Friday, 18 December 2009

Climate change doom is strangely familiar

As the world's leaders all agree that they must all agree, it might not be a bad thing to wait a few more months for another summit.

Cast your minds back to a decade ago when the big threat to mankind was a global virus.
The millennium bug that was going to cripple our economies and lose all our money,crash our planes or end all texts forever was coming. The hysteria was reaching climate change proportions and the anticipated costs were even higher.

Wikipedia has the just the USA's costs for preparing for the bug at an estimated THREE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS. If that were true, that would be double the global cost of the current climate change deal estimated at $150bn.
Some articles claim the worldwide cost was more Dr Evil in proportions. ONE TRILLION DOLLARS. About the same cost as the Vietnam war. Some even go up to two trillion dollars.

There is no conclusive evidence that there was any threat from the bug, or anything that was done to prevent it or any money spent , did anything at all. The whole thing may have been a giant hoax.

Supporters of all the money spent say hey it worked. We fixed everything so the world didn't end.

Supporting view

This view holds that the vast majority of problems had been fixed correctly, and the money was well spent. The situation was essentially one of pre-emptive alarm. Those who hold this view claim that the lack of problems at the date change reflect the completeness of the project, and that many computer applications would not have continued to function into the 21st century without correction or remediation.

Opposing view

Others have claimed that there were no, or very few, critical problems to begin with, and that correcting the few minor mistakes as they occurred (the 'fix on failure' approach) would have been the most efficient and cost effective way to solve the problem. Editorial writing in the Wall Street Journal called Y2K an end-of-the-world cult and the hoax of the century. The opposing view was bolstered by a number of observations.

  • The lack of Y2K-related problems in schools, many of which undertook little or no remediation effort. By September 1, 1999 only 28 percent of US schools had achieved compliance for mission critical systems, and a government report predicted that "Y2K failures could very well plague the computers used by schools to manage payrolls, student records, online curricula, and building safety systems"
  • The lack of Y2K-related problems in an estimated 1.5 million small businesses that undertook no remediation effort. On 3 January 2000 (the first weekday of the year) the Small Business Administration received an estimated 40 calls from businesses with computer problems, similar to the average. None of the problems were critical.
  • The lack of Y2K-related problems in countries such as Italy, which undertook a far more limited remediation effort than the United States. In an October 22, 1999, report, a US Senate Committee expressed concern about safe travel outside of the United States. The report stated that overseas public transit systems were considered vulnerable because many did not have an aggressive response plan in place for any problems. Internationally, the report singled out Italy, China and Russia as poorly prepared. The Australian government evacuated all but three embassy staff from Russia. None of these countries experienced any Y2K problems regarded as worth reporting.
  • The absence of Y2K-related problems occurring before January 1, 2000, even though the 2000 financial year commenced in 1999 in many jurisdictions, and a wide range of forward-looking calculations involved dates in 2000 and later years. Estimates undertaken in the leadup to 2000 suggested that around 25% of all problems should have occurred before 2000. Critics of large-scale remediation argued, during 1999, that the absence of significant problems, even in systems that had not been rendered compliant, suggested that the scale of the problem had been severely overestimated.

So, possibly twice the cost of saving the world was spent in the USA to prevent global meltdown, when there may have been no threat at all, or the threat fixed itself.

Was there scientific consensus on Y2K? Were there believers and deniers? Governments believed, especially the west. Computer companies believed, and profited from that belief. The media created a global panic and went overboard on the story with ever more doom laden stories. Does all this have a familiar ring to it?

Anyway, the good news. We forgot all about it about 2 hours after all those journos got locked out of the Dome on New years eve, and never mentioned it again until now.


Anonymous said...

The Y2K bug was limited to a specific set of legacy systems, typically age old accounting and billing systems written in the arcane & basically deprecated since the early 70's language Cobol.

Some places still had *OLD* IT systems in place, and the skills to fix the code had basically been retired.

This bug was never going to hit things like schools and such, the fact it didn't cause those problems is not indicative that it wasn't real.

Of course, combined with Millenium fever the whole thing was blown massively out of proportion.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

To be fair, I never heard of anybody who worked in IT making a fuss out of it. There were some genuine concerns about what would happen to people's money in banks (around interest calculations) and some closed systems where it wasn't possible to predict with certainty what would happen.

I do know that a lot of people bust their balls to make sure that they had tested and covered off as much as they could. And there were one or two minor incidents but I don't think anybody in IT was expecting the end of the world.

The big difference is that there was a three- or four-year build up, at which point it was shit or bust. This climate shit could drag on forever.

Laban said...

I worked on Y2K for a large financial services company. To be fair, there were some genuine issues regarding old code where the years were held as 2 digits, and the code would assume (say) 46 as 1946 but 16 as 2016. But none of us expected to be called out over the New Year holiday and none of us were.

Anonymous said...

As Laban said, most software puts 2 digit dates into a time frame of around 1970-2069 but some go back to the 30s or so if their customers are that old. Except on really old systems and in little quickly written scripts it was never going to be a problem until the 2030s or so when nobody would be using the software any more anyway. Even then, I bet 99% of problems would be merely display issues and not actually effect calculations.

I remember a BBC documentary at the time where they had the traffic lights failing and cars crashing but the hospitals had lost power and so the ambulances couldn't come! The BBC absolutely bought into it.

Does anyone expect them to try again in 2038 when Unix time in 32 bit rolls over?

Anonymous said...

I worked in IT and was at a large German bank during the run up to Y2K. There were indeed problem legacy systems, however these were largly replaced or updated to comply with the Euro entry. Part of the euro compliance was Y2K testing.
The majority of money was spent prior to 1999. I personally was very busy on Euro entry and stayed at work. I wasn't even on call for Y2K, we were very confident our systems would roll over without incident. In summary, the banks were forced to look at all code as a result of the Euro.

Pogo said...

A lot of less-than-totally-scrupulous "consultants" made a lot of money out the Y2K "bug". I know of a couple of companies who replaced more than 50% of their desktop systems because they had been told that they were not "100% Y2K compliant", which was "true" but not very honest...

The small IT company with which I was involved at the time tested every one of the 1000 or so machines in its user-base (a 2-minute job, done gratis) and found that only two, very old, machines were totally uncompliant - they simply went bonkers if faced with a 2000 date. The rest were all OK despite some of them not being completely compliant, eg the bios clocks auto-reset from 1999 to 1900, but once manually changed, or synchronised after a network login to 2000, behaved correctly. We too could have sold our unknowing customers a shedload of new machines, but, in our case honesty prevailed over Mamon.

Oh, "Anonymous" at 9:49... You're correct in saying that the main problems were encountered in legacy systems, but it was nothing to do with the language in which they were written. It was simply a hangover from the cost of data storage in "the old days" - years were stored as two digits rather than four, saving two bytes per date field, and thus, quite a lot of money. And, COBOL is neither "arcane", it's a very simple and straightforward language, nor was it "deprecated" by anyone other than computing academics - probably because it had the temerity to have been invented by a sailor, and a lady sailor at that, rather than by an academic. (Useless trivia alert:- She is the only computer programmer ever to have had a warship named after her, a USN guided-missile destroyer, "USS Grace Hopper") :-)

Demetrius said...

The Y2K bug was something within human capability and understanding that did not need huge government and international intervention. As for climate, it will change, one way or another, maybe in world terms, maybe regionally, maybe in a scatter of localised variations. But this is not within human control nor techie fixes, and critically chaotic and unpredictable. As the effects of large scale change would impact across large regions or continents as it has done frequently in the past, then it will mean problems between governments. Unluckily, as in the past, all those vanished civilisations, humans are not intellectually equipped to deal with this kind of thing.

CityUnslicker said...

I like the comparison in terms of media hype. The media get carried away with a story printing ever more outlandish stories and depart rapidly from reality.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

I remember Y2K as a colossal pain in the arse. Everyone who knew anything about IT realised it was no big deal, but we were drowned under the weight of audit shit from customers wanting to know were we Y2K compliant, do we accept full liability in the event of an issue, blah blah blah... essentially, as with any scare, the carpetbaggers bullshitters & consultants were out in force fleecing everyone.

Obsidian said...

Y2K bug was my very first project!

I encountered some systems that had to be replaced, due to embedded code, and which had they not been would've caused some nasty problems.

Most systems were fine, but it could be a nuisance if you were given a verbal guarantee something would be fine but for legal reasons they wouldn't provide it in writing, so new equipment had to be bought...

Come the millennium, the only thing I noticed having gone titsup were LED advertising panels.

Problem is, with humanity, is when something big goes wrong we like to point fingers, however if it's identified early, we hype it, and when dealt with, we downplay it. You can't win.

Bill Quango MP said...

Not being IT i ignored the the Y2k but it still came and impacted.
Working in a company that had about 3 computers it shouldn't have cost anything. But there were around 500 electronic registers that needed updates. The alarm systems had to be updated on instructions from the insurers. All CCTv and video - anything with a clock, including the clocks. I would estimate a £10,000-£20,000 spend for a firm without computers.
As Sebastian Weetabix and Obsidian mention, it was client insistence, driven by media hype.

the cost figures are staggering.
But it shows in a time of plenty, no-one blinks an eye.
Kaban, anon, obnoxio thanks for that. So at least we know there were some real issues. What about all those stories about plane s crashing and there not being enough worldwide landing slots for all the aircraft? {if there aren't enough landing slot what happened on 9/11? Where did all the planes go?}

Other anons. I remember that documentary. End of the world stuff. Euro entry solved a lot of problems. Good work.

Pogo. I remember doing a free Y2K check-patch on this ancient computer I'm using now. There were many £29.99 packages doing the rounds too. Someone was making out like a bandit.

Demetrius: a problem for me with global warming is its a big stage event. A lot of grandstanding and no failure options. becomes a political showcase for the folks back home.

CU: yep, that's what reminded me.Sea levels to rise 38 meters, temperature will rise 8*, the end of Africa etc. Another parallel is with the lead fuel/CFC scare of the 80's. The greens wanted an end to all refrigeration and cars even then. Worth a post another day.

Marchamont Needham said...

I was programming for a major IT company when Y2K came up. And the drive for the testing and validation came from our customers who'd been hyped up by so called consultants.

Our little team was given an enormous document to fill in detailing what to do. It would have taken months of work, so I did a code scan, fixed and tested the couple of minor issues I found and then the boss invented the paperwork. Took about two days.

But my local electric board spent nine million on testing, and the water board manned every single installation they had at midinght on New Year's Eve in case the world came to an end.

Since then we've had another massive scam generated by consultants - the Disability Discrimination Act. A fortune has been spent on this, and to the best of my knownledge the DDA doesn't even mention the word "website" and there's never been a test case. Very different from the avalanche of test cases the consultants told us to expect.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

I was working in IT for a Big Pharma company.

The IT top management went totally overboard for the whole thing, with gigantic project plans, "war rooms", special teams, and - best of all - very generous retention bonuses for all IT staff, in the expectation that they would all get poached by desperat competitors as the dateapproached. They weren't, naturally, but the bonuses were in a contract and had to be paid anyway. Heh.

We on the tools knew, of course, that the whole thing was a load of cobblers. Automation systems generally don't know what date it is, and who cares if a Windows Server has the wrong date on it? So we took the money (and there was lots of it), ticked all the boxes, and kept our heads down.

Come the day, nothing happened - as we knew it wouldn't - and the Top IT Director quietly disappeared a few months later. Heaven only knows how much of the company's money he'd wasted.

AGW isn't the same, unfortunately, because they have not made the mistake of mentioning a fixed end date. They can keep it rolling as long as the MSM is compliant and there are enough useful idiots out there.

James Higham said...

Hmmm - one paragraph for the Pro and five for the Anti. But I wouldn't want you to get the idea, Bill, that it's just a question of the number of paragraphs.

Bill Quango MP said...

JH: Not being in I.T. I just pinched the pros + cons straight off Wiki.

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