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The misallocation of scepticism

June 6th, 2006

With today (6/6/6) bearing the number of the beast, my thoughts went back to the most recent scary date 1/1/00 when we were promised TEOTWAWKI thanks to the famous Y2K bug.

Oddly enough, although we seem to be overwhelmed with alleged sceptics on other topics, only a handful of people challenged the desirability of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fix a problem which was not, on the face of it, any more serious than dozens of other bugs in computer systems. Admittedly not all the money was wasted, since lots of new computers were bought. But a lot of valuable equipment was prematurely scrapped and a vast amount of effort was devoted to compliance, when a far cheaper “fix on failure” approach would have sufficed for all but the most mission-critical of systems.

As far as I know, there was no proper peer-reviewed assessment of the seriousness of the problems published in the computer science literature. Most of the running was made by consultants with an axe to grind, and their scaremongering was endorsed by committees where no-one had any incentive to point out the nudity of the emperor.

Why was there so little scepticism on this issue? An obvious explanation is that no powerful interests were threatened and some, such as consultants and computer companies, stood to gain. I don’t think this is the whole story, and I tried to analyse the process here, but there’s no doubt that a reallocation of scepticism could have done us a lot of good here.

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  1. June 6th, 2006 at 23:34 | #1

    As an IT consultant at the time that did some Y2K compliance work I have got to say that skepticism amoungst consultants and customers (at the coal face) was pretty common. A lot of the spending on Y2K was actually for things totally unrelated that any other year would have been called something else (eg the PC upgrade budget).

    We did have one customer who had a Y2K system failure. Rectification required a server to have its date reset and then a reboot. ie “fix on failure” was no big deal. However financial programs that were not compliant would have caused some severe organisational pain if they were not fixed in advance.

    Did people really suggest that the world would end? Perhaps a few did, but I don’t know of anybody that actually stocked up the pantry more than usual. Certainly not amoungst my friends who work in IT. Most of the “alarmism” was generated as with most things by the media and I don’t think any journalists filled up their pantries either.

    Perhaps you could put the “hundreds of billions of dollars” in some sort of context. Was that the cost just in Queensland or across the whole world.

  2. Anonymous
    June 6th, 2006 at 23:57 | #2

    There was a serious problem with Y2K . A friend who works for a major Australian bank spent most of 98 and 99 searching for and fixing Y2K issues in their systems. According to him, they found a multitude of small problems and several major problems that would have caused serious damage to the bank’s systems.

    Naturally, the bank didn’t announce these problems to the world. I think the vast majority of the problems were in large organisations that had software assets dating back to the 70s and earlier. Most programs from later handled dates correctly. This type of company pretty much did the work to fix things before Y2K arrived.

    Of course the problem was exaggerated by the media and some consultants, but mainly I think it was as a result of the whole millenarian atmosphere that was around in 1999. As well as Terje indicates a lot of the spending was on things unrelated to Y2K but needed to be fixed anyway.

  3. June 7th, 2006 at 00:27 | #3

    John, it’s not really computer science’s bailiwick. It’s really more software engineering, information systems, or even the economics department’s problem.

    That said, from a software engineer’s perspective there is a massive gap in the literature at the interface of my discipline and economics. If any young economics PhD was looking for some easy publications there’s no shortage of opportunities – for instance, to assess the financial returns from adopting various software engineering methodologies.

  4. Joseph Clark
    June 7th, 2006 at 08:10 | #4

    John, perhaps the scare-mongers were calling all the sceptics denialists ;)

    Robert, you’re probably thinking of accounting PhDs.

  5. jquiggin
    June 7th, 2006 at 08:27 | #5

    I think you’ve missed the point of the comparison, Joseph.

  6. June 7th, 2006 at 09:23 | #6

    I always felt that the Y2K issue was the ultimate retirement plan for IT people. Is it really possible that people smart enough to design all the systems in use were not smart enough to see that using two characters insead of four for the year was a limited life option? Or were they smart enough to know that it would result in a boom period for the IT industry when the time came?

  7. June 7th, 2006 at 10:03 | #7

    Y2K was a non-event because of all the work done. The IT department I worked in patched several major systems that would have failed otherwise. We tested them before they were patched by advancing the date in test labs and fail they did. Perhaps it was hyped however the potential was there for major system outages without the work that was done.

    It is also easy to forget when current computers have 512M of memory standard that when I started with computers 16K was a large memory for an Apple II and there were no hard disks. The first hard disk I saw was 5M and it was the size of a todays PC. When you are dealing with these small memories saving 2 bytes is important. I guess the people coding in 1970 did not think that this computer code would still be around.

    There are 2 parallels to todays skeptism.

    1. Timely and urgent work fixed the problems with the world’s computers so Y2K was a non-event. Failure to do the same for greenhouse gases means that the problem will not be fixed and be worse that if action was taken in 1990. Here the paid skeptics have achieved their objectives.

    2. The coders in 1970 left the Y2K problem to others reasoning that at the time technology would have advanced and someone else could handle the problem. Exactly the same situation exists with nuclear waste. Undergound storage seems too hard so leave it in dry above ground storage and wait for the miracle permenant disposal method to appear. Read the ANSTO report page 132.
    http://www.ansto.gov.au/ansto/nuclear_options_paper.pdf

  8. Bemused
    June 7th, 2006 at 10:12 | #8

    Probably the most succinct and best exposure of the Y2K hoax was Nicholas Zvegintzov’s 1996 classic “The Year 2000 as Racket and Ruse” http://www.softwaremanagement.com/References/year_2000.html.

    In Australia, some academics and others were talking about the limitations being built into software using a 2 digit year at least as early as 1975. (Karl Reed of RMIT was one)

    Anyone in the industry with an IQ above room temperature knew there was a program of gradual remediation required and that program was carried out over many years without fuss and hype.

    When the bandwaggon started rolling, driven by an army of ‘Con-sultants’ and salivating lawyers, most of the real work had been done.

    The Federal and State Govts held a series of Y2K Infrastructure Forums around August 1999 at which spokespersons from Telecommunications, Electricity, Petroleum, Gas, Water and other esential industries joined a parade to the microphone to basically say: ‘We spent bucketloads of money, found a few minor bugs that would have displayed an incorrect date on a log, but found NOTHING that would have disrupted the service we provide or endangered anyone.’

    Special awards should go to that prize goose Senator Ian Campbell who presided over the Federal Govts hype machine and Maurice Newman, ASX chairman at the time, who helped spread the contagion to the private sector by threatening such absurdities as suspending ‘non Y2K compliant companies’.

  9. Dogz
    June 7th, 2006 at 10:19 | #9

    One word: bureaucrats.

    Once the spectre of Y2K had been raised, bureaucrats across the country went into a frenzy. This can be attributed to the two fundamental rules of bureaucracies:

    Rule #1: Cover your arse at all costs. Specifically, never ever let yourself be held responsible for anything

    Rule #2: Anything that increases red-tape and hence the number of bureaucrats is, by definition, a good thing.

    Y2K was the Perfect Storm in bureaucrat-land. Small businesses almost entirely ignored it.

  10. Tony Healy
    June 7th, 2006 at 10:44 | #10

    I think the question of why there seemed to be so little scepticism is extremely important. It’s relevant not just for Y2K but for numerous other issues in IT.

    To delineate Y2K itself a bit more, the issue was the way the scare campaign targeted medium and small sized businesses that were never at significant risk from trivial problems with dates. In Australia, Government advertising was even spent scaring that market, essentially to benefit accounting firms and outsourcers, who were the main drivers of the campaign.

    Large transaction oriented business such as banks and airlines and were certainly at risk, but they already knew, and had plans in place, as they do for hundreds of issues. Throughout the 90s, those businesses had used the impending arrival of the year 2000 as a good reason to undertake or bring forward expensive upgrades of their software systems that would have been required eventually anyway. So there was a problem, but not the one that was hyped to us.

    As to why scepticism was muted, I think there were four reasons. First, Y2K gave IT managers fantastic leverage to gain approval for new projects and to upgrade equipment. Accordingly, there was little reason for managers to question Y2K.

    Second, the Y2K lobbyists introduced the threat of liability as a powerful weapon. From 1998 the business press was full of warnings that boards or IT managers who failed to take appropriate preventative action would be liable if their systems suffered Y2K issues. Thus it was much easier for all concerned to just go through the motions.

    Third, because it’s still a young field, there are no clear structures in IT or software for understanding who are the experts and who are the shills. Numerous groups exploit this confusion. In the case of Y2K, accounting firms and outsourcers could easily marginalise the occasional software developer or IT manager who dared question orthodoxy.

    Fourth, academia in IT is superficial or worse. A lot of the study of information systems, which is the field that should have commented on Y2K, consists of pretentious efforts that aren’t informed by either technical expertise or actual experience.

  11. Ernestine Gross
    June 7th, 2006 at 11:57 | #11

    Interesting thread. On a lighter note, the IT staff at my place of work responded to ‘sceptics’ (known complainers about IT staff) by checking all systems except the boom gate. It worked. That is, after the event the IT staff was asked to fix the problem with the boom gate.

  12. June 7th, 2006 at 12:19 | #12

    Tony, you’re not implying that the state of information systems (as distinct from software eng or comp sci) research is absolutely pathetic, are you?

    *You* might say such things, I couldn’t possibly comment…

  13. June 7th, 2006 at 12:23 | #13

    Chris Shannon’s generational explanation of the Y2K boom gets my tick.

    While I doubt that it was all carefully planned from and since the 1970s, there can be no doubt that baby boomer programmers were a reasonably strong lobby in the early-mid 90s. These ageing programmers were then faced with a choice: (i) retrain for the Web-age, or (ii) capitalize on their otherwise near-redundant expertise, by orchestrating a mass hoax. Being the indulged youth of the 60s, they naturally chose the easier option for themselves, despite its much higher objective costs for everyone else.

    Another recent example of hidden generational agendas in the workforce is the debate around the consequences of boomers soon retiring en masse from academia. “We need higher salaries for academics, to urgently plug this gap�, crow the boomer lobby. A bizarre call, you may think, since there is already a gross over-supply of Xers willing to work even as casual academics. But boomer self-interest, as ever, provides the real explanation here. Never mind getting a salary fillip for their last few years on the job (small bikkies!); their defined benefit (% of final salary) super plans, which they will reap for decades to come, are what this is all about.

  14. stephen bartos
    June 7th, 2006 at 12:26 | #14

    is something similar to Y2K going on in relation to the possibility of a flu pandemic? the panic seems out of proportion to the risk – admittedly a risk with some greater consensus among expert opinion than was Y2K

  15. Razor
    June 7th, 2006 at 13:13 | #15

    So, we should have been more sceptical about Y2K because of all the vested interests over-hyping the problem.

    On the other hand, Gaia help anyone who has yet to be convinced that the now labelled climate change, as opposed to the previous term global warming, isn’t a result of a natural process that has occurred at differing rates throughout time and that demanding verifiable absolute proof of man’s ability to impact the rate of change in global climate change ( that sounds like a calculus type question!!) is heresy. They can’t accurately tell me what the temperature or wind conditions will be in the next fortnight – but the absolutely accurate computer modelling can tell me what is happening in the next century – OK – don’t ask stupid questions, you dolt!

    OK – I think I’m up to speed.

  16. derrida derider
    June 7th, 2006 at 13:28 | #16

    Oh look, there goes Paul Watson again. Talk about monomania – whatever the problem, it must be a conspiracy by the entire baby boomer generation against him personally.

    Have you got an elder brother who used to beat you up in the schoolyard, Paul?

    Paul if we’re going to engage in generational sterotypes, you should remember the distinguishing feature of the baby boomers is their massive diversity (which was the whole bloody point of the permissive society, mate).

  17. Katz
    June 7th, 2006 at 13:50 | #17

    “While I doubt that it was all carefully planned from and since the 1970s”

    Would that be because all baby-boomers were so whacked out on LSD at the time that they couldn’t tell what year it was let-alone plan for a nice little earner 30 years down the track?

    Don’t get me wrong Paul, in my book that makes the Boomers more culpable.

    What a shocking plaque they’ve been, and threaten to continue to be long after all Xers have been dumped in their paupers’ graves (after their organs have been harvested for cashed up boomers).

  18. jquiggin
    June 7th, 2006 at 13:55 | #18

    Razor, you’ve missed the point comprehensively, as did Joseph upthread. Most of those who’ve been in denial over climate change, despite thousands of scientific studies on every detail of the problem, uncritically accepted the Y2K scare on the basis of press releases from consultants and a few government reports.

    Feel free to point out counterexamples.

    And on climate change, salinity, intelligent design and so on, feel free to continue tying the political right to the kind of anti-science posture that helped to discredit the New Left.

  19. Razor
    June 7th, 2006 at 14:27 | #19

    JQ – I’m not anti-science. On climate change I am yet to be shown positive proof that the rate of change in global temperature has been and will be any different to what it would have been without humans. Greenland ain’t called Green land for nothing, despite it being very white at the moment. And Kyoto was an effing dogs breakfast because it excluded China and India et al – small thing called the Asian Brown Cloud isn’t going to change one iota until they start doing something.

    As for salinity, where’s the argument? I live in WA and see it all the time. It’s a problem, it needs to be fixed. Who’s responsible for the damage and funding the fixes and how much resources should be spent needs to be sorted out.

    Intelligent design yada yada yada – mate I’m a rusted on atheistic evolutionist who supports abortion and I’ve got a happy clapper sister who I avoid contact with (fortunately she moved to QLD!) because she keeps telling me God talks to her. I must be deaf because I can’t hear him/her/it. Oh, and I supported the cessation of old growth logging in the SW here in WA by the ALP.

    I actually liked your line of argument in the previous thread about the extremists at both ends of the enviro spectrum.

  20. Dogz
    June 7th, 2006 at 14:38 | #20

    “Most of those who’ve been in denial over climate change, despite thousands of scientific studies on every detail of the problem, uncritically accepted the Y2K scare on the basis of press releases from consultants and a few government reports.

    Feel free to point out counterexamples.”

    Abstract version of the above comment:

    “Here’s a gross over-generalization that I’m not going to bother to substantiate.

    But feel free to offer counter-examples, which I’ll proceed to pick off one-by-one, if needs be by adjusting my definitions to suit.”

    Its a bad habit of yours JQ: the “guilty until proven innocent” debating style. We expect more of our federation fellows.

  21. Tony Healy
    June 7th, 2006 at 14:41 | #21

    Paul Watson, I’m sympathetic to the generational argument but, in this case, programmers as a group were not the drivers. The drivers and exploiters were the managements at accounting firms and outsourcers, who are typically not software developers of any description.

    Robert Merkel, yes, I’m saying many information systems departments, researchers and projects are complete wastes of space.

  22. observa
    June 7th, 2006 at 15:21 | #22

    Just opened my last Y2K can of beans yesterday on 666 and you’ll never guess what rotten misfortune befell me!!!!

  23. StephenL
    June 7th, 2006 at 15:44 | #23

    “Greenland ain’t called Green land for nothing, despite it being very white at the moment.”

    Ever heard of marketing Razor? Calling Iceland just that hadn’t been a great success for those trying to recruit immigrants. I think they decided to try a different strategy with the new colony. And actually, a friend of mine who visited Greenland a few years back had some photos of some distinctly Green valleys there.

  24. rog
    June 7th, 2006 at 17:30 | #24

    Sorry John but this statement of yours is really wild; “Most of those who’ve been in denial over climate change, despite thousands of scientific studies on every detail of the problem, uncritically accepted the Y2K scare on the basis of press releases from consultants and a few government reports.”

    Who are these people who both denied climate change and uncritically accepted Y2K? Evidence?

    Not me. I always thought Y2K was bullshit. Whole countries did not buy the Y2K scare either.

    And then there is whats-his-name, the millionaire fat guy with Fahrenheit 9/11 and now ex-non-President Al Gore with his Apocalypse #2 filling seats and selling popcorn and T-shirts; I deny their media campaigns totally.

    Does it boil down to; which media scare campaign are you going to believe/not believe today? I think you are really scratching for a credible analogy on this one.

  25. jquiggin
    June 7th, 2006 at 17:47 | #25

    I’m afraid retrospective claims from pseudonymous commentators don’t count for much, Rog – nor for that matter do statements like “I deny their claims totally”.

    If you want this to carry more than zero weight, you have to either provide convincing arguments or give us some reason to believe that your judgements are authoritative.

  26. June 7th, 2006 at 17:59 | #26

    PrQ,
    The bank I was working for at the time (a large investment bank in the UK) did a large amount of work on the Y2K problem. The bank’s large systems would, on the testing we conducted, have failed to calculate many large positions correctly after 1/1/2000 and some of the older systems did just freeze up. The bank did take it too far in trying to remediate every spreadsheet being used in any way, but in their case at least a large part of it was worthwhile.
    I also had to be in the bank all that night (not my best new year’s eve) just in case; but it passed uneventfully.
    Perhaps your link to climate change is a good one – with a bit more understanding of the real extent of the problem we can do appropriate remedial work at some (but not great) cost and then fix up the rest if and when they go wrong. Paying undue attention to those with an interest in the matter, either way, just tends to cloud the issue.
    The problem is finding those who are truly disinterested (not uninterested)and then coming up with a sensible strategy.

  27. Razor
    June 7th, 2006 at 18:06 | #27

    I was actually in the air on a Singapore Airlines flight between Singapore and Perth when the clock ticked over in that time zone. Plane was very empty, although I don’t know if that was because of Y2K fears or because it was New Years eve.

    Completely OT – As a patriotic Australian I thoroughly recommend Singapore Airlines as the best in the region. Beats QANTAS for friendly efficient service hands down. Hopefully QANTAS can send some of their decision makers on Singapore Airlines to see how it can be done.

  28. rog
    June 7th, 2006 at 18:43 | #28

    John, perhaps you could first prove your assertion that “Most of those who’ve been in denial over climate change, despite thousands of scientific studies on every detail of the problem, uncritically accepted the Y2K scare on the basis of press releases from consultants and a few government reportsâ€? before demanding that sceptics prove their disbelief at same.

  29. chris shannon
    June 7th, 2006 at 19:11 | #29

    My other recollection of Y2K preparation was the equally suspect ‘business continuity planning’ that accompanied the hysteria. In the Queensland Government department I was in at the time, that included printing out important documents like phone lists, diaries of executives and agenda for upcoming meetings and storing them in the boots of cars so we could bravely carry on in the absence of technology should the worst happen. I’m sure that sort of allied response added to my sceptism about it all although Dogz is right, it was damn fine bureaucracy.

  30. jquiggin
    June 7th, 2006 at 20:22 | #30

    Not too difficult, Rog. Here’s my list of Australians who went public with Y2K scepticism prior to 1 Jan 2000:

    me
    Graeme Bond
    Stewart Fist

    None of the leading Australian greenhouse denialists appears on this list. So, unless you know something about Graeme and Stuart that I don’t, or you have some names for the list of which I’m unaware, it’s QED.

    Obviously, there may exist people who’ve been quietly doubtful on both issues. But I’m only concerned with vocal “sceptics”, whose energy could have better been allocated to Y2K.

  31. peter robertson
    June 7th, 2006 at 20:45 | #31

    I quite liked Y2K as proof that humans are utterly stupid when confronted with armagedon scenarios. The money spent kept the economy spinning on its endless doomed path. certainly agree journos pumped it up and the effect in the TAFE where I worked was bugger all.

  32. Dogz
    June 7th, 2006 at 21:25 | #32


    “Not too difficult, Rog. Here’s my list of Australians who went public with Y2K scepticism prior to 1 Jan 2000:

    me
    Graeme Bond
    Stewart Fist

    None of the leading Australian greenhouse denialists appears on this list.”

    Nor do any leading Australian environmentalists, physicists, catholics, jews, muslims, bricklayers or hermaphrodites.

    So from this we can conclude, by your own “logic”:

    “Most [environmentalists, physicists, catholics, jews, muslims, bricklayers and hermaphrodites] uncritically accepted the Y2K scare on the basis of press releases from consultants and a few government reports.”

    Reductio ad absurdum.

  33. SJ
    June 7th, 2006 at 22:09 | #33

    Good wurk there, Dogz. Yoo shure prooved that ol perfesser rong.

    Except you missed this bit:

    So, unlessyou have some names for the list of which I’m unaware, it’s QED.

    Obviously, there may exist people who’ve been quietly doubtful on both issues. But I’m only concerned with vocal “sceptics�, whose energy could have better been allocated to Y2K.

    Caint beet that ole logik, Dogz.

  34. rog
    June 7th, 2006 at 23:17 | #34

    Only 3 John required to form a consensus of sceptics? I guess 6 would be an “overwhelming majority”.

  35. June 9th, 2006 at 01:33 | #35

    I always felt that the Y2K issue was the ultimate retirement plan for IT people. Is it really possible that people smart enough to design all the systems in use were not smart enough to see that using two characters insead of four for the year was a limited life option? Or were they smart enough to know that it would result in a boom period for the IT industry when the time came?

    So many IT technologies that today are mainstream were experimental when they were designed. People reasonably expected them to be superceded before they reached critical mass. Two examples I deal with frequently come to mind.

    TCP/IP is today the backbone of the phenomena called the Internet. It has only recently been retrofitted with notions of quality of service or priority. However due to legacy systems and neglect the Internet still operates like a road network with no bus or transit lanes (ie not quality of service). A real time voice conversation across the internet can quite readily get bumped if bandwidth is running low and a time insensitive email or background system update wants the bandwidth also. There are solutions in place but they are far from ideal. We could scrap the internet and deploy ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) to the desktop and have end to end quality of service, real time video conferencing of high quality etc. However on economic grounds that would be seriously stupid. It is better to evolve rather than start again.

    More apparent perhaps to the masses is the problem with SMTP. The designers of SMTP were quite obviously not planning for a global email system, they were just trying to do something novel and useful. The “S” in SMTP stands for “simple” and yet today it carries pretty much all the worlds email. The world found out just how simple SMTP is when spam took off as a phenomena. Some unwanted email was probably always inevitable but the extent of spam in the form of fraudulent emails (ie not actually from who it perports to be from) is huge.

    Since then we have had loads of refinements to SMTP. Things like SMTP-AUTH got added and practices like running mail servers as open relays has become a no-no. More recently Sender-ID and SPF has offered a way forward in tackling address spoofing (spammers love spoofing because it helps to maintain their veil of anonymity and even allows them to increase their appearance of credibility).

    IT systems and their development, at least since the microprocessor took off, appear to be highly iterative. Top down design only ever seems to be a first cut and ongoing refinement and interative improvement is the norm. Typically things become popular if they work adequately and they are the first on the scene, not because they are well designed. To their credit the early designers had the forsight to make a lot of these protocols extendable.

    Right now nobody seems to be anticipating the Y10K bug. Perhaps it just seems a long way off and their busy on other things.

  36. Tony Healy
    June 12th, 2006 at 16:41 | #36

    John, this topic can’t pass without this priceless contribution from the so-called professional society in IT, the Australian Computer Society (ACS).

    Monday 14 July 1997, Canberra – “Media hype aside, the Year 2000 problem poses a serious risk to all computer-based systems and all IT professionals have an obligation to assess and report the extent of the problem in all systems for which they are responsible,” said ACS President, Tom Worthington.

    “Any ACS member who fails to take appropriate action on Year 2000 is in breach of the ACS Code of Professional Conduct and Practice. Lack of knowledge, resources, or authority to act is not a valid defence and they can be charged with professional misconduct under the rules of the Society, as well as facing possible civil or criminal proceedings.”

    http://www.acs.org.au/news/y2k.htm

    As you might guess, the ACS is not much of a professional society at all. Its president from 2003 to 2005 was a recruiter, recently preselected to stand for the NSW Liberals. The current president is a corporate lawyer.

  37. June 13th, 2006 at 12:43 | #37

    I think it is interesting how many date fields (eg on my credit card) have now reverted to two-digit dates. Look out Y2k100!

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