It turns out that the number of ways
programmers can conceive, represent, and
manipulate dates both explicitly and
implicitly is unlimited. (You are
probably familiar with Julian dates, for
example, where the day of the year is
represented as a number from 1 - 366. But
some programmers have found it
convenient to use 1 - 1461, representing
the number of days in a leap year cycle.)
These dates may in turn be represented in
programs by names betraying nothing of
their time-relatedness. How do you find
the relevant names and data structures
among millions of lines of code, in order
to fix them?
When Bank-Boston did fix certain
programs, it was plagued by system
failures as soon as it linked its computers
to those of newly acquired BayBank. The
problems had to be solved a second time.
Current estimates in the banking industry
are that, overall, the fixes will cost $1 per
line of code.
A widely cited estimate of the long-term,
global cost of the year 2000 problem
comes to $1.6 trillion. The trend in such
estimates is upward, not downward, and
surely few corporations or government
agencies have reason to announce
prematurely any gathering sense of panic
they may feel about their own emerging
prognoses. What we have so far is an
increasing number of carefully phrased
statements by official spokesmen to the
effect that if such-and-such a huge task
cannot be managed successfully, this or
that company or agency or industry faces
grave risks. Or else just the deadpan
announcement of fact, such as this offered
by Jack K Horner of the Los Alamos
National Laboratory: Various
well-calibrated software estimation models
(SLAM, REVIC, PRICE-S) predict that
fixing the Y2K problem in systems of about
500,000 lines of code or larger will take
more time than is available between now
and the year 2000, regardless of how many
programmers are thrown at the job. Most
of the US's military command-and-control
systems contain more than 500,000 lines of
code (Risks-Forum Digest, 18.96)
What all this still omits is the larger, social dimension. At some point, perhaps very
soon, some inescapable system failures
or last-resort work-arounds with
unacceptably high cost will become
matters of public record. With public
confidence shaken and the press beginning
its predictable feeding frenzy, there is no
telling where events might lead. The
issues here are not merely technical ones,
and a public whose primary education in
technological assessment has so far
consisted of little more than a diet of
Internet hype will not likely prove wise
and considered in its responses.
Which brings me to a newsletter I was
recently shown. It's by the financial
adviser and professional doomsayer, Gary
North. I had forgotten that one could
produce a newsletter with such shameful
disregard for the intelligence of one's
readers. But in these 24 pages of
sensationalism North embeds enough
warnings from well placed officials to
make reasonable people start worrying.
Among his various observations and
While the usual estimate for
code-fixing is $1 per line, in some
applications, such as military
applications, it can be almost $9 a
line. He cites a headhunter who
believes that, as recruiting pressure
rises, the hourly wage for fix-it
programmers will hit $300 or $400.
How many companies will survive
this kind of capital drain?
. Regarding the older, Gartner Group estimate of $300 - $600 billion to fix the year 2000 problem worldwide: This overly optimistic forecast assumes that there are enough programmers available who can read and understand the 400 [?] different mainframe computer languages, most of them unknown to today's younger programmers. It also assumes there will be a pre-repair agreement among all these isolated programmers: a single standard that all computers will recognize after they are repaired.
. As one example of the year 2000 problem: software keeps track of the millions of railroad cars owned by different companies and scattered all over the nation's tracks. Upon running into a year 2000 glitch, Union Pacific officials discovered that over 82% of [the company's] programs are sensitive to date-related fields. It has 7000 programs totalling 12 million lines of code. Estimated cost of conversion: 200,000 man-hours or 100 staff years.
. Last October Peter de Jager, an expert on the Year 2000 Problem, published a summary of two meetings at which he had just spoken. He said that 300 representatives from government agencies were in attendance at his first lecture. He asked how many of them were actively engaged in a compliance project. Three hands went up. A week later, he spoke before 140 representatives of Canadian public utilities. He asked them the same question. Six hands went up. When I read that, I knew: the economy is going to crash. It's too late to stop it from happening.
. Allstate Insurance (America's second-largest insurance company) has 40,000 programs operating as a
single, complex system on a
mainframe. There are 40 million
lines of code. In 1995 Allstate
employed 100 programmers and
budgeted $40 million to fix the
code, with completion scheduled
for late 1998. But all experts in
this field say that at least 40% of a
repair project must be devoted to
testing....Do you really believe that
a team of 100 programmers will go
through 40 million lines of code
and not make a single mistake the
first time through? (Typically, the
information North cites leaves the
reader unable to determine whether
the testing time was already
included in the 1998 schedule.)
All this leads North to posit scenarios whereby, for example, Allstate looks to be in trouble in 1999, holders of cash-value policies start demanding their money, other policyholders stop sending in their premiums, bankruptcies occur, people start selling off their mortgages, stocks and bonds, the markets collapse....
But North's primary scenarios involve
failures at the Social Security
Administration and Internal Revenue
Service. The challenges for these
bureaucracies are undeniably huge, the
history of failure massive, and the time
short. North interviewed Shelley Davis,
former historian of the IRS:
I asked her point-blank if the IRS
would be flying blind if the
revision of its code turns out to be
as big a failure as the last 11 years'
worth of revisions. She said that
flying blind describes it
perfectly....Then she made an
amazing statement: the figure of
11 years is an underestimate. She
said that the IRS has been trying to
update its computers for 30 years.
Each time, the update has failed.
She said that by renaming each
successive attempt, the IRS has
concealed a problem that has been
going on for 30 years.
North claims that system failures affecting Social Security checks are virtually certain, leading again to the bank and market collapse scenario. The IRS in turn depends upon the Social Security computers for data about taxpayers. As the problems ripple from Social Security through the IRS, citizens will stop providing correct information on their tax forms. The government will collapse.
Well, the point is that North's alarmism is
as much part of the total picture as the
purely technical work to be done. Would
it take more than one or two high-profile
failures to push events along one or
another out-of-control trajectory? There
don't seem to be many left who are willing
to deny the chaotic possibilities outright
in which case it's hard to justify the term
alarmism above. Given the scale of the
potential disasters, however remote their
likelihood, what can one be if not alarmed?
How did we get here? That is the question upon which I hope to offer some commentary in the future. There will undoubtedly be much finger-pointing throughout society, but the interesting thing to me is how hard (and unprofitable) that exercise turns out to be if one wants to identify real guilt. We need, rather, to look at the overall relation between technology and society, colored as it is by attitudes in which we all participate. Clearly there is something amiss in the casual way we have been marrying social structure to programming technique, and
we need to understand just what this is.
Unfortunately, the social atmosphere in
coming days may not be very conducive to
This piece first appeared in NETFUTURE
Issue No. 44, April 1997.
Everything that happens anywhere in
society, according to Phil Agre (Red
Rock Eater News Service), happens on
the Internet too, but everything that
happens on the Internet is news, and when
something bad happens on the Internet, the
'line' instantly arises that the bad thing in
question is a property of the Internet.
Agre is commenting on the
Internet-assisted spread of a, presumably
silly, rumor about comet Hale-Bopp. The
rumor, he points out, was also effectively
countered by means of the Internet. He
goes on to offer some useful advice about
from-the-hip characterizations of the Net:
Let's not let anyone essentialize the
Internet and say 'the Internet does this'
and 'the Internet does that' and 'the
Internet spreads rumors' and 'the Internet
causes social hierarchies to collapse and
brings an era of peaceableness and
decentralization to the world forever and
ever amen,' because those are not things
that the Internet itself is capable of doing.
Those are things that people do, or don't
do, as they collectively see fit.
All such statements of the guns don't kill
people variety (or of the opposite, guns
do kill people variety) are likely to
provoke yet another instalment of my
periodic harangue about technological
neutrality. This one is no exception.
The argument that guns don't kill people;
people do is unassailably correct and
comes down nicely on the side of human
freedom to use technology as we choose.
The theme of freedom along with its
correlate, responsibility is one I've
pressed repeatedly in NETFUTURE.
But there's another side to the story.
Every technology already embodies certain
human choices. It expresses meanings and
intentions. A gun, after all, was pretty
much designed to kill living organisms at
a distance, which gives it an essentially
different nature from, say, a pair of
If all technology bears human meanings
and intentions, the networked computer
carries the game to an entirely different
level. Its whole purpose is to carry our
meanings and intentions with a degree of
explicitness, subtlety, intricacy, and
completeness unimaginable in earlier
machines. Every executing program is a
condensation of certain human thinking
processes. At a more general level, the
computer embodies our resolve to approach
much of life with a programmatic or
recipe-like (algorithmic) mindset. That
resolve, expressed in the machinery, is far
from innocent or neutral when, for
example, we begin to adapt group behavior
to programmed constraints.
Putting it in slightly different terms: Yes, our choices individually and collectively are the central thing. But a long history of choices is already built into the technology. We meet ourselves our deepest tendencies, whether savory or unsavory, conscious or unconscious in the things we have made. And, as always, the weight of accumulated choices begins to bind us. Our freedom is never absolute, but is conditioned by what we have made of
ourselves and our world so far. The toxic
materials I spread over my yard yesterday
restrict my options today.
It is true, then, that everything comes
down to human freedom and responsibility.
But the results of many free choices
above all today find their way into
technology, where they gain a life and
staying power of their own. We need, on
the one hand, to recognize ourselves
pat, formulaic, uncreative in our
machines even as, on the other hand, we
allow that recognition to spur us toward
mastery of the machine.
It is not, incidentally, that the effort to
develop the latest software and hardware
was necessarily pat and formulaic. It
may have been extremely creative. But
once the machine is running and doing its
job, it represents only that past, creative
act. Now it all too readily stifles the new,
creative approaches that might arise among
its users. Every past choice, so far as it
pushes forward purely on the strength of
its old impetus, so far as it remains
automatically operative and thereby
displaces new choices so far, that is, as
it discourages us from creatively
embracing all the potentials of the current
moment diminishes the human being.
And the computer is designed precisely to
remain operative to keep running by
itself as an automaton dutifully carrying
out its program.
The only way to keep our balance is to
recognize what we have built into the
computer and continually assert ourselves
against it, just as you and I must
continually assert ourselves against the
limitations imposed by our pasts and
expressed in our current natures.
It is not my primary purpose here to
comment on the Internet as a rumour mill,
but it is worth pointing out that there is a
certain built-in Net bias to worry about. It
may not be an essential bias, but it is a
bias of the Net we happen to have built.
For in the Net from our design of its
underlying structures to the deep grooves
cut by our habits of use we have nearly
perfected the tendency, already partially
expressed in printing technology, radio,
and television, to decontextualize the word.
More and more the Net presents us with
words detached from any known speaker
and from any very profound meeting of
persons. At the same time, the Net offers
us a wonderfully privatized blank screen
against which to project our fantasies,
Obviously, there is much more to say. But
not even the whole of it would be to argue
that rumour must triumph over truth on the
Net. It would only be to acknowledge that
the Net has been constructed in accordance
with certain tendencies of ours not
many of them wakeful, and therefore not
many of them safe to hand ourselves over
to without full alertness. The Net does
have a given nature, even if that nature is,
finally, our own. Not all things our own
can easily be waved away upon a
moment's new resolve, even if the will is
there. The spirit is willing, but the flesh
is weak and the programs are hard to
I need only add that Phil Agre, whose
remarks stimulated this harangue, is
shouldering more than his share of
responsibility for cultivating a proper
alertness among Net users.
Finally, in the spirit of provocation I challenge anyone out there who is bumping up against the question of technological
neutrality: rumour mills aside, demonstrate
how the analysis I have offered is
fundamentally inadequate as a first-order
breakdown of the question.
This piece first appeared in NETFUTURE
Issue No. 37, January 1997.
They are among Britain's most
uncontroversial hobby enthusiasts; people
whose idea of a good argument is debating
rolling stock gauges, and whose interest in
technology extends no further than the
Hornby Zero One computer control console
they bought in 1982.
But from the sedate quarter of railway
modelling, a storm is brewing which could
form the unlikeliest challenge yet to the
relentless development of cyberspace.
Faced with the incoming tide of global
communications, Railway Modeller, the
hobby's bible, has decided to take on the
role of Canute. Without warning, the
magazine told advertisers, many of whom
had previously included Internet addresses,
that the publication of URLs was banned.
The reason, according to the powers that
be? They felt like it.
The result has been a row which has seen
the hobby's establishment voice pitted
against a small band of young Turks
determined to place it at the cutting edge
To the rebels, the ban was nothing short of
a declaration of open warfare on new
technology and free speech by the
magazine. Smacks of 1930s Germany,
and a Thatcherite Tory party 'There will be
no criticism', steamed one angry
contribution among many posted on the
otherwise uneventful newsgroup backwater,
To add to the sense of farce surrounding
the affair, few critics are willing to put
their name to the criticism. I don't want
them cancelling my subscription,
explained one nervous reader who has a
complete collection of Railway Modellers
dating back to the early 1980s.
I am so fed up about this that I am even
considering not renewing my subscription
and that is a decision I wouldn't take
lightly, he added. It's ridiculous because
the Internet has really taken off for
modellers as a means of communication.
I am based away from the mainstream
clubs, but with the Internet I can put up
questions and they will be answered
within the hour, and the magazine should
be supporting that.
An advertiser who also asked not to be
named agreed. In their Luddite way I can
understand up to a point that they might
fear the competition. But that is not a
realistic scenario. It reminds me of
railway modelling shops refusing to stock
catalogues for mail order companies
they ended up losing so many customers
they were forced to shut down.
There is another twist to the tale: far from
turning its back on the Net, Railway
Modeller's Devon-based publisher, Peco,
runs its own Web site, where it publishes
preview articles and tasters for forthcoming
issues. It's not that they don't want to
embrace new technology; they're just
playing at being awkward buggers in the
same way they have done for years, says
Such criticism runs off the back of Charles
Pritchard, the magazine's managing editor.
It does seem odd, but it's a gut feeling we
have. We don't want to rush into
something that nobody knows very much
about and we can do what we like.
Our job is to further the interests of the
hobby, not the interests of the Internet.
That's just another electronic game, and
when people are playing with that they are
not modelling railways.
Pritchard is equally dismissive of the
rebels' opinions. I like to think we're an
up-and-coming hobby. These people are
not railway modellers, they are just out to
stir things up. Some of the statements they
have made about us have made us wonder
whether we really want to be associated
with them in the first place.
From the Online Guardian of 26 March
At a recent JavaOne conference in San
Francisco, Microsoft was all over the Java
programming language. Why? We know
of ten reasons:
10 They're just plain scared.
9 Java runs really badly on the Mac.
8 Runs really, really badly on Windows 3.1.
7 Easier to comply with a standard when you own it.
6 Can distribute Java code at Seattle Starbucks franchises (along with the printed edition of Slate).
5 Never really liked ActiveX anyway.
4 Big mix-up: Gates trying to buy sun-drenched island in South Pacific, got programming language instead.
3 Been looking to replace MS COBOL for a while.
2 Can blame all bugs on Sun.
1 Microsoft programmers get to hang around with Kim Polese at Java developers' conferences.
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