January 24, 2020

Self-Driving Cars: Would You Ever Get In One?

They are everywhere....cars with big bumps on top and festooned  with various sensors and antennas. The Phoenix area, and Chandler in particular, are major test sites for several companies who are testing self-driving cars. To have one pull up next to you always prompts a check to see if a human is in the front seat, ready to take over if the car goes rogue. 

So far, the answer is yes, someone is prepared to grab the wheel and stomp on the pedals if need be. A pedestrian was killed in nearby Tempe a few years ago by one of these vehicles when the human inside didn't react quickly enough. While the risks are real, I gather improvements in the ability of the car to avoid problems gets better as more data is collected. 

In the future, though, autonomous vehicles will wait for a call to pick up someone at a certain address and drive them to an appointment, or shopping, or the airport, all without a human present. For those who have turned in their driver's license, or are not comfortable navigating through heavy traffic or at night, a self-driving car could be an important addition to their lifestyle. Doctor visits or trips to the grocery store become possible.

Already companies like Amazon are experimenting with package deliveries by drone; robo-cars stropping in front of your home with your package are not that far behind. I imagine UPS and Fedex will see this as their future, too. The tens of thousands of drivers for these companies will find their jobs eliminated, joining the list of employment options replaced by robots and machines. 

You might ask, what about ride services like Uber or Lyft? It is already very easy to have someone perform those same functions, at a very reasonable price. That is true but some of us are not all that comfortable getting into a car driven by a stranger. There have been enough news stories about assaults or other issues to make the cautious among us hesitate. 

Many new cars have collision avoidance systems, self-braking sensors, and lane change alarms. If you can afford the upgrades I assume they can be helpful when the driver is distracted (a big no-no, but it happens!) or some other driver is not as attentive as he or she should be. 

Even so, at some point I am pretty sure the future will include a car with no steering wheel or pedals. We will input our ultimate destination and off we go. Experts predict this reality is a decade away, but it is coming. There are too many billions of dollars already invested to not make this scenario happen. In theory, drunk driving accidents or all the other ways we hurt and kill each other with 3,000 pound vehicles will be largely eliminated. I imagine auto insurance rates would plummet if computers eliminated most fender-benders or preventable accidents.

It is likely I will have to stop driving sometime in the next 12-15 years. My dad made it to 88, but he drove a few years more than was prudent. I hope I know when it is time to turn those duties over to others.

If the timetable of autonomous vehicles is within the next decade, then it is quite possible I will be a customer. At that point, it would likely be safer for me and everyone else on the road, if a computer made the important decisions. 

So, that raises an interesting question: do you think you would ever be comfortable getting into a vehicle without an "emergency" human inside? 

Can you see yourself summoning a car, waiting for it to pull up in front of your home, getting inside, saying whatever the magic words are to get it to start moving, and hope it arrives where you want to go? 

Do you think you (and everyone else) will be willing to turn over this very basic adult chore to a machine? Will we have a choice?

January 21, 2020

You Got All That From a Tree?

During my day of silence a few weeks ago, part of the time was spent on the back patio, observing and listening to nature. We live smack in the middle of suburbia, part of the 5 million people who call the Phoenix metro home. Even so, our neighborhood is far enough away from of busy streets so things are pretty quiet, making the time outside restorative

One of my focus points during this time was a large tree in our backyard. Don't ask me what type; I am not a tree person. I think it is some type of ash, but....?
That's it in the picture above, so if you want to help identify it, please go right ahead.

I have probably noticed that tree hundreds of times, but beyond its need for trimming,  have never really thought about it. This time, I began to see its parts as an interesting metaphor for retirement. If you will, indulge my flights of fancy for a just a few minutes.

*The tree is reaching upward, growing taller. I would like to think of my life in the same way. My days of growing physically taller are over, though my waist does seem to be expanding a bit. Running the Boston Marathon or hiking up a 10,000 foot mountain are not happening. Scuba diving days are past.

But, I would like to think that I am not mentally static. I am reaching for new experiences, new opportunities to keep my mind fresh and my attitude open. Like the leaves, I can see myself as reaching for the sun, the brightness that is available to us all.

* The tree responds to the slightest breeze. In this example, I wish I was more like the tree. I do respond to slight breezes, but often in non-productive ways. The smallest change to my schedule, an inconsiderate driver, or the latest stupid news out of Washington tends to ruffle my leaves, causing me to waste valuable time and energy on something that has no real significance to my day-to-day life. The tree sways in the wind without breaking, or even bending very much. That should be my goal.

* The tree has a hard exterior protecting a very vulnerable interior. The smallest bug can cause serious damage to the tree's health. I think many of us are this way. We present a strong exterior. We are not damaged by the slings and arrows of life. We need very little help or support.

Yet, inside that gruff shell we can be hurting. Small things can leave permanent damage. We can be lonely, disappointed or afraid. We can live in fear that others might see past the tough bark and glimpse our vulnerability. 

I suggest we would be less squishy inside if we didn't always put up a false front. Letting others into our lives would give us the emotional support and freedom to really be us, in all our warts and weaknesses. 

* One tree may have flaky bark, another a smooth look, but none is perfect, all have some flaws. I hope my newly found sense of spirituality and belief in the connection between all of us would allow me to see past the "bark" that shows flaws but covers the same thing: a human being.

* Trees are never straight. They grow up but not without some deviation. Isn't that just like our retirement journey? We don't proceed in a straight line through life. There are detours, there are side trails we follow. Our overall path is forward, but not without dips and bends.

* Many trees lose their leaves every winter, but come back stronger and healthy with the return of warm weather. We all need periods of rest, of pauses in our journey. We need to remind ourselves that life is a journey that requires different seasons of energy, of recuperation, of spurts of growth. Like a tree that appears to be dormant, or even dead during the winter months, we need breaks to regroup before moving forward.

 After a major health problem, the death of someone close to us, divorce, or serious relationship issues we may appear to be withdrawn from life. After a financial setback the energy required to keep afloat may have drained us.

But, like the tree in spring, we have the internal strength to regroup and reenter life. We must give ourselves permission to "lose our leaves" for awhile, knowing that there will come a time when the life force within will reassert itself.

Heavens, all that from 20 minutes staring at a tree? Yep. And that is precisely why I plan on having a quiet day once a month. Without external stimulation  our minds can be free to really see what is right in front of us. Only then can we understand the lessons the world is anxious to share.

January 17, 2020

Retirement's False Starts and Stops

A reader who offers suggestions for blog posts (which I love and encourage from anyone), dropped me a note some time ago to ask about the path to a satisfying retirement. She and her husband have been moving toward that goal for a few years now but something always derails their plans. One partner gets cold feet and decides that working longer would be good for their long term financial health. Or, the decision to retire brings the realization that no firm plan to fill all that free time exists so retirement is put off.

Another "false start" involves one partner going back to school in order to try a new career. But, soon comes the realization that studying and sitting in class for hours at a time doesn't mesh well with the desire to volunteer, go to church more often, travel, or spend time cooking. Retirement and starting a new, full time career can't work together.

So, she wonders how many almost-retirees make a few false starts on their plans as they get ready to leave their old lives. The short answer is, "Many." Like any stage of life we rarely proceed smoothly from step A to step B. Unexpected problems arise or life goals are adjusted. Just being alive means you are in a state of constant change.

With something as life-altering as retirement, having second or third thoughts is only natural. Trying to figure out how to use all that free time can be daunting. Trying to balance the desire to learn something new with the eagerness to spend time doing what you already know you love is not easy.

The last eighteen years of retirement have taught me to allow myself to change plans, direction, even lifestyle. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not sure there really is such a thing as a false start. Retirement starts when you are mentally, emotionally, and financially able to take that final step. Everything before that is just a test or a feeling out of various aspects of a life change.

So, for the person who wants to retire but can't quite cut his or her ties to work, then it is more likely you aren't quite ready. For the person who stops work and then realizes there are still motivations to have a job, whether full or part time, then there is no "failure" in satisfying that need.

For the person who is simply afraid of the unknown and needs encouragement to jump......do it. Jump in with both feet, knowing that retirement is simply a part of your life's journey that you  adjust, modify, or even revoke, as things change. Retirement is not an end, but really a new beginning.

False starts? Not really...just a different path.

January 13, 2020

Time Magazine's Person Of The Year

Jesus's mother was probably 13 when she gave birth. Joan of Arc started her battles against English oppressors at the age of 13. She was 19 when she was burned at the stake. A little less dramatic, Bobby Fischer was crowned as a chess Grandmaster at 15. Louis Braille developed a language for the blind when only 15 years old. At 18, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a literacy classic.

History has plenty of examples of young people, many not out of their teen years, having major impacts on history. I think sometimes age is an advantage; younger people aren't old enough to know they can't accomplish a task. So, they push forward and work miracles.

Last month Time Magazine named Greta Thunberg as their Person of The Year. She has earned her this honor for her ability to galvanize others in the battle to save our planet from the most horrific consequences of climate change. 

Her relentless calling out of her elders for being too timid, too worried about their pocketbooks, or unable to admit reality has inspired people of all ages, in all corners of the globe, to raise their voices in protest.

Last September I wrote a post that suggests young people may be our best hope for the future. Ms. Thunberg was the focus of that post after her blistering speech to the people most able to take serious action, but unwilling to do so.

Since that speech she has traveled to several meetings and conferences on both sides of the Atlantic. True to her value in doing as little harm as possible to the earth, she has not flown on these trips, even though doing so would save countless days. Instead, choosing the method that creates the least carbon damage, she has taken sailing ships, at least one with solar panels to power the equipment on board.

At home in Sweden, she has convinced her parents to stop air travel and give up meat. She has led strikes in front of the Swedish Parliament and at countless schools, all to force others to pay attention to what lies straight ahead of us.

Of course, some of the targets of her ire have struck back, figuring a 16 year old girl will probably wilt under their verbal assaults. Instead, she and the people she inspires seem to be getting stronger, more vocal, and more organized. One "leader" said she needed to work on her anger management problem. Considering the source, that's a rich one.

I am not going to conclude with a list of things you could so in this ultimate battle to protect our home. By now, you know the steps you can and should take to do what you can, no matter how small.

The Greta story reminds me of a John Lennon song from my student days, "Power To The People. " One person begins a dialogue, which becomes a discussion, which evolves into a large conversation, which develops into a movement, that has the potential to force change.

Whatever your feeling about her or even the issue she is so passionate about,  Ms. Thunberg has proven, once again, the power of a dedicated individual to force others to pay attention and decide what to do. 

And, I find that remarkably empowering and hopeful.

January 9, 2020

The Day of Silence: Did It Work?

Well, that was interesting. My day of silence has come and gone. On January 2nd, my wife and I agreed to try something neither of us had ever done before: a day without conversation, cell phones, texts, computers, television, or music. We would leave the house only to take our dog to the park (with no car radio playing!)

The first thing we learned was how easy it is to communicate without talking. Gestures, shrugs, hand motions, and pointing works nearly as well as speech. Occasionally, we had to write each other notes, but that wasn't against the spirit of the day, so no problem. 

Quiet is powerful. It has a force that we rarely experience anymore. When all the extraneous electronic chatter and noises that make up a normal day are eliminated, I swear I could hear my mind whirring. I know I could hear my breathing, steady and controlled, every few seconds, filling my ears with its rhythm. I don't know if this qualifies as meditating, but there was a definite separation from my normal way of living.

During one of my times on the back patio, sounds that are there all the time became part of my day. As I focused on what was breaking the stillness I heard birds trilling and calling each other, airplanes high up in the sky and smaller ones from a nearby municipal airport. Laughter from a few kids home on winter break, my neighbor coughing on his back porch, someone using an electric saw, the barking of small dogs inside a house somewhere nearby.

The ticking of a small clock on the patio, and tires screeching as a car took a corner too quickly. The leaves on the trees in the backyard were swaying gently in a mild breeze, making a subtle rustling noise until a delivery truck rumbled down the street in front of my house covering up the sound for a moment or two. Silence is never completely silent.

Betty and I pulled the portable fire pit from a side yard, threw in some newspaper, shredder waste paper, and a few scraps of wood. Lighting the pile, we quietly sat by the warmth, thinking our own thoughts. When the blaze died out, we nodded to each other, signalling our intention to go back into the house.

We managed to stick to our silent, unplugged plan very well. Betty did receive some texts that had to be answered. We agreed to watch one favorite TV show while eating dinner. Otherwise, the time passed with nothing but our thoughts, some books, and time in the backyard. While I shouldn't speak for her, I think Betty found the experiment worthwhile and, with a few modifications, one we'd like to repeat.

I found this both restful and energizing. Going a full day without checking the phone or blog, having no music to break the stillness or no television to distract made me much more aware of my surroundings and what happens while simply paying attention.  

At the same time, I filled a few pieces of paper with ideas for this blog, things I want to add and subtract from my daily schedule, and reinforcement of where my shifting spiritual search is leading. I finished two books. My thoughts started flowing, recharging my mental battery with positive energy. Time didn't seem to flow either more slowly or more quickly; I just wasn't really paying attention to a clock.

Will I (and Betty) have another day of silence? Did it make itself valuable enough to repeat? Yes, with a few modifications:

* Quiet instead of silence. We both felt there were times when we wanted to share thoughts and ideas. It would be a mistake to miss the chance to discuss something important just because talking is banned.

* Some structure to the day. In addition to normal breaks for meals, we felt the experience would be heightened by allowing us to do similar things at the same time. Especially with the ability to talk with each other, if we read, worked on our creative activities, and spent time outside while with each other, the chance to share something would be enhanced. We wouldn't find ourselves always in separate rooms, doing different things.

* Allow for "work" projects if we find that restorative. Betty likes to do things that require physical effort. Expending energy calms her and helps her manage some of the pain that are a part of her daily life. I could oil paint and still be quiet. Working, even on something that might be called a chore, should not detract from the experience.

* Plan on repeating once a month, but have the quiet day end at dinner time. Ten or eleven hours seems to be enough to decompress and establish a break in the normal routine of our days. We both enjoy watching favorite TV shows together in the evening and I will usually have a period of guitar practice. To prevent those things from happening makes the day seem almost punitive, rather than enjoyable.

So, was this time of silence and unplugging worth it? Absolutely. I think of it as a welcome detox from my normal routine and disconnection from the world, if even for just a day.