Halt and Catch Fire

“To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer!”

We’ve become so dependent on our electronic “slaves” that they are now capable of causing major disasters whenever something goes wrong… And the funny thing is, 99.999% of those disasters are caused by human error, either in programming (Usually) or assembly.

Laptop, phone, and other Lithium-type batteries are inherently unstable, as are most things that are capable of providing lots of energy (Think Nuclear Power). Early disasters involving Lithium-Ion batteries very nearly killed the entire industry, until protection circuits were developed that would prevent most disasters. Very occasionally, though, such batteries still overheat and catch fire, to the accompaniment of much Press hysteria; these events only happen when there is a manufacturing error or the battery is physically damaged. This is why you are advised to never drop, cut, or otherwise molest your batteries, and also to immediately dispose of any battery (Outside!) that swells, gets too hot to hold your hand on, smells bad, or smokes.

While this is the most literal way a computer can “Halt and catch fire,” the term predates Lithium batteries by a couple of decades. It was originally a mythical instruction set that programmers imagined would cause a computer to do exactly that. While there is no programming I know of that could cause such an event, software errors have caused some serious and sometimes even life-threatening issues. When computers are in control of military, medical, electric power grids, and other vital systems, Very Bad Things can happen.

  • In 1983, the Soviet Early Warning System reported the launch by the US of five ICBMs, very nearly triggering World War Three and The End Of The World as We Know It. Only the “gut feeling” of one Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer at the time, averted a disaster of Nuclear proportions. Turns out, the satellite designed to detect launches had picked up the Sun’s reflection off of some clouds and screamed a false alarm. In the usual way of the world, Petrov was made a scapegoat for the false alarm instead of having a statue erected in his honor as the Savior of the World…
  • In 2007, six F-22s, the US Air Force’s newest and coolest front-line fighter jets, experienced near-total electronics failures when crossing the International Date Line on their way to Okinawa. Seems that going from Today to Tomorrow in the middle of the day was enough to cause their computer systems to choke. Fortunately, no parachutes were necessary that day, but with their navigation systems out, they had to get back to base by following a tanker. The problem was traced to one line of code in the 100,000+ lines in the aircraft’s operating systems. Ironically, smartphones, which cost considerably less than 250 million Dollars, do not have this problem.
  • Between 1983 and 1987, Therac-25 Radiation Therapy  machines delivered up to 100 times the intended amount of radiation to some cancer patients, resulting in several cases of radiation poisoning and three deaths. Unstable software design, dependance on a software safety system instead of a hardware system, and cryptic error messages not explained in the operator’s manual all contributed to the disaster. A machine intended to cure people became a murder weapon.

It’s been said that if people who design buildings did it the way programmers write software, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization. Use computers wisely; don’t trust them any further than you can throw them.





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