5 Tiny Computer Glitches That Caused Huge Disasters
We've all done stupid things with computers at work. For most of us, this means facing the wrath of the passive-aggressive IT guy. But there are certain jobs where making the same mistakes can cost companies billions of dollars, and sometimes costs people their lives. For instance ...
Google Accidentally Blocks the Internet
The Tiny Mistake:
Typos are a fact of life for anyone who spends time at a keyboard. Overlooking typos is part of what it means to exist on the Internet -- the millions of words being published at any given moment are just too hard to police. Of course, people who didn't discover boobs or drugs before senior English class will always spot them and point them out, but the rest of us will be fine to just catch the author's drift.
"Teh? TEH?! You might as well just rape the queen herself."
Google is the only reason the Internet can be as big and fast as it is and still useable. You rely on Google to find the typo-ridden pages that you were looking for when you entered your typo-ridden search term. They're also trusted to avoid pages that will melt your hard drive to your motherboard with viruses. Being the bouncer at the door of the Internet requires Google to update their list of potentially malicious sites constantly and in real time. Getting added to that list is the closest the Internet has to a death sentence. Flagged sites either won't appear in search results or will appear with a warning message. Even if you ignore that message, you will be taken to a page that tells you to go back to from whence you came.
"My God, the dicks must have reached critical mass!"
Of course keeping up with the reams and reams of content pouring online at any given moment is no small order. Certain parts of Google's company can be automated, but there's always going to be some hacker trying to get malware online without Google noticing. And noticing requires humans, and humans make typos. That's how a misplaced backslash made the world wobble on its axis one Saturday morning back in 2009.
One of Google's programmers was adding websites to the malware registry when he accidentally entered "/" instead of a full URL.
Look waaaaay up at the top of your browser screen, above all those toolbars, and you'll notice an Internet address. We're willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that, whether you're reading this on Cracked or one of the many Indian blogs that steals our content, the URL contains a backslash. That's because most URLs begin "HTTP://www," and backslashes separate different segments of the address. The backslash is to URLs what spaces are to written sentences.
Or what the f-word is to longshoremen.
That means that for a brief period of time after old butterfingers' backslash key mash gaff (suck it, New York Post), Google began telling the world that every website in existence was unsafe for your computer and shouldn't be visited. The vast, dumb hordes of algorithmic slaves that handle the search engine's dirty work set out to dutifully warn Internet users of the new danger.
For close to an hour on January 31, every single website was flagged as possibly harmful, and Google blocked all users from visiting those suspicious sites. Which were all the sites everywhere, including Google's own pages. Google quickly fixed and fessed up to their goof, which helped to distract us all from the terrifying knowledge that the whole Internet is one keystroke away from disappearing behind a wall of warning messages.
"Sure, we occasionally crash the world's primary communication apparatus. At least we aren't Bing."
Google never came out with a clear culprit, but we'd guess it has something to do with that beer they're brewing with Dogfish Head.
Sometimes the Error Messages Are There for a Reason
The Tiny Mistake:
You boot up your laptop only to find a cryptic error message, saying something about a DLL file or asking you to stop running scripts. You click "Cancel" or "Agree" or whatever it takes to make your computer play nice and cough up some Internet.
Error messages might as well be in a foreign language to many of the people who rely on computers to handle important tasks at work or in their personal lives. The fact remains that computers are hard and we have important shit to deal with.
Rewatching Family Guy important.
Most of us can afford to remain blissfully ignorant of the computers that rule our lives without causing much more than the occasional hard drive meltdown and a few family vacations worth of lost photographs. Unfortunately for everyone, "most of us" does not include medical professionals.
There was a machine named the Therac-25. It fought cancer by shooting people with radiation. Since radiation is hard on your body at the best of times, the Therac-25 was programmed to avoid shooting people with too much radiation. It even had a nifty little program installed to warn the user if something went wrong and the radiation-limiting dealie-majig stopped working.
Sadly, it came from an era when "user-friendly" meant "not written in binary."
Since this was the mid-'80s, hardware was pretty primitive and that radiation-limiting dealie did break. Thanks to good design, it warned its operators. Malfunction messages, numbered one to 64, would interrupt the Therac-25 constantly as the machine got worse and worse. But the manual contained no explanations as to what those errors might be. Thanks to bafflingly shitty manual-writing, almost every one of those error messages went ignored.
Eventually, the medical professionals who operated these radiation guns stopped caring what the damn things had to say. This worked well until a few people got shot with 100 times the maximum recommended dose of radiation. Three of them died, a monument to mankind's inerrant ability to ignore any problem that doesn't immediately solve itself.
"Don't worry, sir. I'm sure those alarms are purely cosmetic."
The 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."
System 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.
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.
The Date Line Beats 12 F-22 Raptors
The Tiny Mistake:
If you've ever flown internationally with a smartphone, you know that the sudden change in location can make it go crazy. Your GPS stops working, the clock gives you screwy results from all sorts of time zones, the radio gives you weird error codes -- nothing disastrous.
"Honey, according to the iPhone I just invented time travel."
Things get a little more disaster-y when you scale that smartphone up into the world's most powerful fighter plane. Twelve F-22 Raptors, worth $150 million apiece, were on their way down to Okinawa. It was their first international trip and the first real test of this $66 billion project. Things went great until the squadron crossed the international date line, at which point all 12 fighters simultaneously got hit by the aircraft equivalent of the blue screen of death. Most reports just mentioned a problem with the navigation software, but it was actually a bit more serious than that. According to Major General Don Sheppard:
"At the international date line, whoops, all systems dumped, and when I say all systems, I mean all systems -- their navigation, part of their communications, their fuel systems. They were -- they could have been in real trouble."
"Um, hey, Bill -- do you remember these things having, like, guns or something?"
Imagine that you're driving cross country and all of the gauges on your car just crap right the hell out. Now imagine that scenario was 100 times worse. When a plane loses its access to fuel, speed and altitude gauges, they're basically eyeballing their way around the sky. Had the fleet hit a cloud bank, there would have been 12 parachutes blooming over the 12 most expensive cannonballs ever to splash down in a body of water.
For hours, the crown jewel of America's air force hobbled across the ocean completely helpless, and they somehow managed to make it to Okinawa safely. At no point in the design and construction of these air supremacy fighters did Lockheed Martin consider the possibility of the international date line, something that iPhones are programmed to automatically deal with.
"These won't need to go overseas, right? I think we're pretty much done with wars."