January 1999

Y2K -- Why Not 2K?

For many years, various psychologists and sociologists have been saying that when the new millennium rolls around, we'd better watch out, because it will bring all the crazies out. So I guess I expected some idiocy. But I guess I expected random baseless "The world is coming to an end" type of lunacy. What we have instead is a real, concrete (almost rational) basis for the end of the world; an actual event that rational smart people say is actually going to happen.

The Y2K bug.

Almost humorous when you think about it -- the world isn't going to be destroyed because God is angry with how we've behaved, or more generally that we'll be consumed by our own immorality. Instead, the world will end because we've programmed ourselves into a technological corner. You could take it as a sign of the times perhaps -- technology has become more prevalent, even invasive, therefore it is a natural symbol for man's downfall. I prefer a more pragmatic explanation: the Y2K bug came along at a convenient time and scratches the itch of craziness that the end of the millennium will naturally bring out.

If it weren't for this millennium fever, I think most rational people would be able to see the Y2K bug for what it is: No Big Deal.

Oh sure, the bug really exists, it really is widespread, and it really won't be fixed in many places by the due date. But if you honestly and rationally think about the world on January 1, 2000, it won't be that exciting. It'll really be a big relief. Maybe even a big let-down. I'm sure the news media will be running around looking for the big story, and I'm sure they'll end up looking foolish, making mountains out of mole hills.

The First Reason Not to Worry

The people who are most worried like to point out that the problem isn't just computers, rather the problem is with every electronic device there is, because so many of them have some sort of computer device embedded in them. These are called in the business "embedded systems". Embedded systems are widely used, in cars, hospital beds, military equipment, and many other odd places where you may not expect to find a computer. The Y2K lunatic's theory is that these things could all fail when the Y2K hits.

But the fact is that most embedded systems have absolutely no idea what year it is. Here's a great rule of thumb - if you haven't told something what year it is, it probably doesn't know. Afraid your car won't start on Y2K? Did you ever tell it what year it is? Maybe it has a clock, maybe even a date function, but the year? I don't think so. And if it did, it is highly unlikely that the clock is linked into the car's ignition.

But if only a few things fail that's still bad, right? I read somewhere (this is from memory) that if only 1 in 10,000 embedded systems failed, that could represent 35 million failures worldwide. Wow. That's a lot. Or is it? Let's see, suppose it wasn't worldwide, suppose it was only in the U.S. That's one failure for every 7 people. So most likely, nothing you own will fail. If something does fail, it will probably be a single thing. All the other things around it will keep on working. If something major fails, it will also be a relatively isolated event. And things fail all the time, and we fix them, and get on with our lives. Of course, I think 1 in 10,000 is a high estimate. And it was worldwide, not just the U.S. There will be vastly less than 1 failure for every 7 people.

The Second Reason Not to Worry

The biggest problem though, is not embedded systems. It is actual real computers running actual real software. Software that was written by actual real people who are still mostly alive, and used by actual real companies who's life blood depends on these systems. THEY'RE BEING FIXED! I opened a Certificate of Deposit in 1995 that comes due after the year 2000. I've never received an incorrect statement regarding that CD, even though on my statements, it has to show the ending date, and show projected earnings calculated using that dreaded year. They already fixed this part of the bug. People are working on the problem. They may not fix everything, but they'll fix the most important things. They've been working on it for years, and they'll keep on working on it.

Remember, the people in the Y2K business, the best experts on the subject, the ones that get on the media to explain the bug are the ones who will profit the most from widespread fear and panic among corporations. If they tell you we started too late, or nothings been done, it can only make them richer.

The Third Reason Not to Worry

Things will fail. But which things. Let's look at some of the things people are worried about.

As I said before, banks have known about this and been fixing it for a long time. But suppose they miss something. Then you may end up with an incorrect statement. Or, worse yet they could actually lose your money. So what. You have old statements, don't you? The bank has old statements on paper, and on backup storage tapes, don't they? (yes they do). And isn't it a federally insured bank? I thought so. If they lose your money for a day or a week (in my opinion highly unlikely), they'll still be able to find it again -- you're money is safe. No Big Deal.

Phone companies are like the banks - companies with a bottom line. Companies that also have printed records. Companies that are also fixing the bug. And thankfully, most telephone equipment has a distant cousin of UNIX running inside of it, so it's idea of a date is something that doesn't expire until 2038. That doesn't mean there won't still be bugs, but they won't be system-wide, there will be few of them, and they will be easy to test, and find, and eliminate. And worst case, suppose a bug is missed, suppose there is a big phone outage? We've had them before and survived. They fix the problem. Quickly. In a day. A day without phones. It would suck, but it would not spell the end of the human race. No Big Deal.

The power grid
Power companies also know about the problem, and are fixing it. But they still might miss something. Well, power companies run such an important service that it is NOT completely computerized. There are manual overrides throughout the system. If the computers go hay-wire, they bypass the computers, and get things working again soon. In the mean time, the hospitals have backup generators (that don't know or care what year it is), and so do all other essential services that have disaster plans in place. No Big Deal.

But don't hospitals rely on all sorts of computerized equipment to do everything? Yes, but thankfully most of the equipment doesn't know or care what year it is. Most importantly, the doctors and nurses know their jobs, and they'd still know their jobs if every system in the hospital went out. And, like all other failures, it would only be short-term. No Big Deal.

Garbage Collection
(I've actually heard this listed as a concern). So what if the computers used by Waste Management die. Isn't the company run by people? People with printed records? Driver's who know their routes with or without a computer? Trucks that don't have any idea what year it is, and don't care? They'll collect your garbage, and if they screw up and miss you, you can call them on the phone and they'll get it a day late. No Big Deal.

If you detect a theme above, it is this: people are still the heart of the system. They still store the knowledge. They have disaster recover plans. Those plans have been tested. They will work. There may be a bad spot here or there, but the world will keep turning, people will keep doing what they have to do, and the glitches will be quickly found and fixed.

Additional Reasons Not to Worry

The Few Reasons to Worry

So, the end of the world won't come from the Y2K bug. But there are still a few things that may still be the basis for serious concerns.

The government is using some of the oldest legacy software in existence. And the government is the slowest to change. In my opinion, it is likely that failures will be concentrated within some government agencies. Air Traffic Control is one of the worst cases of a legacy system, with a very important function. And I've heard they depend on knowing the year (I'm not sure why). Of course, my third reason above still applies - people will be able to handle the situation.

The biggest reason to worry though, in my opinion, is a sociological reason. If there is widespread belief that there will be failures, this could lead to widespread panic. Looting. Riots. Marshall law. Attempts around the world at violent overthrows of governments. Attempts by less technically advanced nations to attack more technically advanced nations, with the hopes that their technology will fail. In my opinion, human beings have the biggest Y2K bug of all. And there's no way to predict that one, and no way to fix it.

"It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel Fine"

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