We apologise for the unexpected system shutdown today (Thursday). This was caused by a bug in the MTS system that was a "time-bomb" in all senses of the word. It was triggered by today's date, 16th November 1989. This date is specially significant. Dates within the file system are stored as half-word (16 bit) values which are the number of days since the 1st March 1900. The value of today's date is 32,768 decimal (X'8000' hexadecimal). This number is exactly 1 more than the largest positive integer that can be stored in a half-word (the left-most bit is the sign bit). As a result, various range checks that are performed on these dates began to fail when the date reached this value. The problem has a particular interest because all the MTS sites world-wide are similarly affected. Durham and Newcastle were the first to experience the bug because of time zone differences and we were the first to fix it. The American and Canadian MTS installations are some 4 to 8 hours behind us so the opportunity to be the first MTS site to fix such a serious problem has been some consolation. The work was done by our MTS specialist who struggled in from his sick bed to have just that satisfaction! [I presume the MTS folks did not read RISKS-9.28, "Hospital problems due to software bug", in which we learned that 19 Sept 89 was 32768 days after 1 Jan 1900! Does that sound familiar to you? "When will they ever learn? ..." ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") PGN]
I do not recall seeing anything in Risks about the incident described in the following front page article in the Nov 16 issue of (UK) Computer Weekly. It is here in full, as an amusing example for US readers of British "journalism". UK FAULT TOLERANCE SHINES AFTER US BLACKOUT Jon Kaye A fault-tolerant team from the UK has scored a valuable away win in New York despite strong opposition from the local favourites. IMP, a manufacturer of fault-tolerant Unix machines based on Motorola's 68030 processors, beat top US firms Tandem and Sequoia during last month's Unix Expo. On the final day a power cut left the exhibition centre without electricity for half the day. Quick-thinking Dick Penny, IMP's marketing manager, weaved his way into Tandem and Sequoia territory, lobbing offers for a competition once the power returned. "I thought it would be a good idea to see which machine would be up and running first once the power was back on," says Penny. Tandem and Sequoia agreed, the latter "reluctantly", Penny says. The referee was provided by Unix International, the Unix standards group, setting the stage for an exciting kick-off. The plucky UK lads were first to the goal in 70 seconds, followed by Tandem in two minutes and Sequoia in four. Penny denies suggestions that IMP caused the blackout itself to get the competition staged. "Four city blocks went out', he says. "Organising that would have overstretched our marketing budget for the show." Brian Randell, Computing Laboratory, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
I thought I would relate a couple of horror stories about a hotel reservation system that we implemented at Ramada Inns in 1974. ... A lady in Utah started getting anonymous phone calls in June, 1974. She would answer the phone and hear nothing. Sometimes, if she kept asking who was there, she would hear a loud screech before the caller hung up. Calls would come at all times of day and night, but were most frequent between 1 and 2:30 AM. The phone company tried to trace the calls, but they were of very short duration. They did determine that the calls were coming from area codes all over the US, with a random distribution. They were puzzled. Meanwhile, a number of Ramada franchisees complained that they were getting billed for long distance calls on the phone line they had installed for their new reservation system computer. We investigated and discovered that there was a phone number that was one dial pulse (there were lots of pulse-dial only exchanges then) away from the 800 number that the computers were supposed to call. We called the number and discovered on very frustrated lady! Ramada payed for her to get a new phone number, and the problem went away. .... Also in June, 1974, there were long distance telephone outages occurring in the middle of the night, every night, in the Omaha, Nebraska, area. It turns out that our 700 computers were all calling in in a very short period of time after 0100MST, jamming the circuits. At 0100, our system started a period (called End of Day) during which the computers called in rapidly to unload their message queues. I had guessed at the number of lines, put it in a configuration file, and forgotten about it. I had guessed 20 lines. There were in fact quite a few less (I think there were 7). Thus the calls were coming in at a rate way to high to be serviced. To make it worse, a failed call was retried three times! The problem was corrected by changing the constant in the configuration file.
After reading all the recent slate about computer-controlled everything (cars, planes, trains, etc.), I realized something interesting: a layperson generally doesn't trust computers because he or she doesn't understand them (they are "black boxes"). A computer professional, on the other hand, doesn't trust them *because* he or she *does* understand them (and their limitations). This also lead me to realize that ours is one of the few fields where we wouldn't necessarily trust our "product" with our lives. That is, doctors generally will trust other doctors to operate on them, auto designers probably drive cars (8-)), etc. Yet, a programmer probably wouldn't trust a computer-controlled plane or car very much (for good reason, in my opinion). I'm not sure exactly what this says, except that it is still a very immature field. Sean.
The problem that was experienced by some on RISKS-9.39 was not limited just to comp.risks. There has been a recent discussion in news.admin about similar problems in other postings. In particular <email@example.com> and <1989Nov13.firstname.lastname@example.org> isolate the problem to lll-lcc and mention the munged RISKS 9.39. Btw, we got a good copy and a bad copy of it (which arrived after 9.40 and 9.41); one of the bits hit was in the message ID, so the two copies travelled independently. Daniel W. Johnson, Applied Computing Devices, Inc. [Also noted by a variety of others... Thanks for all the examples. PGN]
[The Wall Street Journal, Novemeber 17, 1989, p. A16] WASHINGTON — The Social Security Administration announced proposed standards for employer's computerized filing of wage data and said it might establish a certification process for software programs that comply. The software standards are designed to reduce discrepancies between Internal Revenue Service tax data and Social Security wage data by requiring software programs to check for inconsistencies. This would help ensure full credit to 130 million American workers. The Social Security Administration routinely cross-checks data with the IRS. Improperly reported wages often result in workers receiving less than their entitled Social Security benefits. Each year, in as many as a million cases information reported to the IRS fails to match that reported to Social Security, said Norman Goldstein, the administration's chief financial officer. He estimated that computer software is used for filing the wage data of 70% to 80% of U.S. workers. The proposed standards are voluntary, but Social Security Commisioner Gwendolyn King said she would like to see the draft proposal become the official U.S. standard. The administration is seeking comments on the software standard from business groups and software writers.
[AAAS Science, 10 November 1989, vol. 246, p. 753] [by M. Mitchell Waldrop] Dig into any of the government's chronically over-budget and behind-schedule development programs — the Hubble Space Telescope of the B1-B Bomber, for example — and you'll find that a good fraction of what gets labeled as "waste, fraud, and abuse" actually stems from crummy software. Not only do the development agencies habitually spend millions of dollars on operations software that is buggy, inadequate, and late, they have to spend millions of dollars more to fix it. So says a just released report [nb. "Bugs in the system: Problems in federal govenment computer software development and regulation"(Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., September 1989).] from the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. Written by subcommittee staffer James Paul, who spent 2 years working on it, the report also names a culprit: the government itself. "Government policies on everything from budgeting to intellectual property rights have congealed over time in a manner almost perfectly designed to thwart the development of quality software," it says. Paul's brief, but strongly worded report echoes the complaints that computer scientists have been muttering for years. "The [federal government's] procurement process is as much or more to blaim for poor software as any other single thing," says Peter Freeman of George Mason University, who just finished up a stinit as head of the computer research division at the National Science Foundation. "There are huge numbers of people involved [in the agencies] who fundamentally don't have the knowledge or experience to make good decisions with respect to procurements." The report says that reform must begin on the conceptual level, becuase purchasers still regard software as an afterthought. Project managers, agency heads, and congressmen alike tend to focus on sexy hardware such as radars, airframes, and engines, assuming that the software to control all this gadgetry can be taken care of later. Yet that assumption can be costly. In 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shut down five nuclear reactors for upgrading; a software flaw in the computer-aided system used to design them had left them vulnerable to earthquake damage. In the mid-1980s, a Canadian-built radiation therapy machine, the Therac-25, killed at least four people when a software error irradiated patients with massive overdoses. "Software," says the report, "is now the choke point in large systems." On the other hand, it will be difficult to make the software development process more flexible because the federal procurement system effectively demands that contractors write the software using bad methodology. "Out on the technical frontiers," the report says, "the government requires a legally binding contract specifying in excruciating detail exactly how the system will look at delivery some years hence." The tacit assumption is that programmers will then use the specifications to write, test, and debug the software. In the programming community this approach is known as the waterfall model because the work supposedly cascades from one stage to the next in systematic progression. But modern programmers consider the waterfall approach an abysmal way of doing things. Especially when it comes to high-tech systems such as the Space Telescope's scheduling software or the B1-B's defensive electronics countermeasures systems — both of which were software fiascos (Science, 17 March 1989, p. 1437) — it is essentially impossible for anyone to write detailed specifications in advance. Not only does the hardware evolve during development, thereby forcing the specifications to change, but the hardware engineers themselves have no way of knowing what they really want from the software until they have had a chance to try it out. This is way the modern "evolutionary" approach to software development looks less like a waterfall than like a spiral. Starting with general requirements, the programmers quickly cobble together one or more prototype systems. The engineers then try out the prototypes on the evolving hardware. Their suggestions guide the programmers in refining new prototypes. And the process repeats as long as is necessary. The payoff is that the programmers have a much better chance of catching errors in the design phase, when the bugs can be fixed at an estimated one-tenth to one-one hundredth the cost of fixing them after deployment, and the software as a whole has a much better chance of doing what it really needs to do. But flexibility is precisely what the spell-it-out-up- front procurement culture lacks, says the report. In addition, the bereaucracy balks at the big up-front investment in problem definition that must be made when the evolutionary approach is used. Furthermore, as the report notes, "mo program manager relishes the thought of defending a request for funds when the major activity seems to be endless arguments over abstruse technical points by large numbers of well-paid engineers." So, what can be done? In the near term, very little, says the report. The Department of Defense and a few other agencies have begun to move away from the waterfall model, and Paul thinks those steps should be encouraged. Better methods should be developed for evaluating the quality, reliability, and safety of software, the report says. And perhaps the software community should be encouraged to establish some form of professional certification standards. But nothing fundamental is going to change without changes in the procurement culture, says the report. And that is going to take awhile, even though chronic cost overruns and scandals are creating mounting pressures to do so. "Its not something you can jump right in and legislate," Paul told Science. "The federal procurement system is like a software system with bugs. Every time it's broken down, somebody has patched it. But keeping it together is getting harder and harder and costing more money. And at that point, an experienced software engineer would throw up his hands and say, 'Hey! Let's toss this out and start over.'"
Several people responded to my posting in 9.40 regarding "computer risks," and many of them seem to me to share the same fundamental confusion. Let me use Saltzer's response in 9.41 as a representative example. He replied >I claim that it is not that simple. In a traditional library, it was possible >to invade your privacy by making a list of all the books you have every >checked out. Sorry but I believe it is in fact EXACTLY that simple and indeed the example cited shows it to be so. The crucial point is confusing the technology that makes an act feasible, with the act itself. As Jerry pointed out: > The speed and efficiency with which data can be processed by computer can > convert a neglible risk into one worth discussing. Just so; it is now *worth discussing*. But *what* is it we should *discuss*? Privacy, not technology. We ought to discuss whether records of one's book reading should in fact be public. True, the question never arose routinely before because it wasn't pragmatically possible ("benign protection by the status quo," in Ware's elegant phrase). Previously the question was moot, now it is worth discussing. But what ought we to discuss? The QUESTION, not the TECHNOLOGY that rendered it relevant. And question is, what rights to privacy ought I to have when I borrow books from a public library? That question (a social and moral concern, as Dave Smith points out) is the central issue in such discussion. That discussion will need to be INFORMED by technology to some degree: people need to understand that certain actions will become easy in a computerized book lending system that were difficult before (e.g., monitoring, compilations, cross-matching). But those actions are now EASY rather than HARD, not POSSIBLE vs UNIMAGINABLE. On this point, Ware quotes Hamming to the effect that > "when something changes by an order of magnitude, there are fundamental > new effects." Perhaps, but it's important to understand that they are often new only in the sense that we did not think of them previously (in the old technology), not that they are incomprehensible or unimaginable in those terms. For example, monitoring, compilations, and cross-matching of library records are all possible now for enormous databases. But I can perfectly well understand them and their effects by imagining the corresponding manual operations. That distinction in turn is very important because it empowers people. Admitting that there is nothing fundamentally new in such a system makes it clear that ordinary people (incredibly enough, even those without degrees in computer science) can coherently and intelligently discuss these issues based on their ordinary intuitions and feelings about privacy. It even makes it clear that if there is a relevant specialized experience for this discussion, it is probably constitutional law, not computer science. It's time to take the veil of technological mysticism off these issues. And it is we in particular who ought to remove the veil. People need to understand that their existing knowledge, experience, and opinions on privacy (and other issues) are both relevant and sufficient for informed debate. The crucial decision is whether the information ought to be public, not how it is to be accessed. As for the argument that: > The Registrar of Motor Vehicles in Massachusetts has long used the "it has > always been public" argument on car registration information as an excuse for > selling tapes to mass mailers. That's little more than a bad pun, playing off two meanings of "public". But perhaps we need a finer distinction to avoid being tripped up by it in the future, hence my use of the term "pragmatically possible". Neither the motor vehicle nor the library data were in fact ever pragmatically public, so the issue never arose. But now they can be and now we need to decide whether they ought to be. And *that* decision has nothing to do with the technology that made the point worth discussing, and everything to do with our own sensibilities about privacy. In a similar vein, David Smith suggests that > if there's no tool to implement [a policy] adequately... the policy > [will not be] pursued. Only when a tool becomes available that makes > implementation feasible will the policy be ... implemented. Right, and then we should discuss the POLICY, not the technology that made it worth discussing. He also adds: > It's possible to maintain large, irresponsibly constructed paper databases > on suspected child molesters, but not feasible. Perhaps he's not had much experience with: insurance companies, medical records, legal records, the early social security system, etc., etc. Large irresponsible paper databases have been with us a long time. King claims that he > supports the original thesis that, for serious breaches of privacy, > lack of a computer is no protection against data collection. True, lack of technology doesn't preclude serious breaches of privacy, hence to some degree we've always faced these issues. But that's not the point, and it wasn't the original thesis. Even if lack of computers DID prevent breaches of privacy, that would only render the point moot; it would not ANSWER the question. And the question is, what rights to privacy ought we to have. One might say that computerizing the records will make possible invasions, hence it is a computer risk. But then in the same breath one ought to point out as King does that computerizing the records will make possible a unprecendented degree of privacy (just erase the disk packs; no one could erase all the records in each book every two weeks, another order of magnitude effect). Hence we ought also to talk about the computer benefit. Then, having established that the technology can be used both to invade and to ensure privacy, we ought to get back to discussing the real question: what kinds of privacy ought I to have? Finally, Jerry indicated that he is > ... prepared to tolerate a certain amount of fuzziness in identifying the > edge of the computer-RISKS arena by our beleaguered moderator. The message was to the multitudes, not the moderator. It is important that we all remove the illusions of mystery about this stuff. People need to be empowered to think about this on their own and we should be telling them that. We need to make it clear to them that what makes the issue worth discussing (the technology) is quite distinct from what the issue is (what rights to privacy ought we to have).
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