Lost and Found

by Henry on May 9, 2010

About eight weeks ago I left my MacBook on the DC Metro. Not a wonderful experience, as you can imagine – especially as repeated calls to the Metro’s Lost & Found, advertisements on Craigslist with reward promised and other such measures failed to produce any results. But then, last week, I got a call from Ross Sirbaugh at “Computer Warehouse”:http://www.compwarehouse.webs.com/ in Falls Church. Someone had brought in the computer and asked them to reinstall the operating system. Ross smelled a rat, took a look at the machine, figured out my name and other details, then tracked me down and called me. And then, to put the icing on the cake, refused to accept any reward whatsoever for his pretty considerable efforts. So I figure the least I can do is to give a WWW shout-out to Ross and his colleagues at Computer Warehouse, for their willingness to go that extra mile and then a couple of miles again (please – don’t anyone tell the “Heritage Foundation”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2010/05/heritage-foundation-breaks-major-abuse-of-power-story.php though). I think it is a pretty safe surmise that if this is the level of due diligence that they exercise when they don’t have _any economic incentive whatsoever_ to do it, the level that they’ll exercise when they do have such incentive (because you’re paying ’em for something) must be super-duper awesome. So, go to Computer Warehouse for all your needs (it looked like they had some pretty good value in laptops – and clearly, their tech people are strongly recommended). Did I mention their name? “Computer Warehouse”:http://www.compwarehouse.webs.com/ – right on Leesburg Pike.

Also – in the spirit of locking the barn door after the horse has gone but to your very great surprise been returned later through the benevolence of strangers – recommendations for minimizing the pain of stolen machines.

(1) _Back Up Everything Important_ somewhere external. This is the one measure I did take – and the pain would have been far, _far_ greater had I lost my work along with the machine. I use “Sugarsync”:https://www.sugarsync.com/referral?rf=dvbii96jagjv0 which keeps the work documents on my various machines in sync with each other as well as giving me an online back up – others swear by DropBox, SpiderOak and other services.

(2) Make sure that your account is password protected. I didn’t do this – remarkably stupidly – but appear to have gotten away without loss of personal information. You shouldn’t take this risk. I won’t again.

(3) Set up a “firmware password”:http://support.apple.com/kb/ht1352 if you have a recently made Mac. Makes it much harder to wipe the OS.

(4) Consider buying anti-theftware like “Undercover”:http://www.orbicule.com/undercover/. Depending on your tolerance for risk, this may be too expensive for the benefits provided (me: my risk tolerance has decreased substantially since this happened to me).

Other suggestions or recommendations welcome in comments.



JH 05.09.10 at 10:43 pm

Does it speak poorly of me that I was expectantly waiting to hear if justice had been served on whoever brought it in?


belle le triste 05.09.10 at 11:09 pm

The Computer Warehouse office is next door to an establishment that sells delicious artisanal meat pies.


EKR 05.09.10 at 11:21 pm

I would add to the above: use disk encryption. Without disk encryption, someone who steals your hard drive can just pull it out of the computer and read all the data off,
regardless of any login passwords or firmware passwords.


geo 05.09.10 at 11:23 pm

Other suggestions or recommendations welcome

Interviewer: To what do you attribute your success as a writer?
Edmund Wilson: My invariable habit of writing in pencil on legal-size yellow pads — the kind that are ruled with blue lines.


e julius drivingstorm 05.09.10 at 11:27 pm

On the other hand, it took a while for the broccoli industry to repair the damage after Bush 41 announced he did not like the vegetable.


Stuart 05.10.10 at 12:06 am

Although interestingly in your case, if you had previously done 2 or 3, it would seem less likely you would have got it back.


jim 05.10.10 at 12:28 am

Let me also praise Computer Warehouse. I’ve bought almost all my servers there. Nowadays there’s a branch closer to me on Eisenhower Avenue. But for a long time, I was faithful to the Leesburg Pike location.


Henry 05.10.10 at 12:42 am

JH – I thought about it a bit, and decided not to push for anything punitive. If I found a nice laptop on the Metro, I’d try to return it to its owner – but I’m not hurting economically, having a nice tenured professorship and all. It’s mildly dishonest not to return lost property -but I can understand how someone could be tempted, especially if they were otherwise having difficulties making ends meet. I’d be less forgiving if someone had actively stolen it, rather than passively taking advantage of my stupidity. Also, if it were a Metro official or someone else in a fiduciary role who nicked it – but I have no way of knowing that.

EKR – have always been nervous about disk encryption because of the possibility of something crapping up and your files and data turning into chiselled spam, but since I am now backing up everything online anyway …


Henry 05.10.10 at 12:46 am

Stuart – yes – it lowers the downside risk (identity theft etc) at the cost of lowering the probability of the upside. I’m considering getting the machine ostentatiously engraved with my name and address too (although I hear that people cover this with stickers).


Kieran Healy 05.10.10 at 12:47 am

Pity the thief didn’t try to sell it to Jonah Goldberg for $5000.


Hmm 05.10.10 at 1:24 am

Copy/paste your account above on Yelp to counter the haters


laura 05.10.10 at 1:38 am

Oh, I love hearing stories like that. Thanks for sharing, Henry.


hilzoy 05.10.10 at 2:05 am

Useful for stolen Macs:



A free open source program that does the same sort of thing as Undercover:


Also, an understandable but at times unfortunate feature of .mac (or whatever it’s called now): you can’t reset its password from an iPhone. This is problematic if (like me) you have your iPhone but your computer is stolen, and you want to prevent your computer from continuing to get your email. I had to ask publius to reset my password from his computer.


Socrates 05.10.10 at 2:56 am

It is not ‘mildly dishonest’ to not return your laptop: it is theft. Stealing is wrong and the hand-wringing ‘I can feel your pain’ liberal excuses proffered to the thief do not do anyone any good…

When I was a penniless student I found a handbag stuffed with dollars on the subway, and handed it in without a second thought…


geo 05.10.10 at 3:47 am

Dear Socrates,

Suppose you weren’t merely penniless but near to starving, and suppose you knew that the handbag belonged to the idle,brainless, mean-spirited wife of a hedge-fund manager — ie, someone who, along with her mate, had no real (but only a legal) right to the money (or to existence, for that matter). Would this at least induce a second thought?

Humbly admiring your stern integrity,


Phil Ruse 05.10.10 at 8:29 am

A positive life-affirming story for a Monday morning? That can’t be right!


Mike Otsuka 05.10.10 at 8:52 am

Are there any online backup systems that preserve the date last modified of one’s document files on one’s hard disk when the file is uploaded to their server (i.e., that doesn’t change that date to the date at which the file was uploaded)?

I organize my files by date last modified and the online backup system I tried changed this to date uploaded.

(I suppose I could instead organize by date last saved, which I assume would be preserved even after uploading.)


Robin Datta 05.10.10 at 11:09 am

Disk Encryption:

Other suggestions:

Change the wallpaper to show ownership and contact information – ever if they cannot log on, they will know whom it belongs to.


Barry 05.10.10 at 11:10 am

Mike, use date last modified, if that’s available.


Jay Livingston 05.10.10 at 11:29 am

Contact info is easier than wallpaper. I just took one of those address labels that all the charities send and stuck it on the lid of my laptop. Ditto for my cell phone.


harry b 05.10.10 at 12:26 pm

belle — was your comment #2 a response to JH’s comment #1?


belle le triste 05.10.10 at 1:07 pm



psycholinguist 05.10.10 at 2:06 pm

Yikes – as a fellow professor with a laptop, you’re experience reminds me of my own painful lesson – having the laptop stolen on campus, with all of my students’ grades in tow. It wasn’t just my privacy that was in play.


roac 05.10.10 at 3:17 pm

@2: Ordinarily I try to avoid going that close to Tysons Corner for fear of being sucked into the vortex — but please tell me more about the meat pies.


neil 05.10.10 at 4:35 pm

Password-protecting your laptop, IMO, is an extremely bad idea. Henry’s story is exactly why. If Henry’s laptop had been password-protected, for one thing, he never would have gotten it back, since the shop owner wouldn’t have been able to find out who he was. Also, if by some freak occurrence Henry had gotten his laptop back by other means, the thief would’ve succeeded in wiping the hard disk and thus Henry would’ve lost his documents.

Unless you are a defense contractor or a banker, laptop thieves do not want your personal data, they want your laptop. Do not put a password on your laptop — it’s your only chance of theft recovery. (Even with software like Undercover–if the laptop is password-protected, any thief will have to wipe the hard disk in order to use it, and with it the theft recovery software. If there’s no password, there’s a good chance that it will never be wiped.)


hidflect 05.10.10 at 10:12 pm

Move to Japan. I’ve left enough stuff on the train over the years to start a new life (passports, computers, phones) but I always got it back. Dealing with my grizzled, hung-over countenance at the various train lost and founds must have been a regular event at some stages in my life.


Antti Nannimus 05.12.10 at 1:29 am


Computers are wonderful in almost every way, except for the hardware, software, security, and service. After a long career in information technology, and many painful lessons, I’ve learned a few useful bits.

-First, I’ve learned we must always be prepared to lose the hardware without a moment’s notice. The hardware can fail us in many different ways, including of course, becoming lost. Usually however it just becomes a boat anchor when the magic smoke gets out. We must never believe or trust that it will be still working and available to us in the next instant.

-Next, I’ve learned that the software is full of bugs and vulnerabilities and it will fail us when we least expect it, destroying our data as it does. Software is mind-stuff, and like all things of the mind, it is fraught with issues.

-Then, perhaps most importantly, unless we take extraordinary precautions, I’ve learned data is always at risk of loss, theft, and corruption. It is very difficult, if not impossible to assure its privacy.

-Finally, anyone we might be expecting to protect us from this inevitability will probably not. They won’t care, they won’t accept responsibility, and they won’t save us. Some of them may even enjoy our misery and call us “lusers”. If we find someone who will really help us, we should bless our lucky fate, but not expect it to continue. If someone is pretending to care, they might be making a lot of money doing it.

So if you accept these verities, as I hope you do, then you will take personal responsibility for your stuff. We should use whatever strategies we can find to protect those things that are most important to us. I would suggest you focus first on your data, including especially those things about your identity that you consider most private and precious. Do what you must to protect them including yes, even spending some money. Maintain multiple levels of data backup. Use strong encryption for your most important private data and secrets. Use physical lock and key protections as if your portable computer were a bike parked in dark alley. And use great care to not lose your stuff. Perhaps a leash might be helpful if you tend to lose your mindfulness due to a preoccupation with great thoughts. Keep your perspective though because if we only lose our hardware, and our software, those can be replaced. However if we lose our data, we might not be able to ever recover it, and even if we can, we might lose our privacy and personal safety.

As much as we are able, we should try to buy reliable, good-quality, hardware. But we must know that it will fail us unexpectedly, and in many different possible ways. Murphy’s Law is useful here. Even if our hardware miraculously and unaccountably doesn’t fail us, it will soon become obsolete and useless. We must never fall in love with hardware since it will inevitably disappoint us in the end.

We must try to keep reasonably up-to-date with versions, releases, and patches of the software that has the most strategic value to us. Because software becomes ever more demanding, that will eventually force us to upgrade our hardware. However keeping it maintained might protect us from the worst vulnerabilities, failures, and inconveniences. The more closed, opaque, and proprietary the software is, the more cautious we should be of it.

We certainly don’t have to encrypt all our data, and even if we do, there are probably those with the resources to break it if they have enough incentive. Yes, we might accidentally and unpredictably get our hardware and software back by keeping everything in clear text, but even if we do, we may well have lost that which is more precious to us–our hard-won, irreplaceable data, our personal privacy and safety, and the valuable details of our identity.

In even the simplest and least expensive personal computers today, there are millions of hardware and software components that must work correctly together to assure the availability and safety of our system. If I’m right, you will be well rewarded by heeding my gloomy advice. If I’m wrong, and against all odds, you’ve survived a long and happy life without ever suffering a catastrophic computer failure, then you should immediately go out and buy a lottery ticket.

Have a nice day!


Robert Wiblin 05.12.10 at 2:12 am

“‘I can feel your pain’ liberal excuses proffered to the thief do not do anyone any good…”

Like Socrates I would worry that such a large amount of sympathy would make people more likely to free-load and steal and ultimately do harm. Not attempting to return stolen property is little different from theft.


Socrates 05.15.10 at 1:19 am

Geo, no one starves to death in USA unless they choose to (or through being unable to make contact with other people, such as getting lost in the hills or becoming incapacitated at home). Therefore your question is irrelevent to the case in hand.

I suspect Henry just could not be bothered to do the right thing, or did not think too deeply about what the right thing to do was, or perhaps simply got it wrong.


Henry 05.15.10 at 1:28 am

bq. I suspect Henry just could not be bothered to do the right thing, or did not think too deeply about what the right thing to do was, or perhaps simply got it wrong.

or perhaps he simply disagrees with you profoundly on the underlying ethical questions. This may come as a bit of a shock to you (brace yourself if you’re feeling vulnerable), but laziness, shallowness and wrongness do not exhaust the list of possible reasons why people do not share your views on life.


Socrates 05.15.10 at 11:46 pm

I was hoping I might get an explanation of your views


Socrates 05.15.10 at 11:58 pm

ps I didn’t intend my 1.19 to sound rude – I was just speculating as to why you didn’t do anything about the miscreant.


Yarrow 05.16.10 at 2:14 am

I didn’t intend my 1.19 to sound rude

What, you thought you’d just toss it out so subtly that Henry would only realize months later that he’d been insulted?

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