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From time immemorial, civilizations have been plagued with software glitches that have frustrated both citizens and Emperors alike. Most Americans, not to mention the world's finest historians, are unaware that the construction of the Roman Coliseum was plagued by cost over runs and software glitches that threatened to delay the grand opening for  years.

Of course, software at that time consisted of barbarians slaves from the nether regions of the empire who had to manually manipulate the marvelous technological wonders that Rome's finest architects could design. But, be that as it may, this blog will focus on modern software glitches, which have cost citizens of civilized countries and elected leaders alike hundreds of millions of dollars and oftentimes, hundreds of human lives.

                          Famous Computer Glitches

The FBI and the Sentinel Computer System

ABC’s Jack Cloherty and Jason Ryan reported in 2010 that the new FBI computer system was two years behind schedule and $100 million over budget.

The purpose of the computer system was to allow FBI agents to keep track of the details of cases and to share information and evidence with fellow agents, as opposed to the cumbersome system of paper forms, memos and phone calls.

The “Sentinel” computer system, produced by Lockheed Martin, and scheduled to be operational in 2009, was not the first attempt to computerize FBI files.

The FBI spent three years and $170 million attempting to develop the Virtual Case File system. After realizing the system would not work, in 2005 the FBI turned to the Sentinel system as an alternative.

But the Sentinel system had its own problems. The Inspector General of the Justice Department reported that only half of the system had been finished but $405 million of the $452 million allocated had been spent. So the FBI decided to eliminate the contractors and finish the job by hiring experts to do the job in-house in one year and on budget.

The Inspector General was dubious based on past FBI failures with computer projects. But the FBI pushed forward and in August 2012, 3 years overdue and $451 million later, the FBI declared victory.

                                          Romney Care

Republicans say that any sort of health care reform should be done on a state level. Of course, historically,  we have seen Democratic and Republican Governors and Legislators ignore the problem for years, with the notable exception of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Naturally, there were problems with starting up RomneyCare. According to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, there were numerous computer glitches and delays. But the program was eventually up and running and the citizens of the state now embrace RomneyCare enthusiastically.

Even today, given an option to adopt “free” Medicaid expansion for 3 years, over 20 Republican states have put the life and financial security of their own citizens at risk out of political ideology and spite toward the President.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal says the 3 years of free federal money is not affordable, because after 3 years, the state will have to shoulder the burden of having to pay 10% of the cost, with the Federal Government paying the other 90%.

What goes unsaid, until now, is that Medicaid is a program designed to provide health care to those with low incomes, the working poor and the suddenly jobless.  A cure for the Medicaid “problem,” which is the high cost of providing benefits to the deserving,  would be to implement policies that boost the incomes of the beneficiaries. For example, raising the  minimum wage, requiring businesses to provide reasonable benefits, stop exporting jobs by not subsidizing businesses that export jobs with government tax breaks, and starting an infrastructure construction program which would create good jobs and as a result, reduce the number of those who would otherwise qualify for Medicaid.

But do conservative Georgia politicians (and pretty much all Georgia politicians of all parties over the last 200 years holding statewide office are conservatives) have a history of  being good stewards of the conservative Georgia taxpayers money with computer programs? Not really.

               The State of Georgia and Affiliated Computer Services

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC Jan. 22, 2004) a problem similar to the present woes of ObamaCare with computerized medical information technology occurred in Georgia in the early 2000’s. The state signed a 5 year contract worth $350 million with Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) to consolidate into one software system the processing and paying of health benefits for 2.2 million Georgians, a novel approach no other state had undertaken.

The company missed the deadline to begin phase one by six months. The company missed a series of other deadlines, and medical providers were unable to access the computer network or even reach the company by telephone. Medical providers were not paid, resulting in hardships for doctors and hospitals that served large numbers of Medicaid and PeachCare patients.

A consulting firm concluded that millions of claims would need to be adjusted, frustrating thousands of doctors, hospitals and other medical professionals who had suffered payment problems. The state ended up canceling the second phase of the contract with ACS  but wasted millions of dollars.

          Denver International Airport Computerized Baggage System

In 2008 Calleam Consulting, Ltd. published a case study titled “Denver International Airport Baggage Handling System Case Study. Why Technology Projects Fail.”  

While the case study blames faulty decision making, what that boils down to is that the computerized baggage system as imagined or designed had never been done before and was too complex for the technology and software engineering knowledge of the day. Of course, pushing the envelope is how progress is achieved, and that is a good thing. But sometime advanced technology goes wrong. (Example: the Hindenberg, Titanic, Challenger)

The idea of the management of the Denver International Airport’s was to have an $186 million automated integrated baggage handling system which would connect all three of the DIA concourses in order to reduce air plane turn around time, reduce air line and airport labor costs and reduce customer waiting time at the baggage carousels.

But because of the problems with the computerized baggage handling system, the opening of the entire airport was delayed for 16 months, from the projected October  31, 1993 to the actual February, 28,  1995.

The delay cost the city of Denver over $1 million dollars a day for construction costs and loan interest. Once the airport opened, only United used the baggage system for their concourse. But after several years, Untied  abandoned the system because the maintenance costs were $12 million a year.

In this example, the computerized baggage system was a complete failure.

                                More Examples of Computer Glitches

Some Conservatives insist that Free Market businesses are better than governments at building competent computer systems, as well as everything else. But both government and businesses have created computer software disasters. Not to mention, most government computer programs are created by independent, for –profit businesses. Software glitches can have serious consequences, including the deaths of innocent people. Here are some examples.

During the Gulf War on February 25, 1991, a Patriot missile failed to intercept  an Iraqi Scud missile which then hit a barracks holding U.S. troops in Dharan, Saudi Arabia.  28  U.S. soldiers were  killed and scores were wounded. According to the GAO report, “a software problem led to system failure.”

On June 4, 1996, the Ariane 5 rocket developed by the European Space Agency failed after launch. The program cost $7 billion to develop and the value of the rocket and cargo was $500 million. The official explanation for the failure was a “software error in the inertial guidance system.”

A computer software glitch almost distorted the results of a German Parliamentary election in April 1992. According to German law, a party has to win a total of at least 5% of the votes to win seats in the Parliament. In one section of the country, the computer gave the Green Party that magic number at the expense of the governing Social Democrats. (SPD) The Greens had actually only won 4.97% of the votes. The computer software program compiling the vote totals took it upon itself to produce a nice, simple number and rounded up the total to 5. To the relief of the SPD, the error was eventually caught. Maybe the computer was secretly an environmentalist.

On August 23, 1991, the Norwegian Sleipen A Oil Platform in the North Sea sank. According to the post accident investigation,  there was a software error in the design program. The “sheer” stress that the underwater concrete supports would have to endure was underestimated by 47%, thus the concrete walls were not built thick enough. The 57,000 ton platform held 40,000 pounds of equipment. The concrete cracked and water poured in faster than the pumps could remove it. The platform sank and was a total loss. The monetary cost was $700 million.

The U.S. space program, just like the European Space Agency, has had more than its share of computer software glitches resulting in several mission failures. Here are just two. There are more.

In September of 1993, the Mars Climate Orbiter mission failed due to a computer software failure. The exact cause is not known for certain, but one theory is that when the landing legs deployed approximately 40 meters above the surface as designed, the computer assumed that the craft had landed on the surface and turned off the landing jets. According to this theory, the craft then crashed.  It was known during construction of the craft and the creation of the computer software that this scenario was possible but no software fix was ever created.

In July 1962 NASA’s Mariner 1 Venus Probe failed due to a computer software failure. Several possibilities were advanced as to the cause of the failure of the mission. One theory is that one of the lines of code in the software had a period where there should have been a comma, and another theory has been advanced is that the failure was caused by a missing hyphen.

During the Falklands War, the British war ship HMS Sheffield was sunk because the computer software  recognized the incoming Exocet missile as “friendly.”

Due to computer software errors and exacerbated by human error, the US Guided Missile Cruiser USS Vincennes believed the Iranian Airbus 320 Flight 655 was an attacking Iranian F-14 Tomcat and shot it down, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board.

It was at first assumed that the Iranians retaliated by placing a bomb aboard Flight 103 which went down over Lockerbie, Scotland. Libya was eventually blamed and took responsibility.

At Software Horror Stories,
107 examples of  computer software disasters such as the above are listed, as of May 1, 2011.  

Of course, one doesn’t need a computer software glitch to create a spectacular failure. The Tacoma Washington Suspension Bridge collapse happened 6 months after it was completed in 1940. This suspension bridge buckled and collapsed in a mere 40 mph wind.

There are numerous sites on the internet that document the various and numerous disaster caused by computer software and also dysfunctional roll-outs of  computer programs of all types. One only has to take the time to educate one's self  to see that the rocky launch of the Affordable Care Act is typical of the creation and  launch of complicated computer programs, in the past, as today.

Jim McMeans
Danielsville, GA

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Comment Preferences

  •  bwahahahaha (7+ / 0-)

    well played, jmcmeans. VERY well played.


    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 01:27:58 AM PDT

  •  WAY BACK in the 60s, (10+ / 0-)

    a NASA satellite was launched and disappeared into the ether, never to be heard from again.  In a port-mortem examination of all systems, it was determined that a line of code in the satellite's computer read, "a=b" rather than "a==b."  The first was an assignment of the value of variable b to variable a.  The second was a test of whether variable a was equal to variable b.

    The test of the two variables was never performed by the computer so the code that followed was never executed.  The satellite never made changes to its trajectory and it disappeared.

    A multi-million dollar project was lost due to a missing equal sign.

    Guns don't kill people but there's always one there at the time of death.

    by john07801 on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 01:53:16 AM PDT

    •  Maybe another satellite (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama, badscience, J M F, blue aardvark

      The use of == for comparison was started by C in the mid-late 70s, so that story can't be true (good story, nevertheless). Earlier languages used the more sensible = or some text string (eg, EQ) for comparison. I never understood why today's languages use = for assignment, in direct contradiction of math which uses = for comparison.

      •  Higher level languages are better able (0+ / 0-)

        to distinguish assignment from equality by context.  C#, Java, Python, to name a few, don't allow the result of an assignment to be used in a conditional expression, and don't allow dangling conditional expressions.  They could build that into languages like C++ and C, but it would invalidate a lot of existing code.

        As for your statement, the reason has a lot to do with the fact that mathematically, there is some ambiguity in what = means.

        z = 2x + 3y
        x = 4y + 2
        y = 3

        Are those assignments are equality statements?  Yes.

        "Harass us, because we really do pay attention. Look at who's on the ballot, and vote for the candidate you agree with the most. The next time, you get better choices." - Barney Frank

        by anonevent on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 06:36:29 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Mathematically, yes (0+ / 0-)

          In the syntax of higher level computer languages, no.

          I'm on a mission! Testing the new site rules.

          by blue aardvark on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 07:28:10 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  math = (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          wilderness voice

          Actually, there is no ambiguity in math in that regard. What is called a variable by 'normal' programming languages is actually a 'state variable', or a storage location. Math has no concept of state variables, so there can be no concept of assignment.

          The simplest way to see this is by observing the typical programming language statement x=x+1. This makes no absolutely no sense in math (except as an always-false and thus meaningless-to-write statement), and would get you an F in every math course. In math, the = means both sides are equal (though there is some ambiguity about what 'equal' means). In programming, the = means 'evaluate the right side and store it at the place the left side is in memory'.

          There are programming languages that dont have state variables, but these are seldom used in the US, though there is a small recent trend in Wall Street using such languages.

  •  IIRC, one Mars explorer's loss (9+ / 0-)

    was attributed to one software team assuming that a particular variable's value was a metric measurement, while another team assumed it was an inches/feet measurement...

  •  A question for technophilic kossacks: (4+ / 0-)

    In the 1960s, there was an apocryphal story of what was essentially a worm inserted into DOD computer systems called "The Phantom Glitch." It's sole function was to penetrate a system, find a terminal in use and blank the screen, replacing the data shown with the message, "I'm the phantom glitch. Catch me if you can!" then release the system and move on to another.

    If memory serves, I first heard this tale from my father, a DOD contractor/programmer. Anyone else heard of it?

    I live under the bridge to the 21st Century.

    by Crashing Vor on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 03:04:40 AM PDT

  •  I believe that one NASA mission failed because (9+ / 0-)

    some of the software used the metric system and the rest of the software used our english system of measures. The error was realized very soon after launch.

    I was a witness to a software problem back in the early days of business computing. Radio Shack stores were nearly in bankruptcy when Charles Tandy bought the entire company for about $300,000. He was an aggressive advocate of direct mail advertising. He frequently designed bulky, elaborate, and expensive pieces of mail to Radio Shack customers.

    In one case he did an early google-like search of his huge mailing list of store transactions and decided to send a five dollar coupon to the neighbors of any Radio Shack customer who had spent more than $30.00 at the store in a recent time period. The piece he sent to each neighbor, across the street and on either side of the customer, had a friendly letter naming their neighbor and saying that he was a satisfied Radio Shack customer and so the company wanted to reward their neighbor's patronage by giving his neighbors a coupon for $5.00 on their next Radio Shack purchase.

    The computer program was written in Autocoder for an old 4K 1401. The printer ran for many hours as it churned out mail pieces. In fact, Tandy rented printer time from companies across Fort Worth and company employees fanned out at night with boxes of forms to produce many more mail pieces. Finally the thousands of pieces were mailed to Radio Shack locales across the country. I think that at that time there were nearly 160 stores.

    In no time, Post Office trucks began to pull up to Radio Shack's corporate headquarter with full loads of pieces mail that had invalid addresses on them. Scrutiny quickly revealed that the city state portion of the address changed, but the street address did not.

    It was discovered that the computer program failed to properly clear the work area in the computer and had left a group-mark, word-mark character in the field. This enabled the city-state data to be changed, but kept the rest of the address field unchanged. Tandy had to pay return postage on all of those items. This was in the early days of zip codes. I don't remember the year, but it was in the 1960's.

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

    by hestal on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 03:12:16 AM PDT

  •  Therac-25 (10+ / 0-)

    The Therac-25 was a radiation therapy machine produced by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) after the Therac-6 and Therac-20 units (the earlier units had been produced in partnership with CGR of France). It was involved in at least six accidents between 1985 and 1987, in which patients were given massive overdoses of radiation, approximately 100 times the intended dose. These accidents highlighted the dangers of software control of safety-critical systems, and they have become a standard case study in health informatics and software engineering.

    warning: snark above

    by NE2 on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 03:25:16 AM PDT

  •  My favorite story (12+ / 0-)

    A flight simulator of a US military plane had a copy of the plane's control software. On a training exercise, a pilot decided to plot a flight to South America and was quietly flying along. As he reached the equator, the simulated plane suddenly did a backflip and started flying upside down. Oops, somebody forgot to take the absolute value of the latitude.

    A post-mortem revealed that the actual plane would have done the same thing, and moreever, the suddenness of the flip would have resulted in such G-force as to have destroyed the plane (and crew). Good thing nobody with a beef against Brazil had convinced W that Al Qaeda was in Rio.

  •  The $437,000 water bill (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    allensl, doingbusinessas, foresterbob

    And its variations from back in the '60s and '70s when they had reel computers.

    "If this Studebaker had anymore Atomic Space-Age Style, you'd have to be an astronaut with a geiger counter!"

    by Stude Dude on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 03:42:28 AM PDT

  •  Not just the Romans (9+ / 0-)


    "If you pour some music on whatever's wrong, it'll sure help out." Levon Helm

    by BOHICA on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 04:02:15 AM PDT

  •  I believe a race track condition caused the huge (0+ / 0-)

    east coast blackout 10 years ago.

  •  The original computer "bug" (5+ / 0-)

    was a moth that got into a computer and caused it to malfunction, hence the term "bug."

    Arrrr, the laws of science be a harsh mistress. -Bender B. Rodriguez

    by democracy inaction on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 05:22:45 AM PDT

  •  was there for DIA baggage fail (5+ / 0-)

    It was more like an automated baggage compactor..or baggage particle accelerator. Baggage would get "routed" onto a conveyor belt..and then get crushed or slammed into steel compartment bins. At one point there was a "sculpture" display of  mangled camera equipment  near one of the baggage retrieval terminals.

    It was a triumph for "humans"...and a fail for tech and the contractor BAE ....

    ...fromNY Times:


    Sharp corners, for example, were too much for the system to deal with. The whirring baggage carts, programmed to pick up and drop off bags in a perfectly coordinated ballet, often just tipped over and dumped their loads.

    Then there was the lizard tongue, formally known as a telescoping belt loader, which was designed to shoot out from the track system's maw directly to an airplane's luggage doors. It, too, was a flop.

    BAE Automated Systems of Carrollton, Tex., which designed the system, has since been liquidated, and no one associated with the effort could be reached for comment.

    •  I was there, too... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blue aardvark

      and apparently you weren't - because the "compartment bins" you mention were not steel.

      Anyway, let me tell you what the state of the airport would have been had it been opened on October 31, 1993:

      - only 20% of the restrooms were complete and working.
      - there were no pay phones anywhere in the entire airport (cell phones were not common in 1993).
      - none of the airside security doors were functional. Every door that led out to the ramp would have required a guard to be stationed there - and are probably at least 500 airside doors.
      - the only food vendors were in concourse C - the smallest of the three concourses and the furthest away.
      - only one of the two underground shuttle lines was functional, and the only terminal passengers could physically walk to was concourse A.
      - only 60% of the passenger loading bridges were functional.

      Romneyland - Where men are men, and horses are a $77,000 tax deduction.

      by Muslin Tarotist on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 07:29:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Does anyone remember Amazon Web Services? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wilderness voice

    Back in Sept. 2011, Amazon's Cloud implementation, Amazon Web Services, went completely down for about a week. I was using one of their servers at the time (luckily, only for development purposes) and I ended up having to rebuild the server a couple of weeks later. (I had backups.)

    I wasn't overly frustrated. I have had stuff like this happen before (thus, the backups), but there were a lot of people who had REAL businesses opening up the week this happened. Other businesses were using their services as well and all of those folks were PISSED! The vitriol spewing from these folks made me worried that someone would find an AK-47, march down to Alexandria, Virginia and take matters into their own hands.

    This one was just the most famous. They have had MANY other outages.

    Yet, they are still one of the biggest cloud providers in the nation.

  •  Here's a fun one, from Knight Capital (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AdamR510, wilderness voice

    remember that one?

    Apparently there was a bit of code that didn't get replaced in all places, and it only cost 440 million, and now they're paying fines.

    The company said the problems happened because of new trading software that had been installed. The event was the latest to draw attention to the potentially destabilizing effect of the computerized trading that has increasingly dominated the nation’s stock markets.
    that's how they do in Jersey City
  •  Let us not forget (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blue aardvark

    the 2000 Florida computer that started decreasing the vote total when it passed 32767.

    The thing about quotes on the internet is you cannot confirm their validity. ~Abraham Lincoln

    by raboof on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 07:09:59 AM PDT

  •  I can speak to a couple of these (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raboof, wilderness voice, foresterbob

    The Mars Lander error was a failure to clear a piece of memory. When the legs deployed, the flight software started looking for an indication that there was pressure on the feet.

    The corresponding variables had not been initialized to zero. When the legs deployed, the FSW received an immediate indication that there was pressure on the feet, and shut off.

    The Ariane V reused code from the Ariane 4. The assumption was that this reused code would function correctly - after all, it had flown the Ariane 4 many times. The problem was that the Ariane V had different accelerations than the early, smaller vehicle, and the reused software received data in ranges it was not capable of processing, threw an exception, and shut down.

    In both cases, the root cause was an inadequate test regime that assumed testing pieces was sufficient, but the problem was only revealed in the integrated system.

    Which sounds a lot like what's happening now with healthcare . gov.

    There is NO substitute for what in aerospace is called "Test Like You Fly". End to end, all the pieces in place, with inputs matching those that will be seen in flight. And when you can't match flight conditions, document that, and look very carefully at those situations.

    I'm on a mission! Testing the new site rules.

    by blue aardvark on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 07:26:58 AM PDT

  •  And here's a funny one (5+ / 0-)

    Training software for helicopter pilots used simulations, of course. And then Boeing wanted to sell their helicopters to the Australians, so they upgraded the training software to include terrains and features found in Australia.

    Such as kangaroos. What Aussie simulation would leave out the roos?

    So, Boeing sales guy is demonstrating his helicopter simulation to the Aussie military, and decides to "buzz" some simulated kangaroos. The sim-kangaroos scattered in a most satisfying fashion.

    And then regrouped and launched a flurry of surface-to-air missiles, blasting the simulated copter from the sky.

    The programmers had reused the software for "humans" for kangaroos - bipeds and all that - and had forgotten to remove the weapons-use and self-defense capabilities.

    No real harm done except the poor sales guy had to endure endless "Look out! Killer kangaroo!" jokes.

    I'm on a mission! Testing the new site rules.

    by blue aardvark on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 07:40:20 AM PDT

  •  Partial list (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wilderness voice

    Plenty of others especially in the private sector.  Utility company scraps billing system.  Bad teller systems.  Horrendous payroll systems, and we can go on and on.  They just don't make the news.  

    Remember when microsoft upgrades would be six months late?  No one asked them to go out if business.  Same with the indeterminate apple system dates.  They just roll it out months or years later.  

    This is just a GOP double standard.  The sacrosanct public sector never ers.  Even though Obamacare software is ALL private sector written!!!

    And yet their gold plated coverage is still intact.  Well, come jeez 15 they lose their coverage if the exchanges aren't up.  Ha ha. Shaudenfreude at its best.

  •  A friend of mine does cooling system design (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wilderness voice, foresterbob

    for nuclear power plants. We were talking about safety standards once, and agreed that if nuke plants had the same ones as software, the earth would be a radioactive wasteland.

    That was before Fukushima.

    The thing about quotes on the internet is you cannot confirm their validity. ~Abraham Lincoln

    by raboof on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 09:11:30 AM PDT

  •  i need a chip to keep up now. (0+ / 0-)

    i would like to read your diary, as i used to read -- in total, at my leisure, making notes.

    i would like to be able to return to read it, in a room where my eyes focus. reading with unfocused eyes sucks.

    i will try to return. returning means i made it.

    Addington's perpwalk? TRAILHEAD of accountability for Bush-2 Crimes. @Hugh: There is no Article II power which says the Executive can violate the Constitution.

    by greenbird on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 09:51:22 AM PDT

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