Y2K was not a hoax. It was real, but it was (mostly) averted.

Bernard Salt writing in The Australian today implies that Y2K was a hoax:

Do you remember the Y2K bug, the computer programming flaw that threatened to reset the digital world to the year zero at the turn of the century? Hospital life support systems might stop. Planes might lose navigation. Everyone’s bank accounts might reset to zero.

The issue surfaced in popular culture in the mid-1990s; it reached fever pitch in the 12 months leading up to the new millennium. And then on New Year’s Day 2000 … nothing.

Phew, that was close. Just as well governments and big business invested millions if not billions in consulting advice to correct the situation. Here was a looming calamity that only geeks could understand. Our job was to comply and to pay up so as to avert disaster.

But I am of course being unfair to the peddlers of Y2K calamity — they were simply feeding the natural market for fear of the future. Why, no sooner had Y2K receded than the threat of pandemic via avian flu and then severe acute respiratory syndrome was scaring us witless. Same modus operandi as Y2K: credible narrative that only geeks can understand. It’s all so terribly empowering for geeks.

This gets my goat.

Y2K was very real. The effects were real, but mostly averted — precisely because it was taken seriously.

So what was the Y2K bug?

It’s not a problem that, as Mr Salt claims, only geeks can understand.

By the late 20th century, computerisation was becoming commonplace.

Because it was common for people to write years as two digits, and computer memory in the 70s and 80s was scarce, and forward planning wasn’t great, so it became common to write computer programs to use two digit years; to assume that the year was 19xx.

By the late-1980s, it was clear that ticking over into the year 2000 would be a problem for those computer systems using two digit years. It was drummed into us when I started my IT degree in 1989 that many of these systems would still be around in the 21st century, and they had to be written to take dates beyond 1999 into account.

My desk at work, circa 1994

A simple example: To calculate how many years since one was born, calculate the Current Year minus Birth Year. For me in 1995, this was 95 – 70 = 25. Easy. But what happens in the year 2000? 00 – 70. Either the computer would stop with an error (software can be a bit delicate, and prone to just stopping if something unexpected happens) or it might conclude that my age is minus 70.

It was blindingly obvious that with so many systems out there at risk of not coping with the year 2000, something had to be done. It was widely recognised, and acted upon.

How to fix it

In many cases it wasn’t really known what would happen, so a lot of testing occurred to show which systems were Y2K compliant, and which were vulnerable.

If vulnerable, broadly, there were three ways of fixing it:

  • Expand date fields to four digit years — complicated at times, and not always possible
  • Put in logic that said anything between 00 and (say) 49 was to be treated as 20xx rather than 19xx — easier in some cases, but this would cause problems with birth dates in particular, for older people. It also means the problem isn’t really fixed, just deferred.
  • Entirely replace/rewrite the software.

Of course any of these activities involves a lot of testing to make sure it all works.

How it played out

In the late 90s I worked at a company whose software was mostly written in the early-80s, running Point Of Sale and back-office operations for thousands of Australian service stations.

They considered rewriting their applications completely, which would have had the benefit of moving from old DOS/character-based interfaces to a more modern Windows graphical interface, but they are hugely complex applications, and there wasn’t time.

I worked for them writing Windows programs that replaced a small portion of their systems, but mostly they did a lot of work fixing their existing software instead. (As of 2015, they still haven’t been entirely re-written.)

Right across the IT world similar activity was happening. To their credit, big companies (often with the oldest, most trouble-prone systems) worked the hardest to avert a problem, knowing that if their computers fell over in January 2000, it could have significant economic impact.

Of course some people worked very hard to prevent issues, and of those, some made a lot of money in the process. (In Australia there was a mini-boom in IT at the time, was many programmers also worked on implementing the GST, which came in July 2000.)

A few (especially smaller) organisations largely ignored the Y2K problem, or just hoped it wouldn’t cause major issues. But most either replaced or fixed their systems.

Some put in operational precautions — for instance in Melbourne, the New Year’s Eve trains stopped for about 5 minutes around 1am on 1/1/2000 (because 1am Summer time is midnight Standard Time) for fear there could be power or other disruptions. (Spoiler: there weren’t.)

IBM PC

So what happened in 2000?

Despite some panic beforehand, most of the big and important systems kept working more-or-less to plan precisely because the problem had been recognised and acted upon.

But some systems either failed in non-critical ways, or produced slightly odd results. Here’s a documented minor example: in early 2000 I received an insurance renewal notice — from a small insurance broker — advising me to start paying from March 1900.

Insurance renewal

There were numerous other cases of date errors causing issues, for instance:

The only potentially worrying events occurred at nuclear power plants in Japan. Radiation-monitoring equipment in Ishikawa failed at midnight but officials said there was no risk to the public. Alarms had sounded at another plant at the same time but no problems were found. — BBC

But mostly the problems were only minor and/or amusing.

Could it happen again?

Individual computer systems have the potential for similar failures due to data fields overflowing. For instance a system that uses a unique number for each transaction but only allows ten digits could have problems after they tick over from transaction number 9,999,999,999.

Some systems track dates by seconds from a specific date, and those fields could overflow in the future — for instance on 19 January 2038, versions of Unix that use 32-bit time stamps will stop working.

It was real

In his opinion piece, Mr Salt appears to be playing to The Australian’s conservative audience. Although he doesn’t mention climate change, he seems to be saying that because we can’t see the effects of Y2K, swine flu or peak oil, none of them were or are real, basically saying we should dismiss any doomsayers who come along proclaiming there are big problems ahead.

The reality is we need to examine the evidence and be rational about it. Some problems are exaggerated, some are real.

Some were real and were avoided. Y2K was one of those. The problem was not conceptually complex; you don’t need an IT degree to understand that if nothing had been done, there could have been big problems.

Daniel Bowen
Bach. of Computing (Information Systems), Monash University, 1992.

  • Quite a good list of Y2K failures from 1999… with a bunch of ill-informed “hoax!” comments at the bottom.

Today’s factually incorrect Myki rant article in The Age didn’t help

I didn’t think I’d write two Myki blog posts in one day, but…

Let me briefly go through the mistakes in this opinion article from The Age today then I’ll get to the real point of this post.

Myki receipts, Flinders Street station

”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, goes the old adage.

The claim in government circles is that Metcard is broke — at least almost — and needed significant investment to keep it running reliably. I don’t know if they’ve ever presented the evidence to that effect, but given regular cases of cards getting jammed in validators, there seems to be something in it.

The grounds for a new ticketing system were there, if it was likely to: (1) allow passengers to use $5, $10 and $20 notes on trams

Actually the original plan was for Myki to include ticket machines on trams which would accept notes.

It is unknown just how many people have been fined after boarding a tram holding a $10 note, only to discover that a $10 note – legal tender everywhere else in Australia – didn’t buy a tram ticket.

Legal tender does not mean every business selling something has to accept every form of Australian currency. See: No, the law doesn’t demand that Myki accept 5 cent coins, or that Metcard machines accept notes.

Picture this myki utopia: … so you simply whip out your phone, log on to the myki website and transfer credit on to the card, before touching on before the tram has even reached the next stop.

I wonder how he thinks the transaction gets from the Myki web site onto your card? Magic? Actually it gets transferred via wifi when trams (and buses) are in the depot… which is why they say it could take up to 24 hours.

(They should look at upgrading to mobile data of some kind if it’s possible given the load, and at the very least they should make sure updates to fixed readers are available within an hour or two.)

When you transfer funds into your card via the internet, you need to wait up to three days for those funds to be available.

Myki themselves say 24 hours (although they hedge their bets and sometimes say “at least 24 hours”), though I’ve seen it work in about two hours.

Until now, charities, community legal centres and other non-government organisations which provide services to people who are homeless or on extremely low incomes simply provided clients with daily Metcard tickets where the need arose. Now, they are faced with the prospect of providing a $6 myki card, plus fare, to each client for each journey.

I’m not sure why he assumes those people would need a full fare $6 card. Aren’t they more likely to need a $3 concession card (provided they have the relevant proof, such as a Health Care Card)?

In any case, as noted by The Age just last week, NGOs such as charities needing to pay for travel for their clients can use a paper Day Pass.

The bottom of the article notes Mr Marks is a solicitor with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service — perhaps the Transport Ticketing Authority hasn’t approached them about this. I know the TTA has been talking to a lot of other NGOs on this topic — for over a year now.

Later in the article Mr Marks derides the Myki Fares & Ticketing Manual for its lack of brevity. If he had read it properly, he’d have found on page 43 it details the Day Pass.

As it happens, I’m a great supporter of the Manual. Every PT system in the world has a myriad of business rules behind it. The difference is in Victoria they’ve put it out in the open so anybody can read it. Kudos to the Victorian Government for this.
Myki Pass details

when they ”touch off”, users are not told the amount myki is taking out of their account. They are only given the balance remaining on their account.

This is completely wrong. All Myki devices (apart from the old Metcard gates which are fast vanishing) tell you the current balance as well as the fare just deducted.

On the bright side, at least he didn’t raise the 90 day myth.

(“TheMykiUser” also wrote a blog post about this article… the author of The Age’s piece responded here.)

My point: factually incorrect rants like this are not helping

Myki has problems — some of them, such as the lack of a short term ticket, are really serious.

Mr Marks raises this, but his point is lost in all the misinformation, which undermines the whole article.

The factual errors, which should have been avoidable with a little research (you know, the type of research someone should do when writing for a major newspaper), mean the government (and I mean both the TTA, which is responsible for implementing government policy, and the Minister’s Office, which is responsible for setting it) will probably have dismissed the entire piece out of hand. It gives them the chance to say “well, there’s lots of errors here, the whole thing is rubbish.”

Myki is costing $1.5 billion over ten years, and the level of debate on this should be better.

The real truth is bad enough.

OK… next post tomorrow totally non-PT-related.

Update Friday: Russell has posted a response to this blog post.

Walking etiquette

I hope my kids don’t feel offended when I point out good etiquette to them. I think they probably know it all by now, but sometimes I’ll point it out just to remind them, and sometimes I’ll point it out/affirm their actions a little louder than usual so that others in the vicinity can get the hint — for instance on the escalators at stations: “That’s it boys, stand on the left.”

Narrow footpath, and truck with amusing number plate

Little Lonsdale Street has busy but narrow footpaths. Something I’ve noticed is that some people haven’t figured out that when walking with someone else, it’s rude to take up the whole footpath when you encounter a person coming the other way.

Generally when faced with this, I’ll just stop dead on the left hand side of the path, rather than acquiesce and step aside onto the road. (Well why should I?) They usually take a hint then and grudgingly fall into single file.

(Not as bad: walking slowly 2+ abreast, filling up a footpath, oblivious of others in a hurry trying to overtake you. Still inconsiderate though.)

Health insurance

The Medicare levy surcharge is, in my opinion, an stupid tax designed to force some people into getting private health insurance, whether they want it or not, by taxing them more than the cost of the premium if they don’t, all in order to subsidise the otherwise unprofitable private health industry.

I earn enough to be stung by it, but with the insurers bumping up premiums, it’s getting close to the point where the costs are comparable. My Medibank Private policy (covering myself and the kids, for hospital) jumps about 10% this month to $99.60 per month. By my rough calculations that’s now quite a bit more than the surcharge would cost me.

At the same time the premium jumps, the brochure says a bunch of services that were previously “Restricted” will no longer be covered at all — including major eye surgery, assisted reproductive services, renal dialysis, and hip and knee joint replacement surgery.

Not that I expect to need any of these anyway (in fact, I never, ever, claim anything). But they’ve got some cheek marketing it as giving me “more certainty about the benefits you can receive”.

Dental cover

Meanwhile, we’ve found that Jeremy’s going to need braces. Not that he’s delighted, but he understands that now is the best time to do it, while he’s growing.

I don’t know how much it may end up costing at this stage, but the Australian Society of Orthodontists says fees involved can vary between $4500 and $8000. Ouch. I should find out in a few weeks what I’m looking at, but even if I wanted to join a health fund, there’s a 12 month waiting period for orthodontic benefits.

How much would I get back if I did have major dental cover? Comparing a few of the policies on the government’s private health insurance comparison web site, it would seem that as is typical in this game, the benefits from the fund for orthodontic work are far, far out-weighed by the premiums.

If I wanted that cover, I’d be paying more than $1000 per year more to Medibank, for a maximum benefit of $300 per year (though it may rise a bit each year).

Now, I’m not expecting them to hand out so much money that they go broke. But surely for something for which there is a waiting period, which is a major dental expense, for which you pay a huge extra premium to be covered, and is likely to be once per lifetime for people (if it’s done properly), they could do better than a measly $300 per year? Surely that’s the sort of case where (in that year), the insurance company should pay out more than you’ve been paying in.

Even looking around at other companies’ plans, I could have been paying $2000 per year more than at present, and only be getting 75% of the cost back, which is also not a winning proposition given the cost of the braces is likely to be spread over several years.

Insurance is a little like gambling, but it seems incredibly unlikely that anything will happen other than the private health insurers making money hand over fist.

Perhaps I’m misreading all this information I’m looking at (it’s amazingly complicated; looking through iSelect as well helped a bit), but I come away with the impression that even if you make some claims, private health insurance in Australia is a ripoff, unless you’re chronically unwell and repeatedly claim for a wide range of different services (eg not too much of anything so you hit any annual limits).

And of course these premiums are after the 30% private health insurance rebate has been applied. The rebate is a massive subsidy of the private insurance companies, costing around $4 billion a year — apparently up from $2.6 billion back in 2003-04.

Jeez; I can think of better ways of spending that amount of dosh in the health sector without propping-up inherently unprofitable enterprises, but for all the talk of reform in health, that seems to be one Howard government policy Mr Rudd apparently doesn’t want to roll back.

When the rain comes

You know, there’s a reason they’re called golf umbrellas.

It doesn’t make them suited for crowded CBD footpaths.

And why is it that smaller people seem to like them so much? You’d think they had less body mass that needed rain protection.

Fair enough if multiple people are cowering under them I suppose. But more often than not, it’s just one person.

By the way, I reckon parking inspectors could write loads of tickets if they just turned up to schools at drop-off time (especially when it’s raining) and fined those clueless/selfish people who treat the drop-off zones as regular parking spots.