IT Hiccups of the Week

Trainspotting is still a popular hobby in UK; spotting computer-related foul-ups may soon become as popular, for last week UK residents (and many visitors) experienced a full train-yard-worth of computer woes.

We start off this week’s review of IT hiccups with the UK National Air Traffic Services (NATS) nighttime to daytime operations switchover that didn’t happen as scheduled at 0600 London time Saturday morning. As a result of the failure, which affected controller communications, hundreds of domestic and international flights into and out of the UK and Ireland were delayed and many cancelled. NATS went to its back-up system, which allowed it to operate at about 80 percent of capacity; full operations were not restored until 1900 Saturday night. The effects of the problems were felt well into Sunday.  

Early last Monday evening, the Royal Bank of Scotland Group's computer systems, which support RBS along with the two other banks (NatWest and Ulster Bank), went down for three hours, halting all three banks' financial transactions. The banks’ 15.7 million customers were not amused, it being Cyber Monday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year.  As you may recall, the RBS Group suffered a massive computer system meltdown in June 2012 that lasted nearly two months before it was fully straightened out. That snafu was preceded by a major outage in November 2011. Bank CEO Ross McEwan apologized for the latest cock-up, blaming it on RBS failing to “invest properly” in its IT systems “for decades.”  I am sure that apology was just the tonic to mollify customer anger. Just to add to the fun, on Wednesday, the three banks’ online systems were unavailable for about an hour because of a denial of service attack.

Also last week, the German-owned gas and electricity supplier Npower sent out letters to its 3.4 million English and Welsh customers apologizing for  “service issues resulting from the installation of a new billing system and a promise that customers will not lose out financially as a direct result of these issues.” It is estimated that over a million Npower customers either owe money or are owed money because of problems with the £200 million billing system that was installed in 2011. At the time, Npower was bragging that because of its deliberate approach, it wasn’t expecting any problems with its roll out.

Lest we forget, the Affordable Care Act website that was rebooted 10 days ago hasn’t fully escaped the IT-related problem orbit. The good news is that people are increasingly able to enroll for health insurance through the federal website, with more enrollments in two days after the reboot than all of October, when it was first launched. The bad news is that, of the 127 000 people who enrolled through the website in October and November, roughly one-fourth of their applications contained errors. The result: enrollees may not have insurance even though they think they do. The reboot has reduced the error rate to “only” 10 percent, the Obama Administration says, but with many more folks being able to sign up, that may not be exactly positive news. In addition, the Administration is now trying to discourage the use of paper ACA applications “because of concerns those applications would not be processed in time.”

State health insurance exchanges in Maryland and Oregon continue to have problems, while in California, the exchange secretly sent the names, addresses, phone numbers and addresses of tens of thousands to insurance agents of anyone who started a health insurance application, even if they didn’t complete it. That news hasn’t gone over well, even though California says that what it did is perfectly legal.

Finally, today is Grace Hopper’s 107th birthday, appropriately marked by a Google Doodle. I was privileged to meet her twice when I worked as an electronic engineer for the Department of the Navy in the 1970s; she was truly a remarkable person.

UK National Air Traffic Services Night to Day Switchover Doesn’t

UK Air Traffic Control Outage Causes Flying Misery

Computer Issue Hits UK National Air Traffic Control

NATS Apologizes for Flight Disruptions

Ryanair Rages at NATS over Outage

NATS Says Outage a “Just a One-off”

Royal Bank of Scotland Irritates Millions of Customers Once More

RBS Suffers Third IT Meltdown in 18 Months

Customers Furious with RBS over Latest Fiasco

Customers Skeptical of RBS Promises of Compensation

IT Cost Cutting Blamed for Problems

RBS CEO Apologizes For Latest IT Failure

Npower Apologies to English and Welsh Customers over Unacceptable Computer Billing Errors

Electricity and Gas Supplier Npower Apologizes to Customers

Npower Says “Sorry” for Those Billing Foul-ups

Npower Customers Angry at Incorrect Bills

Customer Service to be Outsourced to India Npower Announces

Of Other Interest …

Key West Flights Affected by Computer Problems

US Veterans Administration Claims System “Spontaneously” Shuts Down

UAE and Gulf HSBC Bank Customers Angry over Glitch

First Niagara Bank Customers Can’t Access Online Accounts

US Treasury Delays Securities Sale Due to Glitch

Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Department Computers Crash

Florida’s Unemployment Department Sends Tens of Identical Letters to Thousands

Photo: Steve Parsons/AP Photo

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The Spectacular Collapse of CryptoKitties, the First Big Blockchain Game

A cautionary tale of NFTs, Ethereum, and cryptocurrency security

8 min read
Vertical
Mountains and cresting waves made of cartoon cats and large green coins.
Frank Stockton
Pink

On 4 September 2018, someone known only as Rabono bought an angry cartoon cat named Dragon for 600 ether—an amount of Ethereum cryptocurrency worth about US $170,000 at the time, or $745,000 at the cryptocurrency’s value in July 2022.

It was by far the highest transaction yet for a nonfungible token (NFT), the then-new concept of a unique digital asset. And it was a headline-grabbing opportunity for CryptoKitties, the world’s first blockchain gaming hit. But the sky-high transaction obscured a more difficult truth: CryptoKitties was dying, and it had been for some time.

The launch of CryptoKitties drove up the value of Ether and the number of transactions on its blockchain. Even as the game's transaction volume plummeted, the number of Ethereum transactions continued to rise, possibly because of the arrival of multiple copycat NFT games.

That perhaps unrealistic wish becomes impossible once the downward spiral begins. Players, feeling no other attachment to the game than growing an investment, quickly flee and don’t return.

Whereas some blockchain games have seemingly ignored the perils of CryptoKitties’ quick growth and long decline, others have learned from the strain it placed on the Ethereum network. Most blockchain games now use a sidechain, a blockchain that exists independently but connects to another, more prominent “parent” blockchain. The chains are connected by a bridge that facilitates the transfer of tokens between each chain. This prevents a rise in fees on the primary blockchain, as all game activity occurs on the sidechain.

Yet even this new strategy comes with problems, because sidechains are proving to be less secure than the parent blockchain. An attack on Ronin, the sidechain used by Axie Infinity, let the hackers get away with the equivalent of $600 million. Polygon, another sidechain often used by blockchain games, had to patch an exploit that put $850 million at risk and pay a bug bounty of $2 million to the hacker who spotted the issue. Players who own NFTs on a sidechain are now warily eyeing its security.

Remember Dragon

The cryptocurrency wallet that owns the near million dollar kitten Dragon now holds barely 30 dollars’ worth of ether and hasn’t traded in NFTs for years. Wallets are anonymous, so it’s possible the person behind the wallet moved on to another. Still, it’s hard not to see the wallet’s inactivity as a sign that, for Rabono, the fun didn’t last.

Whether blockchain games and NFTs shoot to the moon or fall to zero, Bladon remains proud of what CryptoKitties accomplished and hopeful it nudged the blockchain industry in a more approachable direction.

“Before CryptoKitties, if you were to say ‘blockchain,’ everyone would have assumed you’re talking about cryptocurrency,” says Bladon. “What I’m proudest of is that it was something genuinely novel. There was real technical innovation, and seemingly, a real culture impact.”

This article was corrected on 11 August 2022 to give the correct date of Bryce Bladon's departure from Dapper Labs.

This article appears in the September 2022 print issue as “The Spectacular Collapse of CryptoKitties.”

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