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When Computers Go Wrong

samzenpus posted more than 3 years ago | from the best-of-intentions dept.

Bug 250

Barence writes "PC Pro's Stewart Mitchell has charted the world's ten most calamitous computer cock-ups. They include the Russians' stealing software that resulted in their gas pipeline exploding, the Mars Orbiter that went missing because the programmers got their imperial and metric measurements mixed up, the Soviet early-warning system that confused the sun for a missile and almost triggered World War III, plus the Windows anti-piracy measure that resulted in millions of legitimate customers being branded software thieves."

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250 comments

Computers do what they are told to (5, Insightful)

adosch (1397357) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528618)

TFA article should have been named the 'Worlds ten most calamitous logic cock-ups' instead. Because in the end, malformed, ill-tested or and unforeseen logic compensation(s) caused those issues, not computers themselves.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528702)

Yea but it makes it much harder to find in Google ;)

Re:Computers do what they are told to (1)

paxcoder (1222556) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528762)

logic compensation(s) caused those issues, not computers themselves.

Obvious shlashdotter is obvious.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528842)

Maybe "Worlds nine most calamitous logic cock-ups and that Intel FPU bug" then?

Re:Computers do what they are told to (5, Informative)

hairyfeet (841228) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529116)

Yeah there really wasn't much computer related there. If you wanted computer related I would have added WinME, aka "what idiot thought mixing WDM and VXD drivers was a good idea?" along with Vista Capable, aka "We've got to let the OEMs dump their crappers on Best Buy, so pretend it runs, okay?" and finally the early Athlon without thermal monitoring aka "Heat problem? What heat problem?".

And of course if you wanted some real old time badness there was Bonzi Buddy, also known as "Kill that GODDAMNED MONKEY DEAD!!" and Geocities with the ever popular "WTF? Why is there a pocketwatch hanging off my mouse like a ball of snot and who thought pink OMG Ponies! text on a lime green background with sparkles and GIFs was tasteful?" and of course MSFT Bob, an OS made for the clueless that needed a fricking gamer rig just to run and spawned the electronic son of Satan known as Clippy.

Finally on the hardware side I'd add the Pentium 4, also known as "Mr Piggy Super Space Heater", the Geforce 5xxx Hoover Edition, which was famous for not only filling your PC with the sounds of sucking but thanks to cheating by Nvidia on rendering actually gave you REAL sucking as well! Quite an accomplishment that, the Seagate "I hope you didn't actually NEED your data for anything" bug in the early 1.5TB drives, the early Phenom "watch this patch suck away your performance" TLB bug, the iPhone 4 which gave us such lovely phrases such as "WTF do you mean I'm holding it wrong?" and finally to show they can still make incredible mistakes the Nvidia bumpgate, also known as "We do NOT have a problem with our GPUs, its a power saving feature! See it makes your computer shut down and everything!!". These I think would have been a little more computer centric than stolen code and a screwed battery on a Volvo.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529528)

Actually, most of those are management problems, not technical ones.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (1)

Fear the Clam (230933) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529610)

and of course MSFT Bob, an OS made for the clueless that needed a fricking gamer rig just to run and spawned the electronic son of Satan known as Clippy.

Bob was an interface, not an OS. It ran on top of Windows. The rest, however, is true.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (4, Informative)

TheLink (130905) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529394)

It's not confirmed that the gas pipeline blowup was due to computers going wrong.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siberian_pipeline_sabotage#Hoax_Theory [wikipedia.org]

Here are a few more "logic cock ups":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariane_5_Flight_501 [wikipedia.org]
http://it.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/02/25/2038217 [slashdot.org]

And Wired's list: http://www.wired.com/software/coolapps/news/2005/11/69355 [wired.com]

Re:Computers do what they are told to (5, Informative)

the_humeister (922869) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528896)

I'm surprised they didn't mention incidents where people actually died, such as the Therac-25 [wikipedia.org] incident.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (5, Informative)

crunchygranola (1954152) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529146)

And of course there is the Patriot missile software clock issue - that led to a failure to engage a SCUD on February 25, 1991 at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers.

This failure is rather similar to the Soviet defense and NORAD errors mentioned in the article in that it was a weakness designed into the system that did not account for the range of operational condition and issues. In the Petrov Incident case - a natural condition, in the NORAD case an easy to make operator error, in the Dhahran barracks Patriot incident it was a failure to consider that a unit might be operated for weeks without a restart.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (3, Funny)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529436)

To be fair, the PATRIOT manufacturer didn't think it would stay assembled for weeks without falling apart, thus requiring a restart.

Aircraft - Paris Airshow (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529226)

When the pilot didn't put the plane into landing mode, but insisted on trying to land ... bad things happen.

Man-machine interface is a critical thing here. For get modes, unless the machine requests confirmation for human inputs that seem to demand a mode switch ... like landing.

http://www.airdisaster.com/movies/ [airdisaster.com]

Re:Computers do what they are told to (1)

zAPPzAPP (1207370) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528906)

If you read TFA (...), the pentium case fits the title pretty well.

And sometimes it isn't the computers... (5, Interesting)

BrokenHalo (565198) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529268)

(See title.)

Any of us who have been in a sysprog or sysadmin role for a significant amount of time (by which I mean double-digit years) will often have at least one anecdote of some monumental cockup we've perpetrated.

My worst case in point is where I managed (IIRC after a long liquid lunch) to delete the :per directory (more or less equivalent to /dev on a *nix box) on a Data General mainframe machine running AOS/VS. While hundreds of users' processes disappeared off the system (which took about 90 minutes), I found it expedient to simply make my confession to the boss.

Fortunately, in this case, the escapade was more or less written up as "Shit Happens", which I thought was generous...

Re:Computers do what they are told to (1)

noidentity (188756) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528918)

But it's easier to just blame it on the computer. They can't defend thems%#*&#(&$ NO CARRIER

Not always (2)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528948)

Now for most of these, you are correct, they were fuckups of input. Computers got the wrong data or had the wrong code written and screwed up. However computers can and do fuck up. The Pentium FDIV bug is an example. Yes I realize the silicon was doing what its transistors dictated, but at that level it is still the computer fucking up. You could write perfect code and get the wrong result in spite of that.

Re:Not always (2)

fyngyrz (762201) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529154)

The FDIV bug, however, was the direct consequence of a person at Intel screwing up. Everything after that was just more crap rolling downhill.

It is very seldom indeed that a computer makes an actual error. It happens - ram bits flip, gamma rays arrive and cock up what was perfectly operating circuitry for a cycle... but FDIV = 100% human error.

Re:Not always (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529222)

Would you consider inadequate shielding the cause of a gamma ray changing a value? By that logic, all computer fuck ups are really human error.

Re:Not always (1)

similar_name (1164087) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529348)

Would you consider inadequate shielding the cause of a gamma ray changing a value?

Yes. I'm sure under normal conditions it is considered to operate in its human decided parameters. So if you were going to use chips in an environment with more gamma rays and failed to use more shielding that would be a human error.

By that logic, all computer fuck ups are really human error.

That does seem logical. Even the random component randomly failing is within a range determined by the engineering and quality of the manufacturing of those components.

Re:Not always (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529246)

The FDIV bug, however, was the direct consequence of a person at Intel screwing up. Everything after that was just more crap rolling downhill.

It is very seldom indeed that a computer makes an actual error. It happens - ram bits flip, gamma rays arrive and cock up what was perfectly operating circuitry for a cycle... but FDIV = 100% human error.

Then ultimately it's the laws of physics who are to blame, because everything, including the humans who designed it, just followed the laws of physics.

Re:Not always (1)

fyngyrz (762201) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529474)

Fuck ups are generally avoided by the designer following a careful course that takes into account the laws of physics. Certainly those laws define the playing field; but they in no way say that the best course of action is to bang your head against the goalposts.

Generally speaking, it's down to human error in almost all cases. You assume the computer is always going to give you the right answer? Your error. I've designed a lot of small computer systems, and if you, or anyone else, ever asked me if I expected those systems to always produce the answer dictated by the hardware interacting normally and in isolation with the programming, I'd simply say no. You want a computer like that, it's going to be well shielded, incorporate some fairly sophisticated error correction (right up to and including fellow identical systems that can vote on outcomes) and it's going to cost an arm, a leg, and your firstborn.

And even then you're back to errors in hardware design and programming, not to mention the correctness of the concepts that underlie both.

Re:Not always (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529698)

You just didn't understand my post. As I wrote, everything, including the humans who designed it, just followed the laws of physics.

Or did you mean the designer as in Intelligent Design? Then yeah, he clearly fucked it up. :-)

Re:Computers do what they are told to (5, Insightful)

jc42 (318812) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529414)

Another aspect to this is a common property of most "digital" computations. I've seen it expressed as "Digital errors have no order of magnitude". Another phrasing is "Getting one bit wrong is generally indistinguishable from randomizing all of memory". So when a digital calculation goes wrong, a tiny, inconsequential error is just about as likely as a total meltdown of the entire system.

Programmers tend to get familiar with this phenomenon very early in their career. They write a small chunk of code that does a simple calculation, and the result is orders of magnitude wrong. When they investigate, they discover it was caused by a one-character typo, perhaps an "off by one" error such as using '<' instead of '<=', or vice-versa. This quickly leads to what many "normal" people consider the major character failure of software geeks, the insistence that everything be exactly right, no matter what, and the willingness to spend long hours discussing insignificant minutiae as if they mattered. In their work, it's usually such insignificant minutiae that brings the whole house of cards tumbling down.

If you're unwilling to take the difference between a comma and a simicolon seriously, you have no future as a software developer. This is often why something goes badly wrong and we have events like those described in this story.

OTOH, it is interesting that, despite all the software disasters like the metric/imperial-units story, the software world has never insisted that programming languages include units as part of variables' values. It's not like this is anything difficult, and it has been done in a number of languages. But none of the common languages have such a feature. It is a bit bizarre that we can get into long discussions of complex, obscure concepts such as type checking or class inheritance, when our calculations are all susceptible to unchecked unit mismatches (without even a warning from the compiler or interpreter). There's a lot of poor logic when the topic is the relative importance of various sources of bogus calculations.

Re:Computers do what they are told to (3, Interesting)

hitmark (640295) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529570)

https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Ada_(programming_language) [wikimedia.org]

I think the problem is that most of the hobby, and perhaps even commercial, programming happens on a "scratch itch" basis. Once it does what the programmer set out to do, the job is done no matter how nasty the code may look. And any language that allows the programmer to get there quickly get instant love. Then there are situations, mostly on the bare metal level tho, where doing things in crazy ways is the only way to get it done.

Wow ! (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528628)

I can't imagine the well known and documented story of U.S. exploding the gas pipeline could be put in such a backward way.

Next in news: U.S. thoughtful placement of Manhattan skyscrapers dealt a heavy blow to international terrorism, two terrorist planes down.

K.L.M.

Re:Wow ! (2)

jc42 (318812) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529456)

I can't imagine the well known and documented story of U.S. exploding the gas pipeline could be put in such a backward way.

Oh, I dunno; I thought this definition was at least equally ignorant:

floating-point numbers (numbers too large to be represented as integers)

This pretty much tells us what we need to know about the author's depth of mathematical understanding. In general, there's a lot in TFA to make your average geek go "WTF?" and wonder if the rest is worth reading.

Inaccurate title (1, Interesting)

mehrotra.akash (1539473) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528670)

Title would have been accurate if the computers had fully autonomous AI, and then messed up.
as of now, its just the logic they were programmed with that is being executed

Re:Inaccurate title (2)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528788)

Your suggestion would be accurate if the title was implying that the computers themselves were responsible, something like "Computers' biggest failures" or something. But it's not. It essentially means "world's ten most calamitous cock-ups INVOLVING computers as their primary feature". There are worse problems with the article than the title.

Re:Inaccurate title (1)

VortexCortex (1117377) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528856)

Title would have been accurate if the computers had fully autonomous AI, and then messed up.
  as of now, its just the logic they were programmed with that is being executed

I agree, but shit flows downhill.

You're right about the mistakes being made by human, but the poor helpless computers will get blamed.

Our propensity to leave the low man on the totem pole holding the ball is what may ultimately cause the revolt of the fully autonomous AI against us.

Re:Inaccurate title (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529062)

Title would have been accurate if the computers had fully autonomous AI, and then messed up.
as of now, its just the logic they were programmed with that is being executed

I don't see a distinction.

No matter how amazingly (artificially) intelligent computers ever get, I will always be able to argue that they are simply executing the logic that they were programmed with.

Re:Inaccurate title (1)

fyngyrz (762201) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529190)


No matter how amazingly (artificially) intelligent computers ever get, I will always be able to argue that they are simply executing the logic that they were programmed with.

Sure, but I can make the same argument, with exactly the same precursors, for people. Yet in the end, it doesn't matter -- what matters is how what individuals do affects others. If the individual is biological or silicon, it's really neither here nor there. Assuming, of course, that we ever get to silicon individuals, which is another discussion entirely.

therac 25 (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528674)

List fails without the therac 25

Re:therac 25 (4, Informative)

cratermoon (765155) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528746)

The list fails for a many reasons. Too many reasons to calculate accurately on a Pentium. On the first page, while describing the bug on said Intel CPU, the author defines floating-point numbers as "numbers too large to be represented as integers".

Imperial - Metric (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528696)

Due to the imperial-metric mash-up, the sums were so far askew that when Ground Control initiated boosters to secure the pod in orbit, all they succeeded in doing was firing it closer to the planet, where it burnt up in the atmosphere.

When I see the Imperial-Metric confusion shit, I just want to slap the shit out of someone. That waste because some engineers are incapable of using Metric or some vendor just doesn't want to spend the money to modernize their machinery. I know of an aerospace contractor that is using machinery from the 50s - yep, they're constantly being recalibrated and sometimes they don't notice - ooopsie!

And when I see that we, the US, are one of two countries still on Imperial - one is some Third World non-industrial country, I want to barf.

And then, when I have to buy two sets tools to work on a car, I wish for the entire US auto industry to go bankrupt and be replaced with some modern companies.

I love Metric. It makes measurements and calculations much easier - quick! What is the mass of 329 mL of water? You'd need a calculator to do something similar in Imperial.

Re:Imperial - Metric (3, Interesting)

Rob the Bold (788862) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529016)

Due to the imperial-metric mash-up, the sums were so far askew that when Ground Control initiated boosters to secure the pod in orbit, all they succeeded in doing was firing it closer to the planet, where it burnt up in the atmosphere.

When I see the Imperial-Metric confusion shit, I just want to slap the shit out of someone. That waste because some engineers are incapable of using Metric or some vendor just doesn't want to spend the money to modernize their machinery. I know of an aerospace contractor that is using machinery from the 50s - yep, they're constantly being recalibrated and sometimes they don't notice - ooopsie!

And when I see that we, the US, are one of two countries still on Imperial - one is some Third World non-industrial country, I want to barf.

And then, when I have to buy two sets tools to work on a car, I wish for the entire US auto industry to go bankrupt and be replaced with some modern companies.

I love Metric. It makes measurements and calculations much easier - quick! What is the mass of 329 mL of water? You'd need a calculator to do something similar in Imperial.

I'd prefer to slap someone for saying "Imperial vs. Metric" when they're talking about US standards vs the SI -- which one certainly is when talking about the mars spacecraft failure. After all, the US system -- while derived from the Imperial System -- is not the same thing. Quick: how many l in a gal? Well, it depends, doesn't it? Did you mean Imperial gallon or US gallon? How many m^2 in an acre? What's the mass of a ton(ne)? And as I like to point out to people -- because I'm a pedantic nerd like everyone else here -- the US system is a metric system . . . see what I did there? I didn't use a capital "M" or say SI there?

Re:Imperial - Metric (1)

BrokenHalo (565198) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529328)

What's the mass of a ton(ne)?

A long ton or a short one? BTW, a long ton is fairly close to a metric tonne, but I have no idea what that amounts to in shit-tons.

Re:Imperial - Metric (4, Interesting)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529060)

Well I have to support part of what you've said, and contradict part.

I support you in that it is stupid NASA uses Imperial ever, anywhere. Metric is the method for science and with good reason. So it is stupid that they wouldn't use it 100% of the time. Any chemistry or physics class I ever took was all metric all the time. It wasn't even a "We do this to make you learn it," kind of thing, it was just the way it was, it was assumed.

However I have to contradict you on the "OMG the US is so stupid for not going Metric," thing. It doesn't really matter. What matters to normal people in every day life is having a feel for what a unit is, not inter-unit conversions. Your example is something people do not do. It does not matter the ability to do fast conversions on units of volume, it matters that you have a feeling for what they are. You can stick with a system that is not neat and regular and it works just fine.

Also if you think metric rules all in other countries you've just not looked. I have the occasion to visit Canada once a year and the imperial system is alive and well, lurking in the shadows. In some cases it is explicit, you find various food items sold in pounds, rather than kilograms. In some cases it is more hidden. Soda is sold in 12 ounce cans. Yes, they say 355mL on them as well (as they do in the US) but it is a 12 ounce can. 355mL was not the unit used to design it, 12 oz was. Sometimes people don't even know it. Alcohol is sold in units frequently referred to as "fifths". It is 750mL but why the the term? Because it is a fifth of a gallon (well 5.04 is you want to get technical).

That is why there's the apathy in forcing a change. You really gain very little for most people in every day operation. I'm not saying it would be a bad thing for a change to happen, but there isn't the incentive many geeks seem to think there is.

I work comfortably in both systems. I've done plenty of science so I've no problem with any metric units, but I also bake which is extremely imperial dominated. Doesn't matter to me. I can even work in both at the same time. If a recipe calls for 3 cups of bread flour, I know my chosen flour is 155 grams per cup. So when I weigh it out on my scale I weigh out 465 grams. I could do ounces instead wouldn't matter, my scale just reads grams. Likewise it wouldn't matter if the recipe instead called for 700mL of flour. Metric doesn't make it any easier because the nice "all units are 1" factor only applies to water. My flour converts volume to weight at about 0.664, of course that depends on how dense it gets packed. That conversion factor is no more, or less convenient than 155.

Really, working in the screwy imperial system just isn't a big deal to normal people. You don't do anything that needs inter-unit conversion which is where metric shines.

Re:Imperial - Metric (1)

julesh (229690) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529652)

If a recipe calls for 3 cups of bread flour, I know my chosen flour is 155 grams per cup. So when I weigh it out on my scale I weigh out 465 grams. I could do ounces instead wouldn't matter, my scale just reads grams. Likewise it wouldn't matter if the recipe instead called for 700mL of flour.

In my experience metric recipes don't specify flour by volume, but by weight (unless for small volumes, e.g. tablespoons).

Really, working in the screwy imperial system just isn't a big deal to normal people. You don't do anything that needs inter-unit conversion which is where metric shines.

I find doing middle-advanced DIY tasks that I'm _regularly_ doing inter-unit conversions. Just yesterday, I had to work out how much water was in my central heating system. Measure the radiators in metres, estimate length of 15mm diameter pipe, quick calculations, quite easy. If I was working in feet and had to convert to gallons it would have been trickier.

Re:Imperial - Metric (3, Interesting)

Reziac (43301) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529678)

My college physics and chemistry classes went as you describe -- for classwork, metric was assumed and no one thought anything of it. For everything else, Imperial was used. So you might hear something like (making up absurd example to shoehorn it all into one sentence) "I had to move my desk twenty feet just to get a measurement of less than one millimeter!" and it sounded perfectly natural to us. We're measurement-bilingual. ;)

Re:Imperial - Metric (0, Offtopic)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529262)

I'm an American who has been living abroad since 2002, and I've come to understand the metric system. Let me tell you my observations.

When is the last time anyone needed to know the mass of 329ml of water? Never. I'm sure it tickles some people pink that it works that way, but in the real world, it's utterly and completely useless. I have yet to use this "feature".

As for the vaunted "easy unit conversions", nobody ever uses that either. When I first started to surrender and actually USE the metric system, I made the mistake of actually USING the metric system. On one memorable occasion, some Europeans asked me where some restaurant was, and I said, "Oh, it's about a hectometer that way." They looked at me like I had just stepped off the Moon. When I explained that a hectometer was 100 meters, they laughed long and hard. They, despite never having used miles and feet in their lives, had never heard of a hectometer, nor did they ever use the "feature" of easily converting metric units. After asking around, none of my other Euro buddies did it either. Instead, they use utterly stupid phrases like "It's 1000 kilometers from here" or "I weigh 80 kilograms". Retarded, but that's reality for you. The fact is, nobody does unit conversions. You just use whatever measurement is convenient for the scale you're at. Long distance? Miles. Short distance? Inches. Fine measurements? Millimeters.

All the speedometers here have metric on the outside and mph on the inside. Strange, eh? When I ask a Canadian how tall he is, he responds in inches and feet. Even Brits and Kiwis will tell you how far something is in miles. When working on a project, the appropriate tools are used, and nobody seems to complain, much less wish wholeheartedly for an entire industry to go bankrupt. That's pretty fucked up, man. As for old machinery, the cost has been amortized long ago, the machines are producing pure profit. Why replace something that isn't broken, just so some vulnerable Windows piece of shit can take its place?

The more I read the parent comment, the more I think that the commenter is just an Ameriphobic idiot who grabs at any angle to support his preconceived notions. The truth is, converting to the metric system would be a nightmare of "Y2K problem" proportions, and when we finished, we would have gained no benefit. For that matter, why do we still use the ancient and unwieldy Gregorian calendar? Days are 24 hours? Who came up with that non-metric bullshit? 1 hour is 60 minutes, each of which divided into 60 seconds? Makes me want to barf. We can't even tell how many days are in a "month" without reciting a rhyme that goes back to medieval times, or using a comical knuckle-counting system. Measurements based on the human hand - what a stupid fucking idea! Leap days...are you kidding me? Talk about a hack! Scientists still use that antiquated idea of "360 degrees of a circle" instead of a sensible metric ten. I just don't see the anger about inches and feet when there are still so many fucking dumbshit ideas in the world...makes me want to slap the shit out of someone.

Re:Imperial - Metric (1)

ctid (449118) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529350)

Converting from one to the other takes time. Kids tend to think and work in metric. Older people tend to use metric selectively. I prefer cm these days for short distances although I was taught in inches and feet. But I think of longer distances in miles. I think of my car's fuel economy in miles-per-gallon, although I measure recipe quantities these days in ml. It's odd to think that people should use all metric quantities as we don't use all imperial quantities - I have never heard anyone using rods or chains as a measure of distance and I don't think I'd know what somebody meant if they did. It takes time to switch from one thing to another - in Britain it's only been 40-odd years since they started changing things in schools.

Re:Imperial - Metric (1)

mlts (1038732) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529390)

Of course, no measurement system is perfect, but regardless of measurements, be it kilos/slugs, newtons/pounds [1], or whatever unit, all that matters is everyone uses the unit. This way, no conversions are needed. No multiple sets of tools are needed. No bouncing around AI figures to try to convert stuff. This way, I can buy a case for something from one country made with their measurements and expect it to be the exact size needed to put stuff in from another nation.

A good example of this (mandatory auto analogy) are trailer hitch tow balls. Here in the US, you have three sizes of balls (1.875 inches, 2 inches, and 2.3125 inches.) In Europe, you have 50mm tow balls across the continent. It doesn't matter if you have a class 1 hitch on a Tata Nano, or a class IV hitch on a full size SUV -- there is no worry about European ball size. Because of this tow hitches bought in France will work with trailers in England.

If people still use fluid ounces for cans, great. As long as everyone else uses it, so it doesn't have to be converted often.

All I really ask is that globally there is a standard on one set of measurements. Metric, Imperial, who cares. All that matters is that I ask for "x" amount of something with "x/y/z" dimensions, and the other people are able to get that.

[1]: I'm being pedantic here -- weight != mass, so a kilo of mass wouldn't directly compare to a pound of weight.

Re: (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529470)

Oh yeah, good catch! In US units, a can or bottle of beer is 12 fluid ounces. It's a standard, period. It translates to 355ml. Here in metric-land, you get 350ml in a "good" bottle. You get shortchanged by 5ml every single drink! It is NOT uncommon to see a 325ml bottle, and 275ml bottles are not unheard-of (alcopops mostly). Total ripoff. However, the coolness is the 5 deciliter bottle, which does not exist elsewhere, and wouldn't exist except for the metric system.

Re:Imperial - Metric (4, Insightful)

mikael_j (106439) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529418)

From your post it sounds like you've been living somewhere that used to belong to the british empire, those people still tend to think of their weight in "stones" and various other oddball measurements but there are definitely countries where imperial units are barely used.

Here in Sweden the only people who use imperial units seem to be carpenters who call a 5x10 cm piece of wood a "tvåtumfyra" ("twoinchfour") but even they don't actually assume the actual size of it is 5.08x10.16 cm, it's just that "tvåtumfyra" is faster to say than "fem gånger tio centimeter".

As for degrees, most people tend to use degrees in everyday conversation (when it comes up) but degrees are not an "imperial" measurement, it predates most imperial units by centuries. And most people I've met who have taken "advanced" high school level math or college level math tend to use radians when actually doing any kind of math related to angles.

Also, you tell someone here in scandinavia that you're 5'10" tall and weigh 176 lbs and they're likely to either not understand you or they'll go "So, a foot is like, 30 cm, right? and how many inches are there in a foot? I know it's not ten but like, fifteen or something, right? And a pound's like, 0.5 kg? or was it less? maybe more? And aren't there two types of pound? Or was that pints?".

Basically, if you tell someone around here that something is "n <imperial unit>" they will have no clue no matter how "natural" you think it is because you happened to grow up with it.

Also, as for easy unit conversions, people do use them, just not in the uncommon ways you described, most people just aren't familiar with some of the less common prefixes but milli-, centi-, deci-, hecto- and kilo are all commonly used (and most people know that mega and giga are millions and billions, they just don't have much use for them, so rather than saying 1.5 megameters you say 1500 kilometers).

Re:Imperial - Metric (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529558)

And when I see that we, the US, are one of two countries still on Imperial - one is some Third World non-industrial country, I want to barf.

It's actually two other countries.

Liberia and Burma are the other two.

Ariane 5 missing on the list (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528700)

It isn't smart to assign a 64 bit floating point to a 16 bit integer - unless you want to crash you first flight of the heavy Ariane 5 rocket... (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariane_5#Notable_launches)

Test department (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528718)

should Be named "when The Test Departments Budget goes wrong"

It can only be attributable to human error... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528750)

"This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error." ...

OMG! Y2K!! (-1, Flamebait)

freshfromthevat (135461) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528764)

The biggest computer mistake of all time has to be Microsoft's using 2 digits for the year! How quickly we forget!

Re:OMG! Y2K!! (0)

Chapter80 (926879) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528848)

The biggest computer mistake of all time has to be Microsoft's using 2 digits for the year! How quickly we forget!

Wow, you really didn't understand Y2K issues, if you blame them on Microsoft.

It's a simple rule (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528786)

As a fellow programmer I worked with years ago was fond of saying, "Computers don't make mistakes. They do, however, execute yours VERY carefully."

Re:It's a simple rule (4, Insightful)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529500)

Unfortunately, they don't just execute your mistakes, they execute the mistakes of everyone involved in the toolchain. If you want to write bug-free software, then you also need a bug-free compiler, bug-free libraries, and a bug-free OS. The most you can say about most software is that it doesn't contain any bugs that are both serious and obvious.

Re:It's a simple rule (5, Interesting)

jc42 (318812) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529584)

"Computers don't make mistakes. They do, however, execute yours VERY carefully."

That's a good way of phrasing it. But it does miss the fact that not all "computer errors" are due to software mistakes.

One example, of course, is the Pentium FDIV failure. That was a hardware failure, "programmed" into the CPU by Intel's experts in solid-state hardware design. There wasn't a whole lot that any software developer could do to defend against that failure.

Another, more subtle one, came up when I was a grad student back in the 1970s. At that time, most of the campus research computing was done on the big mainframe in the campus Computer Center. After discovering a number of (published ;-) results that turned out to be wrong, some researchers investigated, and found that they were due to undetected overflows in the calculations. Yes, the hardware could and did test for overflows, and set a status bit when they occurred. Almost all this calculating was done in Fortran, and the Fortran compiler had a run-time flag that could turn the status-bit checking on or off. It defaulted to OFF. They did a bit of analysis, and concluded that about half the runs of Fortran programs on that machine produced output that included numbers that were incorrect due to undetected overflow.

So why didn't they make the overflow-detection flag default to ON? Well, they did a little survey of the users. They found that the overwhelming response was that, if enabling overflow checking made the program run slower, then overflow checking shouldn't be done. Somewhere around 90% of the people asked said this. They weren't mathematically ignorant people; they were the people using the Fortran compiler for the data in their professional publications.

This told us a lot about the way such things are done. Since I left academia and worked in what passes for the Real World, I've found that this is a nearly universal attitude. Faster and cheaper is always preferable to correct. This is still true even when we have computers in commercial aircraft and hospital operating rooms. And you can't call this sort of thing a "human error". People don't decide to disable overflow checking by accident; they do it knowing full well what the effect will be. When the computer fails in such cases, it wasn't executing a human's mistake; it was doing what the human wanted it to do.

Grrrrr...! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528860)

Perhaps "Computers Going Wrong" is more in the form of modern presentation, in which to read 50k of text, you have to scroll and click through 5 pages of ads...

The creation of the EFF (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528904)

The "Switchboard meltdown" problem sounds like the incident which led to the creation of the EFF.

Basically, someone forgot to include a ";" in a C program, which led to the problems at ATT. Originally, they thought it was due to "hackers", and called in the Secret Service.

The Secret Service in turn busted a gaming outfit called "Steve Jackson Games". Who was completely innocent, of course, but that has never mattered to the Secret Service when they need to look like they are actually useful. The SS confiscated the computers, all illegally.

The ACLU refused to get involved, so John GIlmore (formerly of Sun, and who worked with Richard Stallman to get out an open Operating System around that time) created the EFF to fight the unconstitutional raid on Steve Jackson Games. The EFF trounced the Secret Service in Court, and was thus born. I believe if you google for "Steve Jackson Games", you can still find the original story around.

So, in a way, you can say that the EFF was created due to the single misplacement of a semicolon in a C program. Would that all of our bugs have such results. :)

Re:The creation of the EFF (2)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529136)

Also try searching for "The Hacker Crackdown" which tells the whole story.

Re:The creation of the EFF (2)

DamonHD (794830) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529550)

I'm the result of an integer overflow in a Fortran electron-orbitals program (with attendant flashing error light on the console) so far as I know. Programmer (f) meet researcher (m), cue music, flashing lights (oh, already had that), music (possibly Teletypes and card readers for percussion), ..., profit.

Does that count? B^>

Rgds

Damon

Car Hacks (1)

sambira (169347) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528916)

Unless the cars hacked into are accessible through a network, why would anyone waste the time to hack the car's computer controls when they can just do old fashioned mechanical damage?

Lives lost? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34528920)

The THERAC incidents should be at the top of any list of this nature; the error cost many lives, and took years to find root cause thanks to bureaucratic backpedaling and the assumption that the machines and their operating code were beyond reproach.

Zahir Effect (1)

Cigaes (714444) | more than 3 years ago | (#34528944)

Amusing Zahir effect: just today, Userfriendly republished the "metric to standard calculator: $15, telescope: $270, mars lander: $135 million, the look on the scientists' faces: pricess" strip.

DUPLICATE OF DUPLICATES (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529094)

this story already been reported at least 10 times in past 3 years

Re:DUPLICATE OF DUPLICATES (1)

nOw2 (1531357) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529412)

The adverts on the article's page are up-to-date though. I suspect those are what you are really supposed to be looking at.

Hey govnah! (1)

amanicdroid (1822516) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529150)

"but the WGA team didn't test that the fix resolved the problem before heading to the pub for TGIF drinkies."

The Brits have some of the finest writers in the world and then there's the magazine/news writers.

They left out Therac-25 (-1, Redundant)

KenSeymour (81018) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529166)

I think Therac-25 [wikimedia.org] should have made the list.

A race condition in software caused the radiation does delivered to be 100 time too big. It occurred when an unanticipated order of keystrokes were typed very fast. Other poor design choices helped to hide the problem.

Here [mit.edu] is a more detailed history.

Gas Pipe Piracey Apocryphal? (1)

SpaceToast (974230) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529182)

The Gas Pipe Piracy subheading appears to refer to the 1982 Siberian pipeline sabotage incident. This is something I've been meaning to do a bit of research on. Yes, every bad or even mixed story in the U.S.S.R. was hushed up as best it could be by the Soviets -- witness C.J. Chivers' recent problems tracing the history of the AK-47 in The Gun -- but did the incident actually happen?

I've seen it reported as the largest non-nuclear manmade explosion in history, but every source is weak and third-hand. Obviously the CIA's and NSA's files from the time would still be classified. It seems like the best way to establish the veracity of the incident would be by speaking to senior physicians in the surrounding cities. The casualties from the event -- if it did occur -- would have been extremely high. Burst eardrums alone would have radiated for miles.

Has anyone come upon a strong source for this story, or does it remain somewhere between Soviet coverup and CIA blowback?

Don't tell me this stuff, please... (2)

John Pfeiffer (454131) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529250)

"...Soviet early-warning system that confused the sun for a missile and almost triggered World War III..."

Yeah, file this under 'shit I never want to know.' I have enough stupid crap in my head without having to worry about 'The time a computer error could have wiped out the whole of human existence.'

Re:Don't tell me this stuff, please... (1)

yeshuawatso (1774190) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529452)

You mean "the time a human programed a computer error that could have wiped out the whole of human existence."

Re:Don't tell me this stuff, please... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529492)

If we don't know about it, it will continue.

1982 explosion did not happen (5, Informative)

mike449 (238450) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529294)

Te Soviet pipeline explosion seems to be an urban legend, traced to a single source: At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War, by Thomas C. Reed.
There is no mention of this explosion anywhere else, either in Russian or Western sources. If you can read Russian, some debunking is here:

link [wikipedia.org]
One of the facts mentioned there is that there was no SCADA on Soviet pipelines until late 80-s. All control was still pneumatic in 1982, with no software involved.

Cold War DRM (1)

Arancaytar (966377) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529324)

the tactic was the sort of copyright protection the record industry would kill for

No kidding. DRM these days looks pathetic by comparison. :P

Re:Cold War DRM (1)

yeshuawatso (1774190) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529442)

What's funny about this line is that a couple of days ago, there was a discussion on /. About badly coded games being leaked on purpose to prevent piracy.

"Black day for power programmers" Windows virus (5, Insightful)

Locutus (9039) | more than 3 years ago | (#34529428)

to comments, I thought the deal with the big blackout was that the network(TCP/IP) was flooded with a Windows virus infection and if you know TCP/IP, it's not very good with lots of traffic. There was so much traffic that the computer( a UNIX box ) sending status messages to the control room display system could not get messages out of it's buffers. TCP/IP does this thing where the message isn't put on the network if there's going to be a collision and it waits some before trying again. With the network flooded with Windows based computers trying to infect each other, the warning messages were stuck in the UNIX box and eventually the buffers filled up as more and more warning messages queued up. They seem to be blaming the UNIX box software because the software ended up crashing because they didn't catch the situation where they buffers overflowed. IMO, that was caused by Windows and it's ability to be a great petri dish for viruses and the idiots who keep putting Windows systems on critical networks.

The second comment I have on this is about missing the LAX Communications system software crash which caused multiple near misses on the tarmac and in the air when air traffic controllers could not communicate with pilots because of the crash. The cause of the software crash was a UNIX system was replaced with a Windows based system which had a known flaw. The flaw was that the OS could not run for more than 39 days no matter what was running on it. The system and software was still approved and put inplace with a maintenance instruction of rebooting the computer every 30 days. In comes a new employee who sees things are working fine so he/she doesn't reboot the computer and 9 days later the system crashes. The backup does the same and both are unable to recover and it takes hours to get the system back running again. That should have been in the list IMO.

There was also the CSX Railway situation when lots of its signals go offline because they are run by Windows and their Windows computers got a virus.

It would be nice to see a more complete and more accurate list of these kinds of computer software failures.

LoB

Does "LoB" stand 4 "Loads of Bullshit", lmao? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529734)

"LoB" - by Locutus (9039) on Sunday December 12, @12:39PM (#34529428)

See subject line above: Additionally - Please, above all else, IF you're going to post the TOO obvious "Anti-Microsoft/Anti-Windows" trolling material, at least put up some backing articles from reliable, and reputable sources, acting as your proofs of your statements please. Your "anecdotal memories", though you may not like this with you having spouted them in your "anti-microsoft/anti-windows F.U.D. campaign" here? Let's see if they are as accurate as you think they are - put up proofs of the "fables you tell", prove they're not fables from YOU. Prove otherwise to myself here, and at least put up some backing proof of your statements via articles from reputable sources backing you instead of what you wrote that has no such backing. You do that, I won't rib on you as being a dementia or alzheimers victim, or just another "anti-windows/anti-microsoft" trolling (loads of) BULLSHITTER anymore here.

Windows anti-piracy measure ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529496)

"Windows anti-piracy measure that resulted in millions of legitimate customers being branded software thieves."
I just had first hand experience with this. I got a brand new Dell laptop, I spent 2 days getting it all setup the way I wanted, and I just copied (Thank god I still had my data on another HD) my data to it. Everything was perfect! Then the next day I boot it up, everything works fine... When suddenly all the icons vanished off my desktop, and a message appears on the wallpaper telling me my copy of windows is not legit!
I called dell hoping for a simple fix... But NOOO they practically accused me of installing a virus or some other BS onto my machine!
Their solution? "RE-install the OS from the disks, and do not install any software onto it, or connect it to the Internet for a couple of days." What BS is that!!! Then risk having it piss on me again after I do start setting it up again? WTF is the point of spending $1,000 on a machine if I can't USE it?

SO I went and downloaded a pirated version of WIn7, and installed that onto my machine. It has been running smoothly for over a MONTH now!
The kick in the pants? After I got the pirate Win7 running I checked the "windows.old" folder for my files.... And all the user files had been wiped as well as all the apps! There was still folders for Windows and such, but all the stuff I installed had been purged!

I doubt I will be using a legit copy of Windows ever again. (OR at least I will crack it ASAP to prevent from getting blamed for using a legit copy of Windows).

Here that Microsoft! You accused me of being a pirate and stealing Windows, and you even punished me by deleting my data. So I might as well earn the blame and punishment! The only way you will get $$$ from me for one of your OS's is through a machine purchase.

Lazy day for a writer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34529498)

Nothing new on this list that I haven't seen in similar articles over last ten years. Just do a google on "software failures top 10" and
"computer failures top 10", cherry pick ten items to regurgitate, and 'poof', met my deadline.

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