The recent flood of "technical problems" with computers at Delta Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange, the Wall Street Journal etc. make me wonder if we have become too dependent on these machines?
Are they maintained by less and less competent people?
Has the complexity exceeded human comprehension?

Don't think there is less competence and that complexity is an issue.
But have we created a monster with internet?
What would happen if tomorrow it stopped?
What if you took away all the smart(smart?) phones, laptops etc.
Would the world still function as it does now?
I guess this would mean serious trouble.

I remember, in the previous century, having car troubles, I had to walk 3 km to a farm were they (luckily) had a phone so I could call a garage...

"I don't fear computers. I fear the lack of them."

Isaac Asimov

I guess hooking computers to the Internet makes things even more complex, as hackers (criminals or spy agencies) seem to find it easy to steal important data.

The latest count of the data breach at the US government is now up to 21.5 million clients that have lost very valuable private information. Again, has it become too complex to protect this data? Is there a competent team in charge to prevent this? Is this kind of thing outsourced to a contractor favored by politicians?

It's all political. We built a state of the art, hurricane proof building for our control centre and filled it with state of the art computers and custom software to control our provincial electrical grid (generation, transmission and distribution). It went live in November 1998 and cost 64 million. The federal government created a Canada wide long gun registry. It cost over two billion. There's no way you can convince me that some political hacks and their friends didn't make a shitload of money that they weren't entitled to. It doesn't matter if the software works well, or even at all (Obamacare website, anyone). All that matters is that some people got rich(er) who didn't deserve it and the rest of us all got a little bit poorer.

Well, the NYSE computer problem was due to a "bad" software upgrade. Whatever "bad" means.

My guess is that it was a human error. So it was not a computer problem but a human problem.

Wait a minute, the human is the Master and the computer is the Slave. Let's blame it on the Slave!

Yes, the computer did it! Even easier, the Chinese did it!

If Delta's computer system is so shoddy, is there any assurance that the pilot's flight information is secure?

Jim, I work on a government job now. I can tell you at least part of the extra cost is pure overhead, money wasted on procedures and delays caused by those procedures that are set in stone so firmly nothing can shake them loose.
For example we're 2 months into the project, and we've just received word that our test server has been configured wednessday. That means they've installed Oracle and Weblogic, NOT that it's ready for use. For that we need to shoot in another change, after getting a ream of documents and scripts approved by another department that allows yet a third department to install our software on that server (which we're not allowed to do ourselves, even though technically we're fully capable of doing just that).
Of course the people who have to give that approval and the people who are allowed to run that installation procedure are all swamped in work because it's the start of the summer holidays so 90% of their department is off to their vacations while the developers (who're mostly contractors) continue to pile up the software packages to be installed on their test servers.
We're now preliminarilly scheduled to get our first test version installed on the test server in 3 weeks' time, by which time we'll have gone through another 2 iterations of the software and what they're installing will no longer be worth testing (as we've already tested it ourselves on our development server, and it will by then have got customer acceptance approval on that server as well).

Resulting cost? Project is estimated to cost half a million a year in support and hosting cost, I could have hosted that same system from a commercial hosting center for 10% of that at the same or better continuity levels.
Nobody is getting rich, just a lot of people on medium wages keep their employment when 20-30% of their number could have done more work if the system had not been designed to be wasteful of time and effort.

For some projects I can see costs ballooning but the long gun registry should have been almost off-the-shelf. Person buys gun, gun and person go into registry accessible by all law enforcement. That's almost boiler plate database. Our control centre, on the other hand, had to control 15 hydro-electric generating stations, 2 thermal and 4 diesel. Add to that converter stations at each end for HVDC plus dozens of distribution stations. Add to that the software for scheduling outages, matching line voltages and frequencies, software for interconnection to other control centres throughout the American mid west. Now add in analysis software for optimizing generation and water flow. That includes massive databases for management of 4-second resolution data on close to 9000 status points and 10000 analog points. And even that only covers about 70% of the system.

That's for 64 million. There's absolutely no way you can fuck up a gun registry database to the tune of 2 billion without a massive amount of corruption.

By the way, on the previous AGC/SCADA system, the project's head engineer was told that the company's IT department would be maintaining the software (but would not be on 24x7 standby). His response was (in perhaps more PC language) "no fucking way". Everyone associated with the system maintenance was brought directly under his control. That allowed him to manage costs and scheduling.

you underestimate severely the capacity of bureaucrats to burn money for no return on investment.

In industry there's always the idea in peoples' heads that they should be efficient because their personal success in the company depends on the financial result of the company, which is increased if you get the same result at a lower cost.
In government, your personal success is guaranteed by making your own job indispensible, which comes down to increasing your personal power inside the department which in turn depends on making as many people as possible think they need you to get something done.
Creating more "procedures", more forms and authorisations you have to sign for, does that. It also bloats the cost (in time, and money, because people have to be paid who waste their time on those things, for one thing) of doing business. But nobody in government cares about that because it's other peoples' (iow taxpayers') money. And of course the ultimate measure of your success as a bureaucrat is how much budget you control, and if you at the end of the fiscal year have a surplus your budget is likely to get slashed.

The worst example of that I've seen is a department that was on the verge of running a surplus 2 months before the end of the fiscal year.
In business they'd have been lauded, people get promoted and get bonuses.
But this was a government department, so they did the logical (for a government department) thing and purchased 500 PCs, 50 printers, several core routers, and assorted other hardware. They didn't need none of it (they had a warehouse full of the stuff already) but they needed to burn money.
All that equipment was stashed in a basement, on the original shipping pallets, never used, and after the required 5 years it was all carted off to a garbage incinerator, still on those original pallets, never being opened.
They were rewarded with a budget increase for not going over budget by more than 10%...

Government costs are directly related to the number of 'jurisdictions' involved not the complexity of the task. The long gun registry required dealing a shit load of different police forces (each one with their own bureaucratic nightmares) and across all ten provinces, plus it had to combine IT back-end departments with "customer service" front-end departments. In contrast, the energy grid is dealt with by one department in one province.

Also what jwenting says is absolutely true, the incentive structure in gov'ts is all wrong, the worst thing you can do is come in underbudget because next time you won't get the money you actually need, or sometimes if you don't buy stuff by a particular date the money you had to buy it with will vanish into thin air. The same thing can happen at non-profits where they will have to waste money on things they don't need to make it look like they aren't making a profit that year, then the next year they will sell that stuff to make up a deficit.

Gov't is often slow, stupid and stingy. The only parts of it that work well are those that don't fear being cut.

We all know that we are slaves to the Government, but will we be slaves to the computer?

will we be slaves to the computer?

We will be as much slaves to the computer as we are to the electricity grid. We just need to start treating computers as if they were the electricity grid.

Just shown on TV news ...
Certain cars have enough computer control built in to allow hackers to force you off the road.

Hé, I saw that too an hour ago!
I guess lots of people, who have a "simple" car computer that measures speed, consumption etc. now are in real panic!

Idiotic assertion, that a hacker can get into your car electronics and play with them as you're driving.
Those car electronics don't have a (long range) wireless interface, you need a physical connection using a cable to interface with them.
And even if they had something like Bluetooth the range of that is so short it's useless for said hacker as he'd have to be sitting in the car with you in order to make the car crash. Maybe nice for Ahmed al Jihadi, but not for your average hacker who wants to survive to hack another day.

It's the same fallacy as people claiming modern airliners can be hacked and brought down over a wireless connection. Not only are those connections usually not available in flight, even if they are they're so short ranged you'd have to be in the cockpit to use them and if you are there are far easier ways, like strangling the pilots who'll be trying to stop you anyway.

"Practically all carmakers are doing their best to turn the modern automobile into a smartphone."

Quote from the above article. Most of us simply don't know about these efforts, or worse, don't want to know.

Of course, according to jwenting only idiots believe those things.

Similar efforts are going on with your home appliances and unfortunately airplanes. Down the road is the driverless car, the hackers golden opportunity for mischief.

"Sorry officer, but the car's computer killed the young girl on the bicycle!"

Similar efforts are going on with your home appliances and unfortunately airplanes.

Airplanes are probably far less vulnerable than home appliances and cars because they are designed to be operated by experts and on a slower life cycle than cars so there is less incentive for convience versus safety. Home appliances will probably be the worst which is why I have zero interest in ever buying one.

I do agree about the complexity part exceeding human comprehension. I currently work at a cancer hospital / research institute, and over the past few days have been struggling to link up one of our new CT scan machines with the vendor's server in Germany. It has stumped me, the CT scan machine vendor, and our network AMC vendors in one line!

A rather strange scene yesterday: a young couple at a table in a restaurant. Each had his iphone, android whatever thing in hand being "busy". The waiter came, they hardly looked up and ordered something. Again being "busy", no looks at each other, no talking. Perhaps through SMS via there mobiles? Communication slaves, not communicating to each other, strange ...

How do you know they weren't communicating with each other? They probably weren't, but can you say for sure?

I did mention they were SMSing. But if you would sit in front of me we would have a conversation, without the need of computerized communication devices. So they probably were mailing friends, browsing their facebook,reading the news or whatever.

I had a similar experience in my college common room, there were 5 people I knew were friends lounging on the couches and they were all fiddling with their phones not looking/talking with each other by chance one of them happened to be matched with another one of them on tinder, which managed to spark a 5 minute conversation.....

I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were actually sending each other skype messages or sms instead of talking despite sitting next to each other. Wouldn't be the first time, I've seen it before up to 20 years ago where people in the same office would arrange their lunch time using email rather than just talking to each other.

Are people becoming affraid to stumble over their words, when talking to each other? And are computers and mobiles a beautiful means to hide their insecureness? It is indeed more easy to write an email, which you can correct while composing before sending, then "send" out your spoken words, which once pronounced, cannot longer be corrected.
Computer slaves are easily created that way . . .

I would rather debate/argue with someone by email (or in a forum like here) than in person.

  1. You (hopefully) have time to make a ratiional rather than emotional response
  2. You get a chance to consider/research your answer
  3. You never get interrupted
  4. You can organize your thoughts/response into a coherent form

Not to mention the great bonus of being able to delete your post if, in a minute or two, you realize you just made a giant a$$ of yourself. Sometimes you can unring a bell.

@Jim, I totally agree, but repeat your 4 points with a couple in a relation in mind.

Actually, my wife and I have had some of our most productive "relationship" discussions by written letter. And those were while we were in the same house. We still are, in case that last sentence left you wondering. The nice thing about the written argument/discussion is that nothing gets said in the heat of the moment. And if you save the letters there is never any disagreement over who said what later on.