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The Last Tommy – RIP July 25, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in history.
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A couple of years ago, I wrote about Harry Patch, then aged 109 and the last survivor of the Battle of Passchendaele.  He’d hidden his story inside himself for eighty years, never letting his experiences out, even to his wife. Finally, in 1998, at the age of 100, he agreed to be interviewed for the  BBC documentary “Veterans”.  Later, he co-operated with the historian Richard van Emden in the book “The Last Fighting Tommy”, a memoir of his experiences as an eighteen-year-old soldier in the squalor and degradation of the trenches of the Western Front.  In 2007, he returned to Passchendaele on the 90th anniversary of the battle, laying wreaths for both the Allied and German casualties.

Harry Patch died yesterday, aged 111.

The BBC obituary is here.

There is now no-one left who remembers the Battle of Passchendaele.  It’s hard to do better than to, once again, quote his words.

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

Catching up with jazz July 21, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in music.
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Years ago, I listened to a lot of jazz.  I still do, but I haven’t really kept up with the scene. If I look at the dates on my jazz CDs, they’re predominantly eighties releases.  I keep an occasional eye on my favourite musicians – John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny –  but I’m nowhere near as keen a fan as I was in 1985, which is a shame, because there’s nothing in music quite like the sound of a great jazz improviser feeding off a great jazz band.

Last night, I happened once again to buy a copy of Downbeat magazine at the Laguna Beach news stand to look at over a cold Sierra Nevada at the Marine Room next door.  No synchronicity this time – the classic rock station seemed to be focussing on Eric Burdon.  However, it turned out that this was the issue where the magazine announced the results of their 57th annual critics poll, and it struck me that this might be an interesting opportunity to see where the jazz world has moved to in twenty-odd years.

So, let’s look a little closer.  There are three pages or so of categories – small groups, big  bands, instrumentalists in every possible area, vocal and instrumental rising stars, producers, arrangers.  Each category includes the top ten vote getters.  All in all, there’s a whole lot or material to work with.

Now this is not going to be some musical version of the Julie/Julia project (although, who knows, maybe I could get Andie McDowell to play Lorraine in the movie), but it would certainly be fun to dig into some of the more interesting categories, find some new musicians, and see what I think about the world of jazz in 2009 (and, frankly, probably in 2010 too).

I mean, what can go wrong when the winner of the “Jazz Group, Rising Star” poll is an ensemble named “Mostly Other People Do The Killing”.

A quadrillion dollars in debt July 15, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in software, tech.

After an unconscionable period of quiet, the blog bursts into life with a post which will probably only be of interest to a small subset of my vast reader audience.

The BBC reported today that some poor guy in New Hampshire discovered that his bank had debited his account by $23 quadrillion dollars after he bought a packet of cigarettes at a local gas station.

The story concludes:

But no-one has yet explained to Mr Muszynski how such a astonishing error could have been made.

I’m here to help.

The amount quoted in the story is $23,148,855,308,184,500.00

Type eight space characters into a text editor.  It’ll look like  ”        ” on screen (minus the quotes, of course).  What has the computer stored in memory?  If your text editor uses the ASCII character-encoding scheme, you’ll get 3264 bits which look like this when represented hexadecimally – “2020202020202020”.  Each “20” is the ASCII representation of a space character.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Suppose you tell the computer that this memory location doesn’t contain a string, but a decimal value, what do you get?  The answer is 2314885530818453536.  I’m not sure how the bug manifested itself, but it seems likely that some memory location which was supposed to contain the number of cents in the debit amount was actually overwritten with a text string which was all, or almost all, spaces.

Oh well, geek credentials established.  Now back to hummingbirds and choral music.

Updated: Peter points out in comments that eight spaces take 64 bits, not 32.  Indeed they do (slaps forehead in annoyance).  He also points out that “2020202020201250” converts exactly to the correct decimal value, and wonders whether the pack of  cigarettes cost $12.50.  Maybe.  Thanks for the notes, Peter.