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 35

Monday 10 September 1990


o Robustness of RISK architectures
Martin Minow
o RISKS of relying on hardcopy printers (Voyager)
Tom Neff
o Analog vs digital failure modes and conservation laws
Jerry Leichter
o Analog vs digital reliability
Jack Goldberg
o Re: Software bugs "stay fixed"?
Tom Neff
Stephen G. Smith
Martyn Thomas
o Simulator classification as safety-critical
Martyn Thomas
o Re: New Rogue Imperils Printers
Henry Spencer
o Re: Postscript virus
Robert Trebor Woodhead
o Re: Computers and Safety
Robert Trebor Woodhead
o SafetyNet '90 Conference Announcement
Cliff Jones
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Robustness of RISK architectures

Martin Minow <>
Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:39:09 PDT
Last August, a note posted to showed how user-mode code
can crash a RISC (reduced instruction set) architecture machine.  The program
generated a string of random bytes and jumped into it.  Further discussion
showed that several RISC architectures could be crashed, but none of the
CISC (complex...) architectures that were tried. One person, commenting on
this, noted that one of the ways to speed up RISC architectures is to allow
certain (possible) instruction sequences to have undefined behavior, and to
let that behavior include "wedging" the machine.  However, CISC architecture
specifications make sure that every possible instruction (i.e., every pattern
of bits that can be loaded into the instruction register) returns the machine
to a known -- viable -- state.

Something else to lose sleep over...                            Martin Minow

RISKS of relying on hardcopy printers (Voyager)

Tom Neff <>
10 Sep 90 05:48:07 GMT
Although plain old hardcopy is often an excellent backup for reducing
the RISKS of losing magnetic storage, it's not foolproof, as seen in
this excerpt from the regular Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) space
probe status bulletin:

                    Voyager Mission Status Report
                          September 7, 1990

                              Voyager 1

     ...On August 27 Computer Command Subsystem A004 (CCSL A004) began
execution.  Upon arrival for the prime shift on August 27 it was discovered
that five character printers in the real-time area were not printing due to one
cause or another; four of the printers were either not loaded correctly or were
configured in the "local" vs "online" mode and one printer had a paper jam.
All of these printers were missing data since early August 25.  One of the
character printers that was not functioning was the General Science printer.
The hard copy was needed for analysis of the PRA POR event. ...

Analog vs digital failure modes and conservation laws

Jerry Leichter <>
Sun, 9 Sep 90 00:35:31 EDT
The recent discussion of the apparent inherent dangers of digital control
control systems reminds me of a story told in another context - but which I
think embodies an interesting kernel of truth.  If I remember right I heard
this from Bill McKeeman a couple of years back.  He was called in to consult
on a bank account control system, the development of which was way behind
schedule.  In talking to the banking people, he discovered an interesting -
if obvious in retrospect - dicotomy between computer people and business
people.  Computer people were impressed and happy with the generality and
power of their systems.  Hey, the same system they were using to manage bank
accounts could be programmed to play space invaders!  Neat, right?

The bankers found this terrifying:  If a system was general-purpose and that
powerful, they didn't feel they could understand or control what it was doing
to their bank accounts.  McKeeman's approach was to come up with what I guess
we'd today call an axiomatic/object-oriented approach:  He designed a series
of basic primitives to manipulate things like money, accounts, and so on.  The
primitives enforced, in a very transparent way, such basic "laws" as "the law
of conservation of money":  Money can be neither created nor destroyed, it
can only be moved from place to place.  The rest of the system was built on
top of these primitives, and was apparently a great success.

Now consider analogue and digital devices from the point of view of "laws".
One reason analogue devices tend to have more predictable behavior is that
their components follow fairly constrained physical laws - and, more
important, these are laws that we understand at a deep level and can work
with analytically.  If the total energy stored in a system is less than 1
joule, no possible failure mode can release more than 1 joule.  If that system
is enclosed inside of something with a certain thermal mass, no failure mode
can increase the temperature outside the enclosure by more than a certain
amount.  And so on.  Where the inherent constraints are insufficient to
guarantee safety, we can add constraints fairly easily.  A governer can limit
the maximum speed of a rotating element, hence indirectly such things as the
energy in the system.

There can certainly be catastrophic failures due to our failure to fully
understand the system:  We may only put a joule of energy in, but neglect the
energy stored in a spring that was compressed during assembly.  Let the pin
holding the spring down fail and all of a sudden there may be a lot more than
a joule in there.  However, we have many years of experience building these
kinds of systems, and we've seen most of these kinds of failures before.  We
also have a lot of experience making such failures very unlikely - and we can
realistically compute what "very unlikely" means.

General-purpose digital systems, on the other hand, are subject to no a priori
conservation laws.  If I show you all the lines of code of a program except
for one and ask you to bound the value of a variable in the program, you can
say nothing at all.  Well, there are two exceptions, and they're instructive:
If the variable isn't in scope at the hidden line, any bound you compute from
the rest of the code is valid (at least in a language where you can guarantee
that pointers aren't passed around arbitrarily).  If the language supports
variable declarations with bounds, AND guarantees to enforce them, then you
also are obviously in good shape.  (However, few languages do this.)

This example may shed some light on why scope rules are so important: Our
programming languages continue to emphasize power and generality, not
conservation laws.  Scope rules (and, every once in a while, bounded variable
declarations with appropriate support) are about all our languages, as such,
provide us with.

Now, the algorithm being executed itself provides constraints.  But there's a
problem here:  If the only source of constraints is the algorithm itself, an
error can easily render both the algorithm and the constraint enforcement
invalid.  Constraints so closely tied to what is being constrained don't add
safety.  Relying on them is like relying on a system that suspends a weight on
a string that can only hold five pounds and then saying "Well, it won't drop
the weight because I KNOW that if the weight were heavier than five pounds the
string would break."

Instead, constraints have to be programmed in explicitly.  This is all too
rarely done:  Because the underlying system is so general, there are just
SO many constraints to check.  In an analogue system, many of the constraints
come free because of the physical laws governing the parts of the system.

Beyond that, analogue systems are usually built of standardized parts - and
those standardized parts are specified to obey certain fundamental constraints.
We have relatively few standardized digital components, and often the
constraints on them aren't very useful: They are themselves hard to check.

                            -- Jerry

Analog vs digital reliability

Jack Goldberg <>
Mon, 10 Sep 90 10:50:09 -0700
Several correspondents have suggested that digital computers are less reliable
than analog computers because of certain intrinsic properties of the two
methods; for example, analog computing is more continuous, while digital
computing is subject to arbitrary redirection at every step, also, the
complexity of digital circuitry makes it more prone to failure.  This is an
interesting conjecture, but as stated it allows a confusion of design and
implementation issues.  Some analog realizations (cams, gears, relays with
heavy armatures, etc.)  do have certain reliability enhancing properties such
as continuity of state during loss of drive power, or known reset states in the
absence of power, but these properties do not extend to more common (and higher
speed) analog realizations.

Function for function, the design of a program that realizes a standard analog
function, e.g., integration or filtering, is about as easy to get right as its
analog counterpart, and its implementation in digital hardware may be even more
reliable (considering, for example, drift and noise in analog electronic
circuits and the sharing of services in multiple-function systems that is
possible in digital designs).

The real risk in using digital rather than analog computing may be that in
pursuit of enhanced system functionality, one can easily introduce complex
decision functions (with all their opportunity for design error) that would be
infeasible in analog computers.  In other words, the reliability benefit of
analog design may be that it does not allow the designer to attempt more
complex computing functions, with their possibilities for design error.  But
this limitation in computing functionality may place higher demands on human
operators or limit the capabilities of safety systems, so one has to look at
the larger picture.

Re: Software bugs "stay fixed"?

Tom Neff <>
9 Sep 90 20:41:14 GMT
In RISKS 10.34 Robert L. Smith claims that it is possible to be certain that a
software bug has been eradicated without waiting for nonrecurrence, and cites
an example where he traced a bug in a tablet input program to one line of code,
which he removed, and now feels certain that the bug is gone.

Obviously if we consider the trivial cases -- 5 line class exercises and
whatnot -- we can KNOW a bug's gone.  In slightly more complex cases
where we nonetheless retain complete control over the code, we can stay
pretty near certainty that a bug is gone.  I'm sure most RISKS readers
encounter this sort of thing weekly.  You may not in all cases be
absolutely certain you've fixed everthing wrong, but the RISK of missing
something is deemed acceptable because further testing awaits.

But now take the case of truly HUGE projects, and truly old ones: the fertile
spawning grounds for RISKS incidents the world over.  How can we be sure we
have fixed a bug?  Suppose a "J" appears somewhere in a report and they task me
to fix it.  I find a typo in someone's module, featuring just such an errant
"J" in a constant string.  I correct the line.  Have I fixed the problem?
Anyone who thinks they can be certain without rerunning the report is in the
wrong line of work.  I have seen the "impossible" happen with fair regularity!
For instance: Yes I fixed the line in FROBOZZ.FTN, but what I didn't know is
that FROBOZZ is automagically regenerated by a code generator once a month from
a config file somewhere!  Next month, the "bug" reappears.  Or -- I corrected
my copy, but what I didn't know is that 6 other programmers have "boilerplated"
from this code to do their own projects, so that not one but dozens of errant
"J"'s appear in various reports.  It's fine for me to feel righteous about
having fixed the ONE instance originally noted, but when the customer keeps
seeing "J" it's impossible to convince him we really fixed the bug!  And so on
-- a hundred ways for human nature to conquer seemingly iron clad programming
"logic."  That's why checking for nonrecurrence is the best way -- prediction
is great, but observation pays the bills.

Re: Software bugs "stay fixed"? (RISKS-10.31)

Stephen G. Smith <>
Sun, 9 Sep 90 21:55:15 -0400
My experience with "bit rot", where previously solved problems reappear, is
that they are usually caused by poor configuration control.  While most systems
have CC tools, like sccs on UNIX or CMS on VAX/VMS, getting your friendly
average programmer to use them is like pulling teeth.  When management insists
on use of the tools, you will find lots of log entries of the form:

1.1 10/02/89    root
1.2 10/05/89    root
    ...     ...

It seems that the preferred way of working on a large system is to
simply grab a complete copy of the source code (as root so that silly
protection modes don't get in the way :-) and hack away.  When you get
several programmers working on a section of code (not at all uncommon),
it's amazing that anything at all ever works.

Add in the interaction of hardware CC with software CC and you have orders of
magnitude more things that can go wrong.  It's amazing the number of times that
you find old software running on new hardware of vice versa.

Solutions?  Programmer education.  Even more important is manager
education, to eliminate the "It takes too much time" objection.  Telling
somebody at a salary review something like "We expect our 

Software bugs "stay fixed" (again!)

Martyn Thomas <>
Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:08:57 +0100
 In RISKS-10.34 Robert L. Smith <> replies to my comments:

:    Mr. Thomas implies that it is impossible to be certain, other than by
:nonrecurrence, that a nontrivial software bug is fixed.  My experience
:indicates otherwise.

    (... anecdote about a bug and its correction removed for brevity)

:    This is my point: I am as certain as a man can be that the noted
:misbehavior will never recur in that program for that reason, ...

Here we have it. If the error is never reintroduced and if the distributed
program is compiled from the corrected source code, then this instance of
the incorrect behaviour will never recur. But what about the faulty thinking
which led to the error in the first place? Is it an incorrect mental model
of the design, which could have led to similar errors (with identical
symptoms) elsewhere in the program? Is it a misunderstanding of the meaning
of a programming construct or library call (which could also lead to other
similar errors)? I believe that this is what Dave Parnas (RISKS 10:32)
meant by "...if they were not *properly corrected* " (my emphasis).

Note also "as certain as a man can be" above.
Unfortunately people keep asking us to quantify this statement!

But this thread has rather lost its way. It started through my attempt to
counter Robert Smith's seeming argument that software was better than
hardware for critical applications because hardware errors recur whilst
software errors do not. Of course software doesn't display the failures that
hardware does, through components wearing out, but that is a small
consideration alongside the bigger issues of system complexity and costs.

Simulator classification as safety-critical

Martyn Thomas <>
Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:24:30 +0100
In RISKS-10.32 Brinton Cooper <abc@BRL.MIL> writes:

:Pete Mellor and Martyn Thomas agree that
:<> You cannot expect crew to do better than their
:<> training under the stress of an emergency.
:Er...the crew are, after all, thinking humans and merely another set of
:automatons in the system.  A recent (past 5 years) air crash in the mid-US was
:less disastrous than it might have been precisely because the pilot performed
:beyond his training, in a situation which he had not been expected to
:encounter.  This is, after all, one of the differences between human and

This is missing the point. Crew may indeed do better than their training,
but it is surely unacceptable to use this as an argument that a flight
simulator is not safety-critical. If the simulator trains behaviour which
causes an accident, the accident is logically a consequence of the simulator
design, not of the crew (who are behaving exactly as trained).
Doesn't this make the simulator as critical as any cockpit system?

Re: Postscript virus (RISKS-10.32)

Robert Trebor Woodhead <>
Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:35:08 JST
In re: the alleged Postscript virus reported in the SJ Mercury.

Rumors of this have been flying around the virus-hunter's network for
some weeks now, and two separate vaccines have been developed; to wit,
one that is added to the Laser Prep file on the Macintosh to disable
the SETPASSWORD operator temporarily (until next reboot of the printer)
and an after-the-fact password resetter that reads the old password
from the EEPROM on the Laserwriter and uses it to reset the password
(This works only on 68000 based Laserwriters, and probably only on ones
using ADOBE PostScript.

After much discussion, it was generally agreed upon that these tools would not
be released except on an as-needed basis, for several reasons.  Primary
amoungst these is that nobody has yet come up with a confirmed sighting of the
alleged poisoned clip-art; thus the scattered reports of malignant graphics
could in fact be isolated cases of either weird machine messups, or some jerks
just downloading a line or two of PostScript.

However, it should be noted that the other major reason was that the cure may
be worse than the disease, in that the number of reports of problems with
Laserwriter passwords is so small that it would be dwarfed by the number of
problems caused by improper installation and use of the cures, and additionally
the cures can easily be perverted into new variants of the possibly spurious
disease they were intended to cure.

Robert J Woodhead, Biar Games, Inc.  !uunet!biar!trebor trebor@biar.UUCP

Re: New Rogue Imperils Printers

Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:46:22 EDT
>... PostScript, that "surreptitiously reprograms a chip inside the
>printers, changing a seldom-used  password stored there. When the
>password is altered, ...  the printer no longer functions properly."

It's not entirely clear what is going on here -- whether the code is
simply doing a password change by virtue of knowing the old password
or whether it's doing it by some sneak path -- but it raises an
interesting risk either way.

The password on a PostScript printer (well, in the usual implementation)
is a number.  It protects certain parameters of the printer that user
code really shouldn't change, like communications parameters and idle
timeouts.  There is considerable potential for malice in knowing the
password, up to and including causing hardware damage of a minor sort
(the EEPROM used to store printer parameters can be rewritten only a
limited number of times due to wear-out processes in the chip).

The default password as shipped is 0.  Very few printer owners bother
to change this.  The problem is that there is significant incentive
*not* to change it... because the PostScript code from a good many
badly-written but legitimate applications tries password 0 and will fail
if it has been changed!  Typically, all the application uses it for is
to set some parameters back to reasonable defaults -- whether the printer
owner wants it that way or not -- but the code makes no attempt to cope
with the possibility of a non-standard password forbidding such changes.

Believe it or not, there are people who will defend the idea that you should
leave your printer's password unchanged so that programs can mess with its
parameters however they please.

                              Henry Spencer at U of Toronto Zoology utzoo!henry

Re: Computers and Safety (RISKS-10.34)

Robert Trebor Woodhead <>
Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:55:49 JST
J.G. Mainwaring discourses about GOTO's and the infamous C BREAK
(as in "Here is where your program will BREAK!")

It has long been my opinion (which as we all know, carries the force
of law in several of the smaller West African countries.. ;^) that the
EXIT() command pioneered in UCSD PASCAL was an ideal compromise.

EXIT(a) exited you from enclosing procedure "a", which made it most
convenient for getting out of incredibly convoluted nested structures
without making them hugely more convoluted.  It was the equivalent of
a restricted GOTO to the end of the current procedure, with the extra
ability to exit any enclosing procedure (even PROGRAM, the whole
kit-n-kaboodle).  It gave you the the same abilities as 90% of GOTO
use, but you always knew exactly what it was going to do, and thus
it was much less dangerous than BREAK.

A nice side effect of the ability to semantically nest procedures and
functions in PASCAL was that this allowed you to put inner parts of
some horrifically obscure structure into sub-procedures, allowing you
to exit from the inner parts but not the outer parts.

Robert J Woodhead, Biar Games, Inc.  !uunet!biar!trebor trebor@biar.UUCP

SafetyNet '90 Conference Announcement

Wed, 5 Sep 90 14:58:38 BST
        Royal Aeronautical Society, 4 Hamilton Place, London
    Tues 16th October   -   Wed 17th October 1990
        Registration & Coffee, 9.00a.m. - 9.30a.m.

    SafetyNet, PO Box 79, 19 Trinity Street, Worcester, WR1  2PX
        Tel: 0905 611512  Fax: 0905 612829

SafetyNet '90       Programme Day 1         16th October

09.30   General Chair           Digby A. Dyke, Editor, SafetyNet

09.40   Session 1 Chair         Dr. John Kershaw, RSRE

09.50   Tutorial 1:
    An Introduction to the RAISE    Soren Prehn, Computer Resources
    Specification Language      International

10.40   RAISE- A Case Study of      Soren Prehn
    a Concurrent System     Computer Resources International

11.35   Critical Software -     Peter Jesty, Dr. Tom
    A Standard and its      Buckley, Keith Hobley
    Certification           & Margaret West, University of Leeds

12.10   Intellectual Property       Dr. Mathew K.O. Lee
    Critical Systems        BP Research Centre

14.00   Product Liability (Civil    Ranald Robertson
    & Criminal) Issues for      Partner,
    Developers of Safety-       Stephenson Harwood
    Critical Software       Solicitors

14.35   Methods for Developing      Stephen Clarke, Andy Coombes
    Safe Software           & John A McDermid, University of York

15.30   Panel 1:            Chair:
    What are the relationships  Prof Bernard Cohen
    among standards, certifica- Rex, Thompson &
    tion, compliance, evidence  Partners
    and legal liability ?

16.30   Panel Summary           Prof Bernard Cohen

16.40   Closing Remarks         Dr. John Kershaw

16.45   Close of Day 1 (Please depart by 17.45)

19.30   Conference Dinner       Guest Speaker
    Le Meridien Hotel, Piccadilly, London

SafetyNet '90       Programme Day 2         17th October

09.35   General Chair           Digby A. Dyke, Editor, SafetyNet

09.40   Session 2 Chair         Fred Eldridge, Rex, Thompson &

09.50   Tutorial 2:         Peter Froome and Jan Cheng Adelard
        A Formal Method for Concurrency

10.40   Application of Formal       Dr. D.S. Neilson
    Methods to Process Control  BP Research Centre

11.35   Proof Obligations 3:        Prof Bernard Cohen,
    Concurrent Systems      Rex, Thompson & Partners

12.10   Refinement in the Large     Paul Smith, Secure Information Systems

14.00   An Introduction to the NODEN    Dr. Clive Pygott, RSRE
        Hardware Verification Suite

14.35   Mural - A Formal Development    Dr. Richard Moore
    Support Environment     University of Manchester

15.30   Panel 2:            Chair: Prof Cliff Jones,
    What is inhibiting widespread   University of Manchester
        use of Formal Methods ?

16.30   Panel Summary           Prof Cliff Jones

16.40   Closing Remarks         Fred Eldridge

16.45   Close of Day 2 (Please depart by 17.45)

Liz Kerr, SafetyNet, PO Box 79, 19 Trinity Street, Worcester  WR1  2PX
Tel: 0905 611512, Fax: 0905 612829
                               [Coffee, lunch, tea breaks omitted.  PGN]

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