FEDERAL BYTES

What Would the Red Baron Think?

Federal Aviation Administration bashing has resumed, but evidently the baton has been passed from late-night talk shows to the comics pages.

Dilbert, a strip about a software engineer and his high-tech company, devoted most of last week to a story in which his company wins the FAA contract to rebuild the air traffic control system.

Scott Adams, Dilbert's cartoonist, told Federal Computer Week the current state of the air traffic control system "fits the perfect model of cartoon fodder—i.e., something that could have catastrophic consequences if somebody does something stupid."

Dilbert's company, which at different times has employeed a monkey, a rat, a dog and a dinosaur, may seem an unlikely candidate for an FAA contract. However, one vendor disagreed. "Actually, they stand a good chance," the vendor said. "They don't have any skeletons in their closet."

A Costly Upgrade

Sometimes it doesn't pay to be efficient. At least that's what the Social Security Administration may find out after it replaces 14 of its mainframes at its National Computer Center in Baltimore with five more-powerful mainframes.

To conserve energy, SSA currently pipes the water used to cool the systems into the building's heating system. Heat is extracted, and the water is sent back to the mainframes.

But with the new computers, which are expected to be installed late this year, SSA will have fewer and more efficient machines, which means less heat can be extracted.

"Ironically, we may have to spend money on upgrading our heating system," an SSA employee quipped.

Computers That Toss Their Cookies

Over the decades, computer programmers, analysts and managers have developed an arcane vocabulary to describe the complex set of gadgets and internal workings of computers.

Just as lawyers write in "legalese," programmers speak in "computerese," a language most laymen struggle to understand.

Well, maybe not always. Last month, when the National Weather Service's computer models failed to accurately forecast the amount of flooding that a record snow pack and torrential rains wrought on the East Coast, one computer consultant told FCW exactly what programmers called that particular phenomenon. "We say the computer barfed," said Glee Harrah Cady, manager of information services at Netcom, a San Jose, Calif., Internet service provider. "That's really what technicians call it."

Quick—somebody get the electronic Pepto-Bismol.

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