Friday, February 05, 2010

To de-bug or Not to de-bug? That was the question ...

Hello all you people over 10 years old. Remember the Millennium Bug? The Y2K Problem? Do you still recall the panic about what would happen at the stroke of Midnight on the 31st December 1999? Oh I do.

In researching my new book, I've been doing lots of reading. And I've interviewed a number of fascinating people, one of whom was Dr Adam Burgess, an expert on risk, who works at the University of Kent. We discussed all manner of subjects from the National Lottery to child abduction, drinks spiking to deep vein thrombosis. We also touched on the Millennium Bug and, since then, I've been doing some more in-depth research.

If you don't remember (or, sensibly, ignored the whole kerfuffle), the problem touted was that all of the world's computers would go gaga on January 1st 2000. You see, in the early days of computing, memory was at a premium. we think nothing of carrying around 1, 2, 4 even 8GB flash drives in our pockets. Yet in 1969, the computer that helped put man on the Moon filled a room and had a 32KB memory. When I bought my first IBM 286 PC in the mid 1980s, it had a 40MB hard drive and I wondered how I'd ever fill it up. One typed character equates to one bit or byte of memory. So 1GB of memory equates to one million characters or 1000MB. That's quite a lot of data storage. But back in the days when computers were 32KB or less, that only allowed for 32,000 characters and, in programming, that's not a lot to play with. Consequently, any saving was good. Back then, just as today, every file you create on a computer was automatically timed and dated. Therefore, the early programmers decided to format the date as YYMMDD with the year as only two digits. It saved oodles of memory ... but also created the Y2K problem.

What concerned people was how computers would interpret the date '00'. Would they see it as the year 2000? Or 1900? Or maybe even 19100? Would the computers cope with it at all? Almost immediately, the doomsayers came out of their caves waving 'The end is nigh' placards and predicting unplanned missile launches, planes falling from the skies, worldwide banking collapses, zombie hordes roaming the streets and the breakdown of civilisation as we know it.

American IT consultancy The Gartner Group stated that, ‘30% of companies worldwide will see some critical software fail because of the date problem [and that] the error could end up costing the world’s companies and governments $600 billion to fix.’ Technology Business Reports, a Californian market-research firm, went further with estimated costs of more than $2 trillion. But by factoring in lawsuits and loss of production and business, some companies suggested even higher losses; Boston’s Software Productivity Research suggested a staggering $3.6 trillion.

UK readers may remember Richard Branson and other luminaries imploring us to prepare for Y2K. Margaret Beckett was appointed as the government's Y2K Compliance Minister and said that she was leading 'the largest co-ordinated project since the Second World War.' In America, Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy hosted a 48 minute documentary called ‘Y2K – The Family Survival Guide’ that discussed, ‘the possible effects on the future of civilisation; effects that are so complex that perhaps only Chaos Theory can calculate the multiple ramifications of what could occur.’

Books were published with alarming titles like ‘The Y2K personal survival guide’ and ‘The Millennium Bug: How to survive the coming chaos’. This second book, by Michael S Hyatt (of which I have a much-prized copy - see above), is summed up in a review by Amazon’s David Wall: ‘Move to a small town with a volunteer fire department, stockpile food, secure access to a reliable source of fresh water, and buy a gun and ammunition for fending off looters. The winter of 1999-2000, Hyatt predicts, will be a hard one, and the crisis may last a long time indeed’. Insurance companies offered expensive packages to cover potential loss and lawyers geared themselves up for a tidal wave of litigation and reparation. Software engineers developed Y2K-friendly programmes and sold them by the millions. Companies invested in brand new servers and computer networks. Survivalist-related retailers reported big increases in sales of guns, dried foods and toilet paper.

How much we all spent in preparing for Y2K is hard to estimate but some figures put it at $300 billion in the USA alone. But it was worth it surely?

Well, things did happen on January 1st 2000 ... In Osaka, Japan, a telecommunications company reported that their date management system had broken down (They had it fixed by 3am). In Australia, the bus ticketing systems in two states stopped working properly. In Delaware, USA, 150 slot machines at a race track broke down. In France, the national weather forecasting system displayed the year as 19100 as did the website of the official US timekeeper, the Naval Observatory. In South Korea a district court summoned 170 people to court on the 4th of January 1900. In Italy Telecom Italia sent out bills for the first two months of 1900 and in the UK a small number of credit card transactions failed. And that, pretty much, was it. No chaos. No breakdown of society. No zombies. No problem. In fact, the only even vaguely serious issue appears to have been a failure in the radiation monitoring system at a nuclear power plant in Ishikawa, Japan. Even then, there was no leak, no danger to the public and the issue was swiftly resolved.

There has been much speculation ever since about what happened that day. On one side of the fence there are those who claim that all of the preparations that were made paid off handsomely. US Y2K trouble-shooter John Koskinen said that, ‘The remarkable lack of problems amazed even those who were confident of a successful date rollover into the new millennium. I would say I’m pleasantly surprised.’ Basil Logan, chair of the Y2K Readiness Commission in New Zealand, claimed that, ‘New Zealand's investment in planning and preparation has paid off.’ And the Gartner Group, who had predicted huge losses for non-compliant companies, agreed: ‘The reason we're in the position we're in is because we spent that money. Had we not spent this money, we would be facing worldwide calamity.’

But on the other side of the debate are those who point to countries like Italy and Korea that did virtually nothing to prepare and suffered no lasting ill effects whatsoever. The prestigious Wall Street Journal called Y2K ‘The hoax of the century’ and Gil Schwartz, writing as his columnist alter-ego Stanley Bing, commented in Fortune magazine: ‘It is clear by now that the nations, companies, and individuals that did nothing because they were too stupid to prepare for the Y2K global disaster fared exactly as well as AT&T, which reportedly spent more than $500 million on the problem. In Burkina Faso and Tasmania and Totowa, New Jersey, it was all the same. That is, it was nothing. Not even a small burp that could make us say, ‘Gee, it was a non-event, but at least we didn't have that little gas problem to contend with.’ In short, we were had. Our fear of numbers and cosmic occurrences was played masterfully by nuts of all varieties, and we fell, just as tonsured monks trembled before the end of the world that was coming at the turn of the year 1000. And now? Now, I'm afraid, I am not amused.’ In the UK, Peter Lilley MP asked: ‘How much was spent from the public purse on steps to (a) encourage UK businesses to prepare for the millennium date change and (b) prevent problems attributable to the millennium bug in the public sector.’ Cabinet office minister Tessa Jowell was non-committal in her answer: ‘The detailed information requested is not held centrally and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost.’

So was there a problem that was successfully solved? Or is it the case that there was never actually a problem in the first place and that a lot of time, money and hard work were wasted in preparing for nothing? The fact is, no one knows. And there has been a surprising lack of detailed analysis of the event, something that some conspiracy theorists claim is due a shame-faced joint cover-up between government and big business.

One wag on the BBC’s H2G2 website posted his own unique theory: ‘Perhaps the only machines affected were time machines, which would explain why nobody visited us from the future to allay our concerns.’

So what do you think? I'd be interested to hear. What I'd particularly like to know is ... what if we were told today that a similarly huge issue would affect us all in 2015? Would we invest so heavily again? Especially in the wake of so many 'non-event' potential catastrophes like heterosexual AIDS in the 1980s, Bird Flu, Salmonella in eggs, Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu ...

Your comments are invited and, as always, will undoubtedly be a joy to read.

7 comments:

Andrew Kerr said...

I wonder what the total sum, which would have been saved round the World, if everyone just looked at the facts of these various World Destroying events. Bet there be no recession now!!!

Hurry up with the book....got to think of Christmas presents soon.

Spud said...

As an IT geek in the aviation industry I can tell you that the preperation paid off for us. I personally tested systems prior to 2K and they failed.. yes there was an amazingly spun, over hyped campaign but us brits do love a crisis!

I wish there was another one - In 98/99 IT folks were the good side of salary negotiations :)

On the bad side hardly any of us could drink on new years eve!

Anonymous said...

Opulently I to but I contemplate the post should have more info then it has.

Anonymous said...

Buying memory cards is such a time consuming process... You have to search online for prices, filter through which ones are genuine, step out and walk around a bunch of shops,compare prices, finally buy your memory, and then fervently pray that the price doesn't fall in the next month or so.

I've been screwed over by some ridiculous price drops in the past... especially this one time when I bought a Micro SD for my R4 gaming flash card at what was apparently a steal, only to later see that it had dropped $5 in a week's time.

(Posted using qqPost for R4i Nintendo DS.)

Bill Stankus said...

Perhaps the wrong question was asked... "With this new variable, will things work?" Instead ask, "Is there evidence things will work if this variable happens."

Lynn said...

-- "...what if we were told today that a similarly huge issue would affect us all in 2015? Would we invest so heavily again?" --

Climate change.

The answer is yes. We will keep doing it again and again and again.

Anonymous said...

I kinda have been expecting this in a way...
But I reali dun think da world is going to end...start a new era maybe but the world is not ending.
That's not gonna happen till a thousand years later! Ok, I'm not sure bout that either but that's not the point! The world's not gonna end! Full stop!
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