The Daily Paragraph

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter function

I’ve been writing a bit of code again lately.

And given the amount of time I’ve spent on it, it feels like I should have written a lot of code. I mean, I’ve been staring at this screen for days on end, alternating between trying to understand the problem for about 4 hours, then trying to solve the problem for another 4 hours, before realizing that I didn’t really understand the problem in the first place. And the cycle continues.

But yesterday, I finally solved the problem… and I’ve got nothing to show for it but a measly 200 lines of code. There’s no user interface or anything!

Still, that 200 lines has taken weeks. And during that time, when somebody has asked me “what are you up to?”, my response has been “coding”. To which their inevitable reply has been “Oh! So what are you building?”

Well, truth be told, I didn’t quite know what I was building at first. And now that I’ve built it… I still find it hard to explain.

If you asked me to be specific though, I’d tell you that I’ve built a way to reliably take all the information that an app knows about the environment it’s running in – including the URL that the browser is displaying, any cryptographic signature authenticating the app’s user, the matter of whether the app’s code has fully downloaded yet, and it’s model of any relevant data stored on the company’s servers – I’ve built a way to take all of that information and turn it into a “recipe” for rendering the screen that you’ll be looking at.

Of course, every app on the internet already does something like this.

In fact, many apps go one step further, and prepare recipes for scenarios that they predict may happen in the near future. I’ve built a way to do that too, but again, it’s old news.

So the question is, how did I manage to spend multiple weekends coding something that already exists?

Actually, I think the answer is that I didn’t spend the last few weekends coding. Or at least, I didn’t spend them building. Instead, I spent them searching for a way to take a problem that’s usually solved with thousands of lines of hard-to-maintain code, and then turning it into a problem that’s described by a single mathematically-precise function.

And now that I’ve got the world’s greatest function that nobody ever asked for, I’ll get back to trying to build something useful – content in the knowledge that whatever I build, it’ll now load that few milliseconds faster!

So for this past week, I’ve actually managed studied Japanese for at least half an hour, each and every day. In fact, I’ve probably been averaging more like an hour a day.

Or at least, I’ve been averaging an hour doing things that I label “study”.

In particular, I’ve been using a couple of apps to work through Japanese grammar and kanji. Although honestly, despite these apps taking a fair chunk of my time, I’m not sure how much I’m really learning.

If an app forces me to review kanji that I already know for hours on end, is that really study? If an app marks an answer wrong without being able to explain why, have I really learned anything other than that I should doubt the app’s answers?

This has always been the problem I’ve faced with Japanese language study. Whenever I give it a try, I’ll start to think “there has to be a better way to do this”. And then I’ll start spending time building my better app. And then I’ll stop spending time studying.

So I’m proud to say that this time, I’m still studying with the less-than-perfect apps. But I won’t promise that I won’t start building my own Japanese language study app anyway. Because I can promise that I can make a way better one… or at least I could, if I just stopped spending time on anything else.

So if you’ve been following along here, you probably know that there’s a whole lot I’d like to do with this website. But there’s also a whole lot of stuff I need to do outside of this website, and unfortunately, I’ve realized that some of it is going to have to take priority.

In particular, it turns out that completing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in the next year or so is going to make my life significantly easier with regards to visas, housing, and life in general. But preparing for that test is probably going to take me on the order of 2 - 3 hours a day, i.e. most of my free time.

Improving my language skill is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, so in a way, I’m actually happy about having an excuse to finally get back into it. But it does mean that development on The Daily Paragraph will probably grind to a halt, at least for a while.

I plan to keep writing here anyway, but… it might end up just being a daily study log. We’ll see, I guess.

Phones

Phones are incredible. I think one day, we’ll probably call this the “Phone Age”. I mean, think about it. They basically turn us into superhumans, letting us:

  • Tell the date and time, and get accurate reminders reminders.

  • Look up the meaning of words in thousands of languages, or entries in a public global encyclopedia. Or even get instant translations of entire texts.

  • Read most any book that’s ever been written.

  • Watch lectures, and participate in conversations.

  • Pay for things – both from online and physical stores. They’ll even let you tag on to public transit.

  • Light up a dark room.

  • Take photos and make films.

  • Order food or a taxi.

  • Find out where you are, right down to the latitude and longitude.

  • And then casually ask an artificial intelligence for directions to somewhere halfway across the world. Or for all sorts of other advice.

  • Get early warnings for a tsunami or earthquake.

  • Write and publish blogs – just like this one.

Phones are amazing, right? And the crazy thing is – they even let you talk to people on the phone!

Class bias

So I did it. I used the "c" word. Class. That funny old-fashioned idea that your options in life were mostly, if not completely, dictated by the family – the class – that you were born into. That relic of the past that thankfully, in our modern egalitarian society, no longer holds you down.

For in this enlightened day and age, you're free to move up.

You're free to move up – even if you're born at the bottom, born to a poor family with no assets or education. You're free to earn yourself a scholarship to a good university. And even if you can't, you're free to work as many jobs as you need to put yourself through.

You're even free to apply to your dream job. And they're free to reject you in favor of a candidate with a higher GPA. Who went to a better school. Whose tuition and board were fully paid for by her wealthy family. Who is better than you.

Not from a higher class, mind you. Because we live in a meritocracy. She can't be higher class, because we don't have class in this society. She's just better. Plain and simple.

But not to fear. The wonderful thing about a meritocracy is that you're free to make yourself better too! You're free to rent a tiny apartment, so that you might find some meager savings to invest. You're free to spend your weekends and evenings learning new skills and growing your network, slowly working your way up the ranks, until one day, you find yourself sharing meals with those who never had to.

"Oh, but I worked damn hard to get where I am. I deserve my position, and if those lazy fuckers worked as hard as I do then they wouldn't have anything to complain about."

Sure, buddy. It's not like those lazy fuckers hadn't been working at your daddy's company for decades before he parachuted your childish ass into that cushy role above them.

"Besides, it's not like people can't build themselves a better life. Yeah, sure, it takes sacrifice. But you just need to want it enough. I mean, look at me."

Sure, miss. I wish I could sacrifice some time to start a side business while studying at Yale – with money from your wealthy family friends, I might add.

"And the thing is, when you actually look into it, most billionaires have a rags to riches story. That's the thing, the rich are rich because they've worked for it. They deserve it. It's just how it is".

No, it's not how it is. I refuse to accept it, and fuck whoever suggested it.

They’re not better because their parents could afford to send them to Yale. They’re not better because their family had the connections to fund their business idea at the ripe old age of 18. They’re not better because they’d been taught enough about the world to apply to Goldman Sachs straight out of uni, or because they can now afford to take an NGO's low salary and actually do something meaningful with their life.

They’re not better because their class bias only lets them see those who've worked hard and succeeded. They’re just blind – blind to all of us who've worked hard and failed.

They’re not better than us. They’re just from a different class. And the last thing they want is for us to stop bullying each other over superficial differences in identity and remember it.

Losing my marble

Much to its dismay, the little glass globe found itself in flight.

Now to be fair, flight is not a particularly remarkable state for a marble in the employ of a little boy. In fact, in a marble’s line of work, hurtling towards hard surfaces is par for the course.

The problem was that this time, the hard surface was bigger than it. And heavier than it. And well, actually, a concrete slab. A very stubborn concrete slab, that didn’t feel particularly like moving today, thank you very much. And besides, even if it did, it was quite incapable of doing so, for it was a concrete slab.

The marble hit the slab and – much as marbles hitting concrete slabs tend to do – shattered into little pieces.

At which point the little boy, after throwing the marble as hard as he could at the concrete slab, burst into tears. And not in surprise or shock, mind you, for the little boy was quite aware of how marbles colliding with concrete slabs tends to behave.

But the little boy loved that marble. It was his favorite.

As he cried, he wondered why he’d decided to throw his favorite marble at a concrete slab.

When you grow up

If you just put your mind to it, you can be anything that you want to be. That’s what they told us. If you just believe in yourself, you can be an astronaut. You can all be astronauts.

Fucking liars.

Or maybe they were just naive. After all, they didn’t grow up having their dreams crushed by the internet. They didn’t grow up googling for “Australian astronauts”, just to find out that there’d only been 3 in 30 years, 3 out of 20 million Australians.

No, not everyone can be an astronaut when they grow up.

But I could be. Because I believed in myself, and that meant I could be anything that I wanted to be. Sure, I wasn’t going to become an astronaut by joining NASA. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. So maybe I could build my own spaceship? I mean, spaceships can’t be that expensive, right? No more than a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates could afford?

That’s what I’d do! I’d start a business and get super filthy rich and build a spaceship. I’d lift myself up by my bootstraps, from the dregs of society to the one-in-a-billion who can direct others to build spaceships. I was going to make it. Because I believed in myself. And because I knew how to build apps. I’d be on top of the world just as soon as I launched my app.

I still haven’t launched my app.

But you know, I did got offered a job writing software to control satellites. That’s pretty cool. Or it was until they asked me to take a huge pay cut. So I turned them down. Because when you grow up, you need to pay the goddamn bills.

Just a short note today that I’m going to try switching to posting a weekly paragraph for a while. I’m hoping that this will give me more time to improve the site and app itself, bringing forward the time at which other people – with ideas more interesting than my own – will be able to start posting.

After all, my goal isn’t for this to be my daily paragraph. I want it to be the daily paragraph.

Cherry-flavored denial

There’s this question that I used to get asked a lot. And when I first heard it, it struck me as kind of odd. Of course we have four seasons in Australia. The tilt in the earth’s axis isn’t unique to Japan, you know? What, do you think I’m an alien?

Actually, that’s what they call us foreigners here. Aliens. But I digress.

Japanese culture has an awareness and fascination with the seasons that was something new to me. And other than funny questions directed at foreigners, the first thing that really drove this point home for me was the convenience store beer fridges. Like clockwork, each time the season changed, there’d be new beers in the fridge. Starting with the summer editions, then the cans decorated with dying leaves, followed by the winter editions, and finally, the spring editions – covered in cherry blossoms. Because nothing sells beer like floral patterns.

Seriously though. In Japan, one of the year’s prime events is hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. On the surface, it’s an occasion to take some time out of daily life to appreciate nature in all it’s beauty. More practically, it’s an excuse to get together with friends, consume copious amounts of alcohol, say things that a more sober you might regret – and all while maybe spending a few moments appreciating nature in it’s beauty.

But whatever the reason, hanami is an event. It’s on the street, it’s in the news, it’s on your calendar. And that calendar is moving forward every year.

To put some numbers on this, in the decade covering 1991-2000, the average date at which the Japan Meteorological Agency announced the first bloom of Tokyo’s cherry blossoms was the 27th of March. And yes, the national weather agency really does announce the start of cherry blossom season. It’s important business, okay?

Fast forward to the decade of 2001-2010, and first bloom was now happening almost a week earlier, averaging in at the 22nd of March. Which moved back to the 21st of March within 2011-2020.

But this year? In 2021? The first bloom started back on the 14th of March – the earliest ever. Not that being the earliest ever is particularly unusual right now, because the sakura have bloomed earlier than “expected” for 8 years in a row. Honestly, it’d be weirder if they came on time.

And yet. Despite the Japanese people’s keen awareness of the changing seasons – from the “does Australia have four seasons too?” questions right down to the national forecaster announcing the first bloom of the cherry blossoms – there’s still little action on climate change.

But thankfully, it’s not like there’s no action. Because Japan has started building hydrogen tankers! Technologically advanced behemoths tasked with shipping liquified hydrogen – a clean-burning fuel stored at near-absolute-zero temperatures – across the oceans. From home. From Australia. Where they’ll create the hydrogen by burning that marvellous brown mineral that we all know and love. It’s a win-win, you see. Japan saves face by burning “clean” fuel, while Australia – who couldn’t care less what the world thinks – makes a dirty buck.

So I guess what I’m trying to say here is that despite what the Americans and Europeans may think, we in the western pacific certainly can think outside the box. That, and hanami is for saying things that you might regret…

I like walking in the rain. Because the thing about the rain is that we can’t control it. If it’s raining, it’s raining, and there’s no switch that can be flipped to make it sunny again.

Even if humanity has harnessed the power of the atom, even if we’ve gone to the moon, even if we can beam information across the planet to satisfy our every thirst for knowledge… we still get wet. Rich and poor alike.

The weather is the great equalizer. So I like walking in the rain.