Wednesday morning, I had a truly astonishing experience. I sat in a coffee house surrounded by more than a dozen people of various ages and nationalities, and — get this! — not one of them was using an electronic device. I didn’t see a single laptop or iPad, and while one woman did pull out her smartphone to give it a casual glance, she soon put it away. Everyone was talking to one another.
“And that’s why we live in Seville,” I said to Rich, as he returned from the counter with café con leche.
We’d been back in Seville less than a week, and as so often happens during reentry, I was struck by the tremendous pleasure everyone here seems to find in the simple act of going out to breakfast. That particular morning was icy cold, the temperature just above freezing, and everyone came in at a rush, exclaiming about the weather and exchanging a bit of banter with the barmen as orders were placed and hot coffee dispensed. At the old marble-topped tables, people shed coats and settled in, enjoying the steamy warmth of the café, waiting for the barman’s shout, barely audible over the hubbub of talk and laughter, that would alert them when their food was ready.
“So I’ve been reading about this new chain of fully automated fast-food restaurants in San Francisco and New York,” I told Rich, as he tucked into hot toast topped with slivers of ham and a generous drizzle of olive oil. “You order and pay via iPad, then collect your order from a glass cubby, all without ever interacting with — in fact, without ever seeing — another human being. People are calling it the future of dining.”
He shuddered. “God, I hope not.”
The chain, Eatsa, is actually a pretty good idea. The menu is simple, bowls of quinoa covered with various toppings, offering an inexpensive ($6.95), fresh, vegetarian meal in cities where even a cheese sandwich and a Coke can, with tip, cost you $25. But it’s hard not to view fully automated dining as one more way machines are taking over human functions, eliminating not only jobs but the small interactions that make us feel connected with our community. Let’s face it, you can’t exchange banter about the weather with an iPad.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge fan of technology. I love the snappy give-and-take of social media and the ease of online research when I’m writing. I can’t wait until driverless cars become affordable. And it’s hard to argue against factories using machines for the most difficult, dangerous, repetitive tasks. But where is all this automation heading?
“47% of All Jobs Will Be Automated by 2034 and ‘No Government Is Prepared,’ Says Economist,” proclaimed a headline in HuffPost Tech UK. The Economist, drawing heavily on a 2013 Oxford Martin School study, predicts that automation will make nearly half of all human jobs obsolete in the very near future, and that this will unleash a “tsunami of social change.” Yikes! What might that look like?
But let’s not get carried away here. Before we start massing for an attack on Skynet, let’s take a look back at other predictions made by people who were absolutely, positively certain they knew about the shape of things to come.
“The telephone has too many flaws to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Western Union President William Orton, 1876
“The cinema is little more than a fad.” Charlie Chaplin, 1916
“Atomic energy might be as good as our present-day explosives, but it is very unlikely to produce anything more dangerous.” Winston Churchill, 1939
“Television won’t last; it’s a flash in the pan.” Radio pioneer Mary Somerville, 1948
“Rock and roll will be gone by June.” Variety Magazine, 1955
“Online shopping is feasible but will flop.” Time Magazine, 1968
“There is no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, 2007
Nobody can ever be sure where the world is headed; these days, the most anyone can say with certainty is that we live in very interesting times. For now, I am sustaining myself by clinging to the small pleasures. Like a warm café on a brisk winter morning, where a smiling Spaniard is waiting at the espresso machine, ready to remark that it’s so cold out, the politicians have their hands in their own pockets. Whatever happens, I hope and pray that some jobs will always be done by humans, and that we can continue to count on our local baristas for fresh coffee, old jokes, and worldly wisdom to start the day off right.
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“I got out of bed in the middle of the night,” my sister Kate recalls. “And stepped into a pool of water.”
She tried to wake her husband, but he just mumbled in his sleep, “Put a towel on it.”
“I don’t think that’s going to do it, honey. The entire house is flooded.”
That was in 2005, during one of the legendary inundations that sweep through San Anselmo, California every twenty years or so. The little creek meandering through town is normally well-behaved and only shin deep. But every once in a while, when weeks of rain saturate the earth, and there’s a heavy downpour, and an incoming tide pushes back from San Francisco Bay, the creek turns into a monster, jumps its banks, and floods the town. The 2005 flood caused nearly $100 million in damages, not counting the toys and sneakers that got soaked in my sister’s hallway.
Before Rich and I bought our cottage in downtown San Anselmo, Kate warned us it was right in the flood zone. But I refused to worry about it; after all, the next inundation wasn’t due until 2025. The township has spent decades arguing about how to solve the problem, and in the meantime they’ve installed an extremely loud flood-warning horn. This gets tested every Friday at noon, startling visitors and sending dogs and babies into fits.
I’d never heard the flood horn sounded in earnest until the evening of December 20, when Rich and I were getting ready to go out to dinner. Looking out, we didn’t see any floodwaters coming up the street, so I set a land speed record for washing and blow drying my hair, flung on some clothes, and off we dashed. Luckily, it turned out to be a false alarm.
Last Saturday, weather experts warned us to brace ourselves for major flooding during the night. The neighborhood sprang into action, covering doorways with gates and tarps. Although our house is three feet above ground, there was still a chance that floodwaters could rise high enough to come inside, so Rich and I rolled up rugs and carried smaller furniture upstairs to safety. We packed go-bags with a few necessities — Kindles, chocolate, slippers — and kept boots by the door. We were ready!
Meanwhile, some residents apparently thought it was time to appeal to a Higher Power, so they went to our park and placed flowers before the statues of Yoda and Indiana Jones (donated to the town by our most famous resident, filmmaker George Lucas). I’m not saying that’s what did the trick, but once again we made it through the night soggy but unscathed.
By Monday afternoon Rich was ready to put the house back in order.
“You don’t think that’ll be jinxing it?” I asked.
“Oh, hell no.” We reinstalled the rugs and furniture, and unpacked the go-bags.
You can guess what happened next. I’m not saying we caused it, I’m just saying that on Tuesday the rain became a deluge. Rich spent the afternoon bent over his iPhone checking the creek level; when it rose two feet in 45 minutes, I knew we were in trouble. Then it went up another foot, and at 6:39 PM the San Anselmo flood horn went off, the Ross Valley siren sounded, and our iPhones began shrieking with an emergency message.
“I think they’re trying to tell us something,” said Rich. “Maybe we’d better get the car to higher ground.”
“Maybe we’d better get ourselves to higher ground,” I said, jamming my feet into rubber boots.
We ran out to our VW and drove up the hill behind our house. Whew! Then we realized we were trapped in the labyrinthine hills with no way out except back down through the flood area. We could spend the night in our car or . . .
“Let’s make a run for it,” said Rich.
As he drove back toward the main street, water was gushing out of storm drains and manholes, gutters were overflowing, and low-lying intersections had turned into ponds. But the water hadn’t gotten very deep, so Rich carefully maneuvered the car through the worst bits and we sped out of town.
“Well, that was fun,” I said. “Fancy a glass of wine?”
At the first eatery beyond the danger zone, we made a beeline to the bar. Hmmm, I thought. What wine do you pair with a flood? Maybe a light, crisp chardonnay . . . As the level in the wine bottle subsided so did the creek, and within a few hours the worst was over. By nine it was safe to head home. There was still minor flooding, but nothing like what happened in 2005.
We awoke the next morning to blue skies and sunshine.
There is nothing quite like the joy of a narrow escape. But that same morning I experienced something that came pretty close. The doorbell rang, and there stood a courier with a package from Spain.
“Hallelujah!” I shouted. “My new passport!”
This had been delayed, and I was a trifle concerned it would arrive too late for next week’s planned departure from California. Not that it hasn’t been fun here, but after the earthquake, power outages, furnace failures, and flood evacuations, I am ready for Seville and some long, leisurely Spanish siestas.
Tonight Rich and I are celebrating our double good fortune. After that, I just might bring flowers to Yoda and Indy. It hasn't escaped my notice that since they arrived on the scene, we haven't had a full-scale inundation in this town. The workings of fate are way above my pay grade, of course, but on the off chance they are bringing us luck, I want to let them know it’s greatly appreciated.
I'm taking a short break while I travel back to Seville, so I won't be posting on this blog next week.
I am very excited about my new biometric American passport. And I really hope that I get to see it someday. Because like just about everything else that happened in 2016, it’s gotten . . . complicated.
It all started simply enough. To avoid even the remote possibility of a hiccup in my ability to travel, I applied for renewal six months before my passport’s March 2017 expiration date. I was in Seville at the time, and as I knew there was a family issue that might require a quick trip back to the States, the US consular agent in Seville arranged for me file for renewal without relinquishing my current passport. The new passport would, he said, be waiting for me on my return.
And it would be one of the new, improved biometric passports. Reading up on it afterwards, I learned it would contain a microchip and antenna capable of authenticating identity electronically, including facial, fingerprint, and iris recognition. “Did I get a retinal scan during the application process?” I asked Rich. “I don’t remember any of this high tech stuff!” Possibly it’s just storing my stated height, weight, and hair color for now, but I think we can all see where this is headed.
With my new passport (supposedly) sorted, Rich and I returned to the States for a visit that lasted longer than expected. Then a few weeks ago, a friend casually remarked, “You know, you can’t go to other countries on a passport that’s valid for less than 90 days.” Yikes!
I hurriedly contacted the US State Department and the Spanish government, explaining the situation and mentioning my long-term Spanish residency visa; nobody seemed to think travel would be an issue for me. Whew!
So it wasn’t until we actually booked airline tickets that we hit the brick wall. There was no way, the airline informed us, that I was getting on that international flight without a passport valid for 90 days. Naturally we discovered this when there were 87 days left on my current passport.
Meanwhile, the US consular agency in Seville closed down, and my new passport was forwarded to the US Embassy in Madrid. They explained I was welcome to pick it up in person or they’d mail it to my Spanish address. Could they send the passport to me in California? No.
“What are you supposed to do?” Rich said. “Wait here for ten years until it expires and then apply for another one?”
“I suppose it’s a matter of national security,” I said. “They’re guarding against theft.” But I soon realized it wasn’t about protection, it was about postage. As instructed, I’d attached €5 worth of Spanish domestic stamps to the renewal form, but these couldn’t be used for international delivery. I was a bit taken aback to learn that the Embassy was perfectly willing to send the passport to any Spanish address I gave them, so a friend could forward it to me in California. That seemed a trifle casual, but I was so grateful there was a solution that I wasn’t about to challenge the wisdom of their protocols.
All this took a remarkable amount of time, and now, of course, we are down to the wire. Rich and I have tickets to fly out of California on Tuesday, January 17. With all of Spain shut down to celebrate Three Kings Day, it will be Monday, January 9, before the passport can be dispatched to me.
But none of that is the worrying part.
At the moment, our little town of San Anselmo, CA is scurrying for sandbags and rubber boots, bracing itself for the worst storm in years and the very real probability of major flooding. Every twenty years or so, a torrential downpour coincides with an incoming tide, causing the little creek to overflow the banks and storm drains, filling downtown San Anselmo — my neighborhood — with waist-high floodwater.
So I’m picturing my new passport arriving during the predicted week-long deluge and, in the casual tradition of deliveries in our small town, being left on the welcome mat. I imagine the package sitting at the front door unnoticed as the flood evacuation siren sounds, sending us racing out the back door toward higher ground, while the raging torrent snatches my passport off the welcome mat, carries it down into the storm drains, and eventually deposits it on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
But hey, I’m an optimist. This December alone I survived an earthquake, evacuation in a previous flood alert, a day-long power outage in near-freezing temperatures, and several furnace breakdowns. Somehow I’m not surprised that my new high tech passport has been delayed by such old-school issues as postage stamps, a religious holiday, and now, quite possibly, a flood of Biblical proportions. I’m positive there is a slim chance I’ll take delivery of my passport next week so I can return to Seville — God willing and the creek don’t rise.
So how's winter been treating you this year?
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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