Archive for May 2010

Analyzing a software failure

More than once I have emphasized here [1] [2] the urgency of rules requiring systematic a posteriori analysis of software mishaps that have led to disasters. I have a feeling that many more posts will be necessary before the idea registers.

Some researchers are showing the way. In a June 2009 article [4], Tetsuo Tamai from the University of Tokyo published a fascinating dissection of the 2005 Mizuo Securities incident at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, where market havoc resulted from a software fault that prevented proper execution of the cancel command after an employee who wanted to sell one share at 610,000 yen mistakenly switched the two numbers.

I found out only recently about the article while browsing Dines Bjørner’s page and hitting on an unpublished paper [3] where Bjørner proposes a mathematical model for the trading rules. Tamai’s article deserves to be widely read.


[1] The one sure way to advance software engineering: this blog, see here.
[2] Dwelling on the point: this blog, see here.
[3] Dines Bjørner: The TSE Trading Rules, version 2, unpublished report, 22 February 2010, available online.
[4] Tetsuo Tamai: Social Impact of Information System Failures, in IEEE Computer, vol. 42, no. 6, June 2009, pages 58-65, available online (with registration); the article’s text is also included in [3].

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From programming to software engineering: ICSE keynote slides available

In response to many requests, I have made available [1] the slides of my education keynote at ICSE earlier this month. The theme was “From programming to software engineering: notes of an accidental teacher”. Some of the material has been presented before, notably at the Informatics Education Europe conference in Venice in 2009. (In research you can give a new talk every month, but in education things move at a more senatorial pace.) Still, part of the content is new. The talk is a summary of my experience teaching programming and software engineering at ETH.

The usual caveats apply: these are only slides (I did not write a paper), and not all may be understandable independently of the actual talk.


[1] From programming to software engineering: notes of an accidental teacher, slides from a keynote talk at ICSE 2010.

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PGT-PPP (Pretty Good Translation, Pretty Poor Privacy)

What’s in a URL? To someone who gains access to your computer, your browsing history will provide interesting information. More interesting, in some cases, than you might think.

Try Google Translate, for example. Say you want to translate “To be or not to be, that is the question” into the language of your choice. Go to, type your text, select the source language (actually you can skip this step, the tool will detect the language automatically) and the target language (that you will have to do, Google does not read into your mind yet). You get the translation; rather, a Pretty Good Translation, almost never quite right in my experience, but sufficient to give you a Pretty Good Idea. This is the result of modern work in computational linguistics, based on statistics and large-scale data mining rather than a traditional syntax-directed attempt at perfection.

Now look into the URL:|sv|To%20be%20or%20not%20to%20be%2C%20that%20is%20the%20question

Your text is encoded in it! This is true even for very long texts. Building up such complex URLs is one of the time-honored techniques for simulating state in the stateless HTTP protocol. But now anyone who sees your browsing history will know the precise texts that interested you enough to make you want to translate them. A Pretty Good Window on your personal interests! And not necessarily something that you want automatically archived.

Google Translate and other translation sites are great tools to facilitate our life, especially when dealing with languages we know superficially or not at all. But maybe there is a way to provide the service without opening such a large window on the detailed questions that occupy our minds?

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