This is another note on the risks of running RISKS. We get a variety of contributions that are not included in RISKS, on the grounds of relevance, taste, lack of objectivity, politicization, etc. (Once in a while I get a flame about censorship from someone whose message is not included, but I tend to stand by the masthead guidelines.) I also get an occasional complaint about my judgement regarding RISKS messages that have been included. So, it is time for some further comments from your moderator. One of the most important things to me in running RISKS is that there is a social process going on, at many levels. First, there is an educational function, in raising the level of awareness in many computer professionals and students, whether naive or young, whether sophisticated or old. Second, there is a communications function of letting people try out their ideas in an open public forum. They also have an opportunity to become more responsible communicators — combining both of those functions. Also, there is the very valuable asset of the remarkably widespread RISKS community itself — there is always someone who has the appropriate experience on the topic at hand. By the way, I try not to squelch far-out thinking unless it is clearly out of the guidelines. This sometimes leads to unnecessary thrashing — although I try to minimize that with some of my [parenthetical] interstices. The Audi case is one in which computer relevance is not at all clear. However, the presence of microprocessors indicates that it is worth our while discussing the issues here. The Audi problem is of course a total system problem (like so many other problems). I tend to include those cases for which there is a reasonable connection with computer technology, but not necessarily only those. There are various important issues that seem worth including anyway — even if the computer connection is marginal. First, there are total systems wherein there is an important lesson for us, both technological and human. Second, there are total systems that are NOT AT PRESENT COMPUTER BASED or ONLY MARGINALLY COMPUTER BASED where greater use of the computer might have been warranted. (Nuclear power is a borderline case that is exacerbated by the power people saying that the technology is too critical [or sensitive?] for computers to be used. THEY REALLY NEED DEPENDABLE COMPUTING TECHNOLOGY. Besides, then THEY could blame the computer if something went wrong! — see second paragraph down.) There is an issue in computer-controlled automobiles (even if the computer is clearly "not to blame" in a given case) whether the increased complexity introduced by the mere existence of the computer has escalated the risks. But that is somewhat more subtle — even though I think it is RISKS related... The issue of simplistically placing blame on the computer, or on people (or on some mechanical or electrical part), or whatever, has been raised here many times. I would like all RISKS contributors to be more careful in not trying to seek out a single source of "guilt". There are undoubtably a few people in our field who are bothered by technological guilt. There are others who are totally oblivious to remorse if their system were to be implicated in an otherwise avoidable death. However, the debates over blame, guilt, and reparation are also a part of the "total systems" view that RISKS tries to take. I try not to interject too many comments and not to alter the intended meaning. However, what YOU say reflects on YOU — although it also reflects on me if I let something really stupid out into the great Internet. Also, some discussions are just not worth starting (or restarting) unless something really new comes along — although newer readers have not been through the earlier process, and that is worth something. I have an awkard choice when a constructive contribution contains a value judgement that is somewhat off the wall. I sometimes edit the flagrant comments out, despite my policy of trying to maintain the author's editorial integrity. I thought for a while about Clive Dawson's "knowing the cause might eventually be tracked down to some software bug sent chills down my spine." The same could be said for the products of other technical professionals such as engineers and auto mechanics. (But that statement is a sincere statement of Clive's feelings, and this one was left in.) [Apologies for some long-windedness. I probably have to do this every now and then for newer readers.] PGN
I find myself largely in agreement with Bard Bloom's comments in RISKS 4.17. However, it seems to me that recent discussion has overlooked one of the most important points I saw in the UK proposal: verification is a way of FINDING errors in programs, not a way of absolutely ensuring that there are none. (The same is true of testing.) Thus the kinds of question we should be asking are - How many errors (in programs AND in specifications) can be found by presently available proof techniques? How many errors would be avoided altogether by "constructing the program along with its proof"? - What is the cost per error detected of verification compared with testing? Does this ratio change as software gets larger? as the reliability requirements become more stringent? - Do verification and testing tend to discover different kinds of errors? (If so, that strengthens the case for using both when high reliability is required, and may also indicate applications for which one or the other is more appropriate.) - Can (partial) verification be applied earlier in the process of software development, or to different parts of the software than testing? - Is there a point of diminishing returns in making specifications more complete? more precise? more formal? of having more independent specifications for a program? I would dearly love to have convincing evidence that verification wins all round, since it would indicate that my work on formal specification is more valuable. But, to date, I haven't seen any convincing studies, and the arguments I can offer have been around for 10 or 15 years. (They look plausible. Why can't we prove them?) Jim H.
or, Would you trust your teen-aged computer with a phone of its own? From Monday's (24-Nov-86) New York Times: Lyons, Ore., a town of about 875 people about 25 miles east of Salem, the state capital, has a small budget and a big problem. The monthly city budget is about $3,500. Back in October, the public library, with an annual budget of $1,000, installed a computer that made it possible to find a requested book at any library in the county through one telephone call to Salem. After the trial run, no one knew that it was necessary to unplug the computer. It maintained the connection and ran up a bill of $1,328 with the Peoples' Telephone Company, the cooperative that runs the Lyons phone system. "It leaves a problem I've got to figure out," said Mayor Jerry Welter. "I'm going before the phone company board to ask them to forgive the bill, and I don't know just how we'll manage if they won't do it."
It's interesting — the four perspectives collected on this telecast. 1) This was a subject broadcast several months ago on ABC 20/20. No mention on the microprocessor problem was made at that time, but the idle problem was demonstrated. 2) The microprocessor problem took very little time in the show, yet generated so much on RISKs (as it probably should). 3) I recall TWO deaths in the program, not just one, and probably more. Two correspondents pointed out the dead child, but the others did not mention the gas station attendent who was dragged underneath the car when it lurched backward over 200 feet. Five different views of the same show. (Rashomon) Could we expect a computer to do better? I hope so. --eugene miya
"Letter from the Space Center" by Henry S. F. Cooper in the New Yorker, November 10, 1986, pp. 83-114. Discusses the Challenger accident and the way it was investigated. New (to me) information includes some things that were known to the engineers before the accident, but not taken into account when the decision to fly was made. There is also mention of a few things "hidden" in the appendices to the Presidential Commission's report. Nothing specific on computers, but a lot on the *management* of technological risks, and — as such — would be interesting reading to the Risks community. Book: The Eudaemonic Pie, by Thomas A. Bass. Vintage Books (paper), Houghton-Mifflin (hardbound). ISBN 0-394-74310-5 (paper). Relates the engrossing tale of a bunch of California grad students who decided that roulette is "just" an experiment in ballistics (with a bit of mathematical chaos theory thrown in). Unfortunately, the adventurers were better physicists than engineers and their computer system, built into a pair of shoes, never worked well enough to break the bank. They had some good moments, though. The physicists went on to more and better things, and have just published an article on chaos in the current Scientific American. Martin
> Bard Bloom in RISKS 4.17: > 1) Are existing programming languages constructed in a way that makes > valid proofs-of-correctness practical (or even possible)? I can > imagine that a thoroughly-specified language such as Ada [trademark > (tm) Department of Defense] might be better suited for proofs than > machine language; there's probably a whole spectrum in between. > 2) Is the state of the art well enough advanced to permit proofs of > correctness of programs running in a highly asynchronous, real-time > environment? Drs. K. Mani Chandy and Jayadev Misra of the University of Texas at Austin have developed a language called UNITY, which allows one to write programs for distributed asynchronous systems, and reason about the relationship between the program and its specification, which may allow one to prove that the program correctly implements the spec. (More often, one proves it does not...) At least one compiler for UNITY exists. [Further discussion on this probably belongs in Soft-Eng@XX.MIT.EDU. (See also various papers by Leslie Lamport.) But I let this one through because proving properties of asynchronous programs is generally a very high-risk area. Many asynchronous algorithms widely thought to be "correct" or "safe" or whatever are not... PGN]
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