Y2K: Am I paranoid?

Ron Kean (ronkean@juno.com)
Thu, 11 Feb 1999 14:23:47 -0500

On Wed, 10 Feb 1999 09:51:51 -0800 Paul Hughes <planetp@aci.net> writes:
>I know I've brought this issue up once before. At that time
>only two people responded. Hopefully this will generate
>more responses this time:
>On a daily basis I do my best to maintain a practical
>optimism. Beyond this however, I can't help but play out
>what I see are likely U.S. scenarios *if* certain things
>Here's the scenario:
>1) Y2K problems in embedded chips cause a certain critical
>minimum of power stations around the US to shut down.

The date-related embedded chip problem is greatly overblown. There is no reason why a date-sensitive maintenance monitoring system would be knowingly designed to catastrophically shut down the power supply system because of a date discrepancy. The design goal is to increase reliability, not sabotage it. A false warning might be issued, meaning a red light would go on on a panel somewhere, or a printout would be produced. Not a real big deal. Or, a date-based maintenance notification which should be issued might not be issued. Also not a real big deal, since extra caution will be used in interpreting maintenance warnings or lack thereof around Y2K.

>Because it's the middle of the winter, the other stations
>along the grid are already taxed to the limit.

Max power demand (typical USA) is in the summer, not the winter, although this is starting to change as more heating systems are now built using electrically powered heat pumps.

Power demand fluctuates widely, and almost never reaches capacity. Historic summer peaks are usually about 20% below capacity. That is because they have to have excess capacity anyway so units can be taken down for routine maintenance, and to allow for a prudent reserve capacity. That has the effect of providing a very comfortable reserve margin most of the time.

In the unlikely event that power demand significantly exceeds capacity, there are a number of remedies available, and they are only inconvenient, not catastrophic. Voltage reduction (brownout) can cut load by 5% or more, and controlled rolling blackouts can curtail load by any amount desired. During the January 1994 Washington DC area power crisis, local governments ordered businesses to cut power demand. That worked well, and no brownouts or rolling blackouts were necessary. In my area, the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, the power company has installed radio controlled cutoff switches on many residential air conditioners and water heaters so the power company can cut them off by remote control when needed. Customers who accept installation of those switches receive a discount on their electric bill.

>critical minimum failures start a cascade or domino effect
>by draining power from other stations, thereby shutting them

As mentioned above, maintenance monitors should not pose much danger of catastrophic supply failure. But there are plenty of monitors of system condition which are designed to quickly shut off the power when certain faults occur, for reasons of safety and protection of equipment from unnecessary damage. That's why we sometimes get widespread cascading power failures, like the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. But those monitor systems are not likely to be date-senstive; there is no reason for them to be. Instead they look for over-current or over-voltage faults, and things like a sudden drop in current which may be due to a break in the transmission line.

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 USA is too big geographically to be considered to have a single monolithic national grid per se. In practice the regional power sharing pools are on the order of 200 to 300 miles wide in densely populated areas like the northeast, and somewhat bigger in less dense areas as in the western states. Yes, the regional grids are themselves generally connected to adjacent grids for added flexibility, but transmission losses mount with longer distances, so typically the generating point where most of a given user's power originates is only a few miles away from that user.

Reportedly the Netherlands has threatened to cut loose from their European regional power connections when Y2K arrives, unless other nearby countries make better progress on Y2K fixes. Normally the existence of a grid improves reliability and economy. But if a grid experiences a cascade failure, or if such a failure is feared, the grid can be easily and quickly broken up into smaller independent parts by throwing switches. So if a widespread domino effect failure occurs, recovery for most areas should be rapid, as in the 1965 Northeast Blackout. And power companies are already aware that there may be Y2K problems and so presumably will be extra careful as Y2K arrives. It may happen that many electric utilities will opt to disconnect from the grid as a precaution shortly before Y2K arrives, then cautiously restore connectivity thereafter.

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

In a country the size of the USA, governors declare states of emergency so frequently, that sometimes it seems to be almost a monthly occurrence. Likewise with Presidential Disaster Area Declarations. These declarations are usually due to weather related problems, and sometimes flood, earthquake or riot.

>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.

Large grocery stores (at least in my area) have on-site diesel generators and continue to operate during power failures. During the 1965 New York blackout and in the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake there was virtually no looting. Millions of people are already planning to stockpile food and other provisions in preparation for Y2K, which should help mitigate a food shortage. If the electricity goes off there will soon be no water, as most water supply systems do not have backup generators for the pumps. But a typical house has a water heater with a 40 gallon tank. There is a valve near the bottom of the tank which can be used as a source of water in an emergency. (Any gas or electric supply to a water heater should be turned off before draining the tank.)

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

Reportedly contingency plans are being made to activate National Guard units if needed when Y2K hits. Such a precaution is not unreasonable. The same thing is done when a hurricane approaches.

>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.

It seems unlikely based on the fact that the police and military have not done that when called out for emergencies in the past 100 years.

They all will use airborne
>ground penetrating radar to locate via GPS exactly where
>people have *hidden* their firearms.

It does not seem technically feasible to use radar from aircraft to locate small arms. But assuming such things could be detected from aircraft, how much different would an upright vacuum cleaner or a mop with a metal handle look than a rifle or shotgun?

Obviously they will
>not confiscate everyone's firearms, but will probably be
>successful in getting most of them.

It takes a lot of man hours to thoroughly search a house for small arms. If there were widespread Y2K disruption, one would think the authorities would have more important things to do than search houses. And if there were little or no Y2K disruptions, there would no unusual excuse for such searches. And a general search of houses would seem to raise big political and legal questions.

>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".

Curfews have been used before to discourage looting, and afterwards people complain about the looting, not the curfew.

>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.

There is a certain impulse in humans to want to control others. Traditionally this impulse has been relatively restrained in American society, especially since the abolition of slavery. That impulse shows up today in government imposed bans on smoking in restaurants and offices, motorcycle and bicycle helmet laws, drug laws, medical regulation by the FDA, mandatory recycling programs, and many other instances. But since these laws are all theoretically able to be repealed through a democratic political process, and since certain basic rights are still mostly respected, we do not have a totalitarian system at this time.

In Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia a small, determined, cohesive, opportunistic minority was able to seize control and impose a totalitarian regime. But to be successful the majority had to at least tolerate them. In the US today there is no readily identifiable, cohesive, and clearly totalitarian minority itching to seize power. We have people like the two Clintons, Giuliani, Falwell, Buchanan, Shumer, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan. Each of those public figures is despised by some and loved by others. And each could be accused, rightly or wrongly, of being a would-be dictator. But can you picture those people getting together and trying to organize a coup? I can't.

>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?

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