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You Can Be Your Own Hamster on a Wheel


Want to power your cell phone or iPod on a camping trip? Then you need the biomechanical energy harvester. As described here and here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website and discussed in the Washington Post:

"A new, knee-mounted device harvests energy from the end of a walkerâ''s step, in the same way that hybrid-electric cars recycle power from braking. With a device on each leg, volunteers generated about 5 Watts of electricity, while using little additional energy. Thatâ''s enough power to run 10 cell phones at the same time, and twice the power needed for computers in developing regions."

There is some interesting graphics and video at the site as well.

I can hardly wait until these things become mandatory in Europe in an effort to reduce global warming. I wonder if they will be designed to be fashion accessories?

Déjà Vu for Blackberry Users


The New York Times reports that the Blackberry outage was caused by - drum roll please - "a flawed software upgrade." A very short communique that Research in Motion (RIM) released to the press via email (but didn't post on its website) said that there "was a problem with an internal data routing system" that had recently been upgraded, and that the "upgrade was part of RIM's routine and ongoing efforts to increase overall capacity for longer term growth." No further explanation was given.

RIM is setting up a team to investigate the problem and to avoid a future recurrence; just like last year.

Anatomy of a Software Project Fiasco: LAUSD Payroll System


A very sad, but very unsurprising, story appeared in yesterday's Los Angeles Times about the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) payroll system fiasco that I have been blogging about for the past several months. The story shows how the system was in trouble from the start, tells of the warnings of trouble along the way, and how the warnings were ignored anyway until it was too late.

"In the weeks leading up to the launch of a new payroll system, Los Angeles Unified School District officials had plenty of warning that the $95-million technology project would have serious problems."

"Critical hardware had failed numerous times. Flawed data collected over decades proved difficult to clean up and input into the new system. Payroll clerks complained that training had fallen far short -- more than 60 schools didn't have a single staff member who'd received any training."

"Still, consultants hired to implement the system urged the district to proceed as scheduled in early January 2007. Three days before the system was to begin, they urged the district in a report to 'Go! Proceed . . . and go-live on January 1!' "

The story goes on to say that LAUSD officials admitted that they were too inexperienced - I say incompetent - to understand the issues, risks, and problems popping up all around them.

"Supt. David L. Brewer oversaw the district's clumsy recovery effort. It has taken a year to stabilize the system. The ordeal has weakened the superintendent, opening him to criticism that he has been ineffective."

" 'We were not ready to go live with this system, but we didn't have the internal expertise to know that,' Brewer said in a recent interview."

The LAUSD chief operating officer responsible for pushing through the payroll system also admitted that "he knows little about computer systems."

Helping matter along, the original payroll data was not cleansed before it was put into the new system, so the new system used inaccurate information. "The dirty data had produced bogus employee rosters. How, clerks wondered, do you cut a paycheck for a person the computer system says does not exist?"

The contractor responsible for the payroll, however, maintains that "throughout the project we not only did our part, but we in fact went above and beyond." I am sure, therefore, that they are going to use the project as a proud customer reference site in their future proposals.

All one can say is, sad, sad, sad, and another software project to add to the case study pile of what not to do - not that anyone will read it.

London 777 Crash - Likely Caused by Ice in Fuel System?


In today's Wall Street Journal, there is a story about American and United Airlines taking precautions against the possibility ice accumulation in the fuel systems of Boeing 777s, which seems to be the leading theory for the crash of the British Airways 777 on 17 January. According to the paper, "The moves come amid growing indications that a buildup of ice crystals or slush simultaneously restricted fuel flow and reduced the thrust of both engines of the Boeing 777."

The paper goes on, "U.S. and British investigators are focusing on whether ice crystals may have clogged the plane's dual oil-cooler systems, according to people familiar with the details. The radiator-like devices use fuel flow from each of the wing tanks to cool engine oil, and fuel then flows from there to the nearby engine during flight. .... [it is] believed to be the first time ice contamination in fuel brought down a large, state-of-the-art jetliner with no apparent mechanical or computer malfunctions."

So much for it being software.

Crackberry, err, Blackberry Users Get Their Juice Back


For the second time in 10 months, Research in Motion's (RIM) Blackberry network suffered another outage affecting some 8 million of its customers. This one lasted only about 3 hours, while the one last April lasted more than 12 hours.

While many Blackberry users were forgiving of the first outage (a typical comment of the time was ""These things happen. Life goes on."), this time, Blackberry owners seem more irritated ("I don't know what happened, I don't care what happened. They need to save their excuses for someone who cares").

Part of the reason for the angst, other than the Blackberry addiction theory, is that RIM promised after the April fiasco - which was caused by poor software testing - that something like this wouldn't happen again claiming that it would put in back-up systems. So user expectations were naturally raised.

RIM also said that they would be more open about any problems in the future. Some of you may remember that RIM was very closed-mouth about the April outage, providing the press with a constant stream of "no comments," not only about its cause but during the event itself. Surprisingly, there is nothing about this latest one on their website this time either. Not a smart move, guys.

RIM now has two strikes against it, and if a third outage hits soon, expect the company to take a big share hit as it will get tagged with a reputation for unreliability. Not a good thing for a device that health, safety and security professionals and government officials depend on, nor with alternatives available to tempt Blackberry users.

I recently traveled around the world without either a cell phone or a laptop. It was very refreshing, with the only downside being a boatload of emails when I got back that I had to wade through. Still, it was a good trade.

Silver-lining to Boeing 787 Schedule Slip


" 'We have taken advantage of the delays to make sure our system level maturity is coming along at a rate that will avoid problems as we enter flight test.' " So said Boeing's Scott Carson, chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes last Wednesday in regard to the year-long slip in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's flight testing. As I noted a few months back, the software folks were praying for some other part of the aircraft's development to be blamed for the slip, and not them. They got their wish - and they better make the most of it.

Carson says that the 787 is now on track - although we've heard that a couple of times before. There still has been no public disclosure of the penalties Boeing will have to pay airlines such as All Nippon Airways for the late delivery of the 787, but I doubt it will be minimal.

On a side note, I had a chance to see Boeing's major competitor the Airbus 380 arriving in Singapore last week. Others may disagree, but it looked to me like a cargo plane on steroids. It definitely looks better in pictures than up close.

Unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - I was outbound to Germany and did not get to see how baggage, customs and immigration handled the plane's passenger volume. The newly opened and spectacular terminal at Changi Airport (which I'll blog about soon) has been designed to handle Singapore Airline's future fleet of A380's (Singapore Airlines currently has two A380s in service, a further 17 on firm order and options on six more), but even though the new terminal is spacious, I don't think I would want to be around when a couple of A380s off-load at the same time.

It is not known how much Airbus had to pay in penalty costs to Singapore Airline for delivering the A380 two years late (operations started last October), but given that Singapore Air had very publicly committed its future business around it, the amount had to be pretty high.

Computer Gives Away Money, Sparks Brawl

In-the-money.gif This is a story from last Thanksgiving time that slipped under the radar. Apparently, a computer glitch at a Kmart store in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin helped spark a brawl. It seems that the store was running a promotion in which it would give away $10 to anyone applying for its credit card. However, a computer error allowed everyone's application to be approved, thereby immediately giving $850 to $4,000 in instant credit to anyone who applied, regardless of credit history.

Naturally, word spread pretty quickly (claims of "free money at Kmart" was how it was phrased) and soon the store was overrun with people trying to sign up for credit cards. Things got ugly as credit card applications ran out, and a dozen police were need to restore order. A couple of folks were arrested as well.

Some innovative folks went to another Kmart when the credit card applications ran out, and started to sell them in the parking lot for $20 apiece. Now that's good old American enterprise at work.

KMart said that it was a localized, not national, problem - which is interesting in itself. Local stores can grant their own credit approvals?

Is $40,000 Too Much for A Good Night's Sleep?


The London Guardian published an article a few weeks back about the Starry Night Bed from Leggett & Platt, a computer-controlled bed that claims to "monitor your sleeping patterns, regulate your temperature and even intervene to stop you snoring."

The story goes on: "The Starry Night Bed contains vibration sensors that can monitor the sleeper's breathing. If the breathing stops, a built-in computer can call 999. If it detects snoring, the head of the bed automatically elevates by seven degrees to unblock the sleeper's airways. If the snoring continues, it goes up by a further seven degrees. When the snoring stops, the bed flattens out again."

"A thin layer of liquid sealed into the mattress allows the bed to provide heating or cooling anywhere between 20C and 47C (68 to 117 degrees Fahrenheit). Built-in ambient lighting switches on if the user goes wandering in the middle of the night. The bed's headboard contains a media centre with 1.5 terabytes of memory, enough to store 400,000 songs or 2,000 hours of video. There are also surround-sound speakers and an LCD-based projector in the headboard that casts a 10ft screen on the wall, projecting films, books or the internet."

You can also connect the bed to something called Life|ware, which "connects the diagnostic and entertainment features of Starry Night with other electronic components in the bedroom and throughout the house," according to the website.

And yes, there is an iPod docking station included, but no, there is no espresso maker.

Who Invented What?


There is a new book out by Seth Shulman titled, "The Telephone Gambit" which argues that Alexander Graham Bell didn't invent the telephone after all, and that he stole the critical technology from Elisha Gray. He appears to make a pretty compelling case. There are extensive reviews of the book on line, such as here and here.

The thrust of Shulman's thesis lays in his discovery that Bell was trying out all sorts of approaches that weren't panning out, as noted in Bell's notebooks of early 1876. Entries in the notebook about his different attempts continue until 24 February 1876, and then don't resume until 7 March 1876 when Bell tries a novel approach. A day and a half later, "Mr. Watson, come here. I need you," is supposedly transmitted.

The gap is important, Shulman argues, because Bell had just returned from a trip from Washington, DC, where it seems that Bell got improper access to Gray's patent application. Shulman also contends that Bell's subsequent reticent behavior indicates that he struggled to come to terms with his theft of Gray's invention.

The book reminds one a bit of the recent flap over the MS-DOS and how much credit for it is owed to Gary Kildall and CP/M. I wonder if there will be books about it a hundred and thirty years from now, or will anyone then even remember MS-DOS, Windows or even Microsoft.

Worrying ID Theft

A few weeks ago, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division began contacting as many as 10,000 current and former federal employees who worked at the Naval Bases in Dahlgren, Va., Silver Spring, Md., and Panama City, Fla., on or before July 7, 1994, to warn them of potential identity theft, NSWC urged them to contact their creditor bureaus in the wake of a reported attempt to illegally obtain a credit card using an employeeâ''s personal information.

NSWC was notified on Jan. 8 that four individuals had been arrested in Bensalem Township, Pa., on Jan. 5, 2008, for attempted identity fraud. The police informed a Dahlgren employee that someone had stolen his identity and was about to use his credit card to buy a big-screen TV at Sears.

The four had in their possession two pages of a hard copy report dated July 7, 1994, containing personally identifiable information (PII) â'' names, social security numbers and dates of birth â'' of nearly 100 individuals with the last name beginning with â''B.â''

So far, there is still no information as to how the individual(s) came to be in possession of employee personal information. The episode is currently under Secret Service investigation.

This theft shows how even older data records can pose a major threat. What is concerning is whether this was a one-off, aberration, or whether id thieves are now targeting archival information. It also points out that thieves might be very willing to hold on to stolen data - especially if it is a "high profile theft" - for a very long time, since its value doesn't decrease much.


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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