RE: Y2K: Am I paranoid?

Billy Brown (
Wed, 10 Feb 1999 14:08:02 -0600

Paul Hughes wrote:
> Here's the scenario:
> 1) Y2K problems in embedded chips cause a certain critical
> minimum of power stations around the US to shut down..
> Because it's the middle of the winter, the other stations
> along the grid are already taxed to the limit. These
> critical minimum failures start a cascade or domino effect
> by draining power from other stations, thereby shutting them
> down. This taxes the remaining operational infrastructure
> even further and finally shuts the entire grid down. A
> nationwide, if not global wide power outage occurs..

The problem is unlikely to start with, because most embedded chips don't use date information for anything especially critical - your reports might come out looking strange, but the machinery will probably keep running. Also, the electric companies (like all other private organizations) are working to make sure it doesn't happen - they stand to loose a lot of money if it does. If a problem does occur, it can't spread in this fashion for several reasons:

  1. Winter is a slack period for most electric utilities, so they will have some excess capacity (remember, A/C pulls far more current than a heater unless you live in Alaska). Thus, loosing a small number of plants will not be a serious problem.
  2. Modern grids are designed to survive localized outages, because they happen all the time. At worst, you just get a blackout around the plant that failed.

> 2) What does the US government always do in these
> situations: Declares a State of Emergency..


> 3) Meanwhile the power outage hinders the entire economic
> infrastructure - with the most critical being food and
> water. Since most people do not have stashes of food for
> such occasions, they will grow *very* desperate and begin
> roaming and perhaps robbing other people for food and
> water. This in turn precipitates widespread rioting,
> looting and general mayhem.

It is not uncommon for a hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster to knock out an area's power for days or even weeks. The response is nothing like what you predict - people just band together to cope as best they can. Americans aren't going to start looting and pillaging unless people start starving to death, which would require a complete paralysis of all transportation lasting at least 4-6 weeks. IMO you could vaporize every computer in the world and still not get a result that extreme - you certainly won't get it from temporary computer glitches.

> 4) What does the US government always do in these
> situations: Send in the troops! Or in this case declare
> Martial Law..

The traditional response is curfews backed up by national guard patrols. If the military (which is far less Y2K ready than the private sector) is in good enough shape to do more than that, there won't be a problem in the first place.

> 5) What exactly does this mean? According the ex-military
> people I know, they say the first most likely action on part
> of the military will be to conduct door-to-door searches to
> confiscate everyone's firearms. They all will use airborne
> ground penetrating radar to locate via GPS exactly where
> people have *hidden* their firearms. Obviously they will
> not confiscate everyone's firearms, but will probably be
> successful in getting most of them..

You can only do that in foreign countries - attempting it in America would be political suicide for the President. Besides, they can't possibly conduct such a search in any reasonable amount of time, and I doubt that the troops would comply with such an order anyway (at least, most of the service personnel I know say they would refuse). It violates too many Constitutional provisions for even today's politicians to stomach.

Nor does the military have any magical way of locating all of the guns. Finding buried objects is still difficult at best (that's why mines work so well, and why there are so many abandoned minefields all over the world). Finding something in your closet is impossible - the only way to know whether you have a rifle or a golf club in there is to open the door and look.

> 6) Shortly following arms confiscation, they will set a
> curfew. Martial Law curfew is typically enforced strictly,
> with the use of deadly force if necessary. "Anyone found
> out after 9pm without proper 'paperwork' or work permits
> will be detained or even shot on sight".

Not shot on sight. Remember, these orders are mostly enforced by the National Guard, which is composed of people who are only soldiers part-time. Unless they are afraid of getting shot, they aren't going to be especially violent about enforcing their orders.

Besides, you couldn't even begin to enforce a national curfew. The worst-case scenario would be curfews in a few of the hardest-hit areas for a period of a few weeks. By then any Y2K-related service outages would be over, and the reason for the intervention would no longer exist.

> 7) Once this all sweeping Martial Law is instituted, why
> would they reverse it? Since they now have the control they
> have long sought, they will not give it up without a fight..
> Since the majority of the population will now be under their
> control, such an organized "revolution" will *not* likely
> materialize in any reasonable period of time - we may be
> stuck in a totalitarian hell for decades or longer..

Even if everything you outlined happened, 'They' still don't have control - because there is no 'They'. The military isn't going to establish a totalitarian government because its members don't want to. The President can't seize power because the armed forces won't follow such orders. Who does that leave?

> Ok, this is *not* an optimistic scenario. I more than most
> people I know Want an optimistic scenario. Yet I can't help
> but feel the above scenario is a likely one..
> I'm posting this on the extropian list, because you guys are
> the most intelligent and informed people I know, who also
> share my transhumanist aspirations. I look forward to your
> comments, critiques and dissections. I hope there is
> something I'm missing in this "big picture". I more than
> anyone want to be wrong about this. Should I be paranoid,
> or are optimistic times more likely?

IMHO, the most likely scenario:

Most private organizations suffer only minor Y2K glitches - many will have no problems at all, because they are already compliant. Most of the rest will suffer problems of varying severity, but very few of them will be unable to function. For these 'worst offenders', the time needed to resume normal operations will vary from a few hours to as much as a week or two. The only companies that go out of business will be those that are already in serious financial trouble AND that have no serious compliance effort underway (which is a vanishingly small number).

Most government agencies will not be ready. They will suffer widespread system failures that will severely curtail their operations for at least several weeks. (Un)fortunately, the government doesn't have to be functional to survive. The first half of 2000 will see lots of squabbling, political grandstanding, and finger-pointing, and lots of records will become hopelessly muddled. However, they can always hire enough people to do the most essential tasks by hand while they fix things. The social security checks will still go out, the IRS will still demand your money, and production of Congressional hot air will continue to exceed quota.

Now, a lot of 'less essential' systems will be down for the count - things like FBI fingerprint searches, Brady-bill background checks, and the government's internal accounting systems. The IRS may not know how much you really owe, and OSHA will probably have no idea what they told you to do last month. However, these sorts of problems hardly spell the end of civilization. I'm sure the government will spend a staggering amount of money on new computer systems in 2000/2001, but eventually they'll get things sorted out. By the end of 2000 their systems will probably be in better shape than they are now, due to the urgent effort to throw out and replace anything that doesn't work.

So, there's no need to bury your guns and lay in a year's supply of food. Just make sure you aren't relying on the Feds for anything essential, and you're in good shape.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I