Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Costly typos

I didn't have much to add in my story about Dord being a synonym for density <not!>.  I don't have much to add here either, but your narrow view of the Universe/blogosphere is not my narrow view of the Universe/blogosphere and you might not have heard these other stories that hinge on typographical errors.  The most widely printed book on this planet is apparently the (Christian) Bible, which has sold a few more copies than Harry Potter.  With hundreds of editions and thousands of print-runs, there are bound to have been some typos.  The most notorious example is the Sinner's Bible published in 1631 by Robert Barker and Martin Lucas.  A dozy and under-paid typesetter left out a key 'not' [see v.14 R] from a tedious list of prohibitions and reversed one of the ten Commandments. The King was shocked and the Archbishop of Canterbury sighed more in sorrow than in anger: "I knew the time when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially, . . ., but now the paper is nought, the composers boys, and the correctors unlearned."  Of course, the King and the ABoC could have done a better job themselves <not!>.  The King at the time may have held to his marriage vows but his son Charles II was a notorious serial shagger.  It cost the, thereafter poor, printers a) their licence and b) a £300 fine which is about €60,000 in real 2015 money.  Blasphemy youtube supplement: Defending Brian.

I have dealt with a rather more expensive software error which caused the Mars Climate Orbiter to plunge straight at the Red Planet and make a hard-landing rather than delicately catching the gravitational field and establishing a stable orbit round our nearest neighbour.  That wasn't really a typo but a consequence of the US being the last hold-out for a medieval system of weights and measures after the rest of us have embraced a French revolutionary system of weights and measures - just as arbitrary really for all it's 9-figure-accurate definitions.  That cost $125 million.  The space-typo error occurred in the Mariner 1 launch in 1962.  Actually, of course, the typo occurred earlier when the software engineers were writing code to control all aspects of the mission's voyage to graze Venus and send back data. The rocket started to behave strangely shortly after launch and the mission was aborted >!boom!< by the range safety officer RSO after just about 5 minutes in the air. Arthur C. Clark called it the costliest hyphen in history but the forensic debugging indicated that it was more likely a missing overbar and an over-dot from the handwritten copy of the input code which should have looked thus R n and finished up so Rn. The consequence was that small changes in yaw-pitch-roll aspect of the rocket were not smoothed and so the missile swung left and right with increasing exaggeration until the RSO pulled the plug. Almost exactly the same issue as with the MCO but a different cause for the error.  Cost? $80 million!

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