RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: 2006 has seen plenty of technological goofs

Keywords Government / Technology

Happy holidays to you, and welcome to yet another yearly installment of, “Who’s Got the SNAFU?” the holiday game for those nervous about using technology for anything more complicated than opening cat food.

We start comparatively close to home, in Valparaiso, where CNN reported that a modest little $122,000 home was erroneously valued in the county’s computer system at $400 million, which would have generated some $8 million in tax revenue. The $8 million figure was duly calculated into the county budget, and now that it’s vanished, some 18 separate governmental units had to return money, including the school system, which wound up in the red. Layoffs could result. The county attributed the problem to a form of operator error, saying somebody changed the valuation to the wrong figure. Gee, you think?

Sensitive user data is always a good supplement to ship with newspapers, and that’s what The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram and Gazette did for their subscribers. As many as 240,000 newspaper customers had their credit and bank card numbers printed onto paper used to wrap the newspapers for distribution before they were sent out. The Globe itself reported the story in February.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. The BBC reported a devilish problem involving Church of England vicars in the United Kingdom who used a computer application called “Visual Liturgy” to plan their services. Of course, even faith can’t protect against computer viruses, so the more than 4,500 Visual Liturgy customers also use virus-protection software, often that made by Symantec, and marketed under the trademark “Norton.”

After an upgrade to the newest version of Norton, the vicars noted that their Visual Liturgy had stopped working. Norton had misidentified a component of Visual Liturgy as a virus, and removed it. The maker of Visual Liturgy, Church House Publishing, provided a quick fix, but then got into a row with Symantec over how slowly Symantec had fixed the problem. Rumor has it that the next version of the Macintosh will be named after a serpent … .

Governments seem to make some of the worst technological mistakes. From 2005 comes a story from Australia about a new $250 million (Australian) customs computer system that was supposed to relieve congestion in the busy ports of Botany Bay and Melbourne. ZDNet reported that, instead of making shipments move faster, glitches in the software were hampering processing so much that Port Botany was backed up to 90 percent of its capacity. If the situation got any worse, the port authority would have to locate holding areas outside the port itself.

The state of Michigan had its own computer snag in 2005, as reported by TV station WLNS in Lansing. An audit by state officials showed that a glitch (it’s always a “glitch,” isn’t it?) was letting prisoners out of jail on incorrect dates, either too early or too late.

Perhaps the most emotionally heartbreaking screw-up of 2006 was the revelation that the original high-resolution TV tapes of the first moonwalk in history have been lost. Then it transpired that a good many tapes of all kinds from that era were also misplaced, including telemetry data and audio of the control-room conversation. The video, which was many times sharper than the grainy images Americans have seen over the years, can be viewed only by specialized equipment at NASA, so it was never transferred to another medium, and the NASA equipment was decommissioned in October.

Now it turns out that tapes from that period are deteriorating fast, so that, even when a few are located, the tape surfaces are so badly eroded they’re often barely usable. After the 1969 landing, the various tapes were treated with spectacular disinterest. They were boxed up and left sitting around until 1970, when they were shipped from the Goddard Space Center to the U.S. National Archives. For some reason nobody can now identify, around 700 boxes were taken from the Archives and shipped back to Goddard in 1984.

What happened then is anybody’s guess. Nobody can find where they were routed, and many of the people involved have retired or died. And it’s not only Neil Armstrong’s historic ladder descent that’s lost; the video from the other first five landings is gone, too. The nation that put a man on the moon let the high-resolution recording of that moment slip through its fingers.

That’s it for this year. Not because we’ve exhausted the supply of stories, but because we’ve run out of space. More next year. Happy holidays.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.