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Space Bug

Serious Computer Glitches Can Be Caused By Cosmic Rays (computerworld.com) 264

The Los Alamos National Lab wrote in 2012 that "For over 20 years the military, the commercial aerospace industry, and the computer industry have known that high-energy neutrons streaming through our atmosphere can cause computer errors." Now an anonymous reader quotes Computerworld: When your computer crashes or phone freezes, don't be so quick to blame the manufacturer. Cosmic rays -- or rather the electrically charged particles they generate -- may be your real foe. While harmless to living organisms, a small number of these particles have enough energy to interfere with the operation of the microelectronic circuitry in our personal devices... particles alter an individual bit of data stored in a chip's memory. Consequences can be as trivial as altering a single pixel in a photograph or as serious as bringing down a passenger jet.

A "single-event upset" was also blamed for an electronic voting error in Schaerbeekm, Belgium, back in 2003. A bit flip in the electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The issue was noticed only because the machine gave the candidate more votes than were possible. "This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," said Bharat Bhuva. Bhuva is a member of Vanderbilt University's Radiation Effects Research Group, established in 1987 to study the effects of radiation on electronic systems.

Cisco has been researching cosmic radiation since 2001, and in September briefly cited cosmic rays as a possible explanation for partial data losses that customer's were experiencing with their ASR 9000 routers.
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Serious Computer Glitches Can Be Caused By Cosmic Rays

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  • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Sunday February 19, 2017 @07:42PM (#53897341) Homepage
    Whenever a user calls up to ask why his computer rebooted after I install an update, I say... drumroll, please... gamma radiation.
    • gamma radiation

      I also believed that cosmic rays trouble were about gamma radiation, but TFA says it is all about neutron radiation.

    • Yep, it's good news. Very useful.

      Dumb user error can be blamed on IT problems
      IT problems can be blamed on computer glitches
      Computer glitches can be blamed on cosmic rays

      As a result, dumb user errors can and shall always be blamed on cosmic rays

    • by arglebargle_xiv ( 2212710 ) on Monday February 20, 2017 @03:56AM (#53898741)

      A bit flip in the electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The issue was noticed only because the machine gave the candidate more votes than were possible.

      How could they tell this apart from standard operations on a Diebold machine?

    • It 2017 anything goes for news. I expect the Los Alamos National Lab is worried about its funding so will repurpose one of its old hypothesis and try to get it on Fox News so the president see it and decides to keeps it funding. These organizations if smart realize how manipulatable the president is, and just a few simple things can cause him to change his mind and course. Just as long as you stroke his ego you can do whatever you want.

      I am sorry I didn't want to make this political, but we had a proble

    • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Monday February 20, 2017 @08:17AM (#53899221)

      Whenever a user calls up to ask why his computer rebooted after I install an update, I say... drumroll, please... gamma radiation.

      Computers and Incredible Hulks don't interface well together, but a Ctrl-Alt-SMASH sequence? I'd buy that.

  • by thesjaakspoiler ( 4782965 ) on Sunday February 19, 2017 @07:43PM (#53897345)
    I was convinced that is was a lousy programming job by Microsoft that has more attention to fancy UX components rather than stability. I am waiting for the confirmation that the fact that Excel start searching every known (network) drive for a license if it can't connect to the online subscription service, for every operation, must be due to black matter. Unless it crashes when it tries to display that warning message, then it's just some cosmic ray again. So relieved!
  • ECC (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bruce Perens ( 3872 ) <bruce@perens.com> on Sunday February 19, 2017 @07:48PM (#53897399) Homepage Journal

    This is why ECC is used to protect memory and data busses. At least on the good stuff :-) . One of the issues is die shrink. As the minimum detail slze of the IC process gets smaller, the potential for radiation to flip a bit gets higher.

    Silicon-on-sapphire is the main way to implement silicon-on-insulator, which is more protective of radiation bit flips and less likely to latch-up. But since these have historically been required only for space satellites, they have been horribly expensive. Imagine running an entire IC fabrication just to make a few chips. As there are more applications for rad-hard chips, the price could fall.

    • As they get smaller, I think we are fast approaching the point where it will be thought that a silicon atom is too big to allow for a shrink, and that semiconductor physicists will have to start looking at carbon and maybe even boron
      • We are already there:
        http://www.pcworld.com/article... [pcworld.com]
        http://arstechnica.com/gadgets... [arstechnica.com]

        As the IBM article states they are working with Samsung and Global Foundries while the other article is about Intel that is 3 of the major chip fab companies stating they are moving to silicon-germanium hybrid crystal over pure silicon for exactly this reason. Also the fabs on a new process node take time to setup and they need to be ready before circuit design comes in to fab prototype batches so they are usually a coupl

    • As the minimum detail slze of the IC process gets smaller, the potential for radiation to flip a bit gets higher.

      I suspect the math works out the same as Shannon's noisy channel theorem [wikipedia.org]. And that as the chance of bit flips (noise) increases due to die shrinking, you can increase the error correction coding to compensate for it up to some theoretical limit.

      e.g.. instead of ECC memory having one parity bit for every 8 data bits, you increase it to two parity bits per 8 data bits, and it can withstand a h

  • preposterous! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Sunday February 19, 2017 @07:59PM (#53897441)

    When your computer crashes or phone freezes, don't be so quick to blame the manufacturer.

    If my computer crashes or phone freezes, it's almost certainly the fault of the person who released the software without properly debugging it. Cosmic rays are very low on the list of reasons why your device has malfunctioned.

    • by Arkh89 ( 2870391 )

      You are right in the lottery sense : if your particular phone or app crashes, it is very unlikely that it is due to cosmic rays. However, it might be likely that it happens fairly often around the world. This is similar to the lottery : it is unlikely that you will win, but it is likely that someone will win.

      It's all a matter of cross-section of the devices actually. If we want to compare, the IPhone 4 (an old baseline, smaller than today's generation but close to most of the low-cost devices) measures 0.00

    • by ShaunC ( 203807 )

      Low on the list, but certainly not nonzero. Given the increasing number of devices out there it's probably happening around the world with some regularity. There just isn't a way for most of us to properly measure or attribute the occurrences.

      Say you're driving down the interstate and your cruise control shuts off, but you're sure you didn't bump the brake. Your $1.49 bag of chips rings up as $9.49 at the grocery store, but re-scans at the correct price after a void. A few pixels go blurry in an otherwise f

    • Bit flipping happens often enough just in stored dns names, that it's worth buying up some bit flipped names.
    • by craXORjack ( 726120 ) on Sunday February 19, 2017 @11:28PM (#53898105)
      Some pieces of software are just the recipients of more cosmic rays than others. For example, Windows 3.1 used to attract ultra high energy cosmic rays from as far away as Mars and for a time was making astronomers lives difficult due to the showers of particles released when many of those rays would strike molecules in the atmosphere instead of the Microsoft copyrighted code they were aiming for. Other software that attracts higher than normal numbers of cosmic rays are the Therac-25 and Diebold voting machines.
    • Someday I will be able to completely debug a piece of software. It will be a very small piece of software, I am sure.

      People discount the complexity that we face when attempting to fully debug anything.

  • Follow through the links: a cosmic ray caused problems, the jets misbehaved for a bit but the duplicated systems protected them from a crash - as they are supposed to after a malfunction.

  • by hey! ( 33014 )

    Shouldn't "News for Nerds" be news to nerds?

  • Even though market participents are warned about this by exchanges, you do have to wonder, if it makes it into the BOFH excuse calendar, can you really take it seriously?

  • ... during my IT career?

    I could have used this as a dodge after I fucked something up in the system.

    I did the sunspot thing back in 2012.

    "Russia," seems to work well, though.

  • I'm certain it's on the list [wisc.edu] somewhere.

  • But much more frequently, problems are caused by somebody f**king something up. You shouldn't be looking to cosmic rays until you're pretty sure it's not just stupidity in action.

  • by gravewax ( 4772409 ) on Sunday February 19, 2017 @10:01PM (#53897809)
    Your phone or computer crash is thousands of times (if not millions) more likely to have been caused by the manufacturer/coders error or fault than cosmic rays. Anyone that decides to consider cosmic rays as a more likely answer deserves to continue to experience their issues.
    • No it isn't. Cosmic rays most definitely have an impact on your phone.

      You can take basic precautions though. I find new phones come with small amount of EM shielding that blocks cosmic rays. As time progresses this shield gets weak and more and more CPU power is dedicated to it operating properly which also slows down your phone. However it is often fixed by performing a factory reset (which also resets and recalibrates the EM shielding) making your phone fast and cosmic ray resistant again.

      Of course if you

  • by holophrastic ( 221104 ) on Sunday February 19, 2017 @11:19PM (#53898069)

    Is anyone surprised that if you store things once, and reference the one place alone, that you get screwed on occasion?

    Is the word "co-roberation" new? How about "validation", "authentication", "verification", and, oh, I don't know, "paper-trail"?

    It's electronic information, not magic. The benefit of not carving into stone is that you can readily duplicate information into multiple places. Use it.

    RAID.

  • Why didn't that voting machine have ECC memory? Why didn't the software have bounds checking?
    Yes, I know it's common, I use some software (from a very large company that was run by a guy you don't go hunting with) that when it hits a some input data with a negative integer IT ATTEMPTS TO ALLOCATE NEGATIVE MEMORY, and of course, crashes - but things that stupid should never happen (especially since it's supposed to deal with very noisy data). If it's out of range for a bit of code to work on then don't le
  • We've always known this. This is why we have ECC memory on servers.

  • Electrical or magnetic interference inside a computer system can cause a single bit of dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) to spontaneously flip to the opposite state. It was initially thought that this was mainly due to alpha particles emitted by contaminants in chip packaging material, but research has shown that the majority of one-off soft errors in DRAM chips occur as a result of background radiation, chiefly neutrons from cosmic ray secondaries, which may change the contents of one or more memory cell

  • Isn't this why ZFS exists?

  • We've known this since the 1980s...and the more dense/smaller the transistors get the greater the likelihood of it happening.

    This is news, but it's literally from the previous century.

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