I found a cell phone on the Street at the beginning of spring break. A night of exposure to the bitter cold had not dimmed its brave little backlight, and there was no car traffic, so it hadn't been crushed either. I took it home to warm up but couldn't see a way to tell who owned it except by calling "Susie" or "Mom" or perhaps "Dad's cell," and that seemed too much like an invasion of someone's privacy. The phone beeped a couple of times during breakfast, I think because "Susie" was trying to leave a message, but there was still nothing to identify the owner.
So I carried it to Public Safety down by Baker Rink, where this was evidently such a common occurrence that they had a well-established protocol for dealing with it. "No problem," said the lady who took it off my hands. "It happens all the time." By now the phone and its owner have long since been reunited, but it surely would have been a major nuisance if they had not — quite apart from the expense of having to buy a new one, there must have been a hundred numbers stored in the phone, and who knows what other precious information.
By contrast, prox cards are at the low end of electronic sophistication, but they too must be a nuisance and expensive to replace. In spite of that, lost ones are readily spotted; I've found half a dozen in the past few years. There's usually no problem identifying the owner, though one card was so badly beaten up that it had clearly been lost for months. That one was autopsied so my class could see for themselves why the badge office says "don't punch holes in your prox."
Not every found object is as interesting or valuable as a phone or as easy to associate with its owner as a prox, but some detritus is both useful and anonymous. My personal best was a crumpled $20 bill, looking like any other piece of random litter outside Dillon Gym, but more often one sees only pennies, which are hardly worth picking up these days. I found a 128 MB flash drive once, not one byte of which stored anything at all, let alone the owner's identity. It seemed like a lot of memory at the time, but in light of today's 4 GB capacities, it's more like finding a penny.
There's something especially useful that is sometimes lost on the Street and other parts of campus: unopened beer cans! There's no shortage of empties, of course, but it's hard to tell which ones are really pristine — in poor light, from a distance and at a walking pace, it takes a sharper eye than mine to distinguish full from empty from some leaky intermediate state. Furthermore, local tastes seem to run to corn-flavored soda water like Busch Natural Light, so there's little incentive to do a careful investigation.
Back on the high-tech front, someone found an iPod Nano in my class a few weeks ago and left it with me to track down whomever it belonged to. Email to class members drew no response, so I played with it for a while, looking for its owner's name. In theory and in common belief, iPods are easy and natural to use, but it took me more than a few minutes to figure out how to make the click wheel do its thing; online reviews suggest that I'm not the first person to think that the Nano isn't as user-friendly as its bigger siblings. Of course I was discharging its tiny battery while searching, so it had to be turned off before it ran down completely. That required consulting an expert (i.e., the nearest person under 25), who showed me how to hold down the bottom button long enough. Eventually I did discover a screen that said "Joe's iPod," so Joe got his expensive toy back. Surprisingly, the accompanying cable that had gone missing at the same time was still lying on the classroom floor two days later; it clearly hadn't been worth picking up, any more than pennies are.
Today's trend is to combine functions into ever smaller and more powerful electronic devices, like Apple's forthcoming iPhone, which will combine the functions of an iPod and a cell phone, and which could certainly be a prox as well. That means we can pack more in — music and movies and messages and phone numbers almost without limit. But it also means that as gadgets get smaller and smarter, we're more vulnerable to losing something big when we lose something small. Meanwhile, if you want to misplace some money or decent beer, how about dropping it outside my office so it's easy to find. Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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