The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 10 Issue 44

Monday 24 September 1990


o Arbitration Myths
Leslie Lamport
Mark S. Day
o Overbilled by 6 orders of magnitude
Jeff Johnson
o Risks of "automated guided vehicles"
Brad Dolan
o Field commanders using UNIX?
Tom Beattie
o Expert system in the loop
Matt Jaffe
Clifford Johnson
o Apollo, The Race to the Moon
R.I. Cook
o Failed mail ("after 246 days"!) and comment on long header lines
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Arbitration Myths (Peter Denning, RISKS-10.42)

Leslie Lamport <>
Mon, 24 Sep 90 10:36:11 -0700
Peter Denning correctly observes:

   The fundamental theorem of arbiters is: There is no fixed time bound
   for the arbiter to make its choice.

It may make things a bit clearer to phrase this as follows.  A designer
of a circuit that has an arbiter has two choices:

   1. Have his circuit wait arbitrarily long for the arbiter to make
      up its mind, thereby guaranteeing that his digital circuit elements
      will operate digitally, "seeing" only 0's and 1's.

   2. Bound the length of time the circuit waits for the arbiter,
      thereby introducing the possibility that his digital circuit
      will behave like an analog circuit, with 1/2's flowing
      along the wires, and do strange things.

Peter then asserts:

   Lamport showed how to achieve fair mutual exclusion without any
   requirement that references to memory cells are arbitrated (1974).

While perhaps correct, this statement is misleading.  The bakery algorithm
achieves mutual exclusion without assuming any arbitrated access to memory.
However, reading a memory cell that may be written while it is being read
requires that the reader have an arbiter.  (The reader needs an arbiter to
decide whether the change from 0 to 1 occurred before or after a read
operation.)  In fact, the mutual exclusion problem is characterized by the fact
that any solution requires an arbiter.  (It is a testimony to Dijkstra's
insight that certain requirements set down in his original 1965 paper,
apparently regarded as irrelevant and omitted by others in later statements of
the problem, are necessary to distinguish mutual exclusion from theoretically
easier problems that can be solved without an arbiter.)

As Peter observes, the only way to build a computer that is safe from
"arbitration failure" is by making choice 1, which means that the computer must
turn off its clock while waiting for an arbiter to decide.  Note that the
computer can't keep its clock ticking while waiting for the arbiter to make up
its mind, since it would then require another arbiter to decide within the
current clock cycle whether or not the first arbiter had made up its mind.  I
know of no computer that turns off its clock in this way.  Moreover, doing so
necessarily eliminates the possibility of fault-tolerance.  Omission faults can
be detected only by time-out, which means by keeping a clock running.  Thus, a
system that is impervious to arbitration failure cannot be fault-tolerant.

Thus, Peter's

   Conclusion: we know how to build fair arbiters and how to design
   circuits that are free of synchronization errors.

is again perhaps correct, but misleading.  We know how to design those
circuits, but we also know that they are impractical.

Having said all this, I should now add that the situation, although hopeless,
is not serious.  We cannot make circuits with no theoretical possibility of
arbitration failure, but we can make them with no practical possibility of such
failure.  By arguments that would constitute a proof to a physicist, and a joke
to a mathematician, I think one can show that if a circuit has normal reaction
time of order T0, then an optimimum arbiter has probability about e^(-T/T0) of
not having reached a decision by time T.  It appears possible to build such an
optimal arbiter.  Thus, by simply allowing enough time for the arbiter to
decide, the probability of an arbitration failure can be made negligibly small.

Of course, note the "can be".  How many of the engineers designing digitial
circuitry are aware of the problem?  Once, in the late 70's or early 80's, I
had the horrifying experience of spending 1/2 hour trying to explain the
problem to computer designers at Bendix, with an utter lack of success.

Leslie Lamport

P.S.  People interested in the arbiter problem might like to read my
unpublished paper "Buridan's Principle", available by request.

Arbiters and glitches

"Mark S. Day" <mday@brokaw.LCS.MIT.EDU>
Sat, 22 Sep 90 18:34:11 EDT
Peter Denning is absolutely right (in Risks 10.42) to correct the
claim that "it is impossible to build a fair arbiter." However, the
fact that reliable arbiters are possible is quite different from
saying that they are implemented in most systems.

As Denning's "fundamental theorem of arbiters" shows, the interface
between an asynchronous system and a clocked system is a source of
unreliability (not unfairness) and it is not possible to eliminate
glitches except by eliminating the interface (using an entirely
asynchronous system). The probability of glitches can be reduced, but
only by reducing the performance of the interface (lengthening the
decision time).  The original writer might well have been assuming
clocked systems (which are, after all, the vast majority of digital
systems in the world) in which case there is an important kernel of
truth to the original claim of impossibility, even though it is indeed
technically incorrect.

--Mark Day

Overbilled by 6 orders of magnitude

Jeff Johnson <>
Sat, 22 Sep 90 16:32:21 PDT
Excerpted from the 9/21/90 San Jose Mercury-News:


Chicago (AP) -- Cori Ward's mother got a little defensive when she
received a phone bill for three weeks' service -- $8.7 million.

"She says, 'I only called my sister,'" said Ward, who handles her
elderly mother's bills.

The bill from Illinois Bell should have read $87.98, not $8,709,800.33.


Ward said she had a hard time explaining the mistake to the phone company.

The error occurred when someone incorrectly typed a "correction" into
the computer system, said Larry Cose, a Bell spokesman.

Risks of "automated guided vehicles"

Mon, 24 Sep 90 12:07:24 GMT
Excerpted from the Maryville/Alcoa (Tenn.)  _Daily Times_,
September 10, 1990, p.1. :

ALCOA Worker Killed

Donnie W. Britton, 48, of Madisonville, a 24-year employee of
ALCOA, died shortly before noon Saturday at UT Hospital following
an accident at ALCOA's North Plant.

Elton Jones, ALCOA's director of public relations, said Britton, an
electrician, was working on an overhead crane that was not
operating when the crane's tray grab, the part that hangs down and
lifts trays of coils (of aluminum sheet), was struck by the top of
a coil being transported at ground level by an automated guided
vehicle.  The impact caused the crane to move toward Britton who
was crushed between an access platform on the crane and the
personnel lift he had used to reach the crane .......

    This looks to me like (1) poor work practice and (2) poor a.g.v.
    design.  Comments?

    Brad Dolan, Science Applications International Corp (my opinions)

Field commanders using UNIX?

Mon, 24 Sep 90 16:28 EDT
I came across this in a news digest.
As you can see it is attributed to UNIX Today:

           "To combat the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis, the
         Pentagon is planning a two-pronged, high-tech defense using UNIX-
         based laptops.  Using meteorological-type programs, the laptops
         could quickly determine how widespread the attack will be, where
         the troops can safely be deployed and how quickly they should be
         moved.  The information would then be fed into UNIX-based PCs,
         and field commanders would run a variety of attack scenarios.  A
         full meteorological model, able to forecast likely future wind
         conditions over the entire risk area, could be generated within 60
         seconds.  [UNIX Today, 9/17/90]"

Field commanders using UNIX?
Meteorological models in 60 seconds on a Unix-based laptop?

Tom Beattie     att!hoqaa!twb

                    [Whether it's cold, or whether it's hot,
                     weather is weather, whether or not.
                     It's known as whethering the storm.  PGN]

Re: Expert system in the loop (Thomas, RISKS-10.37)

24 Sep 90 19:06:26 GMT
>Martyn Thomas reports:

<>According to Electronics Weekly (Sept 12th, p2): [...]
>In fact, he has contradicted his own assertion that the AEgis system was
>responsible by pointing out the shortcomings in human judgement, human
>psochology, and human I/O.  The principal (and significant) shortcoming
>of AEgis in this scenario is that its database apparently did not
>include a readily available schedule of commercial airline flights for
>the region in which AEgis was deployed.

I was one of the principal designers of the MMI for Aegis so I have read the
past and current discussions on this subject with some interest.  A couple of
years ago PGN posted a summary of some remarks I made on the subject of the
Aegis MMI at an informal sidebar to one of the sessions of the 5th
International Workshop on S/W Specification; I won't repeat them here -
interested readers are referred to the Risks archives.

      [See RISKS-8.74, 26 May 1989.  It was a really fine item, and it also
      appeared in ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes, vol 14, no 5,
      July 1989, pp. 20-22.  PGN]

Here, I only want to interject a comment on the more recent post extracted
above.  It is certainly true that Aegis as originally deployed did not include
a database of commercial flight data.  I recall some informal discussions about
that possibility at the time.  Our Navy customer had not specified anything
like that in their requirements, but the possiblity was mentioned by me (and
others), none-the-less.  There were several reasons why it was not further

(1) Philosophic disagreements on the nature of probable Aegis employments.  In
a blue-water, all out conflict, commercial flight data processing would be
irrelevant and unused.  The Navy did not want to spend scarce development
funding on what they perceived of as marginal requirements.  It is my personal
perception (shared, I'm sure, by many others) that the armed services tend to
design systems for "pure" threats and scenarios.  Aegis was conceived of as
providing defense for the carrier task force in open water conflicts.  The then
recent experiences of employing missile cruisers in close in the Gulf of Tonkin
(NORSAR and PIRAZ, specifically) seemed to be regarded as an aberration:
"Vietnam was a mistake; we won't make that mistake again; no more confused
little conflicts for the U.S."  We often heard the sentiment that we (Navy and
contractor jointly) did not want to be guilty of the oft repeated mistake of
designing systems to meet the requirements of the last war.  The risk, of
course, was and is that we could fail to institutionalize what some of us so
painfully learned from our experiences.

(2) Logistic/design problems relating to the complexity of flight data
processing (keeping track of commercial flight plans and correlating real-time
tracks with possible flight plans).  The Navy did not then (nor I presume does
it now) have any facilities aboard tactical vessels for obtaining and
distributing commercial flight plan data.  The resources required are
significant, both personnel and computational.  At the time, the Navy was under
intense pressure to reduce manning requirements for the Aegis ship.  I also
doubt whether the UYK-7 technology of the day could have handled the
computational load required.  There also would have had to be additional
communciations bandwidth dedicated to the distribution, update, and
coordination of flight data.  In those days, digital bandwidth to ships was
extremely limited (it almost certainly still is).

The point is that the issue of designing Aegis to handle commercial flight data
was addressed and rejected as not cost-effective.  Whether one agrees with this
specific decision or not, the general point is that no military system (or any
system) can be designed to deal with all contigencies that someone thinks of as
appropriate.  All the ideas that the anyone on the team came up with got
discussed, some were selected, some were not.  As always, the operational users
wound up having to make do with a system that was not optimized for the
environment in which they found themselves and whose limitations neither they
nor the policy decision makers who directed them fully understood. I am still
not sure whether any of the "what-ifs" represent design flaws or shortcomings.

Expert system in the loop (Henry Spencer, RISKS-10.42)

"Clifford Johnson" <A.CJJ@Forsythe.Stanford.EDU>
Mon, 24 Sep 90 11:36:46 PDT
> the Pentagon's finding was not that nobody
> was responsible for the [Vincennes] mistake, but that no *blame*
> was attached to the captain and crew as a result of it...
> The [military's] job is to carry out the policies of
> their government, and if innocent people get hurt, that is
> the policy- makers' problem....

Since the Vincennes' very mission was to keep the Gulf safe for
civilian traffic, the point argued by Henry here, even were it
elsewhere valid, in fact weighs against his argument that Captain
Rogers' reasonably decided to risk civilian life.   As for the
the general case, there certainly are regulations drawn up in
international law, that protect civilians from risk, even in battle.
(An air embargo against Iraq cannot now be *enforced* under
this sort of international law.)  Likewise, a suit filed in
international court in Costa Rica against the U.S., for its
bombing of a civilian mental hospital in Grenada, was *settled* by
the U.S. (albeit without admission of blame).  In brief, the U.S.
would have had to show sufficient probable cause for the bombing,
by objective standards, had trial been reached.

<>>In the case of the Vincennes, it cannot be disputed that a mistake
<>>was made.  The Pentagon found no human responsible for it, so it
<>>must have been a mechanical error.
> This statement is in error.  Please, READ THE REPORT . . .
> The board found that Captain Rogers made a correct decision to fire
> based on the data that he had available to him.

The data was generated by computer, and the misinterpretation of
screens that occurred was deemed foreseeable (and was forgiven)
in the circumstances. I fail to see even a small error in my claim,
let alone a capitalized error.  Given the facts, which we agree on,
it is a matter of definition as to whether we say that the computers
"made" the decision to shoot, which is the definition I assert as
a matter of commonsense and law.

<>>Such decisionmaking is de facto *governed* by computer: without
<>>computer prompts, no retaliatory decision at all would be taken;
> Again, incorrect.  Decisions to fire were made long before we
> had computers -- they are not required to make these decisions.

Well, yes, but I'm not saying that mistaken visual identification
is a computer error, I'm talking about decisionmaking taken by
commanders whose only inputs are computer screens of information.
There's a qualitative difference, though I agree that drawing the
line meaningfully is not easy, it's clear to me that momentary
decisions taken in the Vincennes windowless control room are properly
deemed computer-governed.

vincennes incident (Henry Spencer, RISKS-10.42)

Wheels in Wheels <>
Mon, 24 Sep 90 16:28:18 -0400
I believe Henry failed to observe a key point in the navy review of the
Vincennes incident.  The Assistant Anti-Air warfare officer failed to set
the range gate for the IFF unit to allow for the changing distance to the target.
Consequently instead of pinging the transponder on the A300, they were
pinging an F-14 on the ground at Bandar Abbas.  Also no consideration
was given that F-14 lack an anti-ship capability.

    The Radar operator also mis-read his screen, interpreting
range for altitude, and also was unaware of the fact that a civil
air corridor ran through the gulf, and that the A300 was in fact in the center
of the corridor.  The Vincennes lacked VHF radios to interrogate Iranian
Civil air also.  Civilian aircraft at 33,000 feet are also by definition
well clear of ships, and probably would not even be able to identify them
without optical instruments.

    As I read the Navy report, there were two distinct personnel failures
by Vincennes crew, compounded by Inability to interrogate the A300.  The Navy
review board faulted the design of the screens for not presenting information
in a clear manner.  Heat of battle was also considered a mitigating factor.

    What is not understood by readers of Risks, is the Persian gulf is
an exteremely busy commercial zone.  Hundreds of Planes and Boats ply those
waters every day.  To shoot at every moving target is negligent on our part.
THese systems are designed for high intensity combat with dozens of combatants
and numerous inbound threats.  Trying to pick out a single hostile among
hundreds of non-combatants is a much more difficult task.

    The Iran-Iraq war contrary to one readers opinion was not WW2.  In WW2,
there were clear sides.  CLearly marked hostile zones and very few nuetrals.
WW2 was also a total war.  No tactic was untried save for Gas.  THe Iran Iraq
war was a relatively small war between tow neighbors in a very crowded
environment.  Interjecting High strung war ships into such an environment was
only bound to cause such errors.

    THe Stark had made a type 2 error.  Actually hostile, Failed to shoot.
    THe Vincennes made a type 3 error.  Actually Civil, Did shoot.

    I am sure in the mind of the captain of the Vincennes was the court
martial of the Stark's captain and his claim that the electronic systems had
failed to identify the threat, increasing the probablity now of a type 3 error.

    While the Navy review board did reccomend changes involving Man-machine
interfaces, knowledge of commercial routes, Addition of VHF radios and
upgrading of the IFF system.  I feel the fundamental error was placing
military vessels into a environment crowded with non-combatants.  These
vessels are designed to fight WW3, not police brush-fire wars.  This was
a major problem for US troops in Vietnam also.

Apollo, The Race to the Moon

Mon, 24 Sep 90 15:06:54 EST
The excellent book recommended by M.Minow is available in paperback for $12.95.
The reference is

   Murray, Charles & Cox, Catherine B.
   Apollo, The Race to the Moon.  Simon & Schuster, 1989.  ISBN 0-671-90625-X


Failed mail (msg.aa00705)

" mmdf IIb upd 43" <>
Mon, 24 Sep 90 0:18:31 EDT
    After 246 days (5891 hours), your message could not be fully delivered.
          ^^^       ^^^^                                                  <==PGN

    It failed to be received by the following address(es): (host:

    Problems usually are due to service interruptions at the receiving
machine.  Less often, they are caused by the communication system.

    Your message follows:

Received: from HERCULES.CSL.SRI.COM by id aa00705;
          21 Jan 90 11:11 EST
Received: by at Sat, 22 Sep 90 13:26:33 -0700.
    (5.64+/XIDA- id AA28066 for oneil%NASA-JSC.CSNET@RELAY.CS.NET
From: RISKS Forum <>
Date: Sat, 22 Sep 1990 13:26:31 PDT
Subject: RISKS DIGEST 10.42

RISKS-LIST: RISKS-FORUM Digest  Saturday 22 September 1990   Volume 10 : Issue 42
RISKS-LIST: RISKS-FORUM Digest  Wednesday 22 September 1990  Volume 10 : Issue 42

  [Northeastern has always been an interesting host.]

    [By the way, I am sorry about the 81-character line ending with
    Volume 10 : Issue 42 where many of you could not read the "2" at the end.
    Yes, I know, Issue 43, also.  Mark Brader <> pointed this out to
    me, and I replied with a comment such as how on double-digit Wednesdays and
    occasionally Saturdays in September my masthead lead could run over 80
    characters (in Volume 10 and from now on, unless I am on my toes, as I was
    in RISKS-10.36.)  (I've shortened the line by one character in this issue,
    so now it is just Wednesdays in September 1991, etc., that I'll have to
    watch out for.  I'll set my calendar program to remind me, if I am still
    running RISKS then.)  PGN]

       "... when the moon is in the third quarter? :-)"  says Mark.

       "[Jupiter's] satellites are invisible to the naked eye and therefore
       can have no influence on the Earth and therefore would be useless
       and therefore do not exist."    -- Francesco Sizi, quoted by T. Cox

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