Friday, November 19, 2010

Still Life with Robin: How Not to Be a Loser

by Peggy Robin

I’ve lost a lot of things in my time: wallets, luggage, credit cards, keys. I’ve been remarkably fortunate in getting back most of the things I've lost -- but occasionally it’s been tough for the finder to track me down because I haven’t always had my things sufficiently marked with identifying information. Given my general level of absent-mindedness (which, unfortunately, only increases with age), I have of necessity become quite careful about tagging everything important that I own with some kind of label or marking that can be used to track me down. Of course I don’t put my address on my keys, because that would make it too easy for a bad guy to burglarize my house if he happened to get hold of them. I do, however, have several of those grocery store club tags dangling from my keyring, each with a distinct barcode, so that all the finder of my keys has to do is return them to the nearest store, which has promised to call me to let me know where I can go to pick them up.

Here are two stories of people who lost things that were not so easy to retrieve.

Cautionary Tale the First: Three Wrinkles in the Case of the Lost Luggage

Sharon was flying to Boston to attend a convention, along with a large group of co-workers. They boarded the plane en masse and Sharon was among the last to be seated -- and one of the last to seek space for her carry-on bag in the overhead bin. There was no room left, no matter how she tried to rearrange the bags to create the needed space. At last the flight attendant made her give up the Rubik's cube-like quest to align everything and turn over her bag to be “gate-checked.” So Sharon's bag disappeared, presumably to be stowed in the cargo hold with the few pieces of checked luggage on the one-hour flight. Now we come to wrinkle #1: Sharon did not receive a baggage claim check from the flight attendant. When that slip of paper wasn’t forthcoming, Sharon should have requested it – but she thought to herself, the bag is just going straight into the baggage compartment, so what could go wrong? The answer, is, of course, whenever you fly, you should be prepared for your bags to wander off on their own. Bags in an airline's possession are like socks in the dryer. Once they are out of your sight, they enter into some mysterious limbo with its own set of laws. You’re lucky that anything ever comes out right.

So needless to say, when Sharon arrived at the luggage carousel in Boston, everyone’s bags came down the chute except hers. She went to the baggage office of the airline, where she was promptly and predictably asked for her baggage claim ticket, which, she realized only then, she should have insisted on obtaining before surrendering her bag to the flight attendant. Well, it's no big deal, the baggage official reassured her. The cargo hold was probably closed before her bag made it down there, and it would have been placed on the next flight in. Sharon just needed to provide a good description of her bag so that it could be located and brought to her hotel later that day.

Now we come to wrinkle #2: Sharon didn’t actually remember which of her several carry-ons she used. Probably that black rolling bag that looked like so many others. Well, does it have a luggage tag on it? she was asked next. And then comes wrinkle #3: Yes, Sharon did have an ID tag on her luggage -- that she was sure of. It was an unusual sort of tag: Not the usual type that dangles from a strap or a tie from some loop on the luggage, this tag was integrated into the handle of the bag as a padded handle cover. To get to the ID card inside, you need to remove the padded piece from the handle by pulling apart the Velcro flap, flatten the thing out, look for a slit, and then slide out the contact card within. As soon as Sharon finished describing the procedure for unwrapping the tag and extracting the ID card, she understood that her attractive and innovatively-designed handle-padding/baggage tag was just the wrong thing to have in this situation. Wherever her bag ended up, it shouldn’t be so tricky for anyone who found it to figure out who owned it. Sharon was beginning to wonder if she’d ever see that bag again.

In the meantime, she was due for the first session of her conference in an hour, and had to make frantic phone calls to her co-workers to try to borrow a business outfit. (Sharon always did like to fly wearing comfortable clothes, but she couldn’t go to her meeting dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.)

The minute the first session was over Sharon rushed out to the nearest women’s clothing store to buy something to wear for the next day’s sessions. The hotel supplied her with essential toiletries. Very late on the evening of the second day someone called from the airline to say that her bag had been found and would be flown to Boston and brought to her hotel the next morning. Of course that was the day Sharon was leaving. Since she was headed for the airport in a few hours, Sharon considered asking the baggage official just to leave it for her to pick up – but then it occurred to her not to throw any more wrinkles into the bag mess, and so she allowed the bag to be delivered to her as part of the standard procedure. It arrived with miraculous timing just as she was checking out of the hotel. She put it right in the trunk of a cab and this time made sure she boarded the plane early enough to secure the space in the overhead bin exactly above her seat.

Three updates to this story. 1) Upon her return to DC, Sharon immediately filed a claim with the airline for the cost of the business clothing she was forced to buy for the two conference days when she had no access to her luggage. Within three weeks the airline sent her a check for the full amount shown on the receipts she enclosed for her purchases. (She offered to let the airline keep the clothing, which she'd so hastily bought and did not especially like, but the airline did not require her to give anything up.) 2) Sharon got rid of her not-so-identifying padded handle ID tags and replaced them all with the biggest, brightest colored tags she could find.  She now uses "Big Tags" and 3) Every time Sharon has flown since, she’s kept very careful track of which bag she’s packed and where the luggage claim check is for the bag if it's anywhere but in the overhead bin.

All ended happily for Sharon. Now here is:

Cautionary Tale the Second: Pass…Fail!

Rita was a total Facebook addict. Her whole life was on Facebook: her list of favorites places, her photos, her charities and causes, her plans and hopes and dreams. And of course Facebook was her main way to communicate with her 300-plus friends. She adored Facebook, and would never leave it, but the trouble was, there were times when she knew she could not afford to indulge her habit as she was so prone to do. One of those times arrived: Rita had a major project due at work and the deadline was very, very tight. So she hit upon a strategy: She got hold of her best friend Liz (yes, on the phone, not through Facebook) and said, “You’ve got to help me out. I need to get this project done by the end of this week, and the only way I can be sure I don’t procrastinate is to stay off Facebook the entire time until I'm done. So I’m asking you to reset my password for me. Once I have the project out of the way, I’ll call you again and you can give me the password so I can get back on again.” Liz agreed, and went into Rita’s account and made the change.

Well, you know what’s coming, don’t you? At the end of the week Rita called back and said, “Now let me know the password,” and Liz said, “Uh….let me look for it.” She wasn’t sure what she’d done with the scrap of paper on which she’d jotted down the new, somewhat random combination of letters and numbers. After an hour or so Liz called Rita back to say “I’m afraid I lost it. But you know when you try to log in, you can just enter your email address and click on the lost password link, and Facebook will send you an email to let you know what the password is. So it'll be okay.”

Ordinarily, Liz was right. But Rita was not in an ordinary situation. She had set up her Facebook account several years ago, when she was still a graduate student. She had used a university department’s email address as part of her account ID. Not only had she since left the university, but that department of the university had since completely revamped its email system, and in the process had deleted all the accounts of the people who no longer worked there. Rita had no more access to that email account because it simply did not exist anymore. But she wasn’t panicking…yet. She thought to herself, there must be someone at Facebook who handles these situations. After all, she could easily establish that she was who she said she was, by whatever standard of proof any security department could impose. But her first email plea to Facebook’s help department went unanswered. She tried a few more times in a few more ways to contact someone at Facebook to regain access to her account. Each time she tried she seemed to hit a dead end. She’s still trying.

Update to this story: It’s a week later and Rita has just sent off a registered letter to Facebook, appealing for help. You got that right, she’s tried every avenue in cyberspace and now is desperate enough to turn to the old-fashioned US Postal system. We’ll see if that gets her anywhere at all. In the meantime she is slowly adapting to life lived in the real world, not on Facebook. But she does miss her Facebook friends and is not giving up hope of getting back the virtually reality world she has created for herself. Any suggestions you have for Rita that might help her recover her Facebook life would be much appreciated.

Please feel free to use the comments section below for your thoughts.

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