Good metaphors to explain Y2K to the average public? : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Like many others in the Y2K field, I've often struggled with a way to explain the Y2K problem convincingly to non-technical people. This is becoming ever more important for me, because I'm getting a fair number of radio and TV interviews associated with my book -- but in most cases, I only have 30 seconds or so to provide a "sound-bite" answer to what often turns out to be a fairly complex question. It's abundantly clear that most of the interviewers have not even read the preface of the book, let alone all 400+ pages.

I've made one attempt at a Y2K "metaphor," which you can find on my web site; I've called it the "Hong Kong Y2K flu" metaphor. A few people have commented to me that it doesn't cover the embedded-system issue, but I think it does perhaps help explain why it's not so trivial to fix the problem, especially when people vaguely refer to "they", as in "Well, even if it is a problem, 'they' will fix it."

Has anyone else come up with good analogies, metaphors, parables, or stories to get the point across?

-- Ed Yourdon (, January 11, 1998


Ed, I have used the following to describe that we, (friends and family) need to start planning now.

Two hikers are in the forest and happen across a large glade. On the far side is a huge grizzly bear who immediatly starts running towards them.

One hiker immediately sits down and starts to put on a pair of running shoes.

"What are you doing?" the other one asks his friend "You can't outrun a bear."

"I don't have to" he replied "I only have to outrun you"

I have found this helps to get the message across that things are moving fast.

-- Patrick Galpin (, January 11, 1998.

Do you remember a few years back when an airliner lost an engine, all hydraulics and had to crash-land in Iowa? Even though the pilot had lost the "brakes" and the "steering", the plane was in no danger as long as it stayed in the air. But he knew he had to land sometime. And he wasn't sure what was going to happen, but he knew it would be bad. He could do his best and try to minimize casualties (including his own). Part of the problem we "know" will happen: not every company, utility, bank, government and chip will be ready. But no one knows what the results will be; only that it will be bad.

-- Jim Smith (JDSMITH1@HOTMAIL.COM), January 12, 1998.

The effects of the "Y2K Time Bomb" will be like an "economic hurricane", and like the hurricanes that hit at various places along the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, the variability of the impact for individuals is unknown and unknowable until one is in the middle of the storm (or has, thankfully, ended up at a part of the coast that the hurricane completely misses).

One's degree of preparation will depend on how close we are to the coast, and how exposed we are. Much of the preparation must be done even before a storm warning is announced: deciding not to live on a flood plain, or having storm insurance bound on insurable property. Once the warning has been given, only systematic "tying down, nailing up, and boarding over" and stocking of "storm supplies" can be undertaken, and only that if you don't wait until the winds begin to blow harder.

The "storm warnings" for Y2K have been amply communicated, for those who have an ear to hear. It is time to lay in storm supplies, and "batten down the hatches". If in a too exposed position, evacuation may also be prudent.

The other parallel that comes to mind is the story of the great famine forecast by Pharoah's dream (as interpreted by Joseph) in the Bible book of Genesis. The parallel is strengthened by the sequence of 7 years of great abundance followed by 7 years of great shortages. We have been seeing great abundance in recent years, so much so that it is hard to imagine it 'suddenly' turning to catastrophic shortages of power, food, and other critical goods.

The Genesis account has lot's of 'gritty detail' about nature of preparations and effects of the crop failures (people selling everything they have including, in the end, themselves). I have found it very helpful in making plans at both the "detailed" and "global" levels. I'm not an "end times" enthusiast, but this story reminds us that in the course of 'normal time' very HARD times are not only possible but, over a long period, likely at some point or another. Since we don't have the direct experience, this indirect experience (plus, perhaps, similar accounts of the Great Depression or daily life in the territories of the former USSR) can help in becoming mentally prepared for what may be ahead.

-- Frank Meyer (, January 12, 1998.

In terms of comparing and contrasting Y2K to natural disasters, I would think that a large meteor hit would be a more appropiate metaphor than say hurricanes or earthquakes. My reasoning here is that this event that will impact us globally and not in a specific state or region.


-- William Preston (, January 12, 1998.

I haven't used this on the average public but how about comparing the Year 00 problem to an old iron bridge structure where all of the "rivets" or "bolts" will fail, simultaneously on Jan 1, 2000 due to an internal flaw. The bridge "carries" the computer "traffic" of our modern society. Actually there are many "bridges" and they in turn are the "bolts" that allow our society to function. All of the "rivets" in all of the "bridges" must be replaced, if not, each bridge fails catastrophically all at once at the appointed time. There is a certain number of "rivets" that can fail and the "bridge" could still function at reduced capacity. Some "rivets" are easily seen and are obviously important, some are hidden, not easily accessible but non-the-less critical. If the "bridge" is inspected closely and found to be unsafe it could be closed and "traffic" rerouted. If it fails while there is "traffic" on it the consequences are much worse. If EVERY "bridge" EVERYWHERE fails then the SYSTEM fails Every structure has some critical limit that if this many "rivets" fail then the rest of the "bridge" comes down of its own unsupported weight. Everyone has seen the old west scenario where the train is heading for the bridge that is still standing but has been weakened due to storms or age and someone is trying to get word to the train crew to stop before they get to the bridge. In the case of a year 2000 situation the "train" or "traffic" is still proceeding at full steam towards a "bridge" of unknown structural integrity. Repair work is underway at a frenetic pace but is uncoordinated and some "rivets" are being missed. The repair crews are desperately trying to replace the "critical" number of rivets that will keep the "bridge" open even at reduced capacity. But there are not enough experienced "ironworkers" available at any wage and there is a rumor in the camp that they won't get paid next week. The "bridge" may appear to be OK today in 1998 but will actually collapse as soon as the lead locomotive touches it at 0000 hours Jan. 1, 2000.

-- Douglas V. Dorsey (, January 13, 1998.


I think your metaphor good. The shaky Y2k Bridge on the Information Hiway to the Technological Future. If the bridge goes out it will be a lot harder getting to such a future, if at all, if the intertwingled problems are as bad as some are saying.

-- Victor Porlier (, January 13, 1998.

I found this one at It's from Mark R. Leeper and I think it makes some good points and provides another good analogy. Reposted by permission.


Y2K: It is 6:20 AM on January 1, 1998. I am up early even though I was up past 2 AM. Why am I up? Well the coming of the new year has me a little nervous. I am thinking about the millennium problem in science fiction terms. What is going to be like in just two years? Well let me say at the start I have no idea, but I am picturing something very dramatic that our science fiction writers have missed the boat on. The image I have is December 31, 1999 Japan winks out. As one time zone after another goes past midnight we see the countries in that time zone come to a halt. That is what a day just two years off may be like. That is a really scary image. I am not saying that will happen, but at this point it is a possibility and is a lot more probable than a lot of the futures we read about. You know how many stories were done of nuclear war coming. Also very dramatic. But let me tell you, this future of the technology winking out on a front moving west at 1000 miles per hour, this really could happen.

First a review of what the base of the problem is. A lot of computer programs were written assuming that you could use a two digit number for the year. To any program written in this way we will very soon be going from the year 99 to the year 00. This means the program will think that the world has jumped back 99 years when you and I think that it has advanced one. This could break all its calculations. Complicating the problem is that programming takes many forms. It is not just in the form of computer programs, the very chips we put into computers are essentially computer programs made out of matter. That was what shocked me into writing the last piece I did on the problem, learning that some cars are dependent on pollution control chips that divide by the last two digits of the year. The whole chip has to be replaced or the car will not run and it will fail some time around the fateful midnight.

Our technology has long chains of dependencies. That gives a problem like a Year 2000 bug its power. Think of yourself as if you were a technological entity. You are a big computer controlled system. So you make a high priority preparing for the year 2000. All the lines of code that control your heart are checked out and fixed. The same for your brain (and think what a big job that is). Word is your pancreas checks out A-OK. Lungs are all set. Some programmer stayed up nights and got your lymph nodes working perfectly. Your kidneys took a lot of attention but they are all set. Team after team came in and made sure everything would work. It was a huge task. And you know what happened? The team that was working on your liver missed one place where the year is used. Come that fateful morning two years off first there is no liver and then there is not going to be a you. You are a large network of inter-dependent processes and all of them have to work. Of course this is an absurd example. You are a system of biological parts, not computer components.

But most everything humanity has built over the last thirty years or so is dependent on computational parts. And the parts we most rely on are systems of inter-dependent processes. Power plants have complex computer control systems. One or two pieces overlooked really could bring down the whole power plant. Power plants themselves are inter-connected. One power plant going down can take down its neighbors. That is particularly true if the neighbors just happen to be having their own computer problems at the same time and are vulnerable. The whole grid winks out. Then it does not matter what computers have been fixed for the problem. They may have great software, all fixed for the year 2000. They just are missing electricity. So they go down. Some have battery backup, they can stay up a while. But how soon can the computers that caused the problem be fixed without electrical power? And with even unrelated things like cars failing? It can't. And add that other computers are failing as soon as they come up. As near as we can tell, that was what took out Japan. China was next and when midnight came it went dark in its turn. There was wide-scale looting in India when the technology stopped there. But the first real violence we heard form a few battery-powered reporters came when the curtain of darkness swept over the Middle East and pent up religious hatreds suddenly were no longer pent up. Europe went next with more riots and looting. At about that same time what was once called "the Dark Continent" was again dark.

Times Square, which had been ready for its biggest New Years ever had a change in plans. People had been listening to the news all day, or lack of news, from parts east. A few people were in the streets but most had stayed home as if a tidal wave was coming. As indeed it was. For the few that were present a local disk jockey was at the microphones that had been arranged days earlier for some very different sentiments. As the minute approached the stragglers in the street checked their watches nervously. "Ten... Nine... Eight..." [-mrl]


-- Mike Gunderloy (, January 15, 1998.

Here's one... The reason we are so vulnerable to Y2K is because our society has so many interrelated systems. Our most basic needs are met by vast, complicated networks of activity. If you think of society as an organism, then ours is like the human body. Incredibly effective, adaptable, capable, but an icepick to the right place and every cell dies. Now take the same number of cells, but instead of a human you're looking at a vat of algae. You can stab that algae all day, and you won't hurt it. Each cell is autonomous.

Our own society used to be structured more like that. And it could be again--it's not too tough to build a house that provides its own electricity, its own food, takes care of its own waste, and stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer with little or no power input other than the sun. Instead most of us rely on massive social systems to take care of all that. Labor-wise, it's a very efficient way of doing things, and it gives us a very powerful economy--but Y2K just might be the icepick to a major artery.

-- Dennis Peterson (, February 02, 1998.

Heh heh...I knew I got that idea from somewhere. Turns out it was the previous post, which I read a week or two ago. Sorry, Mike.

-- Dennis Peterson (, February 04, 1998.

The recent news story about the rivets on the Titanic having been made with impure metal, and thus being too brittle, perhaps is parallel to the ocean liner SS (save society) COMPUTING having been made with millions of "brittle" date registers... No one thought she could go down.

-- mark hoffmann (, February 09, 1998.

It's always refered to as a "bug" when really the problem is much more serious. Here in the south people would relate to calling it programming "kudzu". A plant that if left alone will rapidly grow and kill whatever plant or tree living nearby. Difficult if not impossible to erradicate. Seems to fit the bill.

-- Paul Cordes (, February 14, 1998.

Below is a link to a good metaphor, posted on Gary North's site. The basic idea--Y2K as a huge asteroid swarm, heading right for us. We can shoot out rockets to eliminate some of the asteroids, but there are way to many for us to get them all.

-- Dennis Peterson (, February 19, 1998.

Living out in the country, I use concepts familiar to most. You or your neighbour gets their septic tank pumped out, the truck heads off and out of your life......At the process plant their systems for tracking loads, contents and billing don't work (And why should you care.. you don't even know that this place exists), by regulation, they cannot take the delivery untill all is well again. The truck unable to dump now has two choices, one to drive around in circles till somebody else fixes the SYSTEM, or he can just dump his precious load along the side of the road....Now if you just happened to look out the window and saw/smelt it, you probably wouldn't have made the connection to Y2k.

The Domino effect is significant, gamblers might say, very remote, but if the septic tank needs pumping and nobody will do it, what do you do?

'I got a million of them' Marx Bros.

I like your TB2000 book, I just wish I had time to finish it.

-- Mike Richling (, February 20, 1998.

It doesn't apply to the entire Y2K problem, but for prople here in CA I like the earthquake metaphor. It doesn't take out every building, just enough of them to seriously disrupt things. You don't know how bad it will be untill it gets here. It takes at least a few months to put everything back together. You prepare much the same way. The good news, you know when it's comming, the bad, no Red Cross. it's kind of simple, but it works and makes it human.

-- Annie O'Dea (, March 02, 1998.

After thinking about how to bring the y2k problem to friends (and family members), to mention or explain the problems the changeover from YY to YYYY date fields is lost on them. It's just intutive for humans to add the unspoken YY and they really can't grasp what the big deal is. I then use the analogy of trying to put four cars into a two car garage, and then they see what the big deal is. However, as far as the ramifications of the y2k problem really means, I now realize it's important to stress that it really doesn't matter what is the particular techno computer code problem: what's important is that this bug is forcing a line by line, program by program review and repair of nearly every computer still in use. The key is to stress the widespread nature of the problem, and that there is a fixed, unchanging deadline. There's no chance of postponing the deadline; either you are compliant or not on Jan 1, 2000.

-- Dennis Sherwood (, March 06, 1998.

>>> I haven't used this on the average public but how about comparing the Year 00 problem to an old iron bridge structure where all of the "rivets" or "bolts" will fail, simultaneously on Jan 1, 2000 due to an internal flaw. >>>

I've been using a similar metaphor.

Imagine a city in which all building fasteners, such as nails, screws and rivets, may be faulty. You don't know which ones are faulty, but you still have to examine them all, and determine which ones are faulty and need to be replaced.

Another metaphor for more techie types is a response to Gerald Weinberg's, "If we built cities like we build software, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization."

My reponse is "Y2K is realizing that there is a termite infestation in that city"!

-- Jeff Jacobs (, March 13, 1998.

Even after people understand that computers, and things with chips may malfunction, there is a natural tendency to say "so what?".

"If Auckland can survive the electricity failure, that just shows we can work round the problem when it comes. Anyway, did we not spend all that money last year doing a disaster recovery plan or a business resumption plan or whatever we called it?"

The analogy I suggest - and most people can appreciate - is with traffic. Cars, trucks/lorries, buses, semis/articulated-lorries, car transporters etc all share the road system. When one breaks down, it can pull off onto the hard shoulder, and wait for the towtruck, or change the tyre/tire or ...

When one vehicle has difficulties it may limp along with its lights flashing, delaying traffic. Accidents can cause large backups.

Usually, very few vehicles break down or are in accidents. A fender-bender on a remote rural road will have little impact, but a car transporter or a tanker with an inflammible load overturning at a busy intersection causes all sort of havoc. But again very few vehicles are involved, considering the total traffice.

But what if a large percentage have problems - say 40% - say 20% - say even 5%? Some will be disabled, some misfire, some will overturn. Boxes may fall off the back. All things that can happen normally. But if even 2% of the vehicles "go wrong" the whole system will break down. Emergency services will be insufficient - never mind that they cannot get through the traffc jams.

The Y2K anology here is that you can regard each vehicle as a computer. The mainframes (container transporters, heavy lorries, etc) are bigger and heavier than the other road users. There are less of them, but when they break down or go crazy they can cause serious trouble. Even without fully breaking down they can slow things up. Other vehicles represent smaller computers. Usually they can pull off the road and nobody really cares (except the people in that car). But if enough stall, the whole highway will be blocked.

The message is "a few going wrong now and again - it is what we expect, and are set up to deal with; an appreciable percentage going wrong - well, that is a different matter" Then discuss what "appreciable percentage" means. Let me know if you have an anwswer.

-- Brian Higgins (, March 14, 1998.

Here is a metaphor for the philosophically inclined:

y2k is the reset button for humanity.

-- Jimi Gladway (, March 26, 1998.

In response to your post I tried to think of a way to describe the y2k embedded chip problem for non-technical folk. See what you think.

Imagine some shoe boxes full of marbles. There may or may not be one or more red marbles in each box. You must replace or recolor each and every one on the red marbles by mid-night tonight or they will explode. You cannot know in advance how bad an explosion will be. Some will be fizzles, some will be firecrackers, some will be hand grenades, some will be tactical nukes. All are dangerous, all are life-threatening. Each explosion could destroy a road or break a water main or clog a sewer pipe or bring down a power line or destroy a railroad track. Some damage will be easy to fix, some won't.

Nevertheless, it sounds like a simple problem.

Now imagine that you don't know where all the boxes are, but you still have to find them all and replace or recolor each and every red marble they contain by mid-night tonight.

It is still simple. Just get some folk to help you find them.

Now imagine that when you find a box it may or may not have a lock on it. If it has a lock on it you must go find whoever locked it and get him to open it.

Now imagine that there are as many boxes to find as there are seconds left until mid-night.

-- George Valentine (, March 26, 1998.

Government bureaucrats are attempting to comfort people (perhaps themselves) with contingency planning. This is a metaphor I used in my book to describe contingency plans:

To visualize how absurd is the idea that organizations could return to manual methods, consider the following. Today less than 2 percent of the population of the United States grows all of the crops necessary to feed a nation of nearly 270 million and provides huge exports as well. If the farmers lost the use of their tractors, just how badly would production suffer? Could a single man plant a hundred acres in an afternoon without the use of a tractor? As the tractor is to the farm, so the computer is to the average business - absolutely vital.

This is, no doubt, why the Social Security Administration was, until recently pressured by Congress, not concerned with the development of contingency plans. They were not developed because they were recognized as being futile. They admitted that backup plans were not developed because they simply had to meet the deadline. A senior vice president for the financial markets from Chase, to his credit, was much more candid. He stated that nearly two trillion dollars traded hands each day and that it was impossible to develop contingency plans to accommodate a failure of the system which processed those transactions. Banking is not the only industry that is unable to return to manual procedures. DHL, the international courier company, also admits that, due to the volume of traffic, it would be virtually impossible to fall back to a manual billing operation. Yet all organizations and businesses need to develop contingency plans. These plans must begin with a painful acceptance of the chaotic environment within which they may be required to take effect. That this premise should form the basis of any and all contingency planning is too depressing to be easily embraced. Optimists will fight the development of any such procedures tooth and nail.

Rod Swab R U >_ 4 Y2K? Year 2000 - Countdown to Calamity

-- Rod Swab (, April 05, 1998.

My fiancee's grandmother was asking us about Y2K. She seemed to have faith that "they" would find a solution in time. This was my explanation why there was no easy fix, not a description of what will go wrong. Picture your local library. A lot of the books have dates inside -- "the crash of 1929", "the Sixties" etcetera. Some of those dates use four digits for the year (1929) but many use only two (the Sixties) Imagine if you had to go through the library and make sure every date reference in every book uses 4 digits for the year. There's no quick fix solution. You have to go through every book and check for the dates. And correcting the dates in one book will do nothing for the next book on the shelf. That, I explained, is why there can't be a quick fix solution to Y2K that will correct all the problems. [Incidentally, I've just started a Library Science program, and I have a feeling that libraries will be one of the few places to experience minimal problems (except secondhand issues inherited from others) All library cataloging use 4-digit years, so when the catalogs were computerized, 4-digits remained the rule. Plus, many libraries still have card catalogs, and even without catalogs, librarians will be able to find the books. So, I'm certain that this small bastion of civilization will survive, even if the rest goes to pot.]

-- Elisabeth Riba (, June 16, 1998.


Humpty Dumpty

-- eotwawki ommagod (, September 20, 1998.

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