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The Last Tommy July 31, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in history.
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Ninety years ago this month, the Battle of Passchendaele, the most horrific sustained period of military carnage in modern times, started.  Passchendaele lasted for three months.  By the time Canadian troops finally captured the town of Passchendaele, in November 1917, the combatants had sustained over 750,000 casualties.

Of the millions of soldiers who passed through the unimaginable horror of the World War I trenches, only one now remains alive – Harry Patch.

Harry Patch was conscripted as an eighteen-year-old boy in 1916, and lived through the Battle of Passchendaele.  He’s now 109 years old.  In recent years, he has talked a little about his experiences.  Patch’s memories of war, about which he remained silent for eighty years, even to his wife, have been recorded by the BBC here.  They make harrowing reading.  It’s hard to comprehend the utter degradation of trench warfare, of duckboards over mud so deep it could drown a horse, of the desperation of seeing your friends killed in front of you.

Harry Patch recently revisited the battle site with the historian Richard van Emden, marking the 90th anniversary of the start of the battle.  The BBC has a video of the visit, which culminates with him laying a wreath at the German memorial to the war dead.  Van Emden has also published a book called The Last Fighting Tommy, recording Harry Patch’s life.

Listen to the simple wisdom of Harry Patch, the last Tommy.

It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it …

– Harry Patch


Celestial mechanics works July 25, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in astronomy.
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The Planetary Society blog, mostly written and researched by the seemingly indefatigable Emily Lakdawalla, is an outstanding resource if you’re interested in what’s happening in our exploration of the Solar System.  Emily seems to have everyone in the field of solar system research on her speed-dial list, and serves up the latest authoritative information from all the current and future projects and missions.

I was browsing the blog the other day when I ran across a remarkable image.  The image was in a post with the arresting title of “Hey, Moon! Get out of the way of Cassini”, and the point was to demonstrate, in a very graphic way, that this was a situation where our own moon almost got in the way of Cassini’s communication with Earth. The image was generated by a wonderful Solar System simulator, written by David Seal at JPL, which I hadn’t previously been aware of.  You can reproduce the image by going to the simulator and asking for the view of Earth as seen from Cassini on 2007 July 16 at 22:00 UTC. 

Understandably, Emily’s perspective in her blog entry was that of a space scientist – the pesky moon is obstructing Cassini’s line of sight to Earth.  It struck me, though, that if the moon was transiting Earth as seen from Cassini at Saturn, the same celestial geometry should show up on Earth as an occultation of Saturn.  And indeed it did.  Here’s an image showing the track of the occultation.  It turns out that most of the track was over the Pacific in daylight, which means that it wouldn’t have helped the scientists at Goldstone to look out of the window.  The image shows the occultation track crossing the South American coast around sunset, shortly after which the Moon and Saturn set.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this gives me a sense of comfort, but it does.  Maybe it’s just good to feel reassured that celestial mechanics works.

Keeping the customer satisfied July 24, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in anchovy, chorale.
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The choral group I sing with, Saddleback Master Chorale, has, in recent years, been taking baby steps into the connected world.  We have a web site, which I occasionally remember to update (note to self: now would be A Good Time) and this year, we’ve started selling tickets online.  So, back in January, I was looking around for a company to work with in this space. A friend recommended Vendini, so I gave them a call, talked to Spencer Rosen, and we signed up.  Vendini does full-scale box-office solutions, but they seem to be happy with clients at the lower, less sophisticated end of the scale, which is where we sit.  In any case, we’ve run two concerts through them, and everything has worked just fine.

However, that’s not what I’m here for today.  Today is a case study of how to deal with a customer service problem.  Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Mark Tacchi, CEO of Vendini, apologising for an outage which impacted the service his company provides to its customers.  With Mark’s permission, I include the message below.

We had a network outage on Friday July 20, 2007 that affected several organizations.  I understand how important a role Vendini plays within your organization.  We’ve worked hard to build a system that you can trust will be available and responsive and I know that we’ve let you down.  I want to tell you that I am very sorry if this affected you.

Although we have taken much care in creating a redundant and fault tolerant system, the problem stemmed from three linked and cascading issues that made it difficult for our engineering team to quickly diagnose.  The first was our primary read/write database becoming unresponsive while replicating over to its slave servers and read only servers.  The second issue was an address conflict issue on the system’s private network which prevented certain servers from communicating with others.  The third issue was our primary firewall to the main application and database servers had reset its configuration.  This resulted in turning away requests to the system on that firewall for a period of time.

I was personally involved with the network engineering team at our data center in San Francisco to assist in coordinating a solution.  We had all hands on deck working to resolve the problem.

Going forward, we are taking several steps to make certain this does not happen again.  We intend to procure additional computer equipment, add additional staff, and tighten up our operations process.  We are committed to providing a world-class solution.

Please accept both my sincere gratitude for the trust you have placed in us, and my apology for this unanticipated service lapse. We take your business very seriously and your success is our success.

Please feel free to contact me should you wish to discuss further at…


Mark Tacchi
President & CEO
Vendini, Inc. – http://www.vendini.com

It’s hard to see how Mark, and Vendini, could have handled this situation any better.  Here is a CEO admitting to a problem, describing the nature of the problem, having hands-on involvement in the solution and talking about the steps they’ll take in remediation.  Mark also included his phone number and e-mail address. This is transparent, honest ownership of the issue, and, as a small customer, who wasn’t even affected by the outage, it makes me feel as though we made the right choice when we picked Vendini.

I don’t believe good customer service is rocket science, and, if we lived in a sensible commercial world, a message like Mark’s probably shouldn’t be worthy of comment.  Unfortunately, we don’t, and so it is. 

Happy birthday to an inspiration July 20, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in music.
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At school, in the late sixties, the cool kids had a club called the Electric Music Circle.  Looking back,  I find it mildly astonishing that a group of bright fourteen-year-olds had already developed a taste for Captain Beefheart and Pink Floyd.  I myself was, ah, not a member of the Electric Music Circle.  We will draw a veil over my teenage musical tastes.

Not surprisingly, my first year at university (1972-1973) was a little bit of a shock, musically speaking.  My new friends were listening to Floyd, Yes, Zappa, Traffic, the Allman Brothers – music which, within weeks, had completely changed my listening life.  In the end, though, it was a single album, and a single musician, which cemented the change and assumed a central position in my life, a place of honour which both music and musician have occupied for over thirty years.   The album was “Caravanserai”, and the musician was Carlos Santana. 

I played Caravanserai as I drove in to work this morning, thinking about how to approach this blog entry.  I played through the unearthly beauty of Carlos’s guitar in “Song of the Wind”, the driving rhythms of “La Fuente del Ritmo”, and the beautiful treatment of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Stone Flower”.  As I drove into the parking lot, the last notes of Michael Shrieve’s “Every Step of the Way” faded away, and I sat for a moment, spellbound, as always, by the beauty and power of this spectacular piece.  When I first played the album, in early 1973, I’d never heard anything like it.  Now, in 2007, I’m still not sure I have.  The relentless propulsive power of Shrieve’s drums, and Jose “Chepito” Areas and James Mingo Lewis on timbales and congas seem totally unstoppable.

To me, Caravanserai represents the creative peak of the second Santana band.   The music seems effortlessly powerful, whether laying back in “Song of the Wind” or moving with astonishing drive in “All the Love of the Universe”.  And through it all, there’s the sense that the band is looking outwards, experimenting with new people, new sounds and new textures – Caravanserai was the first Santana album to showcase the talents of Cuban percussion genius Armando Peraza (and if you want to hear Peraza at his peak, turn up the volume on “Promise of a Fisherman”, off Santana’s 1974 album, Borboletta).  Probably this period reached a climax with the world tour which resulted in the 1975 live set “Lotus”.  I remember reading Steve Lake’s review of “Lotus” in Melody Maker when the album was released – I cut out the review and kept it for many years.  Lake was of the opinion that the Santana band which made the “Lotus” recordings was, for a time, the best band on the planet. Whether you believe that or not, you cannot listen to the live versions of “Incident at Neshabur” and “Toussaint L’Ouverture” without being aware that you’re in the presence of a special band playing at the absolute ecstatic peak of its abilities.  

 I’ve listened to Carlos Santana down through the decades, to the old material and the new.  The beauty he’s shown me is permanent and imperishable.  On this day, his sixtieth birthday, I’d like to thank him for the joy he’s given to me over thirty-five years and to wish him health and happiness for the future.

So here we go.. July 20, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in personal.
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My wife started a blog.

I’d been suggesting it for a while.  She writes well, and she has a lot to talk about.  What finally got things moving was her acceptance into the Sawdust Art Festival, in Laguna Beach, as a first-time artist-exhibitor, and her desire to keep a record of the experience, which has been, on occasions, pretty overwhelming.  She’s been writing for two months (and working the Festival for three weeks) and the blog already looks good.  So, in the last couple of weeks, she’s been gently turning the tables, and wondering when I’m going to start writing.  And, I’m afraid to say, Real Soon Now only cuts it for so long. So, here we are.

Who am I?  Well, I’m a 52-year-old Englishman, living in Laguna Beach, California.  By day, I work in the software industry.  The rest of the time seems to disappear in a number of different directions.

  • I love music, and, in particular,…
  • …I sing in a local choral group, the Saddleback Master Chorale, and..
  • …I play the guitar, at a level which makes it a personal, rather than a public, skill
  • I follow the England cricket team from a distance
  • More locally, I’ve become a fan of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
  • I like food, wine and beer
  • I’m a passionate amateur astronomer
  • I take photographs
  • I read.  I don’t push it as far as Erasmus – “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”, but you might think so if you saw my night-stand.
  • I’m a rational, atheist liberal, with a love for science in all its forms

And, of course, I’m married to Lorraine, who manages to keep me busy when she’s not learning how to be a jeweler

And “verb. sap”?   It’s a abbreviation for a Latin phrase meaning “A word to the wise is sufficient”.  These are my words, and, to anyone who reads them, I wish you wisdom.