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Study Opportunities' Blog

Beware of bugs - software quality matters more than you think.

Software. The encoding of human thought and problem solving into steps that a brainless machine, unthinking can follow - and follow blindly and unquestioningly.

29 October 2018. Indonesian airline Lion Air had a plane crash 12 minutes after takeoff. 189 people die. The aircraft was a Boeing 737 Max 8. 10 March 2019. An Ethiopian airlines flight crashes shortly after takeoff. 159 people die. The aircraft was a Boeing 737 Max 8.

The 737 Max 8 is a new variation on an old design series. Changes in the physical design of the aircraft (including increasing the size and weight of the engines and moving the engines forward and higher on the wing) result in an aerodynamic tendency for the aircraft to 'nose up'. This can cause the aircraft to 'stall' - a condition where the wings lose all lift and the aircraft literally drops from the sky.

To prevent this 'nose up' tendency a new software system was created to help prevent stalls. The system takes input from two Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors as well as other aircraft sensors (airspeed, flaps, throttle, etc). If the system 'thinks' the aircraft might be about to stall, it automatically (without warning the pilot) pushes the aircraft nose down, preventing the stall. This system is meant to prevent the aircraft stalling (and crashing) when the aircraft is under manual pilot control and operating in tight turns or at low speeds. For information, it is called the MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System).

If it senses a too high angle of attack, the MCAS immediately takes control of the aircraft and pushes the nose down. The pilot is not notified This is awesome if the aircraft is actually about to stall. It will prevent a crash and save lives. If the aircraft is not about to stall and the sensor is faulty then what this does is put the aircraft into a dive - and causes a crash.

Pilots were not informed about the MCAS system, it was not documented in the manuals and pilots received no training on the system.

The consequence - when the sensors malfunction, the MCAS takes over. Untrained pilots end up fighting a plane that wants to nose down for no apparent reason. The normal controls to fight this - the yoke - are ineffective. The result: Tragedy. Death.

Boeing 737 Max 8 planes are grounded until Boeing releases a software fix in the next few weeks.

The fact is, getting software as bug free as possible matters.

I have often seen learners struggle and struggle to write a program - and stop the first time they get it to run successfully.

It is our responsibility to make our learners aware of the consequences of buggy software. The cost in millions of dollars to the economy of failed software. The potential for disaster, death, injury, bankruptcy and job losses when software goes bad... We have to install in them the awareness that a developers job goes way beyond simply getting the program to run. They have to test that it handles user errors gracefully. They need to test it with all kinds of incorrect and problematic input. They have to anticipate what they user can do wrong.

Their programs need to be resilient - or the consequences could be dire!

The videos below can be shown as some examples of consequences of software errors. The one titled 'Software disasters' is mainly interesting for the facts and figures at the start - the remainder is likely to put your learners to sleep due to the presentation style.

Other consequences of software errors:

Something worth spending a lesson on maybe - showing the videos, talking about consequences and responsibilities - and possibly integrating with things such as trace tables for algorithms or testing of software for major projects.

Hope it's useful!


Welcome back for 2018

Welcome back from what has hopefully been a good, refreshing, energising break.

The holiday period has seen quite a bit of activity in the tech sector - including some far reaching hacks and bugs. There's a lot of it, and so this blog will have little discussion and lots of links...

Here's a short summary of (some) of the most important news and activities:

Hacks & Bugs:

A huge security hole in CPU microcode and hardware affects almost all CPUs made since 1995. OS vendors have to patch to work around the hole. Endless articles about the issue are available online. This article makes the issue comprehensible. Also includes a great graph showing the relative speeds of memory and storage.

Swatting is when you make a fake emergency call to the Police to get them to send a SWAT team to raid the house of someone who has been irritating / annoying you in your game. This article shows how it can go wrong.

This malware will even record conversations that take place when you are in a specific location! It feels like a type of 'James Bond 007' spy app with some pretty insane capabilities.

Someone pushed the wrong button. For 38 minutes a whole American state's inhabitants thought they were about to be nuked.

The state of the IT industry

A fascinating read for the gear heads out there. TLDR; the overhead of modern OS and multitasking means that yes, it takes longer for a letter to appear on your screen when you press a key today than it did on an Apple II!

Excellent read!

Social Implications

A New York Times article looking at the possible robot impact on jobs in the future. Good read.

According to Wired though, the answer might be to learn to use Spreadsheets (perfect for CAT learners).

An interesting article that looks at the rise and fall of technologies through the years.

Speculative research is that online porn used over 5 million Kwh of power in 2016. That's a lot of power! The article shows that porn consumption has increased due to the internet - so much so that the cost of power overwhelms the savings made by getting rid of physical products such as DVDs (and their packaging).

Africa produces about 5% of the world's e-waste but recycles almost none of it. Around 44 million tons of e-waste (TV sets, smartphones, etc) was dumped last year alone. A study speculates that the gold, silver, copper & other valuable materials that were not recovered is around $55 Billion.

New Tech

  • Rollable TV screen

Leads to...

Bad news: Not planned for commercial release anytime soon...

Really interesting & short.

56 cores, 3Tb of RAM, 1700w power supply (4 household fridge's worth), 10Gb ethernet, TWO nVidia Quadro graphics cards... A maxed out spec costs over $69 000 (nearly 1 million bucks!). Just think of your gaming performance ;)....

ENI is a gas and oil company that has successfully used supercomputers for prospecting (it found huge gas fields in Mozambique and Egypt). It has expanded its supercomputing power to a 18 Teraflop machine in Milan.

Imagine your laptop is always on, always connected (just like your tablet) and its battery can last more than a day. The idea of Windows running on low power ARM CPUs could make this possible. Microsoft has a proof of concept - but real world performance is still to be seen. It would have to be a lot better than the discontinued Windows RT for anyone to be convinced...

And that's it for this week. Welcome back and happy teaching.


Make your phone a Science Lab

If you have an Android phone then Google has just released a cool app called Science Journal (get it here for free on the Google Play store). You use the app to record data from the sensors on your device (light, sound, movement) - which you can use as measuring equipment in experiments! The app also connects to Arduino powered electronics for additional sensors and data. The Google for education post about the software is here. Tell your school's science teacher about it - it's really great for use in practical physics experiments.

Some follow up on previous news:

  • SARS has identified 1700 South Africans in the Mossac Fonseca leak and will be investigating possible tax evasion with perpetrators facing large fines and / or jail time.
  • The robots march onward: Foxconn (the Chinese electronics manufacturing giant that makes, amongst other things, Apples iDevices and Samsung gadgets) has just replaced 60 000 workers with robots.
  • SWIFT hacked again. In March we linked to an article on how a spelling error foiled a hack attempt which would have seen the cybercriminals get away with $1 billion. Instead they only got $81 million. They did this by hacking SWIFT - the system used by banks to transfer money internationally. This week SWIFT was hacked again and the criminals got $12 million. Details here at The Hacker News.

SCARY: Old tech runs nuclear missiles....

How scary? Remember floppy disks? Not stiffies (as they were known in South Africa) not even the large old 5 1/4" floppy disk drives that held 360 K of data and powered the first Apple and IBM personal computers. No we are talking about the giant 8" floppy disks used in 1970's IBM mainframes.

Well, those same floppy disks and 1970's IBM mainframes are still being used to control Americas Nuclear missiles, bombers and other related military tech. Even older 1950's mainframe based outdated tech is the backbone of American Tax data, whilst other American departments still run systems that use DOS! CNBC has a summary of the revelations.

The full detailed tech report (for the real geeks) is available as a PDF here.

Short snippets for this week:

  • A tortoise that had 85% of its shell damaged in a forest fire has been given a new 3D printed shell. Read the details at www.3dprinter.net.
  • Local piracy: Research says 33% of software in SA is pirated.
  • Artificial Intelligence Rulez! A professor at Georgia Tech created a chatbot powered by IBMs Watson computer technology to act as a Teaching Assistant for his computer science class. The bot monitored online discussion groups about the course to give students advice and answer their questions. Most students didn't realise they were talking to a computer and some even wanted to nominate it as best teaching assistant! Read it on The Next Web.
  • The Week's big South African HACK: Standard bank had R300 million stolen. Hackers got hold of credit card details, created fake cards and used those cards at ATMs in Japan to draw cash to the value of R300 million. Around 100 people used 1400 ATMs to draw the cash over a period of about 2 - 3 hours. This was a big, co-ordinated, planned attack. Standard bank says the loss will be carried by the bank - no clients will be affected. Read about it at IT Web and - a shorter version with an infographic - at My Broadband.

Until next week....

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