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Legacy Computer Models & Decision Making

Wood-Model.gif My post from yesterday about the false warning to prepare to evacuate based on an outdated computer model/data that a dam was in danger of bursting made me wonder about the flip side: how many outdated computer models are being used to make decisions that are too optimistic?

Recently, there was a story in the Washington Post on an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) review that "found that a computer model of the Chesapeake, used by the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program to gauge improvements in the estuary's health, tended to inflate the impact of some cleanup measures."

"Tom Simpson, a University of Maryland professor who led the review requested by the bay program, said there was no evidence that the EPA had been purposefully deceitful."

The Post story goes on:

"Simpson and other researchers were asked by the bay program to review some of the calculations plugged into its computer model. These equations described the impact of certain save-the-bay tactics: plant X amount of cover crops to hold fertilizer on farm fields, thus achieving a decline of Y in fertilizer-polluted runoff."

"But Simpson said his review found that many of the equations were based on small-scale experiments that might not predict what would happen on a large farm. Others were based on the educated guesses of experts."

"Fifteen assumptions were found to be accurate, and three were found to underestimate the benefit to the bay, according to the bay program"

This story reinforces the notions that essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful, as George Box said (there is a nice paper here by John Sterman, Director, System Dynamics Group at MIT on the usefulness of models that is worth reading). However, I think we may need to update Box's saying to something along the lines of:

All models are wrong but old models that aren't reviewed are more wrong; make decision based on them at your own risk.

Run! The Dam is Breaking! Oh, Never mind

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning last Tuesday morning stating that failure of the Norway Dam on the Tippecanoe River north of Monticello, Indiana "is becoming more likely."

But it really wasn't.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, "Michael Lewis, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Northern Indiana bureau, said the erroneous warning was based on bad information that may have been entered into the agency's computer system up to two decades ago."

Two hours after it issued the alarm, the Weather Service rescinded it.

Lewis went on to say, "The problem is being fixed and the office's entire warning system will be reviewed."

DHS REAL ID - Real Fight Begins May 2008


The new REAL ID requirements have not molified those opposed to a de facto national identity card. To them, the new requirements are effectively the same as the old ones in this regard.

In addition, the new rules seem to have set up a mano a mano situation between the 17 states (Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington) that have rejected or oppose complying with REAL ID and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for May.

If these states don't ask for a waiver by May, then residents of that state will have to use a passport or certain types of federal border-crossing cards if they want to avoid secondary screening by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). DHS is obviously counting on passenger outcry to force the states to change their minds. It may be wise to avoid airports in those states in May - think of the mess at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago O'Hare, and DIA.

In addition, I am still not convinced that the cost of REAL ID will be reduced because those over fifty won't be required to get a new drivers license until 2017 as DHS claims. I mean, a state that implements REAL ID isn't going to run the equivalent of two computer systems - one for those under 50 and one for those over fifty.

For instance, I'm over fifty, and I expect when my license expires next, my state will likely have implemented REAL ID. I cannot fathom why my state won't ask me to come in and get a new REAL ID license if for no other reason that it will have been over a decade since it last updated my photo and checked my vision.

The longer time now given to get a REAL ID will help, obviously, to avoid a surge of applications, but going getting a new license will be a painful, long process for those over or under 50, as even DHS admits.

And I still think the cost savings claimed will turn out to be a mirage.

DIA - The Final End of the Automated Baggage System


The Rocky Mountain News had an article today on Denver International Airport's (DIA) final agreement with two companies to demolish and cart away the remnants of its infamous automated baggage system. The cost for its removal is not known exactly, but it will be in the millions.

A fitting comment on was made by Denver City Council President Michael Hancock, "This thing never dies."

An interesting point in the story is that there may be a final, accurate accounting of the costs for the automated baggage system, something that has never been fully determined.

The article also said that a new baggage system will be in place soon.

LAUSD Payroll System "Fixed"


The LA Daily News reported yesterday that the Los Angles Unified School District (LAUSD) is claiming that the payroll crisis is now nearing an end. According to the paper, "Errors due to defects in the system were below 1 percent based on Thursday's payroll numbers, meaning 99.2 percent of the district's employees were paid accurately."

Dave Holmquist, LAUSD's interim chief operating officer said, "We're under 1 percent ... which was one of the goals we had ... and we're hoping to improve upon this. The goal was three consecutive, improving, reliable payrolls, and we believe we've reached a place of stability in our payroll.

"We're nearing an end to our crisis."

Not everyone is happy, however, as the LA Daily Breeze reported last week that, "Two Los Angeles Unified high school employees filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status Tuesday, claiming they have been underpaid, a violation of labor laws, as a result of the district's troubled payroll system."

The two teachers claim in their lawsuit that they have been "repeatedly underpaid, meaning they have been earning less than minimum wage." Their lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, including unpaid wages and general and punitive damages.

Finally, the LAUSD is trying to convince its payroll contractor to make good for the tens of millions in cost overruns, instead of having to resort to a lawsuit. It better hope that the contractor comes through soon because the LAUSD is facing at least a $40 million cut between now and July - and then a hefty $500 million cut next year - in state funding due to the severe budget crunch California is facing.

REAL ID: Only to Cost States $3.5 Billion


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced new rules for REAL ID implementation today. As originally proposed the REAL ID Act of 2005 would have forced states to start issuing tamper-proof driver licenses and identify cards by May. The new regulations issued today by DHS says that the first deadline for compliance with REAL ID is Dec. 31, 2009.

However, DHS will allow states to request a waiver that would give them until May 11, 2011 at which point they would have to start issuing new driver licenses by December 1st, 2014 to everyone born after December 1,1964 (i.e., those under fifty years old). Then by December 1st, 2017 everyone born on or before December 1,1964 would have to have new licenses.

According to the new rules, "Effective May 11, 2008, Federal agencies cannot accept drivers' licenses or identification cards for official purposes, as defined herein, from States that have not been determined by DHS to be in compliance with the REAL ID Act unless a State has requested and obtained an extension of the compliance date from DHS."

Michael Chertoff, DHS Secretary said today that, "We have worked very closely with the states in terms of developing a plan that I think will be quite inexpensive, reasonable to implement and produce the results." DHS estimates that the revised rules will cost the states only $3.9 billion in implementation costs instead of the originally projected $14.6 billion. Supposedly, the new REAL ID requirements will add only $8 per new drivers license - a number I have little confidence in.

Of course, Congress has allocated about $81 million in dedicated funds so far to support implementation, and DHS promises another $280 million in general DHS funding that states can use if they so desire.

I guess a $3.5 billion unfunded mandate is better than a $14.2 billion unfunded mandate.

Geeks.com Geeked

ComputerWeekly reported today that the Geeks.com, the computer equipment seller, has been hacked, with customer credit card information, phone numbers and e-mail addresses stolen. The site shows a banner from McAfee's ScanAlert service showing that it is "hacker-safe."

Of course, the very small print


says, "This information is intended as a relative indication of the security efforts of this website and its operators. While this, or any other, vulnerability testing cannot and does not guarantee security, it does show that this site meets meets all payment card industry guidelines for remote web server vulnerability testing to help protect your personal information from hackers: HACKER SAFE does not mean hacker proof. ..."

I guess that is a reminder to us all.

Holes in Illinois Automatic Highway Toll System


This week the Chicago Daily Herald ran a three-part series called "Toll Gridlock" that reported on the problems with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's collection system. The series found that the toll authority is often "sending violation notices to the wrong addresses, leaving some drivers to miss out on chances to pay up before fines skyrocket or their driver's licenses are suspended."

In one case, a driver didn't know her I-PASS (electronic toll payment transponder) ran out of money and accumulated $179.50 in owed tolls. She was sent a letter saying she now owes $4,619, and had better pay up in two weeks, or owe the tollway $15,739 and eventually lose her driver's license.

The series also notes that "tollway officials say their license plate image readers have trouble discerning differences among the myriad of plate varieties, affecting about 25 percent of all plates on the road. This may result in fines being leveled against law-abiding motorists."

In addition, the series states that the toll authority doesn't know how many are cheating or how many motorists are being fined unfairly.

Finally, the series notes that the toll authority's management thinks all of the problems are minor, and that the way fines are assessed is "fair."

Glad I don't drive in Illinois.

UK Cancels $750 million Prison IT Project


In an unsurprising move, the UK government has put the kibosh on its Custody-National Offender Management Service Information System (C-NOMIS) that was intended to keep close track of the 330,000 prisoners and those serving their probation. The cost of the development, originally estimated at â'¿240 million has jumped to an estimated â'¿950 million, and sparked a government review of the project in August.

About â'¿155 million has been spent so far, and cancellation the program is likely to cost â'¿50 million in cancellation fees. The government said that it will try to salvage part of the system to track prisoners in prisons.

On the C-NOMIS website, it says, "The new Offender Management Model introduces the four Cs:

* continuity

* consistency

* commitment

* consolidation."

I guess a fifth C for cock-up, needs to be added to the list, which is better I guess than the other C, conspiracy. Its too bad too, since as the website says, "The concept of end-to-end offender management ensures that offenders are offered the best possible opportunity to change their offending behaviour." I guess it is going to take awhile before that opportunity comes again.

Irrelevant But Amusing Anyway

This story has nothing to do with information technology, but I can't resist anyway. The New York Times published a story today about 2 men who tried to cash a $355 Social Security check that wasn't theirs at a local check cashing company. It belonged, instead, to a friend/roommate of theirs who had died from natural causes the day before, and was "waiting" outside, Bernie-style.

As the Times writes, "Two men were arrested on Tuesday after pushing a corpse, seated in an office chair, along the sidewalk to a check-cashing store to cash the dead manâ''s Social Security check."

The story goes on to say that the 2 men placed their roommate's body in the chair and wheeled it around the corner, then parked the chair with the corpse in front of a Pay-O-Matic at 763 Ninth Avenue, a check-cashing business that the deceased had used.

The two went inside to present the check, but a clerk said the dead man would have to cash it himself, and asked where he was.

"He is outside," one of the men said, indicating the body in the chair. The two began to wheel the chair into the Pay-O-Matic (how he was going to sign the check is a bit of a mystery), but by then, a small crowd and a police detective had noticed the dead body in the chair.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.


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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