I have taken the title of this blog from the book of the same name published in 1993 and written by Lauren Ruth Wiener. I loved the title and when I saw it could be bought second hand on Amazon.com for less than $5 I bought it (I just checked and it is still available from as little as $1.99). I would highly recommend the investment and the book is an easy read with no great knowledge of functional safety required (the book largely predates functional safety). The book features an introduction by David Parnas who spent some time as a professor of software engineering at the University of Limerick until his retirement in 2008 (UL is 5 miles down the road from where I am writing this). The back cover of this book contains a review comment by Peter G. Neumann stating “Lauren Wiener’s book is a very readable, informative, and compelling view of the primary risks inherent in computer software. It clearly reflects the realities of today and why they can be expected to remain the worries of tomorrow”. If the book is good enough for Parnas, Neumann and Co. it is worth $5!
I have been meaning to do more functional safety for software blogs and perhaps this will start me off and perhaps I will even do a few more book reviews as I have built up a backlog of books to read some old, some new. This blog will feature excerpts and quotes from the book which caught my eye. Obviously, the bits which catch my eye would be different from those which you the reader might find interesting.
Firstly, the book is interesting in the sense that some of the future technology that it mentions is actually here and working today. Examples include video phones and self-parking cars. However many of the problems it highlights are still the same. For instance, self-driving cars are mentioned but they are not on the market. It worries me that something that was seen as imminent 25 years ago but is still described as imminent today may be permanently imminent.
To start with an early quote, “Where most product labels have an explicit warranty, software products carry an explicit disclaimer”, it almost implies that the supplier knows their software is buggy!
“Software may be inherently unreliable, but the typical software development process is not apt to improve matters”. I would hope that high integrity processes such as those given in IEC 61508-3 which was published in 1998 (5 years later than the book) would have helped in that case. However its avionics equivalent D0-178B was released in 1992 so perhaps not. Several of the examples given in the book related to avionics.
Reasons given in the book for software being unreliable include:
There are several references to failures caused by poor change management including many I had never heard of. I guess I had better things to do back around 1993/94. One such is a change to three lines out of millions of code in a telephone switching program covering large parts of the USA. Because only three lines were changed the full 13 week test run wasn’t re-run and guess what the system crashed. Another relevant quote I like is that “it may not be too hard to make the change you want, but it’s seldom simple to make only the change you want”. In regards to software maintenance the book tells us that “when you pay for software maintenance, what you are mostly paying for is for the company to fix the bugs it did not find during its own testing”. Later the books' author tells us “developers seldom maintain their own software for two reasons: prestige and job mobility” but in a more positive note “the more code you have, the more it will cost to develop and the harder it will be to maintain. The way to save money on software development is to develop less software. Lines of code are a debit, not an asset”.
An interesting example given relates to GM’s Hamtramck factory in Detroit Michigan (pictured to the left) which opened in 1985. It featured 50 AGV and over 260 robots. Needless to say given the topic of this book it didn’t work out so well, see here for more. Having said that I can still find articles dated 2018 about the same facility so they must have sorted it out eventually.
Another interesting discussion related to the computer architecture for the shuttle which featured five identical computers with the fifth one running diverse software to act as a backup. A train control system featuring three redundant computers is also discussed. It could track the location of the train using sensors in the wheels which contacted the train track to give its location or at least it could until they changed from clutch brakes to disk brakes. It turns out the clutch brakes had an unexpected feature which was not designed in or specified but still was there. In autumn the clutch brakes removed fallen leaves from the wheels so that contact was maintained. The disk brakes did not. The eventual fix was simple, namely to make sure that at least one carriage in every train had the older brakes.
The navigation software for the F16 fighter also gets a mention. Early versions of the software had a bug which caused the jet to flip when it crossed the equator. However the author does admit this bug was caught in simulation rather than in flight.
As regards documentation the book reminds us that “programmers like to program, but they are notorious for hating to write” and “In my experience, most programmers work best during the rewarding problem-solving and coding phases of a project. When it is time for tedious testing and mindless paperwork, their enthusiasm dwindles, and with it their effectiveness. Sermons about rigor make them feel guilty, but rarely affect their work habits”.
It’s fair to say the author of the book is not a fan of software being used in safety critical systems “The role of software in safety critical systems should always be a limited one” and is not a fan of safety standards suggesting that there is no evidence that they lead to safer software.
Looking at the examples of misbehaving software that the books author has used, I wonder what examples someone would use if writing the same book today. I imagine it would have to include the Boeing 737 max software issue ( Boeing share price down almost 25% since its peak in March) and the Toyota acceleration issue.
All in all I recommend you read the book even though it is over 25 years old. I am a member of the IEC 61508-3 working group and reading the older stuff gives me a better insight into the history behind the standard and the problems it was designed to solve. Knowing why can give you the confidence to remove or make changes. Luckily we still have some members of the committee who have been there since the start.
Nice article, but you've propagated a bug! The picture you're using for the Hamtramck assembly plant is actually the RenCen or Renaissance Center which is a combination of conference center and GM…
Thank you for letting us know about the image. I was the one who inserted the picture, not the author. I will update the post with the one you provided.
Maybe, but I've also had the benefit of living in Southern Michigan and have stood at the same spot as the photographer when I visited the RenCen. I'm quite confident that I would mis-identify almost any Irish landmark I attempted to reference...
your knowledge is amazing
Nice article, but you've propagated a bug! The picture you're using for the Hamtramck assembly plant is actually the RenCen or Renaissance Center which is a combination of conference center and GM's headquarters located in downtown Detroit on the river, a few miles Southeast of the plant.
Here's info on the RenCen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_Center
Here's an aerial picture of the actual plant:GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant
It turns that you read lots of books,congratulations