There’s (solar) gold in them thar hills!

The Thinker by Rodin

If you own a gold mine, it’s a pretty good investment until of course the gold veins run dry.

But there’s a kind of mine that never runs out: solar gold, you might say. I’ve already gotten a share of this solar gold. For three years, we’ve had 20 solar panels on our roof. According to the obsessive statistics I keep, we’ve generated 20,076-kilowatt hours (kwhs) of clean energy since it went online in June 2016. It’s the equivalent of planting 363 trees.

But twenty solar panels turned out not to be enough. The remainder comes from carbon-free wind energy, but perhaps not much longer. A solar farm is under construction in Gardner, Massachusetts. We’ll probably get the rest from that solar farm when it is operational in March 2020.

The electricity from our house’s solar panels is free, after we recoup the cost of the system, which should happen around 2023. The same can’t be said for this solar farm under construction. We won’t own any of these solar panels. Instead, we’ll be renting them. Unlike our wind energy, for which we pay a 3.8 cents/kwh premium, we’ll get this solar power for less than it would cost to draw it from the grid. So we can go greener and pay less for the privilege.

How this works is that our “share” of the solar farm’s electricity is credited to our electric bill. So if our share generates 500 kwhs a month, presumably we’ll get a $0 bill from the electric company and see that as a credit that we draw from in future months. Of course, we still pay for our “share”. I’ll get into how that is done in a moment.

There are solar farms going up all around us. Land is relatively cheap here in Western Massachusetts, at least what there is of it. A lot of it is set-aside as conservation areas. But areas that have been deforested might as well become solar farms: huge arrays of solar panels that do nothing but wait for sunshine and sell it to the local electric company, National Grid. These solar farms have done the math and basically everyone wins.

  • Society wins by reducing the amount of carbon pollution
  • Electric companies win because they buy the power at a wholesale rate, and mark it up for retail pricing. Also, they don’t have the investment costs of creating new power plants.
  • I win because I get a discount on power compared to what I’d pay National Grid for their retail price
  • Solar farm gets to claim SREC (Solar Energy Renewable Certificates) payments for putting up a solar farm, plus they get the income selling the power to National Grid. These solar farms also make profits from the 15% discount I get compared to National Grid.

Moreover, there are no fields that need planting and harvesting. It’s all passive income. Maintenance costs for solar systems are almost zero. I imagine they might need to replace some inverters from time to time, and build a tall fence to keep people out, but that should be it. In thirty years or so they will probably swap the panels, or if new panels become much cheaper and more efficient, it might make sense to replace them long before then.

What I’d like to do is add more solar panels to my roof. I’ve looked into it but for reasons that look entirely bureaucratic, I’d have to put up a completely new system, with separate pipes, metering, etc. This frankly makes no sense but I’ve found no way around it after trading many emails and a phone call with National Grid. The cost of a separate system compared to adding to what I have amounts to thousands of dollars.

But even so, there’s a limit to the amount of panels I can put up. Realistically, it would be hard to add more than four panels to my roof. Putting more up in my backyard is not an option. First, I may be in a single-family house, but it’s a 55+ community, so we’re technically a condominium. Second, I have no backyard to speak of. I have about four feet of it. Otherwise my “yard” is a steep hill with about a 15% incline. There’s all this plus my new car is a Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid. So it is now drawing energy from the grid too. At least it’s all clean energy.

As we look toward a carbonless future though, it’s clear to me that these solar farms are leading indicators of what 2050 will look like. There will be lots and lots of solar farms. People who have roofs that are reasonably unobstructed will add solar panels. One state, California, requires it for all new construction. With the cost of solar panels continually dropping, pretty much any surface that points toward the sun and is unobstructed will have them. In time, they won’t look like solar panels, but will blend in naturally.

Lots of condo, apartment and city dwellers though will want to buy their share from solar farms. It’s likely that they will save money for doing so … and help save the planet.

A car in its (Prius) Prime

The Thinker by Rodin

So in case you were wondering, in late March I bought a Toyota Prius Prime. It was one of three models I had narrowed down as a viable choice. It was a pragmatic choice. I wanted a car that did not exist yet, which had to be fully electric but which I could conveniently recharge in the time it takes to fill a tank with gas. So it was either make a pragmatic choice or keep the 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid going for a few more years hoping the market would mature. My Honda Civic went to my daughter in Virginia. She is carless no more.

When you go nearly fifteen years between buying cars, you tend to be more than a bit wowed by the changes in car technology. I bought a 2018 Prius Prime Advanced because there were dealer incentives to unload them and I could get a tax credit for it. With the tax credit, the net cost will be around $23,000.

Toyota Prius Prime

I both love and loathe my new Prius Prime. I don’t like its style. The Prius shape is created to be super aerodynamic but its profile is also super unsexy. The Prius has become the Volkswagen Beetle of the 21st century: ugly but super useful. It is also everywhere because a lot of people like me have figured it out that while it’s not a SUV, it’s an extremely reliable and exceptionally fuel efficient car. It seats four, not five because the hybrid battery needed to be placed somewhere so they put it between the two back seats. The back of the car is actually a hatchback, but there is so much mechanical stuff inside that they had to compromise on trunk space. With the rear seats down you can haul some stuff. But it’s not really a pragmatic family car. Even with just my wife and me, when we take it on vacations we’ll have to pack a bit light.

My Prius also loves to nag me. It’s hardly alone. Most new cars do the same thing. Nonetheless, I’ve started to call it Nanny, because it’s a nanny car. It’s just trying to keep me safe. It would be hard to kill myself in this car because it wouldn’t let me. It’s constantly chirping and beeping to warn me of this and that. If you even just switch lanes without signaling, it will start chirping.

But then again, it’s an amazing car. It would get 50mpg if it were in hybrid mode, but it’s rarely in hybrid mode. 80% of the miles driven so far have been in purely electric mode. This is because most of my driving is local, and it has a purely electric range of about 30 miles or so. Last time I checked I was getting 189 mpg. Three months later, I still have about half a tank of gas. It does have a carbon footprint, but only a tiny one. Its electricity comes largely from our house’s solar panels. If we need anything extra from the grid, we pay for clean wind power. When the engine does turn on, the synergy drive tries to use the hybrid’s battery when possible and recharges it when brakes are applied or going downhill.

With more than fifteen years to perfect the Prius, Toyota has refined a totally practical car if you can live with its few deficiencies. The car feels entirely solid. There is no play in the steering wheel yet it turns smartly and easily. When in EV (electric vehicle) mode, it’s amazingly zippy because it’s being accelerated by an electric motor. In EV mode I can pass pretty much anything on the road without the car hardly trying, and silently because there is no engine running.

Even when the engine comes on though, it’s amazingly quiet. Only when accelerating with the engine on does it make much in the way of noise. The navigation system always tells me where I am going. While it doesn’t work with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, its navigation system is functional if a bit baffling. The user interface needs a good reengineering.

What I miss about my old Honda Civic is its simplicity. I miss putting a key in the ignition. Also, my Prius can at times be a bit baffling to drive. With only a thick set of user manuals, learning comes slowly. The cruise control uses a separate lever in an odd location. But it’s an adaptive cruise control, which I love, love, love! Figuring out how to adopt it so I had a tighter following distance though was not intuitive. The heads up display on the Advanced model that I have is very convenient.

Some things you don’t have to think much about, like automatic emergency breaking and blind spot detection. It just happens. Doubtless in time it will become old hat, but right now I still struggle with basic things. It is nice to have built in Bluetooth so I can listen to podcasts when I cruise.

Being a plugin, it wants to be plugged in, so getting out of the garage is now a longer process because it has to be unplugged and the cords stowed away. Ditto with arriving home. But I have none of the range anxiety I had driving the Chevy Bolt, which I otherwise really liked and would have bought. I just couldn’t live with stopping for an hour or more to recharge every 250 miles or so when traveling long distances. Pragmatism ruled the day.

And that’s what you get with the Prius Prime: an excellently engineered vehicle that’s super efficient and super reliable and will basically run forever at minimal cost. I really don’t think there is a better value on the market. It was a logical choice and it’s a choice I get happier with over time. I have never felt so safe or have been more impressed with a car, despite its shortcomings. Having owned many Toyotas over the years, I know I can count on Toyota. For the deeply pragmatic type like me that wants great value, efficiency and minimal environment impact, it’s an exceptional value.

Playing Dr. Larch

The Thinker by Rodin

“Here in St. Cloud’s,” Dr. Larch wrote, “ I have been given the choice of playing God or leaving practically everything up to chance. It is my experience that practically everything is left up to chance much of the time; men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for those moments when it is possible to play God – we should seize those moments. There won’t be many.”

John Irving, The Cider House Rules

When I was young and a good Catholic, I assumed that abortion was wrong and evil. I remember thinking, “What if we abort the next Einstein?” I never pondered its opposite: “What if we had the chance to abort the next Hitler and didn’t?” Once pro-life, as I pulled away from the Church, I became pro-choice. As a man though it’s a largely theoretical position. I can father a child and did, but I can’t choose for the mother whether to carry the child to term or not. (Technically, I can’t father another child, at least not without getting my vasectomy reversed.)

Still, sometimes we get opportunities to be Dr. Larch. He’s a fictional doctor from John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules (made into a movie starring Michael Caine). Such an opportunity came in my inbox recently.

A site that helps women get abortions in a country where it is illegal needed my help. Their web host tossed them out when someone complained. They managed to find new hosting, but had to find a way to disguise their most pertinent information: where to get abortions and who can reliably provide them in that country. This comes mostly from women trading experiences and they do so in an online forum. They needed their forum not just upgraded, but tuned to keep it harder for prying eyes to discover their paid dirt: their listings of these providers and the experiences of women who used them. Once a woman was vetted as real and sincere, they would let them access the more sensitive part of their site.

So here was my opportunity to play Dr. Larch. I wouldn’t be providing abortions but I did have a choice to make. Like Dr. Larch, I could help women do what needed to be done if they made the choice to have an abortion, or I could turn away the business.

I chose to help women. I don’t expect to make a whole lot of money from the job. The woman who runs the website will at least get my noncommercial rate. It’s only the scale of the work that made me charge her at all: it’s quite complex what she needs done. It’s a half-week of labor at least, and for about a week I’ve been trying to nail down the requirements. They are so complex I wanted to chat with her on Skype. That was not an option. She was too afraid to use it.

Yes, abortion is still illegal in her country, though it can be obtained, particularly if you are a woman of some means. The same was true here in the United States when it was illegal. The Washington Post recently republished an article from 1966 discussing how Washington area women did it back then. States that outlaw abortion won’t stop women from getting them, but will make it financially infeasible for a lot of poor women, which is the basic point. They may also be able to imprison those women they catch. It will also kill or maim many other women as they resort to self-induced abortions using coat hangers. Meanwhile, in Alabama, which arguably has the strictest anti-abortion law, it also allows rapists to have custody rights.

If I didn’t do the work, this woman might find someone else to do it, although it’s pretty complicated and I have a specialized niche. At best it would have delayed her a few extra weeks.

Some would suggest I am abetting a crime somewhere. My work is quite legal in the United States, where I work. Others might suggest I will be going to hell. If so, at least I will have plenty of company. On the other hand, I may also be saving the lives of a lot of women who might try the old coat-hanger trick, or end up with a quack for a doctor, or behind bars from a sting operation. If I help just one woman save her own life, it’s a worthy and noble mission.

This woman has a lot of courage to persist. Like Dr. Larch, the least I can do is to seize those moments when I can play God. And I choose to do what I can to empower women to have custody of their own bodies.

We have the CVS Pharmacy from hell

The Thinker by Rodin

A couple of months ago, I stopped by our local CVS because I had asked for my medication refill to be ready and was passing by and I had asked for it to be ready earlier that day. I went into the store and immediately queued up in a long line at the pharmacy register. I was fifth in line. As I stood there, another five people queued up behind me. There are four registers including the one at the drive thru. But there was one guy at the front register looking tired and hassled. Behind the counter there were plenty of pharmacists and other people, but none of them could be bothered to actually help shorten the line.

After about fifteen minutes and advancing only one space in the line (one customer had innumerable issues) I said rather loudly, “It sure would be nice if they opened another register” hoping someone would take the hint. Of course they didn’t. They kept doing all this important stuff behind the counter, which apparently doesn’t include the “service” part of CVS. (CVS supposedly stands for “Convenience, Value and Service.”)

After twenty minutes with still two people ahead of me did something I rarely do (used a curse word in public) and told my wife we’re moving pharmacies. I … just … could … not … take … it … any … more! This particular incident was one of the more egregious exceptions, but it was hardly unusual. It’s like the staff is on lethargy pills. And clearly there are no managers on duty trying to make the experience more pleasant for customers. Even their drive-thru is no silver bullet. There is often a line and when it move it move so slowly.

I’d mind this less if we had fewer medicines. I have just one prescription, but my wife must have a dozen. So we are constantly shuffling by the CVS to pick up medications. And half the time when you go to pick them up, they are not ready at the time you asked for using their automated system. We have learned to not even bother to go to CVS until we get an automated call back, often a couple of days after the date and time you requested the medicine.

So why not take it to a non-CVS pharmacy? I checked with our health insurance plan and we can also get prescriptions filled at Walgreens. It’s a bit further away but every time I am in there, there is no line at the pharmacy counter. So we started to move prescriptions there.

But it turns out that if you need a 90-day supply, you pretty much have to get it from CVS. That’s because our health insurer, like most of them, contracts with just one pharmacy chain: CVS. If we want to buy them at Walgreens, we would have to pay a lot more because it suddenly becomes an out of network pharmacy. For 30-day supplies, Walgreens is fine. But since most of our medications are for maintenance drugs, CVS is must be. Costco is another possibility: buy it at their wholesale price, but it’s 25 miles each way. It’s not a realistic alternative.

But wait! There is an alternative! We can mail order them from CVS, actually Caremark in this case because CVS bought them. But since there are a lot of these, we have to coordinate a lot of paperwork to do it mail order. It’s at least as much hassle in our case to do it mail order as it is to go to our local CVS.

We could go to another CVS and hope for a better experience there. Our closest CVS is three miles away. There is one downtown, about the same distance, but that introduces a parking hassle and there is no drive thru. Otherwise, it’s about a seven-mile drive to the next nearest CVS. And there’s no guarantee our experience will be better at that CVS either.

CVS is everywhere. They were our pharmacy before we moved from Northern Virginia too. The service was somewhat better there, in that prescriptions tended to be available when you asked for them, but there were often long lines at the pharmacy counter or drive-thru windows there too.

CVS harassment comes in many forms. Their “helpful” automated service though is too much help. We get these calls most days with prescription reminders. Still, even if you call in your prescriptions and tell the system the date and time you want to pick it up, if their workload is such that they can’t physically get it done in time, the system won’t tell you. You have to learn from experience. You practically need a chart with all your medications on them to keep track of what has been called in, when you asked for it and whether you got a call back saying it was actually fulfilled and ready for pickup.

Our local CVS may be one of the worst ones, but it’s clear that there is a general problem with CVS pharmacies. It’s not too hard to figure out. First, they have way more business than they can handle because most health plans use CVS. Second, they don’t have enough staff. The pharmacists are usually running around at warp speed. Phone calls often ring off the hook. As for counter staff, when I do see them they look apathetic and/or hassled. Most likely they aren’t paying them a living wage, as evidenced by their faces changing so often.

One can understand why health insurers want to minimize costs. CVS is trying to lock in this market, as they are everywhere, and are probably seriously underbidding their costs to insurers. So there are pressure points and they are its customers, people like us who simply have to endure a lot of frustration and hassle just to get timely and relatively affordable medicine.

Our wonderful free market hard at work. As for CVS: it’s not convenient, I get no value from going there, and their service sucks.

The gig economy model is exploitative and unsustainable

The Thinker by Rodin

I took my first Lyft ride the other day. I am pleased to say that the technology worked great! I picked up my luggage at baggage claim at Bradley International near Hartford, opened my Lyft app and within two minutes a driver was flagging me down and I was on my way home. I arrived home forty-five minutes later and just $55 poorer, but compared with taking a taxi I doubtlessly saved a bundle. In addition, my driver turned out to work part time for United Technologies configuring cloud services on Microsoft Azure for their customers. So we had lots to chat about and the drive went quickly. He fills his free hours driving people mostly to and from the airport and seemed happy to be a Lyft driver.

Until recently my daughter depended on Lyft and Uber to get around. She gave up her car a few years ago, convinced she didn’t need one in Washington’s far suburbs. If she needed to go somewhere, she’d either walk or use one of these services. Nonetheless, she snapped up the free car I offered her: my old 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid (now replaced by a Toyota Prius Prime). That was my reason for flying: I drove the car to Virginia to give it to her and took a United Airlines flight back. While normally my wife would pick me up at the airport, she recently had a knee replacement and couldn’t do it. So I experimented with Lyft, which I heard was the less evil of the two services. More to the point, it didn’t look like taking a taxi at Bradley was an option anymore. I didn’t see any I could flag down in Arrivals.

So it was a great experience until I thought about the model of Lyft and Uber in general. A lot of their drivers have too and have figured out that they are being exploited. Lyft and Uber are hardly alone using this model. In our new gig economy, the trick seems to be to create companies that find unique ways to exploit workers by making them not realize they are being exploited. In the case of Lyft and Uber, the first thing to do it not to label them employees. They are “independent contractors” who set their own hours and get paid fixed rates. One advantage to being a Lyft or Uber driver compared with being a Supershuttle driver is that they don’t have to rent a van from the company and probably aren’t working sixteen hours a day to keep paying Supershuttle’s franchise and leasing fees.

But they are getting ripped off. In the case of Lyft, they recently reduced payments to their “independent contractors”, which did not make them happy but did probably help lessen Lyft’s losses. Lyft went IPO last week but it’s bleeding money. Nonetheless, they aren’t too worried. Amazon used this strategy very profitably until their competition was either destroyed or bought out. Lyft is hoping for the same sort of success at this game. Its new shareholders don’t seem convinced yet as you can buy Lyft shares well below the $72/share price set at their launch.

These new companies exploit shamelessly and fight dirty. Customers tend to look the other way, basically because they don’t understand what’s going on. If you can save 30% or more with a Lyft ride compared to taking a taxi, you see a good deal plus in many cases they are faster and more convenient than a taxi. It’s clear to me though that these savings come principally from these “independent contractors”.

Taxi drivers are often independent contractors too. They usually aren’t employees. But they are regulated. Taxi commissions typically oversee these services and set rates that allow taxi drivers to earn a decent wage. In some cases they own their taxi, in some cases the taxi company owns them. But it’s a model that’s been working quite well because cities and towns have decided to make it work for both drivers and passengers.

Uber and Lyft decided to be disruptive, which was to just ignore these taxi commissions and brand their services as something other than what it is: a taxi service. The big difference is that their cars aren’t painted with the taxi company’s colors. You hop into one of these cars and hope that your driver won’t drive sexually assault you.

Doing background investigations on “independent contractors” of course raises costs. Hopefully both Lyft and Uber are at least doing cursory background investigations before offering contracts to these “independent contractors”. It’s more convenient to ignore these issues until it becomes too big a problem, and then hope to manage them.

But the real ones being exploited are not customers, but drivers. Basically they become drivers to get some quick cash to pay a few bills. What’s harder to see is the costs on their vehicles and how it eventually affects their bottom line. A car that was driven 10,000 miles a year that is now driven 30,000 miles a year will wear out more quickly and require more frequent maintenance. Neither Lyft nor Uber will pay for these expenses. You are supposed to figure that out as part of your business model, along with other things like withholding money for taxes and social security and Medicare, including the employer’s share. All these expenses plus the quick depreciation and higher maintenance costs on your car means that for most drivers, your effective wage per hour is below the minimum wage and you get all the hassles and costs of maintaining your car and paying taxes too.

These companies are prominent examples of this trend but they are hardly alone. Employers basically don’t want to employ: it’s costly, limits their ability to move quickly to market conditions and requires a lot of hassle. Amazon reluctantly raised wages for its warehouse workers to $15/hour, but it still hires lots of “independent contractors” who work for much less. Even my driver’s erstwhile day employer, United Technologies, is trying him out at part time wages and substandard benefits. He works from home and has to wait two more months before he is allowed to actually come into the office.

I don’t think this gig economy is sustainable. It endures until these “independent contractors” say enough and demand a fairer deal, which is hard to do if you have no union hall. Hopefully they will get a decent deal, but that will raises costs overall and make their whole business model less profitable.

But maybe it won’t matter. Like Amazon they hope that they will have gotten rid of the competition by then by hanging on as long as possible. This success though depends on cutting competition off at the kneecaps and exploiting people as long as possible. In the case of Lyft and Uber, so far it’s been decimating taxi companies. If ultimately it doesn’t work, they go out of business, leaving of course their “independent contractors” hanging.

In the case of Uber and Lyft, it’s clear this will happen eventually anyhow. The plan is to introduce fleets of automated cars as soon as the technology matures. And these “independent contractors” will be left holding the bag with cars with high mileage, lots of costs and no job.

Test-driving the Bolt, the Prius Prime and the Camry Hybrid

The Thinker by Rodin

Introduction

It’s rare for me to buy a car. The last time I bought one was in 2004. My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid is still moving me around, just not as nicely as it used to. Moving to Massachusetts has challenged it. Here the roads are bumpy and this time of year the potholes are plentiful and dangerous. I recently took it in to replace its rear struts, but driving around is still a bumpy and noisy experience. While I could probably drive it another ten years, it’s past its prime. It’s time for new car.

Back in 2004, hybrids were a new technology. Today they are old news. As I noted, electric cars are where it’s at these days, or at least where the hype is. Not all of us though can afford a Tesla Model S.

Our friend Mary came to visit us in her Tesla Model S recently, a car so large that it barely fit into our garage and only because its mirrors could retract fully inside the car. The Model S is currently something of a gold standard for electric cars. But even with the many Tesla superchargers between you and your destination, it’s hardly convenient. At best, a pit stop takes 45 minutes or so for an 80% charge. This time of the year when temperatures are cold, all electric cars lose range. Her trip that might have taken 8-9 hours in a car with a gasoline engine extended to 11-12 hours in her Tesla, which included two recharging stops.

While I like the idea of an electric car, it remains an iffy proposition as a touring car. Still, I wanted to get an idea if I even wanted one, which is why I ended up at our local Chevy dealership to test drive the Chevrolet Bolt Premium.

Chevy Bolt test drive

Back in 2004, I noted that driving the Prius seemed so futuristic. The technology certainly has changed since then, since the Prius’s dashboard now seems sort of sedate. The Chevy Bolt has an electronic dashboard behind the wheel and a separate monitor between seats for most of the other stuff. Screens change dynamically with the press of a button. These days even ordinary cars have this stuff, but to me it’s all new. I like simple displays for minimal distractions.

With the Bolt’s theoretical range of about 240 miles fully charged, during our cold weather test drive the predicted range was about a third less than that. This makes the Bolt impractical as a touring car. It can’t use Tesla’s superchargers. In the best situation you will have to wait about an hour for an 80% charge. This assumes there is no line at the charging station and a warm battery. But if you are looking for a commuting car, it’s a good choice, since most of the time you will charge it at home. But so are arguably electric cars with less range like the now-discontinued Volt.

Driving the Bolt otherwise surprised me. You expect it to be quiet and it was. Electric motors make little noise compared to pistons pounding inside an engine. It can achieve 60mph in less than seven seconds, so it’s Bolt name is particularly apt. Its high stance made it easy for me to get in and out. It feels more like a mini-SUV than a hatchback. The seats go way back and the steering wheel telescopes. It feels narrow but it’s no narrower than my Honda Civic. It doesn’t absorb bumps particularly well and perhaps due to its high stance it feels a bit hard to control at times. And the seats are not very ergonomic.

But at about a third of the price of a Model S, the Bolt feels something close to a bargain. Of course, it doesn’t pollute, unless you charge it from non-green sources. We have solar panels and get our remainder from wind power, so that’s not an issue. It would go a huge way toward making us carbon neutral. And arguably because it is all-electric, it is less complex. I could expect to save 50% or more on maintenance costs, and the cost per mile to drive an electric car will almost certainly save us 50% or more off the cost of gasoline. While there are other electric cars out there, at the moment it’s really the only practical electric car out there for the masses.

Toyota Prius Prime test drive

We also test-drove the Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid that can drive about fifty miles on electricity, but only if you don’t go too fast. It averages 50mpg in hybrid mode. It was reasonably easy to get in and out of but it helped to elevate the seat, which can only be done manually. The Prius Prime felt extremely solid with great steering control, and reasonably quiet too. Like the Bolt, it doubles as a hatchback. However its rear window with the line in the middle takes some getting used to and is arguably annoying.

Toyota Camry Hybrid test drive

We used to own a Toyota Camry. Today’s hybrid version averages 47mpg and packs a lot more technology into a fairly compact space. Driving it was quiet and comfortable. It too can drive some miles at lower speeds in pure electric mode, but its battery uses electricity that comes from the engine or regenerative braking. It’s not a hatchback, which is something of a drawback but does have a huge trunk and second row seats that fold back that allow you to transport some larger objects. The Camry remains an affordable car with a premium feel to it. You feel comfortable and kind of pampered, which contrasts with the practical Prius Prime. Its displays though feel a bit too packed with information and there are many little switches that can be hard to finger. Its monitor in the center is a bit small but functional. It’s got all the lumbar support you could want with motors to easily elevate or change the position of the seats. It is quite quiet and handles bumpy roads quite nicely.

Decisions, decisions…

There are other factors nudging us. There are sizable federal and some state tax credits available. The full $7500 federal tax credit for the Bolt expires at the end of the month. With that and a $1500 Massachusetts rebate, we can effectively get a Chevy Bolt Premium with all the convenience packages and the fast charging option for $26,565. It does mean that for long distance driving beyond 200 miles or so we’ll be driving my wife’s Subaru with its annoying manual stick. If we were to buy it, we’d also want to invest in a 240-volt car charger, probably with dual outlets on the assumption my wife would eventually have an electric car too.

All this amounts to a good dilemma, but still a dilemma. Dilemmas indicate who you really are. Am I the eco-green person I think I am? I that case I should buy the Bolt. Am I the practical guy that wants great efficiency in a car but still want to tour in it? Then I should get the Prius Prime. Do I want pretty good mileage car but a bit of pampering? Then I should get the Toyota Camry Hybrid, or some others in this market like the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, a large car which a remarkable 42mpg and one of the highest scores I’ve seen in Consumer Reports magazine: 98 out of 100 points.

I do need to either decide soon or risk some federal tax credits expiring.

The best in life is yet to be: an essay on healthy mortality

The Thinker by Rodin

Another birthday has come and gone. Since this one did not end in a zero, it did not deserve particular attention. But since I am in my sixties now, most of my life is firmly in the past. I’ll be fortunate if only two-thirds of it is in my past. Aside from a nice dinner of meatloaf and seeing If Beale Street could talk at a local arts cinema, it was like any other day.

Something I find curious about aging is that the one thing that bothered me about it growing up – death – doesn’t particularly bother me anymore. Death should be less of an abstraction at my age. We had our next-door neighbor die about a year ago. Both my parents are dead; my father curiously died three years ago on my birthday. My daughter slips into her thirties this year. We are on on our fourth set of cats. Living in a 55+ community, with most of my fellow residents older than me, it appears that advancing age doesn’t seem to bother them either. The oldest is 93 and he still gets around and enjoys life.

I’m trying to figure out why this is. It could be because I am in reasonably good health and have an excellent chance of enjoying another twenty years or more in good health. Part of it could be because we are both retired and don’t have the hassle of working or worrying about money anymore. But I’m also coming to think that a lot of it is due to not being religious. In my early twenties it’s fair to say I wasn’t religious, but I was still under a religious hangover. In my case, it was a Roman Catholic hangover. It clouded my thinking about death.

With a few exceptions, religion does much more to make us anxious about death than provide a balm to address it. It does seem ironic because if you check off the right checkboxes and have true faith, then eternal life is something of a given, albeit in a different state. And we are promised that in this case our next eternal and spiritual life will be a lot happier than this one.

For many of us, life is more chore than blessing. I don’t have to step far from my home to see it. During the recent arctic blast, two homeless people died of hypothermia in a tent behind a McDonalds restaurant in Greenfield, a town twenty-five miles north of us. The local homeless shelters could not accommodate the overflow crowds. I can see the homeless wandering downtown or holding cardboard signs at some prominent intersections. As miserable as life appears to be for them though, they still cling to it. For retired people like me without much in the way of worries about descending into poverty, life at this stage is exactly what I wanted out of life and finally received. It feels like a blessing. And it is, at least partly. I was able to hang onto a good paying job with benefits long enough to reach a good retirement, and there were no intervening medical complications to strip it all away.

No wonder so many retired people are happy with their lives. Death is unavoidable but so is life. And life is often very complex to navigate, and gets more complex everyday. In my early twenties, my real angst was likely not about some inevitable future death, but whether I could pay the rent next month. It was likely that the latter fed the former.

It used to be that life was a much more miserable experience. Retirement was virtually unheard of. Many of us lived with massive pain and discomfort we could do little to remedy. Most of us died long before we were at a retirement age, often painfully and violently. If we reached old age, we depended on our offspring to tend to us when our bodies grew frail. Medicine though only became useful in the last hundred years. Social safety nets did not exist then; living in general was precarious and scary. Retirement was a luxury for the truly rich, if they survived long enough to enjoy it. Now most of us will reach retirement age and increasingly most of us can enjoy it.

In those darker and scarier times, religion promised not only salvation but also something more important: eternal comfort in some future afterlife, which was naturally appealing because for most of us life was trial and tribulation. These days though many of us can have that comfort right now, or at least when we reach retirement age. Is it any surprise then that in countries with high standards of living that religion seems to be fading away? It’s not just Western Europe; it’s happening here in the United States too, albeit more slowly. It’s fading faster in places that are more prosperous. Hence you find more atheists in New Jersey, and fewer in Deep South Alabama. Prosperity may be what kills off religion.

My devout Catholic mother went to her grave scared out of her mind. Part of it was because her condition was quite debilitating: her case of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is similar to Parkinson’s disease. In general, it’s a bad way to go. Michael J. Fox isn’t happy about his diagnosis. Robin Williams made what seemed to him the logical choice and hung himself rather than go through a miserable decline. But my mother was also uncertain about whether she would make it into heaven. She alluded to many mistakes she had made in her life, as if any of us get through life without making mistakes. I think what really terrified her was not finding going to hell, but the idea of utter nothingness, which you have to assume happens to you after death if there is no afterlife. It terrified her probably because her Catholic faith had kept her thinking about it, at least until she couldn’t not think about it anymore.

And yet as I noted before, no one worries about their state of nothingness before they were conceived. So logically it’s kind of silly to worry about what you are after death, if anything. I do suspect though that with the right education a lot of us can learn to deal with death in a much more … what’s the word … healthier way. We can choose to be terrified of it, or not. But death cannot be escaped.

I think that’s where my head is right now. Whether my soul survives after death or not doesn’t particularly bother me. For me, what works is to be present in my own life every day, and to do things that I find interesting and meaningful every day. With death the lights may go out or not, but I do take some comfort that I am immortal in a way. Because of Albert Einstein, we know that space-time is real, and that time is an illusion. My mom is still alive somewhere in the space-time matrix. I just lack the ability to slide through space-time like a tape recorder to see her again. Some mediums though claim they can do this.

Given that space-time is a fact and that religion requires faith, knowing that space-time exists tells me that I am immortal in a way, as I am part of space-time which is effectively immortal. It is a sort of faith for the faithless. And I didn’t need Jesus Christ to find it. I needed to understand the implications of what Albert Einstein was telling us.