More Techno-Mishaps

August 27, 2010

I’ve written before about some of the risks involved when people become too dependent on their technological gadgets.  Sometimes the results are mostly amusing, as with that Swedish couple who, having mis-typed the name of their destination into their GPS device, ended up in the Northern  Italian town of Carpi rather than at the Isle of Capri.

Sometimes, though, the results can be a little more serious, as a recent article in the New York Times points out.  Sometimes, visitors become so engrossed in playing with their technological toys that they fail to pay attention to the physical world around them.

A French teenager was injured after plunging 75 feet this month from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon when he backed up while taking pictures.

In other cases, their faith in their gadgets, such as GPS devices and  cellphones, leads them to discount the risks of wilderness travel in a state of ignorance.

“Because of having that electronic device, people have an expectation that they can do something stupid and be rescued,” said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

“Every once in a while we get a call from someone who has gone to the top of a peak, the weather has turned and they are confused about how to get down and they want someone to personally escort them,” Ms. Skaggs said. “The answer is that you are up there for the night.”

One lost hiker called the ranger station on his cellphone, and asked if they could bring him some hot chocolate.

Going on back-country trips can be a wonderful experience, but it can also be dangerous for the uninitiated, who do not sufficiently appreciate the degree to which Mother Nature can be a bitch.

In an era when most people experience the wild mostly through television shows that may push the boundaries of appropriateness for entertainment, rangers say people can wildly miscalculate the risks of their antics.

So, if you want to go on a wilderness trip, make sure you have essential supplies, like food, water, and maps.  Take your GPS and cellphone, by all means; but take someone along who knows what he’s doing, too.

Virginia Systems Outage

August 27, 2010

I’ve written here last fall about some of the problems that the Commonwealth of Virginia is having with its computer systems. Several years ago, the state entered into a ten-year, $2.3 billion contract with Northrop-Grumman to modernize and run all the state’s computer systems and networks.  At the time, many state agencies were experiencing frequent system outages, apparently because the new systems had been designed without sufficient redundancy in their communication links.

It seems that the project has still not managed to put its problems behind it.  According to an Associated Press article carried by the Hampton Roads PilotOnline, the Virginia Information Technologies Agency [VITA] is currently trying to recover from a major system outage.  The problem apparently began at one of VITA’s data centers, outside of Richmond, with what is described as the failure of a “memory card”  (I am not sure what sort of device they mean by that).  Ostensibly, the system was designed with backup hardware and high-availability capability, but it apparently did not work too well.

The system was built with redundancies and backup storage. It was hailed as being able to suffer a failure to one part but continue uninterrupted service because standby parts or systems would take over. But when the memory card failed Wednesday, a fallback that attempted to shoulder the load began reporting multiple errors, Nixon [Sam Nixon, the state’s chief information officer] said.

The failure affected at least two dozen state agencies, including the Department of Taxation, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, which as of this morning was unable to process driver’s license application at any of its 74 offices across the  state.

The agency hoped to have most systems operational by sometime today, but said that getting all function back online might take until Monday.

I have worked on the design and implementation of highly reliable systems.   I will not claim it is always an easy job, but I know it can be done.  Mr. Nixon said that failures of the type of memory  card at fault were rare; he went on to say,

“This is supposed to be the best system you can buy, and it’s never supposed to fail, but this one did,” he said.

Whether or not it is the best system one can buy is open to question; but only an idiot thinks that there is any system that never fails — one should remember that never is a very long time.

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