Re: Year 2k

Hal Finney (
Fri, 27 Mar 1998 12:10:04 -0800

You have to be careful in interpreting information about the Y2K problem.
Many of the people sounding the alarm are selling Y2K services or books,
so they have a vested interest in making it sound bad. Others are
die-hard survivalists for whom this is the latest issue to justify the
same predictions of disaster they've been making for years.

Ed Yourdon's book, Time Bomb 2000, gives a good overview of the potential
problems. He has a web site at which
includes discussion forums, although they are dominated by disasterists.
Gary North is one of the pre-eminent apocalyptics, with lots of up to date
information at However North is a Christian
fundamentalist who believes for religious reasons that the world will
come to an end at the millennium.

Just because the field is dominated by nut cases and people who benefit
from predictions of disaster doesn't mean that there's no problem, of
course. To believe that is to fall into the ad hominen fallacy.

A less biased source of information is at the Computer Professionals
for Social Responsibility web site,
They have a working group on the Y2K problem, including "rumor central"
which includes various predictions with estimates of how reliable they
are. However the site doesn't seem to have been updated recently.

The problem is that there is very little hard information available
to judge the extent of the problem. The problem is widespread, with
many different manifestations, each of which is being dealt with in
different ways. It's like an inkblot test, where what people see in
it depends more on their predispositions than the available data.

It could be the worst disaster ever to hit western civilization, the end
of the world as we know it, with all of our infrastructure crashing -
no communications, no power, no transportation, no food. Or it could
be no more than an annoying, expensive nuisance, with some localized
disruptions in the early part of the year 2000, gradually being fixed
and coming under control.

Broadly speaking, the problem can be technically divided into three

- Mainframes, the big old computers running old programs written in Cobol,
PL/1, and other old-fashioned programming languages.

- Personal computers, where the operating systems and/or applications
may not be Y2K compliant, and which may also have custom spreadsheets
and database programs which can have Y2K bugs of their own.

- Embedded systems, the microprocessor chips which are nearly universal
in industrial control today.

Each of these has their own vulnerabilities and their own requirements for
analysis and repair.

You can then break it down crosswise into sectors: government, industry,
consumer goods, transportation, communication, power, etc. To understand
the extent of the danger, you've got to look at each entry in the resulting
matrix and try to judge what is likely to happen, and how bad things will
be as a result. It's a big, messy problem, with no easy answers.

Apart from the severity of the Y2K problem itself is the danger posed by
panic as we approach 2000. We could see bank runs, stock market collapse,
hoarding and other problems if people get scared. This will depend on
how the media spins it, and since disasters sell more papers than good
news, I suspect things are going to be pretty rough in late 1999.