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Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Amazon cloud failure – non-tech CAUSE, but tech REASON


On June 21, I wrote a post entitled The decidedly non-tech reasons for computer system failures.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “reasons.”

Let me explain.

Several services, including Netflix, Instagram, and Pinterest experienced a failure on Friday night. The common factor? All used Amazon services. As VentureBeat observed, the Amazon services were based in Northern Virginia. This was significant:

Amazon’s service health dashboard indicates that there are power issues in its North Virginia data center, most likely caused by severe storms in the region.

So the outage was caused by the weather. This is in line with what IBM found; as I noted in my prior post, IBM data suggested that 54% of all disaster declarations were caused by the weather.

Fair enough. But when one of my Facebook friends shared the VentureBeat story with his friends, my Facebook friend added the following comment:

if these systems went down then they didn’t replicate datacenters, and they didn’t do proper fail over, then they suck, and deserve to be down.

Now it would be overkill for every system to have five nines availability. I certainly don’t have RAID drives installed on my netbook (although there’s a forthcoming story in tymshft that talks about RAID on a personal computer). Now a computer aided dispatch system? THAT system needs five nines availability, and my former employer Motorola offers CAD systems that meet (PDF) that availability requirement.

Does Netflix require five nines availability? Well, that depends upon its users. I’d be willing to bet that most Netflix users haven’t thought about five nines availability. In the pre-Netflix days, back when people used to congregate in buildings called “movie theaters,” we didn’t necessarily think about five nines availability either.

In addition, I don’t know if Amazon promised five nines to Netflix and the other companies. My bet is that they didn’t promise it. My guess is that Amazon offered a higher availability option to the companies, and the companies rejected the offer for price reasons, sticking with a lower availability level. What could go wrong?


In my view, Amazon is going to get a lot of blame over the next few days because of this – heck, I titled this very post “Amazon” instead of mentioning Netflix, Pinterest, et al. However, the blame (if any is deserved) should go to the companies who didn’t buy a high availability package – either from Amazon, or from Amazon in combination with another service.

Weather was the cause of the outage – penny-pinching was the reason for it.

Newton Minow’s little-known “vastly wasted” speech

Google+ provides a forum for intelligent conversations on wide-ranging topics.

And then there are the other ones.

As a response to this thread, I wrote something that is somewhat appropriate for the readers of the tymshft blog.

Little-known story: after Newton Minow delivered his “vast wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, he went into a bar and, after a few drinks, gave his “vastly wasted” speech. It went something like this:

“But if you think that television is a dumbing down of our population, just you wait until television gets married up with these computers that IBM and other companies are manufacturing. This will give the viewing public the ability to send a bunch of punched cards to their TVs, and then they will request their OWN programming. Instead of watching the pablum that the three networks feed to the masses today, the viewing public will get to demand their OWN danged stuff. And it won’t be pretty. They’ll want to watch television shows about cats playing the piano! And I don’t know if you’ve heard this weird music coming out of Detroit, but when they marry music with pianos, then you’ll have…you’ll have cats playing music on computers! With stupid lyrics like “turn the beat around” and “understand this groove” and “I’m too sexy for my shirt”! And the world will go to hell in a handbasket! And this will happen! … What do you mean I’ve had too much to drink? Mark my words, the 21st century will be terrible! No! Don’t make me leave the bar – I was ready to order another!”

The six million dollar doctor?

Years and years ago, there was a television show called “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The man in question had been surgically enhanced via something called “bionic” technology. In the television show, this bionic technology effectively gave the man superpowers. Eventually a second TV show was created, in which a woman (and a dog) were also given bionic parts.

On TV, the operations were performed by human doctors.

Fast forward to the next century, when Steven Hodson ran across a bizarre billboard. The picture shows a young woman, with bright eyes and an extra-large smile, along with the following quote:

Robotic hysterectomy was my answer.

To which Hodson wondered, what was the question?

After coming up with some possible questions (programming Roombas?), I delved a little deeper. The billboard came from St. Rita’s Medical Center in Lima, Ohio, and its website has an entire page on all of the robotic gynecology operations it performs. Here’s an example:

Treatment for endometriosis often requires removal of the entire uterus and ovaries as well as the removal of the abnormal tissue implants. Using the robotic surgical system, the surgeon is better able to remove the uterus and ovaries, is able to remove the abnormal tissue implants, and is able to do so through smaller incisions. This causes less blood loss, less pain and ultimately better outcomes. The end result is usually less time in the hospital, a more rapid recovery at home, and a faster return to normal activities.

Drs. Chung, Scherger, Niesen and Stallkamp are performing robot-assisted laparoscopic uterine surgery for endometriosis. They have many years of experience in minimally invasive surgery and, with the addition of the new robotic platform, are performing more complex surgeries.

Of course, these robots are still under the control of a doctor. But if we’re moving toward 3-D printing, how far are we from deploying medical robots to remote areas (Antarctica, perhaps?).

Politically correct cereal names don’t fool anyone

When I was growing up, there were all sorts of cereals that my family could buy that we can’t buy any more. We could buy Sugar Pops and Sugar Smacks and Sugar Crisp and sugar this and sugar that.

But we can’t buy them any more.

At least under those names.

A few decades ago, Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks was renamed Honey Smacks, its Sugar Pops was renamed Corn Pops, and Post’s Sugar Crisp was renamed Golden Crisp (although the bear continues to be called Sugar Bear). In fact, Post even whitewashed its own history, claiming that “Golden Crisp” cereal was introduced in 1949.

Apparently, the cereal companies thought that if the names were changed, parents wouldn’t realize the contents of the cereals, and would think that they were buying health foods for their children. “Let’s buy some of those corn and honey cereals,” Mom would say. “Yeah, mom,” the kids would reply. “They’re nutritious,” they’d say, winking.

Well, guess what? The public wasn’t fooled. And Consumer Reports certainly wasn’t fooled:

The bad news is that 23 of the top 27 cereals marketed to children rated only Good or Fair for nutrition. There is at least as much sugar in a serving of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and 10 other rated cereals as there is in a glazed doughnut from Dunkin’ Donuts. Two cereals, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp, are more than 50 percent sugar (by weight) and nine are at least 40 percent sugar.

Of course, the Canadians knew this all along. You can still buy Sugar Crisp in Canada.

Cleaning up college sports…in 1954

On June 22, after a jury convicted former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of multiple counts of child molestation, Penn State released a statement that concluded as follows:

Now that the jury has spoken, the University wants to continue that dialogue and do its part to help victims continue their path forward. To that end, the University plans to invite victims of Mr. Sandusky’s abuse to participate in a program to facilitate the resolution of claims against the University arising out of Mr. Sandusky’s conduct. The purpose of the program is simple – the University wants to provide a forum where the University can privately, expeditiously and fairly address the victims’ concerns and compensate them for claims relating to the University. Counsel to the University plan to reach out to counsel to the victims of Mr. Sandusky’s abuse in the near future with additional details.

When CBS Sports published this press release, the majority of reaction was negative. Nova Goodman stated the problem succinctly:

Paying money is easier than doing the right thing.

As the commenters discussed “the right thing,” various temporary suspensions of the football program were bandied about. But in a November 2011 post, The 312 shared a more radical concept that would probably floor the most rabid Sandusky hater – eliminate intercollegiate sports at Penn State altogether. Why would The 312 share this concept? Because a University in The 312’s area – the University of Chicago – actually did this in 1939, under the leadership of then-President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Today the University plays football, but does not award scholarships.

Was this self-imposed “death penalty” controversial? Well, here’s what a Chicago Tribune writer said:

There’s a school down in Arkansas called Commonwealth College which never has had a football team. . . . It was found by and is operated for communists. . . .

And the athletic director at one university said the following:

“Since he [Hutchins] has the physique of a Sir Galahad, he is convinced that he speaks with authority…. Many [college presidents] share your fears, but they have not run away from the problem or washed their hands of it.”

And which football party school shared that sentiment? Harvard University.

Which brings us to 1954, 15 years after the University of Chicago eliminated its football program. In that year Robert Hutchins wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated. One paragraph of that piece elaborates on the reasons why intercollegiate sports will never be cleaned up, and why scandals will continue to occur.

Are there any conditions under which intercollegiate football can be an asset to a college or university? I think not. There are conditions under which it can be less of a nuisance, or a less infernal nuisance. These conditions are hard to bring about and still harder to maintain. If you should succeed, you will do so only with an expenditure of time and effort that could more profitably be devoted to other things. The first requirement is agreement on the part of your constituency that the institution is to be represented by students, and by students who have come to the college in the ordinary way, with no special inducements, and who are staying in college following the regular curriculum, with no special treatment. The second requirement is even more difficult; you have to find convenient rivals of about the same size, whose constituencies have the same convictions. For if they have not, you will be continuously and unmercifully defeated, and this is something that your constituency will not be able to stand indefinitely. On this rock all the great attempts of the last 30 years to “clean up” or “de-emphasize” football have split; intercollegiate football is no “cleaner” or less emphasized now than it was in 1925 because the temptation to break the rules of a conference becomes irresistible sooner or later to some of the members of it. You then have a scandal, a clean-up, new resolutions, and the process goes on as before.

The decidedly non-tech reasons for computer system failures

I recently read an IBM white paper entitled “Virtualizing disaster recovery using cloud computing.” The white paper, which mentions the advantages of using something such as IBM SmartCloud™ Virtualized Server Recovery, is available in PDF form from this link.

One of the statistics cited in this white paper documents the reasons that a disaster recovery system had to be activated. As IBM notes, this information came from its own customers.

Think of the complex systems that enterprises deploy today. In many cases, the systems are heterogeneous systems consisting of a variety of components from a variety of vendors. Even if all of the components come from the same vendor – a vendor such as IBM (or Oracle, or whoever) – the difficulty of the interfaces between the components often results in maddening complexity. In these cases, it’s no wonder that even the best-designed systems fail at times. In fact, according to statistics from IBM’s own customers, hardware and software issues result in activation of disaster recovery systems 17% of the time.


That’s right. For these complex systems, 83% of all disasters are NOT hardware and software related.

So while it’s important to get your hardware and software working properly, chances are that your system failure will have nothing to do with the software and hardware in the system.

So why do systems fail?

Remember that the technology of a system is not limited to the hardware and software in the system. Every computing system needs power to run, and if you lose the power, you lose the system. In fact, IBM’s customer data reveals that disaster recovery systems are activated 19% of the time because of a power failure.

Well, you can obviously design your system to mitigate against power failure with batteries and the like. But even if your hardware and software is resilient, and even if your power is resilient, there’s one other factor that could result in the declaration of a disaster – and this factor is the cause for 54% of all disaster declarations.

What is that primary cause?

The weather.

Yes, mundane old weather, the decidedly low-tech disaster that’s been affecting the world since who knows when. IBM explicitly mentions hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and fires as potential reasons why a disaster recovery system would need to be activated. But these weather-related causes have destroyed facilities and cities for thousands of years.

As Hurricane Katrina shows, we’re no better at avoiding weather-related disasters today than we were 2,000 years ago.

The death of real operating systems, continued (and why I was wrong about Microsoft Surface)

Let’s start with the Jim Bakker “I was wrong” part first.

Last week, when rumors started flying that Microsoft was planning to release a tablet that it manufactured itself, I ventured the opinion that they would do no such thing. Why not? Because Microsoft, unlike Apple, depends upon relations with hardware suppliers. I figured that Microsoft would concentrate on getting the operating system right, and then would help Hewlett Packard, Dell, Asus, and the other hardware manufacturers to come up with the best tablets out there.

Then, on Monday afternoon (California time), Steve Ballmer began his presentation. I was monitoring it (via Ars Technica and Mashable), and once Ballmer started talking about Microsoft’s thirty years of hardware experience, I knew that my prediction was 100% incorrect.

I still have to see how the computer hardware manufacturers reacted to Microsoft’s announcement, but for now I want to concentrate on one aspect of the announcement – one that continues the long erosion of personal power in personal computing.

I am fond of saying that the 1970s was the high point of personal freedom. In a similar vein, the early 1980s was the high point of computing freedom. By the early 1980s, truly personal computers were available in a variety of configurations, from a variety of manufacturers. And, more importantly, there was a vast array of software available for these computers, with minimal barriers to entry. If you wanted to write your own CP/M or Apple or DOS application, you could just go out and write it.

The first restrictions on this appeared in 1984 (heh), when the company then known as Apple Computer released the Macintosh. Did anyone note Steve Ballmer’s statement yesterday about how hardware and software work well when designed together? Ballmer was not the first Steve to make such a statement. For most of Macintosh’s history, the operating system and the hardware were only available from Apple Computer/Apple. Meanwhile, Apple also tried to control the applications that appeared on the platform. I worked for a certified Macintosh developer in those days, and certified developers had to conform to Apple’s program design standards.

But there was another control on Macintosh developers in those days – the Macintosh user base. Macintosh programs did not have to be sold via a “Mac store” in the 1980s – any of those CP/M or DOS developers could easily port their software over to the Mac. And they could do it without changing it whatsoever. But if they did so, they would have to endure the wrath of those who bled six colors. “This is just a DOS application!” they would sneer.

Unfortunately, attempts to control the software you could run on your own computer did not end there. Eventually Apple and others (Google, Microsoft, etc.) did come up with their own stores for particular platforms and applications. In some cases, the only way that you could get software for your hardware platform (e.g. mobile phone) was through the official store of the software provider. The term “jailbreak” is commonly used to the act of freeing your hardware platform to get software from anyone – something that we all took for granted in the days of the DOS prompt.

Microsoft is now continuing this trend, if you look at the footnotes on Surface’s About page.

1 Works exclusively with apps from the Windows Store.

You see, while Microsoft Surface has a keyboard and therefore sort of looks like a netbook, it will actually run the Windows RT operating system. While CNET professes not to know what “RT” stands for, “reduced technology” is my guess.

Will a day arrive when fully functioning operating systems are no longer available? After all, the operating system vendors seem to prefer the locked-down OS implementations, and enterprises clearly prefer the locked-down OS implementations. Will consumers have a say in the matter?

Fingerprint folklore – how the Wests were won?

(Disclosure: I work in the biometrics industry. Needless to say, these are not necessarily the views of my employer.)

There are cases in which the historic significance of a moment cannot be discerned for years or decades after the event, and there are other cases in which the historic significant of a moment is immediately known.

Take the story of William West and Will West. If you’ve ever been involved in fingerprint identification, you’re familiar with the story, which discusses how the previous Bertillon method of biometric analysis was replaced with fingerprint identification. Here’s how GlobalSecurity.org told the story in 2011:

Bertillons system of identification was not without fault. For example, it relied heavily on precise measurements for identification purposes, and yet two people working on measurements for the same person would record different findings. The measurements taken were also only thought to be unique and accurate in adulthood. Therefore, someone who committed a crime prior to adulthood would not have their measurements on record. Additionally, it turned out to be the case that the features by which Bertillon based his identification system were not unique to any one individual. This led to the possibility of one person being convicted of another persons crimes. This possibility became abundantly clear in 1903 when a Will West was confused with a William West. Though it would later turn out to be the case that the two were identical twins, the issues posed by the Bertillonage system of identification were clear.

Or were they?

In 1987, Robert D. Olsen, Sr. of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation looked back at this moment, and the literature surrounding the moment. In his analysis, he discovered some things:

A search of the literature on fingerprint identification reveals that the alleged Will and William West case was not reported in print until Wilder and Wentworth’s account in 1918 (26). Please note that of the twenty–six books and articles listed in the bibliography, eighteen were published prior to the release of Wilder and Wentworth’s book and none of the eighteen mention the West case. Of particular note is that two of the items listed in the bibliography (14,15) were by the records clerk who took the Bertillon measurements and the fingerprints of Will and William West, but who never mentions the incident. One is immediately struck with the thought that a pioneer in the establishment of fingerprint identification never attached much significance to a case in which he played a very important role. Perhaps the case was not as important as we have been led to believe?

Please go here to read the remainder of Olsen’s article.

The CLPEX message board includes a thread on the entire affair. Toward the end of the thread, Gerald Clough wrote some musings regarding how the traditional story – the tale that the Will/William West case dealt an immediate blow to the Bertillon system – became so prevalent:

Well, we don’t have a whole lot of folklore in this field, and any significant activity can use (if not needs) some folklore. And you can’t keep a good story down. Historians strive for detailed and documented accuracy, and in the process usually strip an account of interest to any but other historians who, when the facts are nailed down, promptly lose interest in a problem already solved and an event that doesn’t mean much. But the stories that endure are those that distill broader truths and condense the experience of a time into a vivid and unforgettable tale.

Now most people won’t care whether fingerprints were generally accepted in 1903 or 1905 or 1918. But there are some that do. And there are some people such as Simon Cole, not revered within the fingerprint community (I’ve talked about Cole before), who believe that history may be repeating itself:

If this is indeed the beginning of the end of fingerprinting, history will be repeating itself. A century ago, fingerprinting was the upstart rival of the world’s dominant method of criminal identification: the Bertillon system, which used 11 bodily measurements, facial features, birthmarks, scars and tattoos to pinpoint individual identities. The transition to fingerprinting was treated as proof that the world was growing more rational, more discerning. But there may well come a time when our own genetically enhanced descendants find our belief in the power of fingerprinting as quaint as we find the Bertillon system.

And what is the new replacement for Bertillon’s system and the fingerprint system?

As it happens, a new metaphor has arisen just in time to fill the breach. These days we are increasingly apt to believe that our individuality is vouched for by the unique arrangement of genetic material in our cells. And DNA can now do nearly everything that fingerprinting does. Forensic scientists can recover identifiable DNA samples from ever-smaller traces of biological material, even the stray cells left by the smudge of a finger. Forensic DNA profiling, which has notably shed the early nickname of “DNA fingerprinting,” is a perfect match for high-tech millennial sensibilities. Old-style fingerprinting, with its reliance on human observation and its correspondence to a romantic notion of our place in the universe looks . . . well, just so last century.

Does anyone care to hazard a guess regarding what people will think of DNA one hundred years from now? Or fifty years from now?

Indebted to our predecessors

I recently read this statement:

Obama has borrowed nearly as much money as all other presidents combined…

Now Steven Goddard did not exaggerate his statement one way or another. But it got me thinking – here in 2012, we think of Obama as a huge debt accumulator.

But don’t we always think that way, during a particular Presidential term?

As of September 30, 2010 (the latest date for which figures are available, the “Obama debt level” was over $13.5 trillion dollars. This is clearly an increase over the level during George W. Bush’s last year in office; as of September 30, 2008, the figure was only a little over $10 trillion.

From here on in, we can jump back in time in four-year increments. (Comparing President-by-President is difficult, since some Presidents such as G.W. Bush and Clinton served two terms in office, while others such as G.H.W. Bush only served one term.) All figures are as of September 30 for 1980-2004, June 30 for 1976 earlier:

2004: over $7.3 trillion
2000: over $5.6 trillion
1996: over $5.2 trillion
1992: over $4.0 trillion
1988: over $2.6 trillion
1984: over $1.5 trillion
1980: over $900 billion
1976: over $600 billion
1972: over $400 billion
1968: over $347 billion
1964: over $311 billion
1960: over $286 billion

The point: take any President – ANY President – in the last fifty years, and you can claim that the President in question has piled on debt to raise it to historical levels.

But this doesn’t necessarily hold when you go farther back in history. Take Andrew Jackson. After his first inauguration in 1829, the national debt stood at over $48 million on January 1, 1830. By 1835, it was less than $34,000.

And neo-cons, Andrew Jackson was a Democrat.

However, in modern times the idea of paying down the national debt hasn’t taken hold – if money is laying around, we want to spend it. (I say “we” rather than “the government” because politicians are responding to pressure from constituents.) And this won’t change any time soon.

Just wait until the election of 2020, when the Democratic Presidential candidate attacks the Republican Presidential candidate and says, “Remember back in the days of President Obama when the national debt was only $15 trillion? The Republicans just want to pile on more debt.”

Meanwhile, the Republican candidate will respond, “I will govern as a fiscal conservative, just like George W. Bush.”

How I learned about the death of Edward Anatolevich Hill

I have written about Edward Anatolevich Hill several times in my Empoprise-MU music blog. The most recent mention of “Mr. Trololo” was in December 2010, in a post that described how the Gifford Children’s Choir in Racine, Wisconsin performed their version of the famous “Trololo” song (a/k/a “I Am So Happy to Finally Be Back Home”).

I hadn’t written about the original singer, Hill (or Khil) in some time. Today, I am sad to report that he has passed away.

Russian baritone Eduard Khil, whose Trololo song enjoyed a comeback in 2010 after decades of oblivion, died in a St. Petersburg hospital at the age of 77 on Monday….

Khil was born in Smolensk on September 4, 1934. He died Monday morning in a St. Petersburg hospital after irreversible damage from a stroke at the end of May.

You may be asking yourself – why am I writing about this in tymshft, instead of in my music blog?

Because of the WAY in which I learned of Mr. Khil’s death.

About an hour ago, Jesse Harris shared a video on Google+. The video began with the message “R.I.P. Eduard Khil,” which prompted me to investigate.

The video? A guitar-based metal version of the “Trololo” song.

The song is performed by 331Erock.

I wonder if he’s recorded a metal version of the ground from P.D.Q. Bach’s Iphigenia in Brooklyn.

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