some Sept 1997 comments that apply now more than ever : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Date: Fri, 26 Sep 1997 18:29:55 -0400 To: From: Dick Mills Subject: Awareness: Where to draw the line on alarmism.

I believe I may have found a practical definition for where to draw the line between awareness and alarmism. Here it is. I'm posting it here for everyone to shoot barbs at. Is this a definition we can use, or not?

Let's use a simple analogy familiar to everyone; airline safety. There are two standards by which we should view technical questions of safety; the planning view and the operational view.

The great engineer, Edward A. Murphy formulated his famous law, with airplane safety in mind. "If anything can fail, it will." When designers are designing airplanes, or when software types are enumerating what Y2K problems must be checked, this is the proper standard to apply. Assume the worst, check everything. Think about it; no other standard is defensible for planning purposes.

When we're about to board an airplane, we use the operational standard. Sure the wings could fall off, there could be a bomb on board, the pilots might be drunk, but the proper standard to apply is to ignore all these possibilities and be optimistic. Think about it; no sane person should board any airplane ever if he does not expect the outcome to be favorable. For that matter, the person would not dare use any other transportation or dare to stay on the ground. Panophobia is the word for that; fear of everything.

In other words, planning and design should be based on worst case possible outcomes, but daily operations should be based on expected real life outcomes.

What would be irresponsible? Well, to go to the airport ticket office and loudly discuss the wing falling off, bombs on board, drunken pilots, then to jump to describing the broken body parts and anguished relatives that might be the consequence would be irresponsible. The psychological trick being played is to jump directly from a discussion of what can happen, directly to the fearfully graphics views of the consequences. It is a trick because the planning standard is misapplied to the operational context. Indeed, in airports this kind of talk is actually criminal. It is so bad that it is one of the very few legal exceptions to freedom of speech.

Now, lets translate this back to the Y2K context. Many articles, public statements, books, and web sites discussing the Y2K problem commit exactly this sin. They first make the point that Y2K vulnerability is ubiquitous. Nearly everything and anything can fail because of Y2K. They then jump directly to point out how awful the consequences could be if all these critical things did fail. To the uninitiated, the message is that what can fail will fail; the wrong expectation.

The sin may not even be deliberate. We software practitioners are busy avoiding and rectifying the problem. We are immersed in the planning standard all day every work day. It is understandable that we may forget to use a different standard when making public statements. Understandable at least, until you read this post and have been informed.

So what's so bad about this? We lose credibility and risk being ignored because we use alarmist tactics. If we really believe that the public awareness and action is critical to achieve, then we must protect our credibility.

-- Chicken Little (, February 04, 1999


Having read the thread that you initiated on the utilities forum, I do have a question for you. The utility companies that are not finding any major problems and are quickly reaching / have reached a state of Y2K readiness - why are they not talking about it in public? The answer you gave does not really make sense. There are companies coming forth with the "we're going to be okay, but are issuing this notice with a caveat about the possibility of problems due to others". We have not heard of even one utility who has made this simple and cautious kind of statement. It also doesn't make sense when you take into consideration the beneficial effect it would have on the local populace to hear of the state of their utility.

-- Bumble Bee (, February 04, 1999.

I empathize with this logic; however, I no longer apply it. I think that the error is in: "Sure the wings could fall off, there could be a bomb on board, the pilots might be drunk, but the proper standard to apply is to ignore all these possibilities and be optimistic."

We shouldn't "ignore all possibilities and be optimistic." This is foolishness. Ideas like this would put insurance companies completely out of business! (maybe not a bad idea to some)

The real problem is our awarness of danger. How much danger is there in taking a flight? Probably not very much under "normal" circumstances. How much danger is there to our infrastructure because of Y2K? A more significant amount in my estimation.

-- Reporter (, February 04, 1999.

Everyone, at least implicitly, understands the inherent dangers of airplane travel. I have even read of families that never all ride on the same plane, so if there should be a crash, not every one will perish.

John Q. Public is just now, finally, understanding that the world as we know it might be headed for a disaster due to the effects of Y2K. Electricity might go down -- and stay down. Municipal water systems might not be able to produce clean water. Everything in the way of bank deposits could turn to electronic mush and be effectively gone forever. Civil unrest, rioting, etc., might occur in the cities as people experience a world gone mad.

Now, once people are as aware of this as they are of the dangers of airline travel, then there is no point in dwelling on these things. That would be morbid and uncouth. But clearly most people are just now entering the "awareness stage" of Y2K, and certainly Need To Know.

-- Jack (, February 04, 1999.

For me it is a simple question of gambling philosophy. I cannot choose not to gamble; I can only choose to gamble based on the odds or to gamble based on the stakes. Considering the stakes involved in the Y2K gamble, I have chosen to remain with my previous philosophy of not gambling with anything that I can't afford to lose. Y2K is a crapshoot and I'm willing to gamble looking foolish, but not gambling that I will die with a severe case of regret.

-- Hardliner (, February 04, 1999.

What more is there to say about y2k preparation than: better to have and not need, than to need and not have.


-- Runway Cat (, February 04, 1999.

I understand what you are saying about 'planning' and 'operational'. I deal with that everyday in doing Y2K preps. That said, lets play with your airplane analogy a bit. Analogies are fun mostly because they eventually break down. Lets push this one a bit and see what happens.

Sure, it would be silly to refuse to board an airplane because the wings might fall off or the pilot might be drunk. IF it was that simple. Lets throw in some real life observations at the airport (which you may relate to Y2K).

We're at the airport waiting for our plane. While we are sitting in the restaurant masticating our way thru a tough steak (only made edible by the excellent Glenn Ellen Chardonay which the waiter brings by the large glass full) you are considering the recent labor troubles suffered by the airline. Seems they are locked in a bitter battle with their maintenance people over downsizing the staff. Lately the papers are full of freshly fired older technicians saying the safety records are faked and the FAA is ignoring the problem. But hell, the wings aint gonna fall off! Those guys are just disgruntled ex-workers! much exerience was lost with those guys? Hopefully not TOO much.

While this is passing through your mind you notice a pilot leaving the restaurant. As he walks out into the concourse he stumbles a bit over the carpet. Funny, you think, you don't recall any bumps in the carpet when you came in. Hmm....Naw, he couldn't be drunk could he? Just on the wine and beer this place serves? Besides, what are the odds he'll be flying your plane? 50 to 1 maybe.

The so-so dinner completed you adjourn to the boarding area and settle in with the Wall St Journal to check your companies latest offering. Lets face it, waiting in the airport with a full belly and reading the WSJ is boring and sleepy. You get up to walk around and stop to watch the planes through the huge windows. The activities of the ground crew are always fascinating, like a ballet set to turbine whine. As you watch the crews load luggage you see one of them slip his jacket down a dit. His T-shirt has something printed on it...looks like....."all hail Bin-La....", Nope, can't read it. Just another funny T-shirt. Guys looks kinda scruffy for an airline ground crew employee. Standards must be slipping with the big strike.

Ok, with all this new and probably meaningless data thrown in what has become of our operationl standard? Has it changed? We have an airline with a 99.99999% perfect safety record. The weather is great, the plane is fairly new, and we have no real reason to not fly.

Sure, there are a bunch of little signs that trouble might be about to happen, but how serious are they? What PROOF do we have? Yes, a pilot stumbled...could be nothing. Ok, senior techs say the planes are unsafe, but they have motives of their own. MAYBE that guy's shirt said Bin-Laden, but MAYBE it was a joke too. We never met him so how can we say?

You still comfortable flying today?

Options at that point: Fly or don't fly. If you fly and you were wrong, a wing does fall off/you landed the drunk pilot/you are sitting on 12oz's of semtex and a detonator then you are in serious trouble. Deadly maybe you are dead. Don't fly and you are wrong, nothing bad happens, you look like an idiot at the next staff meeting and you catch a later flight.

BIG question. Suppose you saw that pilot stagger..the t-shirt did say Bin-Laden in full living color, and one of those 'disgruntled' techs had shown you faked up service records from an FAA log (concerning fatigued wing mounting bolts (g)). Would you be irresponsable if you told everyone? How about if you stood at the head of the boarding ramp and blocked the way?

I can relate these hypothetical hints directly to stuff I have heard/read with regard to Y2K. I have modified my operational standards accordingly. It is not black and white on any issue, especially one like this.

-- Art Welling (, February 04, 1999.


Your analysis is right on target. Not only that, it's all in the X ring.

-- Hardliner (, February 04, 1999.

Art, You beat me to the punch. I literally had the same basic scenes in mind as I read the original post! We are seeing a few hard details and a lot of soft ones that make us queasy about boarding Pollyanna Airways. Personally, I have worked on some of those 'engines' and I know how long it takes to replace individual compressors - too long.

-- RD. ->H (, February 04, 1999.

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