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!”

Act III

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.

The Charms of Motel Lodging: Nelson, BC


Despite my many travels, I had forgotten about the charms of classic motels. Memories from my childhood have roared back during our few days at the North Shore Inn in Nelson, BC. Here is a brief inventory of its classic features:

  • Our rental car can be parked conveniently near the front entrance to our quarters.
  • The parking lot has fewer spaces than the motel has rooms, yet, oddly, it is ample for the number of cars actually needing a space.
  • Landscaping is austere, but not without appearing that some effort has been made to dress it up. A park bench for three and a stack of white plastic chairs are there in the event that we wish to relax in front of our room and enjoy the view. (The view, by the way, thanks to Mother Nature, is spectacular! The motel overlooks Kootenay Lake.)
  • The exterior paint, such as it is, is monochromatic.
  • The lobby is no more handsome than the rooms themselves, as it, too, is carpeted in 1950s burber that has held up remarkably well. (Guests are mercifully spared the grotesqueness of shag that inexplicably sprang from the floors of most dwellings in subsequent decades.)
  • In our two bedroom unit with kitchenette, ceilings are exceedingly high, walls are painted a glossy white, and trim is in chocolate brown aluminum. The entry is enhanced with a safety chain of precisely seven links. In the kitchenette, the brown cabinetry and white appliances are fronted by a strip of linoleum, which marks off the space dedicated to watching TV and eating meals. A fire extinguisher is mounted above the sink. The TV itself is a Citizen of a vintage no longer available even at yard sales. (Our Apple TV device will remain packed.) The manually operated air conditioner is set over the front window some eight feet above the floor.
  • The first “bedroom” is adjacent to the kitchenette, has no door and no window, so that what little privacy it affords is improved by perpetual darkness. This room, furnished only with a queen bed, would make for a nice walk-in closet off the “master bedroom,” which does have a door, a nightstand, and a closet with folding doors. (The only chest of drawers is in the main room and is used to support the aforementioned Citizen.)
  • There are three inconspicuous and unremarkable wall hangings, thoughtfully distributed among the three rooms (one over the sofa and one over each bed). (I’m one who tends to notice wall hangings more by their absence than by their profusion.)
  • The bathroom is something special. It has no window. The white walls and flooring are accented with ocean blue tub, sink, and toilet bowl. We speculate that this room is the object of special pride on the part of the novelty-conscious proprietor. Heat and water pressure in the shower are superb. The blue wash basin is set in a plain formica counter-top that is glued to a press board cabinet with peeling veneer. A pool of water encircles the toilet pedestal, the result of heavy condensation forming around the toilet tank and running off it like a British Columbian waterfall. The fan switch has been installed on an unlikely wall opposite the shower, and is turned on, if at all, only when you—and the bathroom—have already been thoroughly marinated in steamy hot water.
  • The “Contl Breakfast” is meager, as it should be if your room is fitted out with kitchenette.
  • Wi-fi works efficiently, if slowly, and is free.

My favorite feature of the unit is the poster above our bed. It pictures, in sepia tones with enhanced shades of orange, a solitary rowboat anchored near a wood pier. Inscribed at the bottom are the words: “IMAGINATION. Believe in the glory of your dreams.”

Bearing Books from New England


A week ago I returned from a New England holiday with my family. We journeyed to Maine and New Hampshire in quest of respite from the cacophony of California. We found it. Harbor views, the Maine woods, marine vessels, lobsters, crisp air, and fall leaves.

And I found bookshops—with mountains of second-hand books—ranging from the maximally disheveled to the customary semi-organized to the immaculate (for example, The Old Professor’s Bookshop in Camden, ME). Read more of this post

Back in the Saddle


For the past two weeks I’ve been off-blog. Two weeks ago I was in Birmingham, Alabama to debate Michael Shermer on the question, “Does God exist?” Then I travelled to Spokane, Washington for a conference on “Faith, Film and Philosophy,” co-hosted by Gonzaga and Whitworth Universities. The title of my presentation was “Big Ideas on the Big Screen—How Arguments Work in Film.”

When the conference ended, my daughter caught up with me and we flew over to Seattle, then drove to the Olympic Peninsula to do some writing without distraction. I worked on an essay on “Death and Immortality.” She worked on two novels she’s been drafting.

Today was the first day back on my motorcycle, a ritual that comes before blogging. With that out of the way, I’m ready to log on.

With the election past, and the unctuous posturing of the media, I think my blogging in the immediate future will move into other areas. I’ll still find it irresistable to post comments on the media, political happenings, and media coverage of political happenings. But there’s so much more to think about!

Catch ya later!

Kindle Your Reading Habits


The Kindle is a thin, book-sized reading device that holds innumerable e-books and other digital reading material that can be downloaded in an instant using wireless technology almost anywhere in the U.S. Wow! Amazon boasts a Kindle library of over 160,000 items. And the inventory continues to grow.

The Kindle came out fall 2007. My gadget-guy instincts kicked in immediately. But I held off buying. I thought the price might go down (it did), that the wait period for it to come in the mail would shorten (it did), and that my “need” for a Kindle would increase (it did).

I ordered my Kindle from Amazon in March so I would have it in time for my trip to Europe in May. It’s the only thing I took for reading material during my trip. And it’s one of the reasons why I was able to travel extremely light using carry-on baggage only.

So now I can get my reading fix no matter where I happen to be. And if I just want to read today’s issue of The New York Times, or I don’t have a book that suits my mood, I can download what I want no matter where I am. The technology is wireless.

A few years ago, I read The Gutenberg Elegies, by Sven Birkerts. Like Birkerts, I believe it would be a tragedy if books—I mean real books—became a thing of the past because they all went digital. I’m a hardcore advocate for having a houseful of books. To me, books—books on shelves, books in piles—are the ultimate in home decorating options. Books speak to me even when I’m not reading. There’s nothing quite like being in the presence of books.

Still, I welcome the arrival of the digital version of reading material. While an e-book can’t replace the role of a real book, there are things it can do for readers that the traditional book can’t. And Kindle is the way to go in this arena.

Here are seven of the main reasons why I now own and use a Kindle:

  1. I can go anywhere and read what I want while I wait.
  2. I can go anywhere in the U.S. and download books for instant reading.
  3. I can subscribe to newspapers and magazines without having them pile up around the house.
  4. I can pack light when I travel and still bring a huge library with me.
  5. I save space on my shelves for physical copies of books I really must have.
  6. I save money when I order books for my Kindle.
  7. It’s the easiest way to read in bed.

The Kindle is the perfect complement to my other hobbies. I can fit a whole library in the saddle on my motorcycle, or carry it in a small book bag on my back. The Kindle goes with me when I’m kayak touring. Traveling is a greater pleasure now that I can haul all the books I want on my Kindle. I can practice foreign languages as long as I have the right tools on my Kindle.

Yes, I can mark my Kindle books, bookmark them, and take unlimited notes that are linked to specific passages in them.

Then there’s the cool factor. A woman and her daughter saw me reading on my Kindle at a Starbucks; seeing mine convinced them to get one for themselves. On a recent trip to Europe, nearby passengers asked about it. On the train between Stuttgart and Zurich an engineering student who had never heard of the Kindle decided within a few minutes that he had to have one.

***

For Discussion:

  • Had you heard of the Kindle before now?
  • Are you interested in becoming a Kindle user?
  • Are you a Kindle user?
  • If so, what would you say are the best reasons to have a Kindle?
  • What are some of the things you’ve downloaded to your Kindle?
  • What is your evaluation of the Kindle?

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I Like Living in California


I like living in California. There—I said it. And I found myself thinking it a lot yesterday. This was something of a surprise to me. I was born here and have lived here most of my life. I lived for six years in Mexico as a teenager. I went to college out-of-state. And I taught for two years in Indiana. So you might expect me to be partial to California. But if there’s any region I’m partial to, it’s the Great Pacific Northwest, especially western Washington. Read more of this post

First Lines: Thinking of the Future When It’s Become the Present


“Not until my ears popped and the plane was coming down over the winking lights of Bogatá—or really it looked like any other city at night—did I raise my eyes from the page I’d been puzzling at and begin to think of the girl, or woman, the friend or acquaintance, Natasha, whom I was flying so far to visit. That’s how it was with me then: I couldn’t think of the future until I arrived there.”

—Dwight B. Wilmerding, lead character in the novel Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel

“I couldn’t think of the future until I arrived there.” In this case, the character is literally arriving by plane at

Book Cover for Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel

Book Cover for Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel

Bogatá, and he’s thinking—really thinking—for the first time about the point of his trip. Whatever he was reading before this moment had occupied his attention and had nothing to do with what was going to happen next.

Wilmerding was there to visit Natasha, and he’d come a long way by plane. Natasha doesn’t have a settled identity for this protagonist. She is, variously, “the girl, or woman, the friend or acquaintance” he’s come to see. These are his thoughts. But if this is so, why has he travelled so far to see her?

That’s what we want to find out, isn’t it?

As for Bogatá, on approach into the airport, it didn’t look different than any other city at night. Has he seen Shanghai, I wonder? But I take his point—in a way, cities do look alike, even the ones we’re seeing for the first time. We approach a new place intent on noticing what’s foreign about it. We’re romantics when it comes to travel. But if we think about it, we really must be more modest. We have projected a difference that doesn’t exist.

Wilmerding hints that his penchant for waiting ’til the future arrives before thinking about it is now past. That’s interesting. What accounts for this idiosyncrasy? And are we any different? Shall we find out?

That’s our question as we stand in the Barnes and Noble fiction isle trying to decide whether to buy and read Kunkel’s novel. We are in the grip of Indecision.

Medusa, by Michael Dibdin


A few months ago, my editor at Oxford University Press and I were talking about favorite authors of mystery fiction. I recommended John Dunning, whose novel The Sign of the Book I wrote about a few days ago. I mentioned to her that I especially like to read novels that are set in places I’ve visited or will be visiting. Knowing that I’d been to Sweden on a lecture tour, she recommended Swedish author Henning Mankell (b. 1948). She also suggested Michael Dibdin (1947-2007), creator of the Aurelio Zen series set in Italy.

I paid a visit to my local Barnes and Noble and selected one book by each author, Mankel’s Before the Frost and Dibdin’s Medusa. Before the Frost is a Kurt and Linda Wallander novel, set in Sweden. I dove into it right away and liked it well enough. My records indicate that I started it November 19, 2007 and ended December 11. Maybe I’ll write about it later.

For the Fourth of July weekend just ended, I read Medusa—mostly during odd moments when the women in my life (my wife and two daughters) were shopping or doing other things when my absence goes unnoticed. Medusa isn’t the first in the Aurelio Zen series, but that didn’t matter. The jacket cover, together with some travel experience, convinced me it was the place to start.

Two summers ago I traveled by train from Florence to Venice, then from Venice through Verona and north to the Brenner pass in the Italian alps. I spent one night in Bolzano, Italy on my way to Salzburg. The hotel, situated opposite the rail station, was a family-run outfit with a storied history. I learned from the manager’s daughter that her grandfather had moved there from Austria before World War 2. A smaller version of the hotel had been his livelihood. During the war, the main floor of the building was commandeered by Italian military forces while the family was permitted to live upstairs. The building was restored to hotel status and expanded during the years following the war.

At the end of the war, the international boundary in the extreme north of modern-day Italy was disputed. This dispute was settled at the Yalta Conference, the result of bargaining by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. The region differs dramatically, both geographically and socially, from the rest of Italy. It’s called the Südalpen, German for “the southern alps.” Italian is learned, but Austrian German is preferred and more commonly spoken by the people living in the area. I didn’t know most of this until my visit, and I was glad that I had casually decided to layover in Bolzano (Bozen, in German). (For a pleasing description of the peculiar culture of Bolzano, see the Washington Post article “Bolzano: German or Italian? Yes,” by Robert V. Comuto.)

The back cover of Medusa states that the story takes place in the Italian Alps. That, together with the author’s reputation with my friend, led me to buy the book. Aurelio Zen investigates a cold-case crime and, as it happens, follows the same route by train that I had taken in 2006. The conditions were nearly perfect for a satisfying read. They would have been only slightly better if I had discovered the book about the time I was entering Austria from the south on my earlier journey.

The story begins with the discovery of a comparatively well-preserved corpse by mountain climbers high in the Alps bordering Switzerland. Three different government agencies take an interest in the mystery surrounding its discovery and the cause of death. Aurelio Zen is a police investigator with the Ministry of the Interior. His assignment is to solve the original crime while also discovering the nature of the interest taken by the Ministry of Defense. Zen goes to Bolzano to observe the body and interview the coroner who had conducted the autopsy. But the body had already been taken into custody, as it were, by military officials. The reader knows there’s a cover-up even before Zen begins to suspect it.

The plot is narrated with suitable complexity. Each section of the novel is narrated in the third person, with an omniscient perspective used for some main character in that section. Different things are going on in different places, all at the same time. So there is movement from one scenario to another to keep the reader up to speed throughout the complex progression of the whole novel. Dibdin manages the tangle adroitly.

Medusa succeeds on the level of sophisticated mystery fiction. It also reveals disparate attitudes about Italian life, or what is frequently referred to as the mysteri d’Italia. Some stereotypes are reinforced. For example, government stability in Italy is oxymoronic, and beneath the Italian facade of joyful contentment is a latent malaise that troubles the general population. There is corruption and intrigue, and hence distrust, at every turn. This is, from Zen’s point of view, “‘Italia Lite’: the new culture of empty slogans, insincere smiles and hollow promises overlaying the authentic adversarial asperity of public life” (50).

Italian words and phrases are sprinkled throughout, sharpening the reader’s sense of being in Italy. Telecomando (for remote control), belissimo, carabiniere (something like classic keystone cops, I gather, but with a military bearing), capo (a respectful form of addressing one’s superior without being too formal?); servizio, disfatta storica, magistratura, Dottore (which is what it sounds like, but used with potentially mischievous connotations), and Pronto! (a typical form of answering the phone, which apparently can be said in a tone suggesting a declaration of war—see page 73).

Some American readers may stumble over Dibdin’s use of British diction. For example, there are no flashlights in the story, but there are plenty of “torches.” “Petrol pumps” (51) are not shoes worn by women working oil derricks. I’ve never heard an American use the word “tetchy” (66). One potentially useful word is now at my disposal, though: “pollard” as a noun and “pollard” as a verb (see page 68).

There are occasional references to historical events, some of them grand, like the Versailles conference, others relatively obscure, for instance, “the bomb of 2 August 1980” (65).

Those with culinary aspirations learn that, to be worth eating, minestrone must be accompanied by fresh vegetables and high-quality olive oil and Parmesan; otherwise, a person of cultivated taste should order lentil soup with chunks of smoked bacon (45). (I would have opted for the lentil soup, in any case.)

Descriptions of place and strings of dialog are often artfully crafted. I enjoyed coming across such constructions as:

  • “. . . the only sound was the whine of the unpredictable squally breeze with fistfuls of sleet in its folds” (42);
  • “The wormholes pervading the body politic remained, but the worms had never been identified, still less charged or convicted” (65);
  • “. . . he recalled his childish fascination with this physical oxymoron: water flowing over water” (76);
  • “Whatever the outcome, it could not be worse than living in a state of perpetual uncertainty and inchoate terror” (78; maybe hell is quite literally like that?).

And how could I not appreciate Zen’s exasperation when he declares to his chief,

  • “We can’t disprove it, because they haven’t given us anything to disprove” (85)?

I’ve yet to hear a more apt description that noxious deviation that nevertheless has to be called “architecture”:

  • “the abusivo building boom of the sixties and seventies.”

Here is a clever paragraph contrasting scientific theory and religious belief:

  • “He [Gabriele Passarini] remembered having read somewhere that the difference between a theory and a belief rested not on proof but on the possibility of disproof. No matter how many observations appeared to corroborate the theory of relativity, for example, it could never conclusively be proved to be true. Its scientific respectability rested on the fact that it could instantly be proven false should contradictory evidence come to light. The same did not apply to the idea that God had created the world in six days and then faked the fossil record to suggest otherwise, which is why this amounted to nothing more than a belief. As did his fears about his own safety, he now realized.” (69-70)

and what must have been an irresistible sentence about the medieval church:

  • “The church would have banned [Halloween], . . . or at least fulminated against it.” (72)

There are other ruminations of interest. Gabriele speculates that the world used to be “hard but benign,” but now it was “soft and malevolent” (71). Zen waxes philosophical about children today, in comparison with children of a bygone era (82).

I believe I have rarely come across the word “fireworks” while reading a novel. It wouldn’t be strange if I did, unless it happened, quite unexpectedly, on the 4th of July—as it did the other day when I came to page 75. This is just one of those little inconsequential coincidences of life that seem to happen in my experience with uncanny frequency.

In addition to a larger vocabulary of Italian words, and the addition of one English word, I’ve acquired from Aurelio Zen a new trick for assisting a long-winded speaker to get to the point. Just say, politely, of course, “Yes, yes. And the upshot?” That alone is worth the price of the book.

I also learned that Giovanni Agnelli was “the creator of Fiat”—perhaps you see why the four words in italics struck me as oxymoronic when I came across them on page 92. (Finding out who started the Italian motor company is not worth the price of the book, since I don’t expect to be on any of those game shows that test your mastery of trivia.)

This novel was published in 2003, so it can’t have been intentional that the passage at the top of page 93 almost exactly parallels the campaign strategy of a chief contender for the upcoming election of a new President. But then, what politician really is “a new kind of politician”?

I recommend the book, and I’m game to try another Dibdin. Next time maybe Dark Specter, not one of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen installments. The publisher’s description says that “a dogged Seattle detective and a horribly bereaved survivor are about to come face-to-face with their perpetrator—a man named Los, a self-styled prophet who has the power to make his followers travel thousands of miles to kill for him.” Seattle is one of my favorite cities, and the Great Northwest is my favorite region among the places I’ve visited or lived.

By now you’re thinking, “Yes, yes. And what’s the upshot?” Just this—if you ever find yourself traveling by train between Venice and Florence and between Venice, Verano, and Bolzano, I suggest taking this novel, Medusa, along with you. You’ll enjoy it, and your trip will be more meaningful than if you studied the pages of a travel guide.

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