Reaction to WIRED articles : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

I finally got around to picking up the April issue of Wired, which has an all-black cover and four Y2K articles. Here are my reactions.

First, there's "Powerless" about the Quebec ice storm. Nothing new or unobvious here. Lessons: a) we really need electricity, but b) people do cope without it for awhile.

Second, "Life in the Dark", on the Auckland power outage. Lessons: c) utilities do screw up sometimes, even when the stakes are large. d) you can't count on anyone to pay for the damage.

Third, "The Myth of Order", which describes the state of software development. Lesson: e) programmers, managers and the software industry are exactly as error-prone as you would expect, given that they are run by human beings. See Dilbert.

But the kicker is the last article, "This is Not a Test", about Texaco's embedded system remediation. Three pages worth copying and distributing. Ellen Ullman reports on Texaco's Y2K "Show and Tell". Here's the crucial bit, reporting a simulated rollover test at a refinery control center:

Using a handheld interface terminal, he entered the date and time: 12/31/99 23:59:45,

Then we all watched the display on the face of the RTU as the seconds counted up to midnight. 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59 - then the date rolled over.


"Colon zero," said Cook. "It's like, what is that?"

Then he tried entering the date 12/31/00. Again the seconds counted up to midnight, this time to 01/01/:1.

But nothing terrible seemed to happen. No flashing lights, no buzzers, no equipment shutdowns. Was it just a weird date-format problem? A lot of hype over a display? Cook then took me over to the terminal for the SCADA system and tried to collect information from the RTU. He entered the command to retrieve the device's idea of the date and time, and the SCADA console displayed:


Then he tried to retrieve the crucial information from the device, the date-stamped flow measurements stored in the unit. And the SCADA system answered:


"It can't get the data," Cook explained.

Gas and oil continued to flow, unmonitored and unmeasured. If you can't read the data, said Cook, "you don't know what you've sold, and you can't get paid for it". How long could Texaco continue to function without being able to bill for the oil and gas delivered through its pipelines? Abshier and Martin looked at each other and let the question go.

OK, this article obviously does not go deep. And most of it is Texaco people talking about what a great job they've done remediating. And they probably have fixed lots of devices. However, the obvious questions remain:

None of this is a surprise to doomers, but it's the first straightforward press report on a Y2K-related embedded systems failure -- something that many people seem to think will never happen. For that reason alone, it's worth passing around.


-- Michael Goodfellow (, March 20, 1999


passing out before passing around

-- konk (wake@ina.year), March 20, 1999.

Rereading that, I realize I'll get flamed for the "first report" phrase. There have been other reports, but either unattributed anecdotal stuff -- "it took three weeks to get the unnamed plant back online", "GM rolled clocks forward on a plant", "a water-treatment plant failed" or trivial stuff like "Singapore taxi meters failed".

This is attributed (manager and company named) and describes specific critical devices (albeit without manufacturer names.)

-- Michael Goodfellow (, March 20, 1999.


Thanks for good post and Texaco example.

-- Watchful (, March 20, 1999.

I usually don't buy WIRED as a regular, but I'll pick this one up for sure. Good "Heads-UP".

Mr. K

-- Mr. Kennedy (seeMe@bookstore.tomorrow), March 20, 1999.

Hurry up and get it. My bookstore is already out.

You really need the magazine itself, because the pages would not copy well, due to lots of white text on black background.

Although Kinko's copy machines seemed to be producing inferior copies, maybe that was the problem. I'm used to better machines.

-- mabel (, March 20, 1999.

The black cover is a stroke of genius, & the best y2k graphic I've ever seen. Usually the media uses some bug graphic, a beetle or roach or what not. But solid black.... Lights Out... the message is stunning.

-- speaking (as@an.artist), March 20, 1999.

I bought my first copy yesterday (gave it away already) at Borders, and I paid for it when I bought my iced decaf. I was able to clue the clerk in a bit about Y2K; I hope I made a GI out of her. I bought my second copy today at Waldenbooks, it was one of only two they had left. I mentioned to the clerk that she should take a look at it. She said, "oh, yeah, that's when all the computers fail." End of conversation. The gap between GI and DGI is widening, but I'm hopeful since Wired has been selling so well.

The articles were okay from a GI standpoint, but great from a DGI standpoint. The pictures of the ice storm were wonderful. My favorite was the poor frozen cows :( My favorite quote was Alan Greenspan's about how he was one of the programmers in the '60s and '70s who was so proud that he was able to squeeze the date into a smaller space by dropping the 19.

I'm especially looking forward to next months Wired and all the mail that people will have sent to comment on the April issue.


-- jhollander (, March 20, 1999.

The article on Texaco also talked about interdependencies, and how everyone is worried about the other guy. Good piece.

"The Myth of Order" is, IMO, the best article to give to a DGI. Good overview of the enormous complexity of systems and debugging.

The ice storm pieces were interesting, but would be blown off by a DGI, who would likely say "Can't happen here".

-- Steve Hartsman (, March 21, 1999.

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