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Stephen Fry's In the Beginning was the Nerd

Tuesday 29 September 2009, 10:00

Nick Baker Nick Baker

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The Western world, with a few notable exceptions, poured billions of dollars into electronic pesticides to defeat the Y2K bug. Only to find that for the most part it could have been defeated by turning the systems off then on again. Shades of the hit C4 comedy The IT Crowd. In reality it's the solution put forward in Stephen Fry's Archive on Four next Saturday by Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University, a world authority. Here - exclusive to the blog - is the full interview Stephen conducted with Ross on the crisis that fizzled out and the prospects of a real future digital Armageddon:

So, why the silence when the bug didn't bite? The answer's in the programme. Politicians, experts and businessmen all profited in status or cash from the threat. In the media - to paraphrase the crime reporters - it bled so it led. In the USA, government brazenly claimed victory for its defeat. In reality, the enemy was almost totally imaginary. But it's useless blaming the great and the good. It was inevitable. We'd been told repeatedly that this brilliant new technology would change the world. Then we were told it could all stop on the stroke of one spookily special midnight. We were the newly addicted, suddenly faced with the prospect that our supply was fatally endangered. There was only one thing we could do. Panic. Then spend millions fixing it. Sorry, that's two things.

Nick Baker is Producer of In the Beginning was the Nerd.

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    Comment number 21.

    Subminiture is absolutely correct about the cost of storing 4 digit years, but it wasn't just the cost of storage. When I started commerical programming in 1984, I was limited to file buffers of 512 characters, and this on one of the most popular mini-computers of the time - not to mention the fact the program and data had to fit in 28K maximum. It wasn't until the 90s that people stopped having to think about how they packed data into the limited resources of the time. You could argue that not having to worry has created a lot of the bloated software of today.

    As others said, a lot of work was done so that there was not a problem - there definately were things which needed changing in code.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    My favourite Y2K story was the KYJelly 'press release':

    The manufacturers of KY Jelly have announced that their product is now fully Year 2000 compliant. In the light of this they have now renamed it as: 'Y2KY Jelly'.

    Said a spokesman: "The main benefit of this revision to our product is that you can now insert four digits into your date instead of two." :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Good programme, thanks!
    But there seems to be a misunderstanding that it was just lazy coding that was at the root of the problem - not bothering to store the year number with more than two digits - well it was (of course) more complex than that...

    The MM58167 Real Time Clock chip was specified for the original IBM PC, and it only had two digits in the 'Year' register. This clock and a bunch of discrete logic devices were subsumed in 'Jungle' arrays, now standardised as Northbridge (faster bits) and the slower Southbridge which incorporates a pretty faithful implementation of the MM58167 - all in the name of compatibility with older machines and older software.

    So there was never a full year number to work with - unless some software did it independantly in the BIOS firmware or main OS. Not forgetting that some aftermarket programs may well access the hardware directly, or through a low level system call.

    So even if your computer maker or Operating System provider had done a good job and trapped the Y2K error in software, it was perfectly possible that some custom aftermarket software could bypass these precautions and talk directly to the image of the MM58167, which only had two digits.

    As I have said elsewhere, there was mirth at the late '70s design review meeting in Santa Clara when the design group mentioned that there were 'only' two digits in the year register....

    The whole industry was about a decade old, and it was not expected that any of the chips presented then would still be in use 20 years later, never mind 30!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Was there a real problem? Absolutely, and I like many previous commentators worked hard to fix it, in most cases successfully. Lots of commercial programs had, for perfectly sensible commercial reasons, been written using two-digit fields to hold year values and would have stopped running without remedial work.

    Was the problem hyped? Absolutely, there were people trying to convince us that all PCs would stop working on 1/1/2000 (often these people were PC salesmen keen to meet their quotas). In fact, by the late 90s, 80% of PCs (those built in the preceding few years) had been upgraded (BIOS updated) to handle the millennium rollover correctly. 80% of the remainder would roll back to 1/1/1900, require manually resetting one single time, and then continue to work correctly. Almost all the rest would continue to work, but require a manual date change after each boot - apart from a tiny number of truly ancient machines that would effectively be scrap after 1/1/2000.

    Despite this, many organisations (large and small) were persuaded to replace all their PCs. As Subminiature says, the technical staff sometimes colluded in the process in order to achieve what they felt to be a beneficial change that would otherwise have been blocked on cost grounds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I was moved to comment but aoakley and petomane have expressed my opinion very well. I too checked many systems and only one of them was flawless.
    Just as an example, take a system that makes appointments to service gas boilers once a year. A system with the bug would say it was always less than a year since the last service. Not obviously the end of the world, but it is easy to envisage serious consequences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Hi, Nick Baker here again, the programme producer. PompousWindbag - you are right. "Not obviously the end of the world." And elsewhere in the world where they did nothing to defeat the "threat" very little happened.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Some of us remember Ross Anderson's views then slightly differently, e.g.

    "Bright new dawn? Hardly

    Why are computer experts heading for the hills with large supplies of food and candles? On the eve of a utilities conference about Y2K, Emma Haughton finds out

    The Guardian, Thursday 25 February 1999

    Ross Anderson, a Cambridge University lecturer in computer security, estimates there's a five per cent chance of the bug causing serious disruption, such as power cuts or airport closures. Anderson believes we'll see the first disruptions around September, when systems that work three months ahead like payroll and stock control start to hit problems.

    'People may well then start to panic and stockpile essentials, but with 'just-in-time' methods of production there's very little in the supply chain and we could quickly see shortages.' The prudent will start stockpiling now, he says. 'Computer scientists who really understand the problem are buying a few extra tins or bags of flour every time they go shopping.' So is he actually doing anything to prepare himself, I ask? 'Well, I'm fortunate in that we live in the country, so we can subsist. I've got a wood-burner and calor gas, a stream and a big vegetable garden. And I'll stock up with three months' supply of food.' Three months? 'Three months' supply is sensible, at the cautious end of things,' he says.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Both sides are right.

    (a) Many systems would have failed if they hadn't been fixed. Some of these systems would have caused major inconvenience or economic loss (and perhaps safety issues) if they had gone down.

    (b) A lot of money was spent investigating, fixing, or replacing systems that weren't critical enough to justify the expense, such as classroom computers in schools.


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