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Spam's 30th Anniversary


I don't know how I missed it, but the 30th anniversary of the first recorded instance of spam happened on the 3rd of May.

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, Gary Thuerk, who at the time worked for Digital Equipment Corp., sent what is believed to be the first spam message, an invitation to an open house for a new DEC computer (a VAX 11/780?) that he sent to 400 of the 2,600 or so people who had email accounts on the ARPANET at the time.

Thuerk claims that his email generated about $12 million in new sales. However, many people who received his email also got highly irritated, complained to US Defense Department ( which operated the net) which in turn told him never to do it again. Thuerk says he never did, either.

Thuerk also said in the story that "people have one of three reactions when they meet him: Some are excited to meet someone with an unusual claim to fame; some want to beat him up on the spot; and others just avoid him like the plague."

Unfortunately, if it hadn't been Thuerk, it would have just been someone else. I am surprised, to be honest, that it is only the 30th anniversary of spam. I would have guessed someone would have tried doing it before 1978.

Robotic Suit for the Army Being Tested


There was an AP story last week on the Army's "exoskeleton" robotic suit being developed by Sarcos Inc (now owned by Raytheon) that potentially will "multiply a person's strength and endurance as many as 20 times."

"Jack Obusek, a former colonel now with the Armyâ''s Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center in the Boston suburb of Natick, foresees robot-suited soldiers unloading heavy ammunition boxes from helicopters, lugging hundreds of pounds of gear over rough terrain or even relying on the suit to make repairs to tanks that break down in inconvenient locations," according to the story.

The suit is still not practical: it is very expensive, and the suitâ''s battery life currently lasts only 30 minutes.

I got a little more insight into some of the military mission drivers behind this suit last week when I was at the third annual iRobot payload conference. Ellen Purdy, Director - Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise, US Department of Defense, gave the keynote address describing some of the robotic efforts the DoD is supporting.

In one example, Mrs. Purdy spoke about the problems involved in developing "robotic convoy" capabilities. It's one thing to say I want an autonomous convoy capability, it is quite another to implement it, she said. On top of the detailed technical issues of actually developing an autonomous vehicle, there are a number of mission issues that immediately arise as well.

For instance, how many vehicles does one designate autonomous versus being manned to ensure there is adequate security for the convoy? How far should each vehicle be separated from one another to maintain safety margins, especially if it is at night or in bad weather? Does every vehicle also need to be able to be driven manually if the convoy is attacked or if a vehicle breaks down?

The robotic suit comes into play in that, say you have an autonomous convoy showing up that has few if any soldiers accompanying it, who is going to unload it? A small number of soldiers, each wearing a suit, will be able to do the work of many more than otherwise would be needed for that task, Mrs. Purdy said.

What Mrs. Purdy pointed out was that each decision to use robots has other implications that are not always obvious and need to be thought through. As she remarked, "The Army doesn't know what it doesn't know about robots."

Over the week, I'll write up a bit more about what I heard at the conference, which for me not being a "robot guy," I found pretty interesting.

Japan, Like US, Suffering From Rikei Banare


I have written a few times about the declining enrollment computer science and engineering students in the US and Canada. Looks like Japan is having similar problems.

A story in the New York Times over the weekend about Japan running out of engineers. The article says:

"After years of fretting over coming shortages, the country is actually facing a dwindling number of young people entering engineering and technology-related fields. Universities call it 'rikei banare,' or 'flight from science.' The decline is growing so drastic that industry has begun advertising campaigns intended to make engineering look sexy and cool, and companies are slowly starting to import foreign workers, or sending jobs to where the engineers are, in Vietnam and India."

The story goes on, "But according to educators, executives and young Japanese themselves, the young here are behaving more like Americans: choosing better-paying fields like finance and medicine, or more purely creative careers, like the arts, rather than following their salaryman fathers into the unglamorous world of manufacturing."

Estimates are that Japan is short 500K engineers in its digital technology industries.

It is may be very hard for Japan to reverse the decline from just demographics factors alone.

A story in April appearing in the Japan Times says that Japan is facing a "labor shortage of 4.27 million people in 2025 on the back of the declining birthrate and mass retirement of baby boomers."

The story goes on, however, to say that the work of 3.5 million Japanese workers could be covered if advanced robots become popular. One estimate, for instance, is that robots "could take over about 970,000 jobs in medical and nursing care services."

That is assuming, of course, there are enough Japanese computer scientists and engineers still around to build and program the robots required.

Robotics is looking more and more like a good career field.

The Crazy Ants That May Eat NASA


There are various news reports this week concerning a tiny reddish-brown ant by the name of paratrenicha species near pubens (or more commonly crazy rasberry ants) that has infested five counties of Houston. It turns out these ants like to eat electronic equipment.

As noted in a story in the London Times,

"Computers, burglar alarm systems, gas and electricity meters, iPods, telephone exchanges â'' all are considered food by the flea-sized ants, for reasons that have left scientists baffled."

They are now on the march towards Houston's Hobby Airport and NASA's Johnson Space Center.

The ants are so well-established now, they are likely impossible to fully eradicate. Worse, they are resistant to over-the-counter poisons. Furthermore, colonies apparently have multiple queens, so killing one doesn't do the job.

The ants apparently got to Houston via a cargo ship from the Caribbean about six years ago. Their only redeeming value is that they eat fire-ants.

There is a story here from ComputerWorld that talks about some of the damage to electronics they have caused.

Airbus Announces Delays in A380


Airbus announced as expected that it would be delaying delivery of some Airbus 380s. The company intends now to deliver 12 planes in 2008 instead of 13, and 21 planes in 2009 instead of 25. The company also said that it was planning to talk with customers about deliveries for 2010 â'' originally foreseen at 45 â'' in the next few weeks.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders said the switch from individual production of the planes to serial production caused two to three months delayed.

As explained in more detail in a story in today's ATW (Air Transport World), "The principal reason for this fourth program delay is that the company was unable to transition key personnel and resources quickly from the 'Wave 1' aircraft (those assembled during 'low rate individual production' following the wiring redesign) to those constructed in the 'full serial design and manufacturing process' or Wave 2."

" 'To build one aircraft in two years is one thing, but to double that, then double it again [proved problematic],' Enders said, explaining that expert engineers and 'certain processes' were required longer than anticipated in Wave 1, resulting in a 'knock-on effect' that slowed Wave 2."

"The dearth of qualified technical staff was a critical factor. 'We had to learn it the hard way,' Enders said. 'There was no way we could recruit skilled resources in the quantity we needed' to ramp up production as planned. There was 'a lack of qualified people for very demanding jobs,' he noted."

Enders declined to say when Airbus will meet its plan of delivering four A380s per month, a goal the plane maker had hoped to meet in 2010. However, he did say that he is confident that the company will be able to deliver between 30 and 40 A380 aircraft in 2010.

Some airlines, like the Emirates (which is the biggest customer and has ordered 58 A380s) has said that it will be severely hurt by the delays. How much it will ask for in compensation is undetermined at this time.

Software Susses Sham Sickness


You ever take a "sick day" when you weren't particularly sick, other than being sick of work?

Well, it might be harder in the future.

A story in the London Daily Mail tells of software beginning to be used in the UK to not only help uncover benefits fraud but now to detect those who are calling in sick but really aren't.

Using a technique called Voice Risk Analysis, the software "makes thousands of checks during a call and if it picks up changes in a caller's voice that suggest they are under pressure - as is likely if they are lying - it gives prompts to whoever is taking the call," according to the article.

"The technology means someone phoning in for a sickie will speak not to a sympathetic secretary but to a computer set up to check whether their voice is steady and reliable."

The technology created by Capita and Digilog UK, was piloted last year in Harrow, North-West London. The borough claimed it saved £420,000 in false benefit claims.

There is some (considerable) doubt about that claim and about whether voice risk analysis really works, but if employers perceive that it works to reduce absenteeism, expect the technology to spread.

Kaiser Permanente Rolls Out Electronic Health Record System


Kaiser Permanente announced Monday that all of its 8.7 million enrollees in nine states, including Hawaii, and the District of Columbia have access to HealthConnect, an outpatient electronic health record (EHR).

Kaiser said that its 13,000 physicians nationwide now have electronic access to patients' medical records across its 421 medical offices and clinics.

According to reports, the EHR system's deployment cost so far has been are now approximately $4 billion, including $1 billion for maintenance. Kaiser claims that HealthConnect is the world's largest private EHR system.

Kaiser still needs to finish up the inpatient (i.e., hospitalized patients) side of its EHR system, however. Kaiser said that 13 of its 36 hospitals (34 of them in California) have installed the EHR software, giving 3.2 million enrollees the advantages of an inpatient EHR system. Some 14 hospitals are scheduled to do so this year, including 13 in California and one in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area.

The remaining nine hospitals, including the Moanalua clinic on Oahu, will follow in 2009 and early 2010.

According to Kaiser, "Physicians reported that, in many cases, electronic health records enabled them to identify and resolve patients' health issues in the first contact. One survey showed that, with the use of electronic health records, medication administration times and doses were more legible and correct (85 percent), and clinicians believed the electronic medication administration system provided a safer and more reliable communication tool (75 percent)."

It will be interesting to see if the Kaiser news will make it into the Presidential campaign, given that the candidates are touting health IT as a means to improve health care as well as reduce its costs.

2006 Jeep Commanders Recalled for Software Flaw

It is being reported that Chysler is expanding the recall of its Jeep Commander SUVs to repair engine stalling caused by a flaw in the automatic transmission software that could, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) "could cause a crash without warning."

In March, Chrysler recalled 1,338 of the 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Commander SUVs to repair a stalling problem in the vehicles. The NHTSA reported at the time that the â''the front control module may have been incorrectly manufactured. This could cause the engine to stall while driving or nor to start.â''

This month, Chrysler expanded the recall to include 24,461 Jeep Commanders equipped with the 4.7 liter engine and built before 11 January 2006.

As a point of reference, GM expects its cars to have about 100 million lines of software in them by around 2010. Software reliability issues will undoubtedly increase in cars from sheer numbers if nothing else.

Having bought a new car in the past month, I sometimes feel that it is more computer network on wheels than anything else. I am still climbing the learning curve on how to operate all the gadgets in the car.

Car manufacturers, unfortunately, seem to have taken on the same attitude of many manufacturers in the computer and electronics space - make the operating instructions to their tech toys as confusing and contradictory as possible. Car manufacturers may claim in their automobile commercials that they are spending a lot on the human factors engineering side, but from a software systems perspective, I don't see much value being created for all the money being spent.

London Heathrow Boeing 777 Crash Update


Yesterday, the UK Air Accident Investigations Branch (AAIB) released an interim report on the British Airways Boeing 777 that crashed at London Heathrow last January. The report indicates that the AAIB suspects that the plane's fuel flow became restricted somewhere between the engines and the fuel tanks, causing the plane's engines to become starved of fuel.

The report says, "The evidence to date indicates that both engines had low fuel pressure at the inlet to the HP pump. Restrictions in the fuel system between the aircraft fuel tanks and each of the engine HP pumps, resulting in reduced fuel flows, is suspected."

The report also says that the focus of the investigation "continues to be the fuel system of both the aircraft and the engines, in order to understand why neither engine responded to the demanded increase in power when all of the engine control functions operated normally."

One area of investigation is whether an area of very cold air through which the aircraft flew was a culprit, although the indications are that it should not have been a concern.

"During the flight there was a region of particularly cold air, with ambient temperatures as low as -76ºC, in the area between the Urals and Eastern Scandinavia. The Met Office described the temperature conditions during the flight as â''unusually low compared to the average, but not exceptionalâ''. The lowest total air temperature recorded during the flight was â''45ºC, and the minimum recorded fuel temperature was -34ºC. The specified fuel freezing temperature for Jet A-1 is not above â''47ºC; analysis of fuel samples taken after the accident showed the fuel onboard the aircraft complied with the Jet A-1 specification and had a measured fuel freezing temperature of -57ºC. The aircraft was operated within its certified flight envelope throughout the flight."

Discovering the reason(s) for the crash has proven much harder than anyone expected, given that the plane was much more intact than in most crash investigations. As one expert was quoted in a story in the Washington Post:

" 'This is a great mystery, and I never expected this accident to be this difficult to solve, given the state-of-art tools on the plane and the fact that the aircraft was largely intact,' said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an organization that advocates for improving aviation safety. 'This has potentially broad implications that go beyond this one airplane, depending on what they find.' "

I'll let you know what the final report says.

The Software Issues Behind Heathrow's T5 Meltdown


It now appears that the baggage problems at London Heathrowâ''s Terminal 5 were caused in part to a bit of test software that wasnâ''t removed properly.

According to a story in ComputerWeekly, British Airways (BA) Chief Executive Willie Walsh claims that "the main IT problem with the baggage system was a software filter that was mistakenly left in place after the system - designed by BAA (the airport operator) - went live. Walsh said the filter was used during the testing period to ensure the messages generated were restricted to the BAA operation, and were not sent out further than that. But because it remained in place after the terminal opened, it interfered with the messages coming into the system, meaning the system could not recognise a number of bags.â''

â''One other IT problem at the terminal concerned server capacity. Walsh said the servers had not been able to cope with the â''significant increasesâ'' in the volume of bags going through. The amount of messages the servers were coping with was significantly more than the amount run on them during modelling, and more server capacity is still required.â''

Willie Walsh also admitted in testimony reported in the London Guardian before the Commons Transport Committee that he had considered delaying the move to Terminal 5 right up until a few weeks before the opening because he knew things were very dicey, but decided to go ahead anyway.

In fact, Walsh said that he knew as far back as last September that â''the building programme was not 100 percent completeâ'' and would likely not be by the opening on 27 March.

But, given the costs of delaying for six months (the minimum time Walsh said was required), he decided to take a â''calculated riskâ'' to open anyway.

As a London Telegraph story put it, â''The upshot was that a planned six-month testing period to familiarise 15,800 BA staff with the new terminal and iron out glitches in baggage and other systems, could not be completed as intended.â''

Only 80% of the BA staff actually had the required training.

â''â''My regret is we did compromise on our testing programme. But we did this with our eyes open. It was a calculated risk,â'' Walsh said.â''

Walsh also said, â''If we did it again, we would do things differently.â''

Well, he will get another chance soon when BA plans to complete its move to Terminal 5 later this year.

Walsh also tried to play the same "forgive me for my relative bad behavior" game my children play with me. Walsh referred to other baggage system problems at Denver, Hong Kong and Barcelona as excuses for why BA's problems should not be seen in a bad light. Of course, he didnâ''t mentioned that other airports, like Singapore's and Beijingâ''s were able to open their new terminals without problems.

Finally, there are now rumors that BA is looking to replace Walsh, especially now that the Terminal 5 fiasco has caused tens of thousands of passengers to avoid flying BA. Better late than never.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Willie D. Jones
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