Today's New York Times notes that the Federal Aviation Administration is expected this week to require changes to the design of the engine thrust reversers on some Boeing 757s, based on computer simulations at Boeing that indicate "the accidental activation of thrust reversers could be a far worse problem than previously believed." That is, the plane may not be aerodynamically controllable, despite previous thinking. The cause of the crash in Thailand is still unknown, however.
Writing in the September 8, 1991 `Los Angeles Times' (page A3), Mack Reed reports that Carl Simmons, a 20-year-old California Youth Authority inmate, working as a TWA telephone reservation agent, stole dozens of customer credit card numbers and used them for thousands of dollars of personal charges. He is now serving two years in state prison for the thefts. TWA has used CYA inmates in a special program since 1986. The story says the program "has been touted as a way to help young criminals learn a trade and repay their debt to society. It has raised more than $500,000 for victims' restitution and the cost of incarceration. And the program's 213 graduates, many of whom now work at airlines and travel agencies, are one-tenth as likely to commit new crimes as nongraduates, CYA officials said." [Sure makes ME feel secure about making airline reservations!] CYA has tightened security, including more frequent searching of rooms and occasional strip-searches. Inmates have always been forbidden from taking pen and paper into the computer room, and now not even instruction manuals can be taken out. But Simmons and another inmate said that won't stop inmates from stealing card numbers or illegally charging airline tickets. Fred Mills of the CYA says, "There's always going to be an exception, but 99.9 times out of a hundred in a program you're not going to get that. For every person we can keep out of the institution for a year, that's saving the state about $31,000. That's the thing we have to look at and balance." One victim, New Hampshire businessman Phillip Parker, said, "I don't want to begrudge someone a chance to make it back into a productive life, but giving them a chance where there's a significant amount of potential for financial fraud or risk — maybe there's other things that would make more sense." TWA says it will now re-evaluate the program.
Jeff Berkowitz writes: >It is incredible to me how we have moved away from the concept of individual >responsibility and toward reliance on various societal "mommies and daddies" to >watch over behavior. Bravo. The database programmers made a mistake. The Salomon traders committed a crime.
Recently I faxed highly confidential information to a bank. Following their instructions, I telephoned their switchboard and asked for the extension with the fax machine on it, then connected my fax and sent my material. I telephoned a few minutes later to verify that my material had arrived and it had. The arrangement was slightly annoying because my "manual" long distance call had to wait on hold for several minutes (at my expense) waiting for the fax to become free. Shortly afterwards, I needed to send additional material to the same fax machine. Thinking myself quite clever, I simply telephoned the number with which the first fax identified itself (it was in the right area code and central office, so I assumed it was really the same machine). My machine connected to a fax at that number and my new material was transmitted. But it was never received at the bank! The bank's fax was identifying itself with the number of another machine (the fax machine vendor who delivered the machine configured for testing? a fraudulent information thief? I have no idea, but in retrospect I can see that one machine was identifying itself with the number "aaabbbccccc" and the other "aaa bbb cccc"). Fortunately for me, my second transmission was not sensitive information. It's also true that I did not follow the bank's instructions in sending the second fax. But in any case, as with "automatic replies" to email, it is clear that a fax sender is at risk sending to a telephone number with which a machine identifies itself. And the owner of a fax machine might potentially be liable for the consequences of a machine mis-identifying itself. By the way, another small risk became evident in this case. In order not to bill the owner of the sending fax, I made the call using the local access number of my long distance calling card. The fax audit report produced by the Canon fax machine reflected the answering (long distance) fax machine number, not the local number I actually called. That number will not appear on the telephone bill of the originating fax, and it may be difficult to reconcile the fax audit trail with the telphone bill. [Nice opportunity for scams with call forwarding, user settable identifications, hidden twin-tailed conferencing, etc. PGN]
The issue of spaces in a name deserves a long (and thoughtful) response because it gets into serious issues of representation. But I'll be (relatively) brief. One cause is the accidental sharing of command line parsers (in particular, the Unix one) because they work "well enough". In common programming languages the values are stored within variables and the names are the handles for the variables. In macro languages there isn't a distinct separation between the handles and the values. One is supposed to get around this problem using quoting, but multilayer quoting combined with expanded character sets wreaks havoc on this approach. Especially when the simple solution worked for the first few years. More to the point, the ability to build a system out of text streams is a very powerful construction technique and eliminates the need for "professional maintenance". The consequences is that when the systems break there is no one to fix them. The fact that this systems are cobbled together and the components "not aware" of their context also means that failures are not diagnosed. (Email to the bit bucket) Instead the problems are solved by layering additional workarounds such as "sendmail", _, and %!. These actually exacerbate the problem by eliminating the acuteness of the pain and thus forestall solutions. Now try pushing Unicode addresses through the usenet mail network! CCITT is no better, unless you view 10 years for changes as quick turnaround. To be fair, try extending the North American Number Plan phone numbering scheme. You can, but it will take 40 years. Welcome to the world of Ad Hoc solutions the allow us to be fleet of foot until we stumble and of standards that allow us to run fast as long we don't try to turn. Back to the Story of O, it isn't just naive programmers but those who are trying to be helpful by adding "smart" heuristics.
Recently, in another newsgroup there was a plea for help from somebody that had a floppy drive that was writing on write-protected floppies! After thinking about the use of opto-electronic sensing mechanisms for write-protect detection, it seems to me that the position of the plastic tab in the open position signifying "protected" is backwards from a fail-safe point of view. If dust prohibits sensing the position, or the detector/light source fails, the drive will incorrectly assume that the disk should be writable. In the days of the 5 1/4" diskettes, the sensing was in the opposite way; an open notch implied writable, closed implied protected. Don Phillips, Research Unlimited, Escondido, Calif. ...!ncr-sd!blkhole!don
I can give you a specific example of the problems of rushing a weapons system into combat before it is completely tested. It also gives a good example of how political considerations can screw things up. In the mid to late '60s, I was an infantry officer in the US Army. At the time that I went into the army, the standard infantry rifle was the M14. The M14 was developed by taking a successful rifle, the M1 Garand, and saying "how can we improve this?" They made it lighter, increased the size of the magazine from 8 to 20 rounds, made reloading simpler and quicker, and made the gas system more robust. There were only two major flaws — it could only be fired semi-automatically (well, there was the M14A1 which was capable of fully automatic fire, but they were few and far between), and the stock was made for people with long arms (at 5'7", with a sleeve length of 32", the stock was about 3" too long for me). Well, simultaneously, the US was involved in supplying the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) with weapons. (I'm sure you remember the Viet Nam War, it was in all the papers :-)). Unfortunately, the average height of Vietnamese men is about 5'5", so that if the stock of the M14 was too long for me, consider what it must have been like for them. The ARVN wanted another rifle, something a bit smaller. Some years previously, a Mr. Stoner, working for the Armalite company, developed a rifle called the AR-15. This was shorter and lighter than the M14, fired a 5.56mm round (.223 in), as opposed to the 7.65mm (.308 in) round of the M14, and could be fired either semi-automatically or fully automatically. The US Air Force got a few of these for use by its Air Police. When the ARVN saw these, they said "We want these rifles." So, some were given to the US Army to test — I personally was not involved in the testing and evaluation. The Combat Arms Development Board has traditionally suffered from a bad case of the NIH disease — Not Invented Here. They saw the AR-15 as a weapon that had been wished on it by others, and even worse, was used by the AIR FORCE! Also, the Army Special Forces (Green Berets), loved the AR-15, and the Green Beanies (the polite nickname) were despised by most of the Army establishment (while I was an Airborne Ranger, I was never a snake eater (the less polite nickname)). Thus, while it was obvious that the AR-15 was going to be accepted in some form or other by the Army, it had a number of strikes against it. So, the CADB OKed the rifle, but put in a long list of changes that it wanted made. These changes were made, over the strenuous objections of Stoner, and the rifle came out as the M16, and immediately rushed into combat. Let me tell you of my first experience of the M16 under combat conditions. My platoon was dropped off our helicopters into an ongoing firefight — what was called a "hot LZ". It was a hot, dry day, and the helicopters were kicking up a lot of dust. As soon as I hit the ground, I started firing. I got off one burst, then my rifle jammed. You see, right next to where the bolt and the end of the barrel join, there is the ejection port, which is a hole in the side of the rifle where the spent cartridges go out. In most rifles, there is a small gap between the bolt and the end of the barrel, called "headspace". The M16 does not have headspace -- rather, it has lugs on the end of the bolt which fit into matching lugs on the barrel. Some of the dust and dirt kicked up by the helicopters had gotten in through the ejection port and between the lugs on the bolt and the barrel, and the bolt could not close. Fortunately, I survived the experience, but I was no fan of the M16. Within a few years, an improved version of the M16 — the M16A1 — which was much closer to Stoner's original design came out. But we who had to use the old original M16 had to make sure that it was kept scrupulously clean, not always the easiest thing to do in a combat situation. And it was the good old boys of the CADB, who never took the rifle outside of Georgia and who insisted on all sorts of design changes apparently more to gratify their own egos than because of any real combat requirements. John Hobson, Ameritech Services, 225 W Randolph HQ 17B, Chicago, IL 60606 312-727-3490 email@example.com
The good products are usually (and rightly) more expensive. Sometimes that price inhibits their selection. Good features that are seen as unneeded, can't overcome this. Any risk assessment must factor possible damage by likelihood, but the list of failures can never be complete. Initial approximations are often focussed on the "more likely" failures. At some point, the effort to get good numbers becomes insurmountable. "Disasters" are assigned zero likelihood, or their costs aren't seriously investigated. As a consequence, the cost of "normal use" of the system is used for further price/performance comparisons. I worked for a time-share/computer service firm in the mid-1970's. At that time we were evaluating a Multics system for use by a client currently using a DECsystem-10. The '10 could support 50 concurrent users with about 10-15 running jobs. Our purchasing agent fell out of his chair when he heard that the comparably priced Multics system could support only six users. While I appreciate the Multics system (and believe Unix will one day recover most of the Multics features it had lost), there is often a cost associated with these features. In our case, the cost of "doing it right" was far too costly. Another DECsystem-10 running Tenex was added to our machine room. Before one counters with lists of things wrong with Tenex, remember that Multics _could_ have had comparable undiscovered failures and there was no good way to determine the likelihood of their discovery. Randolph Bentson Colorado State University bentson@grieg.CS.ColoState.Edu Computer Science Department 303/491-5792 Ft. Collins, CO 80523
The Maternal Serum Alfa-fetoprotein (MSAFP) test is administered to pregnant women in order to screen for a broad range of congenital defects of the fetus. It is primarily useful against neural tube defects (spina bifida, hydrocephaly), secondarily against Down's syndrome. When my son was on the way three years ago, our doctor suggested we have the test done. Unfortunately, the MSAFP has a fairly high false positive rate; about 10%. (It has a higher false negative rate, but that is not especially germane here.) A positive result, false or not, tends to be repeated on retest. The response is amniocentesis, which has about a 1% probability of inducing an abortion. The probability of a 29 year old woman having a child with Down's or a neural tube defect is quite a bit less than 1 in 10000. It was very hard for us to assess whether or not we wanted the test. Certainly, if we didn't intend to have amniocentesis for a positive, we shouldn't bother with the MSAFP. Since it was hard to sort things out, I decided to do some utility calculations, which clearly indicated that the MSAFP was a loser for us. This was because of the .1% or so probability that we would have a false positive, have amniocentesis, and lose the baby to an induced abortion. (We wanted the baby, very much.) That expected negative utility easily outweighed the expected negative utility of having a baby with a problem; especially since the MSAFP's false negative rate was so high. The result was quite insensitive to the numbers I used, within a factor of 10 or so; the differences were so large. So why did the doctor suggest the test? Why were hospitals and doctor's offices full of ads for it at the time? The answer is simple: they, and perhaps society at large, considered induced abortions as essentially neutral, and did not assign them the large negative utility that we did. Of course, they didn't say that in their literature, but it was not hard to figure out. I called a genetic counsellor at the hospital and asked about this. She was dumbfounded that I had even done the calculation, and a brief conversation quicky confirmed my explanation. The point is this: risk assessment depends not only on probabilities, but on the perceived utilities of various outcomes. A risk assessment by someone who doesn't care about spotted owls won't impress a member of Earth First!, simply because they have different values. This point is often ignored in risk assessments! Nearly all of the published assessments I've seen assume that everyone shares the same utilities for various outcomes. The above example is meant to illustrate the pervasiveness of this phenomenon. Mark Fulk
firstname.lastname@example.org (Phil Agre) writes: > I tend to be suspicious about any theory that treats ordinary people as irrational ... In a world where tabloids like the National Enquirer have a larger circulation than any "serious" newspaper, I find this suspicion surprising. Remember that, by definition, 50% of the population is of below-average intelligence, and that even intelligent people are often irrational. To a first approximation, I'd take such a theory as true. My own observation is that many people only believe in risks they have personally experienced. A college friend only started wearing his seat belt after he was thrown to the floor in a minor accident, even though he knew all of the equations involving inertia and friction. My firefighting friends are nuts about fire safety, in sharp contrast to others who have no personal contact with fires. Although Mr. Agre's comments about public suspicion of large organizations are well-considered and valid, I think that this relatively recent phenomenon is merely an aggravating factor. In the not-so-early days of nuclear power, utilities had to fight public association of the word "nuclear" with bombs. It is now generally known that, while nuclear plants pose many serious risks, massive explosions are not high on the list. My favorite example of public misperception of risks is magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, which was formerly called nucleo-magnetic resonance, NMR. The name had to be changed to keep patients from getting nervous about the word "nuclear." Yet many of those same patients will happily sit down in a dentist's chair and don a lead apron for a full-mouth X-ray, without giving a moment's thought to the possible negative effects of the radiation dose on their brain. So yes, I tend to believe a theory that treats ordinary people as irrational. All of us are, at least occasionally. Geoff Kuenning geoff@ITcorp.com uunet!desint!geoff
Phil, I read your recent post to RISKS re: risk assessment etc. etc. This is an area that has bothered me for some time. I came up with the following formula you might be interested in: Corporate perception: Anxiety Actuarial Individual Fears of individual can of the <> Table ==> is ==> be discounted or Individual Statistics irrational negated through education Individual perception: Anxiety Inconvenience to Individual It is necessary for the corp. toward == individual to ==> is ==> come to an agreement with the risk negate the risk rational individual on how to lessen the risk or lessen the inconvenience. Example where the customer is not the complaining party: (let's say) a nuclear power plant. The actuarial risk of a nuclear meltdown or serious release of radiation is very low (just ask your local power provider.) But the inconvenience caused to the individual attempting to avoid that possibility is very high. Plot all nuclear power plants on a map and then move 200 miles away from any plant and 50 miles from the air and water contamination vectors. You end up outside of most of the U.S. (The customer is the utilities regulators not the citizen) Solution: The utilities and government ignore complaints and attempt to educate the public as to the real risks of a meltdown. Example where the customer is the complaining party: Alar contaminated apples. The inconvenience is, you can't eat any apples. There is no way to tell if the apple is contaminated by looking at it. Solution: Growers stopped using it, regulations were passed etc. etc. Note that corporations formulate their response based on actuarial risk. If the person complaining does not affect the corporation's bottom line then that person will be ignored. If the complainer can act to reduce the corporation's profit then those concerns are accommodated. (Accommodation vs. Ignoration.) That is because, IMHO, decision makers rarely have the technical knowledge to rationally evaluate technical risks but, they do have the knowledge to evaluate monetary risks. Chuck [I think that something like what you say is right. The puzzle is how to make something so technically complicated into a more participatory activity, so that people can know what risks they're getting into and so forth, and so that they're freely chosen risks and not things that descend from the heavens with actuarial labels on them. Phil]
I think there are some simpler explanations for apparent public distrust of "risk assessment". First, sometimes the claims are misleading in that they confuse the average with the individual. Second, in those cases where a constant low rate of deaths is compared to occasional catastrophe, note that the constant stream of deaths provide data against which the risk assessors must be checked, and provide additional information that people can use to reduce their own risk of death. People don't compute the crash-safety of new automobiles (well, I'm sure that they do at some early stage), they run them into walls to see what happens. As an example of individuals and averages, consider the safety of driving to the airport versus flying in the airplane. Airplane crash statistics are fairly generic, and thus here the average makes some sense (some airports are more dangerous than others, of course, but we can get that data). However, auto death/injury statistics are not. Lumped into the average are those people driving drunk, those people driving sleepily, tailgaters, lanehoppers, seatbelt non-users, and Single Young Men Under the Age of 25. I'm none of those people, yet I have no doubt that someone advising me on the risks of driving would quote a figure based on a sample that included them. David Chase, Sun
Robert W. Kerns <rwk@Crl.dec.com> lists among the characteristics that make people risk-averse, * Low amount of individual control over individual risk factors. The importance of this point cannot be exaggerated. And the risk-assessment-as-PR people avoid exaggerating it by consistently and completely ignoring it. The last word on the subject of the Mobil attitude of "We risk our money, the world's whales, and your lives" was spoken in the 1930's by the woman who swept David Low's office. As he quoted it in a notable cartoon, The trouble with that Mussolini is that he not only bets his shirt, he bets everyone else's, too.
> ... Whenever the public at large doesn't agree with this, "public reaction" > is labeled as being irrational.... Adding to this comment, I'd point out that deaths are not the only metric by which to measure risk. For example, I'm currently living in Sweden, which has a public-access law which, among other things, permits anyone to pick wildberries and mushrooms on anyone's property (I'm slightly simplifying the rules). One effect of Chernobyl, even now, is that if one does pick some types of mushrooms, you have to take them to a testing center to check their cesium levels. Quality of life issues like these also matter (one might also talk with the Lapps about the effects of radiation on their reindeer herds and their economic livelihood). Craig Partridge
Phil Agre's (email@example.com) rejoinder (RISKS-12.24) to my posting (RISKS-12.22) has three sections. First, he gracefully qualifies his previous posting (RISKS-12.21) and makes it clear that he was not suggesting that risk perception researchers work in bad faith. Next he attributes a belief to me -- ``WG's message argues in effect that we can judge `risk' research in isolation from its social context'' — that I did not state and do not hold. Finally, Agre discusses an example that I proposed concerning risk perception and sexual risk taking among gay adolescents. The example showed how concepts from the risk perception literature are used by public health scientists doing AIDS prevention research, as opposed to the pernicious uses that Agre discussed in his posting and I discussed in mine. Agre's comments, however, suggest that this research is also pernicious: ``About 1985 the gay community decided that it was not going to wait around while people with generalized expertise about `risk' and the like designed studies `that can powerfully discriminate among many competing plausible explanations' all of them founded in ignorance and likely to be wrong.'' There is a lot of invective here and a claim that Agre has knowledge not shared by AIDS prevention researchers. A couple of sentences later, there is also a significant risk. The risk is premature declaration of victory in the effort to prevent HIV infection. Agre says that this campaign has been ``highly successful'', but what terrifies a lot of us is that it isn't clear, from the data, whether this is true. Recent reviews of the epidemiological and behavioral studies — Phil, you did read this literature before you disparaged it, right? — show that there have always been groups of men who have not changed their behavior, others who have relapsed, and little evidence that AIDS education works with young men. The lesson I derive, one that may be relevant to many other risks, is that both AIDS prevention efforts and the empirical study of their efficacy must be perpetual. William Gardner, Law & Psychiatry Research, Department of Psychiatry University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I do have some familiarity with the literature on AIDS `risk perception' though I am not an expert. My point is not that existing education programs solve all problems, but that the process by which gay community activists have developed education programs in the past is a good model for future work. People should, wherever possible, be studied by their own, using concepts geared for their particular complicated situation, and not generic concepts like `risk perception' which only support very crude generalizations. My language was no doubt unduly harsh in arguing this view, but the point is terribly important. Phil Agre, UCSD
The research findings referred to by LA Times writer Janny Scott are valid but hardly 'recent.' Similar findings were made by Decision Research (a Eugene, Oregon research firm) and others who did risk assessment studies for the AEC/NRC and nuclear utilities in the mid-1970s. See, for example, "Report to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission," Risk Assessment Review Group, NUREG/CR-0400, 1978.
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