On a snowy day at the very end of my time in academia, I found myself hunched over a laptop with two colleagues. We needed U.S. population statistics for a particular project, and we had found them. They were compiled in a spreadsheet.

The graph was simple. Population on the vertical axis, age on the horizontal. My friend grabbed a slider at the bottom of the screen and began the animation over time–an arc of dots sprayed up from the left hand side, dancing about with hundreds of perturbations. Sheer stochastic joy. As the baby boom hit, the dots soared up like a wave on the sea, and rolled onwards. But as these dots crawled towards the right hand side of the screen, the flow began to dip. The jerkiness disappeared, and it was replaced by uniformity as they began their descent along a straight and steady line. They plunged downwards until, finally, they all crashed into the bottom of the graph, like pennies funneled into a wishing well.

My colleagues stared glassy-eyed at the left-hand side of the screen, watching the trends. And after a moment, I joined them.


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