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Bugging Out: Y2K Fallout or Business As Usual?

Pondering the end of the world before it happens.

I'm being paid to watch the world self-destruct. I've been here before.

During a stint in the Air Force in the late 1970s, while working in the intelligence field, I was briefly stationed at Offitt Air Force Base in Nebraska, more commonly known as the home of the Strategic Air Command. In Moscow, in the event of a nuclear strike, Offitt was known as Ground Zero.

I remember joking back then with my colleagues that if such a strike was imminent, we would all use our 30-minute "advance notice," grab a beer, race to the roof of our barracks, and simply "pop the top and wait for the flash."

I'm not expecting a flash this time, but the meltdown could be just a dramatic.

You see, I'm sitting at my desk, jacked into the Net with a couple of computers and waiting, watching. It's a few minutes before midnight, January 1, 2000. With any luck, I'll be riding the wave of the global Y2K rollover and chronicle in real time all manner of digital debacles, the cyberspace equivalent of black humor.

I would have headed out to the store earlier to stock up on supplies--I hear the 7-11 is still open--but the software that runs my minivan's transmission is on the blink; I guess my notice about the software upgrade got lost in the mail. So, for the time being, the minivan is grounded.

Just as well, I suppose. Who wants to be out at midnight any way? Several federal agencies and congressional committees have warned of the very real danger that civil unrest could break out; the FBI is on high alert for acts of domestic terrorism by right wing militia groups.

Now, just as soon as the Australian New Year's party Web cam loads, I'll be able to give a report on what's happening there. Wait, there's a flicker ... nope, it's gone dark. Just a little black square.

No, don't panic yet. I doubt it's a Y2K glitch, probably just a run-of-the-mill burp in network congestion. I mean, it's not like Web cams are anywhere near as reliable as my 10-year-old Ronco Pocket Fisherman ($29.95, not sold in stores ...)

Maybe I just need to refresh the browser; it'll just take a second. Damn, the browser froze. No millennium gremlin there. Who hasn't had to reboot a browser at least a dozen times a day?

Okay, the browser's back up, but the Web cam is still down. Let's monitor the news wires. Oh geez! Just outside my window there are explosions. It's happening! People are beginning to riot in the streets! I hope the National Guard is camped out nearby. Can a free society really endure a state of Marshall Law that the feds have put in place in case of such an emergency?

Just as little beads of sweat begin to break out on my upper lip a dose of reality hits me, literally. My 17-year-old son has stumbled into the office and crashed into the back of my chair.

"Chill out, Dad, it's midnight. We were shooting off some firecrackers." Smart-mouthed kid; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Just as my nerves settle (the Aussie Web cam is still dark, by the way) a noise like the sound of a revving armored personnel carrier splits the night air. Maybe the National Guard is moving in.

But no, it's just the $4,000 gas-powered generator my neighbor bought at the height of the Y2K computer panic earlier in 1999 being cranked up. Guess he's taking no chances.

I'd put on CNN or MSNBC to monitor the news, but the cable system isn't working; nothing unusual, probably another power outage somewhere. I'll just tap into a RealNetworks radio news broadcast. Rats, can't gain access, seems "Net congestion" is keeping it from buffering.

Okay, let me surf over to a few airline-schedule Web sites and check to see if any airplanes are falling out of the sky. What's this? "Yo, yo, You've b33n 0wn3d" is all the Web page says as a pornographic GIF file dances across the screen.

This little bit of uncharming Web vandalism reminds me of the warnings these hacking incidents might proliferate as electronic intruders take advantage of any number of Y2K computer glitches. But who's really to know? Exploited server security holes are more common than the boo-birds at a Mike Tyson fight.

It's now 15 minutes after midnight. The water still works. The power is on, though the cable is still on the fritz and my ISP connection is, mostly, working. Looks like the world has survived for now. Of course I can't be sure of all the ramifications because I still can't monitor any of the Web cams I have bookmarked.

Maybe I'll just close out this document and come back in a few hours for another glimpse. Uh, I said I'll just close out ...

Sobering Up ...

Sorry about that. Windows froze on me again, and I lost nearly half my text.

Now, were was I? Oh yeah, no end of the world. In fact, looking back at the Y2K rollover and any immediate glitches that may have occurred, I'm struck by the thought: How would anyone really know what caused the problems?

Here's the brutal truth: The computer industry is so thoroughly infused with defects and bugs, that problems of all sorts are simply taken in stride.

And this is the cruel hoax of all the Y2K computer problem hysteria: Severe technical problems are simply "business as usual" when it comes to computers and software. As consumers, we've simply become conditioned to endure the indignities of bug-riddled hardware and software.

If our televisions, microwave ovens, and cappuccino machines were as unreliable as our operating systems, there would indeed be riots in the streets. Congress would call investigative hearings and Wall Street would punish the corporate offenders right where it hurts--at the bottom line.

But the computer industry gets a free ride, despite the fact that software and hardware errors can and do kill.

A new book, The Software Conspiracy, by Mark Minasi has finally taken this issue head on. He roasts the sacred cows of slipshod software design.

Minasi opens his book with in-your-face examples: "A seven-year old boy was killed by bad software in a Chevy truck in Alabama. More than 200 people on a flight to Guam were killed by bad software in an altitude warning device. Twenty-eight Marines were killed when a missile lost track of time, again thanks to bad software."

Minasi says that 15% of all software makers, or one in seven, regularly ship products without testing them.

Companies in any other industry would be driven out of business for the arrogant, cavalier attitudes that are ubiquitous in the computer industry. These companies exploit the ignorance of new users and punish the computer literate--"It's a known bug, we'll have a patch out in about six months. In the meantime, simply reboot and ..."

We have no one to blame but ourselves. As consumers we've spoken, too often, with our checkbooks, routinely shelling out money for flawed products, wincing at the thought of the new gremlins that can strike at any time.

Y2K computer problems? Please. The entire industry is one big problem, and perhaps the best thing that came from the Y2K computer scare is it forced companies and several slothful sectors of our global economy to take a long, hard look at the antiquated and pathetic technology underlying almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Minasi's book offers a set of "do it yourself" guidelines for consumers in an attempt to inflame the masses and demand better software, and, I should add, the same demands should apply to hardware.

In the end, Minasi says to "tell the world" of a problem; companies often don't react unless the "bugs hit the fan," so to speak.

And just as soon as my computer reboots, for the third time while writing this article just before the clocks roll over, I plan on doing just that.

RELATED ARTICLE: Communications of the ACM March 2000

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BROCK MEEKS (brock.meeks@msnbc.com) is chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC.
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Author:Meeks, Brock N.
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:1524
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