Not So Mirror Worlds

Life has a way of presenting itself in patterns, often with beautiful but not quite perfect symmetry. Tonight I found myself back on the Princeton University campus to speak on a panel entitled Career Options For Engineers. The organizers and I have different first interpretations of "options" but I promised to (mostly) behave and tell the truth about why I did what I did. And there was the possibility of Victor's Pizza.

Princeton is a placed saturated in tradition. Not the Fiddler on the Roof kind of tradition but Tradition fully capitalized from a two and a half century history. Latest goofy t-shirt on campus: "Princeton Since '46". Not 1946 or 1846, but pre-Revolutionary War. There's a cannonball mark on the back of Nassau Hall, left by a British round. Tradition interprets on a more personal scale, of course. Below the bengal is my own contribution to Princeton architecture, a 1/4" deep gouge in the stone column left by the molding of my parents' Oldsmobile wagon, as I cut the corner a little too tightly. I made my mark one week before my 21st birthday. Within a few weeks, that event was exactly the midpoint of my life to date. Not quite perfect symmetry, but close enough for jazz.

My goal with two hours to spare before the careers panel: complete the alumni biathalon: visit the U-store and grab a quick slice at Victor's Pizza, all the while lugging serious work paraphernalia. Walking the main campus axes, it's easy to conjure up a happy memory about each place: frisbee in the Scudder fountain, a late-night study session in the library of my club, listening to my first Charles Mingus record in the music library, an old dorm room. I walked past the "fishbowl", a ground-floor dorm room with bay windows that face out into a main walkway, creating the gothic stone approximation of a spark plug. Everyone who walks by peers inside; for my entire junior year I was on display (a distinction that I believe I share with Eric Schmidt, class of 76). The first part of the mission is a tiger roaring success. I hit the U-Store before it closes and as a trophy I pick up a new window decal to replace one eaten by the car wash.

Making the trek from U-store to Victor's pizza, I run into Dobbo coming out of Nassau Hall, the University's main administration building. Two decades ago, Dobbo had long hair, long beard, sandals, and a wardrobe from the James Gosling collection. He was a graphics hacker. Professor of ray tracing in pre-Pixar days. After a brief stint as chair of the Computer Science department, Dobbo has become Dean Dobkin, and moved out of the engineering building into the venerable confines of Nassau Hall (sound effects go here). Dean Dobkin has short hair, short beard, is wearing closed shoes, a tie, and a jacket. He looks good. He looks official and important. By inference, I must have grown up at least a little. My first thought was that in the mirror universe where Dobbo owns a tie and collared shirt, Spock doesn't just grow a beard, he smokes weed and owns a rhyming dictionary. A twisty maze of symmetric passages, all different.

Unfortunately, my dinner plans were ruined when I found Victor's, a campus institution for over 30 years, inhabited by a fancy-sounding pizza place. Gerry and Flavio, the two men who cooked me more meals than my parents did in the 80s, sold the business and were packing up for warmer climates. The pizza was adequate, the yellow formica tables the same, but very clearly, time is moving forward. Things change. I took my bottled water (I hear Flavio muttering in Italian through the ether), and set off to find the Frist Campus Center.

Frist is found, but it's another mirror world. The campus center is beautiful, 5 floors of meeting rooms, coffee shops, TV rooms, wireless cafes, student agency spaces, and mailboxes. Each designated use area has another meaning for me -- Frist first used to the the Palmer physics building. It's where I took my first truly hard course (Freshman Physics) from my first truly secularly famous person - Val Fitch. A month into Frosh Fiz, Professor Fitch nabbed a Nobel prize for his work in sub-atomic particle physics. I'll explain as I understand it, because my knowledge of physics ends around car accidents. In a perfect theoretical world, these little doobers have no notion of time. Watch the reactions going forward or backward, and the physics and math work in perfect symmetry. You can't tell which way the clock is going. Val Fitch found that interactions have a "time arrow", indicators that tell you whether you're watching the real thing or leaning on the reverse button. The universe is held together by slight imperfections in our symmetry. I just didn't understand it until tonight.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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