The Tale of the Missing iPhone

JetBlue Tail (N556JB; "Betty Blue")

JetBlue Tail (N556JB; "Betty Blue") (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Act I

I was returning home from a speaking trip on JetBlue Airways (Seattle to Long Beach) yesterday when my iPhone went missing. On the plane I switched off the phone before the plane pulled away from the gate. During the flight I managed to get some sleep and do some reading on my iPad. When our plane landed in Long Beach I prepared to stuff my phone and iPad into my carry-on and discovered that my phone was missing. I did all the searching that was possible in the cramped quarters of a plane-load of people as we taxied to the terminal. No luck. (Or, as some in England would say, “No joy.” In military air intercept, “no joy” is code meaning “I have been unsuccesful.”)

I resolved to wait until we reached the gate, and everyone else had de-planed, before resuming my search. I mentioned to the passengers adjacent to me that I couldn’t find my phone. They wished me luck and joined the ranks of exiting passengers.

Now I was confident I would find the phone. I checked under the seats, under the cushions, in the seat-back pocket (again). I went through all of my on-flight gear. I re-checked my pockets. Flight attendants came offering their assistance. The captain of the flight joined us in our search. He called my number to see if that would help us locate the phone, but I was sure I had turned it completely off. (Imagine being busted by the flight’s captain under these circumstances!) The cleaning crew boarded the plane, and they joined our search. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

They suggested that I go directly to the baggage claim service office and file a missing item claim. I left, finally, and they, I suspect, breathed a sigh of relief to be done with me. Before going to the baggage service office I found a JetBlue agent at the gate and described my plight. She got on her radio and asked somebody important to get on the plane check once more for me. We heard back that it was not to be found. (No surprise there.)

Long Beach Airport

Long Beach Airport (Photo credit: Konabish)

So I made my way to baggage service. The kind lady in the office took down my information. But by this time I had reluctantly concluded that my phone had been taken by someone on the plane. The captain himself had told me, “It happens.”

As we concluded the paperwork, which was surprisingly uncomplicated, the service agent suggested that I call the baggage claim for JetBlue at the Portland airport sometime around 9:30 p.m., when the same plane was scheduled to land there. It was possible, she said, that my iPhone would be discovered during the next flight and be turned in by some conscientious passenger or a flight attendant. As a philosopher, I’m well aware of logical possibilities. But I wasn’t sure that this was physically possible (or sociologically likely).

Act II

I drove home and made the call at 9:30. No one answered, so I left a message. I had now resigned myself to the fact that my phone was gone forever and that I would now need to sort out what to do about the data on the phone and arrange to get a new phone.

Of course, I was tired from the weekend and the journey home. So I flopped down in front of the TV in search of something to watch for an hour or so. I recalled seeing on JetBlue television during our flight that Kiefer Sutherland was in a new TV series called “Touch.” For some reason this was news to me. So I flipped over to my Apple TV and searched for the series. Behold, there it was. So I downloaded the first episode and put my feet up to watch “Touch” for the first time.

I’m used to odd coincidences happening with remarkable frequency in my life. Another one soon presented itself. The show began with a businessman looking frantically for his lost phone—at an airport. (I’m pretty sure it was not the Long Beach airport.) I said to my wife, “I just started watching this show and it begins with a man who lost his phone at an airport. And the whole TV series is about coincidences!”


Shortly into the episode I got a phone call from JetBlue in Portland responding to my message. I was surprised that I would hear from them when my phone was actually permanently lost. (I shouldn’t have been so surprised, since I was now very impressed with their customer service.) The agent there asked me a couple of questions, like “What kind of phone did you lose?” “What seat were you in?” Then she said, “We have it here.”

Before, I was baffled. But now I was dumbfounded.

I asked her where exactly they had found it, and she said she didn’t know. “Somewhere on the plane.”

We then made arrangements to FedEx the silly thing back to me. Of course, this would cost me about $30. Too bad none of us could locate the phone before it left Long Beach. But at least I’m not blaming an anonymous passenger for stealing my phone. And I’m not spending my day cancelling the data and getting a new phone.


It was a little unusual that I couldn’t find the phone before landing. It was baffling when a half dozen people looking for it with considerable zeal could not find it. But what do you call it when it turns up in Portland?

And what do you call it when you just happen to switch on a TV show that depicts a passenger frantic about finding his lost smart phone?

A coincidence? Hmm.

Mark Twain said that the chief difference between writing fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable. I heard that on the radio . . . while driving home from the airport last night.

Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck

UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)


Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

Gearhead Philosophers

Book Cover.Crawford.Shop ClassWhat would you expect from a book by a trained philosopher who quit his job as a Washington think tank shill (I almost said “tankard”) to work as a motorcycle mechanic?

If you know anything about the academic job market, you might think I have things backwards. It wouldn’t surprise to hear that a professional philosopher ended up—or rather, started out—rebuilding motorcycle engines. But philosophers do strange things. And Matthew Crawford, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy, is a good example.

Crawford is the author of  a new book called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. I learned about his book from a “Tweet” (i.e., a Twitter post) linking to a review of the book by a  Slate contributor named Michael Agger. The article, titled “Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” praises the book and suggests that a copy be given to everyone you know who is graduating from college and about to “commence real life.” (Never mind that a majority of college graduates postpone commencing real life, some of them indefinitely.)

Every year, grads take jobs they’ve dreamed about, then become so absorbed in them that they are absorbed by them, little noticing that their work is not particularly absorbing in the sense that matters most. Crawford’s book is supposed to get office grunts, from secretaries to CEO’s, to consider more carefully the work they’re doing.

Of course, this year a much higher percentage of college graduates will look in vain for jobs that they believe will satisfy. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe they’ll have time for some profitable reading. A book like this could help them get their heads together. Soulcraft versus bank draft. It’s an interesting contrast. Leave it to a philosopher to subvert the values of our age.

Two questions. What does any of this have to do with motorcycle maintenance? And what does it have to do with Heidegger?

The first question, presumably, is answered in the book. Crawford the philosopher became Crawford the disillusioned “knowledge worker,” which led him to become Crawford the motorcycle mechanic. And Crawford the motorcycle mechanic, who had apparently dropped out of the knowledge enterprise, learned what was of real value where life intersects work.

The answer to the second question isn’t obvious from reading the Slate article. There’s no attempt in the article to tie Crawford’s ideas and conclusions to the work of any philosopher named Heidegger. One naurally assumes that Agger is thinking of the Heidegger, as in German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). But Agger doesn’t connect the dots. Maybe he just latched onto the name of the first philosopher he thought of. Heidegger is not known for his luminosity—nor for motorcycle expertise. So Agger’s choice of a title may be bad in more ways than one. On the other hand, there’s the possibility (admittedly remote) that Crawford draws valuable concrete lessons for life from one of the most austere philosophers of the past 100 years.

So far I’ve only read about the book. But I’m definitely interested. And if Crawford leaves Heidegger out of it, even more so.



  1. Michael Agger is also playing off the title of Robert Pirsig’s 1973 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe there’s a subtle connection between Heidegger, Zen, and motorcycle maintenance that escapes me just now. If so, my apologies to Michael Agger.
  2. As I write this, Shop Class as Soulcraft is #30 in sales rank at Amazon.
  3. Kudos for Crawford’s book include the following by Harvard professor of government, Harvey Mansfield: “Matt Crawford’s remarkable book on the morality and metaphysics of the repairman looks into the reality of practical activity. It is a superb combination of testimony and reflection, and you can’t put it down.” (Source:
  4. As long as we’re onto Heidegger here, I should note that there’s an interesting BBC documentary on the man that’s available on YouTube, starting with this 8-minute installment here.

Related Posts:

Neighbors in the Hood

For two days helicopters have been buzzing above our neighborhood, or more like north and to the west a little. When this happens, it’s usually either a police chopper or the media. It happens. But when it happens two days in a row, the denizens below begin to wonder what the fuss is.

Mystery solved. We have new neighbors, give or take a mile. And you’ve heard of them. I’ll give you one clue: single mother with 14 children.

This news comes courtesy of The Orange Country Register, Tuesday, March 10, 2009 (that’s today), page 6 of the “News” section—and noted on the cover as the first of “5 must-read stories you’ll find inside today’s paper.”

If You Were Turning 50


Would it matter to you if you were turning 50 tomorrow? How would you want to celebrate? More important, would you think of this anniversary as a time to be marked in some special way (with new resolutions or special goals, for example)?

You can probably guess why I’m asking.

%d bloggers like this: