Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Stomp that bug and brag a little

I'm an engineer. I don't make mistakesWe listed some of the highlights in the history of the Internet and I thought you’d like to learn about the worst of computer programming: history’s worst software bugs. They were accumulated by the estimable Simson Garfinkle for Wired. Some of them are pretty technical and will amuse only programmers, but some of them were not. A few were even lethal.

The most current, though surely not the worst, struck my favorite car, the Toyota Prius. Sometimes the newer models of the hybrid simply stopped. The warning lights flashed and the gas engine quit on the highway. Annoying to be sure. It was a software bug on this most computerized of all cars, affecting the main ICU. It’s since been fixed.

Some of Simson’s others include;
  • Mariner 1 space probe, which had to be destroyed after launch in 1962, when the rocket went wildly off course. It seems that a formula written with a pencil on paper was not transcribed into the main computers program correctly, causing the main computer to miscalculate the rocket’s trajectory.
  • Soviet gas pipe line blew up in 1982 because the CIA slipped a bug into a Canadian computer system sold to the Soviet Union for its trans-Siberian pipe line. This bug was deliberate, as part of the economic Cold War. It caused the greatest non-nuclear man-caused explosion in history. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
  • AT&T’s long distance service crashed in 1990 when the software in its switches went crazy and crashed 113 of its neighbors. Long distance service for 60,000 people went down for nine hours.
  • The National Cancer Institute in Panama kills eight patients in 2000 when software from an American firm sent double the proper dose of radiation to patients. The software actually didn’t have a bug, it had an undisclosed feature that triggered the accident when the doctor in charge played with a machine’s configuration. He was indicted for murder.
  • An Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus in 1979, when the pilots trusted its autopilot. This one was added to Simson’s list by a reader. The flight was a sight-seeing tour of Antarctica. It turned out that someone who changed the coordinates in the computer the morning before the flight. Two hundred fifty-seven died.
By the way, know why they are called “bugs”? In 1945, researchers at Harvard, using one of the first electronic computers, Mark II [I’ve always wondered who Mark was. The name is very popular with engineers] noticed some calculations were off. They traced the error to a moth that flew into a relay, the world’s first computer bug.

I hate to brag. I’m known for my modesty. Everyone talks about it—NPR this morning did a fine story on the website that tells you how to circumvent the voice response system companies use to protect themselves from their customers. The site, run by Paul English here , lists how to by-pass all the button pressing and get a live human, even if he or she is in New Delhi. Gentle readers here knew about it because I posted it here. And readers of David Pogue's blog at the New York Times could have had it a day earlier. English reports more than one million hits. I take full credit. Ok, maybe not.

An aside. I propose that the three worst inventions of the last few decades, since we are doing lists, are Astroturf, shrink wrapping and IVRs. If you want to know what an IVR is, press one. If you want it in Spanish, press 2. If you haven't figured it out yet, press 3. (Interactive voice response systems)

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