3The Navy Tries to Divide by Zero
The Tiny Mistake:
If you've worked in an office or at a school, you know the pain of using an operating system chosen by a committee of people who don't understand your job. Left to your own devices, you'd use the software best suited to your actual work, but your supervisors have other concerns in mind. While the design department might be better off on a Mac, accounting knows perfectly well that the latest version of Windows is going to be cheaper and is perfectly serviceable for the numbers they need to crunch. It's a cost-benefit analysis, and almost always someone gets screwed in the transaction.
"I'm sorry, guys, but I've done the math and MS Paint makes more sense for graphic design from a financial standpoint."
It sucks, but that's just part of life in a big office. At least your boss doesn't have the power to control what you use at home.
Of course, when you work on a super-advanced Navy smart boat, your home itself runs off of an operating system. In 1996, the Navy decided to retrofit the billion dollar USS Yorktown with a bank of 27 computers, each with a dual 200 MHz processor (roughly one-fifth as powerful as a current iPhone). The upgrades were intended to automate much of the Yorktown's processes, shaving off $2.8 million in operation costs.
Much like a vibrator, it put thousands of hard-working seamen out of work.
Turns out the Navy is a PC. They elected to run the most advanced boat in the world on Windows NT, which was basically the Vista of its time. That worked about as well as you'd expect, which is to say it screwed up constantly. Techs on the boat scrambled to fix software bugs that popped up like mushrooms on Microsoft's latest steaming pile of cow dung.
"If it can handle Red Alert, it can handle a real war."
Things came to a head on September 21, 1997, when the USS Yorktown attempted to divide by zero. This caused what is called a buffer overflow error, which crashed the entire boat and left the most badass cruiser in the history of war floating crippled and dumb in the middle of the ocean. Eventually, the Navy was forced to tow the Yorktown's broken ass back to port.
Hey, let's try something real quick. Pull out a cheap calculator and try to divide a number by zero. It won't work, but you may notice your calculator doesn't immediately break. The Yorktown was slightly less resilient. As one shipboard systems expert put it, "The computers on the Yorktown were not designed to handle such a simple failure."
"Shit. Can we get a rain check on that 'war' thing? The whole boat just blue-screened."
2System Operator Avoids Hassle, America Loses Power
The Tiny Mistake:
You're browsing the Internet one day and your antivirus software alerts you to a threat. You easily avoid it, but seconds later that AV program pings you as you trawl the Web for torrents and Ukrainian warez. Who does this "Avg" guy think he is, judging you? With the righteous fury of the scorned, you disable active alerts and forget about it.
A month later, your PC explodes and someone in Mexico steals your identity.
You'd be surprised at how many sombreros your savings account can buy.
The worst case scenario is a lot scarier when the equipment in question is controlling the power grid for a big ol' chunk of the East Coast.
On August 14, 2003, at 12:15 p.m., a systems operator in Indiana noticed a small problem with the power flow monitoring tool. Said problem provoked an annoying alarm, which the operator turned off before fixing the problem. He never turned it back on.
"I am way too hungover to deal with this shit."
Five hours later, black smoke was rising over Manhattan as the Con Ed power station there ground to a halt. Power lines were dead in Ohio. In a matter of a few hours, the problem had snowballed and stations started going offline in Ontario, New York, New Jersey and Michigan. The international connections between Canada and the United States went dead. Fifty-five million people were without power.
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
Left: The East Coast normally. Right: The East Coast after a lazy sysop.
It was the second most disastrous power outage in history, and all because of a disabled alarm. That one alarm was apparently the only alarm, because none of the other operators noticed the cascade of errors that slowly killed the power grid. Days later, the problem was traced back to a deeply buried bug that probably could have been handled without crippling eight U.S. states and a handful of Canada if someone hadn't hit "ignore warning."
On the plus side, amateur astronomers got a night of pretty kickass stargazing.