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A Framework to Answer the Y2K Aftermath Question: How Could It Have Gone So Smooth Abroad in Core Infrastructure Facilities?
By Roleigh Martin
January 7, 2000
On the Westergaard Year 2000 Mission Page, it states "We aspire to be your trusted source for important Year 2000 news and commentary as we approach the Millennium and beyond." In my past Y2K Tip of the Week Columns, I strove to be a trusted source even if I seemed to be downplaying the Y2K Problem as we approached the rollover.
In my last 1999 column, written before Christmas, I wrote: "Initially next year, I think the optimists will claim 'victory,' -- it will take time for the pessimists to feel vindicated. The ancient Chinese proverb, 'torture by a thousand small cuts' will be the prevailing proverb for the overall Y2K impact."
In my November 29th, 1999, column, I wrote:
Let's face it, the electric industry has done a better job, industry wide, than any other utility sector in proving they are as Y2K ready as can be expected of an industrial sector which had too late of a start for my and other critics' high standards. Here are my odds on the electrical picture in January 2000. They are not as high as industry advocates publicly assert for the critical reasons I outline in earlier Westergaard columns:Obviously, in hindsight, I was heavily leaning in the right direction about the utilities, just not 100% enough, but who has 100 percent foresight? Even the optimists in government positions foresaw some problems, especially abroad.
If either your utility is among one of the 200 NERC bulk providers or your utility has an impressive Y2K plan that you've inspected, I'm guessing (and only an intelligent, somewhat skeptical guess) that odds are 90% plus that you will have electricity continuously with no more than a few contiguous hours of problems in January 2000.
When I gave a 90% thumbs-up odds, that did not mean I predicted 10% would fail. Since the behavior of the utilities was not random, it was like betting that a group of like-minded travelers heading down a maze would take the correct turn -- with 9 of the 10 possible turns being correct. Hence, because the group acted similarly, the group would either succeed 100% or not. This is because they were all likely to take one of the 9 correct turns (at one extreme being the least expensive but successful way to succeed, the other extreme being the most expensive and successful way to succeed). Thus I could truthfully assess them at a 10 percent risk of failure but a 100 percent success does not deny that 1 of the 10 turns would have been a wrong turn. It is only when studying randomly acting behavior of a large non-homogeneous group that a 90 percent risk-assessment predicts a 10 percent failure.
Well, then how come the rollover went as smooth as it did in regards to core infrastructure facilities? There are two aspects to answering this question:
- How could it have gone so smooth?
- How did it go so smooth?
The first question is easier to answer, it provides a framework for doing the painstaking investigation required to answer the second question, which must be specific for each country/infrastructure-sector investigated.
In this piece, I focus on this easier question as well as providing asides.
First of all, some references to interesting reads as background to this column.
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post staff writer, recently wrote "How Did It All Go Right? Officials, Experts Happily Seek Answers to Y2K Riddle", which is a good overview.
- Frank Bajak, of the Associated Press, recently wrote, "We're Not Home Free Yet Worst Y2K Bugs Could Surface Later" in which he not only refers to Westergaard Columnist, Lane Core, but he also quotes Dale Way (more about him below):"The Y2K bug's biggest risk was never to power grids, missile systems or telephone exchanges but rather to the complicated backroom systems on which the world's corporations and governments run.In the opinion of many recent Internet commentators on Y2K, myself included, Dale Way provided the best insight as to why the embedded systems problem was contained enough to be virtually hidden from the consumer-public over the rollover. Problems did exist and they needed to be fixed. But for reasons given by Dale Way and also in this article, the job was done. Dale Way is Chairman of the Year 2000 Technical Information Focus Group, Technical Activities Board, of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Dale Way has long been a guest contributor at my web site and his writings there are at my web site and two postings in my news archive, one dated 12/31/1999 and the other dated 1/2/2000. He also contributed a 1997 paper.
"And that's why the vast majority of Year 2000 computer problems won't turn up for days, weeks or even months, information technology experts say.
..."said Dale W. Way, bug point man at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.... the threat has now passed 'from systems with low intrinsic risk and high repairability to ones with high risk and low repairability.'
..."As programmer Lane Core likes to say in Internet columns that harangue what he considers mainstream media's simplistic coverage of the issue: "'Y2K is not a one-time event. It's a chronic condition.'"
Bajak's quote of Dale Way above sums up his key insight, the cited papers above go into much more detail. Here are a couple more of Way's:
No unremediated two-digit year system will experience ANY "Y2K problem" unless it is asked by its logic (mostly software, mostly application software) to operate on TWO or more dates in a calculation, comparison, sort, etc., where at least one date is on one side of the century boundary and at least one date is on the other side, or when the result of an operation creates a date representation on a different side of the boundary than the operands. Only in these cases would ambiguity exist; only then would the mathematics not hold.*Some by others are worth referring to. I posted some commentators' insights in recent days at my listserv web-archive. Look for entries dated sometime after January 2nd, 2000. There are a variety of them.
Many elements have very narrow ranges of vulnerability and will not be a factor in any Y2K disruption. Clocks have an infinitely small range right at rollover, therefore have only a one-time risk and are usually easily resetable. Most physical/process control systems, if they have any year sensitivity at all (because they concatenate year/date with time representations and compute on the whole as a unit) have very narrow windows (seconds, minutes, maybe hours) that will pass quickly. While theoretically exposed during that period, there are other mitigating factors that keep that vulnerability from turning into failures that can break out into the wider world. Consequently the vast majority of such physical/process control systems that underlie the production facilities of our utilities and much of our factory infrastructure are at no or little risk of direct Y2K disruption that will be visible to the wider world. THE LIGHTS WILL NOT GO OUT AT MIDNIGHT. Those elements that have wider ranges of date representation they must handle live mostly in business/accounting/administrative computing.*
One quote of a former Libertarian Presidential Candidate is worth citing, that of Harry Browne: "The Y2K problem has been exaggerated by people who don't understand computers, and by computer experts who don't understand how the free market works." Much of what Browne wrote has been heavily criticized but I believe there is some truth in that one sentence.
First of all, I had an idea things were going to be far milder this New Year's weekend than originally feared which was why I posted that the optimists would initially claim victory. I am pleasantly surprised that it was nearly a total victory for the worldwide utility industry.
I certainly am not ashamed of the work I and others did on Y2K, after all, it was our "speaking out" that partly got the government and industry to wake up and do something about the problem. Rick Cowles and Dick Mills in their Westergaard Columns certainly deserve a large round of applause for the electric utility industry efforts.
Many people have asked me, in the words of one writer: "Perhaps this is true in the US, (thanks to guys like Rick Cowles) but explain to me how every utility in countries that could not have possibly accomplished full Y2K compliance stayed up and running?"
For starters, the utility industry seemed to have shared their knowledge adequately enough and furthermore, we seem to have learned as a result of Y2K that this is an industry that is -- as Dick Mills indicated early on about the electric utilities -- full of redundancy, ruggedness, and KISS (keep it simple stupid).
As for the lesser-developed countries, they probably did not have that much embedded systems technology anyway in their utilities.
These statements are aimed at me just as much as anyone else. I don't find myself exempt from criticism. I just think that perhaps the polly argument that the utilities will not fail because:
They have themselves and their own families to provide electricity for, and"Their economic well-being is 100% at stake"may have been a somewhat true statement for the core functionality of basic utilities plus (as I said before)
The ruggedness, KISS, and redundancy of core utility systems are a lot less exposed to Y2K problems than we previously thought. Maybe some of us were guilty of transferring our more fragile I.T. (Information Technology) system vulnerabilities to all electronic-involved sectors of society.Y2K issues did not exist for the most part in the core utility industry equipment functions prior to the 70s or 80s or 90s, depending upon what system you're talking about. Before that, the equipment control "aids" were analog not digital. Different utilities upgraded different parts at different times over these decades. Third world countries with older technology never had to do anything about their utility equipment if it was that old. If they had the cheaper equipment without the "frills," they had less Y2K issues to deal with, with easier manual work-arounds, for the most part. And don't forget the quick-fix of setting dates back years (such as 1972) where "one can get away with it" or resetting dates immediately after the rollover.
Some newer equipment might have needed upgrading but it seems natural that as the advanced countries found testing problems that that knowledge would be shared with the manufacturer (it was inevitable) who would share it with his distribution network worldwide. Thus, the upgrade of a lot of utilities worldwide would reach them. Therefore, even if they did nothing on their own about Y2K, they certainly would listen to "you must upgrade this..." messages.
Since the electric industry was on extra alert, then some might have not been depending upon the computer electronics, just like if you use a pencil and paper, you can add without using a calculator. It just takes longer.
These are just some thoughts about how some who apparently did little or nothing might have operated successfully or how what they were operating with did not need updating. I had a slide in my collection I used indicating what decades of equipment built had the least-to-highest risk.
Last, we are talking about full-scale power generation failures that did not exist; the media did not cover non-mission critical equipment failure that occurred but was worked around. Nobody can say the weekend went glitch free, only consumer-noticeably glitch free. What company is going to voluntarily talk to the media about their Y2K problems? Very, very few. There is the potential loss of investor, lender, or customer confidence. There are the continued legal risks, and so forth.
Another possibility. Could there have been an intentional spin by some to exaggerate third-world utility vulnerability so that their "success" would deflate all other warnings (including the long-term warnings) of Y2K analysts? I was never concerned much about the Russian utilities as I worked with a Russian programmer who informed me about how they work. I felt the same applied to most of the third world. I knew the risk was very low to begin with. However any such spin could have just been a conspiracy of ignorance and not of deceit.
In the USA, only nuclear power plants and many health care device manufacturers (or customers) had or were willing to report to the government (at least) minor incidents. The NRC or the FDA -- the ERCI and Rx2000 -- reported problems. Seven nuclear plants had minor equipment failures. How many non-nuclear plants did likewise we will not know, they are not required to report such incidents. Same worldwide.
I agree we are not out of the woods as far as traditional, mainstream I.T. application systems are concerned. Think of the business applications that involve batch processing on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis:
Even the President's Y2K "Czar," John Koskinen, whose performance I think historians will applaud despite some criticisms received by the more pessimistic Y2K pundits prior to the rollover, said:
- The first Y2K weekly rollover will be the 2nd week of 2000 where 2000 dates could be included in past transactions along with pre-2000 dates (and they may have a full week to fix problems that might occur)
- The first Y2K monthly rollover will be the 2nd month of 2000 where 2000 dates could be included in past transactions along with pre-2000 dates (and they may have a full month to fix problems that might occur).
- The first Y2K quarterly rollover will be the 2nd quarter of 2000 where 2000 dates could be included in past transactions along with pre-2000 dates.
- The first Y2K yearly rollover be in 2001 (yes 2001, that is not a typo) where 2000 dates could be included in past transactions along with pre-2000 dates."It's far too early to declare victory...But I don't know of anyone who has spent any time on this problem at all who doubts that had the effort not been made, had the money not been spent, we would be in a very different situation here right now." Quote from: FOCUS-U.S. already defending billions spent on Y2KY2K has turned out to be so subtle, it is like water going down the Colorado river, the wear and tear it made on rock took forever to detect (i.e., the grand canyon was the result). I think only by looking at price increases and economic statistics over the year will anything be really apparent (I'm including stock prices too). I provided more information on doing this analysis in my 12/13/1999 column.
It may be so subtle that ultimately no one notices it enough to make it more than an economic blip, because part of economics is human awareness.
Hopefully, the above will help reduce the confusion many of you have about the apparent smoothness of the Y2K rollover. If you have additional thoughts about this topic, please share them with me.
I hope you gained benefit from the Y2K Tip of the Week column. In ending, please remember that preparing for Y2K was about risk management. We have not entered a risk-free period of history just because the rollover was smooth. Please recall the two part column, "Long Term Lessons We Can Learn from Year 2000." Also, the rollover only went smooth for the high technology driven utilities because they became Y2K ready.
Although Westergaard Year 2000 is closing shop, I am still engaged in Y2K news reporting and analysis via my listserv and website. I also provide an interesting "chat listserv" with the experts on Y2K. I encourage you all to participate there.
Thanks to everybody here at Westergaard, the readers included, for the interesting insights and support shared here. A very special thanks to John Westergaard for creating the most informative Y2K websight in history.
Happy New Year!
After submitting this I was informed Westergaard will continue through the month. I will submit future pieces depending upon finding something new to write about. It won't be a regular Tip of the Week column though, hence consider this my farewell Tip of the Week but not necessarily my farewell Westergaard contribution.
) Westergaard.com, Inc., 1999
-- John Whitley (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 07, 2000
-- Linkmeister (email@example.com), January 07, 2000.
When the Posse of Doom from Westergaaaard starts quoting Koskinen as their guiding light on Y2k, the Fat Lady is in her dressing room reading the reviews.
Another craven appearance by one of the lead hysteria-mongers. Join Ed, Jim, Lane, Gary, Michael, Mr. CEO, RC, Milne and the rest in the dustbin of history.
-- Bradley K. Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 07, 2000.
Heh. I used to work in the same company with Roleigh Martin, not too long ago, either. He's actually a pretty nice guy. My group used to get (still gets, over there, probably) emails from Roleigh that were, um, detailed. We would meet in someone's cube to have impromptu "Roleigh meetings" to try to figure out what he was asking. That post brings back memories. Hope he finds another cause as fun as Y2K!
-- PollyPollyPolly (email@example.com), January 07, 2000.
Was on my way to post this very same article, when I saw someone beat me to the punch(G).
So you don't find anything odd, about the smotthness of the rollover, eh?
The way I see it, you have three choices: 1) Roleigh Martin's explanation, or something similar to it. 2)The doomers are right, and there's actually massive problems a brewing, and THPTB are covering it up. 3) Y2K was a grand hoax.
If you're proposing #3 (which I assume you are, since you've laughed at #2 before, and you're laughing at #1, now), I find that highly amusing Pulling off such a grand hoax, would require a GRAND CONSPIRACY. I always thought that part of the polly party line, was to laugh at Doomer's assertions that there are GRAND CONSPIRACIES afoot. Chuckle, chuckle....don't you just love irony?
-- Bokonon (bok0non@my-Deja.com), January 07, 2000.
The Internet has been over-hyped, but it is not a hoax. Y2k has been over-hypted, but it is not a hoax. There was a Reuters story today about the busiest port in Brazil getting hit by a Y2k bug. Not a hoax. But the port kept right on operating! In the TB2000 world it would have led to cascading failures. Why? Because you swallowed the hyperbole of the Posse of Doom without question.
-- Bradley K. Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 07, 2000.
No, Bradley, we asked a LOT of question, VERY TOUGH questions at that, which noone seemed to have good answers for. So, wishing to err on the side of caution, many of us prepared on a personal level.
Now, do you get THAT???
-- King of Spain (email@example.com), January 07, 2000.