How Bad, How Long, How Likely? : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

I know Mr. de Jager is no longer popular with the doom crowd, however, for those of us who inhabit the middle ground, this is interesting reading. Sorry if this has already been posted.

How Bad, How Long, How Likely?

Y2K Personal Preparation

by Peter de Jager

The discussion (controversy?) surrounding Y2K preparedness lies not in any argument about how many cans of soup per person per day, but in how many days we should prepare for, if any? What depth of self reliance is called for, if any? What threats to safety, if any, will Y2K disruptions impose on us?

All of which boils down to; how bad, how long, and how likely are Y2K disruptions? Once these most basic of questions are answered to our individual satisfaction, then we can make reasonable plans for coping with what we believe might occur.

It should be obvious, but I guess its worth highlighting, that asking "how bad, how long, how likely" automatically assumes a particular place. The answers to these questions for Toronto, Canada will differ, perhaps greatly, from Tokyo, Japan and Moscow, Russia.

This article will make no futile attempt to answer anything but the most basic of aspects of these key questions for different cities, countries or geographic regions. Instead, it will raise the questions which require honest answers. It will also provide a rationale behind my estimates/opinions as to what a reasonable level of preparation is.

Another glaring weakness of this article is that whatever answers I can provide will be neither precise nor certain. They will be merely educated guesses about an uncertain future. I make no claims to omnipotence. For that level of certainty, youll have to visit other websites.

So, if you were expecting a how-to-prepare article that focuses on how many cans of soup, water and candles you should be squirreling away, then this article will be a disappointment. If, on the other hand, you were looking for something discussing what levels of disruption are possible and therefore, what levels of preparation are reasonable, then you just might find this article useful.

Okay, so what level of preparation is reasonable? Ill start with the answer to this question and then proceed to elaborate on why I believe in my answer.

Some are suggesting 2 - 3 days is sufficient. I classify this advice as South of Prudence, but not for the reasons some might think. Its not because I think Y2K disruptions might be longer or shorter than 2-3 days. Its because I think preparation plans of 2 - 3 days are not plans at all.

One could go to practically any household in the Western world, and with only 10 minutes warning, bang nails into the doors, cut off water and power, and even in the dead of winter, come back three days later to find the inhabitants a bit smelly but none the worse for wear.

A three day outage of all services would typically impose hardships in three areas; Heating, water and food. If you had no food at all in the house, youd end up a bit hungry. The water problem is solved by filling a few pots, pans and the bathtub (assuming youd cleaned it recently.) Heat for three days? Candles or even a makeshift oil lamp using olive oil, combined with lots of blankets and an extended family hug and youll come through your three day crisis with little, if any damage, and perhaps a better understanding of why deodorant sells so well.

The one exception, and this will keep arising as you think about Y2K preparations, is medical needs. I would expect anyone who had to have medication every day would have at least three days (to a week) supply on hand at all times but thats an assumption on my part.

So 2 - 3 days is insufficient as a preparation plan for any crisis. Its not really a plan, its a decision to do nothing.

Note: I have NOT said that 2 - 3 day outages/disruptions due to Y2K are likely. All Ive said is that a 2 - 3 day preparation plan isnt a plan.

One the other end of the scale, call it North of Reason (as a counterpoint to South of Prudence), we have the 6-months to 10-year preparation plans.

I dont buy the notion of Y2K disruptions lasting 6 to 120 months. I can imagine no reasonable scenario where such lengthy disruptions are feasible. Are they possible? Sure! In the same way its possible for you to get four flat tires at the same time. Thats possible, but I dont see too many people carrying four spares in the back of their car just in case it happens.

This is where the discussion gets heated. Such lengthy disruptions are admittedly conceivably possible. But preparing for everything which is conceivably possible is not the best use of our time and resources. Its possible that a deranged killer will storm into my room in suburban Canada, but sitting in a corner with a loaded gun wearing a bullet proof vest each and every day just in case? Sheesh Lets all agree to keep a small grip on reality.

But, I wont just dismiss these scenarios out of hand. In the nitty gritty details section of this article, Ill examine long disruptions more closely.

What do I believe is a reasonable amount of planning? The Montreal Ice Storm comes to mind. It was an unexpected crisis, lasting 2 - 3 weeks in the dead of winter, over a large geographic region and affecting a large metropolitan city.

This was not a non-event. Some 20 people died, not because they froze to death, but because they brought gas powered generators into their homes and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Pity they didnt know how to use the tools they purchased.

If your level of preparation is sufficient to cope with a 2 - 3 week disruption of services equivalent to what happened in Montreal during the Ice Storm, then I would state youve a sufficient level of preparation to cope with anything Y2K might throw at you in the proactive countries such as Canada, USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Nordic Countries, Israel, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, and even South America to a certain degree.

In other parts of the world where less preparations have been done, then Id increase those preparations to 4 - 5 weeks, with the notable exceptions of Russia, much of Eastern Europe, and Italy. What are sufficient levels for these three exceptions? I honestly dont know. I dont have enough information to hazard a guess.

Note: I am NOT stating that Y2K is going to create 2 - 3 week disruptions in the USA or Canada. Im stating, very clearly and precisely, that a 2 - 3 week level of preparation is sufficient (a word with a different meaning than necessary) to handle what Y2K might throw at you.

Heres a prediction. Some people in the proactive countries will find 2 - 3 weeks preparation insufficient. They will be supported, in their time of need, by those (most of us) who find even 2 - 3 weeks of preparation excessive. There is no one answer

Now the big question, why do I believe that 2 - 3 weeks is sufficient?

Before we get into the nitty gritty details, a minimal amount of personal background information is required. Why? Because predictions of any sort are based as much on the specific experiences and expertise of the soothsayer than anything else. If you dont know my relevant systems background, then how can you judge the value of anything I say relating to systems? In particular, the failure and repair of systems?

I started as a computer operator in 1977 with IBM. I worked mainly in the online banking department. I stayed with IBM about 18 months and during that time participated in the remediation of several system failures. I was possibly even the cause of some of them. The longest failure I recall, lasted about 24 agonizing hours.

The causes of these problems ran the gamut of power outages, programming errors, operator errors, hardware failure, and smoke billowing from devices where even the slightest suggestion of smoke was a sure sign that all was not well with the world.

Most of these problems were handled according to pre-established procedures, even the programming errors. These were solved in a two-step process. The first step was the application of a hastily concocted patch or kludge created by some bleary-eyed, caffeine supported programmer. (Errors of this sort always occurred at 3:00 am and involved the paging of a programmer usually involved in a more constructive activity called sleep.) These kludges were applied continuously until the program gave up and succumbed to the programmers attempts to beat it senseless.

Next morning, when the world is supposed to look better, the programmer would sometimes, not always, examine the program in closer detail. Sometimes this autopsy resulted in additional changes and, if we were really lucky, some documentation of whatever modifications the programmer had inflicted in the dead of night.

In addition to the online banking systems at IBM, I also worked for a large food chain, a computer timesharing company, a bank, clothing retailer and an insurance company. The positions Ive held include those of operator, programmer, business analyst, supervisor, system optimizer, systems manager and general problem solver.

During 15 years of direct computer experience, Ive never encountered a computer problem that affected a mission critical application to the point it was totally unusable for more than three days. This does not mean that such failures dont happen, it only means theyre rare.

The scene during such a crisis was always pretty much the same. A swat team of programmers, anywhere from 1 to 5 individuals (the largest team I remember was a total of seven) would barricade themselves in a room until a solution was found and then take turns babysitting the situation until a better, more robust long-term solution was installed. Ive seen the babysitting phase last for as long as several weeks in rare situations.

These life experiences were not always painless. Companies can lose millions of dollars per day, sometimes per hour, when these events occur. (Of course, if you can lose that much in a hour, youre obviously making that much an hour when things are okay, so you can afford a few losses from time to time.)

Whats important about these situations is they occur regularly, and seldom, if ever, make the 6 oclock news. (A case in point, about 50% of companies report they have already had Y2K problems, but how many were reported in the media? How many are you aware of? Not very many? Interesting. It means that Y2K problems are already occurring, AND people are fixing them before they become noticeable.)

With that as necessary background, let's get to the core of my reasoning as to why 2 - 3 weeks is sufficient.

It boils down to a very simple observation. A Y2K problem cannot both be pervasive and hidden at the same time. Stated differently, saying something is both everywhere and difficult to find is a contradiction. Again, if its everywhere, we cant avoid finding it.

Why is this observation important? Because it strikes at the heart of all the doomsday scenarios. First, some facts;

1.Most companies, in all industries with the potential to cause widespread outages, are now taking Y2K seriously.

2.The most important industry sectors (Financial, Power, Telecom, Medical, Oil, Transportation, Chemical) are sharing information freely behind the scenes. When a problem is found, the information is shared.

3.Most competing companies inside an industry are NOT tightly dependent upon each other in the same way the financial community operates.

4.The Financial community is further ahead on this problem than any other industry.

5.Failures in some industries, like Medical, generate a very localized effect. Serious, especially to the people affected, but not regionally or geographically catastrophic.

Points 1, 2 & 3 combined with "if its everywhere, we cant avoid finding it", are the real reason long term disruptions (6-120 months) of entire industries are no longer reasonable scenarios.

Note, two years ago, Points 1 & 2 were not true. They are today. Two years ago, when the majority of companies were still ignoring this problem, it was possible to overlook problems, but today weve achieved critical mass.

Here are some of those scenarios: (At the core of each scenario lurks the fear of embedded systems as well as software problems)

Power: We could suffer total blackouts as isolated failures have a domino affect across the landscape.

Counter Argument:

a.Despite the fact that 79% of utility companies have finished inventory & assessment (Source: Canadian Electrical Association, Jan 21st 1999), nobody has identified a situation that would have cut off power. The chances of the remaining utilities coming across something at this date are slim (not zero, but slim). The reasoning here is plain. If 79% of the assessments failed to find anything, its because its likely it doesnt exist.

b.If problems do occur, they will not be unexpected. Power companies will closely monitor their stations on Dec 31st. Decisions to redirect power due to whatever failures might occur, will not be done automatically by dumb machines.

Y2K is unlike other problems. Its scheduled. We wont be asleep at the wheel, well be expecting problems. That alone is enough to avoid a certain percentage (Not all, not even a majority) of problems.

Oil: We could suffer a worldwide shortage of oil, which would cripple transportation and lead to starvation due to an inability to transport food, etc.

Counter Argument:

a.The oil industry has worked very hard to, at the very least, communicate what they have found to each other. They are not a shining example of proactive Y2K work, but they do realize the necessity of sharing information.

b.Most oil companies do NOT operate at full capacity. (OPEC just cut back on oil production. Thats why your gas prices are up.)

c.The oil industry is NOT a tightly connected industry like the finance industry. (Note: A significant failure in the North Sea would affect ALL oil companies working there, but would have zero impact on the Gulf.)

d.Oil can and is being stockpiled through 1999

e.There is a long time (measured in weeks) between a problem at the well head and a shortage at the pumps.

f.If the North Sea oil field were to experience a problem, other oil fields would increase production to take up the slack (and make more money) The same logic holds true for refineries.

g.But what if all the oil fields had problems? Here were back to the reality that if a problem exists everywhere then we would have found it by now. The fact that weve all woken up to the problem is the #1 reason why system-wide problems are not possible.

h.Could there be isolated problems? The answer, without hesitation, is of course there will be problems. But no system-wide problems.

Chemical: Chemical plants could blow up, taking years to replace. Wed run out of fertilizer, reducing crop yields and causing starvation. Plant a garden!!!

Counter Argument:

a.Practically all the same arguments as used for the oil industry.

b.The notable exception is this: Chemical plants are dangerous places. Accidents here can and have killed thousands of people. We always have an option. We can shut down the plant if were not certain everything is okay. Yes, costly. Yes, time consuming. But prudent.

c.In the meantime, stockpile chemicals throughout 1999.

This covers events lasting more than 6 months, but what about the disruptions greater than 3 weeks and less than 6 months? Will there be disruptions lasting longer than 3 weeks? Yes, lots of them, but they wont affect entire industries. And if your company is not affected, I suspect that expanding your market share to take advantage of your competitors weakness will be foremost in your mind.

In summary: Because most companies are no longer in denial, because were sharing information, because most companies are not tightly linked to their competitors, and because systemic problems cannot remain hidden when most everyone is looking for failure -- because of all this, long term, industry-wide problems are no longer reasonable scenarios. I place no faith in them.

Finally, at the eleventh hour theres one thing now on our side. Were no longer marching blindly into the future. We know problems lie ahead, were on the lookout for them, were expecting them, and were planning for them. Because of these efforts, not blind faith, well overcome what problems remain.

For myself? Ill be flying that night, from Chicago to London. My family? Theyll be at home awaiting my return, and our preparations will not exceed what Ive deemed reasonable in this article.

Yours truly Peter de Jager April 14, 1999

-- Helen Wheels (helen@wheel.s), April 29, 1999


This seems a well-written article by de Jager. Now, we wait for the inevitable riposte... "the code is broken."



-- Mr. Decker (, April 29, 1999.

I don't like the article for two reasons.

1) It continues to bother me that when listing the "important" sectors of the economy the availability of potable water, and food, seldom appear. "Well you know, if we get the banks all prepared, we will be overall Y2KOK!!" I would also put right up there the transportation system that moves the food around. It never seems to make anyone's big list...

2. My second concern is that, yes, a swat team of programmers may be able to fix Y2K breakdowns pretty quick. But this is not reality if you have thousands of breakdowns that all require programmer swat teams. I don't think there are enough programmmers to go around, and many companies may end up on a waiting list to get their precious computer programs fixed.

Sincerely, Apple (this bump in the road may be a landmine...have fun)

-- Apple (, April 29, 1999.

I don't like to drive on ice or in snow up north. So for me 2 or 3 weeks is not a "plan" at all. To each his own...............

-- sue (, April 29, 1999.

The major point of the book "Time Bomb 2000", to me, is that disruptions will last varying amounts of time depending on what sector of the economy or society we're talking about. Any problems with utilities might be taken care of quicker than, say, food availability, which might be taken care of quicker than gasoline availability, which might be shorter than Y2K's impact on employment.

-- Kevin (, April 29, 1999.

I KNOW, because it was revealed in a dream, there are 25 angels on the head of every pin.

-- Mitchell Barnes (, April 29, 1999.

---peter d. j. STILL DOESN'T GET IT! It matters NOT what was done in those endless weeks of babysitting some errant code that was introduced by that caffeined out programmer or whatever. the FIXING was done, at peter's own admission, with a lot of skull work, etc WHEN EVERYTHING ELSE WAS STILL WORKING. WHY IS THIS CONCEPT SO HARD TO GET ACROSS? Just add one or two glitches to any of his past scenario/malfunction/heroic jobs and the fix becomes un-fixable. For example, just one example, no water to a building, no fire department then, no heating and cooling or sprinkler systems. That means go home, no fixee today. How about if it goes a couple of weeks and there plain isn't any food, and the riots start? Face reality, it takes a nation's whole emergency services to BARELY cope with a relatively small sized "disaster" now. Folks and resources have to be flown or trucked in or whatever, and all their gear and the emergency food and water. This was done in quebec and new england that last ice storm. Well and good, but YOU CAN'T DO IT IF IT'S EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE. No one is gonna leave their area that's screwed up just to go to another area that's screwed up. The portable emergency infrastructure doesn't exist to take care of huge cities for any extended length of time, without completely stretching that support structure from all the surrounding "intact' areas, so it just can't be done on any other scale. Look how long it's taken to move a few dozen copters and the support structure a few hundred miles-and this is an organization that swears up and down how fast they are in doing this sort of thing, with an intact command and supply structure, and decades and trillions of dollars to figure out how to do it. The only thing I remotely agreed with in petie d.j.'s essay was don't be naieve about only having 2-3 days. Beyond that, I'm glad he's tired, maybe he'll stay home and quit dispensing survival advice. He's a PROGRAMMER, not a professional SURVIVALIST. there's a big difference.

-- zog (, April 29, 1999.

So tell me something, zog.

Am I better off maxing out my charge cards buying a woodstove, a generator, an underground gas tank, a HAM radio outfit, lots of guns and bullets, a solar panal array, and a shed full of non-hybrid seeds? Or am I better off without debt, and stashing my money away in case of unemployment for a year?

-- Flint (, April 29, 1999.

--Flint, all bs aside, if you want survival advice I'll give it, according to your two scenarios. The answer is no and no, neither of those will cut it. If you only have the money and skills to do one or the other, you don't have the money to do either. I would advise in a situation like that to go as low tech as possible in preparation for a possible worst case scenario. Forget about trying to maintain a flick the switch and everything lights up and works lifestyle without just HEAPS of money and time and a long leaning curve. The necessities of life are(this is my gig)-Water-Food-Shelter-Security. Water is solved by living where there is a well with a handpump,at least as a backup, or a stream that runs year round. The necessities of food are accomplished by going back and estabilishing a year round gardening scheme, both outdoors and in a greenhouse, so that if "normal" supply is cut off for any reason, you got food, plus what you've stored, which should be enough for an entire season if there is an unfortunate crop failure. Shelter is that-a home that's built on purpose to provide realistic insulation, protection from extreme storms, fire, and the errant shot in anger. That would mean masonry or stone or underground earth bermed type, with sloping sides to help defeat extreme winds, tornadoes, etc. If you heat, at least have a woodlot right there and provision for full time woodstove use, and the means and skills to harvest it. It's highly customizable for the area you live in and the type of natural disasters that may befall you. It's also helpful to own outright, even if it's much smaller than what you can afford with a long term mortgage, just because of unforseen economic factors. Less need for money, less you have to put away to pay "the bills". If you design and build correctly, or modify your lifestyle a little, you can achieve an amazing amount of self sufficiency without sacraficing too much, and your "bills" will drop dramatically, helping to eliminate having to make as much money because you HAVE to to maintain life. Security is just that-can you put out a fire at home, can you defend yourself, do you have the skills and resources to not suffer if you break down in your vehicle while out driving, etc etc etc. Huge amount of variables. I think the biggest problem folks make is this dependence on the electric supply, and city water and sewer, and the heat in the winter which is dependent on that. Most survival scenarios can be adequately prepped by a simple relocation to a small rural acreage, with the necessities of life right at hand. Money is only used to buy "things" and provide "services". If you have those "things" right on your property you are covered. If you are content to be your own boss and learn how to do a variety of things, you need much less "services". You can still work and make money, but if you lose your job you won't lose everything else. You can have a small hobby garden in town, or you can be serious and do a coupla acres and can up a few hundred cans a year, while eating fresh picked as much as possible year round, and raise a steer or something. Not a huge undertaking, but do-able. It's the ability to be a jack of at least several trades, not just one that pays the bills, but everything else you are dependent on, because the skills and resources aren't immediately available. And how sad when they have played those pitiful 911 tapes on tv, and some poor victim is assaulted right on tape there, waiting for the cops to show up and save them, when they could have skipped a few movies and pizzas or whatnot a month and learned firearm safety and self protection with that freed up time and money. I hope I answered this adequately. My folks went through the depression, and it was mostly the city folk who suffered, until the banks took the property, anyway, of the farmers. It's really a simple concept--just be as non dependent on outside infrastructure as possible as you live normally. You can have both now--no need to be an extremist, just common sense stuff. You can still enjoy the fruits of technology and worldwide availabilty of "stuff"-but if it "poofs", you can cruise still. Nothing wrong with accumulating electrons, folding pieces of green paper, lumps of metal, or a ton of expensive gadgets- but first make sure you got the basic necessities of life covered, then you can play around with that other stuff. Oh, ya--friends and family with the same goals helps a bunch, too. Kinda like we used to live- folks helped each other, and didn't send old people off to warehouses in other parts of the country, and kids didn't blow away masses of their schoolmates. I know, sounds trite, but I think there's a smidgen of truth to that concept, too. Boy Sprout motto-be prepared-a lot better than being helpless and un prepared, seems to me.....

-- zog (, April 29, 1999.


Flint doesn't want advice, he just wants to prove one more time what an arrogant asshole he is. Well done, Flint...

-- Pollyslayer (pollys@flint.asshole), April 30, 1999.

Peter de Jager has written a clear, cogent, informative article here about the subject on which he IS the Worlds FOREMOST Expert. The subject? - his opinion.


-- Got Opinions?

-- Greybear (, April 30, 1999.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ