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1998-02-13 14:43:06


The Analogy of the Asteroids


This analogy helps give the newcomer some idea of the magnitude of the problem. The numbers in parentheses refer to endnotes. You'll have to print out the document to get them.

I have added paragraph breaks for clarity.

This was written by Jim Abel:

* * * * * * * *

The Y2K Crash

A gritty analogy for the truth in three acts

Act 1: Bombardment

A giant swarm of asteroids is going to hit the earth. More than a billion strong (1), they are hurtling toward us right now. The center of the swarm is going to impact on 2000/1/1. Possible impact sites have been plotted all over the world, but the worst effects will be in the USA, Europe and the Pacific Rim. While there are billions (2) of sites in the target areas, only a few million really matter. By some quirk of nature, the most important sites seem to be among the most vulnerable. The swarm has been on a few radar screens for decades (3), but it is only now that it's true composition is beginning to be known.

The majority (4) of the asteroids seem to be made of bubble gum. If you are near the impact site of one of these (5) you will find yourself inconvenienced to a greater or lesser degree depending on luck. At every bubble gum impact site someone is going to have to clean up everything (6) before things can get back to normal.

A smaller percentage (7) of the asteroids are made of acid. It won't be any fun at all to be close by when one of these babies hits. It will more or less incapacitate the impact site. Collateral damage will vary considerably, but effects could run the gamut from dead systems to dead people to all sorts of toxic releases. At every acid impact site skilled people are going to have to work under great stress to salvage anything at all (8). Some acid impacts will be fatal to everything nearby.

The smallest and deadliest percentage (9) of the asteroids are made of a hollow shell of dynamite filled with poison. There are only a few million of these, but they prefer large, high traffic targets. When they hit there is an immediate explosion. The size of the explosion may vary to a great degree. Some will totally destroy everything in sight (10). Some will be mostly smoke and noise that only distracts from other nearby impacts (11). After the dust settles from the explosion the poison may begin to take effect (12). Not much is known about this poison. Some believe that this poison will cause instant paralysis in everything it touches (13). Others think it will only cause echoes of the dynamite explosions as it travels the fiber nerves. The truth is probably going to be somewhere between these extremes, but even a mild scenario may trigger massive disruptions in the organisms that depend on the impacted sites for their survival. At the beginning the swarm will appear to hit almost at random.

Certain dates are known to be heavy bombardment days. 1999/9/9 has a fuzzy but relatively high probability of impacts, as does 2000/2/29. The absolute focus of the bombardment is known to the minute. At 2000/1/1 00:01 the focus of the swarm will begin to impact. By 2000/1/4 12:00 the majority of the asteroids that are going to hit will do so. This date is absolute. Nothing can delay the swarm. Nothing can stop it. The leading edge has already begun to hit and we must cope or die.

Act 2: Remediation

To combat the swarm we have a hundred million missiles (14). If every missile could be used to full effect we could destroy many of the poison asteroids and protect the most important impact sites from the acid ones. Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to use them to full effect.

First of all, some of the bubble gum asteroids look exactly like the poison ones. A whole lot of them look like the acid ones. Many of them just look like bubble gum, but the impact sites that expect bubble gum are going to use up most of the missiles to blow them up before they hit. Most of the missiles can only work against bubble gum anyway, although some of them can chew up a whole lot of it.

Secondly, only a few missiles (15) can actually handle the acid asteroids safely. They fly relatively slowly, and they have to get incredibly close to tell the difference between the acid and the bubble gum. There are more potential acid impacts than any other type (16), and some of the possible sites are very difficult to check. The only thing these missiles have going for themselves is A) when they've found a bubble gum rock they know that every rock exactly like that one will also be bubble gum and B) when it's proven that no impact will occur at a given site they can be sure no impact will occur at sites exactly like that one. Let's hope they don't make many mistakes because there seem to be tens of billions of possible acid impact sites, billions (17) of bubble gum rocks that look like acid and tens or even hundreds of millions of acid asteroids that will most assuredly hit if not stopped.

As for the poison asteroids, there are only a few million (18) of them. Unfortunately, there are tens of millions of the bubble gum asteroids that look exactly like poison, and they can only be told apart by examining every square inch of each asteroid with a magnifying glass.

There are tens of millions of missiles that can be used for the poison asteroids. There areonly a few hundred thousand that can remember the whole surface of an asteroid at once and they can't see through their lenses very well any more. They are going to have to flit from rock to rock, depending on the millions of younger missiles to look at the surface and relay what they see. Some of them are going to spend so much time flitting about they won't have time to be sure about any asteroids. Some of them are going to get tired of working through the younger missiles and spend their whole remaining time trying to be sure about one rock. Some of the younger missiles are going to rise to the occasion and learn to ID and blow up poison without wasting their time on bubble gum. Some aren't.

A large fraction (19) of the asteroids are going to hit.

Act 3: Evolution in Action

As the impacts begin to occur, many residents of industrialized countries will start questioning whether their heavily interdependent lifestyle will be viable in the long term. Human nature being what it is, most of them won't actually do anything until their discomfort rises above a certain culturally mandated threshold (at which time many of them will act in unconscious concert). When they do begin to act, they will start by attempting to make themselves independent from possible economic problems. Since our entire economic system is essentially a huge mutual hallucination their actions will of course precipitate the very events they are trying to avoid. As the true consequences of Y2K sink in people will bolt in one of three directions (in general):

A) Those who have the most to lose will adamantly deny that the world is changing until forced to. They will work to protect what they see as their richly deserved (for whatever reason) position from any and all. Although those capable of perceiving the paradigm shifts as they happen will probably land on their feet many of these people will be devastated by the events of the millennium.

B) Opportunists come in many flavors, and during the next two years they will all come out of the woodwork. From those determined to use these events to ferment a permaculture revolution to those determined that they will have the most toys/money/land/disciples when the dust settles to those who just want to use the chaos to settle old scores, every agenda will be flapping in the breeze for all to see. One of these agendas will become the dominant meme for the next millennium.

C) The majority of people will simply suffer as these changes occur, as they have suffered everything from sabre tooth tigers to plane crashes. Some will die and some will be born and most will follow their social instincts and do whatever the majority intuits is appropriate. Since it appears that Y2K may serve up heaping portions of infrastructure failure to the industrialized world, one might assume that the majority will quickly intuit that mass panic and a grab for all nearby food, water and heat is in order. Is there anything we can do about this?

Well, is there?


(1) Assuming each potential buggy program or system is one rock, a small percentage of many billion microcontrollers + a small percentage of all PC apps + a large percentage of all mainframe apps = over a billion

(2) + all mainframes + all PC's


(4) Numerically, the majority of the problems seem to be either noncritical microcontroller failures or homegrown PC software

(5) + all PC's

(6) Only a small percentage of the embedded or PC sites will turn out to be critical

(7) Only a small percentage of embedded systems will actually fail, but that will be millions of failures

(8) Total remediation is impossible. Process control engineers are going to be working amidst the debris on the day.

(9) Mainframe apps. Numerically small (only millions) but very complex.

(10) Many large organizations are totally dependent on decades old automation. Many are doing little or nothing. Do the math.

(11) Many (most?) apps will not cause a company/government to come to a complete halt if they fail. They may still be poisonous to other systems that could cause complete failure.

(12) There will be all sorts of combinations of catastrophic failure with no repercussions, extreme repercussions from seemingly minor problems and everything in between.


(14) Who knows how many programmers will end up slogging through this muck?

(15) Embedded system specialists only come out to play during the full moon.

(16) There are more CPU's on this planet than people.

(17) Most embedded systems will be fine, most of the rest will fail in Embarrassment mode.

(18) Millions of them will fail catastrophically.

(19) What didn't you understand?

(20) There is no 20.


This whole problem is boring and stupid. So are Hippo's until they charge your boat.

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