The RISKS Digest
Volume 5 Issue 36

Sunday, 13th September 1987

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

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

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o Australian Bank Bungles Foreign Exchange Deal
Ken Ross
o Computer misses the bus
Doug Barry
o Quite a dish subverts Playboy channel
o "Software Glitch Shuts Down Phones in Minneapolis"
o Computer Syndrome
Mark Jackson
Simson L. Garfinkel
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Australian Bank Bungles Foreign Exchange Deal

Ken Ross <munnari!!kar@uunet.UU.NET>
Sat, 12 Sep 87 11:20:11 +1000
(Quoted without permission from the Melbourne Age, 11 Sept 87, p3)


    A Fairfield man who made a windfall $335,000 profit after the National
Australia Bank made a mistake in quoting an exchange rate on Sri Lankan rupees,
won a Supreme Court action yesterday over the money.

    Mr Justice Beach dismissed a claim by the bank that Mr Peter George
Rogan had taken an unfair advantage of the bank because he must have known the
bank had given him the wrong figure.

    On 23 December last year, Mr Rogan, who had developed an interest in
foreign currency transactions, collected a National Australia Bank list of
exchange rates which showed 78.5 Sri Lankan rupees to the Australian dollar.
The figure was confirmed in a telephone call to the bank. He bought rupees to
the value of $104,500 and sold them to the Commonwealth Bank the next day for
$440,258.  (...)

    Mr Justice Beach said he had found Mr Rogan to be an honest witness
who believed than the Commonwealth and not the National had given him the
wrong rate.

    The manager of the National Australia Bank's international
operations section, Mr Bob Farmer, ... told [Mr Rogan] that the bank had
mistakenly entered the exchange rate for Central Pacific francs instead of
Sri Lankan rupees into its computer on the day Mr Rogan bought the rupees.
Mr Farmer asked if the bank could do a deal to rectify the loss, but Mr
Rogan sought legal advice and declined to make any payment to the bank.

    Mr Justice Beach said he accepted Rogan's belief at the time that
the rupee must have been devalued because of internal strife, and that he
believed he had been given the correct figure by the National Bank and that
the Commonwealth's much different, unconfirmed figure, on the same day was
because it had been slow to catch up and adjust its rate.  He described Mr
Rogan as an amateur in the world of foreign exchange dealings, rather than
an experienced professional.  He found that although an irregularity in the
exchange rate entered into the bank's computer on 23 December was noticed
within minutes, and the rate was withdrawn from use by bank staff, the
incorrect figure remained on the bank's computer screens, and Mr Rogan had
been given the rate on a number of occasions that day, including the three
times that he had bought rupees during the morning, at lunchtime and in the
afternoon.  Mr Justice Beach dismissed the allegation that Mr Rogan had
deliberately split his purchases into a number of parcels each below $10,000
to delay scrutiny of the transaction, and found that it was the National
Bank which had first advised him to split deals in an earlier transaction. ...

Computer misses the bus

Peter G. Neumann <>
Sun 13 Sep 87 15:29:13-PDT
30,753 Minneapolis school children were victimized by a misaligned computer
merge operation, with almost everyone receiving assignments for the wrong
school bus for the new school year.  For example, some first-graders were
assigned to high school and teenagers were assigned to grade school.  In
each case the correct bus route for a given name was assigned to the name
following in the list.  (Thus, just a few children actually received the
right assignment — if two adjacent entries were to be on the same bus for
the same school, as in the case of the first one of a pair of twins.)
  [Source: Minneapolis Star and Tribune, article by Kate Perry, 25 August
  1987, contributed to RISKS by Doug Barry, CDC, Bloomington MN 55420]

Quite a dish subverts Playboy channel

Peter G. Neumann <>
Sun 13 Sep 87 15:15:18-PDT
The Playboy Channel was hit on the evening of 6 September with an attack
reminiscent of the Captain Midnight case, when someone ``stepped on their
transponder'', i.e., uplinked through the satellite dish antenna.  The cable
TV program interjection warned viewers to ``repent your sins.''  
                        [Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 10 Sept 87, p. 21]

"Software Glitch Shuts Down Phones in Minneapolis"

Sat, 12 Sep 87 13:10:36 CDT
Thirteen telephone exchanges in downtown Minneapolis went dead about
4 a.m. when a computer program for the Northwestern Bell switching
system malfunctioned.   About 50,000 customers were affected.

Although some service was restored by 8:35 a.m., Bell spokesman John
Walker said the company was electronically limiting use of the troubled
exchanges because of a surge in customer demand.  That meant that calls
were interrupted in some cases by a recorded message explaining all cir-
cuits were busy, in other cases by a continuous busy signal.

Walker said the situation was not unlike a freeway traffic jam.  "At this
point, the wreckage has been cleared, but traffic is still moving slowly
because lane use is limited," he said.

The exchanges involved were 332-6, 330,2,3,4,8, 370,2,5.  The 348 exchange
covers Minneapolis police and fire, but Paul Linnee, directory of emergency
communications, said there were no emergency calls that went unanswered.

Walker said the glitch developed while the company was making what he
described as a routine equipment modification in one of two computers.
Employees were changing computer software that was to extend limits of
customer service and add new features, he said.

"We don't know what went wrong with the new software," Walker said.  He
acknowledged there have been other service interruptions this year, "but
nothing of this magnitude."

Walker said Northwestern Bell will continue to limit use of various
exchanges "until we are satisfied the system is again stable."

Computer Syndrome

MJackson.Wbst@Xerox.COM <Mark Jackson>
11 Sep 87 09:21:08 EDT (Friday)
The first occurrence of this that I have heard of involved the tab equipment
used on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War.  The following
account is from "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" (Richard P. Feynman,
W. W. Norton & Co., 1985); does anyone know of an earlier incident?

  Anyway, we decided that the big problem — which was to figure out exactly
  what happened during the bomb's implosion, so you can figure out exactly how
  much energy was released and so on — required much more calculating than we
  were capable of.  A clever fellow by the name of Stanley Frankel realized
  that it could possibly be done on IBM machines.  The IBM company had
  machines for business purposes, adding machines called tabulators for
  listing sums, and a multiplier that you put cards in and it would take two
  numbers from a card and multiply them.  There were also collators and
  sorters and so on.

  So Frankel figured out a nice program.  If we got enough of these machines
  in a room, we could take the cards and put them through a cycle.  Everybody
  who does numerical calculations now knows exactly what I'm talking about,
  but this was kind of a new thing then — mass production with machines.  We
  had done things like this on adding machines.  Usually you go one step
  across, doing everything yourself.  But this was different — where you go
  first to the adder, then to the multiplier, then to the adder, and so on.
  So Frankel designed this system and ordered the machines from the IBM
  company, because we realized it was a good way of solving our problems...

  Well, Mr. Frankel, who started this program, began to suffer from the
  computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about.
  It's a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work.  The
  trouble with computers is you *play* with them.  They are so wonderful.  You
  have these switches — if it's an even number you do this, if it's an odd
  number you do that — and pretty soon you can do more and more elaborate
  things if you are clever enough, on one machine.

  After a while the whole system broke down.  Frankel wasn't paying any
  attention; he wasn't supervising anybody.  The system was going very, very
  slowly — while he was sitting in a room figuring out how to make one
  tabulator automatically print arc-tangent X, and then it would start and it
  would print columns and then "bitsi, bitsi, bitsi", and calculate the
  arc-tangent automatically by integrating as it went along and make a whole
  table in one operation.

  Absolutely useless.  We *had* tables of arc-tangents.  But if you've ever
  worked with computers, you understand the disease — the *delight* in being
  able to see how much you can do.  But he got the disease for the first time,
  the poor fellow who invented the thing.

  I was asked to stop working on the stuff I was doing in my group and go
  down and take over the IBM group, and I tried to avoid the disease.  ...

"Computer Syndrome"

Simson L. Garfinkel <>
Fri, 11 Sep 87 12:21:32 EDT
This happened to me once, two summers ago, when I was in the middle of a
development effort that was taking up about 75 hours of time a week.  One
day, I was talking to a friend of mine and wanted to change the subject, to
what we were doing tomorrow. Almost subconciously, I said the words 
"cd calendar" (cd being the unix comand to change directory) and saw the
letters glowing in light green at the bottom of my visual field.

It started happening a lot. It scared me.   Finally, I gave up computers.


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