... around a week later, the professor says he received an envelope. Inside was a USB stick ... The thief, it appears, took pity and spent perhaps hours making sure that the professor got all of his unbacked-up information back.
As a victim of laptop theft, this is a confusingly heart warming story. Let me not beat you to death about this (of course, I will), but everyone should have a "set it and forget it" backup system in place. For those of you using Macs, go buy an Apple Time Capsule. Don't fret over the price - JUST. DO. IT. Last time I had a hard drive failure, it cost about $1000 to retrieve the data off the drive from a data recovery company who had to remove the platters in a clean room. Since I've had my Time Capsule in place, I've had two hard drive snafus. Both times, I didn't sweat one bit. Took the laptop to the Apple Store, had them fix the problem and then brought the laptop home and restored from the Time Capsule. ZERO DATA LOSS plus I didn't have to reinstall any programs (Time Machine handles that for you). $1000 each time or $278 once? You decide.
For my PC brethren, go use a service like Mozy. It's great and stores all the data in the cloud so you don't physically have to be near your backup drive in order for the magic to happen. It's free for 2GB or $5 a month for UNLIMITED storage. Not a bad deal, if you ask me. The restore process isn't as seamless as the Time Capsule for Mac (and you'll have to reinstall your programs) but it's good enough.
But remember, if someone steals your laptop there is no way to recover your data. Stories like this one are the overwhelming exception to the rule.