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 4 Issue 4

Tuesday, 4 November 1986


o Flawed Radars in Air Traffic Control
o The Future of English (risks of technocrats, risks of word processors)
Martin Minow
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Flawed Radars in Air Traffic Control

Peter G. Neumann <Neumann@CSL.SRI.COM>
Tue 4 Nov 86 09:55:22-PST
            FAA Says It Has Fixed Flawed Radar Systems

Santa Ana (UPI, 4 Nov 86; from the San Francisco Chronicle of that date, p. 40)

Malfunctions in key radar systems that track airliners in Southern California 
reached a hazardous level in recent years, but officials said yesterday that
the most serious problems have been found and fixed.  According to Federal
Aviation Administration reports obtained by the Orange County Register,
there were frequent breakdowns in the past four years in the Laguna Radar,
which monitors the area in a 200-mile radius around its perch east of San
Diego, and the San Pedro Radar, which scans a 200-mile circle around the
Palos Verdes Peninsula.  The systems monitor air traffic for Los Angeles
International Airport, John Wayne Airport and Lindbergh Field in San Diego.

The radar malfunctions grew critical enough that the FAA sent tecnicians
from Washington, D.C., to the Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale
two weeks ago to monitor both systems and make adjustments.  Among the 
malfunctions were frequent disappearances of airplanes from radar screens
for 15 to 30 minutes and radar displays that show planes in a turn pattern
when they are actually on a straight course.

In some instances, the Register reported, air controllers saw aircraft
"jump" on their radar scopes, which made planes appear to have changed
direction when they had not.  In others, radars tracking plane descents in
an especially busy corridor showed jets traveling faster than they actually
were.  In addition, important altitude data that helps controllers avoid
midair collisions frequently disappeared from radar screens.  

FAA official Russell Park confirmed the problem and acknowledged that the
situtation could have been hazardous.  He said the malfunctions played no
part in any collisions, including that of an Aeromexico DC-9 and a small
plane over Cerritos on August 31.  He said the troubleshooting team from
Washington was able to fix the most serious malfunctions quickly.

                         [Quickly?  But this went on for FOUR YEARS?  PGN]

   [By the way, the November 1986 issue of the IEEE SPECTRUM is devoted to
    "Our Burdened Skies", and is a goldmine for those of you interested in
    our air transportation system.]

The Future of English (risks of technocrats, risks of word processors)

Martin Minow, DECtalk Engineering, ML3-1/U47 223-9922 <minow%regent.DEC@decwrl.DEC.COM>
29-Oct-1986 1645

[By Anthony Burgess.  From "2020: A Vision of the Future," in the 17 June 1986
"London Telegraph Sunday Magazine," a special issue devoted to the future.
Burgess is the author of "A Clockwork Orange," "Earthly Powers," "Napoleon
Symphony," "Nineteen Eighty-Five," "Re Joyce," and many other books.]

  Prime ministers speaking to the nation still attempt, like Mrs. Thatcher, to
  use "Standard English" and a supraregional or classless accent.  By 2020
  they will not have to do that.  What they will have to do is speak a kind of
  English that denies the fact of education, avoids allusion to Shakespeare or
  the Bible, and, where it rises above the level of conversational usage,
  gains a pose of learning and authority from the use of technological terms.
  At the same time, with a kind of ultimate authority seeming to be vested in
  the hard but high-flown language of science, there will be more mendacity
  and evasion dressed up as technology.  The Pentagon has already shown the
  way with such expressions as "anticipatory retaliation," which does not
  sound like striking the enemy without due declaration of war.

  America's language is already far advanced in the direction of combining the
  loose colloquial with the cant terms of the technical specialists — who
  include sociologists and psychologists, as well as cybernetics experts and
  aerospace men.  When not being expertly evasive ("at this time the nuclear
  capability of this nation is not anticipated to assume a role of preemptive
  preparatory action"), it is slangy, unlearned, unwitty, inelegant.  At its
  most disconcerting it combines two modes of discourse: "Now we zero in on
  the nitty-gritty of the suprasegmental prosodic feature and find that we're
  into a different ball game."  It is already, perhaps, the matrix of British
  English of 2020.

  As for the sound of the English of 2020, some of its characteristics are in
  active preparation.  Assimilation — a natural enough process, which,
  however, must never be allowed to go too far — is drawing a lot of vowels
  to the middle of the mouth, where the phoneme called schwa (the second
  syllable of "butter," "father;" the first a in "apart") waits like a spider
  for flies.  The "a" of "man" is already a muzzy, neuter sound with the
  young.  Assimilation of consonants is giving us "corm beef: and "tim
  peaches" and "vogka" (Kingsly Amis spotted these in the early seventies).
  Grammar has been simplified, so that most sentences are constructed to the
  "and...and...and..." Biblical formula (hypotactic, to be technical).  Losing
  Latin in our schools, we are finding it hard to understand Milton and to
  appreciate the beauties of the periodic sentence.

  This will get worse.  The English of 2020 will combine structural
  infantilism with hard-nosed technology.  It will be harsh, and it will lack
  both modesty and humor.

  The written word is only a ghost without the solidity of the spoken word to
  give it substance, but to many it seems to be the primary reality.  After
  all, the voices of dead poets and novelists survive only as black marks on
  white paper.  Still, writers write well only when they listen to what they
  are writing — either on magnetic tape or in the auditorium set silently in
  their skulls.  But more and more writers — not only of pseudoliterature but
  of political speeches — ignore the claims of the voice and ear.

  I think that, with the increasing use of the word processor, the separation
  of the word as sound from the word as visual symbol is likely to grow.  The
  magical reality has become the set of signs glowing on a screen: this takes
  precedence over any possible auditory significance.  The speed with which
  words can be set down with such an apparatus (as also with the electric
  typewriter), the total lack of muscular effort involved — these turn
  writing into a curiously nonphysical activity, in which there is no manual
  analogue to the process of breathing out, using the tongue, lips, and teeth,
  and accepting language as a bodily exercise that expends energy.

  What is wrong with most writing today is its flaccidity, its lack of
  pleasure in the manipulation of sounds and pauses.  The written word is
  becoming inert.  One dreads to think what is will be like in 2020.

  I have never yet ventured a prophecy that came true.  In my little novel
  "Nineteen Eighty-Five" I get nothing except the name of the son of the Prince
  of Wales.  It is altogether possible that, rejecting the easy way of pop
  music, drugs, and television, the youthy of the near future will stage a
  reactionary revolution and go back to Latin, Shakespeare, and the Bible and
  insist on school courses in rhetoric.  But I do not think it likely.

[It should be noted, perhaps, that the Boston Globe recently published an
article that stated the offering of Latin in public high schools has increased
markedly in the last five years.  MM]

Burgess notes that word processors make writing too easy.  You can see the
result in the bloated junk novels, all over 300 pages long, that seem to be
designed only to fill waiting time at airports.

One of my colleagues once edited a computer textbook written by one of the
more important educators in the field (and he is a well-known writer
himself).  He said that "he nearly wore out the delete-paragraph key on the
word-processor."  The bad news is that there seems to be no real interest in
good editing in the commercial marketplace.  I would claim that this is a
direct result of the ease of writing with word processors.

  [In a recent memo, EWD976-0, 10 Sep 86, Edsger W. Dijkstra makes a plea
   against bad writing.  One of his suggestions for making it easier on your 
   readers was this: ``Avoid if possible using one-letter identifiers that are 
   all by themselves words in the language of the surrounding prose, such as 
   "U" in Dutch and "a" and "I" in English, as they may confront you with
   unpleasant surprises.  (There is a page by David Gries, in which "I"
   occurs in three different roles: as a personal pronoun, as identifier for
   an invariant and as a Roman numeral! Of course, the reader can sort this
   confusion out, but it is better avoided.)''  EWD via PGN]

Please report problems with the web pages to the maintainer