Clouds of Unknowing

I’m in the break room writing my notes while my coworker Jorge fiddles with his iPhone.

“Check this shit out,” he says.

I look up from my paperwork. My younger colleagues are very enamored with their smartphones. “What?” I say.

“Siri,” Jorge says. “What planes are flying overhead?”

“You’re kidding me.”

Jorge’s phone beeps and he hands it to me. “Take a look.” Sure enough, the screen displays the flight numbers of all the planes soaring above our heads.

“Ahmed!” I say. “Hand me the Stinger Missile!”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Jorge says.

“Why do we need to know this stuff?”

Jorge shrugs. “It’s out there, man. You can download an app, point your phone at the sky and it’ll tell you the flight number of every plane it sees.”

Richard, one of our nurses from Nigeria, chimes in. “You Americans make too much information available.”

“You think people can track Air Force One using this thing?” Jorge says.

I figure Siri is tapping into a database of information beamed from the passing planes’ flight transponders, similar to the system air traffic controllers use.

“Let’s hope the Air Force is one step ahead of Apple.” I say.

I’m flying out of New York this week. The thought of some Al Qaeda nutjob using his phone to send a warhead into my plane gives me the willies. While not an authority on military hardware, I know super portable missiles like Stingers have a very limited range. A terrorist would have to target a plane as it was taking off or landing and the flights displayed on Jorge’s phone are tens of thousands of feet up. To take them out would require a large and powerful rocket. I hope the cops would notice such a thing being prepped for launch in a parking lot.

“America’s openness makes it a great country,” Richard says. “But it’s also her greatest weakness.”

He’s right to some degree but I say nothing. Too complicated an issue for break room banter. I finish my notes, check on the patients one last time and clock out.

Walking to my car I look up and see the running lights of several planes blinking like rubies against a black velvet sky. Hundreds of people in pressurized tubes using aerodynamics to fight gravity are streaking to destinations unknown.

I could whip out my phone and find out all about them, but I don’t. Part of the fun of looking at airplanes is wondering where they’re going, Paris? Rome? Tahiti? What are the stories of the people on board? Are they excited? International spies? Or just a harried businesswoman stuck between two extra large passengers? Are they drinking champagne in first class or coach passengers bemoaning the lack of free peanuts? Right now a young man might be stroking his first love’s hair as she nestles against his shoulder while the guy behind them types up an idea that’ll lift millions out of poverty. Maybe the woman in seat 5A is a film star reading a script or a ravishing model traveling to a bikini shoot in Maui. If technology tells me I’m dreaming upon a Fed Ex plane delivering Amazon purchases to Albuquerque that would spoil the mood.

I shake my head. We are bombed with too much information. Tonight I crave mystery. There can be joy in hidden things. Hope dwells in clouds of unknowing. Fools may go where angels fear to tread – but sometimes they win.

Forgetting about Al Qaeda and Stingers I get into my car and drive home. Soon I’ll be flying beneath a canopy of stars. You’ll just have to imagine where I’m going.

20 thoughts on “Clouds of Unknowing”

  1. Brent says:

    Scary and not sure if the public really needs to that info. comes in handy though for plane spotting.

    But, can Siri find the Malaysian flight?

  2. Sigivald says:

    Random terrorist doesn’t care which plane he’s blowing up.

    Someone targeting AF1 would be near the runway watching it on visual – it’s very distinctive.

    And that’s also why I’m 100% sure the Secret Service pays extra attention to the runways.

    (MANPADS systems aren’t really good at hitting aircraft at cruising altitude, either.)

  3. Robert Dobbs says:

    I personally am in favor of maximum information about anybody available to everybody at all times. The key is equal access; nobody has secrets from anyone else, no matter how important they are. So that I can find all of John McCain’s ten houses, even if he can’t.

    What we have now is assymetry of information; some people can know all about you. But you can’t know anything about them, save what they wish you to know.

    1. guru says:

      I recommend you read “Who Owns the Future?” by Jaron Lanier. The author makes similar arguments.

  4. Mark says:

    Just finished reading your book. I’ve been a server for longer than I wish to remember. Great job telling the truth about our profession. Good luck with the writing, I do a little myself.

  5. Trixie says:

    It’s not an app that you need to download, you just ask Siri.

  6. Oona Houlihan says:

    You can also find out the exact location of everyone with a mobile phone. You can locate WiFi routers. Soon you’ll be able to find out, maybe with a little hack, what’s in your neighbor’s fridge or what is in the mayor of Jeddah’s fridge. All the while some people have empty fridges or none … This ia the greater travesty of it all.

  7. argentyne says:

    You’re just wondering while the US sends unmanned drones and kills civilians.

  8. Kelsey Coles says:

    Hi, my name is Kelsey Coles. I work for Gotham Comedy Club. We are holding a contest looking for the funniest person in the food and beverage industry. We heard that your blog is very popular with waiters in the tri-state area. We would appreciate it if you would please mention the contest on your website. We’d also like to invite you to participate (it’s free)! Below is a link for the event.

    Thanks so much,

    Link to the contest website:

  9. Peter says:

    “Just the tip, please!” Pens coming soon. $1 each via paypal. Visit/message for details!

  10. Janet says:

    I would so much like to hear from you again. I have been checking your website on a daily basis, and would be so pleased to read a new post…it doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece….just let your devoted readers know that you are still here! Besides, we would love to know about the new adventures with fatherhood. Isn’t it like living in a new dimension of reality? Hope all is well and that you are blessed, as you deserve to be.
    Janet (a follower from the blog’s beginning)

  11. F says:

    Similarly here I’m looking forward to your next post!
    Please keep us up-to-date 🙂

  12. Robert Dobbs says:

    Me three. What are you up to? How’s the family?

  13. Nana says:

    Have you seen the posting from a restaurant about the difference in table time (& attitudes) now that everyone has a cell phone on all the time. Appalling!

  14. Shyanne says:

    That is scary thinking about how terrorists can use just a phone to find out which plane is flying overhead. Thinking about this makes me scared to fly. This app is remarkable and dangerous at the same time.things like this just makes me want to rant well too late I’ve already started find out what irks a lot of people in thank you

  15. Mouse says:

    Miss your writing!!! I check back daily to check for new posts and sadly am resigned to waiting yet longer for more. Hope life is good and treating you well….

  16. Robert Dobbs says:

    Still checking in; post when you can. I took four months off posting myself, but I’m back.

  17. Rob says:

    Steve – what do you think to this article on Linkedin? Back to your roots on the tipping thing I guess!

  18. Colin says:

    Steve, please let us know you’re ok. I know things must be pretty hectic at the moment, even if it’s only a quick reply on here. Sounds stupid, but I’m getting a little worried and I don’t think I’m alone. The only two blogs I ever really got into was yours, and Clublife. I’d hate to think anything’s happened to you too.

  19. Kate Spicer says:

    Hi, I am a journalist, I wondered if we could have a private chat online or on the phone. I don’t need to know your name, just your opinions on a certain thing that I will be writing about. I hope in return I can help drive some traffic to your site. I dig your book. I write for the Sunday Times in London. My email is katespicer AT btinternet DOT com

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