours for family or Nozomi¹. According to SleepCycle, an application I've used for over 1300 nights to track my sleeping habits, I've had 47 hours of sleep in the last week. All in all this is pretty standard, but I wonder if perhaps this is too much. Once again I find myself struggling to get motivated before lunchtime and, once again, that inner voice that tries so hard to dissuade me from doing anything is getting louder.

Train Tracks Approaching a Close Horizon

Sometimes when I'm struggling to get motivated I wonder what it is in my head that insists on being negative when there is just so much to be happy about. Family life is getting better. Nozomi is as awesome as ever. 10Centuries continues to see refinements and improvements that really make it shine as a testament to what years of careful study and attention can accomplish². There might be a house purchase in the near future, and I'm starting to feel more comfortable living in Japan as elements of the environment have gone from intriguing to annoying to tolerable to barely-noticable background noise³. Why do I continue to look at sets of train tracks or paths into forests and ask myself where they go?

Is it just a lack of quality sleep? Is it something more? I have no idea, but I'd love to figure it out. It makes no sense to feel blasé or otherwise uninterested in work when there's so much good going on.

--

  1. I don't really pay attention to how much time I spend with the puppy, because it's better when there's no perceived start and end.
  2. Never mind the bugs. They won't be around for long, anyhow.
  3. More on this in a future podcasting series ... assuming I can collate enough audio to take part in Dog Days of Podcasting 2016.

Starting The "No, Thank You" Diet

Over the last couple of months my weight has been pretty stable at around 89kg. At some point in the last week, though, I've gone over the 90kg mark. This is despite my attempts to reduce the amount of sugar I eat and the elimination of soda from my lifestyle. What gives? Why can I not drop the weight and keep it off?

Well, today I start my new diet. One that I'll call the "No, Thank You" diet as it basically means abstaining from anything outside of regular eating hours. Breakfast is typically had around 7:30 in the morning, and dinner is between 8:00 and 8:30 at night. Lunch I'll need to set at 1:00pm to act as a balance between the two, and there will be absolutely no snacking in-between. More than this, only the breakfast coffee will have milk in it. Every cup thereafter will be black, to reduce even further the amount of sugar and fat that I put into my body.

Hopefully by doing this along with some simple exercises, I'll be able to get back down to 75kg come February 1. Unfortunately the difficulty doesn't really lie in losing the weight insomuch as keeping it off. I've lost lots of weight numerous times, but I've always rebounded right back. I need to drop it and keep it off going forward ...

The Rise of ED-209?

On July 7th Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old Army veteran, decided to target and kill police officers in the city of Dallas. A dozen officers were hit, five have died as a result. This was not a last-minute decision to walk into a crowded area with a weapon to cause damage. It was a planned attack that took into account how the police would move and the resources they had available. In the end, the Dallas police opted to use a bomb-disposal robot to deliver an explosive payload to eliminate the attacker. This was the first time the police in the US used a robot to kill a citizen, and I wonder if it will set a precedent.

In the very fictional world of Robocop, Omni Consumer Products created a walking and talking machine that would be put on the front lines in the battle against crime syndicates and their well-armed foot soldiers. Given the level of access the bad guys had to powerful weaponry, and given the level of desperation cities had to keep the people safe, it seemed only logical that the tools of war should be adapted to work on home soil as well. It was preferable if a pair of ED-209s were destroyed during a raid than members of the force. Machines could be replaced, after all.

In a bid to save lives during dangerous situations, does it make sense to send in the machines?

ED-209

With walking, talking, remote-controlled devices, it becomes possible to directly confront snipers and other dangerous individuals. As the machines would (potentially) be less affected by a barrage of bullets, it becomes possible to arm the robots with stun guns and other non-lethal devices to incapacitate suspects. Once unconscious, people could move in to arrest the appropriate people and recover any hostages.

A pie-in-the-sky, incredibly optimistic proposition if there ever was one. A real world situation would not be as simple as this.

Surrogates Movie Poster

In a more recent movie, we saw something very similar to this. Surrogates — the Bruce Willis movie — posited an interesting idea. Humans would rarely venture out into the world themselves. Instead, "perfect" machines would be sent out and people would control them via virtual reality rigs in their home. In addition to wealthier citizens having this freedom, police and military personnel also made use of this technology. In one telling scene, a military soldier is hit while battling on the field in what looks like a Middle Eastern nation. We then learn that it's being remotely controlled by someone in a military bunker who then connects to a different robot and returns to the field. Military personnel are no longer in danger when deployed to war zones.

While this raises a lot of questions about the morality of war when one side literally has an endless army of immortals with billions of bullets at their disposal, it also makes it possible to have a police force that is armed with less-lethal weapons when entering into dangerous situations. These machines could even ride in the trunks of cruisers and be deployed on an as-needed basis when a situation is too dangerous for humans.

The technology to make this happen is very close. Bipedal machines roughly the size of an adult have been under development in laboratories since the 90s, and we've seen some incredible progress in balancing mechanisms and the requisite software since 2010. It really is just a matter of time before machines like this become part of military and civilian defence systems.

Will the recent events in Dallas merely accelerate the development and deployment of these sorts of tools? Will they be deployed in a non-lethal fashion?

The answer is probably along the lines of Maybe and No.

A Lackadaisical Stress Test

The effects of stress in a person's life can affect them in profound ways, propelling them to incredible heights or sinking them deep into the depths of despair. People have generally had different ways of approaching the problem of too much negative tension in their lives with vices such as drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Some lean on gambling. Others — like me — resort to food in a bid to quickly bring order back to the world despite the collapsing walls all around us. Unfortunately, since the economic collapse in the 90s, there have been roughly 80 suicides a day as the various stressors that can affect us wear a person down to believe this is the only way to end the pain.

Suicide Deaths per 100,000 People — Trends

When a country has the equivalent of a small city removing themselves from existence each and every year, governments tend to step in to try and mitigate the problem. Japan decided the best way to approach the matter was through a voluntary stress check questionnaire consisting of 57 questions that people rate on a scale of 1 to 4. While this has been available to all full-time workers in the country for just over a decade, today marks the first time I've been offered a chance to participate. After looking at the questions, though, I'm wondering whether it would be more beneficial for my employer and my family to simply lie rather than be honest. The reasoning is quite simple: if I were to answer these generic questions truthfully, psychologists would think I was either mentally unstable or my employer was staffed with managers with no concept of time or human decency.

While elements of these statements may be accurate, my subjective perception of this life is full of greys and blues. To prove the point, here are some actual questions from the form and how I would answer them:

For the "Questions Concerning Your Job" section, scores range from (1) being Very Much So to (4) Not At All.

  1. I have an extremely large amount of work to do(1) Very Much So

I'm the sole developer on a large project with lots of smart people, big ideas, and tight deadlines. Of course I have an extremely large amount of work to to. But here's a question I want to ask right back: what's the definition of "extremely large"? More than I can do alone? More than I can do 8 days a week? This subjective term skews the validity of the score.

  1. I have to work as hard as I can.(1) Very Much So
  2. I have to pay very careful attention(1) Very Much So
  3. My job is difficult in that it requires a high level of knowledge and technical skill(1) Very Much So
  4. I need to be constantly thinking about work throughout the working day(1) Very Much So
  5. There are differences of opinion within my department(1) Very Much So

I'm a software developer with a huge ego and am heavily invested in this project. Yes, I have to work hard, pay careful attention, think non-stop, and argue. My job is incredibly difficult because — if you've ever had to use educational software, you'll agree — software that's used in schools sucks. From tools targeted at elementary schools all the way up to universities, I've yet to come across software that actually looks like it was designed for the student or the teacher in mind. I'm taking 20+ years of programming experience and a decade of teaching experience and mashing them up in order to deliver tools that can be used by my peers to deliver better lessons. The stakes are high. Mistakes can result in lost revenue. Yes, this causes stress.

But there's a flip side to all this.

  1. I can work at my own pace(1) Very Much So
  2. I can choose how and in what order to do my work(1) Very Much So
  3. I can reflect my opinions on workplace policy(1) Very Much So
  4. This job suits me well(1) Very Much So
  5. My job is worth doing(1) Very Much So

I'm writing this blog post at the office during work hours on my personal notebook that is connected to the corporate network while listening to Smashing Pumpkins on headphones. Beside me is a company-supplied computer that I upgraded and installed a different operating system on. I'm surrounded by papers outlining complex data paths, transformations, RESTful endpoints, and scribbled equations to convert data from a legacy system to something I hope will bring my colleagues a great deal of efficiency. When I disagree with a corporate policy, I kick and scream like you wouldn't believe, exposing the asininity of a rule or methodology in order to overturn it or — in some cases — have it refined so that people can actually get work done.

This job suits me well because I'm an opinionated jerk with delusions of leaving a mark on society. This job is worth doing because I feel it's worth doing. "Genius programmers" around the world have had decades to to something for education and we're given crap after crap. Now it's my turn to make something less crappy.

Questions that are "concerning [...] health during the past month" are scored from (1) Almost Never to (4) Almost Always.

  1. I have been very active(3) Often
  2. I have been full of energy(3) Often
  3. I have felt angry(3) Often
  4. I have been inwardly annoyed or aggravated(3) Often
  5. I have felt irritable(2) Sometimes
  6. I have felt tense(3) Often
  7. I have felt extremely tired(3) Often
  8. I have felt exhausted(3) Often
  9. I have been unable to concentrate(2) Sometimes

Some of these questions sound to be asking the exact same thing. I'm mentally active all the time and full of energy up until 8:30pm. Yes, I'm irritable and angry from time to time because I'm opinionated and the world isn't working the way I expect. That's my cross to bear, though. Extremely tired? I'm working on personal projects outside of work, too. Exhausted? Every night. If I have any energy, I get work done. Unable to concentrate? Every 3 weeks or so I need two days to recharge. This usually happens on a Sunday and Monday.

These questions taken out of context would look horrible ...

Then there are more specific health questions, to which every answer is (2) Sometimes ... which can be anywhere from 1% of the time to 50% of the time I guess.

  1. I have felt dizzy ⇢ this could be stress related or noise related given my ears
  2. I have experienced joint pains ⇢ I'm almost 40 ...
  3. I have experienced headaches ⇢ five to six days a week since I was 18, yes
  4. I have had eyestrain ⇢ when looking at the work-provided computer for more than 4 hours, yes
  5. I have experienced heart palpitations or shortness of breath ⇢ heart struggles from time to time, but my breathing while conscious is good
  6. I have experienced stomach / intestine problems ⇢ cold drink on a hot day means I need a bathroom stat ... does this count?
  7. I have lost my appetite ⇢ after cleaning up some of Nozomi's messes at home, yes
  8. I haven't been able to sleep well ⇢ it's summer in Asia. Nobody sleeps well ...

In the next section there are questions about how freely I can communicate with superiors, co-workers, family, and friends ... but these don't really translate well. There are some things I cannot say to superiors. There are some things I cannot say to family. There are some things I cannot say to friends. I don't think this is a stress issue so much as it is social expectations and argument mitigation.

Then finally ...

  1. I am satisfied with my job(2) Somewhat Satisfied
  2. I am satisfied with my family life(2) Somewhat Satisfied

and ...

  1. How many hours of overtime have you worked this month? ⇢ Today's the 13th day of the pay period, so ... 32 hours.

Looking at these numbers, one would probably think that I'm some sort of overworked lunatic that is just two straws away from a broken back, but this couldn't be further from the truth. I'm just a person with a really big, really worthwhile project in front of him during the day, and an incredibly big, incredibly worthwhile project coming to fruition at home. After nearly a decade of essentially treading water, I am finally getting to do the creative things I came to Japan to accomplish ... all at once.

It's only natural for a person to feel overwhelmed when everything they've sought arrives in one fell swoop. Stress? Yeah, there's a bit of that. Uncertainty and nervousness, too. But this is part of the fun. So I'm going to lie on the stress checkup. Everything's good.

Everything's good :)

Galapagos

Over the last few months, since making the switch to Ubuntu full-time, I've found myself using more and more of my own software. While this is a great way to dog-food the stuff that I eventually foist onto the world, is this sort of software myopia a good thing or am I setting myself up for failure in the future like many Japanese technology firms did by ignoring the rising smartphone market until it was too late?

Generations of Change

Late last week I was having a conversation with someone who says that his two children are part of a "transitional generation", where people are still moving from a mostly analog to digital lifestyle. He figured that in another 30 years, people won't use paper books anymore and just about everything will be electronic in some form. The second statement is certainly plausible, but the first was one that struck me as incredibly short-sighted.

A little over two centuries ago in Britain, manufacturing went from being done in people's homes with hand tools to being done in factories with crude, powered, special-purpose machinery. Mass production became possible and (slowly) the quality of life got better. The amount of change that happened from the start of the 18th century to the end was more than had occurred in the thousand years prior. In the 19th century this trend continued. Our technology got better. Our ambitions became grander. Our ancestors crudely created more of the tools they needed to accomplish their goals. Just about everybody learned to read and families started to own books. The amount of change that happened in the 19th century was more than had occurred in the two thousand years prior, and we were still just getting started.

Hartmann Maschinenhalle, 1868

Enter the 20th century, with its massive military campaigns, nascent telecommunications networks, and better understanding of the sciences that allowed our tools to become better, faster, safer, and stronger. The average home in the first decade of the 1900s may have had rudimentary plumbing, but electricity and a telephone line was only for the wealthier members of society. Many people had a radio. A few people had cars. Fewer still had ever flown. Most had barely travelled farther than 50km from their place of birth. The world was still very much a big, unknown place.

By the middle of the 20th century our homes had completely changed. The vast majority of people in North America had electricity, efficient plumbing, a car, a telephone, a TV, a washing machine and maybe even a dryer. A lot of people earned more and had easier access to money. Not everyone, of course, but a lot. Just about everyone had access to some form of education, and universities were starting to see some record numbers of enrolments. Women could vote and society was becoming better educated, better travelled, and better equipped. More technological progress had been made during the first 50 years of the 20th century than the rest of human history combined.

In the 1970s and 80s computers started to expand out from being semi-trailer-sized behemoths requiring punch cards and pocket protectors to something that people could build with parts from many electronics shops, and people did. Along the way families continued to upgrade their homes with air conditioners, colour TVs, cordless phones, microwave ovens, and — for a lucky few — video game consoles. International travel became more commonplace, and it was not unheard of for a family to vacation half-a-world away.

People born at the start of the 20th century had seen the average family go from consisting of hard-working, home-schooled people of little means to essentially living like kings.

In the 1990s the Internet started to catch on. Cell phones went from being ridiculously expensive objects the size and weight of a brick to something people might actually want to carry around with them. Our telecommunications networks were evermore intertwined and connected, allowing just about anybody with a network connection the ability to send a letter anywhere on the planet within seconds for such an inconsequential amount of money that spam became a logical business model.

The last 25 years of the 20th century saw a lot of advancements, a lot of miniaturization, and a lot of seemingly impossible change. But it introduced something else, too. Something that so many of us take for granted that it's almost comical: the rise of "free". But that's a topic for another blog post.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, what one generation considers new and amazing is expected as standard by the next. So much change occurs with every generation that every generation since the middle of the 18th century can be considered a "transitional generation", and there's no chance of this slowing down or stopping anytime soon. We're still just scratching the surface of what modern computing can do. Who knows what we can accomplish in the next ten years let alone 25.

Maybe paper really will disappear in another couple of decades. That's for communities and societies to decide. When it does go away, paper will be looked back on like people today look at outhouses, lead-based paint, and mercury-filled thermometers; less-than-ideal, but perfectly usable when there are no other options available.

Every generation will create amazing things that people around the world will love to use, but there's nothing particularly special about one generation from the last anymore. We're all in a state of transition. Whether it's the rapid transition from analog to digital tools, or the sluggish movements from patriarchal to egalitarian societies, we will all bear witness to great change. It's our responsibility as members of changing societies to ensure what we're building is better than what we've had in the past, and impress upon the next generation the ideas and ideals that deserve to carry on.

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