Saturday, February 11, 2006

Poorly tested software strikes again....

I am on occasion honored with a request to do a keynote presentation at Oracle User Group meetings. I could do the usual "top ten" this or that for PL/SQL, but that has always seemed a bit too narrow for a keynote (even if PL/SQL is just about the only reason anyone would want me to keynote). So I put together a presentation called "Software programmers: Heroes and Heroines of the 21st Century", which focuses on the incredibly central and important role we developers play (for better or worse!) in our society.

Generally, I ascribe to one of the core insights of Lawrence Lessig: code is a form of law, which means that in many ways, programmers are law-writers and certainly we are in the critical path of implementing laws (applications) that control human behavior through software.

So I am constantly on the lookout for stories that drive this point home -- and I ran into an excellent one this morning in the Chicago Tribune. I reproduce the article below. Summary:

A poorly designed and tested interface allows an unsupervised, untrained and unauthorized user to change a value in a field which ends up disrupting the budgets and plans for a school district and several towns.

So test your code, people! And to help you test your PL/SQL code, I am building a new tool named Qute, the Quick Test Engine. We are testing pre-production releases now and you are welcome to download and try it out. Qute makes unit testing dramatically, qualitatively, breath-takingly easier than you can even imagine!

A computer error gave Indiana taxing bodies that false idea. They're out about $8 million.

By James Janega
Chicago Tribune
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 11, 2006

The story of the $400 million house began innocently enough--with a faulty computer entry.

This week, however, things went downhill fast, as school systems and towns throughout Porter County, Ind., scrambled to fill gaping budget holes resulting from a colossal goof in the tax valuation of a modest two-bedroom house in Valparaiso.

And on Friday, the owner of the wildly overvalued ranch was scratching his head, wondering if it's too late to sell.

"We'd sell it for 5 percent of that!" said Dennis Charnetzky, 32, who heard about the mistake that afternoon while working at his home remodeling business.

Pausing, he reconsidered: "At least I don't owe $8 million in taxes."

In October 2004, give or take, a real estate agent--or maybe a title company employee--checking on the value of the Valparaiso property on a county computer system apparently tapped the wrong key. Officials figure it was an accident.

The unidentified user stumbled onto a restricted screen, and then changed the value of the $120,000 house in the 1100 block of Chicago Street to $400 million.

Trying to reconstruct the event, officials imagine the user looking up and realizing something was amiss, then hitting "escape" to leave the screen. But the new value stayed in the computer, and the property tax bill for the house leaped from $1,500 to the upper seven figures.

"They never reported it to the county that they got a funny screen," Porter County Treasurer Jim Murphy said of the mystery typist.

The error was spotted at least twice, Murphy said. One woman in the county auditor's office spotted the problem the day after the entry when the county's equalized assessed value went sky high overnight.

The auditor's office fixed the glitch that allowed outsiders into the county tax computer system, but the $400 million valuation somehow remained.

Last May, the bank that held the home's escrow account, got a tax bill on the property for $8 million. The bank asked the county to take another look at things.

"We thought the problem had been fixed," Murphy said. "It had not been."

So, guided by its computers, the county expected to collect taxes on this startling new abundance, and other taxpayers were asked to pay a little less. Budgets were built around the phantom figures.

"And that's when the poop hit the fan," the treasurer said.

Eighteen taxing districts from the city of Valparaiso, the county and the Valparaiso schools now find themselves in the position of having to return to the county an advance of $3,090,287.33 that was never collected.

That's $1,700,192.51 from the Valparaiso Community Schools, which had counted on the money for their $38 million 2006 budget.

It's also $1,045,527.33 back from the city of Valparaiso (2006 budget: $21.3 million), which had been mounting an aggressive city beautification effort, complete with street resurfacing and sidewalk repairs.

"You can imagine the panic it caused here," said City Administrator Bill Hanna. "You won't find us buying laptops."

Still, no matter what anybody says, "We're not even thinking about laying people off," he said.

But that cracked sidewalk? Might have to wait until next year.

Officials say the county and its various taxing bodies will make it through the short term, as they negotiate with the state on how to correct the mistake. Long-term finances will depend on what's decided.

Back to the house.

"It's a nice home on a quiet street in Valparaiso," Murphy said. "Nice neighborhood, good schools."

The leafy street is just a half-mile from downtown restaurants, steps away from Parkview Elementary School, and walking distance from a lush, grassy park.

The 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath, single-story house (with basement) valued at $121,900 was built in 1949, according to Porter County tax records.

It seems to have little in common with other real estate in the $400 million range--for instance, the twisting 115-story, 2,000-foot Fordham Spire proposed last July for a site along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. If built, that $400 million tower would be the tallest building in North America, with 250 condominium units and a 200-room luxury hotel.

Until 2004, the owner of the Valparaiso ranch home was Robert Affeld, who had lived there 20 years with his wife Sarah, now deceased.

"I never heard anything about it like that," said Affeld, who now lives with his daughter in Danville, Ind. "I sure ain't got $8 million to pay taxes, that's for sure."

He sold the house to Dennis' wife Daelyn Charnetzky, 31, a hair stylist. The Charnetzkys have lived there for more than a year, with no idea they had gotten such a bargain.

"I feel bad for the city for not getting all the property taxes they deserve," said Dennis Charnetzky, who did not sound like he felt bad at all. "It really blows my mind when you hear about stupid stuff like that happening."

On the other hand, Murphy said, one of the darkest weeks in Porter County financial history is over.

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "At least it's Friday."



Tharg said...

The guys in the tax office obviously forgot their P45 checker - what's a P45 checker? Allow me to digress...

I used to work in the UK's national power control centre, where kilo, mega, and gigawatts of power were routinely bought and sold. Even for a country as small as the U.K., the numbers involved could get quite large.

For example, a power station cranking out 2,000 megawatts, for say 10 hours, at £25 per megawatt hour, would be owed £500,000, which at today's exchange rate is roughly $873,000 - a fair piece of pocket change in most people's language.

When traders were bidding for electricity, the price field in their new software had 3 digits, as it is possible for electricity to exceed £100/megawatt hour (MW Hour) on occasions. The guys at the sharp end realised that if they accidentally hit £999 per MW Hour button, they would likely bankrupt someone somewhere, and simultaneously receive a P45, the document declaring tax paid which is automatically produced when someone leaves employment. Thus a check was programmed into the system by the dev team, specifically to prevent P45's from being generated.

To my knowledge the P45 checker only fired once in anger during my tenure, but the trader involved was buying 2 MW hours, and risking a massive £2,000.

However, this pales into insignificance when compared with the blooper reported below by the Guardian.

Mark Tran
Tuesday December 20, 2005

The head of the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) resigned today as computer glitches shook confidence in the world's second biggest bourse.

Takuo Tsurushima, the TSE president, stepped down along with two other directors following the embarrassing lapses in the past few weeks, which the Financial Services Agency (FSA) said could jeopardise the exchange's planned public share listing.

In the most recent blunder, the exchange's computer systems earlier this month failed to cancel a mistaken order to sell 610,000 shares for 1 yen, instead of one share for 610,000 yen.

Article continues
The mistaken trade in shares of recruitment firm J-Com by Mizuho Securities cost the brokerage firm about 40bn yen (£188.3m).

jimk said...

Typical of the government officials to start spending the money instead of thinking of ways to save it.

Yes, these things need data checks.