Did Resume Man play the "riot and fear mongering card in Y2k

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http://www.koyote.com/users/stheller/y2kletr.htm -- Responses to Y2K Letters to the Editor from Steve Heller

Apparently I struck a nerve with a letter I wrote to Upside magazine about a moronic Y2K article they published a few months ago, because I got a response from the author. First, here is my letter as sent to the magazine: "Who's Afraid of the Y2K?": A very ill-considered article on the Y2K problem

This article is so full of errors and misleading statements that it's hard to decide where to start debunking it, so I guess I'll just begin by pointing out that it is a myth that any major commentator on Y2K claims that "cars will stop dead in their tracks" or that "airplanes will fall out of the sky".

Second, the statement that "the likelihood of any major social upheaval resulting from power outages or financial system failures (if any indeed occur) appears exceedingly small" is, to be charitable, naive in the extreme. Consider, for example, the results of the 1977 blackout in New York City, as cited in http://blackout.stg.brown.edu/archive/looting_predictors/looting_predictors_228.html :

"Minutes after the Blackout began, men in trucks equipped with chains and hooks were being paid by crowds to rip off the iron gates and fences that protected neighborhood stores. Within fifteen minutes, stolen goods were being offered to neighborhood residents who were on the streets or stranded in apartment buildings without elevator service."

As to the likelihood of such failures, the Alliant Energy power company page on buying a backup generator (http://www.alliant-energy.com/alliant/y2k/brochure/outages.htm) indicates that Alliant doesn't think it's out of the question. Are power companies known for being doomsayers about electricity?

Third, the notion that "Our society is ripe to be scared spitless about this Y2K thing" is completely contrary to my experience and that of others who are trying to warn friends and relatives about this problem: most people aren't interested, don't believe it's possible, or just shrug it off with "Bill Gates will fix it." In fact, you're likely to be considered crazy for even suggesting taking steps to prepare for such a disaster.

Finally, I object to the implication that only those programmers with something to sell are predicting social upheaval. I have almost 30 years of programming experience, and I have no Y2K-related products or services to offer. Nevertheless, my prediction is that we are facing the end of Western Civilization. How does Mr. James explain that?


Here is his message, along with my response. Please note that he does not answer ANY of my major points, but quibbles over whether one commentator has mentioned car or airplane failures, and over the meaning of "the end of Western Civilization". Unfortunately, this is par for the course.

On Wed, 3 Mar 1999 01:23:19 EST, Geoffrey James wrote:

>There aren't going to be any power outages because power systems - contrary to >popular belief - don't crash when they detect a bad date record. In fact, I >doubt if there are any computer operating systems coded since 1955 which crash >when they get a divide-by-zero, which about the most serious system error that >could happen as the result of a bad date check.

No, but power systems very well might shut down if their transmission line control software gives them incorrect information which causes them to try to feed a very large (or very small) demand. Vibration monitoring equipment can also cause a shutdown: see http://www.y2ktimebomb.com/PP/RC/rc9819.htm for details and a link to the manufacturer's site.

>The truth is that while >certain kinds of record processing may fail and that bad records might corrupt >a database and consequently damage a company's operations, the likelihood of a >system crash is negligible, especially in the case of power systems, which are >wholly redundant and can be run by hand.

No, they can be shut down by hand. They cannot be run by hand, at least not for any length of time.

>In fact, no power system has failed when tested for Y2K.  How do I know this? >Simple.  When Peter de Jager wrote his Y2K article for Scientific American, >the editor (Alden Hayashi) insisted upon fact checks - something that's been >woefully lacking in much of the claptrap that's been published on the subject. >De Jager - a big Y2K disaster proponent - was unable to cite a single example >of a failed power system as the result of a Y2K test. The best de Jager could >come up with was a six week power failure in New Zealand which resulted from a >broken cable - not from a software error. Pretty weak.

The report of a nuclear power plant losing its monitoring system for 7 hours (http://www.nrc.gov/NRC/NEWS/WIR/week3.html#_1_10) is close enough for me. But of course, that's just the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a well-known purveyor of claptrap.

>The oddest remark in your letter, however, is your prediction that Y2K means >the end of western civilization.  I'm not sure where you consider western >civilization to have begun, but let's assume it began during the industrial >revolution.  Since that time, we've seen two world wars, innumerable civil >wars in various countries, the cold war, two pandemics, several major >financial depressions, as well as numerous earthquakes and natural disasters. >Last time I noticed, western civilization seemed to be moving along quite >nicely, despite some rather serious challenges.

I was actually thinking of something resembling our current living conditions; say, the last half of the twentieth century.

>Even if by some insane chance, the Y2K bug completely destroyed every computer >in the entire world - an event that not even the most rabid Y2K monger is >predicting - and even if aliens suddenly erased from everybody's mind >everything that's now known about computer hardware and software -- we would >find ourselves at a technological level roughly equivalent to the mid-1950s. >Within 10 years, we'd be ready to return to the moon or construct the fastest >jet planes (the SR-71) and implement an IBM 360 from scratch - all three of >were which technological accomplishments of the 1960s.

No, we wouldn't, because the systems that were in place to produce those devices AREN'T THERE ANYMORE, having been replaced by highly computerized non-Y2K compliant systems. Also, the people who used to run them ALSO AREN'T THERE ANYMORE. In case you hadn't noticed, it's been about 45 years since the mid-1950's, and those people are all retired or dead.

>But I wouldn't worry about it, because (and remember that I told you this), >Y2K is only going to be a minor annoyance, at most.  By the way, your >statement that no major Y2K commentator has claimed that cars will stop dead >or airplanes fall out of the sky was perhaps a bit overbold. That such a thing >"might happen" was told to me by none other than Peter Neumann, author of >Computer Related Risks, co-inventor of the hierarchical file system, and >frequent testator at government Y2K hearings.

Okay, then, one "major" commentator has said it. However, I've never heard it, so I guess he isn't that major.

>He, like yourself, is on the >list of people I intend to e-mail on the morning of January 1, 2000.

I'd wait until at least the end of January before declaring yourself the victor. Even if enough power plants stay up to keep the grid alive, they still have to get fuel somehow, and they may have a couple of weeks of stockpiles on hand. Let's see how the railroads do in resupplying them before deciding that nothing terrible is going to happen.


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