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At the very end of an article in the 22 Sep 89 San Francisco Chronicle from the NY Times ("Cause of Accident a Mystery; Probers Can't Find Pilots in USAir Crash") is this: ``Aviation experts said the controls of the 737-400, a modified and modernized version of a plane that has been one of the most reliable in commercial aviation for many years, are unusual in that they are integrated with computers. Instead of pushing a throttle to accelerate, a pilot uses a computer-like keyboard to enter in a set of commands that set the power of the engines on takeoff. It is possible, experts said, that an erroneous set of numbers was entered and that this accoutned for the insufficient power on takeoff." Earlier in the article was this: ``... the pilot had flown the planes for only two months, and the co-pilot was said to have been in a 737 cockpit for the first time. ... initial reports indicated that the co-pilot was at the controls during the take-off ... the co-pilot told the Port Authority police shortly after the crash that the pilot had been "mumbling" and "acting irrationally" just before takeoff.'' [Saturday's and Sunday's papers stated that officials had indicated that a wrong button had been pushed, although Sunday's paper suggested that there might have been mechanical failure as well... The pilot and copilot have been suspended for disappearing afterwards.]
In RISKS-DIGEST 9.27, Will Martin asks: >Does anyone know if this was one of the built-in magic-number >date breakdowns that have previously been mentioned on RISKS? ... I'm sure that many people will respond to Will Martin's question. My lucky guess was that September 19, 1989 was 32767 days past a certain magic date, and I was off by one: September 19, 1989 is 32768 days past January 1, 1900. I'm shocked that the programmers for this system didn't think it would be used all the way into 1989, or even worse didn't consider how long it would be used at all. The only other date limit that I know of is the UNIX time() limit of Januray 19, 2038 at 3:14:08 AM, when the value returned by time() will become negative if you treat it as a long. If we start treating the value returned by time() as an unsigned long, we push the magic moment back to February 7, 2106 at 6:28:16 AM. All calculations were performed on my trusty HP-41CV with its time module, which stores alarm times as the number of seconds past midnight, January 1, 1900. Therefore, it can only represent times up to November 20, 2216, 5:46:39 PM. However, the programmers put in a software limitation of December 31, 2199 on times. This means that my HP-41CV clock will work longer than UNIX clocks without modification; not bad for a handheld computer that's showing its age even now. Steve VanDevender [Also noted by Amos Shapir (email@example.com), who added: The risk of using 16-bit integers raises its ugly head again! (I wonder how many of these are still left lurking in old code...) Amos]
I've recently seen reports of the proposed new Canadian goods and services tax which raise some disturbing questions. It appears that a major part of the proposal is to levy the tax on essentially all occasions when goods or services are sold, and hence to make tax collectors of small businesses such as piano teachers and people who do house cleaning. Of course, such people are already expected to pay income tax. The new proposal seems to be that they should also collect 9% off the top and send that to the friendly feds without waiting for April. I somehow doubt if the visionary stupidity necessary to develop such a proposal to the point of law could have existed unaided by computers. I have no inside contacts in the Canadian finance department, but I envisage beaurocrats working over spreadsheets projecting total annual cash flows, no doubt consolidating all the char ladies in the country into one cell, and eagerly taking the results to weekly 5 minute sessions with the minister, refining all the guesses until the spreadsheet projects exactly what the minister wants to hear. The beauty of a spreadsheet is that it doesn't require any common sense to operate. I'm sure that if it occurred to anyone to question the validity of lumping all the char ladies into one cell, he kept it to himself if he valued his career. After all, it should be easy enough for the char ladies to change the accounting packages on their PCs to deal with the new tax, and surely they would have no trouble delivering their collections by electronic funds transfer at essentially no cost to anyone - in fact, surely, time spent thinking about the char ladies at all was time wasted? I'm not sure what one can hope to do about this sort of thing. I suppose ethics and social responsibility courses at university might help, but it may be too much to hope that government officials would concern themselves with such issues, even if we could get them into computer science curricula. Perhaps all we can hope is that our universities will find ways of increasing the small minority of all their graduates in whom they have developed the habit of occasionally thinking about what they think. It should be obvious that these views do not represent those of my employer, or probably even myself on a sunnier day.
I cannot resist adding a note of industrial archeology to this discussion. People interested in how grandpa solved these problems should look into the design of the Synchronome clock, invented in the 1920's by one F. Hope-Jones. This consisted of a master pendulum unit (accurate to a second a year or so) electrically driving any number of slave dials. One ran as a siderial clock at Greenwich from 1926 to 1935 without failure, a total of 284 million swings of the pendulum. Plans and instructions for making one of these magnificent beasts can be found in the old Scientific American "Amateur Telescope Making" series, Book Two, pp 427-446. Gears and casting sets used to be available to amateurs from the (presumably) long-gone supplier. [The Synchronome Co., Alperton, Wembley, Middlesex, England is given as the 1935 address, in case any of our British Correspondents wish to go hunting for the site.] Today you would have to gain access to gear cutting machinery; the castings (mainly brackets) could be built up from bar stock using modern adhesives.
>..... This message is an example of asynchronous inter process >communication. I can guarantee you that i'm doing other things until you >respond or acknowledge (or this message gets dropped in a bit bucket somewhere) >and neither RPC nor the rendezvous allows that. .... This is a rather common misunderstanding (at least) of RPC. With the RPC model, the idea is to separate concurrency from communication mechanism. If there are concurrent activities (e.g., sending-message-receiving-reply and doing-other-work), each of them can be encapsulated in a concurrency unit (process or thread) while communication is done synchronously by RPCs. In fact, it's the very synchronous nature which makes a lot of things simple in such a situation. So please don't tout RPC is bad because of its synchronousness.
In RISKS 9.27, the Peters Jones and Neumann suggested ways of faking a distributed performance of Beethoven's 9th so that it would appear to be synchronized. Film-music recording has a virtually identical problem. Here, it is critical that the music is precisely synchronized with the action onscreen. Rather than depending on the conductor for cues, each musician has her own headphone and listens to a click track: one electronic click for each musical "beat". The film-music conductor's job is then reduced to course-grain musical issues, such as volume balancing. (This itself is an exaggeration of the traditional conductor/performer relationship, wherein the performer takes care of the fine-grain details of her particular instrument while the conductor concerns herself with the orchestral sound as a whole.) For the Beethoven example, you would need <n> copies of a common click track which a local conductor would have the responsibility of following. Now the problem has been reduced to starting the performances "together". I quote "together" because to make the final performance sound synchronized, the click tracks startup would have to be staggered to overcome the satellite delays. Finally, I think that this sort of synchronization has a lot of precedent in human endeavors. Consider trapeze artists who get synchronized at the beginning of a complicated stunt and must then rely on their own "internal clock" to be at the right place at the right time. Same for well-tuned sports teams.
Jon Jacky asks for UK input on the ISO 9000 accreditation system. ISO 9000 is the international standard for quality management systems. It does not define a system, it defines what a system must contain. ISO 9000 is actually a series of standards, and ISO 9001 covers all of design, manufacture, test and maintenance. ISO 9001 is not specific to software - it is generic, and needs to be interpreted for each industry (or "economic sector"). It is based on British Standard BS 5750. The EC (European Commission) has directed that each sector should introduce a "sector certification scheme" to certify compliance with ISO 9000/9001. In the UK the software sector certification scheme will be called TickIT. [ just the tickit ... getting your tickit ... ...] In the UK the BSI (British Standards Institute) has run a Registered Firms Scheme since 1979. To get BSI accreditation you have to have in place a quality management system which complies with BS5750 (now ISO 9001), and BSI audit you to ensure that throughout your organisation, every project and activity complies with your quality management standards in every respect. It's fairly tough to get. To retain your registered firm status, you have to agree that BSI auditors can come in to the company without notice (we get 24 hours, usually) up to four times a year (we have had three each year) and repeat the spot audit. Typically they may ask what projects are active, and inspect the current list; choose a project and look at the latest status report; select a recent deliverable and look at the review reports; select an identified defect and demand evidence that the defect was corrected before delivery. Or they may pick a standard and look at how it has been applied on several current projects across the company. If they find discrepancies they insist that they are corrected, and they may withdraw accreditation. It's good consultancy - ISO 9001 is a *process* standard, and the Praxis quality management system is heavily based round formal reviewing, so it seems right that the application of the quality standards should themselves be subject to formal independent review. Some clients take comfort from the accreditation and do not themselves audit our standards; some make BS 5750 mandatory in requests for tender. The EC will mandate iso 9001 compliance in all public procurement at some point in the future. And yes, before someone else points it out, it is Praxis that advertises as "the first systems house to achieve BS 5750 (ISO 9001) certification for all software development". We believe in formal QA as an essential component of software engineering, so we built a company round it. If anyone wants more details, email me for some article reprints. -- Martyn Thomas, Praxis plc, 20 Manvers Street, Bath BA1 1PX UK. Tel: +44-225-444700. Email: ...!uunet!mcvax!ukc!praxis!mct
The following is a description of a toxic spill that came close to having disastrous consequences for the California Department of Education. The State learned a lot form this experience and I thought others might find it interesting. Joe Pujals, State Information Security Manager, Office of Information Technology, 915 L Street, Sixth Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814, (916) 445-1777, ...UCBVAX!UCDAVIA!CALDWR!JOEP THE EVENT At 3:02 AM, Tuesday, February 21, an electrical switch located in a vault in the garage of the California Department of Education arced. The resulting explosion spewed 10 gallons of coolant oil containing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) through the electrical equipment vault. The loss of the switch and associated transformer was immediately noted in the control room of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and a repair crew was dispatched to the trouble area. Three minutes later, at 3:05 AM, heat and smoke sensors located in a computer room on the third floor of the building activated. The fire detection system sounded an alarm at the office of the California State Police. Following procedure in responding to the alarm, State Police called the fire department. In addition they called two Department of Education Supervisors, telling them that the fire detection system in the computer room had alarmed and requesting that they send personnel with appropriate keys to the building immediately. A passing taxi cab driver, hearing the explosion and seeing the smoke, also reported the incident to his dispatcher who in turn called the fire department. By the time Department of Education employees arrived, approximately 40 minutes later, the smoke had cleared and locks to the garage and electrical vault had been cut. Fireman and SMUD crews had determined that there was no immediate danger from fire or loose electrical wiring. The switch and transformer involved in the incident also provided power to the State Office Building one (Jesse Unruh Building) located one block away. The loss of power forced closure of that building until approximately 1:00 PM that afternoon. The California State Treasurer, Department of General Services and several other agencies were affected by the power outage. The fire department had cordoned off the building to keep all but emergency personnel away. Education personnel gave fire department personnel their keys to the 3rd floor computer room and requested that they check for a fire in that area since the fire detection system had sounded. Firemen dressed in protective clothing went to the computer room. On entering, they did not see any smoke and they noted that the room temperature was normal. The computer at the department of education consists of a TANDEM EXT25 computer, printers and terminals. The computer is used as a remote processor and print driver. Data files are maintained and computer processing is done at one of the State's two major computing centers located a few miles away. The department has approximately 475 personal computers in the building that are mainly used as productivity enhancement tools. The department spokesman indicated that some production jobs were done on microcomputers but were not sure how many applications or what they were. However, they did feel that the impact to the department, if they should be lost, would be minor. Within hours, SMUD called the American Environment Management Co. to begin the cleanup and PCB decontamination process of the electrical vault and garage area. Because this was an industrial accident CAL-OSHA was called. CAL-OSHA recognized that there could be additional problems associated with the PCB spill. PCB produces the carcinogens, dioxin (polychlorinated dibenzo dioxins) and furan (polychlorinated dibenzo furan), when subjected to high heat. At this time, it was unknown if the heat generated by the arcing and subsequent explosion was sufficient to generate dioxin. One other nagging question raised concerns: what had set off the fire detection system in the computer room? Was it toxic material or had the sensors been activated accidentally? At the time of the explosion, the air conditioning system in the computer room and in another computer support area had been operating. Had toxic material been sucked into the return air intake and contaminated other parts of the building? SMUD representatives at first believed that the toxic material had been contained in the electrical vault but could not explain the coincidental activation of the fire detection system. Examination of the vault revealed that there was space between holes cut in the vault for conduit and the conduit which carried the electrical cables. It was possible for toxic material to have escaped through the gap. The conduit lead into switching equipment in an adjoining room. After passing through the switching equipment power was transferred to the electrical closets located on each of the five floors directly above the switching equipment room. Toxic experts from the Department of Health Services were called for advice. A consensus was reached that extensive tests would have to be conducted to insure that the building was safe before employees could be allowed to return. Tests were started immediately. Test material was taken from around the holes cut into the electrical vault and from various areas throughout the building, including the computer room. The tests conducted were extensive and would not be completed before Saturday, February 25th, five days following the toxic spill. MANAGEMENT'S RESPONSE Within a few hours of the incident, it was recognized that normal operations of the Department of Education's staff housed in the affected building could not resume that day. The decision was made to inform employees to remain at home. Critical management staff were told to report to another location of the Department of Education, some blocks away, to begin the recovery planning process. Space was cleared at the new location for the director and executive staff. Training rooms and additional space in the same building were obtained from the building owners and from a local University to house the essential displaced staff. A public information office established a media information center in order to provide accurate and timely information to radio, television and newspaper reporters. One of the first and most important steps was to enlist the aid of the radio and television stations to make announcements requesting people to stay at home. The announcements also contained a special telephone number for emergency information. The special number was for a voice mail system. The voice mail system proved to be one of the most valuable tools in providing staff with information. The voice mail system, capable of handling 50 incoming calls at a time, handled approximately 2500 during a seven hour period. This is considered to be a volume of calls handled in 53 hours of normal operation. As is normal in an emergency, the situation is not always clear, information is not always timely and new problems always seem to appear from nowhere. The possible release of carcinogenic toxic substances, such as PCB or much more dangerous dioxin and furan, in a public building was considered by the various emergency response offices to be a unique event. As a result, there was not much past experience to guide the authorities in their actions. Because of the many unknowns concerning the toxic spill, the decision was reached to be cautious in the reestablishment of normal operations in the building. Extensive testing would be required, and that would take time. If the tests proved to be positive, that is, if toxic elements were found in other parts of the building, a relocation of personnel to a new site would be necessary. The Space Management Office of the Department of General Services was alerted to the problem and was asked to begin the process of finding space for approximately 650 people. Potentially usable space was found, but lease negotiations were held off until the results of the tests were determined. The immediate problem was what to do with 590 people until normal operations could be reestablished. Of the 590 staff, 150 people were on business trips throughout the State and would not represent a placement problem until they returned. The department examined travel plans and attempted to reschedule planned business where it was reasonable. Others were asked to take scheduled vacations. Where it was practical, staff were directed to do their normal office work at alternate sites within the department or other agencies. The remaining employees were simply put on administrative leave. Since the decisions affected both professional staff as well as nonprofessional staff, the department included the California State Employees Association when bargaining unit staff were involved. By the end of the second day, the department was reasonably sure that toxic substances had been contained but could not be certain until more definitive tests were concluded. If the toxic material had not been contained as it appeared, but had indeed spread to the rest of the building then there would be a number of new questions to be answered. For example, could the tons of documents, paper files, magnetic tapes and floppy diskettes be decontaminated or would they simply be buried? Could the hundreds of microcomputers, terminals, typewriters and other pieces of office equipment be decontaminated or would they have to be replaced. How do you, or should you, replace information contained in the paper files? These and many more questions would have to be answered in the next few days if any test came back positive. On Saturday afternoon the results of the tests came in; they were negative. Employees could reenter the building on Monday. The cost of this disaster probably will not be known for a few weeks. It will take time to calculate the cost of lost time. It is interesting to note that in the course of the week the process of cleanup and recovery had involved the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the American Environment Management Co., the Sacramento Fire Department, the Toxic Substances Control Division and Hazardous Materials Laboratories of the Department of Health Services, CAL-OSHA, Sacramento County, the State Architect, the divisions of Buildings and Grounds, and Space Management from the Department of General Services, and the California State Employees Association. If toxic tests had been positive, there would have been many more organizations involved and many more very difficult decisions to be made before recovery could have been completed. CLOSING COMMENTS PCB, dioxin, and furan were found in the switch equipment room and in the electrical closets on the floor above. But no trace of the toxic material was found outside of the electrical closets. Since the conduit passed through all six floors, SMUD has been asked to decontaminate the electrical closets on each floor. The reason that the fire detection system activated will probably never be known. It is assumed that the system was activated as a result of fluctuations in the electrical power.
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