The following article, which appeared in the "Metropolitan Diary" section of today's New York Times, illustrates the risk of not having backup systems for super-critical computerized applications. The other day, Gloria Ross was late for an appointment at a company on the Avenue of the Americas. She holds herself blameless for being tardy and in defense she offers this explanation: The high-technology building where the company has its offices has a computerized directory. To find the floor of the person you wish to visit, you push a button with the first letter of the last name. Aware of this procedure, Ms. Ross pressed the button marked "O" on one of the computer monitors mounted on a large black column. Nothing happened. A guard told her to try the next column. Again, nothing. The computer was down. Her next stop: the information desk in the lobby. "I get my information the same way you do, lady," the man at the desk said, informing her that even he did not have a printed directory... The article goes on to describe the chaos that ensued in the building, with "dozens of people desperately cruising from floor to floor" looking for the right offices. Let's hope that the building's managers learned the obvious lesson from this incident.
One child was killed and another injured [Mon 9 Jan 1989] when they were hit by a truck after entering a crosswalk where the pedestrian signals were not working. The malfunction was caused by a computer error that affected traffic signals at 22 school crossings. The pedestrian signal cycles failed to switch to the school schedule. The cause reportedly may have been a breakdown in the radio communications between a computer in Colorado Springs and an atomic clock in Boulder. [Colo Spgs Gazette Telegraph, 10 and 11 Jan 1989; contributed by Scott Campbell, PAR Gov't Sys Corp, Colo Spgs.]
A physicist who applied the new mathematics of `chaos theory' to the Star Wars missile shield foudn that the equations pointed again and again to crisis and war or -- at best -- a continued and precarious balance of terror. ``The question is not really Star Wars, but what do you do if all you can predict is unpredictableness?'' Alvin M. Saperstein of Wayne State University asked [at the AAAS meeting in San Francisco]. [From an article by Charles Petit, SF Chronicle, 18 Jan 1989, p. A18]
Beijing (Washington Post, 18 Jan 1989) -- American companies are losing "many millions" of dollars in potential business in China because the companies' computer softwae has been widely pirated... China has no copyright law of its own...
There were various reports of Friday-the-13th virus deletions in Britain, attacking MS-DOS systems. The so-called virus "has been frisky and hundreds of people, including a large firm with over 400 computers, have telephoned with their problems," according to Alan Solomon, director of S and S Enterprises, a data recovery center in Chesham. The virus reportedly bore similarities to the Friday the 13th Israeli virus (13 May 1988, the previous Friday the 13th). [Source: SF Chronicle, 14 Jan 1989, p. B1]
Just to show that computer systems play no favorites in politics, local news reports are blaming a computer error for denying Pennsylvania Republicans tickets and access to many of the Presidential inauguration balls and festivities. The politicians are complaning "its like being all dressed up with no place to go". Submitted by Scott Berger, Naval Air Development Center, Warminster, PA
The question as to why there are so many losing systems may have a simpler, more fundamental answer than has been suggested in the contributions over the last couple of weeks. So far, those contributions have (1) suggested incompetence in management or technical ability, and (2) questioned some of the currently fashionable magic bullets, such as structured programming. I believe that the more fundamental answer is that the pace of improvement of hardware technology in the computer business has, for 35 years now, simply been running faster than our ability to develop the necessary experience to use it effectively, safely, and without big mistakes. The losing systems almost always contain some elements of newness; in fact on close inspection they usually contain several such elements. (If someone claims there is nothing new in a project that involves software development, then ask why they aren't just using previously existing software. It is the attraction of taking advantage of new possibilities, usually as the result of hardware being either more functional or cheaper than it used to be, that leads to new software systems.) If these new elements were to arrive on the scene one at a time, and spaced far enough apart that thorough experience could be assimilated with each previous new element, then I submit that traditional engineering practice, as applied to pyramids, cathedrals, bridges, consumer electronics, and even airplanes, would lead to higher success probabilities. Mistakes would still be made, but they would tend to occur on the far-out projects that are expected to carry an element of risk, rather than the ones that intuitively seem like they ought to be routine, such as automating the county records. Arguing that managers should become computer wizards, or offering structured programming to fix the problem, just don't seem to me to get to the heart of this more fundamental issue. When the technology ground rules change at a rate that is ten times faster than in other engineering disciplines, it would seem that unless one can figure out how to accumulate and assimilate experience also at a ten-times-faster rate, system failures are an expected result. Perhaps a more interesting question is how it is that some computer systems manage to be successful. I observe two related things that are often associated with successful systems: 1. Those systems that are successful are usually conservative, with somewhat simpler objectives than the state of technology would have permitted. 2. Systems that are succesful often had the management advantage of a system dictator who had the absolute power to say NO to ideas that didn't seem to fit in. A dictator is one of the few mechanisms that can keep an implementation conservative in the face of pressures to be state-of-the-art. My conclusion from these observations is that since: (1) it is hard to be conservative in the face of tempting technology advances; and (2) appointing dictators isn't a common management practice; successful systems aren't very common either. And having conservative goals and a dictator doesn't guarantee that the system will be winning or that its future users will like it, it just sets the stage for that possibility. Jerry Saltzer
Steven C. Beste made the point that managers are trying to come to grips with computer technology moreso now than ever before; this I would generally agree with subject to the caveat that the degree of managerial immersement in the technology will never match that of the technical expert. One of the last companies I was consultant to actually lost sales because the management didn't understand either the product or the market, and knowing both was especially important as the company was making the transition from conventional DP through Cobol to providing a logic programming environment on a mainframe. The permanent technical staff couldn't have sold their souls for ice pops and the management were having fiercesome difficulty in making the paradigmatic shift from Cobol inspired projects to AI (expert system bespoke applications). Just as you thought the management was grasping the core issues Sisyphus would pop up and roll progress back. Even more lamentable were the salesforce who new sweet f.a. about either methodology. Because AI was "sexy" the salespeople were inclined to promise the earth (one salesman reckoned he had a contract for a complete CASE system for a major motor manufacturer in the UK even though neither he nor the company had any experience in this area) and take umbrage when it was explained that the company simply couldn't deliver. The net result was that the company became unsatisfactory for quite a number of the technical people who carried their skills elsewhere.Nevertheless, observing the company's progress from a distance it seems to be doing quite well and the mangement have made the learning curve.
I just received in the mail as part of the BYTE magazine package of postcards from manufacturers etc. a post card selling a program capable of accessing the National Credit Information Network (if I qualify). Here is the text of the postcard (the typography of the card was ragged and this is as exact as I could make it): NATIONAL CREDIT INFORMATION NETWORK ON-LINE ACCESS PACKAGE AVOID SLOW PAY - NO PAY HIRE QUALITY EMPLOYEES SAVE $200.00 $498.00 * SAVE $200.00
IF YOU QUALIFY FOR ACCESS...THIS INFORMATION IS IDEAL FOR:
FREE ON-LINE DEMO "MONEY-BACK GUARANTEE IF YOU DO NOT QUALIFY
After connection, slowly press the [ENTER] key 4 times. When prompted for a Username: type DECK4 then press [ENTER]
Is this scary or what? --Sidney Marshall
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