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 53

Wednesday 17 October 1990


o Lies, damn lies, and statistics... computer cabin-safety
Robert Dorsett
o Ada MultiTasking
Edward V. Berard
Bertrand Meyer
Robert Firth
Ray Diederich
Brian Hanafee
o Re: Technophilia-induced problem at Educom?
Miles R. Fidelman
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Lies, damn lies, and statistics...

Robert Dorsett <>
Wed, 17 Oct 90 16:50:58 -0500
>From FLIGHT INTERNATIONAL, September 26, 1990


"Future cabin safety testing for new airliners should be determined by
computer-based analysis, according to Michel Le Clerc, Airbus Industrie's
deputy chief engineer, widebodies.

"Practical evacuation tests are limited in their scope, produce unreliable
conclusions, are dangerous for participants and extremely expensive, said
Le Clerc at the conference.

"Le Clerc wants intensive studies of evacuation tests and actual accidents
to be conducted, saying, 'Steps should be taken to set up a database and
computer model available to everyone.  Sufficient data already exsits for
the necessary analysis' ...although unconventional configurations may require
testing," he adds.

"A full certification test evacuation program costs about $1 million for a
narrowbody and $2 million for a widebody, points out Le Clerc, and about
one in ten people are injured."

Just a couple of comments. :-)

1.  $1-$2 million is about 0.03% to 0.1% of the total development costs for a
new aircraft.  On a 2000-aircraft production run, the per-aircraft cost will
be about a thousand dollars, or .0014% of the cost of a $70 million airplane.
We're talking peanuts, here.

2.  The notion that a *computerized* model will work, whereas earlier models
have failed, is of concern.  Statistical analysis of exits is nothing new.
However, time and time again, such analyses tend to cut corners, to rely on
ideal conditions, and use admittedly imperfect evidence (the same "data",
I'm afraid, that Le Clerc's referring to).  Problems are usually shown in
practical demonstrations.  However, by using "data" and putting it into a
"computer," it becomes much more difficult to refute that model's

3.  Part of the reason for Airbus's desire to rely on models is its enormous
investment in a massive CAD/CAM/documentation system.

4.  The last major fiasco which involved the use of raw statistics to set
evacuation policies was when Northwest, and other operators, petitioned the
FAA to seal the over-wing exit doors of 747-200's.  The FAA's northwest
district approved it, but the national branch overturned the approval, citing
unnecessary risk.

The entire industry has also been collaborating in certifying twin-engine air-
planes for extended-range over-water operations, a controversial issue at
best.  This summer, a proposal arose to also use models in lieu of practical

I think it's only a matter of time before a major manufacturer petitions for
a waiver of major airframe "practical" tests in favor of simulations.  After
all, if they can build it, the theory can't be wrong, right?  Or something
like that.

Re: Ada and Multitasking

Edward V. Berard <>
Fri, 12 Oct 90 05:44:44 EDT
> The author then describes several features of the Ada language, such as data
> typing, separate compilation units, and concurrent tasks.
> The RISKy bit comes in the discussion of task priorities.  [...]

This "problem" is more one of a misunderstanding of the capabilities of the Ada
language than an actual language definition problem. A serious user of Ada
should know that some things, especially in the area of tasking, are defined in
a non-deterministic manner. This is usually phrased in terms like "if several
select alternatives are open, one will be selected in a non-deterministic

Yes, each implementer (of an Ada compiler) does indeed have a certain amount of
freedom in choosing how to do scheduling, and the Ada programmer has the option
of leaving it entirely up to the compiler to select a particular alternative.
Further, this definitely has the potential of different behaviors as a result
of using the same source code with different Ada compilers.

However, if this is truly unacceptable to the program's author, it is entirely
possible to write the same code in such a way that it behaves in exactly the
same manner on all Ada systems. This does not even require "tricky code."

Writing portable and predictable code using Ada is definitely possible, and,
and for that matter, is done all the time. Please be aware of the fact that
Ada does not force you to write only deterministic tasking code, but does
provide you the capability to do so if you desire.

> ... A language which boasts high portability and reliability includes
> features which mean that there is no guarantee that a program will work the
> same way if ported to another compiler and/or run-time environment.

If I went out of my way not to learn the proper semantics of the language,
and worked at writing non-portable code, this would be true.

The crux of the matter is really flexibility. If the designer of the Ada
language (Jean Ichbiah) decided that there was only one way to set priorities,
he could have built that into the language. Unfortunately, not everyone would
have agreed on that mechanism. So, Ada was designed in a manner which gives the
programmer a choice:

    a. Allow the underlying implementation to select among a set of choices
       in a non-deterministic manner, or

    b. Force a particular, programmer-defined set of priorities, which can
       always be the same regardless of the compiler implementation

> Does anybody have any experience (good or bad) in porting Ada programs, in
> particular real-time programs?

My experience (hundreds of thousand of lines of code ported to many different
platforms) shows that it is possible to routinely write very portable,
predictable Ada code. However, I have seen the following:

    * A poorly trained Ada programmer determines the underlying scheduling
      algorithm for his or her Ada compiler and writes code to take
          advantage of this scheduling algorithm. Problems occurred when:

          - a new version of the compiler came out with a different scheduling

          - the source code was ported to an Ada compiler with a different
            scheduling algorithm, and/or

          - the programmer did not understand (or correctly identify) the
        underlying scheduling algorithm.

    * An Ada programmer realized that Ada compiler writers have a certain
      amount of flexibility when it comes to some (not all) priority
      issues, and then wrote very deterministic code. However, the actual
      application called for non-deterministic code. (This problem is
      very similar to having a "not-so-random" random number generator.)

There are definitely risks associated with this issue. However, one must be
careful in identifying the source. For example, if an Ada programmer is poorly
trained, should we blame the language, the programmer, or management?
                                                        -- Ed

Edward V. Berard, Berard Software Engineering, Inc.  18620 Mateney Road
Germantown, Maryland 20874                      Phone: (301) 353-9652

Fri, 12 Oct 90 15:30:27 PDT
Subject: Re: Ada and multitasking (RISKS 10.48)

    In his contribution to RISKS 10.48, Erling Kristiansen criticizes Ada's
concurrency features (the tasking mechanism) as hampering reliability because
the language definition leaves room for more than one possible program response
to the same sequence of events, depending for example on the way the scheduler
handles task priorities to reflect various possible fairness policies.  In his
words, this highlights a contradiction between portability and reliability.

    Regardless of one's opinion about Ada's support for reliable
programming (concurrent or not), which certainly leaves room
for criticism, Mr. Kristiansen's comments seem based on an
over-restricted view of reliability. In his opinion,

    ``A language which boasts high portability and reliability
    [must not] include features which mean that there is no guarantee
    that a program will work the same way if ported to another compiler
    and/or run-time environment.''

Depending on how one defines ``work the same way'', this requirement
is either appropriate or too strong.

    It is too strong if ``working the same way'' means always executing the
same actions in the same order as a response to the same input events. After
all, isn't non-determinism a fundamental aspect of concurrency? Even in a
purely sequential world, one can hardly guarantee that computations (on
floating-point numbers, for example) will execute identically on all computers.

    The only productive way of transforming the above into a realistic
requirement is to accept that a program, or program element, is based on a
higher-level description of intended semantics - in other words, a
specification. (I have called this ``programming by contract'' in various
publications, some of which, incidentally, directly criticize another aspect of
Ada, its exception mechanism, precisely for its possible risks to reliability.)
A specification states the required properties of the acceptable observable
behaviors of a software system. It does not need to prescribe only one behavior
as acceptable.

    Different implementations that behave differently, and possibly even
produce different observable results, are then acceptable as long as they
conform to the specification.

    Two of the possible reasons to leave certain properties open in the
specification are portability and the need to support various scheduling or
fairness policies. They do not conflict with the reliability requirement. To
take an obvious non-computer analogy, you may tell a taxi driver to get you to
point X in at most half an hour, without specifiying the itinerary, which is
not part of your definition of ``reliability'' for this trip.

    All this assumes, of course, that there is a way to express precise
specifications, which Ada does not provide, although some Ada-based tools,
notably Anna, do.

-- Bertrand Meyer            

Ada MultiTasking

Tue, 16 Oct 90 08:07:29 -0400
>        ... Or one could blame the language.

Or, of course, one could ask that the instructor take the trouble to learn the
language he proposes to teach!  The Ada Reference Manual [RM 9.8(4)] mandates
exactly this behaviour:

    If two tasks with different priorities are both eligible
    for execution and could sensibly be executed using the
    same physical processors and the same other processing
    resources, then it cannot be the case that the task with
    the lower priority is executing while the task with the
    higher priority is not.

In other words, and without any vagueness whatever - run the higher
priority task until it ends, and then run the lower priority task.

Robert Firth

Re: Ada MultiTasking

Ray Diederich <>
Tue, 16 Oct 90 14:54:42 -0400
In RISKS 10.50, Chet Laughlin <> writes:
>The first lab involved two tasks running in pa[r]ellel.  In reality it was
>figured that the tasks would time-slice on a single machine.  However, this
>was not the case.  The compiler would simply run the highest priority task
>until it ended, and then run the lower task.  ...

In response, ANSI/MIL-STD-1815A, chapter 9, paragraph 2 states:
>Tasks are entities whose executions proceed *in parallel* in the following
>sense. Each task can be considered to be executed by a logical processor of
>its own. Different tasks (different logical processors) proceed
>independently, except at points where they synchronize.

Nowhere in this paragraph nor the surrounding text is the idea of time-slicing
mentioned nor implied. Depending on time-slicing is erroneous programming,
because it means depending on characteristics which are out of the control of
the programmer. Further, resorting to time slicing is simply a way of saying "I
don't know how to best schedule these tasks; you, the compiler, may schedule
them for me." Ada supplies several synchronizing tools which allow logically
concurrent processing without depending on time-slicing.

Time-slicing gives you a means of relieving your responsibility to solve your
real-time processing design problems -- at the expense of added overhead, less
control of your program, and less reliability in your system. Yet, every time I
come up against a problem which requires real-time performance, I find that
most of my peers start chanting "we need to time-slice, we need to time-slice."

I challenge any circumstance which would require time-slicing to be
"correct." If the point of Mr. Laughlin's project was intended to teach the
real-time use of the multiprocessor environment (by simulating
multiprocessing with tasks), I suggest that his choice of problems is
flawed. A good real-time multiprocessor problem requires interprocess
dependency (which may be implemented by Ada task rendezvous). Without the
interprocess dependency, you might as well cut the cables and run with
stand-alone processors.

In response to Erling Kirstainsen's article which originated the topic, any
time one resorts to erroneous programming methods, one sacrifices
reliability and portability. It's not the fault of the language nor the
associated hype.

Re: Ada MultiTasking (Laughlin, RISKS-10.50)

Brian Hanafee <>
Tue, 16 Oct 90 12:19:25 -0700
The basic error is contained in the statement: "In reality it was figured that
the tasks would time-slice on a single machine."  This assumption is in direct
contradiction of the Ada LRM, section 9.8, paragraph 4:

     "If two tasks with different priorities are both eligible for
     execution and could sensibly be executed using the same physical
     processors and the same other processing resources, then it
     cannot be the case that the task with the lower priority is
     executing while the task with the higher priority is not."

Running the higher priority task until it ended was the correct behavior!

    Much of the difficulty people have with Ada tasking is (in my
opinion) related to the fact that the Ada tasking model does not
assume (nor preclude) a time-slicing mechanism.  I believe the Apple
Macintosh Multifinder implementation is another example of
multitasking without time slicing.

    The decision to use or not use time slicing should be based on a number
of factors including the availability of a clock to cause interrupts, the cost
of saving the machine state, and the benefit of "fair" scheduling.  The
availability of an appropriate clock is not a given for all computer systems,
particularly embedded systems.  Furthermore, the cost of saving the machine
state at a random point in the execution of the program is almost always
greater than the cost of saving state only at predefined points such as task
entry and exits.  The benefit of "fair" scheduling occurs frequently in
multi-user systems where users are often competing for the same resources,
however in dedicated or embedded systems, the designers could use tasking and
programming discipline to enforce "fair" scheduling without requiring the
additional overhead of time-slicing.  The decision to use or not use time
slicing is usually made by the compiler vendor (although ideally it should be
switchable by the compiler user); programs in Ada (or any other language) which
depend on a particular implementation are erroneous.

Brian Hanafee                           

Re: Technophilia-induced problem at Educom? (RISKS-10.51)

"Miles R. Fidelman" <mfidelma@BBN.COM>
17 Oct 90 17:14:32 GMT
I've seen a talk where real-time transcription was provided by court
stenographers.  They used a version of a stenotype machine coupled to display

Stenotype machines have phonetic keyboards, and their raw output looks very
much like what is described here. In courtroom practice, a clean transcript is
made later. In the talk I saw, some software provided partial on-the-fly
cleanup, but no where near perfect.

Another reader comments that an ASL translator would be preferable. My own
take is that for technical talks this real-time transcription seems better able
to catch technical vocabulary.

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