I am a list maker; it helps me put boundaries around projects and set short term priorities. It’s also useful for organizing long-running projects, whether house maintenance or thinking about how I’ll approach my Movember campaign. Starting at the head of the year, I make notes about men’s cancers, mental health, and personal stories that motivate and inform my involvement with my singular fundraising effort for the year. Along with my leather journal of ticket stubs and concert notes, it’s something upon which to reflect.

At the peak of pandemic concerns, cancelled summer plans, a sore lack of live music, and considerations of our new reality, I found out my cousin David was being treated for prostate cancer. It was a gut punch. I didn’t add much else to the Movember list, because that news inverted my scientific order of the universe. …


Advisory boards are a great opportunity to meet people with completely divergent interests, experiences and backgrounds. You’re herded together in a nice hotel room or around a polished corporate conference room table (when such things are allowed), the saddle point of some common institution intersecting your very different skills parabolas. Our love for technology and Princeton brought Rishi and me together on a half dozen occasions and I was always impressed by his seeming ease of being an arbiter of online king makers, taste makers and makers in general.

This past year, in the course of assembling my annual themes and notes for Movember ramblings, Rishi shared a painful, personal, and deeply moving story about his brother who died from a combination of addiction, depression and over-influence of the culture of king makers. Rishi calls out the “great man theory,” that those who will lead are cultural unicorns. Rishi’s self-awareness, inspection of the technology and social fabric that amplified his brother’s issues, as a real life projection of Masha in Cory Doctorow’s “Attack Surface.” …


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Frank Zappa and I have a complicated relationship, made perhaps a bit more personal this week. His music is vulgar, obtuse, jazzy and free, but full of stereotypes and tropes that were difficult in the 1970s, let alone half a century later. Listen to his guitar playing, and sense the boundaries of rock and roll that the Mothers of Invention pushed, and there is latent genius.

I keep intersecting Zappa, a few times a decade, always in clusters. After friend and former roommate Bill completed my basic Zappa education with late night play-throughs of “Joe’s Garage,” things were quiescent for 20 years. Around an industry event, a Sun co-worker and I were discussing crazy walk-on music and the topic of Zappa came up; turns out her uncle was one of the Mothers of Invention and she had been in the penumbra of some musical bright minds. …


I read 15 books in the summer quarter, possibly a record (one of them was novella length, and one was a clunker, which kind of even out). For the first time, more than half of my reading was by women authors, and half was not science fiction. …


I came to love Talking Heads tangentially and like many things it involved a girl. A classmate who loved Talking Heads was funny, snarky and post-punk before that was a thing, and only went to hear a particular club band because their repertoire included “Life During Wartime.” Enough late nights in the WPRB basement studying LP sleeves introduced me to the rest of their catalog, and an appreciation was born. …


I hate Labor Day. What should be a three day weekend to celebrate the end of a summer has, since my tween years, been a phase change, a boundary condition, and a time of hesitant reflection. In this year of multiple crises, I hate Labor Day for failing to do what it’s done the past five decades: mark a return to schedules and a semblance of normalcy. Rationalizing why my relationship with the first holiday of the fall suffers from a split personality requires explaining my calendar visualization.

I saw my first academic calendar approaching first grade, the first student in a newly constructed school in growing suburb. The Miracle Mets would win the World Series in that fall of 1969, in an afternoon game that were allowed to watched on a black and white TV classroom. Since that elementary linking of sports and the academic year, I have always visualized the calendar as two rows of six months, with September through February on top and March to August on the bottom. The top row is structured and measured and more dark than light; the bottom is possibility, fun, and powered by live music in an outdoor amphitheater or pouring out of a car window. The fall and winter first half — always the first half of the year, like car models rolling over before the date change — is marked by national scale family celebrations and timed sports. Hockey, basketball and school schedules set the clocks for us, and yet you see progress, a countdown of days til Christmas or Opening Day or the last seconds of the year that was. …


This was my strangest quarter of reading in the near decade I’ve been keeping statistics. Zero business travel, zero vacation days, and a lot of real world stress conspired to make this list a Litvak kugel density word salad.

Highlights: New starts by NK Jemisin, closure from John Scalzi, two prog rock biographies (one good, one meh), and my first meltingly wonderful foray into the weird wild world of Alex Irvine.

13. “The City We Became,” sci-fi, NK Jemisin, finished April 25.

Imputing the writing timeline for this first in a new trilogy, it’s clear that it’s NK Jemisin’s love-hate-love letter to New York City. At the same time, it’s a story of unity, of identity, of strength against forces of evil frankly too weird for the average grizzled New Yorker to fathom. Which makes it perfectly timely and eventually timeless. You don’t just love her characters, you want to shake them a bit and say “Get a sense of the larger picture; get off the island (and swim back to shore)” (to quote Claudio Sanchez, about whom I also thought frequently while reading this). Eagerly awaiting the next installments, and happy that the first landed on a temporary resolution in time if not also in space. …


I’ve been using Zoom for work meetings since the pandemic was in full swing (not an endorsement, just a corporate decision) and have found its audio quality relatively good. I still have the problem of coordinating many speakers and volume equalization if speakers aren’t equidistant from their laptop microphones. A week later, I began taking music lessons remotely, substituting the comfy confines of a small practice room with two amps, two basses, and two musicians (of unequal calibre and loudness) for, well, the equivalent of a corporate conference room.

Rewind forty years, and I had a flashback to a high school event where we wanted to play music over the school’s auditorium sound system, and I discovered a 1/4" jack hidden in an access panel that I probably wasn’t supposed to see. A little cabling and some level adjustment and we had whatever Billy Joel songs we wanted to accompany our slide show (it was 1980, hall passes granted). That love of random cabling took me to the production studio at WPRB-FM and eventually into a basement solder station and a lot of random cables. …


Woodrow Wilson coined the phrase “Princeton in the nation’s service” while he was president of the university, a motto later recast to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” That call to moral and proper action is carved into stone, on the approach to Nassau Hall, where you have to look askance to miss it.

Despite the regular repetition while on campus, the motto never really registered with me as an engineer until 1991 when I was asked to literally hack a device driver for the US Air Force at the outset of the first Gulf War. Pilots’ lives depended upon my ability to make a Sun workstation talk to an aging TEAC floppy drive with flight logistics data. Seventy two hours were a blur of failed builds, Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and strong encouragement from the sales team depending on me. …


Some of the best hours of my son’s youth hockey years were spent in the car, just dad and lad, driving through the woods that gave rise to the legend of the New Jersey Devil, up the Adirondack Northway to Lake Placid, or to a rink in a shore town that preferred the bustle of a summer crowd but was content with the hot chocolate and fresh donuts of a pre-sunrise hockey family. …

About

Hal Stern

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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