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1998-04-07 11:31:40


No Big Problem, Scientist Says. Planes Will Not Fall from the Sky



One of the ways you know you are dealing with someone who is not dealing honestly with y2k is any reference to the story of planes falling from the sky, which the writer insists has been asserted by people fearful of y2k. This assertion is itself an urban myth. It is hyperbole used by happy-face skeptics who assure us that there is No Big Problem here. The problem is not that planes will fall from the sky. The problem is a noncompliant air traffic control system that will have to be shut down by all governments. The problem is an insurance industry that will not insure the planes or their passengers. There will be no planes in the sky to fall. There is no one who has suggested that planes will fall from the sky. (Even in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," planes in the sky were an exception.)

Here is a recent professorial invocation of falling planes. And is he self-righteous about this! He calls it "deliberate scaremongering."

We have no pejorative phrase for deliberate calming. But we know the phenomenon can produce disasters. The repeated positive assurances by the Jewish banking community in Germany in 1933 is a good example. Hitler was No Big Problem. He could be dealt with. So went the comforting words. They cost a lot of people everything.

This appeared in the London DAILY TELEGRAPH (April 1).

* * * * * * *

Who's afraid of the Millennium bug?

Anthony Finkelstein says that fears of a world crisis and a global meltdown on January 1, 2000, are greatly exaggerated

We are being assailed by a barrage of dire warnings about this bug. Banks will fail, people will die in hospitals, household electronic goods will become unusable, cars will not start, planes will drop out of the sky. Most of these stories are the result of irresponsible scaremongering. Worse, they are scares deliberately distributed by consulting firms and others with an interest in millennial angst. Most of the extreme cases are urban myths.

Perhaps it is time to set the record straight. First, there is very little empirical evidence relating to the prevalence and gravity of the problem. A combination of commercial interest, confidentiality and poor scientific practice taint the evidence that is available.

The Millennium bug has been known about for some time. The overwhelming majority of computer programs written in recent years have taken it into account. The legacy of software where the problems are reported to reside is rapidly diminishing. Not all programmers of elderly software adopted the two-digit year formats, which are at the heart of the problem (these are the formats that will show the two last digits of 2000 when that year begins). . .

The worst offending programs are often subject to continuing maintenance, in any case. Most failures are likely to result in temporary inconveniences. Of course, the notion that these failures will occur on the stroke of midnight 1999 is ludicrous. Calculations involving dates in the new Millennium are being made now; there is a lengthy period for the bugs to emerge.

The failure of embedded systems, in which software is wrapped inside hardware devices, has received much sensationalist attention. Very few of such devices use absolute, calendar-style, time. Responsible engineers have been aware of the problems of employing software in safety-related systems for a long time, and there are rigorous standards governing its use. There are some problems with the use of chips with real-time clocks and other built-in software, but these are mostly elderly, and can generally be identified from industry checklists.

There is, of course, a real underlying problem. . .

The recent involvement of the Prime Minister has added an extra twist to Millennium bug discussion. I can find few professionals who take seriously the proposed 20,000 bug-busters. The suggestion indicates a startling lack of technical understanding and awareness. Many professionals are worried that key resources for advanced technology will be side-tracked to fuel an unnecessary information campaign, and to feather the nest of large consulting firms.

I would not wish to argue for complacency, but I think we need a healthy antidote to the "sky is falling in" mentality. I, for one, will not be worrying much about my microchip-controlled toaster, and I will not answer the door if the bug-buster rings.

The author is Professor of Software Systems Engineering at University College London

(1998 (c) The Telegraph plc, London)

The Daily Telegraph London shall not be liable for errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.


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