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The Lost Manuscript of Archimedes | Curious Minds Podcast

Archimedes is famous for being Ancient Greece’s greatest engineer. Yet a random discovery – a prayers book found in an old church in Turkish Istanbul, casts this mysterious genius in an even more surprising light.

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The Lost Manuscript of Archimedes (Full Transcript)

The year is 212 BC. The place–is the fortified walls of the Greek city Syracuse, at the shores of the island of Sicily.

A great fleet of Roman battle ships was approaching the city from the east, and thousands of elite Roman Legion troops were getting ready to attack by land from the west. The Roman army was led by Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a brilliant general and the man who killed the king of the Gauls, Rome’s sworn enemy, with his bare hands. We can safely assume that not many in the ancient world would be willing to trade places with Syracuse’s defenders.

The historic city of Syracuse - Curious Minds Podcast
The historic city of Syracuse

The Roman ships neared the city walls – and the Greek defense came alive. Catapults placed behind the walls hurled giant rocks towards the approaching fleet. Some ships were damaged, but the Romans pressed forward: catapults were a common weapon in the ancient world and the Romans expected the attack. They also knew that catapults had a roughly fixed range, so as the soldiers neared the walls, more and more of the rocks would pass over their heads and the artillery would become useless.

They rowed on, closing the distance towards the walls – but something strange and unexpected happened. The rocks – big, small, sharp, and serrated – continued to fall on the Roman ships. The Greek catapults, it seemed, were somehow able to modify their range of attack! Marcellus spurred his troops onwards through this rain of ruin and destruction.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus - Curious Minds Podcast
Marcus Claudius Marcellus

A Surprise Hidden in the Walls

The ships that survived the artillery clung to the fortified walls and the soldiers prepared to climb them – but another surprise awaited them. From within the walls emerged great beams with big metal hooks, like giant fishing rods. The Greek defenders aimed the beams left and right, up and down, until a hook connected with a ship’s hull. And then, the impossible happened. With great force, the beams lifted the Roman ships into the air, as if they were little fish. One after the other, the Roman ships were caught in the pointed claws of the Syracuse’s machines. The flailing ships capsized or were slammed forcefully into the walls while the frightened soldiers were thrown into the water.

Painting of Archimedes' Claw - Curious Mind Podcast
Painting of Archimedes’ Claw

The Roman fleet retreated, licking its wounds – but Marcus Marcellus did not give up. He reorganized his troops and prepared to attack at night. Under the cover of darkness, the Roman ships clung once again to the city’s walls and the soldiers climbed them. And once again, the defenders were ready with yet another surprise: thousands of metal arrows fired from tiny holes, hidden in the walls.

The Romans panicked. As they retreated back to safety, one name was on their lips: Archimedes. These were the works of Archimedes.

The land forces that attacked Syracuse from the other side received their share of artillery and arrows as well. Marcellus realized that as long as the mysterious Greek genius was responsible for Syracuse’s defenses – his army didn’t stand a chance. The general decided to change his tactics and laid siege to Syracuse….but from afar.

A Mysterious Genius

The siege of Syracuse was one of the greatest military dramas of the ancient world. But before we return to our story, let’s take a closer look at the mysterious genius whose machines humiliated the Roman army. Surprisingly enough, we don’t know much about Archimedes’ personal life. We know was born in Syracuse in 287 BC, but we don’t know much about who his parents were, or whether he was married or had children.

Most of what we know about Archimedes comes from scholars who wrote about him well after his death. And yet, even though we don’t have a lot of information about his personal life, we do know quite a bit about his professional work from notebooks and manuscripts on math and mechanics that he left behind.

What we know about Archimedes raises a fascinating question, which will be the focus of this episode: what effect does the surrounding environment have on our perception of a person’s achievements? Archimedes was a gifted inventor and engineer, no doubt about it – but he didn’t live in a vacuum. He lived at a certain period, at a certain place and was surrounded by other people. All these external factors had to have some influence over his life – but how much influence, if at all, did these external forces have on our modern perceptions of Archimedes’ extraordinary talents?

Archimedes (By Domenico Fetti) - Curious Minds Podcast
Archimedes (By Domenico Fetti)

Rome Vs. Carthage

Back to Syracuse and the 3rd century BC. Except for the Greeks, there were two other major powers around the Mediterranean Sea. The first was Carthage, a Phoenician colony in what is now Tunisia, which was a rich and prosperous city. The second was Rome, which at that point in history was still a republic.

The Phoenicians coveted the island of Sicily due to its strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean. Carthage constantly interfered with Sicily’s politics, and at times, even sent military forces in order to try and take it over. Sicily was important to the Romans since it was a valuable source of grain, and the Romans weren’t thrilled about Carthage’s attempts to take over the island. Over the years, the tension grew between the Romans and the Punics – as the Romans called the Phoenicians, until in 250 BC, a war broke out between them. The war ended with Rome taking over large Sicilian territories.

Archimedes in Alexandria

Syracuse, in eastern Sicily, was an independent kingdom ruled by King Hiero [HIGH-RO] the Second. Hiero initially supported Carthage, but the Roman success convinced him to switch sides and sign an alliance with the republic. It was a smart move: this alliance ended up being very successful and gave Hiero fifty years of stability and economic prosperity. Archimedes, who was a close friend of King Hiero, benefited from this stability too. It allowed him to focus on his favorite field of research: mathematics. For example, one of his greatest accomplishments was the development of methods for calculating the values of pi (π) and the square root of the number three with extraordinary accuracy – an accuracy that no one was able to match for the next fifteen hundred years.

Coin of King Heiro II - Curious Minds Podcast
Coin of King Heiro II

Even though Syracuse, where Archimedes lived, was located outside of the Greek mainland, far away from Athens and Sparta – its population spoke Greek and shared the Greek Culture. One the most notable aspects of Greek culture was that the Greeks valued pure science: that is, research purely for the sake of research, instead of research bent towards more practical end goals such as better construction methods or machinery. Archimedes, being a product of this culture, preferred pure math over engineering.

However, Syracuse was also close – both geographically and culturally – to Alexandria, another Greek city that was a significant cultural center of the time. As a young man, Archimedes studied for some time in Alexandria, and there he absorbed a completely different approach to science. The Alexandrians – as were the ancient Egyptians before them – were practical people, and it seems that even though Archimedes preferred pure math – he did learn how to put his mathematical knowledge to use in more practical endeavors. For example, according to some evidence, while in Alexandria Archimedes designed a clock based on water flow that was extremely accurate.


Another possible example of this practicality is the famed “Eureka” story. It begins with a task given to Archimedes by King Hiero. The king hired a goldsmith to make a golden crown of a certain weight; for the sake of explanation, let’s say it was one pound. When the Goldsmith handed the king the completed masterpiece, it did weigh one pound – but the king suspected that the goldsmith replaced some of the gold with silver – a cheaper metal. Therefore, the king asked Archimedes to figure out the actual gold content of the crown – without damaging it, of course.

Legend has it that Archimedes devoted all his time to thinking about how to solve this problem; so much so that his servants had to drag him to the bathroom to wash – and while soaking in the hot water, Archimedes continued thinking about the problem, drawing shapes and figures on the soap covering his body.

Archimedes knew that silver was lighter than gold, and therefore if the Goldsmith actually replaced some of the gold with silver while keeping the same weight, then he had to make the crown bigger. It might be easier to understand this concept when thinking of cotton wool instead of silver. Imagine the Goldsmith replacing the heavier gold with the light wool: it would take a large volume of wool to make a whole pound! Yet the difference in weight between gold and silver isn’t as significant as the cotton example, so if the crown turned out to be bigger, it would only be slightly bigger, and definitely not something a human eye could identify. Then how could Archimedes determine whether the crown contained silver?!

While soaking in the bath, so the legend says, he thought of a solution. He noticed that when he got into the bath, the water level rose – meaning, his body displaced a portion of the water. He understood that the displaced volume of water must be identical to the volume of the item displacing it. That is why when a baby takes a bath, the water level increases just a bit, while when an adult takes a bath, the water level increases a lot more.
Archimedes realized that in order to measure the volume of the crown, all he had to do was place it in a bowl of water and measure the water level before and after. Archimedes was so excited by this discovery that he left the bathtub and ran the streets of Syracuse – naked – while screaming “Eureka! Eureka!” which in Greek means “I am freezing! I am freezing!” Ok. Ok… It really means “I’ve discovered! I’ve discovered!“ Anyway, applying his test showed that the king’s crown was, indeed, larger than it should have been, and therefore the Goldsmith has replaced some of the gold with silver.

A Most Magnificent Ship

It is likely that this story did not happen in reality, and not just because it’s unlikely that Archimedes ran naked in the streets. The difference in volume between a crown made of gold and silver is so tiny that the difference in water level would be less than zero point zero four inches (0.04). Back in Archimedes time, measuring a difference that small would probably have been, likely, impossible. Still, Archimedes did have a deep understanding of the forces that affected sunken bodies – as the following example will illustrate.

King Hiero asked Archimedes to design a ship that he would later give to Ptolemy the Third, the king of Alexandria. Hiero wanted the ship – “Syracusia” was its name – to be the greatest vessel the world had ever seen: it was meant to carry hundreds of passengers and soldiers in unprecedented luxury: it would have a gymnasium, a swimming pool, and even a temple for Aphrodite! That’s impressive for a ship built today, not to mention one built in the 3rd century BC! Assuming, of course, that Archimedes could make it work… The Syracusia ship would have weighed thousands of tons. So the question was – how could Archimedes make sure such a large ship would float safely? The answer had to do with what is known today as the “Archimedes Principle”.

The Syracusia, as imagined in 1798 - Curious Minds Podcast
The Syracusia, as imagined in 1798.

Archimedes Principle

Have you ever noticed how freight ships – those gigantic metal monsters – have no problem floating, yet when your iPhone falls into the toilet, it drowns like the Titanic? Well, that’s not Apple’s fault. The Archimedes Principle states that any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object. Since the iPhone is small, it displaces only a small volume of water and therefore the buoyancy force – the force that pushes it upward – is smaller than the weight of the device, and it sinks. A ship, on the other hand, is concave and wide and displaces a great deal of water. If the weight of the water the ship displaces is larger than its own weight, the buoyancy force will overcome gravity and the ship will float on water even though it may weigh thousands of tons. Archimedes used this insight to design the Syracusia, and in fact, it did make its way to Alexandria.

The Syracusia, by the way, demonstrated another of Archimedes’ inventions. In wooden ships, water penetrates the space between the beams; as a result, water needs to be pumped out of the ship continuously. Archimedes thought of a simple yet very efficient pump: It consisted of a screw placed inside a hollow pipe. As the screw turned, its bottom end scooped up water and pulled it upwards until it poured out of the other side of the tube. The pump is known today as “Archimedes’ Screw” – yet it was probably not invented by Archimedes – or maybe Archimedes simply re-invented it. Similar pumps existed in ancient Babylon at least hundreds of years prior to Archimedes and were used to water the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world.

Archimedes' screw - Curious Minds Podcast
Archimedes’ screw

A Not So Smart Move

Archimedes’ peaceful life was disturbed in 218 BC when the second Punic war broke out.
Initially, it seemed as if Carthage would win the war. A brilliant Carthaginian general named Hannibal invaded Italy and defeated the Romans in several decisive battles. Hannibal’s success challenged the control Rome had over its allies in Sicily and convinced many to switch their support to Carthage. While in some cities rebellions broke against the Romans, King Hiero continued to be a loyal ally of Rome. Again, a smart move.

Unfortunately, he died just two years into the war and his throne was given to his fifteen-year-old grandson, Hieronymus – and young Hieronymus decided to support Carthage. A not so smart move…

Hieronymus’ decision to support Carthage resulted in a triple-sided civil war in Carthage between those who supported Rome and those who supported Carthage – and those who opposed the king and fought to rid the city of tyranny. Barely a year after taking the throne, Hieronymus was murdered and Carthage’s supporters took over the city.
Unfortunately for the people of Syracuse, the Romans eventually managed to deal with Hannibal – and then turned their focus south, to Sicily and its rebellions. Marcus Marcellus and his troops invaded Sicily, defeated a small city, and then headed for Syracuse.

The long period of prosperity under King Hiero allowed Syracuse to improve its defenses – and Archimedes was the engineer responsible for designing and implementing these defenses. As we’ve already heard, his innovations were greatly successful in protecting the city from the invading Romans.

Myths and Facts

Archimedes was so successful, in fact, that it’s difficult to distinguish facts from myth in the story of the Siege of Syracuse. For example, it is said that Archimedes developed a way to aim a focused beam of blazing heat towards the oncoming ships. He had dozens of soldiers standing at the top of the walls while holding their shiny armors, which then reflected sunlight back to the approaching ships and set them ablaze from a distance of a few dozen yards. As dramatic as this story may seem, modern scientists doubt whether this could actually take place. Attempts to reconstruct this feat have all failed, or resulted with lighting just a small flame and only under ideal conditions. It is more likely to assume that the focused sunlight did little more than blind the attackers, at best.

Even the descriptions of “The Claw of Archimedes” – those metal hooks protruding out of the walls and lifting whole ships in the air as if they were toys – are probably exaggerated. But unlike the heat-ray, there’s a reason to believe that something of this sort did take place. Why? Because one of the ideas that Archimedes studied thoroughly was that of The Principle of the Lever. It is the theoretical idea that allows us to exert a relatively small force on one side of a lever – and in return, get a much greater force on its other side.

The Principle of the Lever

How can a lever allow a small force to be amplified to a much larger force on its other side? Well, for the sake of the explanation, let’s assume that my wife wants me to fix our garden: sweep fallen leaves, mow the grass, that sort of thing. She has two ways to make me do it. The first method is to say – “Ran, go fix on the garden.” to which I’ll probably answer – “forget the garden, I am writing an episode for Curious Minds, and it is a lot more interesting than mowing the grass.” Then she will yell at me, and I will yell at her, and eventually, as always, I will give in, give up, and go work on the garden.

But my wife also has a second option. She can say “Ran, please go work on the garden.” And I will refuse. Then, after an hour, she will ask again, and I will refuse again. She will again ask, demand, harass … and eventually I will give in, give up, and work on the garden. The result will be the same but the force she has to exert – the amount of shouting and yelling – will be less. In effect, she traded engaging a great force over a small period of time – fierce yelling – for a much weaker force over a long period of time… This is the principle of the lever, and there are countless examples of it in action all around us. A beer bottle opener is a great example. Trying to open a beer bottle with your bare hands is difficult since you have to exert a great force on the bottle – but the bottle opener allows us to trade that great force for a lever that travels a longer distance and so requires a much smaller force.

Archimedes didn’t invent the lever principle: It is a simple principle that many before him understood intuitively. Yet Archimedes was the first to analyze that idea mathematically and figure out its implications. He is famous for saying “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”. There is almost no doubt that he had the knowledge and ability to design a lever large enough to lift a heavy ship in the air – and if not lift it completely out of the water, then at least raise its bow and turn it on its side. Modern reconstructions show it is actually possible.

The Roman Sack Syracuse

Unfortunately, Marcellus’ reputation as a brilliant military leader was justified. The siege of Syracuse lasted two years, during which the general gathered as much intelligence as he could about the city’s defenses.

Eventually, Marcellus got lucky. Roman supporters from inside the city told him of a three-day-festival that was about to be held in honor of the goddess Artemis. It was the moment Marcellus was waiting for. During the festival, under the cover of darkness, an elite Roman force scaled the walls and infiltrated the city. The defenders, as it turned out, were too drunk to offer any resistance – and the Roman soldiers opened the main gate and allowed the rest of the army to enter and conquer the city with hardly any resistance. The Romans sacked Syracuse and burned it to ashes. Syracuse, a once rich and magnificent city – was ruined. The second Punic war ended, eventually, with a massive Roman victory over Carthage. In the following war, the third Punic war, Rome conquered Carthage itself and destroyed it.

The Death of Archimedes

Archimedes, too, was a victim of the fall of Syracuse. The Roman writer Plutarch wrote that since Marcellus thought very highly of Archimedes, he ordered his men not to harm the scholar. Despite the order, Archimedes found his death at the hands of a Roman soldier during the sacking of the city. One version of the story claims that Archimedes was so preoccupied with his sketches that he didn’t even notice that the city had been taken by the Romans. When a Roman soldier demanded he came out of his house, Archimedes yelled “Don’t interrupt my circles!” and in a rage, the soldier killed Archimedes. According to another version, Archimedes left his house to meet Marcellus and carried with him instruments such as a compass and large rulers. A Roman soldier mistook them for valuable jewelry and killed Archimedes in order to steal them. We will likely never know what really happened that day.

A Roman mosaic describing Archimedes' death - Curious Minds Podcast
A Roman mosaic describing Archimedes’ death.

The dramatic Siege of Syracuse imprinted Archimedes’ image in our collective memories as that of an excellent military engineer. Yet these circumstances cast a shadow over his other significant works, such as his revolutionary discoveries in the field of pure mathematics. And it wasn’t only the political or military circumstances that determined that, but other, more random circumstances, as well.

The Ball And The Sphere

One of the achievements Archimedes was most proud of, was the discovery of a method for calculating the volume of a ball: an impossible task prior to Archimedes. He proved that the volume of a sphere contained in a cylinder – is exactly two-thirds of the cylinder’s volume; Measuring the cylinder’s volume – an easy task – would allow us to calculate the sphere’s volume. Archimedes was so proud of this success that he requested an illustration of a sphere and a cylinder to be chiseled on his tombstone.

A sphere in a cylinder - Curious Minds Podcast
A shpere in a cylinder.

How did Archimedes make this discovery? About ten manuscripts he wrote, with various mathematical proofs, survived the millennia – yet none of them explains how he came up with the basic idea of why the volume of a sphere contained inside a cylinder is exactly two-thirds the volume of the cylinder. Some might consider this information superfluous: after all, we have modern proofs for this mathematical truth – why would we be interested in knowing how Archimedes himself reached it?

Well, It is a valid question – but many consider mathematics to be a sort of art, and a mathematical idea can be like a painting in a gallery. We can enjoy it as is, but wouldn’t it be more fascinating to know how the painter painted it, what tools he used, how he chose certain colors, or what ideas he had in mind? This sort of information regarding the principle of the sphere and the cylinder was lost forever – or at least that is what researchers believed until not long ago.

A Surprising Discovery

In 1840, a European scholar named Tischendorf visited a small church in Istanbul, Turkey. He examined old books that were kept at the church for centuries, but he didn’t find anything significant – except for one book. It was a liturgical book in which he identified a few mathematical illustrations. He wrote about those illustrations in a book he published – but never continued his research.

Years later, in 1899, a Greek scholar was working on cataloging all the liturgical books found in that same Turkish church. He too noticed the mathematical notations in one of the books, so he copied some of them and sent them to a few of his colleagues. These strange illustrations made their way to John Heiberg, an expert on Archimedes, and he was the first to realize that the liturgical content of the book was written on top of a previous manuscript. That is, the liturgical book is what is known as “a palimpsest”.

How can a book be written on top of another? Well, the original manuscript was written in the ninth century, most likely in Istanbul – Constantinople, as it was called at the time – and was a copy of an earlier manuscript written by Archimedes himself. The book’s pages were made of hard and dry leather, similar to that a shoe sole.

In the year 1204 Constantinople was conquered by the Christian crusaders and the manuscript was taken to a remote convent in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Since paper was a rare material and the monks needed everything they could write on, they choose to recycle old books and remade them into liturgical books. They would wash or scratch the ink off the existing pages until the previous content was faded and hardly noticeable, and then turned them on their side and refold them. It is likely that none of the monks realized that the old book they were wiping was actually a rare copy of an Archimedes manuscript. The monks believed that erasing pagan texts was actually a virtue and since the original book was written in Greek, they didn’t see a problem with converting it to a Christian liturgical book.

Archimedes Palimpsest- Curious Minds Podcast
Archimedes Palimsest

The book was kept for hundreds of years in Jerusalem and then was somehow sent back to Istanbul, to the small church where it was discovered. John Heiberg then copied the pages and deciphered the faded Greek letters that hid underneath the religious prayers. What he revealed shocked him and historians around the world: a new, previously unknown manuscript by Archimedes called “The Method of Mechanical Theorems”. In it, Archimedes describes, for the first time, how he came up with many of his mathematical principles and ideas. It is a rare and exciting peek into the mind of a long gone genius.

The Palimpsest of Archimedes

This peek exposed a fascinating fact: it turns out that in order to prove his theorem on the volume of a sphere contained within a cylinder – Archimedes made use of a revolutionary technique that was ahead of its time by fifteen hundred years: Calculus. If you don’t know much about Calculus – don’t feel bad. For our purpose, it is only important to know that Calculus plays a vital role in modern science and engineering, and was developed independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz in the 17th century.

Imagine what would have happened if the “Method of Mechanical Theorems” hadn’t been lost for almost two thousand years. How advanced could have our math been, had Calculus been known from Archimedes’ time? Who knows how advanced our science and engineering could be today, had Archimedes’ ideas not been wiped to make space for a book of prayers…

Archimedes’ Palimpsest disappeared again during the First World War; scientists thought that it was lost forever and perhaps destroyed during the Second World War. But then it reappeared, held by a French family who’d kept the manuscript in their basement for years, until 1998. The book was then auctioned and purchased by an anonymous buyer for two million dollars; he donated the manuscript to a museum where it is kept today and made accessible for scientific research. Even today, X-ray and Infra-red scans still reveal new details from the book.


The story of Archimedes is a fascinating example of how Culture, Politics, War, and plain old random luck can influence how a person’s genius will be expressed. If the culture you live in encourages research into pure science – you can make big strides in pure math. If your friend is a King – you might be remembered as a great military engineer.  And if some anonymous monk in a small convent wipes away all you have written – your truly brilliant ideas might be kept in darkness for many hundreds of years…

But, that’s life, you know. All we can do is sit back, grab a beer, open it using a long lever and a proper fulcrum – and drink in honor of this special man, Archimedes of Syracuse.

Malicious Life - Curious Minds

The Dark Avenger [From: Malicious.Life] | Curious Minds Podcast

We’re back from our short break, with a fantastically interesting episode:
In 1989, a message was found in a virus: “Eddie Lives…Somewhere in Time!”. ‘Eddie’ was a particularly nasty virus, and its discovery led a young Bulgarian security researcher down a rabbit hole, on a hunt for the prolific creator of the Eddie virus: The Dark Avenger.

Guests: Vesselin Bontchev, Graham Cluley

Link to more Malicious.Life episodes

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FORTRAN - Curious Minds Podcast

Are Software Bugs Inevitable? Part 2: The Most Expensive Failed Software Project Ever | Curious Minds Podcast

After describing the Software Crisis in the previous episode, we discuss the various methodologies and practices implemented over the years to combat the complexities of software development. We’ll tell the sad story of the FBI’s VCF project – perhaps the most expensive failed software project ever – and hear about Dr. Fred Brooks’ classic book, ‘The Mythical Man-Month’.

Link to Part I

Big thanks to Aviran Mordo from for appearing in the episode.  

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Are Software Bugs Inevitable?

Written By: Ran Levi

Part II:  The Most Expensive Failed Software Project Ever

(Read Part I)

In this episode, we’re continuing our discussion about the Software Crisis, which we introduced last week. If you missed that episode, you might want to go back and have a read before listening to this one.

The question we asked was: why do so many large software projects fail so often? THAT is the Software Crisis, a term that was first coined in 1968.

“Failure”, in the context of software, has many aspects: software projects tend to deviate from schedule and budgets, produce software that does not meet the customer’s specs or expectation – and often contains a significant number of errors and bugs. It is a question that troubled many engineers and computer scientists over the years: what makes software so complicated to engineer?

The solutions to this problem changed over the years, along with changes in the business culture of the High Tech world.

The Waterfall Methodology

In the 1960s, The dominant approach to software development – especially when it came to complicated projects – was known as the “Waterfall” methodology. This approach divides the software projects into well-defined stages: first, the customer defines the requirements for the product. A software architect – usually an experienced programmer – creates the outline of the system that fits these requirements, and then a team of programmers writes the actual code that fits this outline. In essence, the Waterfall approach is the same approach a carpenter would use when creating a new piece of furniture: Learn what the customer wants, draw a schematic outline of the product, measure twice – and cut once.

The name “Waterfall” hints at the progression between stages: a new stage in the project will begin only when the last one is complete, just like water flowing down a waterfall. You can’t start writing code until the client has defined their needs and wants. Seems like a sensible approach, and indeed the Waterfall methodology served engineers outside of the software industry for hundreds of years. Why shouldn’t it be used here as well?

But in the last twenty years, the “Waterfall” method has been under constant and profound criticism, coming from software developers and business leaders. The main argument against Waterfall is that even though it served other engineering disciplines, from architecture to electronics – it is not well-suited to the software field.

And why is that? Let’s examine this question through an example which is, most likely, one of the most expensive failures in the history of software engineering.

VCF – Virtual Case File

In the year 2000, the FBI decided to replace its entire computer system and network. Many of the agency’s computers were old and outdated and had no longer suited the needs of agents and investigators. Some of the computers still used 1980s green screens and didn’t even support using a mouse…After September 11th, FBI agents had to fax photos of suspects because the software they used couldn’t attach a document to their e-mails! It can’t get much worse than that…

Seal of The FBI - Curious Minds Podcast
Seal of The FBI

Finally, at the end of that year, Congress approved a budget of four hundred million dollars for upgrading the FBI computer system and network. The project was supposed to take three years, and replace all computer stations with modern and capable machines, connected via a fast optic cable network system.

The crowning glory of the new system was a software called VCF, for “Virtual Case File”. VCF was supposed to allow agents at a crime scene to upload documents, images, audio files, and any other investigation material to a central database, in order to cross-reference information on suspects that they could later present in court. The company hired to write the advanced software was called SAIC.

The FBI Goes Waterfall

It’s important to note that the FBI has hundreds of thousands of people, and as most large organizations – it tends to be very bureaucratic and conservative. Naturally, the preferred methodology for the VCF project was the Waterfall, and so the project managers begun by writing an eight hundred page long document that specified all the requirements from the new software. This document was extremely detailed, with sentences like: “In such and such screen, there will be a button on the top left corner. The button’s label will read – ‘E-Mail’.” They didn’t leave the developers a lot of room for questions…

But in an organization as huge and varied as the FBI, it’s doubtful that there is one person, or even one group, who understands the practical daily needs of all the departments and groups for which the program was written. As the project progressed, it became clear that the original requirements didn’t meet the day-to-day needs of agents.

So, special groups were assigned to study the needs of the agents in the field, and they constantly updated the project’s requirements. As you might imagine, the constant changes made the requirements document almost irrelevant to the developers in SAIC who actually wrote the code. The events of September 11th gave the project a new sense of urgency, and the tight schedule soon created conflicts between the programmers and FBI management. The software developers were frustrated over the ever-changing requirements, while FBI agents felt their needs were being ignored.

A Dramatic Failure

Things got worse and worse, and by the beginning of 2003, it was clear that the new software wouldn’t be ready on time. Since the VCF project was deemed a matter of importance to national security, Congress approval an additional budget of two hundred million dollars. But that didn’t help either.

In December of 2003, a year after it was supposed to be ready, SAIC finally released the VCF’s first version. The FBI rejected it almost immediately! Not only was the software buggy and error-prone, it also lacked basic functions like “bookmarking” and search history. It was totally inadequate for field or office work.

In an effort to save the failing project, the FBI invited a committee of outside experts to consult the agency. One of the committee members, Professor Matt Blaze, later said that he and his colleagues were shocked once they analyzed the software. He jokingly told a reporter later, quote, “That was a little bit horrifying. A bunch of us were planning on committing a crime spree the day they switched over. If the new system didn’t work, it would have just put the FBI out of business.”

In January 2005, the head of the FBI decided to abandon the project. This wasn’t an easy decision since it meant that all the agency’s personnel would have to continue using the ancient computers from the 1980s and 90s for at least five more years. This had a sizeable impact on national security, not to mention all that money that was spent for nothing.

Why Did VCF Fail?

The VCF project failed even though the FBI used the age old approach of “measure twice, cut once”. It defined all the software requirements up front, and left nothing to chance – or so it seemed. Critics of the Waterfall methodology claim that the problem was that the FBI was never able to define its needs perfectly, or even adequately. In such a complex and big organization, defining all the software requirements up front is an almost hopeless task, since no single person knows everything that’s going on in the organization and also has a good grasp of what the technology can and can’t do.

The FBI’s VCF fiasco is typical, it seems, for large-scale software projects. I recently had a chance to speak with a very experienced programmer who has worked on a different large scale project.

“My name is Aviran Mordo, I’m the Head of Engineering for I’ve been working in the software industry for over twenty years, from startup companies here in Israel to developing the US National Archives.

Aviran Mordo - Curious Minds Podcast
Aviran Mordo

“So working on a government project is everything that you hear that is wrong with Software Development, like Waterfall and long processes. We tried to be as Agile as we can, and during the prototyping phase, we actually succeeded – that is why we won the project. But when we started the actual writing of the project, hundreds of people came and worked on humongous documents that nobody read, and built this huge architecture with very very long processes. You could see that this is going to take a long time, and the project just suffered so badly… That was the point that I switched to a smaller team, to do that on the civilian market. We were just five people. We started about six months after the big project started. We were five people against a hundred people. After six months we were a year ahead of their development schedule.”

“They actually had to restart the project twice. [Ran: when you’re saying ‘restart’ you mean they just developed everything from the beginning?] Yes, they had to develop everything from the beginning. The architecture, everything. “

I asked Aviran why, in his opinion, the Waterfall methodology – which does a great job in other engineering disciplines – fails so miserably in software engineering.

“Several Things. One, you do the architecture up front and think you have all the answers. If you don’t have all the answers, you plan for the things you don’t actually know. So you build a lot of things that are wasting your time for future features that you think may affect the product or for requirements that may change in the future – but since the release cycle is so long, and it costs so much to do a new version, you try to cramp up as many features as you can into a project. This derails you from whatever really need to be achieved and have a quick feedback from the market and from the client. [it’s] A waste of time.”

Aviram’s view is echoed by many other developers, including the ones who investigated the failed FBI project. Waterfall assumes you have all the information you need before the project begins. As we already saw, software projects tend to be so complex, that this assumption is often wrong.

The Agile Methodology

So in the 1990s and early 2000s, an alternative to the unsuccessful Waterfall methodology appeared: its name was Agile Programming. The Agile methodology is almost the exact opposite of Waterfall: it encourages maximum flexibility during the development process. The strict requirement documents are abandoned in favor of constant and direct communication with the client.

Say, for example, that the customer wants an email client. The developers work for a week or two, and create a rough skeleton of the software: it might have just the very basic functions, or maybe just buttons that don’t do anything yet. They show the mockup to the customer, who then gives them his feedback: that button is good, that one is wrong, etc. The developers work on the mockup some more, fixing what needs to be fixed and maybe adding a few more features. There’s another demonstration and more feedback from the customer. This process repeats itself over and over until the software is perfected. Experience shows that projects developed using the Agile methodology are much less prone to failure: this is because the customers have ample time and opportunity to understand their true needs and “mold” the software to fit.

Not A Perfect Solution

So, is Agile the solution for the software crisis? Well, Probably not. Aviran, Wix’s Head of Engineering says that Agile is not suited for every kind of software project.

“It’s harder to plan ahead what’s the end goal. This [Agile] works well for a product which is innovative but it won’t work well for a product which is revolutionary. For example, the iPhone. The iPhone cannot work this way – it’s a really huge project with a lot of things in it, and it revolutionized the market. It could be developed with Agile, but you miss the step of getting it in front of your customer. So if you’re doing something which is ‘more of the same’ or you’re not trying to change the market – Agile works extremely well. If you’re trying to change the market and do something revolutionary, you could do Agile to some extent until you actually get to market.”

Also, Agile has been around for twenty years – and large-scale projects do still fail all around us. It is a big improvement over Waterfall, no doubt, but it probably won’t solve the software crisis.

So, what is the solution? Maybe a new and improved methodology? A higher-level programming language?

Dr. Frederick Brooks

One of the many computer scientists who tried to tackle this question was Dr. Frederick Brooks. In the 1960s and 70s Brooks managed some of IBM’s most innovative software projects – and naturally suffered some failures himself. Prompt by his own painful experiences, Brooks wrote a book in 1975 called “The Mythical Man-Month”. A “Man-Month” is a sort of a standard work-unit in a software project: the work an average programmer does in a single month.

Fred Brooks - Curious Minds Podcast
Fred Brooks

Brooks’ book, and another important article he published called “No silver bullet”, influenced a whole generation of software programmers and managers. In his writings, Brooks analyzed the main differences between the craft of software writing and other engineering disciplines, focusing on what he perceived to be the most critical and important characteristic of software: its complexity.

Brooks claims there is no such thing as a “simple software”. Software, he writes, is a product of the human thinking process, which is unique to every individual. No two developers will write the exact same code, even if they are faced with the exact same problem. Each piece of software is always unique since each brain is unique. Imagine a world where each and every clock has its own unique clockwork mechanism. Now imagine a clockmaker trying to fix these clocks: each and every clock he opens is different from the rest! The levers, the tiny screws, the springs – there’s no uniformity. A new clock, a whole new mechanism. This uniqueness would make clock-fixing a complex task that requires a great deal of expertise – and that’s the same situation with software.
Now, high complexity can be found in other engineering disciplines – but we can almost always find ways to overcome it. Take electronic circuits, for example: in many cases, it is possible to overcome complexity by duplicating identical sub-circuits. You could increase a computer’s memory capacity by adding more memory cells: you’ll get an improved computer but the design’s complexity would hardly change since we’re basically just adding more of the same thing. Sadly, that’s often not true for software: each feature you add to a piece of software is usually unique.

The Mythical Man-Month Cover - Curious Minds Podcast
The Mythical Man-Month Cover

What about architecture? Well, architects overcome the complexities of their designs by creating good schematics. Humans are generally good at working with drawings: an architect can open the schematics, take a quick look, and get a fairly good idea of what’s going on in the project. But software development, explains Brooks, does not allow such visualization. A typical software has both a dimension of time – that is, do this, then do that – and a dimension of space, such as moving information from one file to another. A diagram can usually represent only a single dimension, and so can never capture the whole picture. Imagine an architectural schematic that tries to capture both the walls and levels of a building – and the organizational structure of the company that will populate it… many times a software programmer is left with no choice but to build a mental model of the entire project he is working on; or if it is too complex, parts of it.

In other words, Brooks argues that unlike electronics or architecture, it is impossible to avoid the “built-in” complexity of software. And if this is true, then computer software will always contain bugs and errors, and large projects will always have a high risk of failure. There is no “Silver Bullet” to solve the Software Crisis, says Brooks.

But you might be asking – what about high-level languages? As we learned in the previous episode, advanced software languages like FORTRAN, C, and others greatly improved a programmer’s ability to tackle software complexity. They made programming easier, even suitable for kids. Isn’t is possible that in the future someone will invent a new, more successful programming language that would overcome the frustrating complexity of software?

Brooks’ Advice

The answer, according to Brooks, is no. High-level languages allow us to ignore the smaller details of programming and focus on the more abstract problems, like thinking up new algorithms. In a way, they remove some of the barriers between our thought processes and their implementation in the computer. But since software complexity is a direct result of our own thought processes, the natural complexity of the human mind – a higher level language will not solve the software crisis.

But Fredrik Brooks does have a rather simple solution – one which might solve the problems of most companies. His suggestion: don’t write software – buy it!

Purchasing software, says Brooks, will always be cheaper and easier than developing it. After all, buying Microsoft’s Office suite takes minutes, while developing it from scratch might take years – and fail. True, a purchased one-size-fits-all software will never meet all the organization’s needs – but it’s often easier to adjust to an existing software then create a new one. Brooks uses salary calculation software to illustrate his point: in the 1960s, most companies preferred writing custom software to handle their salary calculation. Why? Because back then, a computer system cost millions of dollars while writing software only a few tens of thousands. The costs of customized software seemed reasonable when compared to the cost of the hardware. Nowadays, however, computers cost just a few thousand dollars – while large-scale software projects cost millions. Therefore, almost all organizations learned to compromise and purchase standard office software such as “Excel” and “Word”. They adjusted their needs to fit the available, ready-made, software.

Brooks gave another piece of advice, this time to the software companies themselves: nurture your developers! Some brains are better suited to handle the natural complexity of software development. Just as with sports and music, not all people are born equally talented. There are “good programmers” – and then there are “outstanding programmers”. Brooks’ experience taught him that a gifted programmer will create software that is ten times better than the one made by an average programmer”. Software companies should try and identify these gifted individuals early in their careers, and nurture them properly: assign them good tutors, invest in their professional education, and so on. That kind of nurturing isn’t cheap – but neither is a failed software project.


To summarize, we started by asking whether software bugs and errors are inevitable – or can we hope to eliminate them sometime in the future. Digging deeper, we discovered an even more fundamental problem: large-scale software projects not only have plenty of bugs – they also tend to fail spectacularly. This is known as the Software Crisis.

Modern software development methodologies such as Agile can sometimes improve the prospects of large-scale projects – but not always, and not completely. The only real solution, at least according to Dr. Fredrick Brooks, is finding developers who are naturally gifted at handling the complexities of software – and helping them grow to their full potential.  And until we find the Silver Bullet that will solve the Software Crisis, we’ll just have to…well – bite the bullet.


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FORTRAN - Curious Minds Podcast

Are Software Bugs Inevitable? Part 1: FORTRAN and the Denver Airport Baggage Disaster | Curious Minds Podcast

Software errors and random bugs are rather common: We’ve all seen the infamous Windows “blue screen of death”… But is there really nothing we can do about it? Are these errors – from small bugs to catastrophic mistakes – inevitable? In this episode, we’ll tell the story of FORTRAN, the groundbreaking high-level computer language, and the sad, sad tale of the Denver Airport Baggage Disaster. Don’t laugh, it’s a serious matter. 

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Are Software Bugs Inevitable?

Written By: Ran Levi

Part I

A car that breaks once every few weeks is simply unacceptable. We expect our cars to have a certain level of reliability. But when it comes to computers – software errors and random bugs are rather common. We’ve all seen the infamous Windows “blue screen of death”, and most smartphones require a reboot every once in awhile.

In a way, we’ve learned to live with software errors and take them for granted. But is there really nothing we can do about it? Are these errors – from small bugs to catastrophic mistakes – inevitable, or is there hope that as technology and innovation move forward, we’ll be able to overcome this annoying problem – and make software bugs a thing of the past? This will be the main question of this episode.

How Software Works

Software bugs are nothing new, of course. Writing computer software in the 1940s and 50s was a complicated and difficult task, so it’s no wonder that the first generation of computer programmers considered bugs and errors inevitable.

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But let’s start from the basics, with a quick refresher on how computer software works. A computer is a pretty complex system, and its two main parts are the processor and the memory. The memory cells contain numbers; the processor’s role is to read a number from the memory, apply some sort of a mathematical operation on it such as adding or subtracting and then write the result back to the memory.

A software is a sequence of commands telling the processor where certain information is located in the memory and what needs to be done with it. Think of the information in a computer’s memory as food ingredients: the software is the recipe. It tells us what we need to do with the different ingredients at every given moment. A software error is an error in the sequence of commands. It might be a missing command, two commands given in the wrong order, or an altogether wrong command.

Just Plain Numbers

So why were software bugs seen as a fact of life back in the 1950s? Back then, both information and commands were given not as words – bus as plain numbers. For example, the numeral forty-two might represent the command “copy,” so that the sequence 42-11-56 might represent an action like: “copy the content of memory cell eleven to memory cell fifty-six.” Even a mildly complicated calculation, like solving a mathematical equation, might require hundreds – if not thousands – of such command sequences. Each such sequence had to be perfectly correct, or else the entire calculation might fail – just like in baking: if we put the frosting on the cake before baking the batter, that cake will be a disaster.

But software is even less forgiving than baking. You can’t even make a small mistake because then the entire equation will fail. It’s like a house of cards. It’s no wonder then that at the time, only computer fanatics were willing to devote their time to programming. It was a truly Sisyphean task.


In the late 1940s, a new computer language was developed. It was called “Assembly”, also known as “machine language.” Assembly replaced some of the numbers with meaningful words that were somewhat easier to remember. For example, the number 42 was replaced by the word MOV. These textual commands were then fed to a special software named the “Assembler” that converted the words back to numbers – since that’s ultimately what computers understand.

Example of Assembler Code - Curious Minds Podcast
Example of Assembler Code

For programmers, Assembly represented a real improvement: for humans, words are much easier to work with than random numbers. But Assembly didn’t eliminate software bugs. It was still too “Low Level” – meaning even simple calculations still required thousands upon thousands of code lines. Programming was still an exhausting and Sisyphean task.

John Backus

One of those exhausted programmers was John Backus. Backus was a mathematician who worked for IBM, calculating the trajectories of rockets. He absolutely hated programming in Assembly and the tedious process of finding and eliminating software bugs.

John Backus - Curious Minds Podcast
John Backus

So in 1953 Backus decided to do something about it. He wrote a memo to his supervisors and suggested that IBM should develop a new software language that will replace Assembly. This new language, wrote Backus, will be a “High-Level Programming Language”: each individual command will represent numerous Assembly commands. For example, you could use the command “Print” – and “behind the scenes” it will evoke hundreds of simpler Assembly commands that will handle the actual process of printing a character on the screen or on a page. This level of abstraction will make programming easier, simpler – and hopefully, a lot less prone to errors.

But if a High-Level programming language was such a great idea, how come no one thought about it before? Well, it turns out that Backus wasn’t the first. In fact, similar computer languages were developed as early as the 1940s, and many computer scientists found them to be a fascinating research subject. In reality, though, none of these early high-level languages threatened Assembly’s dominance. Why is that?

Recall that the computer, as a rule, understands nothing but numbers. Much like Assembly had to have an “Assembler” to translate the textual commands to numbers – A high-level programming language needs a special software called a “Compiler” to translate the high-level commands. Unfortunately, the translated code produced by the early compilers was very inefficient, when compared to code written in Assembly by a human programmer. The compiler could create ten lines of code – where a human, with a bit of creative thinking, could accomplish the same task with a single line.

This inefficiency meant that software written in high-level code tended to be slow. Since in the 1940s and 50s, computers were already weak and slow, this hit in computation performance was a penalty that no one was willing to pay. And so, high-level programming languages remained an unfulfilled promise.

A High-Level Language

Backus was aware of the challenge, but he was determined. In his memo to IBM, he stressed the potential financial benefits: programming in a high-level language could reduce the number of bugs in a software project, shorten development time, and reduce costs by as much as seventy-five percent.

Backus made a convincing argument, and IBM’s CEO approved his idea. Backus was made the head of the development team and recruited talented and enthusiastic engineers who welcomed the challenge of creating this high-level language. They worked days and nights, and often they slept at a hotel near the offices in order to get available computer time even before sunrise.

Their main task was writing the compiler: the software that translated the high-level code to low-level machine language. Backus and his people knew that the success of their project depended on the compiler’s efficiency: if the code it produced was too inefficient, their new language would fail just as its predecessors did.

Four years later, in 1957, the first version of the new high-level programming language was ready. Backus named it FORTRAN, short for Formula Translation. The name reflects on what is was intended to be used for scientific and mathematical calculations. IBM had just launched a new computer model named IBM-704, and Backus sent the new compiler and a detailed FORTRAN manual to all customers who bought the new computer.

FORTRAN - Curious Minds Podcast

FORTRAN Takes The World By Storm

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Programmers were delighted by how easy and fast they could write software using FORTRAN! One customer recalled how shocked he was to see one of his colleagues – a physicist in a nuclear research institute – writing a complicated piece of software in a single afternoon, whereas writing the same code in Assembly would have taken several weeks!

FORTRAN took the software world by storm! Within less than a year, almost half of the IBM-704 programmers were using FORTRAN on a daily basis. It was the salvation that all bleary-eyed programmers had prayed for: code written in FORTRAN was up to twenty times shorter than one written in Assembly, while still being efficient and blazingly fast. In fact, the new FORTRAN compiler was so successful that it was considered the best of its kind even twenty years later.

This was a big stride towards a future clean from software bugs. Backus’ team was so thrilled by FORTRAN’s success, they hardly included in the language any tools for detecting software errors and analyzing them. They believed that these tools weren’t needed anymore, as the new language had reduced the number of bugs considerably.

FORTRAN Is Made A Standard

In 1961, the American National Standards Institute decided to make FORTRAN a standard language. This was a big deal since until then FORTRAN only worked with IBM-704 computers: making it a national standard meant that it could now be used on computers from other manufacturers as well. Programming became easy and fun! It was no longer restricted to hardcore mathematicians and engineers. Amateur programmers taught themselves FORTRAN from books. Assembly was almost gone, and FORTRAN had taken over the market.

FORTRAN’s success ushered in a new generation of high-level programming languages like COBOL, ALGOL, ADA, and C – the most successful of them all. These languages not only improved on FORTRAN’s ideas and made programming even easier, but they also made programming suitable to a larger variety of tasks: from accounting to artificial intelligence.

Nowadays, there are hundreds of high-level programming languages to choose from. Some modern languages such as Python or JavaScript are so simple that even children can learn how to use them easily!

You might be surprised to learn that fifty years after it was first released – FORTRAN is still alive and kicking! It’s gone through changes and updates over the years, but is very much still relevant today – and some scientists and researchers still prefer it for complicated calculations. This is an amazing feat for a language designed in an era when programming was done with punched cards!

John Backus passed away in 2007. He was fortunate enough to see how the language he helped create changed the programming world. It transformed programming from a dreadful task – to a sort of positive challenge, even a hobby embraced by millions around the world.

What About The Bugs?!

All’s well that ends well!  But Wait a minute! Wait just a minute…are we not forgetting something? What about bugs? Did high-level languages solve the problem of software errors?

No, unfortunately, they didn’t. You see, while high-level languages did make programming a lot easier – they also allowed software to become much more complex. It’s like having the option to buy LEGO blocks instead of fabricating them yourself: you can invest all your time in creating bigger and bigger creations instead of doing everything from scratch. Similarly, high-level languages allow developers to add more features to their programs – and so the advantages of high-level languages were balanced by the ever increasing complexity of the programs themselves. The bugs never went away.

A Fundamental Problem in Software Design

In the 1960s it became clear to many computer programmers that reliability was a fundamental problem in software design. Despite all the great developments, it was still almost impossible to create a piece of software with no errors. I mean, a complex and feature-rich software, not some trivial program.

Worse yet, it seemed that it was getting harder and harder to complete a software development project “successfully.” What do I mean by “successfully”? A successful software project is one whose output is a high-quality, bug-free piece of code, tailored to meet the customer’s specifications, completed within schedule and without budget overruns. This goal was proving to be more elusive with every passing year.

Modern research clearly shows that when it comes to software projects – failure rates are extremely high compared to other engineering projects. A basic software project has a twenty-five percent chance of going over budget, or over its deadline, or producing software that doesn’t meet the customer’s expectations. That’s one out of every four projects! And if the project lasts more than eighteen months, or if the staff is larger than twenty people – the risk of failing becomes more than fifty percent. When it comes to even larger projects that go on for years and involve many teams of programmers, the likelihood of failure is close to a hundred percent. About ten percent of those projects fail so dramatically, that the entire software is thrown away and never used at all. What a waste!

This realization hit many programmers badly. I’m a software developer myself, you know – and us developers take our profession very seriously. We can spend years – and I’m not joking – debating the proper way to capitalize variable names in the code.

Over time, software developers started squinting at other engineering fields, like architecture for example and asked themselves why they couldn’t be more similar. I mean, architects and engineers build tall buildings, long bridges and other structures that are reliable, they don’t go over budget or schedule (well, at least most of the time) and they are built according to spec. Experience has taught software programmers that their projects usually won’t reach the same result.

In 1968 some of the world’s leading software engineers and computer scientists gathered in a NATO convention in Germany, in order to discuss this obvious difficulty of creating successful software. The convention didn’t result in any solution, but it did give the problem a name: “The Software Crisis.”

Building A New Airport

So, what does the software crisis looks like in real life? Here’s an example.

In 1989, the city of Denver, Colorado, announced it was embarking on one of the most ambitious projects of its history: building a new modern airport that would march state tourism and local business towards the twenty-first century.

Denver International Airport - Curious Minds Podcast
Denver International Airport

The jewel in the modern airport’s crown was to be a new and sophisticated baggage transportation system. I mean, baggage transportation is an important part of every modern airport. If a suitcase takes too long to get from point to point – passengers might end up missing their connecting flights. If a suitcase gets lost – that’s a ruined vacation. It’s obvious why the project’s leaders took their new baggage transportation system very seriously.

Aerial View of the Denver Airport during construction - Curious Minds Podcast
Aerial View of the Denver Airport during construction

The company that was chosen to plan the new system was BAE, an experienced company within its field. BAE’s engineers examined the blueprints of the future airport and realized that this was going to be a momentous challenge: Denver’s airport was going to be much larger than was usual for airports, and this meant that transporting a piece of baggage from one end of the airport to the other might take up to 45 minutes! So to solve that problem, BAE designed the most advanced baggage transportation system ever built.

A Breathtaking Design

The plan called for a fully automated system. From the moment an airplane lands, until the moment the luggage is picked up from the carousel – no human hands would touch it. Barcode scanners would identify the suitcase’s destination, and a computerized control system would make sure that an empty cart would be waiting for it at just the right place and time, to transport it as quickly as possible via underground tracks, to the correct terminal. Timing was incredibly important: the carts weren’t even supposed to stop: suitcases were supposed to fall from the one track onto a moving cart at the exact right moment.

Just to give you some perspective on BAE’s breathtaking design: there were 435,000 miles of cables and wires, 25 miles of underground tracks and 10,000 electrical engines to power them. The control system included about 300 computers to supervise the engines and carts. It is no wonder that Denver’s mayor said that the new project was as challenging as, quote, “building the Panama canal.”

The entire city followed the project with interest. The new airport was supposed to open at the end of 1993, but a few weeks before the due date the mayor announced that the opening would be delayed due to some final testing to the baggage transportation system. No one was too surprised: after all, this was a complicated and innovative new system, and it was likely that testing it will take some time.

A breathtaking Failure

But no one was prepared for the embarrassment that took place in March 1994, when the proud mayor invited the media to a celebrated demonstration of the new system.

Instead of an efficient and punctual transportation system, the amazed journalists watched in a mixture of horror and delight at a sort of technological version of Dante’s inferno. Carts that made their way too quickly fell off the tracks and rolled on the floor. Suitcases flew in the air because the carts that were supposed to wait for them never came. Pieces of clothing that fell out of the suitcases got shredded in the engines or tangled in the wheels of passing carts. Suitcases that somehow made their way to an empty cart reached the wrong terminal because barcode scanners failed to identify the stickers on the suitcases. In short – nothing worked properly.

The journalists who witnessed the demonstration didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If it wasn’t for the project costing the taxpayers close to 200 million dollars, it could have been a like classic Charlie Chaplin comedy. The headlines of the following morning undoubtedly made the mayor cringe.

Behind the scenes, there were desperate attempts to salvage the system. Technicians ran to fix the tracks, but finding a solution at one spot created two other problems elsewhere; Each and every day of delay cost the city of Denver another one million dollars. By the end of 1994, with the airport’s project nowhere near completion – Denver faced the very real possibility of bankruptcy.

The mayor had no choice; after conducting several external tests and emergency discussions, it was decided to dismantle a big chunk of the new automated system. Instead, a traditional more manual system was put in place. The final cost of the airport project, including the cost of the new system, was 375 million dollars – twice the original budget.

In February 1995, almost a year and a half after the original date, the new Denver airport opened to flights, travelers, and suitcases. Only one airline, United, agreed to use the new baggage transportation system, but it too soon gave up. The system experienced so many problems and errors that the monthly maintenance cost was close to a million dollars. In 2005, United Airlines announced it would stop using the automated system, and go back to a manual transportation system.

An Investigation

So what went wrong in Denver? Why was the project’s failure so massive and absolute?

Several investigations highlighted the many factors leading to the failure of the Denver Airport project. Some of these factors included: Management decisions that were too affected by political considerations, changes that were made during construction just to please the airlines and an electricity supply that was constantly interrupted. if all that wasn’t enough, the project’s main architect had died unexpectedly. In short, everything that could have gone wrong – did. Having said that, most of the investigators agreed that the biggest problem of this ambitious project was its software component.

As we mentioned before, the original plan dictated that 3000 carts would travel independently around the airport using the underground tracks. In order for that to happen, about 300 computers were supposed to communicate with each other and make rapid decisions in “real time.”

For example, one of the common scenarios was where an empty cart traveled to a specific location in order to pick up a suitcase. Its route turned out to be quite complicated: the empty cart had to use several tracks, change directions, and perhaps move over or under other carts. Also, a cart’s specific route depended not only on its location but on the location of other carts as well. This meant that if a “traffic jam” occurred for any reason, the software had to recalculate an alternative route. Let’s not forget that we are talking about many thousands of carts, each going to a different destination and each supposed to arrive on time; and that the decisions were supposed to be made by hundreds of computers running simultaneously!

Twenty software programmers worked on the project for two whole years, but the system was so complicated that none of them could have seen the entire picture and truly understand, from a “bird’s eye view,” how the system actually behaved. The final result was a complex and complicated software that was full of errors. Denver’s airport project is a perfect example of the Software Crisis: a large project that went over schedule, over budget, and didn’t reach its goals.

Is There A Solution To The Software Crisis?

Dr. Winston Royce, a leading computer scientist, defined the situation best in 1991 when he said:

“The construction of new software that is both pleasing to the user/buyer and without latent errors is an unexpectedly hard problem. It is perhaps the most difficult problem in engineering today and has been recognized as such for more than 15 years. […]. It has become the longest continuing “crisis” in the engineering world, and it continues unabated.”

So what can we do? Is there a solution to the software crisis? That question will be the focus of our next episode. We will get to know the two methods developed over time to tackle the challenges of creating complicated software: Waterfall and Agile. We’ll also tell the incredible story of a computerized system developed for the FBI at a cost of half a billion dollars… and how it turned out to be a breathtaking failure.

And finally, we will get to know Fred Brooks – a computer scientist who wrote an influential book called “The Mythical Man-Month”. In his book, Brooks asks – Is there a “silver bullet” that will allow us to solve the software crisis?

Read Part II


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Strategic Defense Initiative - Curious Minds Podcast

Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense (SDI) Initiative, AKA – “Star Wars” | Curious Minds Podcast

In 1983, president Ronald Reagan shocked the world when he announced that the United States was developing an ultra-modern defense system against intercontinental ballistic missiles. Hundreds of billions of dollars were invested in the system’s development – But then, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it – the Star Wars initiative. Was Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative the reason for the Soviet Union’s collapse?

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Bittorrent - History of File Sharing - Curious Minds Podcast

The History of File Sharing, Part 2: Grokster & BitTorrent | Curious Minds Podcast

The fall of Napster (see Part I of this series) has left a vacuum in the world of file sharing – and as the saying goes, the Internet abhors vacuum… Various File Sharing programs such as Gnutella, Kazaa and others quickly filled the void.
In this episode, we’ll describe Grokster’s legal battle against the Record Companies, the sinister poisoning of file sharing networks by OverPeer – and the rise of BitTorrent.

Guest in this episode: Brett Bendistis, from The Citizen’s Guide to the Supreme Court Podcast!

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Conceptis Pic-A-Pix - Curious Minds Podcast


Penske File (demo mix) by Steely Chan
Darkness by xclntr
Sinister Pt. 2 by ¡SplastiC

File Sharing History - Curious Minds Podcast

The History of File Sharing, Part 1 (of 2): The Rise & Fall of Napster | Curious Minds Podcast

Napster, a revolutionary Peer-to-Peer file sharing software, was launched in 1999 – and forever changed the media world. In this episode, we’ll tell the story of Sean Fanning and Sean Parker, its creators, and talk about the legal battle it fought with the record companies – and Metallica.

Guest in this episode: Brett Bendistis, from The Citizen’s Guide to the Supreme Court Podcast!

Also recommended: The History of Byzantium – A podcast telling the story of the Roman Empire from 476 AD to 1453.

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Nightmares by myuu
Exploring the Inferno by myuu
Crime Scene (Film Score) by myuu

Aaron Mahnke - Curious Minds Podcast

Heroes Of Podcasting #5: Aaron Mahnke, Lore Podcast | Curious Minds Podcast

Aaron Mahnke - Curious Minds Podcast

This series explores the history and future of podcasting, and each episode will feature a single guest who is a pioneer of podcasting. This time, we’re interviewing Aaron Mahnke, from Lore Podcast.

Up till now, In the Heroes of Podcasting series, we heard podcasters who started podcasting back in the early days, in the mid-2000’s. Aaron is an exception, in that he started podcasting only some 5 or 6 years ago. Yet Aaron’s story is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it is the story of the lone podcaster: someone who started – and is still doing it – all by himself. Secondly, it exemplifies the role of storytelling in podcasting, which is becoming more and more dominant in the last few years. Aaron talks about starting Lore, the value of storytelling and his inspirations.

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Todd Cochrane - Curious Minds Podcast

Heroes Of Podcasting #4: Todd Cochrane, CEO of RawVoice (Blubrry) | Curious Minds Podcast


This series explores the history and future of podcasting, and each episode will feature a single guest who is a pioneer of podcasting. This time, we’re interviewing Todd Cochrane, CEO of RawVoice (better known as Blubrry) and the host of Geek News Central Podcast.

Todd has an amazing story which begun with a serious injury – but ultimately led to a surprising career as an early entrepreneur in the new media of podcasting. He wrote the first book on podcasting and signed one of the first advertising deals. Today, Todd’s company is one of the biggest players in this new media.

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Leo Laporte & Ran Levi | Curious Minds Podcast

Heroes Of Podcasting #3: Leo Laporte, This Week In Tech | Curious Minds Podcast

Leo Laporte & Ran Levi | Curious Minds Podcast
Leo Laporte & Ran Levi

This series explores the history and future of podcasting, and each episode will feature a single guest who is a pioneer of podcasting. This time, we’re interviewing Leo Laporte, from This Week In Tech.

Leo Laporte is one of the very first podcasters. In 2005 Leo left – or almost left – traditional radio to start his own podcasting network, centered around cutting edge technology news, called TWIT. TWIT quickly became one of the most successful podcast networks with millions of downloads and award winning show such as This Week In Tech, Security Now and the New Screen Savers.

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