Y2K and Today

The Y2K Bug!  Not something most people think about today.  A lot of you young folk may have no idea what it was about.  I bet even some of you older people don’t really know…

Back in the early days of computing, we used two digits for the date.  This was at first done because of hardware and software limitations, but later it was just the default.  What this meant, is that a computer in 1965 would show the year as 65.  That same computer in 1987 would show 87.

In the late ‘80s some people began to ask the world what was going to happen when the computer that controlled the damn or power plant showed 00 for 2000. Most ignored it for a few years, but then around 1997 people suddenly woke up to the fact that they only had three years to fix any problems.

Testing was done and it was found that most systems would have odd random glitches.  A few wouldn’t work right at all or even just shut down.  All had to be considered unreliable, even new systems that weren’t configured properly.

“All” was pretty much all computers that ran governments, infrastructure and large industry, that is, anyone who computerized early. Even if the equipment was modernized, it was all based on ancient code. Often the equipment wasn’t modernized…

We are talking all of the national defense computers in the US, form securing the general’s desktop computer to systems that launched nuclear missiles.  We are talking most power-plants, nuclear and conventional.  The systems that controlled the stoplights in your town.  Your drinking water.  The airplanes you flew in. Banks and other financial institutions were based on old equipment and code, worse than most because they had to be very conservative about changes. The telephone system and pretty much all other communications were based on 1960s technology and would go off line, or at least be unreliable to the point of becoming unusable. Power grids, factories, subways, elevators, etc.

Everything means everything that modern life is based on.

All IT workers were told Y2K was their top priority.  Hundreds of thousands of people were hired to fix the issue.  Programmers who had retired in the 1970s and ‘80s were called back since they were the only ones who understood the old code.  Tens of billions of dollars was spent on upgrading systems, perhaps hundreds of billions (this was a huge boom time for computers, so it is hard to tell what was spent on Y2K and what was just improving infrastructure).

It was perhaps the largest, most expensive world-wide coordinated effort in human history.

In the end a few systems (thousands in US and Europe) had minor glitches.  Things continued to pop up for a few years, but nothing catastrophic.  Overall, though, life went on as normal and 99% of people had no idea any of those glitches occurred.

The world let out a sigh of relief.

By January 3, 2000, throngs of people were screaming that we had made this huge hullabaloo over nothing.  Tens of billions of dollars were wasted for nothing.

By the end of the year, it was the butt of jokes.  If you tried to bring up an intelligent conversation about it, you received either laughter or anger, sometime deep, deep anger.

The thing is, the reason there was no great catastrophe was just because of the time and money spent.  People ran simulations and it is possible there would have been a huge crash.  It would have cost hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, to fix after the fact and there is a possibility that thousands, perhaps millions would have died.  In fact, the likelihood of an all-out nuclear war cannot be discounted.  The economy would have tanked in a way never before seen or even imagined – even then, the vast majority of money was really just numbers in a computer.  Imagine if 90% of the world’s wealth disappeared over night…  While 20 nuclear power plants were having Chernobyl type melt downs.  While the infrastructure of the planet went down – no water, electricity, or anything.

But it didn’t happen because of that huge effort.

Back in late March, I was talking to my brother and sister-in-law on the phone.  We all agreed that one big concern was that in a couple of months people would say that the Covid-19 response was a big scare over nothing.  Why, just look at how few people have died!  They would say the lockdown, the shutting down of economies, the disruption, was not justified by the numbers.  They would be screaming to get back to normal.

These people would not understand that the reason the numbers were so low had to do with the lockdown, with the shutdown and with putting things on hold.

Modeling had showed millions of deaths in the US alone if nothing was done.  But something was done and we flattened the curve.  For now.

But they will think it is “fake news”.

I mentioned Y2K on that phone call.  My sister-in-law, a very smart, highly educated techie, said, “Oh, I thought that was just a lot of hot wind over nothing.  We spent huge amounts of time and money preparing for the end of the world and nothing happened.”

Exactly!  Nothing happened because of that time and money spent.

Oh.

I don’t remember the lessons of 1918 as I wasn’t’ around back ten, but I do remember y2K well.  Perhaps we should all remember it…

**

Below is a later edit:

(An ounce of prevention to avoid that pound of cure – I did put down the worse case, which may not have ever happened, but the good thing is that we will never know… Be thankful for that ;) )

24 thoughts on “Y2K and Today

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  3. Deborah

    This is an excellent analogy! Since I work with software contracts, I’ll occasionally still find Y2K guarantees in older ones. I’d always snicker at them, failing to appreciate (until I read Taleb a few years back) exactly what you’ve written here.

    A couple years ago, I read about the 5 Million Lives campaign. In a world so often in pursuit of the flashiest, biggest news, I was so impressed–and touched–that I wrote a tidbit of a quote and posted it on my fridge: “Our contribution will be what did not happen to them.”

    Here’s the full quote, which continues to inspire me: “The names of the patients whose lives we save can never be known. Our contribution will be what did not happen to them. And, though they are unknown, we will know that mothers and fathers are at graduations and weddings they would have missed, and that grandchildren will know grandparents they might never have known, and holidays will be taken, and work completed, and books read, and symphonies heard, and gardens tended that, without our work, would never have been.”

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks. I like the quote. Although written for a different campaign, it can very easily be read for preventative measure taken today. In ways, deaths prevented is a very abstract concept. It is invisible to us. It is so easy to discount “what didn’t happen”. And yet, as in that quote, those lives are real.

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  4. Chelsea Owens

    It’s already happening, Trent. I thought such faulty observations might be because I live in a small state with younger people, but a blogger I follow who lives in NYC said people are tired of the quarantining there and taking similar risks in going out more.

    I guess it’s just human nature?

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It is human nature. In some ways I can understand not understanding how much preventative measures really helped, but I would think you would want to be on the safe side of it… In ways it blows me away that people in NYC, of all places, want to get out and mingle – conditions are still awful there. On the other hand, I’ve been able to get out and run and hike and kayak and such, so I have no idea what they are going through with their lock-down.

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  5. andy townend

    Excellent post, I remember it well and you make a powerful point by reminding people that it was non-event only because of the massive commitment and preparation to making it so. A valuable lesson for us all. History books tend to reflect on the dramatic rather than the safe…

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks. It is very hard to know exactly how much the preparations prevented, but too many people seem oblivious to it. I was on the front line of the Y2K bug, so I know a bit about that case, and I’m sure anyone at a hospital in NYC knows exactly what the world missed by going on the lock-down. It must be very hard for them to hear people say “it isn’t that bad,..”

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  6. Robin

    I remember Y2K and think this is an excellent comparison. It amazes me how hard it is for some people to realize that if nothing happened, it’s because a lot of time, effort, and money went into making sure it didn’t. The same with Covid-19. If it looks like an overreaction, then it means things worked as they should (people stayed home, etc.). Ah well. Maybe someday the pendulum will swing back and some smart(er) people will be in charge. :)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It does always surprise me when people don’t give the preventative measures its due, not matter what the subject. the big difference here, of course, is that by denying that ounce of prevention, they may undo all of the good that social distancing, lock-down, etc. has done. I agree, I am hoping for someone a bit smarter and a lot more honest and far, far less self-centered to be in charge…

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  7. cordeliasmom2012

    I remember Y2K well. We stocked up on supplies and even went out and bought a generator (cause, you know, when the electric grid went down as a result of the computer failure, we’d be out of power). As you point out, nothing much happened on January 1. However, we should all keep in mind that Y2K only, really, dealt with the potential, temporary failure of machines. COVID-19 is causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people, and that death is permanent. Y2Kd was a one-time threat, due to occur on one day; COVID-19 is ongoing and in danger of recurring if we aren’t very careful in how we deal with it.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It was an imperfect analogy, but that some people underestimate the danger because the preventive measures are helping keep us safe is true for both, though in today’s case, as you point out, people are still dying. You are right, it is an ongoing danger, which is one reason why I find people discounting it so scary. It is also why I find people who question our lock-down an “over-reaction” so short sighted. We do need to be very careful when, and how, we open up society – I think it is far too early, and would be even if we had the testing in place. There are still too many unknowns about this virus to throw caution to the wind.

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  8. fakeflamenco

    Great message, Trent! I agree very strongly with what you are saying. I was making the same comparison in my head yesterday. But, without the knowledge you have about the mitigation efforts that smoothed out Y2K. I remember the build up to Y2K armageddon and the sense at New years that it was no big deal (wrongly of course). Last night I was thinking, I hope people don’t dismiss this quarantine as the next Y2K… Turns out the analogy was even better than I thought! I only know two people in Madison who had severe Covid-19 symptoms. That is such a blessing. We did flatten the curve, as you said, and escaped the apocalypse.. Thanks for your thoughtful post. -Rebecca

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks, Rebecca. Of course I gave a worse case scenario, but luckily we will never know how bad it could have been. I have been thinking of this post for a couple of weeks, but just now finally had time to sit down and write it. I know few people who have been sick, but almost everyone I know has a friend or family member who became very sick. Even so, we still need to be careful – as my brother (same brother as in the post) said, at one time we had 1 case in the US and it spread to a million other people, so as long as there is still one case and no cure or vaccine, it ain’t over…

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  9. dprastka

    Amazing post!! And incredibly dead on as humans go it’s rolling along just as you say. I remember Y2K very well and thought what’s going to happen to my computer’s at work? Not knowing it could have been catastrophic, well it was mentioned but like you said it all went without a hitch in my world and many others back then. I remember being so relieved!!
    We lose sight of that and we should remember what we can’t see, what we don’t know what may happen if we don’t try and do the right thing! Amazing how things can get so distorted!! Not sure if that’s a correct way of explaining but that’s how it seems to be to me. Thanks for this post!! I’d like to share it on my FB page if that’s okay with you! 😍😀👍

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks! Of course, I gave a worst case scenario, which might not have happened, but then, it could have. Luckily, we worked hard and so will never know :)

      We do have a short memory, and always forget how that ounce of prevention avoided us having to take that pound of cure. Like Y2K, when we do that preventive, we can’t know what actually was prevented, but we do need to remeber life is better becuase of it :)

      Sure, go ahead and put it up on your FB. Thanks for asking (As long as it is link to my page or attributed to me, I don’t mind people sharing)

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  10. Norm 2.0

    For such a smart species we really have incredibly short memories. And your point about people minimizing a threat and trivializing mitigation efforts, always after the fact of course, is so true.
    The average person goes through their daily lives never thinking about the hundreds of things that have to go right every single day in order to keep society whole, healthy, safe, and moving forward. Whether it’s for hurricane evacuations, vaccines, or any number of potential catastrophes, the fact that a disaster didn’t happen because of actions and efforts taken to prevent it, is rarely seen or celebrated as the success story.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      We do have very short memories, and have have a tendency to trivialize preventative measures – if nothing bad happened, then it was just over-hyped. You are right that people don’t appreciate all of what goes on behind the scenes to let avert disaster. I wish history gave more weight to when everything pulled together just right and we somehow missed the “big one”.

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  11. Frank Hubeny

    I remember Y2K as well and you make a good point about all the effort needed behind the scenes to prevent a huge problem. Thankfully the worst that happened, to us at any rate, was getting cold watching the fireworks while welcoming in the new millennium.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I think there was a small glitch in some software I wrote, but it was quickly fixed and didn’t cause any issues. I don’t remember what it was, but they didn’t call me into work, they just waited for me to return, so it couldn’t have been that bad ;)

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