The Most Expensive Hyphen In History

This month’s installment of ‘This Week In Testing‘ takes us waaaay back to 1962 when the Mariner I space probe, America’s first planetary flyby that was supposed to go to Venus, went completely off course and had to be immediately destroyed — a mere 293 seconds after launch.

The Cost? $18.2 million (in 1962!)

The Bug? Omission of a single overbar

The Mariner I was the first spacecraft of the NASA Mariner program that “launched a series of robotic interplanetary probes designed to investigate Mars, Venus and Mercury (Wikipedia).”

The bug that brought the mission to its speedy end was carried out by a programmer, who while transcribing a handwritten (in pencil no less) formula into code, missed one single overbar (or as it’s less-technically known: the hyphen).

NASA’s public account of the software glitch is written as follows:

The Mariner 1 Post Flight Review Board determined that the omission of a hyphen in coded computer instructions in the data-editing program allowed transmission of incorrect guidance signals to the spacecraft. During the periods the airborne beacon was inoperative the omission of the hyphen in the data-editing program caused the computer to incorrectly accept the sweep frequency of the ground receiver as it sought the vehicle beacon signal and combined this data with the tracking data sent to the remaining guidance computation. This caused the computer to swing automatically into a series of unnecessary course corrections with erroneous steering commands which finally threw the spacecraft off course.

Fortunately, the mission was successfully completed by Mariner 2 five months later, but it’s hard to ignore the significant costs brought about by a mere hyphen. Do you have any bug stories like this one? Has a missing bar (or something equivalent) ever led you to a messy debacle?

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800 Billion Dollar Bug Breaks The Bank

In this month’s installment of This Week In Testing, the date was May 1996 and the setting was the First National Bank of Chicago (insert dramatic pause here). The gist? Software “glitches” caused the bank accounts of 823 customers of the major US bank to be credited with a total of $924,844,208.32 each.

According to The American Bankers Association, all of $763.9 billion — more than six times the total assets of First Chicago NBD Corp. — was the largest error in US banking history.

And the reason given? Inadequate testing of course! The bank updated its ATM transaction software with new message codes. The message codes were unfortunately not tested on all ATM protocols, which resulted in some ATMs interpreting the codes as huge increases to customer balances.

This isn’t the first time we bring up banking bugs. You might remember Software Bugs: You Win Sum, You Lose Sum, the post about a man in Orlando who while making a routine bank transfer was shocked to see his balance at $88,888,888,888.88.

What other bugs have you recently heard or read about with such huge financial implications? Any mobile banking bugs?

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This Twitter Bug Is About YOU

You – the second person English pronoun.  You are the one reading this article. You were Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006. You are special. You rock. Our company name is all about you and testing.

You have also been very naughty. Check out this Twitter entry written by you:

I kill people who nudge me

Wait, that wasn’t written by you? It was written by someone else named You? Oh, our mistake. And apparently it was Twitter’s mistake too according to this article on TechCrunch.

Twitter likes to tell you who is doing what and when at the bottom of each tweet. For example, a post description might tell you that it was retweeted by a friend.  Or if you were the one doing the retweeting, then the post description should say that it was retweeted by “you”.  But what happens when a buggy hyperlinking algorithm decides that anything after the words “Retweeted by” should link to a Twitter profile?

“Retweeted by you” becomes “Retweeted by you” – as in And you sounds cranky.

There are a lot of good lessons here for testers and developers, but I want to highlight a few particular:

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Bug Reporting Lessons From Toyota: Are Your Brakes Show Stoppers?

In light of Toyota’s recent quality issues, the number of formal consumer complaints has risen above the norm. To make matters worse, Toyota has had an extremely difficult time making sense of all this new feedback.

Why? Well, if you are an experienced QA professional, you know exactly why.

A recent article about how to write a useful NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety) complaint should strike a chord with software testers. The complaint template is very similar to the bug reports we all know and love. In fact, they both serve the same purpose: defect reporting.

Consumers can learn a few lessons from software testers – and vice versa – by taking a look at some key excerpts from the article:

Include data that will help the manufacturer better understand the problem:

  • Facts about your vehicle and maintenance records
  • What you did and how the vehicle responded
  • Evidence and extra details

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Your Brain on BUGS – Any Questions?

If you lived in the United States during the 1980s, then you probably remember the famous Your Brain on Drugs ad campaign.  Created by the government to combat drug abuse, the ad compares the damaging effects of using drugs to frying an egg.

So what about bugs, as in software bugs?  More than just a lame rhyme, it turns out that bugs may have a negative effect on our brains as well – if you believe the Extended Mind hypothesis.  Stick with me here.

The Extended Mind hypothesis says that our minds are more than what is contained inside our skulls.  When we create or use tools, then we are effectively creating extensions of ourselves.  For example, that would mean that there’s no difference between remembering the capital of the state of Kentucky and looking it up on Wikipedia.  (Here’s a link to help you remember.)

A recent study suggests that there may be some validity to this, a fact discovered by creating a simple software bug and seeing how people respond.  From a recent article in Wired:

An empirical test of ideas proposed by Martin Heidegger shows the great German philosopher to be correct: Everyday tools really do become part of ourselves.

The findings come from a deceptively simple study of people using a computer mouse rigged to malfunction. The resulting disruption in attention wasn’t superficial. It seemingly extended to the very roots of cognition.

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