Tel Aviv, Sep. 13 - 12 private investigators and a few employees of the Income Tax bureau were arrested on suspicions of bribery and breach of trust. The investigators have allegedly bribed income tax employees in return for computer data, which included details about taxpayers' income and assets. Under investigation are also suspicions that some investigators - most of them former policemen - have used the same means to receive data of police computerized files as well. As usual, the human factor is the weakest link in any security system. Luckily, in this case the data was handed as printouts; one can easily imagine what could have happened if the suspects had had their own computers and modems to contact the compromised systems directly. Amos Shapir, National Semiconductor (Israel) P.O.B. 3007, Herzlia 46104, Israel Tel. +972 52 522255 TWX: 33691, fax: +972-52-558322
Yesterday a program on British T.V. pointed out (again) that car buyers in Sweden and the U.S.A. can obtain information about the relative safety of different models, and that this information is not available in the U.K. The RISKS forum would seem to be an ideal place to post the details, if the copyright laws allow. It would also be interesting to see if there were differences between cars sold into different markets - for example, does the widespread fitting of air conditioning in the U.S.A. affect the safety of passengers when there is an accident ? Martin Burgess
I am against the "certifying" of software professionals. My objections fall basically into two areas. The first is that there is no valid way to measure software "competence". How do you do it? There are many different software methodolgies out there, all with their own adherents --- trying to figure out which ones of them are ``correct'' usually results in a religious war. For example, all computer science students at MIT are required to take 6.170 (also known as Software Engineering) as a graduation requirement. (I just graduated in June 1990; the last time this topic came up, I was afraid to air my opinions because I would shortly be applying to graduate school.) But in any case, my personal opinion of that course is that it is so completely dated that it isn't even funny. For example, the course is taught in an archaic language, CLU, instead of a more modern object-oriented language such as C++. In the class, we're told that global variables are always evil --- there's no excuse for them at ever; yet in order to build the linker (which was written in CLU), the sources turned on a magic flag so that it could have global variables to store the symbol table. I suppose the performance hit of passing the symbol table object to every single procedure in the linker was too much to handle. We were told that the One True Way to program involved keeping a design notebook and not even trying to code until we had sketched out the whole thing in pseudo-code, which I guess is the current "in" way to do structured coding. (Remember when people said that flow-charting was the only way to write error-free programs?) When I and my fellow students in my group took the course, we used an emacs buffer as our design notebook, and our psuedo code was written in CLU itself. Surprisingly, version control (such as RCS) was never discussed at all. I suppose the theory was that if we designed everything in pseudo-code from scratch, we would never need to rewrite or revise any of it, so version control was considered important. I will leave it to the Gentle Reader's judgement as to whether or not you can teach a reasonable Software Engineering in today's environment, when several people can be changing files on a networked filesystem, without at least mentioning version control. Our conclusion was that the religion which was preached to us was developed in the days of teletypes and punched cards, when actually coding several different algorithms and trying them out was too expensive; when only one person could modify a file at a time because of physical limitations, so version control wasn't important; and when interactive computers were nearly nonexistent, so the only kind of One True Design Notebook was a spiral bound one. In any case, we (the students in my programming group) didn't buy any of it. So by the deadline where we supposed to have produced a design document detailing how we would do things (and which would be used to penalize us if we deviated from it in our final implementation), we wrote an almost completely working prototype. We then wrote our design document from our implementation, instead of the other way around. We ended up with one of the cleanest implementations and received one of the highest scores in the class. In fact, we received a letter of commendation saying that we were in the top 5% of the class, and that we deserved some recognition beyond merely getting an "A" in the class. The point of all of this? My group managed to get an A in this class without absorbing any of the religious tenets of Professor Liskov's programming methodology. (This is not to say that everything in the class was bad; but a lot of it was trash, and I had learned most of the good parts by being a student systems programmer at Project Athena, so the class was essentially a waste of time for me.) So how do you certify someone? If required to, I can parrot back all of the ``right'' answers on a written exam. Those answers would also mean very little about how I really go about my programming work. (I won't go into the flame wars about how my personal style is better-or-worse than the traditional "top-down", or whatever else is in vogue today. My style works for me --- I write generally bug-free code, and I won't dictate to you how to write bug-free code if you won't dictate to me how I should write mine.) The second general objection that I have against the certification of software professionals is that it might very well become a guild. In my mind, there is great danger that once you have the people who are ``IN'', they will try to maintain a competitive advantage and keep most other people ``OUT''. Mr. Whitehouse has already granted that a college degree cannot be used to discriminate those who can program well against those who do not program well. I am very much afraid that any system of software certification will be used to push one person's pet software methodology and to exclude people who don't agree with him or her. Worst yet, it could become like many unions today, and be used to protect mediocrity within the group against people who are actually better qualified, but who aren't in the appropriate magic group. This could be extremely dangerous, if management types were to actually believe that being ``certified'' would mean that the code that person generates is "guaranteed" to be bug-free, when in fact the code might be much worse than someone who didn't have the magic blessing. Knowing human nature this is probably a more clear and present RISK than the current method which depends on the free market. - Ted
In Risks 10.37, Martyn Thomas <firstname.lastname@example.org> writes about a Feranti study on the "feasibility of integrating a knowledge-based expert system into naval command systems, to advise commanders in battle". Thomas concludes: >The commander is unlikely to ignore the advice of the expert system, >unless it is clearly perverse. This means that the decision (say, >to launch a weapon) is being taken, in practice, by the expert system. Neither conclusion follows. First, the proposed system is intended to "advise commanders". It is NOT stated that the system is intended to act on its own or to be blindly followed. Commanders will be very likely to ignore the advise of such a system -- they tend to be very wary of automated systems, and regard themselves as experts. Commanders often get contradictory advise from their human advisors. The essence of their job is to evaluate recommendations and make the best decisions that they can. An advisory system that recommends action that is at variance with other sources will likely be disregarded UNLESS the system makes a strong case to support its recommendation. A system that cannot justify its recommendations will be of little use, as a commander can not follow a blind recommendation; he has to know the line of reasoning and facts on which the recommendation is based, regardless of whether that recommendation comes from a human or automated source. Such a system could be of great value. IF an expert system were to detect a trend or correlate bits of information that indicate a significant development, it could issue a recommendation and support it with the data points and chain of reasoning that were used to arrive at that conclusion. The commander could then review that recommendation and decide whether or not to act upon it given his evaluation of the validity of the reasoning. All this may not be possible to do in practice, but there is the potential for an advance here in implementing a more effective and safe decision making process. >The Aegis system on the USS Vincennes led to the death of >several hundred people when a civil airbus was shot down, on a scheduled >flight, in weather conditions where the aircraft would be clearly >recognisable from the bridge of the Vincennes through binoculars. That >tragedy was ascribed to the poor user-interface of Aegis, combined with an >atmosphere of eager tension on board which made a decision to fire more >likely. How can we stop people building ever-more-complex decision-support >systems, and thereby losing their ability to take decisions themselves? The facts above are incorrect and/or incomplete. The Vincennes did not acquire visual contact with the Airbus nor could it have -- visibility was restricted by haze, and the aircraft was shot down before it entered visual range. The term "eager tension" is misleading -- the transcripts of the incident and investigation indicate that there was an atmosphere of tension *and fear*. It should also be noted that the Aegis system did not make a decision to fire -- that was purely a human decision based on available (albeit misinterpreted) information. A case can be made that an automated system might have concluded from the available data that the Airbus was NOT conducting an attack, and could have *advised* the commander to NOT fire. We should keep in mind though that warnings were given by a human operator that the aircraft might be a commercial flight. These warnings were not heeded -- the preponderance of information available to the commander indicated that a decision to fire was necessary for the protection of the ship. We all wish to minimize risk, but we must recognize that we can not eliminate it; there are significant risks in human activities regardless of how they are undertaken. There will be grave errors in military operations regardless of the technology that we use. We have good cause to be wary of automated systems in critical applications, but we should not dismiss them out of hand. Blind trust is dangerous, but so is blind distrust. It's our responsibility as computer professionals to see to it that any computer technology that is developed is done so in a way that minimizes risks, and that the end users are cognizant of the limitations and hazards associated with such systems. Steve Philipson
Martyn Thomas reports: >According to Electronics Weekly (Sept 12th, p2): >"Ferranti will study for MoD the feasibility of integrating a >knowledge-based expert system into naval command systems, to advise >commanders in battle. He then objects to the use of automated launch systems, asserting: >The Aegis system on the USS Vincennes led to the death of >several hundred people when a civil airbus was shot down, on a scheduled >flight, in weather conditions where the aircraft would be clearly >recognisable from the bridge of the Vincennes through binoculars. That >tragedy was ascribed to the poor user-interface of Aegis, combined with an >atmosphere of eager tension on board which made a decision to fire more >likely. In fact, he has contradicted his own assertion that the AEgis system was responsible by pointing out the shortcomings in human judgement, human psochology, and human I/O. The principal (and significant) shortcoming of AEgis in this scenario is that its database apparently did not include a readily available schedule of commercial airline flights for the region in which AEgis was deployed. If humans insist upon creating conflict situations where decisions depend upon evaluating large numbers of interacting variables, NOT to use automated decision support systems would be the tragedy. He concludes: > How can we stop people building ever-more-complex decision-support >systems, and thereby losing their ability to take decisions themselves? So long as there are ever more complex decisions to be made, we must either improve the decision maker or give the decision maker some help. The only other choice is to avoid the complex decisions altogether. [Because of the nature of this topic, I feel compelled to disclaim any relationship between what I have written and for whom I work. These opinions are my own <...>] _Brint
Pete Mellor <email@example.com> writes in RISKS-10.28: >The authors do not make it clear initially which of two different meanings of >'catastrophic' they intend: > > a) sudden and unpredictable, 'anything can happen', and > b) having appalling consequences. > >The first is a classification of the effect (which I prefer to call a 'wild >failure' to avoid confusion), and the second is a measure of the cost. For >example, when arguing that computers are inherently unreliable because they are >prone to 'catastrophic failure', they quote the Blackhawk example. The cause of >this series of accidents was eventually traced to electromagnetic interference, >as the authors state. While it is probably true that only a *digital* >fly-by-wire system would exhibit a wild mode of failure in response to EMI, it >is not until half-way down the next page, where the authors point out that >digital systems have far more discontinuities than analogue systems, that it >becomes clear that they are using 'catastrophic' in sense a), and not in sense >b). > It might be well to note that the natural assumption that discrete systems, such as digital ones, are more prone to wild mode failure than nice continuous analogue systems is a dangerous one. The term "chaos" has become a buzzword and as a result much of the real meaning has been lost to the world. One of the important observations was that, except for some exceptional cases, "wild behavior" is generic for conservative mechanical systems. For non-conservative systems the situation is not too different. It is only because the most familiar and most analyzed cases are special that we make the "natural" assumption of smooth nice behavior. The unfamiliar but common case is one where a system exhibits smooth regular behavior punctuated by wild jumps to a wildly different smooth state. The timing of the jumps is highly unpredictable because it depends critically on initial conditions. >The authors are right to claim that computer systems are too complex to be >tested thoroughly, if by this they mean 'exhaustively'. It is apparent from >their example of a system monitoring 100 binary signals that they do mean this. > >Exhaustive testing in this sense is well known to be impossible. Even in >modestly complex systems one can only test a representative sample of inputs. >Provided the selected sample is realistic, one can, however obtain a reasonable >degree of confidence that a reliability target has been reached, but *only if >the target is not too high*. > This sort of exhaustive testing is also impossible for general mechanical systems. It requires good design to make a mechanical system which falls in the class of those that are well behaved. It is not clear to me why it is not also possible to use similar good design to construct sufficiently stable digital systems. The main difference between the two is the difference in the amount of design experience we collectively have had in the two cases. Catastrophic failure in the second sense was not allowed to stop the development of mechanical systems in the past. Collapsing cathedrals the failure of the Tacoma narrows bridge or airplanes falling out of the sky did not stop architecture, bridge building or aviation -- and bridges are still known to collapse. It would be tragic if these concerns were to halt development of digital systems. Mellor is right that the challenge is to develop the tools for testing and analysis that are required. Dan Schlitt, Manager, Science Division Computer Facility City College of New York, New York, NY 10031, (212)650-7885 firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
Having just arrived in NSW I have yet to experience the safe railroads -- but certainly recommend visiting Australia. David Parnas comments that the railroads are not properly "large analog systems". I certainly agree. But his examples of "large analog systems" seem rather small scale stuff to those of us who think about spreadsheets, general ledger, Star Wars, and other large scale systems on or containing digital computers. So perhaps there are no "really large analog systems." After all, the 747-400 I rode on for the 15 hour overwater flight from LAX to SYD isn't a "really large analog system", is it? Seriously, I doubt that in the bad old days before computers that the systems in use were as safe, as reliable, or as inexpensive as in the good new days with computers. This is certainly the case for manual speadsheets, manual or semi-manual general ledger, and other inherently descrete systems often associated with accounting -- or anyway, bookkeeping. Indeed, there is something rather inhumane about bookkeeeping seems far better for the spirit to relegate this task to mere computers. I assert, without even bothering to review the data, that air travel is vastly safer post-computer (say, since 1970) than pre-computer. And so it goes... From this casual review of nineteenth and twentieth century technology I am going to baldly state that the largest analog systems I can think of are all basically static -- such as bridges under load -- and are seriously overdesigned by the standards of this day. These standards are manifested in software, airplanes, etc. I hope, by this statement, to generate some discussion and thus perhaps some enlightenment.
Can somebody provide a clear explaination of the role of delay in analog and digital circuits? We can attempt to compare the two by making associations such as "the voltage on an (analog) capacitor is the equivalent of the number held in a digital register". Then in the digital world we worry alot about when the register gets changed and try to prove that only one writer can exist at anytime. Analog systems don't seem to have the same concerns. Or do they? --Bill Plummer, Wang Laboratories, Inc..
>Does anyone have experience with this kind of software? My concerns >would be as follows: > 1. What is the error rate with this process? > 2. What happens when additions and changes are made by the Post > Office to their tables but the vendor has not yet gotten the > updates out to the end user of the software? Will the software > keep "correcting" a ZIP code which is in fact already correct? I have had two sets of experiences with this sort of problem: 1 - There must exist a tape which has determined that my ZIP code 02141 is in Boston and not in Cambridge. I give my address with the the Cambridge town name, and I get letters back with Boston listed as the town name. Nothing I do seems to correct this problem. 2 - I have used a PC software package which takes street addresses and town names and plots the points on a digital map. In matching a number of bank branch locations, the success rate of this program without any human guidance is around 60-65%. Using a limited amount of inteligence, this goes up to 75-80%. Achieving 90+% requires calling the branches and getting better address and cross streets. The key limiting factors are the quality of the address given and quality of the source maps. Bernie Gunther
I recently stopped into a stereo/appliance retail outlet to pick up a $15 accessory for which I wanted to pay cash. Being in a hurry, I tossed down exact change and gave my thanks to the salesman. Shortly thereafter, lights flashed and beepers beeped, and I was told that in no uncertain terms that I had to wait for the purchase to be entered into the computer. My annoyance grew to anger as the salesman fumbled with the computer, apparently having difficulty even "logging in." (If it wasn't the guy's first day on the job, the store is in real trouble.) He then asked for my name and address. Not wanting to be on their mailing list, and having real objections to giving my vital statistics away for a small cash purchase, I protested. "I have to type it in or the computer won't allow the sale." Feeling chagrined, I made up a fake name and address in an obscure town in central Michigan. The salesman dutifully typed in the phony address. The computer beeped and displayed "Invalid ZIP code." "The computer must have made a mistake," said I, feeling like an unmasked felon. The salesman looked badly confused, I got even more upset, and finally another salesman told him to enter "00000", satisfying the machine. After all that, the item had to be taken to another counter where a sales slip was printed in triplicate, each copy separately filed, the inventory control bar code read, and the anti-theft device demagnetized. [The computer then announced that there were -5 of these items left in stock.] Total elapsed time was nearly 15 minutes. The risks are twofold--one being a privacy risk, and the other being the encroachment of inappropriate, excessively complex technology. --Dave Katz University of Michigan
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