Monday, December 19, 2005

A Forgotten Mystery

. We're coming up on another new year, and as I have done for half a decade now, I find myself thinking about the Y2K computer bug and the end of technological civilization that didn't happen on January 1, 2000. It seems especially relevant this time around, which I'll explain later even if I can't infer a helpful lesson.

I was one of those who was definitely concerned but not panicked. I didn't build an underground shelter stocked with canned goods and shotguns, but unlike the blissfully ignorant ones who didn't know or care how the ones and zeros did their magic inside PCs, I had worked in the computer industry deeply enough to believe that disaster really was possible. Anyone who has had to write a computer program knows what insensate and literal machines processors are. The very simplicity of the problem -- two-digit representations of the year would be read as 1900 rather than 2000 if not reprogrammed -- meant that impacts could be incredibly numerous and far-reaching. Some of the most expert computer jocks I'd heard of were the most concerned about the prospects for calamity. And vast numbers of computer illiterate businessmen who had come to believe they could order problems out of existence were famously reluctant to take the Y2K bug seriously or allocate real resources to fix it.

Then the dread day came and... nothing. TV news anchors turned it into an instant joke. The world was suddenly divided into those who had never known enough to worry and those who were too embarrassed to admit they had ever worried. The cataclysm that didn't happen disappeared from the radar as completely as if there had never been a Y2K scare in the first place. All's well that ends well?

The thing is, there was a Y2K scare. You can verify that to yourself by doing a Google search. You'll get pages and pages of links. What you won't find are more than a handful of entries dated after January 1, 2000. Either an enormous and expensive hoax was perpetrated on the world, or we all dodged a huge bullet. Yet in all the years since, who among us has cared enough to figure out which it was?

We should care, though. Here's why. There is precedent for significant events that disappear from cultural consciousness. The 1918 influenza epidemic was an outstanding example. Within weeks of the height of the death toll, Americans ceased writing or talking about it. This singular event, which killed five times as many Americans as World War I, wasn't even mentioned in the history books I learned from in elementary school. My grandparents spoke plenty about both world wars, but they never said a word about the Spanish flu.

Today, of course, various experts are trying to warn us about a possible (some say inevitable) pandemic of avian flu, although most of us are far more concerned about the NFL playoffs than mass death due to a virus. In another part of the cultural spectrum, our lawmakers are whistling past the graveyard of future terror attacks by dismantling the Patriot Act and forcing U.S. interrogators to treat al Qaeda captives more respectfully than the cops in your town treat petty criminal suspects. Our national memory is already fading exponentially about the potentially huge loss of life that might very well have occurred -- and was, in fact, erroneously reported -- in New Orleans. Nevertheless, many highly esteemed scientists are beating the drum louder and louder about global warming, which may represent the closest analogy we have to the Y2K scare, while other experts insist that warming is merely a cyclical phenomenon that tracks more closely with sunspots than human behavior. So many bad things that could happen, and here we are trimming our Christmas trees with silly smiles on our faces.

So is it truly the case that the really bad thing can never happen here? That our spectacular ignorance does in some way protect us? The nuclear holocaust that was supposed to be the outcome of the Cold War never happened. All the yearly predictions of Armageddon by seers and psychics never happen. Maybe we're just generally safe from everything.

But 9/11 happened. And whether anyone remembers it or not, the influenza epidemic happened. That they're both absent from our public consciousness these days keeps leading me back to the Y2K bug. Were we standing on some kind of brink? If not, why not? If so, how did we escape? And either way, why do so few people care?

I found a lengthy webpage by somebody who does care. Ben Best was involved in Y2K reprogramming projects. And he continued to study the event long after it didn't happen. Except that it did happen, as he documents, just not on the horrific scale many of us feared:

There were problems with heart monitoring equipment and defibrillators reported in Sweden & Malaysia. E-mail systems failed in Qinghai branches of the People's Bank of China and in Russia's press service. Machines processing credit-card transactions in many Chinese banks failed on January 1st.

The first baby born in Denmark in January was registered as being 100 years old. The IRS sent demands for payment by 1900 to many taxpayers. Ten percent of cash registers in Greece printed receipts with the year 1900.

Computer controls on prison cell doors failed in British Columbia. Computerized prison records in Italy gave incorrect dates for birthdays, trial-dates and release-dates.

Highland Community Bank in Chicago was unable to electronically transfer Medicare funds. The Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago reported a Y2K failure associated with the transfer of $700,000 in tax payments. Three mission-critical systems failed at the Federal Housing Administration. 100,000 people in Sweden were unable to access their bank accounts over the Internet.

Emergency phones on the Adirondack Northway in New York went dead because they weren't Y2K compliant. Cash register/inventory systems were so malfunctional at many Washington State liquor stores that some stores were forced to temporarily close. Hundreds of slot machines failed at racetracks in Delaware.

Y2K computer problems at the Hong Kong Futures Exchange forced manual compiling of options prices, whereas more serious problems forced Pakistan's stock exchange to close on January 4th.

A hydroelectric plant in Kazakhstan has been forced into manual control due to Y2K problems encountered on January 1st. Manual operations are also in place for an income tax system in Gambia which was not Y2K compliant. Y2K bugs affected aluminum manufacturing in Korea & Venezuela.

Problems described as somewhat serious were failures to process data from US miliary reconnaissance satellites and a problem at the main US uranium storage site for nuclear missiles. Both problems occurred at midnight GMT and both problems were dealt-with within four hours -- although the satellite photos for the few hours after midnight were irretrievably lost.

A survey of 1,750 technology workers by CMP Media (a publisher of high-tech trade publications) revealed that 25% of organizations experienced Y2K computer problems, more than half of which were serious enough to cause a brief interruption of service. Peculiarly, hotels & restaurants have reported the largest adverse effects of any industry.

Problems in the nuclear power industry are difficult to cover up because the reporting requirements are very stringent. In the United States, only one nuclear plant was shut down due to a possible Y2K-related incident. Seven Y2K-related non-critical nuclear power plant incidents were reported in total for the US. Japan reported 5-10 minor nuclear power Y2K problems, such as failing radiation monitors and temperature gauges. One similar problem was reported in Korea and for two of Spain's nine nuclear reactors.

These incidents demonstrate that there was a Y2K bug. It's also true that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to prevent it from doing great harm. And there are some technological reasons why problems proved not to be as bad as feared in hardware categories like embedded microprocessors. Yet despite his methodical analysis of the facts -- and of his own psychological reaction to the Y2K crisis -- Mr. Best arrives at some final observations that tend to defy logic.

There were editorializing journalists who wouldn't know the difference between a computer program and a medical diagnosis who claimed that the Y2K bug was all hoax & hype. Such people gloat that they were "right" -- but how can they be right about something they have no understanding-of, simply on the basis of outcome?

Results are important, but they are not really "the only thing". A person who spends a lot of money gambling is not proven shrewd by the fact that he or she happens to have a big win. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus is given credit for his claim that matter is composed of small, indivisible "atomos" particles -- in contrast to Plato & Aristotle who said that matter is infinitely divisible. But Democritus had no evidence for his belief, so it is silly to give him credit for something less consistent with experience than divisibility. People who are right for shallow reasons do not deserve more credit than those with deeper understanding who make mistakes. Nonetheless, if understanding does not minimize mistakes, something is being misunderstood.

Some IT (Information Technology) professionals have been feeling like housewives -- whose considerable accomplishments in doing their work went unnoticed because it was so successful. Only if the work had not been done would the severity of the problem have been appreciated. But because there was no serious problem, much of the public believes there was never a problem and that the Y2K computer bug was a hoax...

It is very difficult to establish proof that severe problems were prevented rather than would never have occurred in the first place. Why did not the 30% of small-to-medium size businesses with no preparation for Y2K not suffer more? How could a problem of such magnitude have been so perfectly fixed that there was not a single major disaster somewhere in the world? Technological malfunctions and disasters occur daily in normal life on this planet. The Y2K computer bug ended-up looking like the world's greatest refutation of Murphy's Law. It seemed that so many things could have gone wrong.

It is easy to latch-on to an explanation such as "hoax", "hype", "problem-fixed", etc., but it is not so easy to find an explanation that fits all the facts. I am still left with the disquieting feeling that I cannot understand the Y2K computer bug problem or why events transpired as they did. As I said in my initial Y2K essay (May 1999), "The Y2K problem can be very frustrating for someone in search of hard facts".

Mr. Best was there. He's looked into it since. He doesn't know what happened or why, and he can't find any easy answers. So it appears that Y2K doesn't offer us much of an object lesson in anticipating or assessing future dangers. Even in an almost purely technological arena, outcomes can still be so unpredictable as to seem irrational or even anti-rational. All we can do about such situations is the best we can, as they come up

Which suggests that maybe there is a lesson after all. When Mr. Best concedes that he can't figure out the truth of Y2K even after the fact, he is saying that the nature of reality is incurably messy. The scoffers would have it, probably, that all the money spent preparing for Y2k was a waste. They might be right. They might not. I'm reminded of the antiwar crowd who are so certain that the messy reality of Iraq proves that it was wrong to depose Saddam. That is not a logical inference if life is as messy as the Y2K story indicates. Rather, not deposing Saddam would have resulted in a different mess we'll never get to experience.

Now what should we do about avian flu, and global warming, and the Patriot Act, and prisoner treatment, and planning for natural disasters, and the war in Iraq? We've already seen the right answer, which seems both simple and hard -- the best we can, given that we just don't know what's going to happen and may never understand what did happen after the fact. The best we can do probably involves steering a course that avoids the Scylla of ignorant wishful thinking and the Charybdis of imagining doom lurking at every bend in the road ahead. It probably also involves fewer recriminations in hindsight and more focus on the future than on the road not taken.

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