Wednesday July 20, 2005


This week's unpleasant curveball: when The Wife and I got back home late Sunday night, we found a chair propped up under an open window and the back door standing wide open.  Uh-oh.  Upon investigating we discovered that both our laptops were missing, along with their associated AC adapters, external CD drives, and docking stations, and also my backpack and The Wife's day-planner.  Fortunately, our two (all-indoor, never been outside) cats were OK: one was waiting for us in the kitchen, and the other came running up the walkway when I called him.

This isn't the first time our house has been burgled.  In the fall of 2001, somebody kicked in a window in the room over our garage (where the TV is) and stole a DVD player, a VCR, all our DVDs, and a bunch of CDs, from which we were able to build a profile of the thief's musical taste: lots of Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, and Rush.  (We're thinking mullet-headed crank addict.)  He then pushed in a fan in a basement window and entered the main house.  I was asleep upstairs (!) and vaguely remember thinking the cats had knocked something over, and yelled, "You kitties are so bad!"  The thief must have heard this and fled, because nothing was missing from the house except a pair of walkie-talkies right next to the back door.  In particular, the 2001 burglar apparently never got to the living room, where both of our laptops were.

This weekend's thief, on the other hand, definitely seemed to be after laptops, and he got both.  Since he also took my backpack and The Wife's day-planner, we suspect we might be at risk for identity theft, so we've been busily changing all our passwords and cancelling our credit cards.  Worse, we're both graduate students, and there was lots of work-in-progress on our laptops' disks.  Fortunately, we were both saved from academic death by backups.  I regularly sync up the "Academic" folder on my laptop and my (unstolen) desktop downstairs, so I only lost one day of work (a few notes in a text file).  The Wife lost the electronic copy of her dissertation-in-progress but she has paper printouts of everything, so she's OK, but she'll have to retype everything (you can read her version of this story here).  I got particuarly lucky with respect to my stolen backpack.  The two spiral notebooks (one for Japanese, one for everything else) that contain all of my notes have lived in that backpack pretty much continuously for three years, but by sheer coincidence I had taken both of them out the day before the burglary, so the thief left them behind on the table.  The Wife's day-planner, in addition to having her calendar and all her phone numbers, was unfortunately the last gift her father gave to her before he died.  It could have been much worse, I guess, but we're still very annoyed.

Lessons learned: backup, backup, backup.  We're both planning to get thumb drives when we replace our laptops to keep an additional copy of everything.  We're also having somebody out from the home security company for our house's alarm system (which we've never used) to do a consultation.  Unfortuantely, both times our house was broken into the thieves knew what they were doing: they came in through windows that were already propped open, so they knew the alarm wasn't going to sound.  I guess we'll have to start being religious about closing and locking the ground-floor windows.

Finally, the inevitable linguistics note.  When I was a kid, our house was broken into and some of my mother's jewelry stolen.  She called the local police department, and (as she tells it) the conversation went something like this:

Police:  Police Department.
Mom:  My name is [name], I live at [address], and our house has been robbed.
Police:  Were you in the house when the theft happened?
Mom:  No.
Police:  Oh, then you weren't robbed, you were burgled.

It goes without saying that Mom was not amused by the police dispatcher's quibbling about the proper terminology.  (I don't even share those acceptibility judgments: burgle, or more standardly burglarize, definitely means 'steal from a location', but rob can mean either 'steal directly from a person' or 'steal from a location'—you can say a bank was robbed, for example, even if it was nighttime and there was nobody there.)  In any case, when the police came out to investigate, the actually dusted for prints, there not being much crime in the town I grew up in, then told my mother she could clean up the fingerprint dust with soap and water.  Bad call.  She actually made the cops stay and clean up their own mess, if you can believe it.  Go Mom!

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Sorry to hear about your break-in. I hope the loss is bearable. (Someone please remind me to back up my laptop more often.)

It would indeed sound strange to say of a bank that it was burgled (BrE) / burglarized (AmE). It evokes someone breaking into the offices and stealing the computer equipment.

Posted by: Chris W. at Jul 20, 2005 2:51:55 AM

That's really crappy. A USB stick is a great idea either way as you won't need to burn CD's or email stuff to yourself. Plus it's really great for moving large files across computers without having to waste disposable media (re: CD's or DVD's).

THe story about your mom making the cops clean the house is great! that scene belongs in an episode of CSI...

Posted by: EFL Geek at Jul 20, 2005 4:08:23 AM

Ouch, sorry to hear that. Here's hoping your life can continue with as little disruption as possible.

(and I wonder of the officer who quibbled about terminology happened to have thick glasses, and if there was any glasses-pushing-up-nose during that line... I think that should go in the same CSI ep. that EFL geek suggested)

Posted by: Russell at Jul 20, 2005 7:22:46 AM

"The story about your mom making the cops clean the house is great! that scene belongs in an episode of CSI..."

Speaking of CSI, we've been watching it obsessively, all the while aware of the limitations of *actual* crime scene investigators vs. the resources at the disposal of the TV characters. The policeman who came out to our house asked what the thieves might have touched and when told he said, "Yeah, I'm not going to be able to get prints off any of that." It took all I had not to say, "Dude! The cops on CSI can lift fingerprints off cotton candy!"

Posted by: The Wife at Jul 20, 2005 3:41:54 PM

Ouch! Sorry to hear that story. Surprised to hear that "burglarize" is the standard form. (I think "rob" and "burgle" have been assigned special meanings in police jargon that aren't exactly aligned with what they mean in English In General... but then again I probably only think that because I picked it up from some crime-related novel.)

Posted by: Matt at Jul 21, 2005 5:44:02 AM

Man, that's awful. I was burgled/burglarized three times during the 24 years I lived in NYC, and the cops were completely uninterested all three times (once, I think a couple of them were actually drunk). But fortunately I was too poor to have anything as valuable as a laptop (not to mention that this was in the pre-laptop era), and the crappy electronics I lost weren't that hard to replace. Still, the sense of violation and the indifference of the police left a bad taste in the mouth. I hope nothing like this happens to you again. (And I'm going to be more careful about the downstairs windows from now on...)

Posted by: language hat at Jul 21, 2005 1:11:43 PM

Having gone through the whole violation/investigation/compensation cycle four years ago, I'm finding myself weirdly unaffected this time. I'm not happy that somebody was in my house (and left the back door standing wide open for hours—thanks, ass!), but I'm not getting the horrible creeping heebie-jeebies every time the house creaks, like I did for a month in 2001. I figured we weren't going to be a high priority for the police, and the cop who came out was polite and sympathetic.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still angry—I hope the thief overdoses on whatever sort of white powder he traded our stuff for—but I'm not upset like last time.

Boy, it just occurred to me that the last robbery happened about a month after 9/11. That was a crappy autumn.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jul 21, 2005 1:57:02 PM

Err ... " but rob can mean either 'steal directly from a person' or 'steal from a location'"

Robbery is a legal term of art, which means to steal directly from a person. Try using it in an indictment any other way and the case will be thrown out by a judge.

Got burgled myself a while back, they caught the guy. We turned down restitution, wanted nothing to do with him.

Though the worst thing is he stole my five year old's DVD collection and sold it at a gamestop for a dollar a DVD.

Ah well. At least he took out some items in the kitchen we had there to haul out to the dump.

Elgin recommended your site as worth a daily visit, FYI.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at Jul 23, 2005 10:29:22 AM

"Robbery is a legal term of art, which means to steal directly from a person. Try using it in an indictment any other way and the case will be thrown out by a judge."

Sure, but a phone call from a citizen whose house has just been robbed (see how natural it sounds?) is hardly the time to get picky about terminology. I suspect the dispatcher was worried that a violent crime had been comitted and an ambulance was needed, but correcting my Mom's misuse of legal jargon was poor customer relations. (Except that "customer" is the wrong word. Sigh.)

"Elgin recommended your site as worth a daily visit, FYI."

Oh, crap, now I'll have to start posting on a dail basis. :)

Posted by: The Tensor at Jul 23, 2005 12:25:02 PM

Sorry to he about the burglary it has happened to me about 4 time once in the UK and 3 times heer in Brazil. At each time I had doors and windows locked and the bastrds still got in by the not so subtle methods of breaking the windows in.

Posted by: Alistair at Aug 6, 2005 6:02:17 PM

She just said it was worth checking on a daily basis ... that implies it is worth a look, not that she needs to find something.

Your blog is just one of three she visits every day.

Ought to be happy you inspire such hope.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at Aug 8, 2005 7:32:54 PM