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Nikolai Petrov
Nikolai Petrov

Fatal Defect: How Computer Bugs Can Cause Disasters and How to Avoid Them

Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs

Have you ever encountered a computer bug that made your program crash, freeze, or behave strangely? If so, you are not alone. Computer bugs are errors or faults in software that prevent it from working as intended. They can range from minor annoyances to major catastrophes that can cost lives, money, or reputation.

Fatal Defect:: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs

In this article, we will explore the history, types, causes, consequences, and solutions for computer bugs. We will also learn how to prevent, detect, and fix them in our own software projects. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of what computer bugs are and how to chase them down.

The History of Computer Bugs

The term "bug" has been used to describe technical glitches since the 19th century. However, it became popular in the field of computing after an incident in 1947. Grace Hopper, a pioneer of computer programming, was working on a Mark II computer at Harvard University when she found a moth stuck in a relay. She removed the insect and taped it to her log book with the note "First actual case of bug being found". Since then, the term "bug" has been widely used to refer to any defect in software or hardware.

Computer bugs have been around since the dawn of computing. Some of them have caused serious problems or disasters in history. For example:

  • In 1962, a bug in the guidance system of a Mariner 1 spacecraft caused it to veer off course and explode shortly after launch. The bug was caused by a missing hyphen in a mathematical formula.

  • In 1982, a bug in the control software of a Therac-25 radiation therapy machine caused it to deliver lethal doses of radiation to several patients. The bug was caused by a race condition that allowed the machine to operate without proper safety checks.

  • In 1999, a bug in the software of a NASA Mars Climate Orbiter caused it to crash into the planet. The bug was caused by a mismatch between metric and imperial units of measurement.

  • In 2000, a bug in the date handling system of many computers caused them to malfunction or fail on January 1st. The bug was caused by the use of two-digit years that could not distinguish between 1900 and 2000.

  • In 2010, a bug in the software of a Toyota Prius hybrid car caused it to accelerate uncontrollably. The bug was caused by a design flaw that allowed the accelerator pedal to get stuck under the floor mat.

The Types of Computer Bugs

Computer bugs can be classified into different categories based on their nature and effects. Some of the common types of bugs are:

Syntax Errors

Syntax errors are mistakes in the grammar or spelling of a programming language. They prevent the program from being compiled or interpreted correctly. For example, missing a semicolon, misspelling a keyword, or using an invalid character. Syntax errors are usually easy to detect and fix with the help of compilers or interpreters that point out the location and cause of the error.

Logic Errors

Logic errors are mistakes in the design or logic of a program. They cause the program to produce incorrect or unexpected results. For example, using the wrong operator, variable, or formula, or forgetting to handle an edge case or exception. Logic errors are harder to detect and fix than syntax errors because they may not cause any visible errors or warnings. They require careful testing and debugging to find and correct them.

Runtime Errors

Runtime errors are mistakes that occur during the execution or running of a program. They cause the program to crash, freeze, or behave abnormally. For example, dividing by zero, accessing an invalid memory address, or encountering a security violation. Runtime errors are often caused by external factors such as user input, hardware failure, or network disruption. They require robust error handling and recovery mechanisms to prevent or mitigate them.

The Causes of Computer Bugs

Computer bugs can be caused by various factors that affect the software development process. Some of the common causes of bugs are:

Human Factors

Human factors are the most common and inevitable cause of bugs. They include human errors, miscommunication, or lack of skills that lead to mistakes in software design, development, or maintenance. For example:

  • Typos, oversights, or misunderstandings that result in syntax or logic errors.

  • Ambiguous or incomplete requirements, specifications, or documentation that result in mismatched expectations or assumptions.

  • Lack of experience, knowledge, or training that result in poor coding practices, standards, or methodologies.

Technical Factors

Technical factors are the limitations or complexities of software systems that lead to bugs. They include hardware constraints, software dependencies, or compatibility issues that affect software performance, functionality, or quality. For example:

  • Limited memory, storage, or processing power that result in insufficient resources or capacity for software operations.

  • Interactions or integrations with other software components, libraries, or frameworks that result in conflicts or inconsistencies.

  • Differences or changes in software platforms, environments, or versions that result in compatibility problems or regressions.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are the external conditions or events that lead to bugs. They include power failures, network disruptions, or malicious attacks that affect software availability, reliability, or security. For example:

  • Power outages, surges, or fluctuations that result in hardware damage or data loss.

  • Network delays, failures, or congestion that result in communication errors or timeouts.

  • Viruses, worms, trojans, hackers, or crackers that result in unauthorized access, modification, or destruction of software data or code.

The Consequences of Computer Bugs

Computer bugs can have serious impacts on software users, developers, and society at large. Some of the potential consequences of bugs are:

Financial Losses

Financial Losses

Financial losses are the monetary damages caused by bugs. They include direct costs such as repairing, replacing, or recalling defective software products; indirect costs such as losing customers, revenue, or market share due to software failures or dissatisfaction; and opportunity costs such as missing deadlines, contracts, or innovations due to software delays or defects. For example:

  • In 1996, a bug in the software of an Ariane 5 rocket caused it to explode shortly after launch. The bug was caused by an overflow error that converted a 64-bit floating-point number to a 16-bit integer. The incident cost $370 million and destroyed four satellites.

  • In 2003, a bug in the software of a Northeast power grid caused a massive blackout that affected 50 million people in the US and Canada. The bug was caused by a race condition that prevented an alarm system from detecting and isolating a power line failure. The incident cost $6 billion and disrupted transportation, communication, and business operations.

  • In 2014, a bug in the software of a Bitcoin exchange called Mt. Gox caused it to lose 850,000 bitcoins worth $450 million at the time. The bug was caused by a transaction malleability issue that allowed hackers to manipulate and duplicate transactions. The incident led to the bankruptcy of Mt. Gox and damaged the reputation of Bitcoin.

Safety Risks

Safety risks are the dangers to human lives or health caused by bugs. They include physical injuries, illnesses, or deaths that result from software malfunctions or failures in critical systems such as aviation, healthcare, or nuclear power. For example:

  • In 1985, a bug in the software of a Boeing 737 aircraft caused it to crash near Manchester Airport in England. The bug was caused by a faulty fuel gauge that indicated more fuel than actually available. The incident killed 55 people and injured 74 others.

  • In 1996, a bug in the software of an electronic medical record system called THERAPY caused it to prescribe incorrect doses of radiation to cancer patients. The bug was caused by a rounding error that truncated decimal numbers to integers. The incident harmed 28 patients and killed at least three of them.

  • In 2011, a bug in the software of a Toyota Lexus car caused it to accelerate uncontrollably and crash into a wall. The bug was caused by a memory corruption issue that affected the throttle control system. The incident killed one person and injured two others.

Reputation Damages

Reputation damages are the impacts on the credibility, trustworthiness, or image of software developers or providers caused by bugs. They include negative reviews, ratings, or feedback from software users or customers; legal actions, fines, or penalties from software regulators or authorities; and loss of confidence, loyalty, or reputation from software stakeholders or partners. For example:

  • In 2010, a bug in the software of an Apple iPhone 4 caused it to lose signal strength when held in a certain way. The bug was caused by an antenna design flaw that affected the reception quality. The incident sparked a media frenzy and a public outcry that led to Apple offering free cases or refunds to affected customers.

  • In 2016, a bug in the software of a Volkswagen diesel car caused it to cheat on emissions tests by detecting when it was being tested and altering its performance accordingly. The bug was caused by a deliberate manipulation of the engine control unit software by Volkswagen engineers. The incident triggered a global scandal and a legal investigation that led to Volkswagen paying $25 billion in fines and settlements.

  • In 2018, a bug in the software of a Facebook social network caused it to expose the personal data of 87 million users to a political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica. The bug was caused by a breach of trust between Facebook and a third-party app developer who collected and shared user data without consent. The incident sparked a public outrage and a congressional hearing that led to Facebook apologizing and promising to improve its privacy practices.

The Solutions for Computer Bugs

Computer bugs can be prevented, detected, and fixed by following best practices and tools for software development. Some of the common solutions for bugs are:

Prevention Techniques

Prevention techniques are methods for avoiding introducing bugs in the first place by following standards, guidelines, or methodologies that ensure software quality and functionality. For example:

  • Using a consistent and clear coding style, naming convention, and documentation format that make the code easy to read, understand, and maintain.

  • Following a software development life cycle (SDLC) model that defines the phases, activities, and deliverables of a software project from planning to deployment.

  • Applying a software engineering paradigm such as waterfall, agile, or spiral that determines the approach, process, and principles of software development.

Detection Techniques

Detection techniques are methods for finding and identifying bugs before they cause problems by using testing, debugging, or analysis tools that verify software correctness and performance. For example:

  • Using a compiler or an interpreter that checks the syntax and semantics of the code and reports any errors or warnings.

  • Using a debugger or a profiler that executes the code step by step and monitors its behavior, state, and resource usage.

  • Using a tester or an analyzer that runs the code against various inputs, outputs, and scenarios and compares the actual results with the expected results.

Fixing Techniques

Fixing techniques are methods for correcting and eliminating bugs once they are discovered by using patches, updates, or rewrites that modify software code or data. For example:

  • Using a patch or a hotfix that applies a small change to the code or data to fix a specific bug without affecting the rest of the software.

  • Using an update or a service pack that applies a large change to the code or data to fix multiple bugs and improve the software functionality or performance.

  • Using a rewrite or a refactor that applies a major change to the code or data to fix fundamental bugs and improve the software design or structure.


Computer bugs are errors or faults in software that prevent it from working as intended. They can have serious consequences such as financial losses, safety risks, or reputation damages. They can be caused by various factors such as human errors, technical limitations, or environmental conditions. They can be classified into different types such as syntax errors, logic errors, or runtime errors. They can be prevented, detected, and fixed by following best practices and tools for software development such as prevention techniques, detection techniques, or fixing techniques.

Computer bugs are inevitable in any software project. However, they can be minimized and managed by being aware of their history, types, causes, consequences, and solutions. By chasing killer computer bugs, we can ensure that our software is reliable, secure, and high-quality.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between a bug and an error?

A bug is an error in software that causes it to malfunction or fail. An error is a general term for any mistake or deviation from the expected or correct result.

  • What is the difference between a bug and a feature?

A bug is an unintended or unwanted behavior of software that needs to be fixed. A feature is an intended or desired behavior of software that needs to be maintained.

  • What is the difference between debugging and testing?

Debugging is the process of finding and fixing bugs in software. Testing is the process of verifying and validating the functionality and performance of software.

  • What are some examples of famous computer bugs?

Some examples of famous computer bugs are:

  • The Y2K bug that caused many computers to malfunction on January 1st 2000 due to the use of two-digit years.

  • The Heartbleed bug that exposed millions of passwords and personal information on the internet due to a flaw in the OpenSSL encryption library.

  • The Pentium FDIV bug that caused incorrect calculations on some Intel processors due to a faulty division algorithm.

  • How can I prevent computer bugs in my own software projects?

You can prevent computer bugs in your own software projects by following some best practices such as:

  • Writing clear and concise code that follows a consistent style and convention.

  • Documenting your code with comments and annotations that explain its purpose and logic.

  • Reviewing your code with peers or experts who can spot any errors or flaws.

  • Testing your code with various inputs, outputs, and scenarios that cover all possible cases and edge cases.

  • Using reliable tools and frameworks that have been tested and proven by other developers.



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