Thursday, October 30, 2008

Somebody Else's Risk:

Throughout my forty-six year software development career, I have tried to avoid working on products that can kill people if the software has certain kinds of bugs. I deeply sympathize with the programmer of the Three-Mile Island alarm detection system, who failed to anticipate how the alarm terminal would work when the software was overwhelmed by hundreds of concurrent alarms. (The terminal printed a stream of question marks, rather than any sensible error message.) Some years later, I interviewed this fellow for a job; I think he's a good programmer and a nice guy. But an unanticipated disaster really put his work on the spot.

In the current financial crisis, I've been reading complaints about how people must have underestimated the most extreme (very unlikely but real) risks that their deals created. But I believe that most of these people understood the rare risks. They also understood that these risks were other people's risks. (I believe that most of the financiers who brought us to our current crisis are still better off than 99.9% of the US population. For them, this disaster is mostly 'other people's disaster'.)

The bottom line of this meandering introduction is that it's praiseworthy to be concerned, in your work, about risks to others that you may create; but an awful lot of people don't worry about other people's risks. That's human nature, and it's very hard, as China with its tainted milk supply is discovering, to do much about it. And now, my story:

In the 1970's I worked on a computer system, one of the first of its kind, to automate Electro Cardiogram analysis. This work came to me, I didn't choose it. I worked at it carefully, always worried about the chance that my software would cause someone's EKG analysis to produce a false negative. (A cardiologist always reviewed the results of the computer analysis, but you never know: what if the doctor was distracted that day?)

One customer came to us with a special request: that we program our computer to receive EKG data from some old EKG machines the customer already owned. We did not like those machines because the data they produced was very noisy and led to many incorrect results. We pointed this out to the customer. Our customer contact felt that this was our problem. He worked for a big company that manufactured many high tech products, and he brought in the company's top trouble-shooting team to figure out why our analyses, using his machines, were poor. The troubleshooters argued convincingly that there was nothing wrong with our software. The culprit was the noisy data coming out of the old EKG machines. The customer paid us for our work, and then, holy s—t! He set up a service bureau to process EKGs using his noisy machines.

I and my coworkers felt that whatever happened would not be our fault, but the situation really bothered us. Our name, and the prestigious name of the guy who developed the analysis program, stood behind this faulty service bureau. Who was going to die by relying on the quality of our work? I wondered if we had a moral obligation to try, somehow, to expose this faulty service bureau. Any such action could produce nasty litigation, and could only be a desperate last resort. But what should we do?

Our salesman nosed around the industry, talking to cardiologists and other EKG service bureaus. He reported that the poor quality of the analyses by this worrisome service bureau was obvious to everyone. They were getting business, but only of a special kind: medical schools and some hospitals used their system for training purposes, to get people used to processing remote EKG analyses. We breathed a great sigh of relief.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lefties Rule?

Here's a picture of my new PDA, the Nokia N800. You can easily see most of the “real” buttons on this device. A few more are not quite visible at the top left edge. I've found a game I like to play on this machine that requires quick reflexes. The game is controlled by pressing some of the “real” buttons. I play moderately well, but the buttons I must use are a problem because they are very close together; I often press a wrong one by accident. But here's the real problem: Why was this PDA built for lefties? If the buttons were all on the right, my better hand would play more skilfully. I'm sure the guy who designed the N800 package is a lefty.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Big Foibles

Last July, I blogged about the silly efforts I always make to avoid picking out a thin towel at the fitness club; I prefer newish towels with thick nap that will dry more efficiently. I regarded my efforts to select desirable towels as mere foibles, because it was unlikely that there was any variation in the towels at all.


Today I casually grabbed what was obviously a “thin” towel. It lay flat, without the thick fold I always prefer. I knew it looked thin, but my tired mind said “for goodness sakes, what difference does it make?” And you know what I got? An old, thin towel. Almost napless, a pitiable thing to dry a wet body. From now on, I'm going to follow my own advice.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Entrails of Vacuum Cleaner Bags:

An earring disappeared inside our home, and shortly afterwards, the whole house was vacuumed. I spread out a set of newspapers and emptied the vacuum bag over them. Then I went carefully through the ash, sifting – unsuccessfully – for that earring.

I've hardly ever done that before, but examining vacuum cleaner detritus struck me as a most natural activity. My father did it every the time the vacuum was emptied, when I and my brother were young, because we were little devils about putting small things in inappropriate places. I don't know what he found, but it sure was enough to keep him looking.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ladies (and men) with Earrings and Earbuds:

From time to time, I uncover some problem in this universe, and I'm pleased when my proposed solution creates new jobs, new work for people, and even new professions. I've done this before, and I might be about to do it again:

My concern is directed to those who love to wear lovely, dangly earrings. People, I hate to be the one to point out the obvious, but your earrings clash hideously with the cheap plastic cords that hang from your earbuds! Have you ever thought about how this clash demeans your excellent jewelry?

The next time you buy earrings, insist on matching earbuds and cords. Color coordination is everything these days, and despite whatever you've been thinking, earbuds are jewelry. I'm serious about this! As a confirmed geek, I hate to see any aspect of electronics detract from anyone's appearance.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Should I join GRUG? Or how about a RUG?

Noblestar has just invited me to join GRUG. Or, they suggest, I might even want to join a local RUG. I think these acronyms are right up there on the embarassment scale, so I hasten to share them with you. I guess they are memorable, anyway. "GRUG" is the Global Rational User Group, and the acronym makes sense when you consider that 'Rational' is a valuable tool for developing complex software. In this case, I plan to remain one of the Global Rational User Non-Group Egalitarians. Just see if I don't.

Construction; and flipping the ticket:

There's a lot of construction at the local University. I saw a sign today on a road that's normally two-way. It said: Warning: One Way Traffic Ahead. Drivers approaching the sign were laughing about having to guess which 'one way' the University had in mind, because there was no arrow.

And speaking of finding our direction, here's Frank Rich on Oct. 4, about how convenient it might be for the Republicans to flip McCain and Pailin, to get more votes. If you don't believe what I wrote about Sarah Palin last Thursday, please believe it now.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Shopping While Jersey:

Dear New York Mayor What'sYourName: I know that this is a difficult time for New York City. You can no longer count on a great flow of dollars from your Wall Street minions. You must want us New Jerseyans to come into New York and spend whatever we can. I specifically remember mayor Giuliani asking us to help out after 9/11.

But I'm also staring, in infinite sadness, at the “no standing” ticket for $105 dollars that was just mailed to me, for picking up my wife next to one of your fine stores. Your zealousness in enforcing parking regulations for brief stops is most shortsighted. My wife and I have lost almost all interest in shopping New York. We will spend our money in New Jersey, where most stores have places to park. Too bad for you! We are disgusted.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Palin in 2012 or 2016:

The pundits are trying to assess how well Sarah Palin did in the debate tonight, but I say: that's not the point. She has just shattered a glass ceiling, and American politics will never be the same. Whatever you think of a woman's credentials for high office, Palin reminded us that television just loves a pretty face. If Palin had more experience and understanding, just put her on TV and she would blow away most men in a presidential race. I'm not the only person who's figuring this out. Palin can spend the next four or eight years in training. She'll still look good, too. She, and a few other pretty women – smarter and more experienced women, I hope – will be the new candidates for president in the coming elections. I just hope and pray that their “TV faces” won't be their best qualifications.

Millionaires of our part of the world, Unite!

This would be an awfully good time for all those executives of Immense USA Companies -- who've earned millions of dollars per year in return for destroying our economy -- to get together and pool some of their dough into funds for rescuing people who can't pay their mortgages. These wonderfully rich people have at least a few weeks to act on their own before people who are losing their mortgages start to feel really nasty.

The failure of the first bailout vote in the House was blamed -- at least in part -- on people's visceral anger against giving these money-suckers any more money. But why should those rich people appear so awful to the public eye? Why aren't they forming very visible organizations to use some of their wealth to rescue some of their, ahem, victims?

Filthy rich people, where are you? Can't you afford to be generous right now? How long do you propose to ponder the question? You may not have a handy $700 billion among you, but you can make a difference.