Willis' comment in connection with computer literacy in the old days: >Remember when you read this: I'm talking of the period when >it was all mainframes and centralized computing shops, and the programming >fraternity argued persuasively for and held sway in the closed-shop! triggered all sorts of memories I'm sure Willis shares. Surely we both remember the Bendix G-15? the Monrobot? the CDC 160A (that motherless PPU)? Yes, there were big IBM 704 and UNIVAC II shops, but there were also IBM 604 Punched Card Electronic Calculators, and UNIVAC 40/60/120s; the latter I remember being used for critical airframe and weapons system calculations by then-Douglas Aircraft in 1956, when I joined the industry. I don't remember, if I ever knew, what computers were used to support the Comet and Electra I designs, but perhaps there may be a connection between their sorry record and RISKS. In any case, the problem of distributed small computing environments has always been with us, if on a smaller scale. Mike Williams, System Development Corp. McLean VA
Those of your readership who bristle when one programming language or another is put down for any reason might like to read what has to rank as the ultimate rebuttal. I refer of course to Howard E. Tompkins paper "In Defense of Teaching Structured COBOL as Computer Science (or Notes on being Sage Struck). It appeared in SIGPLAN notices, V18,4 of April 1983. A real hoot! Jim
My own feeling is that for for "computer literacy" in the general populace (rather than say for engineers or economists who will have to write programs), programming is mostly irrelevant. The most important notions for everyone to have (that is after all the meaning of "literacy") are those related to procedures: what procedures are, what input is, what output is, how input can be related to output and so on. Being able to ask the question "But how can the computer know to do X?" in a meaningful way, and puzzling out the answer to that question is in my view a whole lot more important than knowing the syntax of PASCAL or BASIC. The problem is ultimately related to clear thinking, and how to teach people to do THAT. [We have included various somewhat redundant responses on this topic in recent RISKS, because the points being made are IMPORTANT but OFTEN IGNORED. There is no substitute for style, elegance, care, and — above all — understanding what you are doing. PGN]
Responsibility for a computer foul-up can realistically be laid anywhere from the individual operator's feet (for placing the wrong hard disk in or plugging in the wrong power supply) to the hardware designer's feet (for allowing ungrounded power plug-ins) to the system programmer's feet to the compiler design team's feet (group shot) to the application's designers' feet (another group shot?) ... all depending on what is the "source" of the failure. Presuming for the nonce that the fault lies in the application software (not in its implementation, via the transition from high-level to machine code or transition from electronic state to electronic state), there still remains a problem of determining who is responsible. Who provided the algorithm? The implementation? The specification? Did anybody perform a mathematical theorem validation? Could such realistically be done for the entire program? (Hah.) Hindsight allows a (relatively) easy post-mortem that shows "this step" could have been validated (and thus had the error shown up), often enough. But the program is a SYSTEM, and the safeguards are at this point far from perfect. Ought they be perfect? Think how much that would cost. Rather than tacking terms like "responsibility" to the entire spectrum of computer programs, it would make more sense (legally and ethically) to designate the principles and requirements for liability to be attached for an injury, and let the moralists be concerned with the responsibility. (Responsibility can NEVER be attached, no matter how hard it is thrown; it is only accepted. But I would far rather have people programming with or for me who voluntarily accept responsibility, since they then provide the best protection.) Professional licensing, which requires the establishment of minimal standards, allows actions based on malpractice to be brought. As long as this licensing is voluntary and not mandatory the market can help establish responsibility — for then the product seller who hires an unlicensed programmer to produce the core program will have to consider whether they might be charged with negligence. Standard applications, however, should only be subject to strict "products" liability where there is a standard operating environment. If a program specifies that it is designed to operate on an Apple II-E with an Epson MX-80 or FX-80 printer, (or some set of CPU chips, terminals, and printers with a set of standard operating systems), any user who goes to a different environment (even if somebody else promised it would be identical, or just compatible) has no one but himself to curse. The difference between a hammer and a consumer computer application is (realistically) indifferent in terms of consumer law — if you use a hammer as a wedge or a support for some scaffolding, you can hardly cry foul when it fails at a task for which it is not designed. (Of course, the above is complicated by some rulings that "foreseeable misuses" allow liability. The consumer applications computer company will want to restrict the range by specifying where it guarantees its product , and will want to extend the probable hardiness to a penumbra of likely modifications beyond that to prevent mishaps.) George S. Cole, Esq.
Eugene Miya asks whether the CDP is a level of professional certification. I do not have a CDP, but I passed the Certified Computer Programmer (CCP) exam in Systems Programming which is also given by the Institute for the Certification of Computer Professionals (ICCP). Does passing the exam itself indicate any level of competence? No - I would expect first year engineering students to be able to pass it with no difficulty. However, the fact that someone is serious enough about `professionalism' to go out and get certified probably indicates something about his character, if not his abilities. Obviously, the certification process must become more stringent - the new requirement for periodic recertification is a step in the right direction. A secondary effect of `professional' certification is that you are expected to subscribe to a code of ethics. Many people deride these, but I know that I, at least, have them in the back of my mind when I consider systems whose failure can harm people. `Empty symbology' has a powerful psychological effect: wearing an Iron Ring reminds me about an oath I took with much rattling of chains that I would never "pass bad workmanship". The ancient Greeks used to pour libations to gods they knew weren't there. Why take something like the CCP? For frankly mercenary reasons - I took it to increase my chances of getting a job. But also because I am familiar with the history of engineering as a profession in Canada and Great Britain (engineering isn't a profession in the United States yet, is it?) and though that the ICCP might be the beginning of something similar for software engineering / computer science / programming. What would distinguish such a profession from the present situation? Purely and simply, liability. A professional is liable for his actions, not just to the best of his ability, but to the limits of knowledge in his field. Liability is a great incentive for taking proper care of your work. To the extent that care, the highest reasonable level of care that we can expect humans to provide, can reduce the chance of failure in software systems, professionalism is a good thing. Andy "Krazy" Glew. Gould CSD-Urbana. USEnet: ihnp4!uiucdcs!ccvaxa!aglew 1101 E. University, Urbana, IL 61801 ARPAnet: aglew@gswd-vms
When our local GTE Telenet office finally installed its 2400 baud service I discovered the same problem referred to in the penultimate Risks: if the line dropped, there was a very good chance the local Telenet machine did not detect it and one could later dial back in. Several times i dialed in and found myself in the middle of someone else's connection; I also, of course, after several hours (almost a day one time, I seem to remember) was able to dial back in and find myself connected to my original host system. It took several weeks of trouble reports, as well as calls from "high government officials" (the computer I was using was this one: the folks at the National Computer Security Center were not, as one would hope and expect, pleased) before Telenet acknowledged there was a problem and did something about it. I seem to remember that it was simply an ill modem, but the experience was enlightening. Ted
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