Author Archives: Hal Stern

The Rat, The Ox, The Fish and Me

Saturday afternoon I concluded, rightfully and formally, if not a bit hurriedly, a forty year journey. I played bass, on a stage, in a club, with a small band. Never mind that my guitar player and drummer are teachers where I take lessons and that the stage setting was that of a the year-end recital. I took “play in a band” off the bucket list.

Deep, networked appreciation of the journey of 10,000 musical missteps begins, as it should, with a piano lesson. It’s 1970, the Mets had won the World Series early in the school year, and I’m taking piano lessons from our next door neighbor. I barely made it a year, because I didn’t practice, and that’s probably why I still harbor a mild fear of the bass clef. Years later, her son would be something of an inspiration, gently letting me know it was acceptable to bury myself in the rhythmic and modal vagaries of British prog rock. Thanks, Mrs. Millering and Brett, for helping me identify with Chris Squire, my first bass hero, and essentially the root cause of what was to follow.

Fast forward seven more years, to private clarinet lessons at Caiazzo Music in Freehold. Caiazzo’s most famous customer was one Bruce Springsteen, and despite never seeing him come up those few steps from South Street, I vividly remember a hand-printed sign on the cash register that read “When the bank sells guitars Caiazzo will cash checks.” A leading indicator about musicians, across multiple economic cycles. On either end of my 30 minutes with classical etudes, I explored the guitars and basses hung on the walls, a mosaic of colors and inlays and pickguards that awed me. Standalone, they made a tinny, tiny sound, but plugged into an amplifier the sound leaped out of them. For years I tried to decipher how an instrument with no power source other than a fast picking hand could generate a signal (more on this later).

Middle school concert band. One of the most dedicated music teachers ever — Ben Webb, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Zoot the Muppet — and my first taste of public performance. What I remember more from the halls of Clifton T Barkalow, though, was a conversation at a lunch table one day about The Who. One of the cool kids — currently a performing guitar player, and a genuinely good guy — was in a heated debate about whether the Who were relevant. Someone asked me if I knew the Who. I did, and provided a reference (likely the fact that “Boris the Spider” was the B-side of “Pinball Wizard” on 45), and my 40-year admiration for The Who’s John Entwistle was cemented in the scree of Ron Howard movies.

High school was clarinet, saxophone, concert band, jazz band, pit orchestra for school musicals, and a few years of marching band. During one particularly long rehearsal the pit orchestra broke into an extended jam, completely spontaneously, right out of the lunchroom scene in “Fame.” For six minutes, until the drama teacher coerced everyone back into whatever real life scene wasn’t working, it was the most fun I had had playing an instrument. By the early summer, I played my last high school concert, took a perfunctory saxophone solo with the jazz band, and effectively didn’t play “real music” again. Didn’t make the Princeton Jazz Band, didn’t want to march in the band again, had neither skill nor interest in concert band. But thank you Nick Santoro, and Jettie June, and several dozen band mates, for putting the performance bug in me.

I met another crazy Springsteen fan from NJ, who was an amazing piano player, and he invited me to bring my saxophone over to the common room one night to jam. At one point he said “Listen to Bruce’s songs, Clarence is always playing something, but you don’t hear it up front, you have to listen.” Best advice ever about playing in a band. Thanks, Steve B (and Hillary who listened, politely, to the whole train wreck of staves and notes).

Home on a break from Princeton, and after my first bit of delayed rebellion (I bought hockey skates and insisted on taking them on our annual winter vacation) I drove myself to Caiazzo and picked a Fender Squire bass off the wall, tobacco burst color, for just under $200. I didn’t buy an amp, deciding instead to use the Rube Goldberg sound chain: bass connected to Radio Shack cassette player with a 1/4″ to 1/8″ cable, putting the cassette deck into “record” mode to use it as a notoriously noisy pre-amplifier, 1/8″ to mono RCA cable to connect cassette player output jack to tape deck input (with correct impedance and level matching!) on my stereo amplifier and voila! Bass sounds came out of my component stereo system, the “adult purchase” of the previous break. I bought a fedora (because, you know, the cover of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather” had one) and had no idea what I was doing, until some sophomores from nearby Wilson College heard my thrashing about and invited me to sit outside and play with them. Not only did I not know how to find the roots on the bass, when they mentioned Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” or “Sweet Jane” I had no idea who Lou Reed was. Thank you, Steve “Rat” for opening my ears and teaching me the first song I played (truly horribly) on bass. Every single time I hear “Rock and Roll” I think of that afternoon on the steps outside of Wilson Hall.

Later that academic year, deep in the throes of Physics 106, I had an epiphany. I figured out how electric guitars work — the magic of pickups and inducted current and moving magnetic fields. It didn’t help my playing one iota but it convinced me that maybe there was something to my tone chain that didn’t result in electrocution. Some introductory electrical engineering, discovery of WPRB-FM, and new friends with diverse musical tastes. But my performing days — with an instrument, not just a voice — were done. I played other people’s music and told stories about and around the songs, a trend that lasted until 2015. I sold my bass to a fellow WPRB DJ, never playing more than one song on it. But thank you Matteo Cavelli-Sforza, Supersonic Surber, Bill, Alan, Brita, Chuck, Mark, Steve, Jordan, and Ray.

After watching our son turn into an accomplished bass player, and applying that moldering but still useful electrical engineering knowledge to building guitar effects pedals, I decided it was time to really, truly, certainly learn to play the bass. Having won a month of lessons in a tricky tray auction (which I bid on only after discovering the offering new music school — So.I.Heard in Millburn — via a search for a pedal retailer), I bought my second bass — another Fender Squire, this time in Lake Placid blue, for only slightly more than I paid in 1980. Thank you, Ben, for being patient with me, teaching me about strings and tone and setups and technique and making sure my left hand was at least in the vicinity of correct position.

Here’s the hard thing about picking up anything new after age 50: it’s really hard. Your brain isn’t as plastic, your reflexes aren’t as good, and new motions tend to tweak anything that was bordering on the arthritic. But patient, fun teachers with similar musical tastes produced a bit of deja vu all over again this spring: When Max suggested some recital pieces, he asked “What’s the best Who song with a bass solo” and my first thought was “Boris the Spider” (revisited, 42 years after 7th grade lunch table). He was aiming for the Ox signature piece, “My Generation”, 16 bars of bass solo recognized by anyone who has listened to a radio. And so my recital piece was selected. That was the easy part.

Entwistle got that demanding tone out of his bass through pure physical effort. He played hard, he played dangerously loudly, and he was technically on another large-handed planet. Listen to the bass lines on “The Real Me” and you hear a jet engine, a blues scale, and a working class cry. Most of Entwistle’s lines are, it turns out, based on fairly simple blues progressions. Playing them isn’t nearly as easy, but that was my lesson in recital prep: play what you feel, play the song the way you want to perform it, and worry less about the notes and more about making music. My Caiazzo clarinet teacher, who later also taught me saxophone, used to describe a good solo as “Not a lot of notes, but the right ones.” Right is a many valued thing, always in the moment, but better when louder.

Two days before the recital I was convinced I wouldn’t ever master enough of the song to avoid sounding like the punch line to every bass player joke on the internet. And Max and Fabian just had us trade four bar solos around the practice room, truly an etude in G, until I felt that I could play with confidence. If you want to know the difference between music education of the 1970s and the 2010s, it’s that – developing the confidence to own my own notes. Thank you Max, Fabian, and Sam.

And so 37 years after stepping off of the Freehold Township High School stage, I strapped on the blue bass, turned up the volume (after plugging into the correct amp on the second try) and plucked out “My Generation”. I was, for two minutes, back in the pit jamming away, and it was insanely fun. Mike Gordon has nothing to worry about, and I’m more inspired than ever to lose another 20 pounds so it’s easier to see the frets when I play standing up, but I now feel like the story that began in Caiazzo Music (now, sadly, a condo building) has hit the dramatic climax. And no drummers exploded along the way…..

Tour Bag

I’m a big fan of “what’s in my bag” posts, usually checking out how highly productive road warriors like Cory Doctorow (boingboing.net, writer, speaker) and Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress and Automattic fame) literally keep their kits together over the course of a few million miles. Years ago Cory pointed readers at CountyComm Government Products where I’ve picked up airplane safe multi-tools and my latest favorite – the tour bag.

Tour Bag, 2017 edition

After years of going to outdoor shows where I’ve had rain gear, water bottles, concert merch, and winter shows where I’ve wanted to ditch my sweatshirt after a 40 degree temperature differential, I decided I needed a bag that was lightweight, tough, sported multiple pockets and is easier to sling over my shoulder. CountyComm to the rescue with a military satellite bag.

A few tour patches, some embroidery I’ve collected over the years, my tiger tail zipper pull, and I broke the bag in at Princeton Reunions with an umbrella, spare shirt, and a six pack that I later unloaded into a bag of ice. It’s comfortable – not that I can imagine lugging an antenna and a few hundred feet of coax up a hill, but this works for my purposes.

With five weeks to go to Chicago – let’s get this show on the road.

The Firth of Fifth of Macallan

Not exactly a Wheel of Fortune “before and after” clue, but my 2 day trip to Aberdeen, Scotland was full of musical and cultural references.

Despite being within 100 miles of the Macallan estate, I did not venture over to get the origin story of the amber spirit that powered Neil Peart through multiple Rush tours (and is well documented in his musical and motorcycle tour books).

Roger Dean, the artist famous for his Yes album cover art, once said that he drew inspiration from the rocky Scottish coast. I opened my talk with the cover of Yessongs, depicting what could be sea stacks, taken with liberal artistic license, and perhaps a few drams of Macallan. The point was that disruption typically comes from pulling ideas across domains, whether new applications of automation or transforming the Scottish coast into 70s prog rock art.

The city of Aberdeen reminded me of a cross between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem – it’s sparkly (mica infused) granite, and when the sun reflects off of the wet stone the old city practically shimmers like the polished sandstone facades of Jerusalem. It’s an even older city, settled for nearly eight milennia and recognized as a city since the 12th century. Part of my geographic and history lesson included the etymology of “Aberdeen” – “the mouth of the river Dee” – a modern industrial city (North Sea oil) sited on a river drew additional parallels to Pittsburgh.

Upon hearing about the derivation of “Aberdeen” I had to ask about the “firths” – inlets or bays. First thought was of course the Genesis song “Firth of Fifth,” with hope that it referred to some real place. The song’s lyrics seem overwhelmingly appropriate for the terrain, the coast, the sea faring life, and the rolling hills replete with (large bore) cows and sheep; it captures a certain haunting melancholy I felt while camped in a miniature version of the Balmoral castle. Sadly, there is a Firth of Forth (and a pair of football teams, named Firth and Fortha leading to unwieldy tongue-twisting scores like “Forth 5 Firth 4”), but the Firth of Fifth exists only in Peter Gabriel’s expansive imagination.

It’s a beautiful country, taking the time to visit and photograph the myriad northern castles would exhaust the full Genesis catalog, but sampling the variety of single malt scotches would make it a truly heady trip.

Going Back, Going Back

“Steaming hot and sunburned and emptied of emotion, I got lost and had ample time […] to ponder why this simple, almost simplistic ritual, this near-archaic tribal rite, had moved me so deeply. I came to no conclusions. It seemed to me then, lost on that campus itself lost to time, that it was simply a right and good thing to honor something you loved very much as loudly and wholeheartedly as you could, and the devil take sophistication, civilization, undue examination, or whatever else threatened to get between you and it.”

–Anne Rivers Siddons, writing of a “Princeton Reunion” in “John Chancelor Makes Me Cry”


Late afternoon sun hits the tigers between Whig and Clio Halls just right, illuminating them as captured in poet William Blake’s words. I’d rushed past those tigers hundreds of times, usually going between the U-store and class, or my dorm room in Foulke Hall and class or Colonial Club, and for a few rare nights one fall semester, between them lugging a bag of bagels as the Wednesday Night Bagel Man. I never really saw them, then, as an undergraduate, and certainly not with a few moments to appreciate their grandeur, like so much else of Reunions weekends. I have that feeling every time I step into Baker Rink, where for years I would look at the Hobey Baker display with a bit of undergrad ennui, after all, what was the big deal about a pair of hockey skates and some wooden pucks with scores painted on them? Only after I came to appreciate Hobey Baker, and later Patty Kazmaier, and was able to visit the memorials to both of them in Baker Rink did I see them as the connections to those very tribal rites that started with those years on campus.


Thirty three years later, Reunions is still fun. The annual alumni parade — the P-Rade — takes on some new angle or impact. Long-term keeper of Princetoniana Freddy Fox once called it “watching your life in reverse”, and it is, but folded up around your own perspective. You watch the Old Guard pass by, mentally calculating their ages and how much closer you’ve gotten to them this year, then you march through the remaining classes and your age remains fixed in time if not space, while the cheers get louder and lustier as you move through the younger returning classes. The P-rade seems to get shorter each year, as you march earlier and earlier, and even though you are going through progressively larger classes to your junior side, it still takes about 20 minutes to finish the route.

This year I was appreciated of my repaired right knee, which let me stomp around campus and march up and down the parade route (twice!) without much pain or swelling. Rather than thinking of them as “old,” I found myself thinking that the Old Guard were in fact guarding the fun of Reunions. As Sev pointed out, the oldest returning alum had seen members of the Class of 1865 march in his graduation year P-Rade, marking 152 years of alumnae that he had seen, from oldest to youngest to oldest again.

Each year I venture back, I find myself discovering some new facet of Reunions or campus that had previously been just one more thing overlooked or hurried by. One year it was discussion panels; one year it was finding the basement of the Frist Student Center; this year it was a hat trick of discovery – the location of “Lower Hyphen” (a/k/a where the pinball machines were below the Pub), white flowers placed on the 9/11 memorial outside of East Pyne (where I took a moment to think about classmate Karen Klitzman ’84), and on a lighter note, an invitation to the hill where Princeton hockey players of all ages and stripes watch the procession. And that is, in a nutshell, what makes the long-running orange and black weekend fun – a chance to rekindle old friendships and connect with people whom you’ve met electronically post-graduation through something other than classes, organizations or clubs.

Cory Doctorow “Walkaway”

[Also appears in the “2017 Book List” page, but this was so good it gets its own slightly expanded top level entry]

Each of Doctorow’s novels increases in thought-provoking idea density to the point where reading requires a nearly Talmudic scholar intensity to unpack, turn over, and examine each word grouping, hunting for meaning. And it is so, so worth it. Normally I’d finish his latest offering in days, but “Walkaway” (especially on the back cover heels of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which dealt with some of the same societal themes) takes the near future, magnifies through the lens of current events, collimates it via just enough social and computer science to make it frightening, and then zaps it, laser-like, into immediate term focus.

What are the existential crises of an uploaded consciousness (something teased in “Rapture of the Nerds” but central to this story)? What happens when test-heavy, fee-for-content education runs rampant? (as I was reading I was thinking “I should support Wikipedia, Curriki and the EFF to a greater extent”) What if the ultra-rich run out of ways to grow more rich? And most scary, what happens when there is immense value locked up in physical plants, raw materials, and intellectual property that isn’t being used, is in crumbling ruin, but can’t be made into a public trust simply because of variously divergent views of “ownership”?

If you don’t see the parallels to the United States in 2017, and can’t trace out the roots of the most terrifying themes in the book, then ask how and why we have and had a savings and loan bailout, a sub prime mortgage meltdown, staggering loads of student debt, teachers pushed to “test for testing” rather than teaching life-improving concepts and skills, and a housing market where $2,000/square foot in some cities is less of am impediment than simply finding supply that isn’t smoldering. And you haven’t visited Atlantic City, Detroit, or the parts of New Orleans still financially submerged from Hurricane Katrina.

“Walkaway” tells the story of those who simply reject the ultra-rich ultra-constrained social contract, write a new one, and the conflicts that result. It is, after an eight year hiatus in adult novels, well worth the wait. There are vintage Doctorow-isms: tribes, family and friends as the strong, weak and gravitational forces of personal relationships; a bit of fun-poking at names and how they convey and develop their own contexts over time (perhaps beating out the ABCD brothers in “Someone Comes to Town”); instant transmutation of noun to verb (“John Henry” as a verb) and by the last page, not necessarily a happy smiling ending but one that points to a more stable future for all involved.

Securing The Snowman

I finally added an SSL certificate to ye olde Snowman so that (a) Google does a better job of indexing it (b) it’s less susceptible to various forms of attack (c) I enter at least the last decade of good internet hygiene. It seems, however, that the whole https chain on my hosting provider is a bit wonky and I keep dropping connections, so if you’re one of the five regular readers, stay tuned.

Man Your Own Jackhammers

Over the years I’ve had to explain the appeal of Yes, Rush and Phish to various music fans, not always from the stance of an apologist but usually in answer to “Why do you listen to that?” When I mention Coheed and Cambria, add in “Who are they?”

The answers flow freely from a mix of outstanding musicianship, intense live performances, creative composition that breaks out of the 1-2-3-4 rock box, and a near Talmudic scholar depth to lyrical interpretation. To be fair, it took me about three months to truly appreciate Coheed and Cambria’s catalog, having found a seat on the fence (sorry) just as their fifth and subject-of-debate album, “Year of the Black Rainbow” was released. Coheed’s canon (first five, and first seven if you count the pre-prequel “Afterman” albums) convey a Herbert-detail level space opera with killer viruses, intergalactic despots, robots, love, betrayal, redemption, and battle. Set it all to insanely complex composition and that’s Coheed in a nutshell.

Disassemble it a bit and you’ll find traces of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books, “Star Wars,” Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein, and La Boheme. Were I to teach a college course in operatic sci-fi, the background reading would be John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” (ref: The Writing Writer in Good Apollo), Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio” (ref: Monstar virus and a visceral background for “The Broken”), Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (ref: trust and relationships, the Jesse character in the Amory Wars), Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” (ref: recycled personalities in times of crisis, Coheed and Cambria themselves), and Frank Herbert’s original “Dune” (ref: loyalty, fealty, assassination under duress — Dr Uwe in Dune, the creation of the Monstar virus and eventually “Pearl of the Stars”). When I hear the “Man your own jackhammers” chorus of “In Keeping Secrets,” my mind goes to the Fremen/House Harkonnen battle in “Dune”, where the desert army reclaims their stronghold with primitive yet functional weapons.

It’s that chorus, the quintessential bit of obscure lyricism coupled with outrageous riff, that captures why I love Coheed and Cambria: seeing them live. You will never find a more intense and informed group of fans who are equally rocking out yet respectful of their fellow concert goers. Despite being packed three thousand deep on the floor of Terminal 5, there was absolutely no bad behavior – no elbows, no shoving, no copious quantities of spilled beer or anything else gnarly – just lots of what Claudio Sanchez called “Coheed karaoke.” When you look slightly left, catch the eye of someone 30 years your junior whose first thought is likely “What’s the old guy doing here” followed by “Oh, he knows the song” and you both go back to belting out the chorus, you’re inflated by the same feeling as seeing a touchdown in the Super Bowl or a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. These are your unnamed yet contextually well known friends, the world’s best seat mates for the few hour journey that stimulates whatever deep visual, aural and olfactory memories you associate with the music.

Each Coheed show is slightly different; each solo, each interpretation, each choice of when to let the audience sing or to lead from the front of stage. At the break between the “album part” of the show and the encores, front man Claudio Sanchez offered two sincere explanations – first, that the entire band was sick (you wouldn’t know from the previous 90 minutes of music, another testament to their work ethic and musicianship) and second, that the voice of the little girl on “Good Apollo” was his (then) three year old niece, at a time when he was far from fatherhood himself. Ten years later, his niece was on the stage side, enjoying the show, Claudio talked about life on the road and missing his own son, and the show resonated with any number of us in any number of new ways. This is the future of music: outstanding performance and authentic presence.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, died at age 88 this week. I read the book because it was part of (what we’d now call) new age/zen/spiritual English curriculum that one of our teachers built for us, a plate of Pirsig sprinkled with heavy Castenada seasoning and a bit of Pierce’s cosmic egg to make us question our realities. If it was possible to give literary acid to high school students, that was it.

I don’t remember much of what I read in high school, but parts of Pirsig’s book stood out to me, not only then but in discussions years later. The emphasis on “gumption”, the desire to do something the right way, and the various traps that drain your energy, motivation or desire to tackle something challenging has come up repeatedly. The thought that the journey is as important as the destination, that the ride matters, certainly informed and prepared me for reading Neil Peart’s moving, haunting and touching motorcycle travelogues thirty-five years later. Finally, his matter of fact approach to maintenance, especially the beer can handle bar shim (horrifying his riding companion but so illustrative of the idea), tied an episode from my childhood to one of my parenthood.

My father and I built a number of models together; one of my favorites was a bass and balsa wood model of a Chris Craft power boat. It was a thing of scale model beauty, down to the lovingly applied finish on it that gave it the feel of a wooden ocean faring boat, scaled to my world and horizons. My father decided we should have not only a model but a boat that could truly power, so he outfitted it with an electric motor and propeller gently welded to the end of a brass shaft. The prop shaft ran through a tube he had installed, at an appropriate angle, through the floor of the boat, and again gently sealed and fitted against leaks (including a bit of non-water soluble lubricant on the shaft so that it would not grind, rattle or even allow water to encroach on the drive train). The concentric brass tubes weren’t part of the design of the model, but solved a problem neatly when tackled with all of the gumption that two inland residents could manage.

Fast forward about forty years, to a day when my son was outfitting a bass guitar with custom tuning heads. The new heads were slightly smaller than the headstock holes left by the original equipment, meaning that the bushings around the tuning pegs were likely to grind, slip or otherwise chip at the headstock. Taking one of the fancy brass tuners in hand, we ventured off to the (last remaining) local hobby shop, known to stock brass tubes in a variety of diameters. Finding one that slipped neatly over the tuning pegs, it filled the headstock bore snugly enough to solve the problem for under $3. It was never part of the original design, nor an intended after market custom shim for nearly $100 worth of tuners, but those small brass barrels cut from the tube solved the problem We faced a gumption trap and drove around it, small bag of scale model parts in hand, the journey providing as much resolution as the final fit and finish. The whole way I was channeling that Chris Craft boat, and Robert Pirsig, and thinking about that beer can shim, a few pennies of aluminum that amplified the value of an $1,800 motorcycle so wildly up or down, if only you had the gumption to fold it to fit.

Somewhere my English teacher is smiling – and for good reason, as the book was less than five years old when we read it — a miracle of modernity, as most of our history books didn’t include the Korean or Vietnam Wars. Thank you Robert Pirsig, for taking us through your Chautauquas, and to the teachers and friends who have reflected on our personal quests for Quality with me over the years.

Plate o Shrimp Musical Hat Trick

Yesterday was Record Store Day, Earth Day and the Science Marches – a hat trick of espousing our preferences for the natural sciences and their appeal to our emotional states. Wrapped inside of my semi-annual pilgrimage to the Princeton Record Exchange was another hat trick of musical plates o shrimp, those casual references that seem to be threaded together, perhaps because we’re looking for them or perhaps because they are the warps (in every sense) of the fabric of our social lives.

I wandered over to the Record Exchange counter to inquire about a vinyl copy of Regressive Aid’s two I’ve been in a mathcore/industrial rock groove (in 7/4) lately and it seemed like a good artifact; while there were none in stock I found out that (a) one of the guys at the counter used to room with RA’s bass player (b) Sim Cain, RA’s drummer (who also played with an early incarnation of Ween), would be sitting in with the Chris Harford band that evening and (c) the 1980s Princeton/Hopewell music scene has persisted and matured and while it’s not same magnitude as the impact of Seattle on grunge, it’s a nice confluence of folk, ska, reggae, rock, and progressive. Does it count as a plate o shrimp if the term was just entering the vernacular at the point of origin?

Browsing through the vinyl that was haphazardly placed into the “new arrival” bins, I got to relive some of those 1980s musical journeys, remembering the time, place, context and to quote Marti DiBergi “the smells” of each of those albums. A preponderance of early Traffic albums had me thinking about Steve Winwood, nearly failing freshman physics and how the sound of mandolins makes me immediately think of grad/curl/div vector fields. A few hours later I got a text from a friend who was at the Winwood show in Philadelphia, depicting the ex-Traffic frontman with — what else — a mandolin. Complete and total plate o shrimp, down to the resonating surfaces.

Wrapping up in Princeton, I wandered over to the jazz section, a nice mix of bebop and fusion and big bands that has the equivalent scattered yet somehow organized feel of the rock vinyl bins. A neat Dave Brubeck boxed set also had me thinking in odd time signatures, carrying me over til dinner at Shanghai Jazz in Madison where the Eric Mintel trio channeled Brubeck classics. You can’t make this stuff up, although sometimes I wonder if we find these weird connections and themes when we’re looking for them.

United’s PR Flap

Having flown nearly 2.4 million miles on United (and Continental, pre-merger) Airlines, having probably lost likely one full weekend per year due to delays and operational problems, and being remarkably vocal about what I see as United’s operational woes, I seem to be tagged left and right in reposts of coverage of the recent forced removal of a passenger from a United flight.

I have three thoughts on the matter (since a number of people have asked): United was within its rights as a carrier, but barely; United created this issue for themselves due to lack of operational excellence; United poured gasoline on the dumpster fire by once again handling a customer relations issue without the simplest of apologies (even if they believed they were in the right).

United and all other airlines routinely overbook flights. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the maximum revenue per flight (or accommodate all passengers) when people fail to show up, change plans, or get delayed on their inbound connections. While it’s a huge pain to those on the flight when this happens, it also means that there are seats when you have to make last minute travel plans. What is borderline about this case is that it wasn’t caused by an overbooking but rather by United’s need to move four flight crew to Louisville. United needed the seats, they weren’t sold as extra capacity in advance. United then followed procedure – they asked for volunteers, and when they had no volunteers, they selected based on an algorithm that rewards fare paid, loyalty and disabled or minor passengers. Had they decided to skip the chosen passenger, and pick the next one, they set themselves up for cascading chorus of “I’m important, pick the next guy”. And not to truly pile on, but if you have something time critical, do not depend on the airlines to get you there just in time when you’re flying through a busy hub known for weather and operational delays. Just as doctors sometimes slip their schedule due to emergencies, airlines do the same. There: I defended United. On the other hand, I’m not defending the manner in which the passenger was forcibly removed from the plane — but that’s on the policing force, not on United. I know, shocking for me to admit that an action with bad optics performed by United Airlines was within guidelines, but from my perspective, it was.

Here’s where it goes south: United created this problem for themselves. If you have to move four crew members to the next destination, and your flight is oversold, book them on another carrier. Charter a flight for them. Put them on a helicopter. Clearly, the backsplash from this incident is costing them more than the $50,000 it would have cost to do this in an egregiously expensive but less customer impactful way. This is where United continues to fail its customers – they seem to operate with the thinnest margins of slack in the system, whether it’s maintenance windows or crew arrival or gate availability. My BOS-EWR flight on Thursday was delayed 5 1/4 hours by weather — yes, there was bad weather — but the operational information on the United website was useless — it had incorrect inbound flight information (so there was no way to gauge or plan alternatives), and the sequencing of inbound to EWR and inbound to BOS flights was laughably implausible for hours. In the 18 months, I’ve had more than five flights held for a variety of mechanical problems, or flights held because crew was on an inbound and there were simply no options. I had believed one of the tenets of the hub and spoke model was to make it easier to substitute crew, equipment, and services as needed, but it seems that United is gaining no operational efficiencies at all, and perhaps suffering from needing to get crew to and from hub cities (EWR and ORD being among the worst).

And here’s why United continues to be the public relations pinata they so richly deserve to be: They routinely fail to apologize to the customer. This is true in every interaction I’ve had with United over the last ten years. They never admit that they created a bad customer experience (whether their fault or not, it’s the customer experience that matters). Admit that this could have been handled better. Admit you caused no end of public humiliation and personal aggravation. When my BOS-EWR flight was delayed and I began chirping @United via Twitter, I got back a series of “Tell us what flight” and explanations of their plane logistics, rather than (John Mullaney voice here) “We are sorry! We just destroyed your evening and the first day of your vacation, here is a $100 travel voucher or 25,000 miles for your troubles”. JetBlue does this — I flew on JetBlue right after Christmas, had a TWO HOUR delay, and was given 10% of my ticket price as travel voucher, without me asking, purely because they saw and admitted the problem (which was weather, not their doing). That’s customer sensitivity and customer service.

Until United starts to demonstrate an understanding of the total end to end customer experience of their airline, each and every incident (whether the leggings issue, or an involuntary bump, or just a hideous in flight experience) will get amplified and echoed through social media, because United offers no other signal to combat the negative noise.

CEO Oscar Munoz posted a public promise to focus on these things just a short time ago: Let’s see some transparency and accountability, and maybe the friendly skies will start to feel that way again.