5 Bugs That Prove Computers Themselves Were a Mistake

We coded this airplane wrong, sorry. It will flip upside-down and kill you
5 Bugs That Prove Computers Themselves Were a Mistake

Computers are terrible. We ourselves have never used them, not even once. We wrote this article by setting the type by hand and then photographing it, and we can only speculate on how those images later reached you. 

All computers are dangerous, even when unplugged, as they often host vast colonies of spiders. And when we try running actual software on computers, well, this is when the threat goes from bad to worse. The code may be bad, and the computer may go haywire, as happened when... 

A Satellite Went So Crazy, It Spun Out-of-Control and Exploded

Japanese legend tells of a painter who drew four dragons. He didn’t draw their pupils (also known as their Hitomi), and passersby pointed out the omission. So, he painted Hitomi onto two of the dragons. They now came to life and flew away. Anyway, in 2016, Japan launched a satellite and named it Hitomi, after the legend.

Hitomi satellite


It’s like naming a spacecraft Icarus

The satellite was designed to observe distant X-rays to decode the mysteries of the universe. It had to point at different sectors of space, so it contained little motors to turn it in one direction or another. Early one morning, scientists ordered it to flip over and stare at a quasar named Markarian 205. Gyroscopes in the satellite detected that it was flipping too much. Rotator wheels now kicked in to rotate it in the opposite direction. The problem was, the gyroscopes were reporting wrongly, so the wheels were turning for no reason.

The system had a fail-safe for this. It had thrusters that could blow to oppose this uncontrolled rotation. But scientists had uploaded the wrong command to control these thrusters. Instead of opposing the rotation, they rotated Hitomi in the same direction — faster and faster. It soon spun so fast that it blew apart, sending bits of itself flying off endlessly into space. 

And that was the end of the satellite Hitomi, which had cost a quarter billion dollars and was named after a legend about losing control of your creation. 

A Kids’ Typing Program Read Aloud a Long List of Swear Words

The more wholesome a place, the more likely that it contains a secret list of profanity. If a website has a comment section, and it uses asterisks to censor the word “knobpolisher,” that means it features a behind-the-scenes filter list, which includes “knobpolisher” and every other objectionable word imaginable. Meanwhile, if another comment section has no rules, it will feature no list like that at all. 

In 1998, a program named Secret Writer's Society aimed to teach kids aged seven to nine to type. A simple text-to-speech feature would read the kids’ words aloud. In case the precocious kid ignored the program’s prompts and typed “shit shit butt butt,” the program had a list of profane words so the text-to-speech could ignore them. 

Secret Writer's Society

Panasonic Interactive

This list was the society’s secret.

But suppose instead of clicking the “Read” button that narrates their text out loud, the kid were to double-click that same “Read” button? The program would then read out loud its entire filter list, including every singe swear word it had stored.

A sketchy hacker group would later claim that this was intentional sabotage by a rebel coder, while other sketchy internet sources tell us that claim was “proven false.” Either way, this was a fantastic bit of educational media, and children who used it learned a lot of new words. 

The F-16 Would Kill the Pilot

Planes need to be built strong enough to withstand all the forces acting on them. When the forces are big enough, however, the limiting factor isn’t going to be the tightness of the rivets but the resilience of the humans inside. As Top Gun taught us, pilots need training and a high thetan count, or else the G-forces will tear them apart. 

Top Gun Maverick

Paramount Pictures

And willpower. The most important thing is willpower. 

If we go back to August 1986 — the very summer Top Gun was released, incidentally — word on the street was that the F-16’s programming exhibited a bizarre issue in simulations. Upon crossing the equator, the plane’s computer told it to flip, and it flipped so hard that the plane could take the impact, but its occupant instantly died. Then the plane was programmed to go on flying upside-down until it received new instructions, which it never did because the pilot was dead.

Simulations caught the error before it could kill anyone for real. But that was little comfort to all the simulated families of the simulated pilots whom the simulation slayed. 

A Video Game Had the Power to Delete Everything

A video game named Myth II: Soulblighter came out in 1998, and if you never played it, you still might have had a chance to play the demo, which came on a disc when you bought computer magazines. The voice on this demo would narrate such lines as, “Dwarves like to blow up things,” and if you play it today, the fantasy setting hearkens back to bygone time, when there were demos, discs and magazines. 

Myth II: Soulblighter


On the left is a dwarf. He likes to blow up things. 

You were probably better off playing the demo than playing the full game. Because if you installed the game, finished playing it and then ran the uninstaller to remove it from your computer, the program wouldn’t just delete its own files, the way an uninstaller should. It had a tendency to delete every single thing on your hard drive. Actually, hold on — the demo had the same bug, which meant even thoughtlessly trying this game for free for 10 minutes could cost you every file you had. 

We’re not sure whose idea it was to blow up your whole computer, but our money’s on the dwarf. 

A Probe Could Do Nothing, Because of Democracy

In 1988, the Soviet Union launched a probe named Phobos 2, which was meant to photograph Mars, and the moon Phobos, too. Its predecessor, a probe named Phobos 1, failed due to a computer error, so the Soviets were taking no chances this time. They equipped Phobos 2 with three computers. If one malfunctioned and spat out some miscalculation, they counted on the other two overruling the rogue processor. 

Phobos Marte


They stole this idea from the three-brained Millennium Falcon.

One of the computers did die, which would seem to vindicate the decision to equip the probe with a couple of spares. Then a second computer died. And now, the probe found itself in a strange position. Every time it needed to calculate something, it sought answers from all three computers. One gave the correct answer. The other two both returned nothing. Since two of them produced the same answer (“null”), this consensus always overruled whatever the working computer came up with. The probe kept getting commands to do nothing, and it became paralyzed.

Feel free to call this representative of the Soviet Union overall — given that the U.S.S.R. did have voting, only it was a stupid form of voting. Also, classical communism is all about eliminating hierarchies, and the Phobos fiasco sounds like a parody of how that plays out in practice. “Really?” says our imaginary anti-communist. “No hierarchies at all? So, what about the dead and the living? Can people not overrule corpses?”

“Correct,” says Phobos, before freezing, forever. 

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