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 9 Issue 54

Tuesday 12 December 1989


o Mariner I [once more]
Mark Brader and Fred Webb
o Re: Software tool (indent) munges code
Mark Moraes [2x]
Joe Dellinger
Amos Shapir
o Re: SSA software maintenance
Dan Franklin
o Re: Don't Give Social Security Numbers to Girlfriends
Will Martin
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Mariner I [once more]

Mark Brader <>
Tue, 12 Dec 89 02:53:54 EST
The new Usenetoid newsgroup alt.folklore.computers (a.f.c) has been
having a discussion of the Mariner 1 space probe failure in 1962 due to
a missing "-" (Arthur C. Clarke: "The most expensive hyphen in history."
The vehicle cost $18,500,000.) which was discussed at length in
Risks in November and December 1987.

As was discussed in Risks, a popular but apocryphal version of this story
-- even appearing in computer textbooks -- is that a "." was substituted
for a "," in a FORTRAN DO statement, converting it to an assignment.
But no contemporary evidence was ever cited to support that story.

Now the a.f.c discussion began with exactly that apocryphal story;
someone has posted the old Risks discussion to clean that up.  But this
time one thing is different.  Someone else has posted giving a likely
explanation of the FORTRAN DO version of the story.  Notice, by the
way, that it did not cost even one spacecraft, let alone the billion
dollars claimed in one of the textbooks.

Fred Webb ( writes in alt.folklore.computers:

   Subject: Fortran story - the real scoop
   Summary: I was there!

   This kind of thing is a common Fortran bug, so there are probably
   many different stories going around with a similar theme.  Some
   of them are probably true.  I do know of one such instance that
   really did happen, at Nasa.

   I worked at Nasa during the summer of 1963.  The group I was
   working in was doing preliminary work on the Mission Control
   Center computer systems and programs.  My office mate had the
   job of testing out an orbit computation program which had been
   used during the Mercury flights.  Running some test data with
   known answers through it, he was getting answers that were close,
   but not accurate enough.  So, he started looking for numerical
   problems in the algorithm, checking to make sure his tests data
   was really correct, etc.

   After a couple of weeks with no results, he came across a DO state-
   ment, in exactly the form ... indicated above.  After changing the
   . to a , the program results were correct to the desired accuracy.
   Apparently, the program's answers had been "good enough" for
   the sub-orbital Mercury flights, so no one suspected a bug until
   they tried to get greater accuracy, in anticipation of later
   orbital and moon flights.  As far as I know, this particular
   bug was never blamed for any actual failure of a space flight,
   but the other details here seem close enough that I'm sure this
   incident is the source of his version of the story.

Sent to Risks by Mark Brader, SoftQuad Inc., Toronto

   [See RISKS-8.75 for the missing `bar' in `R dot bar sub n' expression that
   contributed to the loss of Mariner I; details from Paul Ceruzzi.  PGN]

Re: Software tool (indent) munges code

Mark Moraes <>
Tue, 12 Dec 89 21:45:30 EST
In RISKS-9.50, lai@east.Berkeley.EDU (Nick Lai) comments that indent
has an insidious bug under BSD and SunOS. He is wrong about the bug
under BSD and SunOS, right about the bug if his compiler is ANSI
compliant, but definitely right in pointing out the risk.

- On Unix systems, pcc derived C compilers will interpret that code
exactly as indent did, generating a warning in the process, so indent's
behaviour would not change the intent of the code. (Like the
compilers, indent should probably warn the user) Therefore, for old
style C, indent's behaviour is NOT wrong. Most old compilers would
have treated that code the way indent did, so indent just made the
code clearer.

- With ANSI C compilers, the =op style syntax is obsolete. This is one
of the QUIET CHANGEs in the proposed ANSI C standard -- see section
3.1.5 (Operators) of the Rationale (my copy is dated Oct 31,1988 -- the
section number may have changed since)

So, if the programmer wrote

ANSI C compilers would interpret this to mean "assign the
value +1 to x". (GNU C version 1.34 on a Sun3 interprets it this way
*EVEN* with the -traditional flag)

K&R1 C compilers would interpret this to mean "increment x by 1"
pcc derived compilers also complain with something like:
"foo1.c", line 7: warning: old-fashioned assignment operator
"foo1.c", line 9: warning: ambiguous assignment: assignment op taken
I don't know if other K&R1 compilers complain this way.
(Note that Ultrix 3.1 compilers also follow K&R1 and complain)

indent as distributed with BSD and SunOS silently assumes K&R1 C behaviour
and converts it to
        x += 1;

GNU indent version 1.1 assumes ANSI C behaviour and converts it to
        x = +1;
Ultrix 3.1 indent does this too (even though their compiler still
follows K&R1!)

People converting programs from old C to ANSI C should check all code
(using grep or some similar tool) to make sure sequences of the form
"=op" are converted to "= op" or "op=" depending which is meant! (And
make some suggestions on programming style to the person who wrote the
code originally)

Re: Software tool (indent) munges code

Mark Moraes <>
Wed, 13 Dec 89 01:29:49 EST
Beverly Erlebacher <> points out that SunOS4.0
compilers also follow ANSI, and interpret =op as = op, compiling silently if op
is a unary operator. But SunOS4.0 indent works like SunOS3.x/BSD indent and
indents according to the old rules, making it op=. So for SunOS in my previous
note, please read SunOS3.x.

Fun and Games with Indent

Joe Dellinger <>
Wed, 13 Dec 89 02:54:02 PST
    You think the fun and games with statements like "x=-5;" are bad?
It is MUCH worse than that! Here is how the following line of code mutates
with each successive application of 4.3BSD lint (this happened to me):

Original:   x = .5;
                A typical piece of C code from a scientific
1st iter:   x =.5;
                Uh... still valid, but NOT an improvement.
2nd iter:   x .= 5;
                Now it's a syntax error!
Converged:  x.= 5;
                At this point it's stable: a good-looking
                valid piece of code has become a bad-looking
                syntax error!

    Fortunately Convex's "lint" has these bugs fixed. It's a very useful

Re: comments on Unix INDENT program (Lai, RISKS-9.50)

Amos Shapir <>
13 Dec 89 16:32:47 GMT
Simson L. Garfinkel in RISKS-9.53 writes:
>Actually, indent is merely changing the old-style C code (x =- 1) to the new
>style. (x -= 1).  Careful programmers always put in whitespace between
>assignment and varibles for this reason.  Some compilers will flag
>(x=-1) as a warning because it is ambigious.

This case is a typical example of what RISKS is all about: the purpose of
"indent" is to change/add *white space* so the outcome is nicer and more
readable; it has no business "merely changing" the code in a way that might
change its meaning.

Since in old-style C the term (x=-1) was ambiguous, "indent" may issue a
warning or do nothing, but not try to guess which of the possible ways to add
blanks is the correct one, and certainly not rewrite it without indicating in
any way that it did.

Another aspect of RISKS is that in this case "indent" was run on a
program written in new-style C, in which that term had only one meaning
- which is different from the one assumed.  In essence, "indent" was
used to process input written in a language different from the one it
was designed for, but similar enough to confuse an innocent user.

Amos Shapir, National Semiconductor (Israel) P.O.B. 3007, Herzlia 46104, Israel

Re: SSA software maintenance

Dan Franklin <dan@WILMA.BBN.COM>
Tue, 12 Dec 89 0:00:43 EST
The news about the SSA being unable to reprogram its computers in time
for the catastrophic health care bill repeal comes as no surprise to
anyone who's read "Nations at Risk: the Impact of the Computer
Revolution" by Ed Yourdon (1986, YOURDON Press).

   Indeed, the SSA problems are not unique, and are no reflection on the
   energy, talent or dedication of its staff -- but rather the
   accumulation of old hardware, old software, and a general lack of
   understanding on the part of Congress of the difficulties of dealing
   with massive volumes of data.  For the SSA, massive means 446 billion
   [bytes] of disk storage to service 650,000 inquiries each day.  It
   means 113 tons of computer printouts per month; 380 million wage
   reports per year, and 40 million checks per month.  As former
   commissioner John A. Svahn says, only a "daily miracle" gets the
   monthly checks out on time.  Having worked with the SSA computer
   people, I can personally testify to their enormous energy and
   professionalism, and I firmly believe that the $478 million five-year
   modernization program approved by Congress in 1982 will eventually
   (though not in five years) get the organization back in control.

The demurral about the time needed has unfortunately now been vindicated.

There's more on p. 432:

   o  Calculating the cost-of-living increase for 50 million recipients of
      Social Security benefits takes 20,000 hours of computer time on older
      computer systems within the SSA.  [That's 1.44 seconds per recipient!]

   o  When the SSA upgraded its computer systems in 1981 from five-digit chechs
      to six-digit checks, it required 20,000 man-hours of work and 2,500 hours
      of computer time to modify 600 separate computer programs.

   o  The morale in the SSA maintenance group was so bad at one point that one
      of the programmers was caught urinating on a disk pack...

   Before you laugh too loudly at this, remember that the SSA has one of
   the better MIS organizations in the country.  They deal with
   gargantuan volumes of data, and they work in a political environment
   that defies imagination -- but they get the job done, and they get the
   checks out each month...

True, an incorrect check is lots better than no check at all!

These passages are used to help illustrate one of the book's points, which is
that large information systems all over the U.S. are suffering badly, and that
problems with these systems are a significant factor keeping us from being more
competitive.  He makes a persuasive case; the book is worth reading (though
redundant towards the end).
                                            Dan Franklin

Re: Don't Give Social Security Numbers to Girlfriends

Will Martin <wmartin@STL-06SIMA.ARMY.MIL>
Tue, 12 Dec 89 9:02:17 CST
Re: ... the Inter-Tect investigative agency in Houston promises to
verify ...  appearance in newspaper articles...
Hmmm... Interesting. I wonder if they include a copy of the article?
I've been on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch twice in my
life (that I know of :-); once was a picture of me playing the oil drum
in the Washington University Motley Marching Band (we were spelling out
"Columbus, Ohio, is a mighty fine town" in script and I was dotting the
"i" [I forget which one]) about 25 years ago. The other was just this
summer, when a letter to the editor I wrote about changing the date of a
street festival prompted the paper to make a survey and they mentioned my
name in the article about the results [my idea lost :-(]. I suppose the
kind of article they are really looking for is "Mr. X was convicted of
drugs and weapons charges in Superior Court today" and not such "light"
coverage, but I would hope they would get positive as well as negative
results in such an investigation.

But what do they do in cases of relatively common names? I know my name shows
up in various unusual contexts -- there was a "William Martin" who worked for
the CIA and defected to the Soviets some years back, and the "Man Who Never
Was" -- a famous masquerade deception designed to fool the Germans regarding
the Normandy invasion -- was named "William Martin".  I'm sure there have been
other "William Martin"s in this city whose names have shown up in newspaper
articles as being involved in various nefarious activities -- how would the
researchers know who was who? I'm guessing the articles have been scanned in
for a computerized text search to make this practical, but then this is just a
string-matching exercise without any other clues (pictures, SSNs, identifying
marks, whatever) to narrow the field. It seems of marginal utility unless the
name is really unusual.


   [Don't bet on "William Martin" not being enough to catch you, unless you are
   willing to get caught in a Martingale and can afford to get blown away.

      For the novice, a martingale is a betting scheme -- such as continually
      doubling up if you lose, which probabilistically leads to the so-called
      "Gambler's Ruin" problem.  PGN]

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