back to article Systems meltdown plunges US immigration courts into pen-and-paper stone age

A massive computer failure at the US Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is reportedly wreaking havoc on US immigration courts, with application outages continuing well into their second week. The agency issued an alert on April 14 warning immigration lawyers that certain key systems were down, but the New York Post …

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  1. JustWondering
    WTF?

    Really?

    Two weeks to ship it seven miles? They must be using the US postal service.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Really?

      Couldn't they just go down to HomeDepot and hire a couple of Mexicans with a van?

      1. Katie Saucey
        Joke

        Re: Really?

        "Couldn't they just go down to HomeDepot and hire a couple of Mexicans with a van?"

        That's the plan. They'll also buy some pens and paper. The Mexicans will have the backlog of docs out of the way in no time. Then let the bureaucratic crawl begin anew!

    2. Hugh McIntyre

      Re: Really?

      I agree it's strange to say the least.

      But maybe the hardware is not sitting there ready to be shipped? For example if it's a replacement server someone else is using, and the existing user needs to move their data off first (this does seem a bit cheap), or some hardware is not in stock 7 miles away? Or, more plausibly, the message is garbled and the two weeks is the time needed to restore the replacement servers to working order after unraveling backups and data brokenness?

    3. Blofeld's Cat

      Re: Really?

      Perhaps their order processing and payments system is out as well and nobody is prepared to sign off the order without all the "paperwork" being complete.

    4. Tom 13

      Re: Really?

      Despite popular perception the USPO is actually one of the most reliable and efficient delivery systems in existence. I've never had a package or letter lost and all have been delivered within specified time frames.

      Where they are weak is in having only one or two customer service reps on duty at the drop off at peak periods during the week, even if they have 4 or even 6 stations available.

    5. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: They must be using the US postal service

      Cheap laugh but I must downvote and naysay.

      Speaking as a Namazon Torrent Purchaser I would like to say here and now that the fastest and most reliable delivery of my Amatat has always been the USPS, and they are my carrier of choice. Fast & reliable.

  2. Ian Easson

    What are we going to do when the super-solar flare arrives?

    Sometime in the next several decades or a bit more - on a probabilistic basis - there is going to be a ginormous solar flare aimed at the Earth. It is expected to fry all electrical systems (including all computers and all of the Internet) for one to two years.

    What will the world do then?

    1. Donald Becker

      Re: What are we going to do when the super-solar flare arrives?

      A super solar flare frying all electrical systems? Been watching too much science fiction?

      The earth is extremely well protected against many kinds of radiation, including solar flares. The only way for a solar flare to do damage is to capture the energy with a big antenna array. Stringing wires up on poles spanning long distances will do nicely. But it's not like everything connected to those wires will instantly explode. The rise times are far slower than a lightening strike, and most equipment survives a nearby strike.

      Sure, the power grid will have a hard time staying connected. And radio communication will be somewhat disrupted. But most things will be unaffected.

      1. Chris Miller

        Re: What are we going to do when the super-solar flare arrives?

        Ah, but the solar flare will cause the Earth's magnetic field to reverse. It must be true, I read it in a Dan Brown novel.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        Re: What are we going to do when the super-solar flare arrives?

        "The earth is extremely well protected against many kinds of radiation, including solar flares. The only way for a solar flare to do damage is to capture the energy with a big antenna array. Stringing wires up on poles spanning long distances will do nicely. But it's not like everything connected to those wires will instantly explode. The rise times are far slower than a lightening strike, and most equipment survives a nearby strike."

        That's very comforting.

        Small point.

        How many satellites will be cooked by this? BTW GPS sats are just under the inner Van Allan radiation built so it's fair to say they are on the outer fringes of effective magnetic shielding for the Earth.

        1. Peter2 Silver badge

          Re: What are we going to do when the super-solar flare arrives?

          Moreover, the type of equipment attached directly to a power line carrying 125,000 - 750,000 volts is not going to be unduly worried about receiving a few thousand volts more or less than it was expecting. Delicate microelectronics this stuff is not!

        2. Stevie Silver badge

          Re: How many satellites will be cooked by this?

          So a few rich people who never learned to read road maps will find themselves unable to drive off cliffs or through building sites any more. Boo-hoo. Bet they'll wish they'd spent their money on a good A-Z instead of that center console "navigation system" when the sun sheds its benevolence upon us.

          Shame about the explosion thing. I was looking forward to the oversized hideous SUVs that seem to have infested the neighborhood cooking off in an entertaining fashion. Oh well, I'll settle for their owners circling endlessly in their behemoths, trying to get up the nerve to ask directions while I laugh at them.

          Flares don't fail me now!

      3. Stevie Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: But it's not like everything connected ... will instantly explode

        You say that, but there is a large body of evidential television programs and cinema films that say otherwise.

        Where's your proof, Mr Scientist?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What are we going to do when the super-solar flare arrives?

      we could all go to the beach for the day?

    3. ItsNotMe
      Mushroom

      Re: What are we going to do when the super-solar flare arrives?

      Well hopefully...it will take out Farcebook & Twatter permanently.

  3. Hans 1 Silver badge

    A meteorite will hit earth before solar flare causes any disruption.

    There is nothing we can do, so we might as well live on ... and if solar flare happens to penetrate the atmosphere, immigration will be made legal everywhere and we will all be allowed to walk/swim/run to any place on earth ... ;-)

    What we can do, though, is try to reduce pollution - this poses a greater threat to our immediate survival than meteorites or solar flares ... but then again, as a true USian, you would probably ask who cares, why should I start if my neighbor is a pig ? The answer is pretty simple: every little thing helps. You will also see, if you look closely that is, that food sold without excessive packaging is cheaper ... just an example.

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      A meteorite will hit earth before solar flare causes any disruption.

      Well, yes. Meteorites hit the earth all the time. I'll wager I'll drink another cup of coffee before a solar flare causes significant disruption too. What of it?

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        I'll wager I'll drink another cup of coffee

        Wait a minute ... I have just formulated a possible source of all those Keurig failures people whine about in the Amazon review pages.

        I call it the Stevie Microflare Of Keurig Death Theory. In it I postulate that Keurig electronics get sizzled to death by solar flares to small to be detected by the human eye, or indeed by any of the other traditional flare detection methods.

        In the appendix I touch briefly on the idea that this might be turned to good use by deploying arrays of Keurig Platinum coffee machines as a sophisticated microflare detection technology - much like huge underground lakes of cleaning fluid can be used by the Japanese to prove the sun is going out.

        Where's my Nobel prize?

  4. DropBear Silver badge
    Windows

    Solar flares...?

    Bah, I say! Why do you think I wear this here tin foil hat?!?

    ...What? OF COURSE my computer wears one too!

    1. 404 Silver badge

      Re: Solar flares...?

      Dumbass. Tin foil is for amateurs.

      Now, a couple dozen coats of lead paint on your house/cave/bench will protect you in a court of law... I mean lasers... aliens.... deathrays AND solar flares. Add some DDT to your lawn and you're set to survive the zombie apocalypse.

      Damn kids today...

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Solar flares...?

        Add some DDT to your lawn

        Wish I could; it's mighty effective at killing the damn mosquitoes, and a couple of residential applications a year would have negligible undesirable environmental impact.

        Can't say the same about the lead paint, though. I've been grinding that stuff off the house for the past three years to get a paintable surface. It's far more durable than the siding under it.

        1. Stevie Silver badge

          Re: Add some DDT to your lawn

          You are thinking inside the box.

          Replace the lawn with green concrete and rid yourself of two menaces to an enjoyable summer: Mosquitoes and Lawn Mowers.

          Alternatively, just tell 633 Squadron that they have to find somewhere else to park.

  5. macaroo

    This reminds me of my years in the field with a now defunk computer company. When a major malfunction would occur with an extended down time. The Sales force would get nervous and start talking about a mass swap of the machine. Us techs with cooler heads would have to explain to them that you would be replacing one problem with many problems causing more down time. We would tell them to take the customer out to dinner, and a movie and let us Techies analyze and define the problem. and then fix it. Mass swaps of complex networking systems usually do not work well. and just prolong the disaster.

  6. AceRimmer

    The biggest danger here is that this forced return to pre-computer methods might make people realise that they can do without massively expensive and complex computer systems.

    Butlerian Jihad anyone?

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Love the reference, but the Butlerian Jihad was caused by AI mimicking the human mind too well. I seriously doubt these systems mimic a human mind in any way, unless it is a very sick one.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "I seriously doubt these systems mimic a human mind in any way, unless it is a very sick one."

        ...such as a civil service bureaucrat?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yippee!

    I just paid $10 to my Mexican hacker friend. When the servers come back online I'll be a legal USA citizen along with most of the population of Mexico :)

  8. James Boag
    Joke

    super-solar flare

    Did we not have them in the 70's ?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    US immigration.…

    It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch. Anyone whose ever been on the receiving end of their bullshit mistreatment will surely know what I mean... I'm so happy to not live there anymore!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: US immigration.…

      always nice to see the nastier reaches of govt. going under.

  10. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Devil

    Five servers down at the same time ?

    And they can't even get a phone line up and running ?

    It has to be a terrist strike.

    Somebody phone Homeland Security, there's a Bin Laden mole in the Justice Department !

    1. g e

      Re: Five servers down at the same time ?

      I'm still trying to work out which branch of government can benefit from this, having instigated it to cover up some dodgy doings they want to carry out.

    2. Fatman Silver badge

      Re: Five servers down at the same time ?

      It has to be a terrist strike.

      Nah!!!

      It was just the NSA targeting the wrong IP address!!!!!

      </snark>

  11. pacman7de
    Facepalm

    I don't believe it !

    "Five separate servers have died, the source said, triggering a catastrophic system failure that has thrown the immigration courts back to the bad old days of paper, pens, and tape recorders."

    I figure it was a borked software upgrade ..

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    US Government procurement

    Oh the stories I could tell from when I was assigned to US Federal Government pre-sales for Oracle a few years ago.

    I imagine the issue is that the servers are operated by one outsourcing company, that has its contract through a shell "Native American Owned" company, but all the actual staff on the ground are third party hires (most from India or China) being billed at 5-7 times their actual rate via this procession of pass-through shell companies. In the name of "efficiency" (i.e. efficient transfer of large sums of government money to campaign contributors and return of a small portion to legislators in form of consulting or contributions) there will be multiple layers of approval and paperwork required to order the parts, approve the shipping, sign off on approvals. And the procurement officer is probably on maternity leave and hasn't been replaced because that's the way it works.

    My favorite example of government procurement - witnessed first hand - was a key system for FDA prescription management tools. Pharmacists have to apply for approval to dispense restricted drugs. They fax a form to an office in suburban DC. It is received by a $59 dollar Staples no-brand home fax machine with low toner cartridge and sub-standard paper. The sheets are received by a worker who then scans them on a flatbed scanner (again sub $100 consumer-grade quality) where they are submitted for OCR. Because the quality of the fax and the scan are so bad, OCR is (maybe) 20% successful, so there are four operators who then hand type the info from the sheets into a data entry form. The (multinational, well-known "tech" company) operating this scam was very happy with the placement of five permanent staff rather than procurement of a standard fax card and improvement of OCR software.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: US Government procurement

      Yep. If they've got five or more servers down, that's likely an AGO purchase order. God help you get one of those turned around in short order. We've been waiting almost two months for our quarterly toner order to come in. And it's all down to some paper pusher not liking one phrase on the purchase order.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pen and paper stone age ?

    I'd rather call it pen-and paper (if we're lucky) future. Raise your hand all those who know how to manufacture a sheet of paper! OK, now only those able to do it without using Google, electricity, oil and all the modern stuff. Anyone?!

    Thought so!

    1. Trixr Bronze badge

      Re: Pen and paper stone age ?

      I do. But then I was in the print industry before I was in IT. And the print industry pre-Photoshop.

  14. Erik4872

    Outsourced IT strikes again?

    I've seen stuff like this happen at both public and private sector companies. The IT is outsourced then sub sub sub subcontracted out to the absolute lowest bidder. And in the process, all the management and monitoring that the customer is paying for gets lost along the way. We just had the IT outsourcer for our company ignore a couple of device failures for a key server, and it was only noticed when people started saying "Hey, I can't get into XYZ application anymore." Going back through the logs, a drive failure happened 8 months ago, followed by another one just now. Combine this with the fact that the server's backup was being written to a full NAS, and the logging clearly indicated that.

    It's not just big government contracts -- it's the whole outsourcing process.

  15. Donald Becker

    It's been a while since I was directly involved in government insanity, but I remember it well.

    We, along with many other sections of the government, had a requirement to support 8(A) companies -- small, disadvantaged businesses. I believe that it was 5% of our budget needed to be spent with them. The challenge was that the bulk of our budget was bespoke/pass-through, meaning that essentially everything we actually bought was set aside for 8A bidders. So rather than just ordering non-critical office supplies, we also bought Really Important things through the sleaziest and most expensive of the approved suppliers.

    It was oft-repeated, and nearly as often true, that these were "wife-owned businesses". A few were actually fronted by a person with the trifecta of privilege: a native Alaskan woman military veteran. Of course the front person was only nominally in charge of the business. They were really run by someone that understood the rules and how to profit from them -- usually a GSA retiree.

    Because their expertise was understanding rules, not running an otherwise competitive business, they would often screw things up (from our perspective). That usually came in the form of delays. If we needed a specific part that only came from a single vendor, they would still have it make a warehouse stop. Not actually to their warehouse. It just needed to stop along the way so that it appeared the company was doing something -- that they were something other than a sham.

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Is the *idea* of "outsourcing" the best scam MBA types ever thought up?

    It must be in the top 10, right up there with the idea of "Collateralized Certificates of Deposit" where banks convinced suckers depositors that

    9 parts s**t + 1 part Gold --> 10 parts Gold.

    instead of 9 parts s**t.

    I wonder if some (probably MBA) type will make their fortune by developing a proof that outsourcing can never deliver the scale of savings expected without grossly unrealistic starting assumptions (and what those assumptions are).

    Probably not.

    They'd be killed by all the other MBA types to protect the golden goose.

    1. Trixr Bronze badge

      Re: Is the *idea* of "outsourcing" the best scam MBA types ever thought up?

      Forget using an MBA for such an analysis - MBAs don't *analyse* anything other than their pay packets.

      You'd want an economist specialising in managerial or business economics - a branch of "microeconomics". I don't have much respect for economists at the macro level who labour under the illusion that economics is anything other than a form of anthropology or sociology, but the micro side can be quite useful.

      To summarise what they investigate, from Wikipedia:

      Almost any business decision can be analyzed with managerial economics techniques, but it is most commonly applied to:

      - Risk analysis - various models are used to quantify risk and asymmetric information and to employ them in decision rules to manage risk.

      - Production analysis - microeconomic techniques are used to analyze production efficiency, optimum factor allocation, costs, economies of scale and to estimate the firm's cost function.

      - Pricing analysis - microeconomic techniques are used to analyze various pricing decisions including transfer pricing, joint product pricing, price discrimination, price elasticity estimations, and choosing the optimum pricing method.

      - Capital budgeting - Investment theory is used to examine a firm's capital purchasing decisions.

      Production analysis would be the area to investigate here, and maybe capital budgeting.

  17. NileH

    Our tinfoil-hatted commentator is amusing, but he has *some* worthwhile points about solar storms:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrington_Event

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_1989_geomagnetic_storm

    Short version: satellites will be fried, widespread power cuts will happen, and some systems attached to twisted-copper pair communications will be disrupted - possibly knocked down to 'restart from backups'.

    Put it in the file marked 'This will happen and we should have contingencies in place'. You know, like the earthquake we are certain to get in California: it's out there, it's real, we've got stress measurements on the fault systems in the rocks, and we know it'll be big. But we don't know how big, and we don't know when; and human nature is such that we treat this as 'don't know when means *never*, and I won't do anything about it'.

    Is this relevant to government incompetence and outsourcing? Well, yes: we'll get a lesson, sometime, that abrupt disruption gets the headlines, and natural disasters get things done... Much more so than rolling screwups like this one, which - in aggregate - cause far more trouble than the disasters in the headlines.

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