Peter on his soap box notes the "tricky" problems of distributed systems. Anita Jones in her March 1982 survey of multiprocessors in Computing Surveys noted that programming parallel (or distributed) processors as in the Cm* system was no more difficult than other programming. This has been challenged by other authors (numerous), BUT the software engineering community has by and large ignored issues which might be "unique" to distributed and parallel systems. The education of most students does not include distributed systems, there being a) no standard product lines, all home grown in different ways from standard components, and b) no consistent standard software (despite rough standardization on protocols). One does not buy a distributed system as one buys a computer system (although there aren't many differences); one builds from "scratch." People do not address issues such as synchronization, atomicity, security, etc. in software design classes, these are issues for the "operating systems" class. And it isn't the researchers and developers of distributed systems who need exposure, we have plenty, it's the students who need this (as if there really were much of a distinction 8). In short, I believe programming is going to get harder before it gets easier. I believe this, because I am grappling with these issues NOW. I only have to move my mouse cursor into the appropriate window on my workstation to one of my parallel processors. --eugene miya
In RISKS 9.23, Frank Houston suggests that software shops use an accreditation system modelled on that used by hospitals. The suggestion is interesting, but there are some big differences between hospitals and software shops. One primary difference, from the accreditation point of view, is that most hospitals are big, while many quite competent software shops are small. Hospitals with fewer than 100 employees are rare, while there are many corporations in both the software and hardware fields that are smaller. Many of these corporations are some of the most creative ones in the field, and the development of major ideas in both hardware and software can be credited to them. The administrative overhead of seeking and maintaining accreditation may be easy to adsorb into a large organization, but it is likely to be prohibitive for such small organizations. Another difference is that most hospitals have only a small number of staff physicians. Most physicians practicing in a hospital are not on the staff, but instead, have an associate relationship. The analogous structure in a software shop would be to have the secretaries, machine operators, and a few of the programmers on the payroll, but to have the majority of the programmers working there on a contract basis, paid by the customers (patients) and not by the software shop. I don't know what effect this has on the notion of hospital accreditation versus software shop accreditation, but I have a hard time believing the effect is small. Finally, a hospital is a clearly defined organizational unit; even if it is part of a hospital chain, the physical and staff boundaries are easy to define. Many software organizations are far harder to circumscribe. Finding accreditable units in a large corporation may be quite difficult, and I doubt that entire corporations (say Ford or Xerox) are appropriate units of accreditation. From three job interviews I did at Xerox in 1980, I can state that some software groups in that company were clearly among the best I've encountered, while others were horribly staffed and poorly managed. I would hope that these different groups would be separately examined for accreditation purposes, but that brings up the problem of size and expense, because the largest group (and by far the poorest, by all my measures) had only 60 programmers. Douglas Jones, Department of Computer Science, University of Iowa
Bob Ayers comment in RISKS 9.24 on Frank Houston's accreditation proposal in RISKS 9.23 was representative of a number of previous comments on my own and other programmer certification proposals in earier RISKS issues. He said: The ultimate lever for accreditation is the action of government in defining non-accreditation as proof of the absence of quality, and, ultimately, banning non-accredited service on that basis. Similar comments were made in response to earlier proposals for programmer certification. These comments are reasonably representative of a fairly extreme libertarian view that government regulation of the free market is inherently inept and has a corrupting influence on the quality of services offered by the market. I believe that these comments need to be answered. When there is one big customer, I will agree that such a customer has unusual clout. Charles Babbage wrote extensively on this, pointing out in his book, On The Economy of Machinery and Manufacturies, that the theory that the free market is optimal works only if there are both many competing suppliers and many competing customers. The market price will not be the optimal price for goods in the presence of a monopoly among either the buyers or sellers. Medicare is certainly a large customer for medical services, and it is indeed a government program, but it does not follow that government is the "ultimate lever for accreditation". In most states, the Blue-Cross Blue-Shield insurance organization is a bigger customer than Medicare, and their policies are certainly a bigger lever. It might be argued that such huge insurance conglomerates can be viewed as pseudo-governmental, but they are largely products of the free market at work regulating itself. Charles Babbage pointed out a second factor that corrupts the free market, the inability of a customer to discern the quality of competing products. Babbage's examples were largely drawn from early 19th century scandals involving milk adulteration, but what he said applies just as well to medical practice, where I, as customer, am ill equipped to judge the quality of medical care I purchase. Babbage said that, in the presence of quality problems and in the absence of easily discernable indicators of quality, customers will pay prices well above the market price to buy from a vendor in whom they have confidence. In such a situation, both customers and vendors benefit from independent certifying authorities such as, in the classic case of agricultural products, the USDA. With colleges and universities, accreditation arose largely without government involvement, although the US Department of Education now accredits accrediting agencies. My favorite example of a purely non-governmental regulatory agency is Underwriters Laboratories. They are a creation of the insurance industry, and they are the primary and oldest regulator of consumer product safety in the US. The insurers involved cover the manufacturers liability in case of lawsuits over faulty products, while others offer fire and casualty insurance to consumers. Both profit from reduced claims when manufacturers submit products for UL certification, and customers buy only UL certified products. My point is this: When it is in the best interests the buyers and sellers of a product to have a regulated marketplace, the marketplace will be regulated, and government has little to do with it. Of course, in times when governments are big and all powerful, government becomes a natural choice as a regulatory authority, but in the absence of strong government involvement, insurance companies, market cooperatives, and other organizations will emerge to regulate the market. Government did not invent the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board, and it did not invent the Institute for the Certification of Computing Professionals. Right now, nobody is forced to seek accreditation or certification, but it is not hard to imagine a few court cases establishing the principle of strict liability for losses caused by software failures, and if this happens, I see little hope for avoiding forced adherence to some kind of accreditation or certification standards in the software industry. If government does not force these on us, the insurance industry that emerges to provide malpractice insurance for programmers will do it. Douglas Jones, Department of Computer Science, Univeristy of Iowa
A mentor from early in my career once told me that if we made a system idiot-proof, only an idiot would want to use it. Are modern software systems directed toward that end? Is it really too much to ask for people to read and understand, and even use, documentation? That's the question at the heart of the article which follows. Tom Comeau, Space Telescope Science Institute | email@example.com >From _The DEC Professional_, September, 1989, p. 160. John C. Dvorak, "The Stupidity Factor" ....I recently read [an] aricle...about research on the topic of stupidity being done by Jon MIller of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University. He discovered that 36 percent of the American public believes that boiling radioactive milk will make it safe to drink. The more we study stupidity, the more we realize that the technological society toward which we're headed must protect itself from its own inability to keep up with things because of its own stupidity. The public will be overloaded with bad information and will be unable to distinguish hokum from fact. People involved in the PC revolution aren't any smarter. Like the general public, they suffer from an overall incompetence that stems from lack of intiative, fear of the unknown, and plain old sloth. ... Watching Microsoft Windows try to turn the corner on its quest for popularity reflects this. As easy as Microsoft Windows is to use, it's still too hard to use. ... [Discussion of the difficulties in bringing up Microsoft windows, and consumer resistance to the product.] The attitude seems to be that if the machine booted Windows automatically and if a lot of extra work wasn't needed, people might like it. Currently, it's too much trouble. The biggest fear is that you'll go through a lot of effort only to be disappointed with the results: The package won't work as advertised, or run your favorite program, or it crashes. The only computer that has overcome this sloth factor is the Macintosh, with its logical interface. Steve Jobs realized that many people don't read. He put the documentation in pamphlet form. Plenty of information was omitted, but who cares? ... People don't read documentation. This is part of a national trend towards stupidity, because people don't read anything! ... [Discussion of author's son, who has difficulty reading and following installation instructions for a software game.] Is he different from anyone else who refuses to read documentation -- the majority of today's users? In the past, it was easy to condemn documentation writers for their mediocre and hard-to-understand prose. But much documentation today is well-organized, simple and easy to follow. Still, nobody reads it. Even sophisticated users -- the ones who used to read documentation -- have joined the forces of the illiterate. They argue that life is too short and that a good program doesn't need documentation. What do we end up with? The market demands bulletproof software that's extremely intutive. Can software be so intuitive that it communicates its commands through some nether world of non-verbal signals? We can expect researches to find out. Meanwhile, interface engineers will make a lot of money. What does the future hold? Windows will have to change drastically to be popular, and soon 50 percent of Americans will believe that boiling radioactive milk makes it safe to drink.
> ... not confusing reality and simulation. How about >deliberately confusing the two - a pilot in an emergency situation would >not know if it was real or simulation, and could therefore be expected to >behave in a calm, professional manner without panic. (Sort of like not >telling school children if the fire bell is a true alarm or a drill). I think this would be a very bad idea. Pilots in emergency situations should indeed behave in a calm, professional manner, but they should not necessarily behave the same as if it were a practice simulation. I can't give a good example because I don't know anything to speak of about planes, but I certainly can give a fire alarm example. In a fire situation, you might jump from a second or third-story window, and sprain some muscles badly, or break some bones. In a fire drill, you would never do such a thing. In extreme situations you would say, "and at this point I would jump from the window, possibly breaking my leg." You wouldn't do it. The trade-offs during practice and emergencies are different, and should be. It's sad that this means that you can't really simulate emergencies fully. Nevertheless, it's *true* that this means that you can't really simulate emergencies fully. ajr p.s. when I was in public school, we were always warned about drills. We knew whether fire alarms were real or not.
> [SAME QUOTE AS CITED BY ROSENTHAL] The successful resolution of emergencies invariably results in the aircraft being landed ASAP, which isn't terribly profitable. An *emergency* continues until the aircraft is stopped and the passengers deplaned. As for mucking with the readouts to provide "fault-solving" practice, the problems are that (a) if we have a system so sophisticated, why bother with pilot control in the first place; and (b) once pilots learn to distrust an instrument (say, through negative training), accidents can happen (look at the recent British Midlands 737 crash last January--it was partially attributed to pilot reluctance to trust the new Smiths Industries engine vibration indicator, which replaced a device that, on older aircraft, had proved to be quite unreliable.). >There is also a vast untapped market for an "aircraft passenger simulator". >(get come cramped seats, small rest rooms, hard to view movies and poor food >for a few hours). The market would be large, and there are many more aircraft >passengers than there are pilots. Before launching an airplane, the large manufacturers do extensive "comfort" studies on real-scale cabin mockups. They have employees (or volunteers) play the part of victims, etc. They've experimented with some pretty wild layouts, covering seat-back TV to evacuation scenarios. By the time the aircraft is ready for a "launch" decision, a mockup is prepared for customer inspection, and entire "flights" are flown, complete with uniformed stewardesses and meal service. I may be wrong on this, but I believe Boeing pioneered the practice. Robert Dorsett UUCP: ...cs.utexas.edu!rascal.ics.utexas.edu!rdd
Lest anyone credit Mission: Impossible with advancing the state of computer literacy, here's a review I wrote a few weeks back on rec.arts.movies... Mission: Impossible looked interesting this evening, so I watched it. My mistake. Tonight's episode was concerned with computer viruses. It starts up with a US nuclear submarine "under attack" from an emergency buoy they went to investigate. The buoy infected the ship with a "virus," which screwed up all the control systems. The ship was ultimately destroyed when torpedoes (shot to destroy the buoy as a last-ditch measure, no pun intended) blew up in the loading bay--the sub was destroyed. The IMF (no not the International Monetary Fund) is called in. Phelps strolls up to an F-111, just landed, and chats with the pilot. The pilot says "climb on in!" What does Phelps find, but his CD player! (the CD replaces the tape recorder/envelope used in the old series). The CD player informs him that this nasty A-rab arms dealer is in the market for the virus. He wishes to market it to "clients in the Gulf," so as to disrupt American warships. This provides an opening. The arms dealer is going to Hong Kong to bid for the virus. They arrange for him to be detained and a surrogate sent in his place. The person doing the dealing is a US admiral, the ex-head of the American-Russian team on "computer virus disarmament," and is an expert on "digital warfare." Still with me? :-) Anyway, bidding starts. The IMF gasses the estate where the bidding's being held, right after the admiral explains that he's giving out the virus for free-it's the *antidote* that he's offering for sale. Bidding goes up to $12 mil before everyone passes out. The admiral crushes the 3.5" Sony disk in his hands before passing out. The evaluation of the man on the spot is that "He's destroyed the disk!" Phelps: "We have to go to Plan B." Plan B involves setting up a sub simulator. In clasic IMF style, the admiral is fooled into believing that the collision of two supertankers caused the gas cloud that knocked everyone out (some combination of chemicals, you see :-)). A Russian warship is also taken out, as are various airplanes. One airplane which crashes is a Russian sub-hunter, which the American sub intercepts. One of the crewmen bring a distress buoy on board. "No, you fools! Don't bring that on board!" Anyway, one thing leads to another, the admiral is conveniently fooled, and, at the last minute, as the ship's about to be "destroyed," he enters the "antitote" by hand: he jumps in front of a computer terminal, types in raw hex at about 150 character per second, and saves the simulator. IMHO, this show pushed computer literacy standards back to oh, 1950's science fiction standards. (Incidentally, someone mistakenly concluded that the above "jumping in front of terminal" incident involved a miraculous use of a password... there was no password!)
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