Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween: In Memoriam

My life changed on Halloween last year.  I didn’t know it then; I thought it was a phase that I’d shrug off, a period of mourning that would heal with time.  It healed some, but seems it nevertheless changed me for good. 

One year ago I got the horrific news that a family member had been struck by a vehicle and killed instantly.  She had been walking down the road holding hands with her loving husband.  They had just moved to Florida together to start their dream retirement.  All I could think of was how full of life she had been, one of the most joyful people I knew, and how detrimental it would be to poor Jim, her husband who had to pick up the pieces of their life that she left too soon.  

I’d known people who had died before.  I’ve lost grandparents to those things that take you in old age.  I’ve known families who have lost babies within days or months of giving birth.  I’ve seen teenagers get in with the wrong crowds and lose their lives.  I’ve had classmates who died in war.  But no death has shaken me like Joyce’s.  Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of her being so full of life and love, and then such sudden death.  Perhaps it struck close to home - I go for walks, and I drive, and she had no influence on the outcome.  

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something more to her death.  It’s a tragedy, but not just a tragedy.  It’s horrible irony, but not just a shame.  It’s as if her death was supposed to have meaning to me, a purpose, and so fate made it so.  

Ever since Halloween last year, I’ve had an uncanny notion of Joyce watching over me when I drive, shunning me when I steal a glance at my phone, and praising me when I avoid a pedestrian who didn’t hear or see me coming.  Joyce’s story has made my passion for autonomous vehicles not just selfishly indulgent, but imperative for mankind.  And she made it personal.  It’s no longer about the “cool” factor of the technology.  Joyce is to human drivers as Hiroshima’s Peace Park is to the atomic bomb – a vivid memorial that begs modern society to do away with such destructive forces.  

We don’t know what caused the driver to veer suddenly to the side of the road, but I think it’s fair to assume that the driver was distracted, whether it be by a cell phone or otherwise.  I’ve been in a collision because the driver behind me was fidgeting with his radio, something that we don’t villanize as we do texting or drunk driving.  

What I’ve come to learn in my research is that there are far too many variables when it comes to driving behavior.  No one product or activity can ever make a driver completely dangerous or completely safe.  I’ve texted while driving in order to stay awake.  I rationalized that an alert but distracted driver is safer than a driver whose eyes aren’t even open.  Drivers who have had a couple drinks are often safer drivers than those who have had no alcohol at all – slightly inebriated drivers are aware of the risk of getting caught and therefore behave better.  

Thus, I’m not going to crusade against any one behavior – texting, drinking, applying makeup, aggressive driving – because none of these are inherently more or less dangerous than any others.  Instead, I’m crusading against the one aspect that puts us in danger at all, and that’s putting human beings behind the wheel.  We are far too comfortable with driving, far too distracted by life, and far too bad at it (statistically, you are worse than you think).  We need smart vehicles to take over, so that we can spend our time doing being distracted.  

Take the human element out of driving, and you remove the human error that puts us in danger every time we get near a roadway.  Until then, the only thing I can think to do is be the best driver I can be, and I hope that Joyce approves from above. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Future: A Sneak Peek at 2045

There is a big difference between following current trajectories into the future to imagine a dismal fate, and believing that the small efforts today can turn those trends around.  Maybe its the hopeful optimist in me, or maybe its my faith in humanity's ability to prevent foreseeable disasters, but I believe 30 years from today will be an awesome time to live.  There are three areas that I'm most anxious to fast-forward to: technology, health and the economy.

Self-driving cars will be practically mandated; it won't contravene hard law to drive oneself, but it will be rendered completely impractical and economically challenging because insurance rates will skyrocket for non-autonomous vehicles.  A new industry will arise around furnishing and "pimping" your self-driving car, free from the restrictions of forward-facing seats and the tethers of strict safety features.  Cars will morph into lounges of productivity, comfort and service, while zooming along safer roads than ever seen in the history of the car. 

Programming will be taught in schools instead of cursive.  Some will excel at it and become programmers, but most people will know basic computer languages. 

3D printing as a technology will mature into a mass production tool for specific applications, such as wearable technologies, on-the-go sound equipment and hot-off-the-printer food delivery services.  Most middle-class people will have some sort of 3D scanner at home, with many also having a 3D printer for specific housekeeping requirements. 

Speaking of housekeeping, robots will be employed in most homes to do the mundane work - washing and putting away dishes and clothes, taking out the garbage and recycling, vacuuming and cleaning surfaces. 

Wearables will be as pervasive as cellphones are today, and will become more invasive as we get accustomed to the Internet of Things.  These technologies will drive the turnaround of the obesity epidemic, bringing diabetes, asthma, IBS, heart disease, allergies and even cancer to their knees.  Your device will inform you that you are low on a specific nutrient and will select recommendations from your list of favorite foods as well as new dishes to try at local restaurants to satisfy your dietary requirements.  Restaurants will have no choice but to offer tasty, healthful options to win and retain customers.  Your device will also walk you through your grocery store identifying products that you may enjoy based on your tastes and dietary needs, avoiding those that you have a habit of over-indulging on.  Health and weight loss will no longer be a pressing matter, as it will be so effortless to stay healthy that obesity will seem like a frivolous concept, and all the diseases that are correlated with poor dieting will seem foreign. 

The economy will accelerate like never before, primarily because we will have long since done away with partisan politics and replaced the political system with an issues-based and performance-driven model. Flourishing in this economy is as simple as getting paid fairly for what you excel at, enjoy doing or what you are learning.  The increased transparency of skills, qualifications and talent compared to relative salaries in every field will make it nearly impossible to be under- or over-paid.  There will be more part-time and flex-time jobs and the development of hybrid jobs - where you spend part of your time in one function, and the rest of your time on another function - to best make use of the skills and value each person brings to an organization.  With job satisfaction and productivity up, and economic uncertainty diminished, the finance will be a no-brainer.  The work week will be shorter, providing us more time to exercise and participate in activities that keep us healthy. 

These are the things that I see as inevitable, if not a slightly optimistic or accelerated view of 30 years from today.  The future is ours to invent, and if we don't invent it, someone else will.  Deciding what aspect of the future to be a part of making is an ongoing challenge for me, but its the right way to think for any company or individual wanting to be around and see these things come to fruition in 30 years. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Check your judgment at the door

My boyfriend and I love crazy adventures just as much as sitting at home binge watching TV or back-to-back football games. I only partially envy couples who have regular date nights, because I enjoy all my time with my love, even if it doesn't look and feel like a formal date. Nevertheless, I aspired to have a date night at Music in the Gardens this year, so we picked the event and did it. And it was nice, a change of pace for us, enjoying the almost-not-terribly-hot weather after sun down, and getting a taste of a wealthier, more mature lifestyle. Indeed, we were definitely the youngest people there by at least 10 years I'd say. Which brings me to a small rant I must get off my chest.

I thought arriving five minutes prior to the concert start would be sufficient, but actually we were probably in the last 1% to walk through the door. The garden was packed with no open tables in sight. A staff member encouraged us to ask to sit with someone who only was using two of the four seats at their table. So I found two nice looking ladies and politely asked if we could join them at the table. They welcomed us and we chatted a bit - they too were from a Chicago, and yes, I like the White Sox better than the Cubs. After finishing our meals and drinks, I offered to go get another round for Jaiman and myself. I opened my phone case (which doubles as my wallet - and I was not carrying a purse so this should be fairly obvious) to pull out my cash. And then I was smacked with ignorant, uncalled for judgement.

"Oh, I'm so glad you guys aren't texting to each other."

Now hold on there rich bitch. We may be the youngest ones here, but we have done NOTHING to merit being treated like children. I am NOT falling over drunk, that would be the wasted female embodiment of a mid-life crisis behind us. I am NOT inappropriately dressed, that would be the woman who seemed to have borrowed a dress from her granddaughter in junior high school, because I saw her butt cheeks. Twice. I am NOT dancing around like a crazy person, that would be the older lady in a hippie dress with the tiniest of straps holding back her nudity. And we are NOT disturbing those around us by talking loudly, that would be the plastered guy trying to get with the wasted mid life crisis behind us who fell out of her chair earlier. Oh, and just so we're clear, I'm NOT the one who felt an immediate need to take crappy digitally zoomed pictures and vertical videos of the band on my phone the minute I sat down - that was YOU old lady, along with a number of other men and women around us.

So before you go passing judgment on me because I don't have gray hair and I'm not with a guy in beach shorts and a completely unnecessary, ridiculously  wide-brimmed hat (did I mention the sun was down from the start?), look around and put my actions into context with yourself and the rest of your peers. Taking money out of my phone case does not imply I communicate solely via text. Clearly - I mean we just spent 20 minutes engaged in polite small talk.

As for me, I'm glad people got to enjoy live blues in their own unique ways; I fear for our society whenever I hear about music and arts programs being cut. I enjoyed the music, the ambiance, the food and drinks, the cacti, the quiet, the temporary separation from technology, as well as the people watching. Sure I make assumptions about the people I observe, everybody does, it's a shortcut our brains developed through evolution to allow us to make quick fight-or-flight decisions. But I keep them to myself or between me and my companion. And I'm not outright judging so much as creating a fictional persona in my head based on the few clues I've picked up - from what they're wearing, how they hold themselves, from their actions and their words. What you just did, old lady, is called discrimination.

The problem with discrimination is that it is blind. By putting someone in a category by age, race or gender, you are making assumptions about an individual that are not based on observations of that individual.  I believe in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, no matter what color, age, or gender they are.  People have to prove to me that they are awful, I don't expect it or anticipate it.  Guess what?  When you make an ignorant, judgmental, discriminatory comment like that, I have now bucketed you as an ignorant bigot.  You have proven to me that your opinions are of no value because they are not based on fact or observation, but on blind and naive stereotyping.  My respect for you instantly goes from neutral to absolute disrespect.  All you had to do was keep your mouth shut, and we'd be fine, but by uttering just a simple statement, you revealed your idiocy, your lack of respectability (as well as lack of respect and human decency), and your snobbery.  

My favorite part of all this was that the woman who made the comment was playing on her phone much more than my boyfriend and I combined, so not only did I consider her an ignorant ageist, she also proved to be a hypocrite.  Look, I don't expect people to tiptoe around opinions or analyze everything they say before saying it; I just think people should learn that the quick judgments our brains automatically calculate are different than the stereotyping, discriminatory judgments that are completely uncalled for.  And if you choose to believe something discriminatory, for goodness sake, do not verbalize it!  At best, you will lose your listeners' respect, but it could get you in a lot more trouble than that.