Notes from the road: a trip to Corpus Christi and a drama in the airport

Every now and then, people hire me to travel places and give workshops for college instructors and teachers on using bioinformatics. In a couple of weeks, I'll go to Long Branch, NJ. This week, I went to Corpus Christi, Texas and gave two workshops at Del Mar College; one on using Cn3D to understand protein DNA structure, and another on using BLAST to identify the source of unknown DNA sequences.

Del Mar College has a beautiful science facility, with an amazing assortment of fancy high tech equipment. The workshops were fun and I enjoyed seeing the student posters showcasing work on the microbes that populate sea grass.

But, life is getting harder these days for those us who travel by air.

A couple of weeks ago, I ended up missing a family event, arriving many hours later than expected because of broken airplane equipment. Last week, my husband got stuck overnight in Chicago because of a missed connection. Today, I've been hanging out in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, waiting 6 hours for a connecting flight, and unhappily witnessing a private drama between humans and a vending machine.

I know it's probably selfish, maybe I should have left when the drama began, but I spent a long time searching for an electrical outlet, and once I found one, I couldn't bear to leave it behind and resume the search.

While I sat here, quietly typing away, I heard a mournful sigh every now and then. Suddenly, I realized that an older woman with a cane was sobbing into one of the airport courtesy phones and begging security to come help her out. Apparently the vending machine has her cell phone and won't give it back. This, it turns out is only of many troubles that have piled up throughout the day, and the poor woman has lost it.

The vending machine is new to me. It bills itself as a "pitstop for the wired traveler." You put your phone into a box, swipe your credit card, and it charges your phone. Unfortunately for this poor woman, she tried to use it. By this time, she and her granddaughter have spent three hours trying to get her phone back and have missed all of the flights they need to reach their destination. It's been horrible. She's panicked about losing her information and desperately worried about not having any money to get anywhere, call anyone, or even eat. Naturally, she's loudly lamenting about this to the world and other than her grand-daugther, I'm the only one in the area. I was trying to avoid becoming part of the story, and about to offer her some money for food when the security guys came.

It seems that asking for security, does get their attention.

The guys came and did their best to help her out. Both of them seemed mystified about the missing service representative who was supposedly on his way to take care of the machine and everyone agreed that a crowbar would certainly come in handy.

And all through the ordeal, she cried to the world, and all nearby, that all her information is on that phone and "that is not just any phone! My life is in that phone!"

Luckily, one of the rescuers turned out to manage the terminal. He calmed her down, got in touch with vendors and somehow mysteriously, the phone popped out of the charger.

I was really glad to see things work out for the woman and her granddaughter and of course, really glad when they finally left for the hotel and I could quit pretending to ignore them and wondering if there was something I should do.

But, all the while, I was thinking, I have all my information on my phone, too. What if I was in that situation? Should we be backing up our phones?

It's certainly made me think that it's probably good for everyone to find some way to store information on-line in some kind of secure place. I don't know the best place, maybe in Google Docs, maybe in a private wiki site. I don't know what would be best, but it would be good to have a backup somewhere. Just in case.

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What an awful story - and I know a lot of people who keep tons of information in their smart phones. I wonder if that is the idea behind the Google 'Android' cell phone project - separate the piece of electronic stuff and put the information in a secure location somewhere. The phone itself could be pretty much empty, unimportant.

There are several repository systems around. All commercial, some 'free', all subject to disappearing at the drop of a stock bomb. The only really safe answer is to back up to many places.

Sync regularly with your home computer, back the personal info folders up to at least two other separate devices (I use a network drive and a DVD). If you have somewhere outside home, keep the DVD's there.

But even that is not necessarily sufficient. I have lost the source code to an old project of mine because the technology left my backup media behind (tapes) and I can no longer read it. But the devices themselves still work, are still useful, and I would like to do some enhancements. SOL.

I hear CD's are on their way out. DVD-R are <25c now.

I also see Flash drives at around $3 /GB all the way up to 32GB! For $90!

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

DVD-R are less than 25C (system ate my less-than sign)

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

I would guess that the woman at the airport probably doesn't have a computer. For people like her, I think it would be helpful to have a back-up system with her cell phone service provider.

The whole episode really reminded me how much we have come to depend on our electronic gadgets to store information and how vulnerable we are when they get lost or held hostage in charging machines.

Since I don't know (memorize)n any friends' or family members phone numbers I do this:

Once a month or so while watching tv I sit with my cell phone and write out on a pad of paper all the names and phone numbers. Actually, after the first time you just scroll through to pick up the new ones.

Its easy and if you, um, happen to drop your cell phone in a plastic tumbler full of orange juice while getting into your car in the morning, and the radio shack people tell you they won't be able to retrieve anything from it and you have to buy a new one, things will be a little easier, albeit expensive, than they would otherwise...

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

I feel your pain and the poor woman's, too. I am currently in Germany on a business trip, and I arrived yesterday with severe jet lag. I have a Palm PDA that contains all my contact numbers, a serious amount of reading material and saved documentation, and a German dictionary program, among other things. Yesterday at dinner I unsuccessfully searched my purse for it so I could read at dinner. I failed to enjoy my excellent fifty-dollar dinner because I was so worried about how to get by without the thing. I hadn't used it during the flight. Bad stories about bad security people at scanners flew through my mind, as did a bad experience trying to retrieve a lost item on a British Airways flight a day after the trip. I got back to my room and saw it lying on the floor where it must have fallen out of my purse. I almost went down on my knees beside the damned thing.

By speedwell (not verified) on 21 Sep 2008 #permalink

By the way, yes, the PDA is backed up on a computer... the one I use at the office, not the company loaner laptop I was issued for the trip. I was unwilling to put all my personal data on the company network... not anymore.

By speedwell (not verified) on 21 Sep 2008 #permalink

How about the old fashioned way of carrying a small addressbook that has all the phone numbers and addresses (now it can have email ids) listed alphabetically. No need of hi-fi PDAs, blackberries, laptops.. something very simple you can actually carry in your purse/wallet..the one in which you write with a pen/pencil.. give it a thought.