Things Get Better
An incomplete list of observed everyday life improvements since 1988
This page is inspired by Gwern Branwen’s list of everyday life improvements. Like a splinter removed and dismissed from the mind, many subtle improvements in everyday items have eliminated now forgotten small irritations and sufferings. As attention shifts to fresh nuisances, our newfound comfort is quickly established as baseline of expectations and progress is not recognized without deliberate effort.
I find it gratifying to tabulate and document the small improvements that I recognize in my own life. This is a personal list of the little everyday improvements that I’ve identified, going back to 1988. Everything on this list is something that I’ve personally experienced, divided into rough categories.
Motorized Doors – When I was younger I scoffed at these, for reasons I can’t entirely recall. Most likely some youthful machismo. We bought a minivan with automatic sliding doors in 2019. They’re easier to operate while holding something and allow children to open/close doors on their own. I can open and close the doors with a press of a button from the driver’s seat, which is great for dropping kids off at school.
Backup Cameras – It’s much easier now to parallel park, or generally move in reverse when the margin of error is small. I think the backup camera on my minivan has probably saved me hours of time when I need to hitch up my small pop up camper.
Proximity Alarms – Newer cars will hoot and holler at you when you’re about to crash into something. Has definitely saved me money in body work when I might have hit something while otherwise not paying attention. This has come with a downside of complacency though; I once bonked into another car because the proximity alarm had gotten turned off and I didn’t look before moving. Technology only works if you use it properly!
Heated Seats – It’s kind amazing how much more comfortable a warmed seat is on a cold day. I don’t dread climbing into my car during winter anymore.
Key Fobs – Before I got a car with a key fob, I used to lock myself out of the car roughly twice a year. If I was lucky, it happened at home and I could just grab a spare key and let myself in. If I was unlucky, it was at work, 40 minutes away and I had to wait for my wife to come rescue me. With a fob, it’s virtually impossible to lock yourself out of the car, because using the fob to beep-beep lock your doors after you get out is 1) easier than remembering to lock the doors with the button on the inside and 2) much more fun! Beep Beep
Headlights – Similarly, I used to run out the battery on my car once or twice a year because I forgot to turn off the headlights. Now, cars automatically enable and disable the headlights while you’re driving/parked. I am not sure why it took so long to automatically turn off the headlights once you’ve removed the key from the ignition Seriously though, why did this take so long? We’ve had the technology to shut the lights off when the key is removed for at least 75 years. , but thankfully this is now a problem of the past.
Alarm Clocks – Do remember when you had to buy a separate device just to help you wake up in the morning? I bought a clock that allowed you to set a different alarm for each day before I left for college in 2006 and it was a complete gamechanger. I didn’t have to remember to change my alarm every night! Set it and forget it, baybeee!! It sounds strange, but that was a very novel feature before we all had smartphones.
Smartphone Cameras – A lot has been written elsewhere about how far camera technology has advanced and it’s all true. Instead, I want to talk about camera availability. My parents have about 20 photos from my first year of life. In contrast, I have about 20 photos of the first hour of my son’s life. A camera always in your pocket means that no moment has to go undocumented. There’s a lof of valid criticism that we’ve shifted too far in the “document everything” direction and are now neglecting the reality in front of us for the screen. I am choosing to focus on the positive elements of a smartphone in this post, but I wanted to acknowledge that this is a very real downside.
Phone Keyboards – Back when android was new, you were almost required to install a 3rd party keyboard if you wanted decent autofill or glide typing The big two that I remember were Swype and Swiftkey. Now all those features are bundled natively with the OS.
Robot Vacuums – Early in our marriage, my wife and I moved into a small loft apartment with our very hairy dog. If we went more than a few days without sweeping the floors we’d get fur tumbleweeds collecting in the corners. Over my protestations, she convinced me to buy a Roomba to help keep things clean. It quickly became one of my all-time favorite purchases. This is a common pattern of events in my marriage. It’s incredible how well they clean and how much they pick up on a daily basis – I usually empty out a small handful of debris from our vacuum every morning. 10 years later and we have models that not only vacuum, but mop the floor as well!
Batteries – It’s astonishing how much better batteries are today than 30 years ago. I have a pair of wireless headphones whose battery lasts for days, an e-reader that can go weeks between charges and a fully electric leaf blower! My favorite is probably our battery operated vacuum, though. It’s a gigantic pain to have to march room to room re-plugging your vacuum and tangling yourself in the cord every time you try to clean something. Now I just grab the vacuum from it’s holster and I’m ready to suck.
Wireless Devices – For years I refused to buy wireless peripherals, because they were an objectively worse user experience on every axis. I’ve since changed and have a wireless mouse that only needs a new battery every few months (and never has connectivity problems) and several pairs of wireless headphones that just work.
YouTube – In my mind, YouTube competes with Wikipedia as humanity’s greatest repository of information. Wikipedia has more established, academic knowledge, but youtube is where the day to day useful stuff is at. I’ve used YouTube to learn how to unclog my dishwasher, install a tow hitch on my car, set up ESXI on my web server, cook fried chicken, and assist in countess other tasks. It’s the first place I check any time I want to learn a new skill and it almost always delivers.
Mobile Banking – Before smartphones and banking apps, if you wanted to deposit a check you either had to mail it to the bank A recurring theme of pre-internet/smartphone life is how much you had to trust systems like the post office. You had no way of knowing when your check was going to get to bank, or any guarantee that it wouldn’t get lost along the way. You just put the envelope in the mailbox and hoped everything worked out. and wait a week for the money to appear in your account or drive to a branch office, wait in line, and hand them the check. Now I can snap a photo of the front and back of a check and have money in my account in about thirty seconds.
Money Transfers – Remember how hard it used to be to send people money if you were splitting expenses for a hotel room or other large expense? You could write them a check (ugh) or dig around and hope that you had cash in denominations appropriate for the transaction. Now with Venmo and other money apps you can send money in any (reasonable) amount to anyone in the world!
Balance Bikes – Do you remember learning how to ride a bike? How old were you? I was 6 and I think that was roughly typical for millennials. I learned without the assistance of training wheels, just my dad and I out on the road, him holding onto the bike seat and gently guiding me while I struggled to balance and stay upright. One of my enduring childhood memories is glancing to the side and seeing my dad’s shadow several feet behind mine, clearly not holding the bike. It was a Dumbo’s feather moment and I immediately crashed.
Today’s children have it much easier, thanks to the ingenious balance bike. This is a small bike without any pedals, sized so that a toddler can sit on the seat with their feet flat on the ground. Since you can move it around just by walking the bike while you’re astride it, kids can very gradually learn how to balance by slowly kicking themselves longer and longer distances, and eventually going down hills.
Turns out once you can balance on a bike, it takes about an hour to learn how to pedal one. The great lie of training wheels is that the hard part of learning how to ride a bike is figuring out how to pedal. In truth, the hard part is training your body to balance, and training wheels don’t do squat for that. After two years of riding a balance bike, my daughter taught herself how to ride a pedal bike about a week after she turned four. It took her about three days before she could comfortably ride close to a mile without issue.
LEGO – LEGO sets today are much more intricate, better looking, and more cleverly designed than the ones I played with all through my childhood. People like to complain about how much of LEGO sets are just licensed today, and there’s not a lot of original designs. This completely overlooks just how much better designed the sets are today.
Compare the X-wing that I got in 1999 with the updated version my son got for his 8th birthday in 2021. Adjusting for inflation, the two sets cost roughly the same, but the 2021 set has 200 more pieces, looks much sleeker, and has an extremely cleverly engineered mechanism for opening the s-foils (compared to the mundane hinge structure of the set twenty years earlier).
Digital Thermometers – The thought of trying to cook something temperature sensitive like a steak without a thermometer intimidates me enough that I’m not willing to try it. Even more so chicken where the cost of undercooking it is so high that without a reliable way to measure the internal temperature of the meat you’re essentially forced to overcook it. Products like the thermapen have enabled home cooks to reliably cook restaurant quality food without over/under cooking it. They’re fast, accurate, durable, and indispensible. Every serious cook should have at least one.
Immersion Circulators – Sous vide cooking via immersion circulator was just coming onto the scene when I started to get serious about home cooking in 2011. At the time, the cheapest option was about $400 and came with a restricted cooking chamber, and no built in circulator. It relied on convective currents to move the water around and keep the temperature homogenous. This is…fine…but the newer models all contain stirring motors. Restaurants used fancy equipment that was repurposed from labs, but those circulators cost about $800. Today you can get a perfectly functional circulator stick A cylinder roughly the size of a Pringles can that contains a heating element and a stirrer. Clips onto the side of a water vessel (any size!) and maintains a set water temperature. for less than $100.
Chicken Pox – When I was a kid, getting chicken pox was just something that happened to you in childhood. I have a memory of my mom forcing me to share a lollipop with my chicken-pox infected brother This terrified me because up to that point I had been somewhat aggressively coached that sick people and anything they touch should be avoided at all costs. so that I would get it (I think I was 5 at the time). Now there’s a (great!) vaccine and I cannot remember the last time I heard about someone contracting chicken pox.
Plumbing – Do you remember when you could flush the toilet while your brother was taking a shower and freeze/scald them? Somewhere between my childhood and today that just…stopped being a thing that happened.