RE: Y2K: Am I paranoid?

Billy Brown (
Thu, 11 Feb 1999 07:33:23 -0600

Paul Hughes wrote:
> Without further information, I still doubt your assessment. It is my
> understanding that they use embedded chips for maintenance
> and shut down cycles. In otherwords, if a particular power station has
> not received a checkup after a certain period of time it *shuts down*.
> So if it read 1/1/1900, the station will think it hasn't had a checkup
> in 100 years, and it will shut down. If this is true, then if a
> critical minimum of them shut down they should take
> the rest of the grid down with it.

Depends on how the program is written. Just as likely, it will say "this year is 00, my last checkup was in 99, so its been (99 - 00) = -99 years since my last checkup - that's less than my 5-year checkup interval, so everything is OK!"

More to the point, the power companies have known about this problem since at least early '98. Since they don't want all their equipment to fail, most of them have serious compliance efforts underway, and have already fixed a lot of the problems. Replacing embedded chips can be a lot of work, but there is no good reason why they shouldn't be able to finish the job in time.

Now, obviously, there will probably be a few companies that don't. Likewise, there will probably be a few chips here and there that don't get replaced. However, that sort of problem isn't going to lead to anything worse than localized power outages.

A side note - Jan 2000 looks to be a very busy month for FedEx!

> If a US wide power outage does occur, transportation *will* stop, and
> people will starve. So I think are only point of disagreement is
> over weather a nationwide power outage is likely.

A national power outage would disrupt our nice computerized distribution systems, and make transport significantly more expensive, but it won't stop it. Getting power to gas stations without any computer control wouldn't take more than a day or two, so the trucks will keep rolling. Train systems wouldn't be able to run as many trains on manual control, but they would still have more than enough capacity for food shipments. Sea and air travel would be pretty much unaffected - although a breakdown of the FAA system is likely, which would greatly reduce the number of flights each airport can handle.

A critical point to remember in all this is that people aren't just going to sit around and watch civilization collapse. If a particular system stops working, everyone who depends on it will immediately start looking for a way around the problem. To get a complete disaster scenario you need to completely knock out a critical service, keep it knocked out for months, and somehow prevent any work-arounds from being implemented.

> According to the military people I know, their saying its the military
> their most afraid of. The military is a totalitarian government
> all to itself already and therefore not a big stretch to enforce their
> way on everyone else. The military is not a democracy , it's chain-of-
> command, and its leaders could give a rats ass whether its members want
> to or not. Most infantry do what their told
> or face the threat of court martial or even death if they don't.
> Although these are the points we differ, I hope I'm wrong and your
> right about this. I look forward to your next response.

This is a universal problem with standing armies, of course. However, America has some interesting legal theory that addresses the point.

Back during the war crimes trials after WWII, a lot of German military personnel tried to claim they were not responsible for their actions because they were 'just following orders'. The Allies didn't want them to get off that easily, and thus they created a new legal doctrine of personal responsibility that still applies today. As interpreted in America, it goes like this:

A soldier takes his oath to the constitution, not to a superior officer. His first duty is to defend that Constitution. If he is given orders that clearly violate the Constitution he is required to refuse them. If he doesn't, and the matter later comes under investigation, he can face court martial - in the worst cases this can even be considered treason, which carries a death penalty.

Now, the average grunt isn't necessarily up to speed on this sort of legal arcana. However, most officers and senior NCOs are. If a general orders his unit conduct a warrantless search of Dallas, TX, and confiscate any firearms they find, his entire chain of command is going to start worrying about their careers. If he adds "and shoot anyone who tries to stop you" they aren't going to waste time worrying - they will lock him up and call upstairs for a sane replacement.

To get around this problem you need a situation so desperate that people are worried about survival, and legal considerations seems remote and unlikely to matter. That takes a lot more than just rioting and food shortages. You need a situation where it looks like there aren't going to be any more court martials - a disintegrating government, mass chaos, rioting, people starving and shooting each other in droves, etc. You also have to be giving orders that make sense to the people in the middle levels of the chain of command - and remember, they don't especially want a totalitarian government.

I've never seen a plausible Y2K scenario that even comes close to this. You could instantly vaporize every computer in the world and not get it. You need something more like a nuclear war, or a large asteroid impact.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I