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

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Sandra Porter

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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