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Mr. Bean enjoying a ride in his autonomous vehicle

Lots of talk these days about autonomous vehicles (“driverless cars”). talk about the potential plusses, such as fewer accidents from human errors. But also lots of talk about fears.

A post from Forbes reminds us that back in 1894, a decade before automobiles became the mainstreamed form of transportation, there was an invention for vertical transportation that also produced fears.

That was the year that the Otis Elevator Company installed the world’s first push-button elevator. Remember that elevators earlier had operators that drove them up and down. Now, this autonomous form of transportation needed no operator. It was just you alone in that elevator. You push a button to indicate your destination – not unlike how autonomous vehicles work – and off you go.

Mr. Otis demonstrates his failsafe “Improved Hoisting Apparatus” at Crystal Palace, New York City, 1854 (Wikimedia)

You needed to trust that the elevator technology would get you there safely. Of course, it could plummet you down from the 30th floor to a crushing death at ground level, but rest assured all kinds of safety precautions were in place. It must have been somewhat thrilling and scary to ride in one of these elevators in 1894.  Cables made of steel can still snap, can’t they?

Do you still think about possible accidents when you step into an elevator or are you trusting?

You always hear that it is safer to fly in an airplane than drive in a car. As a passenger, do you know when the pilot is doing the piloting and when the auto-pilot has taken over? Of course not. For a good part of your journey, you are in an autonomous form of transportation.  Well, the pilot and co-pilot are there, just like those people who have to drive in driverless cars for now. But one day, there will be no driver in the car with you, and there will be no pilot on the plane with you.

Think of the plane as a kind of elevator – except it doesn’t go up 20 floors – it goes up 35,000 feet and is moving about 500 miles per hour.

According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, over 210 billion passengers use elevators in the U.S. and Canada each year. That’s 325 million trips per day, second only to automobile journeys.

We learned to trust the autonomous elevator. We tend to forget that at least part of the time that airplane is being flown by artificial intelligence. How long will it take to trust a driverless car?  My answer continues to be that I will feel safe in a driverless vehicle when all the vehicles on the road are driverless. Put one human behind the wheel with us and who knows what might happen.

“Causality is the way we explain the link between two successive events.
Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic
and psychophysical events, which scientific knowledge so far
has been unable to reduce to a common principle.”
― C.G. Jung, The Portable Jung

A friend loaned me the book There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives years ago because I had been talking to her about synchronicity. Carl Jung coined the term to describe coincidences that are related by meaningfulness rather than by cause and effect. ” Jung introduced the idea of ​​synchronicity to get away from the “magic and superstition” which surrounds some unpredictable and startling events that appear to be connected.

I found another similar book, There Are No Coincidences: Synchronicity as the Modern-Day Mystical Experience, whose title suggests that the “more than” part of these experiences may be mystical.

“We do not create our destiny; we participate in its unfolding.
Synchronicity works as a catalyst toward the working out of that destiny.”
David Richo, The Power of Coincidence: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know

I would think that all of us have had some otherwise-unrelated events occur to us for which we assumed some significance beyond the ordinary. The common example is when you happen to remember a person you have not thought about or seen for many years, and at that moment your telephone rings and it is that very person. What is the statistical probability that this can happen? Very small; very unlikely. For some people, the explanation moves to the paranormal.

I was looking at an almanac page online on March 13th and came upon a story from 3/13/1997 about when thousands of people reported mysterious lights over Arizona. Around 8 p.m., a man in Henderson, Nevada, saw a V-shaped object “the size of a 747,” with six lights on its leading edge. The lights moved diagonally from northwest to southeast. Other people sighted seeing the same thing over the next hour throughout Arizona. They were seen as far south as Tucson nearly 400 miles away.

A rendering of the object seen created by witness Tim Ley that appeared in USA Today.

I remember those “Phoenix Lights” being covered by the media in 1997. Having grown up in the late 1950s and 1960s, I heard many tales of UFOs.

A repeat of the lights occurred February 6, 2007, and was recorded by the local Fox News television station. But, as was the case with almost every UFO appearance in my youth, it was explained away by officials. In this case, the military and FAA said that it was flares dropped by F-16 aircraft training at Luke Air Force Base.

Reading that account made me think of my own one and only possible “close encounter.” That phrase entered the mainstream with the release of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

My own encounter would be of the first kind – seeing a UFO fairly close (within 150 meters).

My sighting was in the summer of 1993 in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. UFO sightings in the Pinelands seem to be fairly common. I saw what I would describe as a ship that was (as I later discovered) a lenticular saucer. It was motionless over a lake in the early morning (about 3 am). It had no sound or flashing lights, but a thin red-lit ring encircled it.  I had no camera. No one else was there with me. I watched it for about a minute and then it lifted vertically a few feet, tilted at an angle, and took off rapidly, vanishing from sight in a few seconds.

An encounter with a UFO that leaves evidence behind, such as scorch marks on the ground or indents, etc., is said to be of the second kind. Spielberg’s film deals with the third kind – an encounter with visible occupants of a UFO. The fourth kind involves the person being taken and experimented on inside the alien craft. The fifth kind involves direct communication between aliens and humans, as portrayed in the 2016 film, Arrival.

I don’t know what I saw. I never read any news reports about it. I never reported it.

After I read that almanac entry on the Phoenix Lights, I looked at another almanac website for more information and that site that told me that on March 13 in 1855, Percival Lowell was born. Who was he? Born to a wealthy family, he graduated from Harvard, but he passed on working in the family business and instead did a lot of traveling and travel writing. In the 1890s, he read that astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered what appeared to be canals on Mars. Lowell was fascinated by that idea and put his fortune into studying the Red Planet.

He believed that the canals offered proof of intelligent life. He built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Astronomers and scientists were skeptical of his view of intelligent life on Mars, but the general public was intrigued by his view. Lowell’s writing and observations had an impact, not as much on science as on the infant literary genre that became known as science fiction.

These two coincidences on March 13 led me to check out that date on Wikipedia. The event that caught my attention on yet another March 13, in 1781, was that the English astronomer Sir William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. Well, “discover” may be too strong because John Flamsteed had observed it in 1690, but thought it was a star. Herschel was the first to figure out that it was a planet and not a star.

He observed the planet’s very slow movement and determined that meant it was very far from the Sun – farther than Saturn, which was the farthest known planet. He named it after Ouranos, the Greek god of the sky. Since then, astronomers have discovered 27 moons orbiting the blue-green ice giant. The moons have literary names, mostly characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Uranus is an odd planet in that its axis is tilted so far that it appears to be lying on its side with its ringed moons circling the planet vertically.

Was it a coincidence that I found these three stories that day? Is there some synchronicity that these three events occurred on the same calendar date?  Is there a connection among these three March Thirteenths?

Though I believe in synchronicity, they seem to be coincidental. I found connections because I was looking for connections. But I am open-minded about the idea. I do believe in coincidences, and I do sometimes believe that things occur which stretch my belief in coincidences.

“Coincidences give you opportunities to look more deeply into your existence.”
Doug Dillon

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
– Albert Einstein

“I live for coincidences. They briefly give to me the illusion or the hope
that there’s a pattern to my life, and if there’s a pattern,
then maybe I’m moving toward some kind of destiny where it’s all explained.”
Jonathan Ames

As a follow-up to my earlier post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth, I offer “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.

 

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.

overgrown civilzation

If all the insects were to disappear from the Earth,
within fifty years all life on Earth would end.
If all human beings disappeared from the Earth,
within fifty years all forms of life would flourish.

That quote is sometimes credited to Jonas Salk, though the source is not confirmed. But the idea has been put forward by a number of people. It is an interesting “thought experiment.”

Since insects are much of the base of the food chain for macro-life, it is likely that loss of insects would result in a great loss of plants without them for pollination. Humans certainly depend on plants for food and also depend on plants to fed the animals that we consume.

Many animals also eat insects as their primary source of energy. They would die off. The food chain would be broken. Many of the remaining animals are dependent either on the plants or smaller animals that eat insects or eat animals that eat insects.

I don’t think all life would disappear. Microorganisms would continue living much as they have for millennia. And there are plants that self-pollinate, or wind pollinate, or have non-insect pollinators. For example, wind pollinators like grasses and angiosperm trees (like oaks and hickories) would continue to live and also feed some of the seed eaters. Some plants spread by runners, corms, etc. without seeds even being needed.

The oceans would probably flourish without us. Life there is not dependent on insects.

But the insects aren’t going to disappear. Or are they already disappearing? An article on Discover says that “Insects, the most abundant and diverse animals on Earth, are facing a crisis of epic proportions, according to a growing body of research and a rash of alarmist media reports that have followed. If left unchecked, some scientists say, recent population declines could one day lead to a world without insects.”

The World Without Us is a non-fiction book about what would probably happen to the natural and the manmade environment if humans suddenly disappeared. In this book by Alan Weisman, the insects remain.

He outlines how our cities would deteriorate, not unlike what happened to the Mayan civilization. Some man-made artifacts would last longer than others – radioactive waste, bronze statues, plastics, and stone and concrete would be among the longest-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth.

Life forms would evolve as always, but in different ways. The warming climate of today would begin to shift in the other direction.

Weisman concludes that residential neighborhoods would become forests within 500 years.

One example Weisman uses is New York City. He says that the city would deconstruct as sewers clog and underground streams flood subway corridors, tunnels and basements. The soils under buildings and roads would erode and cave in. Native vegetation would return, spreading from parks and out-surviving invasive species. On this island city, he predicts that without humans to provide food and warmth, rats and cockroaches would die off. I suspect they would survive and probably make their way off the island. rats and insects, including cockroaches, will certainly flourish on the mainland.

Weisman is a journalist and though he did a lot of research, his book is speculative. I find it interesting speculation. Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz’s take on this idea is written in The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? But he goes 100 million years into the future to a time when the human race is extinct.

His thought experiment is to consider what a visiting geologist to Earth in that future might determine from “the rocks” about the history of the planet, and the humans who once lived here.

It is a far more scientific thought experiment that goes into topics like fossilization and plate tectonics. We have studied our planet and its shifting continents, ice ages and rising and falling sea levels. Those future visitors would find a thinner surface layer of rock with remnants of humans. They would find within that layer dramatic climate changes, mass extinctions and strange movements of wildlife across the planet.

In the petrified remains and fossilised bones of our lost civilization, they would find the era in which humans dominated the planet – the Holocene. But that period is actually a quite brief 10,000 years in the context of geological time.

Further reading: After Man: A Zoology of the Future i- a speculative evolution book written by geologist Dougal Dixon with some interesting illustrations.  Dixon has written several other books in this vein including After Man: A Zoology of the Future.


There are a good number of videos online about what would happen to the planet if humans were gone.

 

Financial Independence, Retire Early is a lifestyle movement (FIRE) with a goal that I would think the vast majority of us can get behind: achieving the financial independence to retire early.

I am no millennial, but I was working toward that goal long before millennials started online communities using blogs, podcasts, and online discussion forums to try to figure out a path to FIRE.

This had to be the goal for many people going back decades (maybe centuries). But I know that even for my parents’ generation the idea of retiring before 65 with any kind of financial independence was unrealistic. For the post-WWII generations, working for 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 years for the same company and getting a pension and Social Security was about as good as it was going to get.

Attaining FIRE requires very intentional efforts to maximize your savings rate by finding ways to increase income and decrease expenses. You need to accumulate assets to the point that they return passive income that provides enough money for living expenses in perpetuity.

If you read about the FIRE movement, you will find the suggestion of using the 4 percent rule as a guide. The four percent rule is a rule of thumb used to determine how much a retiree should withdraw from a retirement account each year. This rule seeks to provide a steady income stream to the retiree while also maintaining an account balance that keeps income flowing through retirement. This means that you set your goal at getting at least 25 times your estimated annual living expenses. That’s a lot of money.

Of course, many people couldn’t even give you an accurate account of what their annual living expenses are, so there is a lot of calculating to be done.

Many people point to the FIRE movement originating in the 1992 best-seller with a great title, Your Money or Your Life, and the 2010 book Early Retirement Extreme. The books encourage simple living and income from investments to achieve financial independence.

You need to look at the relationship between your savings rate and the time to retirement which allowed individuals to quickly project their retirement date given an assumed level of income and expenses.

That relationship will show you that FIRE is achieved through some very aggressive saving on your part.

Many financial planners and guides will suggest a “standard” 10-15% savings rate. That would work if you start young and stick to it – and you don’t plan to retire until you are at least at Social Security age.

Assuming constant income and expenses – a heck of an assumption – and neglecting investment returns (I wish I could), if you had a savings rate of 10%, it would take you (1-0.1)/0.1 or 9 years of work to save for 1 year of retirement. That means if you want to retire at age 50 and want to plan to live to age 90, you would need to save at that rate for 360 years. I guess if you can become a young YouTube star or hit the lottery in fifth grade, you might have a chance.

Increase that savings rate to 25% and it takes (1-0.25)/0.25 or 3 years of work to save for 1 year of retirement. That means those 40 years you want of FIRE only require 120 years of savings.

Okay, you can follow the older rule of having 25 times your annual expense and then you only need to save for 75 years.

The time to retirement decreases significantly as savings rate is increased. A savings rate of 50%, takes (1-0.5)/0.5 or “only” 1 year of work to save for 1 year of retirement. You would have to start at age 10.

Finally with a savings rate of 75%, it takes (1-0.75)/0.75 or just 0.33 years of work to save for 1 year of retirement. At that rate, it would take less than 10 years of work to accumulate the 25 years of living expenses suggested by the 4% rule.

So, if can can start saving 75% of your income starting at age 40, you are on track to retire at your desired age 50.

If you achieve FIRE, then paid work becomes optional. This is what I call “unretirement.” You work if you want to work, doing things you want to do, for pay or as a volunteer. My Boomer generation is poised to live longer in better health than any earlier generation and also seem to be extending our working lives, often with new careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and volunteer service. The formula for unretirement is not the 4% rule.

If you have made it this far, you are likely to think that this is an unlikely life/work plan. FIRE has its critics who will say that it only works for the already rich who can achieve that high savings rates. You also need to start young. Starting at age 25 gives you a better chance, but takes away most of your income during the years when you are likely to need it for home and family.

And real advocates of FIRE talk about retiring at much lower ages than 50. The 4% rule, which was recommended to me for my investment withdrawals when I went into unretirement in my late 50s, was developed for a traditional retirement time frame of 30 years and retiring in your 60s.

FIRE advocates will say that this can only happen with more than just aggressive savings. Add into the plan cutting back on lifestyle choices, wise investments, retirement plans like pensions, tax shelters and 401K plans, and a plan to continue working in that unretirement mode or part-time in the later years.

My parents generation would have laughed at FIRE. My generation would like to at least achieve a portion of it. My children believe it is a real possibility.

I still remember my freshman year Philosophy 101 professor asking the class to define reality. There were frosh in the class but also upper class students fulfilling some missed requirement. Some of those juniors and seniors chuckled quietly. I looked around and thought “Don’t call on me.”

It is still a difficult or silly question for most people. How would you answer? “It is everything out there,” you might say as you gesture in front of you. “It’s the things you can see and touch and hear.”

I had a lot of problems accepting the theory of solipsism presented in the class that says that I am the only person that exists. Knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is uncertain and I can’t know the external world or other minds, so nothing might exist outside my mind.

I think I might have told the professor that I didn’t believe that to be true, and he said that it’s irrefutable, and that as a solipsist I would believe that I was the only true authority, I can only know my own reality. I can’t step inside another person and experience their reality.

I didn’t want to be a lonely solipsist.

Most of those views haven’t changed over the years and I read online that in considering the nature of reality some people will say that reality is all in your mind. What does that mean? This is not easy to conceive, but perhaps there are no actual things, colors, sounds or smells outside of your brain. It’s not philosophy; it’s science.

Consider that we do know that color consists of electromagnetic waves. Those colors we see depends on the length of those waves.

And sound? Sound is compressed airwaves.

Those smells are just pungent air molecules.

It is our brain that interprets these things as color, sound and smell. And we don’t all even interpret them exactly the same way. And I am not even getting into how dogs or bats or other creatures perceive their reality which certainly is not our reality. Bats use sound to navigate and dogs have a much keener sense of smell but poorer eyesight than us.

Reality is billions of neurons firing in your brain.

I know that the surface in front of my home that is green and keeps growing in warm weather is grass. I know this from repeated experiences. These experiences allow me to categorise and catalogue things.

This is what is known as our “internal model of reality” and we all need that model to navigate through the world and our lives.  But can our senses deceive us? Not only do animals have a different reality, but different people perceive reality differently.

That philosophy professor gave us readings about reality, and he told us that there were also scientists that believe that what we call reality is an illusion.

The article I read reminded me of the “thought experiment” (so far thankfully not duplicated except in films) where a brain is removed from a person and somehow kept alive and operating and is connected to a powerful computer that can act as its senses. Would the brain know the difference in its reality?

That is the premise in stories and films like The Matrix where Neo discovers that he is living in a computer-simulated reality.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” said Albert Einstein. Quantum physics (which Einstein had some issues with accepting) suggests that particles do not exist until they are observed. Without perception, we cannot exist. If we fall in a forest and no one is there to perceive it, did we fall?

“What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just appearances.” Erwin Schrodinger

Well, I think that I exist, so that must constitute some kind of reality.

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