Y2K - Business as usual

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Friday, April 30, 1999 CLIVE THOMPSON

By now, you would have to be living in a cave to have missed out on the Y2K doomsaying. Indeed, terror about the Millennium Bug--computer crashes caused by the year 2000--is so extreme that armed survivalist compounds are going up all over North America. Those of us stupid enough to remain in the cities will, according to some warnings, face "several hundred million computer problems." Cellphone networks will collapse, E-mail won't be delivered and chunks of the power grid will brown out.

These days, I even have family members and friends calling me up to ask about it. Hey, you write about this stuff, they say nervously. Is it really true?

Yes, indeed, I tell them. It's all true. On Jan. 1, 2000, millions of computer systems will crash all over the globe.

But the thing is, nobody will notice. Because that's what computers do already, every day.

Indeed, crashes are actually business as usual. Computers are crashing all the time--even as you read this. Hard drives are grinding inexplicably to a halt, software is getting caught in infinite logic loops, and up crops the Blue Screen of Death. We're so accustomed to it that we rarely bother to complain when we arrive at work and are told "The network is down." Sharpen your pencil and get to work! So, when the year 2000 rolls around, sure, systems will probably whack out all over the place--but how exactly is that going to be any different from everyday life?

I'm exaggerating, of course, but only very slightly. Consider the array of glitches I experienced merely in the writing of this column. One afternoon while doing research on the Net, my browser crashed 12 times. That same day, my cellphone service mysteriously failed to inform me that I had voice-mail messages waiting. Later, I discovered that an interviewee was told I was "out of the network" even when I'd spent eight hours planted at my desk. This was all in one single day. (Don't even get me started on the subject of my E-mail.)

The plain fact is that most computers and software, beneath their soothing, authoritative, point-and-click graphical interfaces, are about as stable as crack addicts. The computer industry does not collect statistics on crashes--it would probably be too humiliating--but a few recent third-party studies paint a grim picture of computer reliability. According to a survey by Harris Research, every employee who uses a personal computer loses three weeks a year to system problems. A study by Symantec Corp., which makes crash-guard software, found that 40% of computer users had programs crash "often," with 25% finding their operating systems frequently freeze. The British computer firm Black Box Catalogue found that major United Kingdom companies reported at least six "major" network crashes each year, with three hours of downtime each time. (One-quarter of the firms reported monthly serious crashes, with a half-day lost each time.)

You want more evidence? Talk to anyone who works in the business of data recovery, a truly booming sector. CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc., a Markham, Ont.-based firm, helps companies recover data after ghastly crashes. Last year, they had 3,180 customers--and that's double the number the previous year. "We get regular crashes, electrical problems, fires, floods, you name it," says president Bill Margeson. "And every year, there's a computer that's just a lemon."

Crashes are particularly rampant among desktop computers running Windows 95 or Windows NT, programs that have won worldwide scorn for this propensity. There is even an on-line community of computer geeks who write haiku about it.

Partly, crashes come from the unpredictable interaction of the operating system with the broad array of software we use every day. But crashes also occur because, to be frank, most software companies produce amazingly shoddy products. They treat their users with barely concealed contempt. "It's just, 'Get it out fast, get it onto the shelf,' so they can sell it. It's horrible," says Daniel Kohanski, computer engineer and author of The Philosophical Programmer, a book on the nature and meaning of programming. "Productivity is measured in how many lines of code you write in a day--not how well it functions."

Computers are only the tip of the iceberg. For a truly shaky technology, look at the Internet. According to Keynote Systems, an Internet-monitoring service, the percentage of Web sites that are inaccessible due to Internet problems at any given time is as high as 10%. (And Keynote regards this ratio as "pretty good!") That's only the average; on any given day, a single server can be performing with 100% perfection at one instant, only to fall into a complete flaming collapse minutes later. When I checked in with the Internet Traffic Report Web site, which monitors this stuff daily, I discovered, ironically enough, that a Microsoft server had crashed so badly that the traffic-report site wasn't even on the grid any more.

You're worried about the Y2K problem messing with the power grid? As if we don't already have power outages. Last year, Toronto had more than 3,000 outages. In Calgary last winter, blackouts became so persistent that the Chamber of Commerce began holding special meetings on the topic.

How about the stock markets? Their technology might crash, mightn't it? Entirely without the assistance of the Y2K bug, the TSE did, in March, 1998, and also did so twice for several hours during March, 1997. The NYSE crashed last October, when it went down for an hour. (After which, computer stocks immediately soared. Go figure.)

My point is merely this: People who worry about Y2K have a rather naive overconfidence in the performance of our software and hardware. It's all rather irrational. We deal routinely with computer crashes all day long, yet we somehow still believe these devices to be reliable. Possibly, we are still too enamoured with the magic of computers, and are unable to call a spade a spade. Or possibly, we actually believe the industry's own hype.

So in the end, Y2K might have an unintentionally positive effect on how we see computers and software. Because even if everything crashes, it may merely seem like business as usual. And that might be the most significant lesson of all.

-- Norm (nwo@hotmail.com), May 01, 1999


No need to worry about that estimated $1 trillion in lawsuits. None at all.

-- Tongue planted (firmly@in.cheek), May 01, 1999.

Sidebar commentaries again ... unhelpful.


-- tim daniels (timdaniels@commonsense.com), May 01, 1999.

Great writing and quite true!

The question then becomes can our support infrastructure handle the additional crashes. I personally believe we can, at least in this country. An area of more concern is how people (e.g. financial markets) will respond to international problems in countries that simply don't have the resources to correct their software problems. Of course this also assumes that the embedded problem has been equally over-hyped.

Even if the WORST CASE SCENARIOS are true and assuming Y2K will not affect the growing of crops, I cannot understand how, with the OVERCAPACITY of food grown in this country we might go hungry. This appears to assume the farmers/distributors will sit on or be stuck their crops due to payment/delivery issues. (Someone please help me out here.) Does this not also assume that the government stands idly by with all these resources stuck in the pipeline?

-- Developer (j@j.com), May 01, 1999.

". . .most computers and software, beneath their soothing, authoritative, point-and-click graphical interfaces, are about as stable as crack addicts..."

LOL! VERY funny!


-- FM (vidprof@aol.com), May 01, 1999.

Another writer that doesn't get it. Sure, Windoze hangs all the time. You reboot the machine, and pick up where you left off. Your programs still work. This will not be the case in 2000 for programs that have a date problem. The programs will not work correctly.

And what does recovering data from a crashed hard drive have to do with Y2K? And a whole 3,180 customers. Wow, that's the number of students at a good size campus.

Also, not one word about the mainframe. Did I miss the embedded systems part? Yup, another load of crap from happy face Norm. <:)=

-- Sysman (y2kboard@yahoo.com), May 01, 1999.

Developer said:

"Even if the WORST CASE SCENARIOS are true and assuming Y2K will not affect the growing of crops, I cannot understand how, with the OVERCAPACITY of food grown in this country we might go hungry"

Do a web search on Great Depression. That's how.

And that doesn't even begin to address how the "emerging market's" 1,000,000,000 people that depend on excess food for survival will fare.

And BTW Norm, thanks for dissauding more people into not preparing. If y2k is bad, and your identity is learned, you will be in deep shit.

-- a (a@a.a), May 01, 1999.


Have you ever tried using your own brain?

-- Will (sibola@hotmail.com), May 01, 1999.


The supply chain for food is not as simple as you might expect. First, if we start at harvest, at the field side, there must be a truck to transport to the first bin or warehouse. that truck requires that there be enough fuel in it to get where it needs to go and a driver be inside driving. After the food is dropped at the first bin or warehouse, there may be up to 5 or 6 more steps before the food gets to a processor, so that the wheat you never see, gets turned into flour, which goes to another bin, and then to another processor, who turns it into bread, which is then transported to the store. this chain is incredibly fragile.


-- chuck, a Night Driver (rienzoo@en.com), May 01, 1999.

Chuck, I'm not picking on you (regardless of what type of driver you are, I still like you[g]), but let's look at this line-by-line.

we start at harvest, at the field side, there must be a truck to transport to the first bin or warehouse.

That truck is usually owned by the farmer or cooperative. Most of them in NC (where I'm originally from) are old Ford Smoke-Alots that have never heard of a computer. :)

Nor do the pickup and delivery schedules require a computer; one of the largest shipping brokers in NC operates in St. Pauls, NC, and last time I checked, they were using legal pads and telephones, not computers.

that truck requires that there be enough fuel in it to get where it needs to go and a driver be inside driving.

Correct. But there's no reason to worry about fuel supplies; see the FAQ at the Petroleum Institute's Web site. (I'm puzzled why you think the driver would be non-compliant, so we'll skip that.)

After the food is dropped ... [snip] ... this chain is incredibly fragile.

No, it's not. I honestly don't know how that ever got started. It's as rugged as grandma's leather belt.

You want an example? When Hurricane Fran ripped through NC in 1996, the capitol area (a major agricultural center) was badly hammered. Most stores never even noticed. When the midwest flooded a few years ago, the whole chain for wheat and other cereal grains was hammered even worse, and aside from slightly higher prices in the stores, there was little effect on the supply.

See Paul Davis' discussion of food supplies at my Web site; this nation is crammed with food.

As long as you can guarantee power and oil -- and I'd remind you that the latest NERC report and issues from the Petroleum Institute give only the most pessimistic reason to worry there -- the rest of it sort of falls into place.

In fact, the scenario for "Y2K=no food" is what's fragile. It never has made sense to me. Any disruptions would (at worst) result in temporary shortages of certain items, not of the entire supply.

(In plain English: you might have to do without Kenyan AA or Brie cheese for a few weeks, but you wouldn't starve.)

-- Stephen M. Poole, CET (
smpoole7@bellsouth.net), May 01, 1999.

This is a Westergaard 2000 article on the food supply from February:



Y2K and Our Food Supply: Moovin' From Farm to Fork

By Charlie Register February 18, 1999 Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles examining in depth the testimony regarding the U.S. food supply before the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Computer Technology Problem. Two hearings were scheduled. One was held Feb. 5 and the other, slated for Feb. 11, was postponed.

When Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) heard testimony that the level of Y2K readiness of the U.S. trucking industry was 2 on a scale of 6, he jumped right in point out his concern. Responding to the survey results presented at the Senate Committee studying Y2K impacts on agribusiness, Stevens said, "Our state imports 95% of it's agricultural products, so transportation is a big deal with us."

The effect of the Year 2000 computer problem on domestic transportation and international shipping was a concern that continually surfaced during testimony before Sen. Robert Bennett's Y2K committee. Time and again, industry representatives along with Sen. Richard Luger (R- Indiana) of the Senate Agriculture Committee said that although they had a high level of confidence that food producers would be ready for the date change ten months from now, it mattered little if farmers were unable to use trucking, rail and shipping to move their produce to the necessary processing vendors.

Sen. Lugar, reporting on results from the December survey of food produce transportation concerns that was completed by the USDA's Marketing Service, said that many U.S. motor carriers were still in the Y2K awareness stage. In response, Sen. Stevens, a plain talker, said, "I have a level of confidence that the farm products will be there, but if rail and shipping don't work, we (in Alaska) may be forced to steal back the reindeer's food."

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), himself a food producer from eastern Oregon, repeated his concerns about the conventionally understood "just-in-time" inventory problem. "It's my understanding," Smith said, "that many cities still only have a 72-hour supply of food within their borders."

Speaking on behalf of Suiza foods, a large dairy company, CIO Allen Dickason said his concern centered around refrigeration during transportation. "Our products need to reach their destination within 72 hours in refrigerated state" in order to prevent spoilage, Dickason said. Later, Sen. Stevens suggested to Sen. Lugar that his Agriculture committee schedule a joint hearing with Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) transportation committee to set out a strategy for transporting food through the date change.

Interestingly, it is not unusual for a head of lettuce to wind up in a salad on a kitchen table in New York City in the dead of winter. December through January represents the beginning of the vegetable harvesting season in Sen. McCain's state, according to the Arizona Farm Bureau, and that produce, shipped primarily by motor carrier in timely fashion, is becoming Arizona's biggest cash crop.

Much of the information on the Y2K readiness of the transportation industry came from the "Y2K Assessment of Transport Sectors Affecting U.S. Food Supply," which was complied by James Caron, a specialist in transportation and marketing for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Although he did not speak at the hearing, some of his observations compiled in the survey heavily influenced the testimony of Sen. Lugar and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

While reporting that larger transportation firms had the resources to fend off Y2K, it was the "smaller companies like independent truck owners, freight forwarders, and short line railroads, that are less aware of the Y2K Problem." This presents a challenge as he later states that "larger companies cannot operate without these smaller companies," echoing once again the government's concern over the efforts of small businesses in dealing with the Year 2000 computer problem.

The survey stresses the impact different modes have on transporting food products. For example, the movement of containerized and non- grain products is dependent more on truck lines than railroads. Products like fruits, vegetables, meats and processed products are moved by independent truckers and private fleets operated by supermarket chains. It is the independent nature of the trucking industry that makes it less vulnerable to Y2K related problems, the report suggests.

While the rail system does not carry the bulk of perishable goods, it is responsible for transporting a significant share of domestic and export grain and the predominant share of the nation's wheat to market. According to the report, locomotives, railway crossing equipment and train control systems present few Y2K problems, but railcar locating systems and business communications could be challenged by the bug.

Container ships, used to ship produce overseas, are at a high state of Y2K readiness, according to the report. Container ships employ a sophisticated array of computer systems that assist in navigation, propulsion, and stabilization of ship's function. One estimate, according to the survey, puts 1,000 automated or semiautomatic functions on the ship. However, the reports give shipping a 5 on a scale of 6 for readiness, indicating that the brunt of the fleets is in the post-remediation testing stage. One "loose" estimate has 80% of vessels ready for service by 1/1/2000.

Domestic delivery of grains remains a challenge, the survey reports. Many independent motor carriers are not even through the Y2K awareness stage. Consequently they received a "1" on the readiness scale. And though the reports says that grain delivery by truck should not be impacted because they don't rely on sophisticated computer systems, they are dependent on fuel availability.

The AMS transportation report highlighted some areas of concern within trucking and railways but maybe the least comforting message was in Mr. Caron's summation. "At present, this report is probably most useful as a way to suggest an approach to looking at Y2K food distribution concerns rather than an assessment of Y2K readiness by food distribution participants." The report added that "the Department of Transportation is currently undertaking a Y2K survey of the major transportation modes, but its analysis will not be completed for several months." So despite some hopeful signs, reliable food delivery still faces challenges.


-- Kevin (mixesmusic@worldnet.att.net), May 01, 1999.


The disconnect on all of this stuff is the automatic assumption that Y2K=disruptions. This has to be examined on a case-by-case (or industry-by-industry) basis.

The trucking industry may not be "aware" of Y2K because it doesn't rely on computers to anything resembling the extent assumed by Doomlets. (Note: before you start telling me about the fancy satellite linkups in many a driver's cab nowdays, remember: the operative word is RELY -- as in, "I can't get the job done if you take it away.")

A guy who works for one of the largest shippers in the United States laughed at me when I asked if a Y2K bug would stop his trucks from running. "Huh?" And see what I said above about that shipping brokerage. They handle loads totalling millions of pounds a week ... all with paper, pencil and telephones.

You need to get out of 1998 and take a look around NOW. The Y2K problem is being fixed.

-- Stephen M. Poole, CET (smpoole7@bellsouth.net), May 01, 1999.

a (a@a.a),

You said, "...And BTW Norm, thanks for dissauding more people into not preparing. If y2k is bad, and your identity is learned, you will be in deep shit." Sir/Madam, this sounds too close to a threat for comfort. This is an open forum for discussion, not limited to those who are preparing for the worst. I do not agree with the manner in which Norm expresses his opinion (his posts are usually someone ELSE'S polly opinion, and HIS perspective is implied, but this is an assumption). I often see the freely available "news" (propaganda?) bits Norm posts from their source long before Norm posts them here, so I don't consider them anything other than an invitation to comment on public-domain releases; an opportunity to refute, discuss, or accept. Just looking at THIS posting, he has sparked some lively debate. I for one would like to see all sides of the issues, and I will make up my own mind as to how much I need to prepare for my family, thank you! The Internet and forums like this one are the best expressions of the right to free speech I can think of, and I don't think personal attacks serve that purpose. I am not defending Norm's (apparent?) point of view, just his right to express it.


-- spindoctor (spindoc_99_2000@yahoo.com), May 01, 1999.

I can't believe I just defended Norm. Actually, I guess I was just defending the right to post any and all opinions. Some one pressed my Free Speech button, dang it!


-- spindoctor (spindoc_99_2000@yahoo.com), May 01, 1999.

This is another of those positive reports that Sysman comments on, but never sees somehow. I guess there are stupid opinion reports, self-reported hype reports, happy-face spin reports, empty promise reports, but no positive reports.

-- Flint (flintc@mindspring.com), May 01, 1999.


What the hell are you talking about? A positive report? What does this article say? Computers fail all the time. Jeez man, you're starting to sound like Stephen Poole! This article misses the whole point of Y2K. Computers have never failed on thts scale, or with such random, unknown results, even if they do not "fail". I'm starting to wonder about you, Flint. <:)=

-- Sysman (y2kboard@yahoo.com), May 01, 1999.

And Flint,

I'll say the same thing to you that I just said to your buddy Stephen. I asked a few days ago to SHOW ME. All I got was more opinions. Why not start POSTING THIS GREAT NEWS HERE, for all to see. Don't bother posting someone else's bullshit opinion, like this article. SHOW me facts. SHOW me all the compliant banks. SHOW me all the compliant utilities. Don't bother with the "WE'LL BE READY" crap. SHOW ME! <:)=

-- Sysman (y2kboard@yahoo.com), May 01, 1999.


Are you being deliberately disingenuous, or do you have a reading comprehension problem?

I myself have posted plenty of links here in the past two weeks, all of which point to encouraging info about Y2K. Plenty of others have been posted by others, too.

I don't cut and paste ala Kevin and Co soley because there's no need to. The information is there by simply clicking on the little link thingy with your mouse. :)

-- Stephen M. Poole, CEt (smpoole7@bellsouth.net), May 02, 1999.

You need to get out of 1998 and take a look around NOW. The Y2K problem is being fixed.


I don't think I'm the one stuck in 1998. Most businesses said they would finish their remediation in December 1998 to allow a year for testing. To say that Y2K is being fixed is both good news and bad news. It's now May of 1999. Y2K is supposed to have already been fixed.

What we don't know is whether enough will be fixed in time.

Also, whether it was cut and pasted or not, I think the findings of the Senate Y2K committee on the food supply are at least as valuable as Paul Davis' opinion on the subject.

-- Kevin (mixesmusic@wprldnet.att.net), May 03, 1999.

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