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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?

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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?

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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.

Electronic medical records: Does Clinton Overstate Potential Savings?

From Spectrum senior associate editor Steven Cherry at Tech Talk:

Would electronic medical records save the United States $77 billion?

Hillary Clinton, Senator from New York and one of the leading candidates for the 2008 presidency, said so on Thursday night.

You can hear it for yourself. Itâ''s about five and half minutes into this YouTube video.

If you don't want to listen, hereâ''s the key soundbite:

According to the Rand Corporation, hardly a bastion of liberal thinking, they have said that we would save $77 billion dollars a year. That money could be put into prevention. It could be put into chronic care management. It can be put into making sure that our health care system has enough access so that if you are in a rural community somewhere in California or somewhere in Tennessee or somewhere in Georgia, youâ''ll have access to health care. If youâ''re in an inner city area, and you see your hospital, like the Drew Medical Center, closed on you, then youâ''re going to have a place once again where you can get health care in the immediate area.

Clinton wants to pay for universal health care, in part, with these savings. And sheâ''s been talking about it for a while. She mentioned the $77 billion figure in a key policy speech on the eve of the New Hampshire primary that reinvigorated her campaign. Itâ''s obviously an important matter, yet Iâ''m not sure the press has taken even the quickest look at the RAND study on which so much of Clintonâ''s health plan depends.

If they had, theyâ''d notice that the study was released back in 2005. Not only that, but it was two years in the making, according to a RAND press release issued at the time. So the savings might be greater, adjusted for inflation, and might be greater, or a lot less, depending on how outdated the data is.

The study actually claims $81 billion in annual savings, according to a press release issued at the time. For some reason Clinton isnâ''t counting $4 billion that â''would be saved each year because of improved safety, primarily by reducing prescription errors as computerized systems warn doctors and pharmacists of potential mistakes.â''

Leaving aside those safety savings, what would the $77 billions in savings result from? Richard Hillestad, a senior management scientist at RAND who led the study,

estimates that if 90 percent of doctors and hospitals successfully adopt health information technology and use it effectively, resulting efficiencies would save $77 billion annually. The biggest savings would come through shorter hospital stays prompted by better-coordinated care; less nursing time spent on administrative tasks; better use of medications in hospitals; and better utilization of drugs, labs and radiology services in outpatient settings.

In other words, itâ''s not as if we save $77 billion from eliminating the manual operations of paper records, and then can plunge the savings into improved care. The savings come from the very improvements in heathcare that electronic health records make possible. So the question arises: Is Clinton double-counting the benefits of electronic health care records, once in the saving of the money, and then again in the spending of it? Look at one specific instance the RAND release gives:

For example, health information technology could make a major contribution to improving care for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, who account for 75 percent of the nation's medical care costs, according to researchers.

That sounds an awful lot like the â''chronic care managementâ'' that Clinton cited as something that â''that money could be put into.â''

To be sure, the estimated cost of Clintonâ''s proposed changes to health care run about $110, half of which she says can come from ending the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire soon. â''The other $55 billion,â'' she explained, â''would come from the modernization and the efficiencies,â'' of which, presumably, electronic health care is only one. It is, though, the only one she discussed at length in the debate.

Thereâ''s also, then, a question of timing. The RAND study says

â''It's going to take 10 to 15 years to achieve wide adoption of electronic medical information, even if all the ongoing efforts are successful,â'' Hillestad said.

Does Clinton plan to wait for the savings to materialize before reforming health care? Surely not.

Health care in general is a serious issue, as is the specific one of electronic health records. It was given quite a bit of debate time this week. Unfortunately, Wolf Blitzer, who moderated the CNN-sponsored debate, arrived unprepared to challenge Clintonâ''s airy claims about it, despite their having been made more than three weeks earlier in an important speech.

For those who want more substance than air, Spectrum has plenty to offer. Way back in 2002, we published "Welcome To The (Almost) Digital Hospital,"

More recently, contributing editor Robert N. Charette looked specifically at the promises and problems of electronic medical records in â''Dying for Data.â''

In fact, Bobâ''s been a little obsessed by the topic. Last summer he blogged about it three times in one month, here, here, and here. The last two are about the critical issue of privacy.

And earlier this month, Bob wrote about a fascinating 3-D visualization tool for electronic health records being developed at IBM, â''Visualizing Electronic Health Records With â''Google-Earth for the Bodyâ''.â''

Weâ''ll continue to follow this and other tech-related issues as the presidential campaign continues. Some of the claims made by the candidates involve some pretty interesting and complicated technologies. For this one, though, all you had to do was read a two-year-old press release.

UK ID Cards: Delayed But Not Dead

News reports are surfacing that the plan to implement UK ID cards by 2010 has been slipped to 2012, i.e., after the next election, according to a leaked government strategy paper. The plan, however, is still that by 2015, access to certain government services will require use of the ID Card, like here with REAL ID, thereby "encouraging" everyone to get one.

All the bad publicity from the data scandals has probably helped influence the new strategy.

However, the government, while not exactly denying the delay, said that it was fully committed to introducing the cards, regardless. Unless, of course, the current government loses the next election.

NPfIT in Trouble?

The UK National Program for IT (NPfIT), the national electronics health record program may be in deep trouble. A report last week in ComputerWeekly said that "a board of an NHS trust has learned of a "significant" risk of ­Fujitsu ending its £900m contract to supply and implement hospital systems across southern England."

If Fujitsu pulls out, the NPfIT roll-out would highly probably be delayed, and the whole program called into question. At the very least, a high level review that has been repeatedly called for would be hard to dodge any longer.

In 2006, Accenture pulled out of its £2bn contract with the project, writing off £230m in the process.

A year ago, a senior manager at Fujitsu gave a presentation at a conference on whether NPfIT could be made to work, and was severely beat up for it. Maybe Fujitsu should have bailed out then while the bailing was good.

Who Watches the Automated Watch Watchers?

The French bank Société Générale SA admitted that a "rogue trader" who lost $7.2 billion in trades was able to by-pass five levels of controls for a year before finally slipping up and getting caught.

The trader, by the name of Jérÿme Kerviel, hid the trades by making fake orders to balance each of the genuine orders he placed. Although the bank says he operated alone, many are skeptical. It is known that he used to work in the bank's back office, and therefore had detailed knowledge of how trades were processed and monitored.

Apparently Kerviel spent time hacking the risk control system which enabled him to hide his trades. He was able to do so by using his colleagues' passwords, although how he got them has not been disclosed.

A determined person can probably circumvent any set of automated risk control system, and that the control system itself needs to be monitored for signs of tampering. The UK government financial regulators are now looking at UK banks for such a problem.

Cable Company Loses Customers' Emails

A software error during routine maintenance at Charter Communications in St. Louis erased the email accounts of 14,000 of its customers last week. There is no way to recover any of them.

When a new Internet user joins Charter, the company provides the user a free e-mail account. However, some users don't activate it, so every three months the company deletes inactive accounts.

During last weeks maintenance, Chareter erroneously deleted active accounts along with the others.

Said a spokesperson for Charter: "It's never happened before. They are taking steps to make sure it never happens again."

"We really are sincerely sorry for having had this happen and do apologize to all those folks who were affected by the error," she said.

In 2007, Charter was named Cable Operator of the Year by CableWorld Magazine. I wonder if this will keep them out of the running for 2008.

Computer Problem Delays East Coast Flights

A computer problem at 1800 local time Wednesday night at the Nashua flight center, officially known as Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center (or Boston Center) had to shut down and reboot a computer system used to track flight routes, aircraft type, and other key information about planes flying in and out of the region, according to the Boston Globe. The system was down for about 45 minutes, although the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) said it was longer.

During the outage, controllers went back to entering flight information manually, and needed to call other air traffic centers to obtain aircraft information for flights entering New England airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said there were no safety issues, but NATCA disagreed.

" 'This was, in every possible sense, a dangerously unsafe and chaotic situation,' said Kevin Bianchi, Boston Centerâ''s NATCA facility representative. 'Controllers were in essence working blind and, in many cases, actually had to question pilots to determine their location and routes of flight. Controllers were required to use a secondary backup system to safely track aircraft.' "

The problem caused delays to flights at Logan International Airport and other New England airports as well as several international routes that travel in New England airspace on the way in and out of New York.

Why the problem occurred is not known. The FAA said that it is now investigating.

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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.

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Willie D. Jones
 
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