Re: [LEAPSECS] Software requirements

From: Poul-Henning Kamp <>
Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2005 21:33:24 +0100

In message <>, Rob Seaman writes:
>On Dec 21, 2005, at 3:06 AM, Poul-Henning Kamp wrote:
>> It must be wonderful to live in a world where software can just be
>> ignored or marginalized at whim, I really envy you.
>Sarcasm, right?

yes, deeply.

>Software IS a marginal activity - I say this as a programmer. There
>is no point to software that doesn't address the external needs of
>some class of users.

I think the difference between you and me as a programmer is that
if you make a mistake, some radio telescope bungles up an observation
or worst case runs against a mechanical end-stop. If I make a
mistake in FreeBSD millions of machines may bungle up things I have
not even dreamt about them doing.

For Windows the problem is two orders of magnitude higher.

There is programming and there is programming.

BTW: Has anybody actually heard Microsoft come out and say "Our
operating systems will do the right thing ?" I havn't...

>Time standards represent just one set of
>constraints placed on a wide range of software. No one is suggesting
>software requirements be ignored, but those requirements must be
>responsive to real world issues, and software professionals
>themselves (like astronomers) are only one community that must inform
>the standards process.

Ahh, but there we have the marginalization again:

  "software must be responsive to real world issues".

Software very much an *integrated part* of the real world, and does
in fact implements far more of the higher level behavioural systems
in hour hi-tech society than any other technology.

You can't separate software from "the real world" any more and
therefore "software must be responsive to real world issues" is
about as meaningless as saying "timber must respect the US

This should not be surprising because software has over the last
10 years become the dominant way to implement control systems and
behavioural decisions in technology.

It used to be that a timeout for the light in a staircase was a
small rubber gadget that slowly let air out, these days it is a
microcontroller programmed by some random bloke who can't even
pronounce your name.

As complexity increases, the situation only looks more and more

A couple of weeks ago to unmanned trolley busses in Holland collided
despite all the testing of the controlling systems. The press
quoute was "We have no idea why..."

PGN's RISKS digests has been full of tales of software that is
"responsive to the real world" and I can only say I am amazed
that no more people have been killed by computers so far.

Much of the trouble with software is that it _is_ responsive to the
real world issues, unfortunately it tends to be responsive to the
real world issues in the same way the US auto industry is responsive
to global warming:

        "Hey, not my problem!"


Poul-Henning Kamp       | UNIX since Zilog Zeus 3.20
phk_at_FreeBSD.ORG         | TCP/IP since RFC 956
FreeBSD committer       | BSD since 4.3-tahoe
Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence.
Received on Wed Dec 21 2005 - 12:44:24 PST

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