I've been reading Peter Neumann's Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems since very close to its inception in 1985. It's available as both an email digest and as the newsgroup comp.risks. I recommend it highly; it's important stuff - and, sometimes, funny.

Computer Syndrome

(Posted in September of 1987)

The first occurance of this that I have heard of involved the tab equipment used on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. The following account is from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Richard P. Feynman, W. W. Norton & Co., 1985); does anyone know of an earlier incident?


Anyway, we decided that the big problem -- which was to figure out exactly what happened during the bomb's implosion, so you can figure out exactly how much energy was released and so on -- required much more calculating than we were capable of. A clever fellow by the name of Stanley Frankel realized that it could possibly be done on IBM machines. The IBM company had machines for business purposes, adding machines called tabulators for listing sums, and a multiplier that you put cards in and it would take two numbers from a card and multiply them. There were also collators and sorters and so on.

So Frankel figured out a nice program. If we got enough of these machines in a room, we could take the cards and put them through a cycle. Everybody who does numerical calculations now knows exactly what I I'm talking about, but this was kind of a new thing then -- mass production with machines. We had done things like this on adding machines. Usually you go one step across, doing everything yourself. But this was different -- where you go first to the adder, then to the multiplier, then to the adder, and so on. So Frankel designed this system and ordered the machines from the IBM company, because we realized it was a good way of solving our problems.

. . . .

Well, Mr. Frankel, who started this program, began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It's a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is you play with them. They are so wonderful. You have these switches -- if it's an even number you do this, if it's an odd number you do that -- and pretty soon you can do more and more elaborate things if you are clever enough, on one machine.

After a while the whole system broke down. Frankel wasn't paying any attention; he wasn't supervising anybody. The system was going very, very slowly -- while he was sitting in a room figuring out how to make one tabulator automatically print arc-tangent X, and then it would start and it would print columns and then /bitsi, bitsi, bitsi/, and calculate the arc-tangent automatically by integrating as it went along and make a whole table in one operation.

Absolutely useless. We had tables of arc-tangents. But if you've ever worked with computers, you understand the disease -- the delight in being able to see how much you can do. But he got the disease for the first time, the poor fellow who invented the thing.

I was asked to stop working on the stuff I was doing in my group and go down and take over the IBM group, and I tried to avoid the disease. . . . .



Computer frustration

(Posted by Andrew Goldberg in July of 1991)

[Via Les Earnest ]

From the NY Times

The annual Spring Comdex computer show in Atlanta earlier this month meant a booming business for the Bulletstop, an indoor firing range in suburban Marietta where customers can rent firearms and bullets to shoot anything they please, as long as it is already dead and fits through the doors. The Bulletstop gave Comdex visitors a chance to vent their frustrations by venting PC's, printers, hard disks, monitors and manuals with lead.

Paul LaVista, the owner, said about 10 groups of high-tech types came in during the Comdex show. "I'm not a computer whiz, but one group brought in what looked like a hard disk and blasted it," he said. "Another bunch brought in some kind of technical manual. The thing was enormous, about 2,000 pages. They rented three machine guns -- an Uzi, an M3 grease gun and a Thompson -- and when they were done it looked like confetti."

"It must have been quite a show," LaVista said of Comdex. "Doctors and computer types usually have a lot of pent-up anxiety, but these folks were dragging when they came in. When they left they were really up. The range looked like a computer service center after a tornado."

LaVista said PC's were popular targets year-round. "People are frustrated with them," he said. A year ago seven or eight men carried in a giant old Hewlett-Packard printer. "I ran an extension cord to it, and just as it started to whirr and spit out paper, they blasted it," he said.

The Tyranny of Truncation

(Posted in April of 1992)

According to the Rochester, NY, Democrat & Chronicle of April 11, the Community College of the Finger Lakes is changing its name to Finger Lakes Community College. Although the changeover is expected to cost $50,000, college officials say that greater expenses have arisen from confusion and omission of the two-year school from state and federal college registries.

According to college president Charles Mader, CCFL often gets short-changed by computerized listings that identify it as "Community College of the Finger."


Newspaper tide tables

(Posted by Marc Auslander in August of 1993)

The Canberra Times CORRECTION

For some considerable time, *The Canberra Times* has been publishing the wrong tide times for Narooma. The error has been in arithmetical calculation in this office of the difference between tide times at Fort Denison as published in standard tide tables and times at Narooma. The error, the source of which is lost in antiquity, was discovered last week when the editor, relying on The Canberra Times figures, was swept out to sea. But he managed to return to shore - and ordered this correction.

Marc Auslander 914 784-6699 (Tieline 863 Fax x6306)

June 24 1998