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22.6.2019 Fairfax Article - Life - Y2k Bug? Y2Worry?


Y2k Bug? Y2Worry?

Take a moment to cast your mind back to the late nineties. We were obsessed with news about Bill Clinton and impeachment. We were horrified by the Columbine High School massacre. We listened to Elton John and Britney and a new generation became fans of the Star Wars franchise with Episode I ‘The Phantom Menace’ while the Euro changed the financial landscape across Europe.

In Australia, we debated endlessly about a lovely lady with a rather strange taste in hats being in charge of this nation. We were urged to vote Yes in that referendum by the Chair of the Australian Republican Movement who many of us suspected wanted to run the country.

And…Y2k bug fever gripped the world.

First some context. When computers the size of a room were being introduced in the fifties, storage was at a premium. The IBM 350, introduced in September 1956, had the world’s first hard disk drive. At 971kg it could only store 3.75MB and would set you back US$330,000 (current equivalent).

In writing software, the cleverest programmers deduced that two bytes of data could be saved when writing the date. For example, the date man landed on the moon could be written as 16071969 or 160769 with the latter more space efficient. To any human or computer, it was obvious they were both the same date and at up to US$90 per kilobyte (in current money), programmers were encouraged to be more efficient.

The Y2k problem was highlighted in the mid-eighties but the deadline was still some time away. Other problems seemed more important. By the mid-nineties, there was finally some acknowledgement that we should do something about the issue. Despite many computer scientists around the world running simulations and analysing millions of lines of code, the Y2k issue caused heated debates at coffee shops by people with minimal research on the issue. Just for a moment ignore all the logical data from specialists and pretend that there were two possible outcomes. It was either a hoax or the greatest self-inflicted calamity in mankind’s industrialised history. Then there were two possible actions. Throw resources at the problem to negate the possibility of this being the worst party to welcome the New Year ever – or ignore it.

That gives us four scenarios.

First outcome. Do nothing – and it was a hoax. News reports: “Lucky we didn’t waste any time worrying about that problem.”

Second outcome. Do something – and it was a hoax. News reports: “Much ado about nothing. We need a Royal Commission to find out who perpetrated this hoax.”

Third outcome. Do nothing – and it was real. News reports: There won’t be any. A complete breakdown of modern society would ensure the least of our problems was the fact that we couldn’t turn on TV and watch the news.

Fourth outcome. Do something – and it was real. News reports: “Welcome to the New Year.” You can hear the artist formerly known as Prince singing in the background: “So tonight I'm gonna party like it's nineteen ninety-nine.”

Of the four available options, the world took the only sensible course of action available to it. If it had been a hoax – mind you the best orchestrated and well-organised hoax in the history of mankind by a factor of a bazillion – then we would have wasted some effort and money on tidying up some lines of code. If we did nothing and the world collapsed, with the knowledge we had, how could future generations ever forgive us for what we had allowed to happen knowing there was a solution.

Many Y2k deniers pointed to a functioning society after midnight and told us we all fell for a hoax. That ignores one little number. 500. That was the minimum estimation, in billions of US dollars converted to current terms, spent across the globe to ensure we were ready for the biggest party in the world.

And we still didn’t get it quite right.

Despite US$500 billion, we still had date-related problems after 1 January 2000. Credit card failures; corrupted satellite data; school heating failures; nuclear reactor false alarms; rejection of food shipments; incorrect age-based screening tests for pregnant women and even a video rental late fee of over US$90K!

I can’t help but think of the parallels between now and the late nineties.

Today we hear constant talk of impeachment of a US President and we witnessed yet another mass school shooting at Parkland, Florida. We are still listening to Elton John and Britney Spears. Supposedly the last Star Wars movie hit our screens with Episode IX ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ while the European financial landscape is being challenged with Brexit.

In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull did eventually get his chance to run the nation – just not as a republic.

And looming over everything we do – just as with the Y2k bug – is Climate Change.

As with the Y2k bug, I see four possible combination outcomes based on two variables. Climate Change might be real or it might be a hoax. Like the Y2k bug, the scientists and experts have provided the proof and simulations to show the harsh reality of the situation but just for the sake of the argument, pretend it is a possibility that Climate Change is a hoax.

We then have the option for the world to take action…or not.

Option 1.

Do nothing. Climate Change is a hoax.

Result? None of the dire consequences of Climate Change come to fruition and we continue to live our lives as per normal. Sure, we will eventually run out of coal and oil but that is for another generation to solve.

Option 2.

Do something. Climate Change is a hoax.

Result? We reduced pollution across the world while we spent unnecessary money on creating other ways to produce power and propel cars. Some wasted money but the world seems like a nicer place to live.

Option 3.

Do nothing. Climate Change is real.

Result? We destroy the planet and kill most of the people living on it. Full stop.

Option 4.

Do something. Climate Change is real.

Thank goodness. The world was on the brink but mankind saved themselves from themselves.

When you break down the options, is it really worth the risk? In just the same way as the world could not afford the risk with the Y2k bug, it simply can’t afford to risk taking a chance on not acting on Climate Change.

The biggest difference between Climate Change and the Y2k bug is that there was a definite deadline that everyone identified with the Y2k bug. 1 January 2000.

With Climate Change, we may well have already gone past our irreversible deadline.

Mathew Dickerson

Mathew Dickerson is not a Climate Change Scientist. Mathew takes his car to a mechanic, visits his doctor when sick and uses an accountant to lodge his tax returns. He also has confidence in the scientific process. He is applying logic to a problem that is discussed in society every single day.


For a more detailed version of this article, see: 

Y2k Bug? Y2Worry?