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The Long Shadow of Y2K 257

Posted by timothy
from the please-reboot-your-iron-lung dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "It seems like it was only yesterday when the entire world was abuzz about the looming catastrophe of Y2K that had us both panicked and prepared. Ten Years ago there were doomsday predictions that planes would fall from the sky and electric grids would go black, forced into obsolescence by the inability of computers to recognize the precise moment that 1999 rolled over to 2000 and for many it was a time to feel anxious about getting money out of bank accounts and fuel out of gas pumps. "Nobody really understood what impact it was going to have, when that clock rolled over and those digits went to zero. There was a lot of speculation they would reset back to 1900," says IT professional. Jake DeWoskin. The Y2K bug may have been IT's moment in the sun, but it also cast a long shadow in its wake as the years and months leading up to it were a hard slog for virtually everyone in IT, from project managers to programmers."
"'People were scared for their jobs and their reputations," says CIO Dick Hudson, Staffers feared that if they were fired for failing to remedy Y2K problems, the stigma would prevent them from ever getting a job in IT again. "Then there was the fear that someone like Computerworld would report it, and it would be on the front page," Hudson adds. Although IT executives across the globe were confident that they had the problem licked, a nagging fear followed them right up until New Year's Eve. While most people were out celebrating the turn of the century, IT executives and their staffs were either monitoring events in the office or standing by at home. Afterwards came the recriminations and backlash as an estimated $100 billion was spent nationwide for problems that turned out to be minimal. Others says the nonevent was evidence the Y2K effort was done right. "It was a no-win situation," says Paul Ingevaldson. "People said, 'You IT guys made this big deal about Y2K, and it was no big deal. You oversold this. You cried wolf.' ""
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The Long Shadow of Y2K

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  • Benefits of Y2K???? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by smitty777 (1612557) on Friday January 01, 2010 @09:09AM (#30613592) Journal

    In the couple of years leading up to Y2K, I saw my company pour millions into updating any outdated infrastructure. Since were all techies, I'm betting that we all have similar stories. All the negativity aside, is it also possible that we moved ourselves ahead with this non-existent catastrophe? I mean shoot, I know I at least got a new laptop out of the deal ;^)

  • by natd (723818) on Friday January 01, 2010 @09:29AM (#30613680)
    That's how I saw it. I 'remediated' in 1997 but by 1999 our parent company sent in a 3rd party (Unisys) with 4 full time 'consultants' and endless ability to use other ad-hoc staff. The result of their 9 months of these backpackers...sorry, consultants surfing porn and checking the premier leage tables was.....no remediation required but a 7 figure bill. However, I did get to replace all my 486 PCs and put in new Proliants on what was then the new NetWare 5. I know these servers are are still running that business unit to this day so in the long run at least the unnecessary upgrades paid off. I was just insulted at the time that my work and findings 18 months prior weren't accepted as good enough.
  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Friday January 01, 2010 @09:50AM (#30613788) Journal

    Why go as far as twitter? Slashdot fell over a year or so ago because message ids were stored in a 24-bit integer, which overflowed. Who ever imagined when Slashdot was created that it would come close to 17 million posts? 2^16 probably seemed like a lot, so wasting another byte per post probably seemed enough to give some headroom. A decade later, it turned out not to be.

    If you were writing software in the '70s, every byte mattered. A lot of mainframes around then used 6-bit bytes with binary coded decimals, so you'd be using 12 bits for a two digit date or 24 for a four digit one. Software was much cheaper than hardware, so saving 50% of the storage requirement and requiring the software to be rewritten in 30 years would have been a huge saving overall, especially on machines where 1KB took up an entire rack and cost thousands of dollars. And, because the software worked, people kept using it.

    Architectures like IBM's OS/360 and Burroughs Large Systems have maintained backwards ABI compatibility since the '70s, so there was no reason to touch the code. The space saving went from saving them the need to spend $10K on an extra memory module to saving them a tiny fraction of a percent of the machine's total capacity, but no one cared, because the code still worked. Then 1999 rolled around and people found that their system would break next year. The old code was lost, or written by people who had long since died or retired, so in a lot of cases needed completely rewriting. Fortunately, programming languages have advanced a lot since those days (unless you had a Lisp machine or a Xerox Alto back then, in which case they've bone backwards to a painful degree) and so it didn't take much programmer time to rewrite them, although migrating the data and testing took a lot of effort.

  • by pecosdave (536896) * on Friday January 01, 2010 @09:54AM (#30613808) Homepage Journal

    People wanted to fear it.

    I was at Wal-Mart getting an oil change (for the record never go there for that) in 1999 while in the waiting area a conversation was struck up between myself and another person waiting on a vehicle. It came out that I worked for an ISP and had done all kinds of other computer/networking work. The person wanted to know my thoughts on Y2K.

    I answered "I think there's going to be a few hiccups and glitches. I don't think they're going to be all that big, we've done a pretty good job of preparing, and many things may fail over to a wrong date, but will continue to work anyways. All in all whatever problems come of it a majority will be fixed in the first couple of days and a few may take longer, but I don't think there will be much impact."

    The person became visibly annoyed at my answer. We stopped talking very quickly after that. I had many other conversations with people along these lines, a couple of them even sited Art Bell and how his show was talking about the doom and gloom to come. I listened to Art Bell. He must have made a fortune selling crank radios, flash lights, and other survival gear in preparations for Y2K, not to mention his business model relies on crazies and they were coming out of the woodwork for this.

    I was working the night shift during the roll over. I wasn't worried about our equipment failing. I went to work armed, I was worried about crazies who might decide our company was going to be the cause of the downfall of civilization.

    The only thing I noticed was the IRC chat room had some sort of a reset, 90% of the people connected dropped off at midnight, that was actually the event that caused me to check the clock. Us other 10% stayed connected, I'm guessing it was one of dial up routers dropping everyone.

    People were practically begging for the doom and gloom scenario. It gave me insight into the human condition, I'll say that for sure.

  • by Velox_SwiftFox (57902) on Friday January 01, 2010 @10:20AM (#30613908)

    Basically it was management decisions to not spend the money on the computer storage.

    Sometimes really stupid ones. I know a programmer who was disciplined because management decided that, statistically, the "skip a leap year if the year is divisible by 100" correction for date change was important enough to include but not the "unless the year is also divisible by 400" rule. Therefore he was somehow "wasting storage" by removing the first correction to fix things until the year 2100, even though the program got smaller.

    There were quite a few systems with BIOS/CMOS clocks, OSes, etc that were going to screw up one way or the other without being replaced or upgraded. Said screwups, with rare exceptions, might seem disasters to managers who treat any unexpected problem as one, but not by the general population; still fixing them in advance was probably cheaper than after the fact.

    The Y2K problem is only one expression of the common problem of a data value occurring greater in magnitude than what that given data type can store or represent. This still can occur and presents as much of a problem for critical computer systems. I've found a bug that would have suddenly adjusted the suspension of police cruisers or other models of a vehicle very poorly if they exceeded 128.5 MPH before it ended up in a production vehicle. That did not stop me from wincing back in 1999 at radio commercials from a used car dealer trying to scare people into buying his "Y2K-verified" products, lest they perhaps be left stranded if their car suddenly died on New Years day.

  • by modmans2ndcoming (929661) on Friday January 01, 2010 @10:22AM (#30613916)

    I wonder what happened to those kooks who sold their homes, and bought farms or that stocked up with 2 years worth of spegheti-Os, etc.

  • The threat was real. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Trip6 (1184883) on Friday January 01, 2010 @10:32AM (#30613952)

    I was an analyst for Gartner in the years leading up to Y2K. As usual, the real story is nothing like what is reported in the press.

    First of all, the systems failed not because the date itself rolled over to January 1, 2000, but when systems attempted to do a calculation that spanned both centuries and thus did the math wrong. In 1970, 30-year mortgages started having glitches because they calculated into the year 00, and started calculating interest based on 99 years’ worth of time. Called, the “Time Horizon to Failure,” these types of failures increased on a log scale in the 90s as we approached 1/1/2000. Few if any systems based on microcontrollers (say, elevators) care at all about the date, much less that the year is 2 digits.

    The bug was very real. There was literally billions of lines of mainframe code written in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s that used two digits for dates. There was actually a 1970 bug, where some systems used only one digit for the date in the 60s. Remember we are talking 80 byte punch cards and memory that was hundreds of dollars per byte. The fixes weren’t hard but there was a LOT of code to slog through, much of which was not documented and in some cases they didn’t even have the source.

    Why weren’t there more visible problems? in the early and mid 90s, all the IT departments alerted their managers to the problem, showed where in the code it needed to be fixed, and what the consequences were. But few managers acted, because nobody believed the “hype” and budgets were needed for more pressing initiatives.

    Enter the Wall Street Journal, who wrote an article, I think it was in late 1996 or 1997, that said to company executives that their Errors and Omissions insurance would not cover them if their company experienced Y2K failures because the bug was widely publicized and the threat was well known. This means that the executives were personally liable (e.g. they could lose their houses) for Y2K failures that happened in their companies.

    The next day, thousands of companies started Y2K projects, and fixed the issues. So, no serious bugs were reported, and those who labeled it hype had all the evidence they needed to support their theory. But it took a legal threat for managers to act.

  • by QuantumRiff (120817) on Friday January 01, 2010 @10:32AM (#30613956)

    The reporters that had no idea still irritate me to this day when they mention Y2K.

    Michael Chrichton (yes, that Michael Chrichton) wrote an excellent essay on Speculation... http://www.crichton-official.com/speech-whyspeculate.html [crichton-official.com]
    One of my favorite parts
    Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

    Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

    That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I'd point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

    But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn't. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

  • by DoninIN (115418) <don.middendorf@gmail.com> on Friday January 01, 2010 @10:41AM (#30613990) Homepage
    There was a substantial, real problem. That was fixed at great time and expense, a whole of "stuff" turned out to be obsolete and much of it became marginally less useful or truly obsolete. (Various small electronic really had two digit dates, somewhere on earth this made them less useful,when people really had a bunch of 1899 documents to keep separate from their 1999 docs, courthouses maybe?)

    Then there was a second myth. County employee. "My PC is obsolete, Y2K I need a new one, some of the software isn't complaint, or not certified" These facts weren't necessarily lies, or even inaccurate, in the case of the vast majority of the PCs and replacement electronics I sold the stuff people were replacing was obsolete as hell whether Y2K was a real problem for it or not. Don't forget a lot of still deployed DOS programs and some windows 3.1 stuff was in fact not complaint as well. How much this would have been a real problem for anyone is debatable. So this one wasn't quite a myth, but a vast amount of repairs and upgrades and replacements got assigned to the "Y2K upgrade" when that wasn't really the cause.
    Then there was a third GIANT myth somehow, a hundred million times people heard someone say that product X doesn't work after Y2K, and took that at face value. I got into a bit of an argument with a customer, I kept patiently explaining to him that his FAX machine would roll over to show 00 dates, and that the only problem this might cause him was that he might not be able to tell which faxes had arrived in the year 2000 and which had arrived in the year 1900, he was thoroughly convinced it was stop working when the numbers got to 00. In a less than professional moment I told him it didn't have any sort of anti-time travel device. Then I got him to try setting it to 00 and see if would in fact work. (Duh)

    See that's the thing, elevators would plunge to the ground, planes would crash machines were going to STOP all these "embedded" systems and hidden devices, the machines we use constantly but don't see. Is our Air Compressor Y2K Complaint? We can't run the plant without air! No matter how many times you explained to people that devices like this were not in fact "certified" or "complaint" if there was in fact any date sensitive function in that equipment it would go on happily believing it was 1900, it was as if they all thought the clock had been set at the current date when these things were built and no one knew what was going to happen when it hit 00, or they had anti-time travel circuits that would shut them down if they found themselves in the years before they were invented.

    Your copier, your FAX machine, your air compressor, I liked to point out the really paranoid at the time that their generator wasn't Y2K complaint. A lot of this stuff wasn't date sensitive at all of course, even in the odd case where it happened to know what date it was, the consequences of this thing being "broken" were pretty non-existent. However if you added up the list price of all the embedded equipment that was non-complaint or certified it was a pretty staggering number. This was the number that got snowballed around and was used to scare people who weren't just abjectly stupid into getting worried, then it snowballed from there.
    For the record when we came back from the break I had a customer who had an old PC with non-Y2K compliant BIOS and they used it for some forgotten but important application and was somehow date sensitive to them anyway. So I had to write them a batch file to set the date when they started the computer. The day was saved $25 was spent, cabinet parts could still be picked out according to the handy DOS software.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 01, 2010 @10:43AM (#30614004)

    The only thing I noticed was the IRC chat room had some sort of a reset, 90% of the people connected dropped off at midnight, that was actually the event that caused me to check the clock. Us other 10% stayed connected, I'm guessing it was one of dial up routers dropping everyone.

    FYI, some of us power-cycled non-critical stuff at midnight, as a prank. (Don't you know someone who hit the circuit breaker at their Y2K party at midnight, just to freak everyone out?)

    If more IT professionals would have shared our spirit of comedy, and cut the power at midnight on non-critical systems, we all could have created the illusion that things COULD HAVE been a disaster, but we were prepared - and the remediation efforts were money well spent.

  • by Kjella (173770) on Friday January 01, 2010 @11:07AM (#30614102) Homepage

    The hype (although blown our of proportion) was due to the truth that there was a genuine problem and it required a large amount of man power to fix it (and a large segment of companies waited until the last minute to fix it). And yet reporters go on spouting arrogantly how Y2K was a giant scam, or boogie man spread by IT.

    But the point is that it was blown way out of proportion, not just the critical stuff but all the nice-to-haves were fixed and I'm sure many took the opportunity to shoehorn big upgrades in under guise of the y2k bug. It'd be like discovering that 90% of the SOX-compliance processes you do isn't actually mandated by law but just by control freak bean counters under the guise of SOX, then naturally people feel scammed or scared by a boogie man. Of course companies needed to fix what they needed to have, but they spent far more than that out of fear.

  • by DynaSoar (714234) on Friday January 01, 2010 @11:15AM (#30614148) Journal

    On Y2K day, the website calendar of the US Naval Observatory (our observational time keeping experts; National Bureau of Standards count them, these guys tell us when they start and stop and need readjusting) read JAN 1, 19001.

    See if there's still a screen capture of that around, I know several circulated back then. Then if anyone challenges you, simply show it to them and say "We didn't oversell. We got it right. They didn't."

  • by mosel-saar-ruwer (732341) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:27PM (#30614904)

    None of us seriously expected 747s to invert on crossing the International Date Line, as some more fevered commentators speculated, nor did we expect nuclear power stations to destabilize.

    Software Bug Halts F-22 Flight
    Posted by kdawson on Sunday February 25 2007, @06:35PM
    it.slashdot.org [slashdot.org]

    On Feb. 11, twelve Raptors flying from Hawaii to Japan were forced to turn back when a software glitch crashed all of the F-22s' on-board computers as they crossed the international date line. The delay in arrival in Japan was previously reported, with rumors of problems with the software. CNN television, however, this morning reported that every fighter completely lost all navigation and communications when they crossed the international date line. They reportedly had to turn around and follow their tankers by visual contact back to Hawaii...

    .
  • Re:I was there... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by apoc.famine (621563) <apoc@famine.gmail@com> on Friday January 01, 2010 @03:08PM (#30615428) Homepage Journal

    It doesn't take Y2K [f-22raptor.com] to screw planes up at the International Date Line.

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