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The dichotomy between errors of commission and of omission is reminiscent of the tension between negative and positive control in launch-on-warning systems. Clearly, negative control is a snap if one is willing to compromise positive control: there is perfectly reliable negative control whenever the system is shut off. That is, errors of omission are not possible if one is willing to accept errors of commission in this case. Obviously, there is a continuum of possibilities between this extreme and the extreme of just launching without any reliable detection whatsoever; this is the only region of interest. The point illustrated is that the two classes of error are not likely to be independently controllable; there is a built-in tension between them.
I haven't seen anybody mention that there does seem to have been an "error of commission" in the operation of the range safety system after the Challenger explosion (specifically, the destruction of the SRBs). Of course this is a human rather than a computer error, but the result is the same; the system as a whole functioned less than optimally. I understand that even NASA now admits that the SRBs were not in fact endangering anything at the time that they were destroyed. But I do understand how there must be an almost irresistible temptation for the range safety officer to do the "safe" thing (in this case, destroy the boosters). Perhaps this is the inevitable result of having humans making these decisions (error on the side of safety). I'm not sure that anything can really be done about this, except to provide extensive training and an adequate supply of information on which to base the actual decisions. Do the range safety officers have access to real-time flight-path projections and similar information that would allow them to make intelligent decisions? — David desJardins
Martin J Moore queries why the shuttle destruct system should be tested more extensively against errors of commission (error causes destruct system to activate) than against errors of omission (error causes destruct system to be unable to activate). The reason is that for the errors of omission, the rest of the system serves as an additional link, ie., for an error of commission to cause disaster, ONLY the destruct system has to fail. For an error of omission to cause disaster, the destruct system has to fail SIMULTANEOUSLY with the vehicle failing. Thus, the most probable event is for an error of omission to gail "safe": the vehicle wouldn't have blown up if somebody wanted it to, but nobody wanted it to, so it didn't matter. --Geoffrey A. Landis, Brown University Reply to: ST401385%BROWNVM.BITNET@WISCVM.ARPA
Here at Purdue's Engineeering Computer Network, we've had "synchronized" time on all our machines for some time. For a long time, all the machines ran "datesync", a program which checked a central machine every N minutes (usually 15 or 30) and set the local machine's date and time according to what it got from the central host. There were some minor sanity checks, but nothing fancy. We never had too much trouble, since if the central machine came up with the wrong date you could get it reset before the other machines came and got their time information. A couple of years ago, we plugged a Heathkit (Al)Most Accurate Clock (WWV) into the central machine. It used to be set off "George's Watch". This made stuff somewhat better — when the central machine came up, it got the time from WWV instead of "datesync"ing to another machine. The WWV software was used periodically (every 15 minutes, I think) to adjust the central machine clock. Except for the time when the someone unplugged the WWV clock and then a few days later it's battery backup freaked out, we have NEVER had a serious problem with the "datesync" scheme (20 machines or so). Well, with 4.3BSD UNIX you get this neat toy called the "time daemon". It handles network clock synchronization off a master machine by doing various clock adjustments (rather than hard-setting the clock, it actually diddles the clock speed). It has all these neato sanity checks and SUPPOSEDLY it won't let a preposterous time come in. In fact, you even see this stuff on the console once in awhile that says "PREPOSTEROUS TIME ....". Sounds neat, right? Well, last month all the machines on the network decided that it was 4:00pm, January 4, 1985. Somehow this slipped right by all the sanity checks, and the master time daemon stuffed it into one machine. Then it PROPAGATED it to all the other machines. Having horribly wrong time can be fairly catastrophic on a UNIX system — the "cron" utility starts up all sorts of programs based on the time of day and day of the week. Including things like "find all files older than X and delete them". We were less than amused... Another brain-damaged feature of the time daemon — if you set the date on ONE machine, it BROADCASTS that information through the time daemons to ALL the machines. You better PRAY you never mistype the date! The thing that really bugs me about this stuff is that it's so simple to make it more bullet-proof (not fool-proof, necessarily). For example, just plain IGNORE any date which changes your date by more than X unless you are explicitly told TAKE THIS DATE REGARDLESS. Well, this letter is already twice as long as I intended, so I'll shut up now... things like this are an interesting subject though — I wonder how much other software in computerdom just blindly assumes that some "authority" is correct. --Dave Curry Purdue University
In addition to its other bugs (e.g., null timestamps), our mailer puts a control character at the beginning of each user's personal name. This arises from keeping the personal name as a counted string but displaying it as ordinary text; the control character is the count byte. Recently I have received messages (ranging from polite to nasty) from several RISKS readers telling me that my control character causes their terminals to reset, go into graphics mode, or do other unpleasant things. I can't do anything about it; we're waiting for a fix from the vendor, and we're stuck until we get it. Since you edit my headers to get the date right, would you mind flushing the control character also? mjm [I took it out of the FROM field. But this problem reminds me that many of our readers may not have never heard of the old problem of squirreling away control characters and escape sequences in messages which when read can wreak havoc with an unsuspecting mail reader, especially one with an intelligent terminal having redefinable keys. If that problem has not been fixed on YOUR system, dear reader, YOU may be running at great risk. PGN]
One of the origin of risks in any system is exemplified by the discussion of the Canadian effort at "vocalizing" the value of a currency note. I do not have any information in addition to what has been posted in the RISKS digest (so feel free to correct me if I am wrong), but there seems to be nothing in the original posting [RISKS 2-28] to indicate that the aim of the device is to dectect/reduce forgeries. Yet, the first argument offered against it is the ability to fool it. My interpretation of the device is one to help a blind person "read" the currency note SOMETHING THAT HE CANNOT NOW DO--- not to tell him if the currency note is valid or a forgery! Risks of such a system come from the public putting more faith or expecting more from a system than its stated goal. As a side issue, there is no reason to think that fooling such a device would be any different than fooling change machines that are commonly found around here, which detect at least the difference between 1$ and 5$ bills. There is no reason why such a machine could not be connected to a voice synthesizer to speak out the amount. Addition of speech capability in itself does not increase the risks/unreliability/foolability(?) of any system. --Prasanna [Just don't trust it with anything larger than what you are willing to be cheated out of. You may have noticed that you don't see change machines for $100 bills. There are good reasons. PGN]
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