My 9/28/08 Missoulian column
Here’s a story that shows the interconnectedness of the Internet. That, in itself, isn’t anything new, but when I first started following this story, I remembered an old programmer’s saying that seemed to sum it up: “garbage in, garbage out.” I think you’ll see why.
The big picture is one of a few small mistakes on the Web and the unintended consequences exacerbated by software, which resulted in the loss of a large amount of money by some people. Not too many years ago, a similar cascade of events couldn’t have happened, but now, with the myriad connections in human and cyberspace, it has and likely will again. And again. The dust is starting to settle on this case, except in certain lawyer’s offices, I’ve read.
Let’s start at the source of the problem: a Florida newspaper’s Web site and an article from 2002 about United Airlines going bankrupt – nothing too complex. The story was in the newspaper’s online archive and was read a number of times, perhaps by people looking at the history of United or by others who just stumbling across it.
That’s where the cascade begins: Because the United bankruptcy story was viewed a number of times, the article appeared in the “most read” sidebar on the newspaper’s home page, a common feature on many news sites.
That innocent rise up the “most read” column was compounded by another detail – or, rather, a missing detail. The 2002 article appeared to be a current news story because the original date was missing.
Now, the “most read” column was the result of an algorithm. What’s an algorithm? It’s the method a computer uses to perform a complex task. In this case, the algorithm counts hits on articles and display links to the most popular stories in the “most read” column.
That innocent action was complicated by the missing date, a mistake from a programmer somewhere down the line. The original article must have had a date, because that was how it was archived in the first, but it didn’t appear on the screen.
The next event in the cascade is that Google News happened by the newspaper’s site. Google “crawls” across thousands of newspaper Web sites a day – some many times a day – in order to gather news, sort articles and rank them in terms of importance.
If you scroll to the bottom of the Google News page, you’ll see this phrase: “The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.” In other words, another algorithm automatically gathers the news and presents it on Google News.
So, the United story turned up on Google News and was (presumably) placed higher on the page because it was in the “most read” column on the newspaper’s Web site. With the missing date, Google News was only doing what it does best.
Next event in the cascade of events is a broker on Wall Street – whose business it is to act on breaking news – spotted the United article on Google News and sent it out on Bloomberg News. The broker either didn’t have the institutional knowledge that United had gone bankrupt six years ago, or he didn’t read notice that some of the reader comments at the bottom of the story were dated from 2002. He just wanted his clients to know as soon as possible so they could act on their stock holdings.
The broker’s “news” was also posted on a crawler on the floor of the stock exchange. Computer-based trading took place – by more algorithms – and United’s stock tanked. Quickly. To the tune of a billion dollars in a few minutes.
True, it was revealed within the hour that United wasn’t going bankrupt, and the company’s stock recovered that day. The details of the cascade of events were pieced together over the next few days, but some people lost a lot of money – and, I suppose, others gained – and now lawyers are hashing it out.
What’s the postmortem? Both “tipping points” in the cascade were human errors exacerbated by software. Concerning the first point – that the article didn’t have a date on it – information doesn’t write itself. The lack of a date was a programmer’s mistake. This story would have most likely would have died if the article had a date; both machines and humans down the line would have recognized it as old news.
The second tipping point was obviously human. Someone didn’t have the institutional knowledge to know that United had gone bankrupt in 2002 and didn’t check out the story before it was passed on. That mistake was exacerbated by the speed of software and by people who decided to sell stock based on the story. For more on this story read the New York Times article.
“Garbage in, garbage out” is an old programmer’s phrase that hasn’t lost its relevancy these days. Computers only do exactly what they’re told. Give them bad data, and you’ll get bad results. Or, in this case, let Google News find a hot news item with a missing date, then watch the cascade of events build on human-developed software and human mistakes.
How the Internet and the world is connected these days might be rocket science, but it’s not rocket science that these things happen. And they will happen again, because we’re human and we built the tools use – computers, software and algorithms.
“Garbage in, garbage out.” That might make a good T-shirt.