Today we travel to a future where software engineers didn’t actually fix any of the Y2K bugs. What would have happened if we had ignored the problem? What lessons does Y2K have for us, and why are people worried about 2038?
- Peter de Jager — author of “Doomsday 2000” and Y2K town crier.
- Dr. Andy Michael — geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center
- John Feminella — engineering leader at ThoughtWorks
- Dr. Sara K. McBride — emergency management specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey
- Meredith Cornelius — Friend 1
- Arielle Duhaime Ross — Friend 2
- Lux Alptraum — Scientist
- Jayne Quan — Scientist
- Stan Alcorn — News Announcer
- Brent Rose — Nuclear facility head
- Matthew Pecore — Flight attendant
- ‘Here We Go. The Chaos Is Starting’: An Oral History of Y2K
- Y2K: An Autobiography — Peter de Jager’s podcast about Y2K
- The Town Crier for the Year 2000
- Expensive Y2K Bug Nibbled Away Millions
- Report: Y2K fix disrupts U.S. spy satellites for days, not hours
- Police computer turns teens into seniors with an attitude
- False Prophets, Real Profits
- Remember Y2K? Here’s How We Prepped for the Non-Disaster
- Parking Meters Are Rejecting Credit Cards in Y2K-Type Glitch
- A lazy fix 20 years ago means the Y2K bug is taking down computers now
- What is the Year 2038 problem?
- Epoch Time Calculator
- Warning fatigue : Insights from the Australian Bushfire Context (2014)
- Volcanic Hazards: Risk Perception and Preparedness
- The Big One: Your Survival Guide
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
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Rose: Hello and welcome to SEASON SIX of Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your extremely human host, do not trust any rumors that I am actually an AI, that is fake news. This show, Flash Forward, is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
A few quick things before we go to the future today, because it is the first episode of the season and we have some housekeeping to do! The first thing is that there is Flash Forward merchandise and you can get it, with fiat money, and it will ship right to your house. It’s very exciting. And, the actual announcement is that right now I’m donating all the proceeds from Flash Forward merch to charities working to help people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, so if you’ve ever been eyeing a shirt or a tote or a sticker or a trophy or a poster… now is an awesome time to get that. You can go to flashforwardpod.com/shop, and you can see all the options.
The second quick thing I’ll say is that… as you all know, it’s kind of a weird time. Is that the understatement of the century? Maybe! There’s a pandemic happening, and it’s scary and it’s impacting a lot of people, and most importantly I hope you’re all okay, and safe, and as unaffected by all of this as possible. As you might know, Flash Forward is a totally independent show. I don’t have network funding here, or a wealthy donor making it possible. It only exists thanks to a combination of ad dollars and donations. And right now, the future of podcast ad spending is, frankly, really uncertain. So if you are a fan of the show, and if you do have a bit of extra cash right now, it’s a great time to become a Patron of the podcast to make sure that this little show that could can weather this pandemic. And actually, for any independent creator that you like; now is a great time to donate to them. You can find out more about how donations work by going to flashforwardpod.com/support, and if you become a Patron there are a bunch of cool rewards you get on top of just… knowing that you’re supporting the show.
The last programming note I will say about coronavirus is that this season of Flash Forward is not about coronavirus. There is not an episode about a pandemic in the works. These are going to be episodes about other stuff. Every so often there might be themes that connect, and I might note them, but I’m hoping that this show can provide a little bit of a respite from the news for you; a little bit of travelling to alternate timelines where this isn’t happening. So I hope you enjoy it and I hope you enjoy the rest of the season.
Okay, last thing before we go to the future this episode, I want to quickly tell you about another podcast I think you’ll like. It’s called Science Diction and it’s a new podcast from the very smart and nice humans over at Science Friday and WNYC Studios. In each short episode of Science Diction, host Johanna Mayer digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and unearths the cool and unusual science that’s secretly baked into those words or phrases. For example, did you know the word or that the word cobalt gets its name from a pesky spirit from German folklore? Me neither! Well actually now I do, because I listened to that episode. If you’ve got that nerdy itch, chances are Science Diction can help scratch it. You can find Science Diction on Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Okay, on to the future! This episode we’re starting in the year 2000.
[outside sounds, at an ATM]
Friend 1: [calling from the car] Hey hurry up we’re late!
Friend 2: give me a minute! Jeez!
[machine beeping noises]
Friend 2 [calling back to the car]: Hey how much do you think we’ll need?
Friend 1: I don’t know, $100 bucks maybe?
Friend 2: Okay.
Friend 2: What the hell?
[more machine beeping]
Friend 2 [calling to the car]: Hey can I use your card? Mine’s not working. It’s saying I don’t have any money, which is weird because I definitely do.
[getting out of the car and walking over]
Friend 1: Okay but you owe me, I paid last time.
Friend 2: You know I have the money.
Friend 1: Yeah yeah, that’s what they always say.
Friend 1: What the hell?
Friend 2: Yeah it said the same thing to me.
Friend 1: Maybe this machine is broken…
[sounds of typing]
Military Person 1: Hey MB?
Military Person 2: [from across the room] What’s up
Military Person 1: Can you look at this?
Military Person 2: [from across the room] Yeah, one second.
Military Person 2: What is this?
Military Person 1: It’s supposed to be data from 145.
Military Person 2: Huh… that’s weird.
Military Person 1: Yeah I don’t really even know how to interpret this.
Military Person 2: Do you think it’s the Y2K thing?
Military Person 1: I thought that was a hoax?
Military Person 2: I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never seen that … is that even… nope, no clue, sorry. Probably time to call the boss.
Military Person 1: Ugh.
Nuclear facility head: Listen, James, I’m not sure what to tell you. The whole thing is down. All our monitoring is down. Every time we boot up it just crashes again.
[mumbling on the other end]
Nuclear facility head: Okay now is not the time to point fingers, James.
[mumbling on the other end]
Nuclear facility head: [getting angry]: What do you want me to say, you were right? Okay, you were right, how’s that? Now that we’ve satisfied your ego let’s discuss the actual issue here which is that I have a nuclear research facility that has zero active monitoring systems right now… can we talk about that now, James?
[mumbling on the other end]
Airport announcement: Ladies and gentlemen in the boarding area, thank you for your patience. We just received an update from the FAA and I’m sorry to say it’s not great news. At this point in time, flights are grounded for the foreseeable future. As you know, your safety is our first priority. Currently the systems that track aircraft is completely down, so we cannot ensure the safety of our flights. We’ll be providing free snacks to everybody in the boarding area, and I’ll be sure to update you as soon as we get any additional information.
News Announcer: In breaking news, we’re receiving reports that several hospitals in the Washington DC area have lost access to their internet connected systems including defibrillators and heart monitors. Sources at the hospital say they suspect the culprit is the long pooh-poohed “Y2K bug.” At this point, the hospitals were unable to provide a timeline on when those systems would be back up and running. We’ll continue to bring you updates as they arrive.
Rose: Okay, so normally we travel to the future on this show, and we are going to talk about the future in a bit, but first I want to talk about Y2K — the year 2000, the year that everything was supposed to go completely haywire and break ,and blow up, and the world was going to end, but… it didn’t. Today, many people remember Y2K as a collective freakout over nothing. We make jokes about it, about how silly we were, about how we panicked for no reason. But that’s not what happened. The story of Y2K is actually an incredible success story.
And I want to tell you why.
To do that, we have to even further back than 2000, all the way back to the 1950’s.
Peter de Jager: Memory — computer memory — was incredibly expensive. And one of the ways that we put data into the computer was with a Hollerith card, a piece of paper that could store 80 characters. Now that’s less than Twitter.
Rose: This is Peter de Jager.
Peter:: And even with Twitter, people started to speak in symbols, and abbreviations, and all the rest. Well, we did the same thing with data. So in order to save two characters, we didn’t type in the full year. We didn’t type in that “Peter was born in 1955”. We just typed in 55.
Rose: Okay, now let’s Flash Forward to 1977.
Peter: I just came out of University, University of Toronto. My background was mathematics, computer science, and I was working as a computer operator, my very, very first job.
Rose: And the computers that Peter is working with, they are not connected to the Internet because the Internet doesn’t exist really yet. So when you turn them on, they have no way to know what day it is, you have to tell them.
Peter: So we type in — in this case — seventy-seven. And I go to myself and I say, “this isn’t going to work when we type in zero-zero.” So I go to my boss. I say, “boss, we’re going to have a problem with the computer out there.” He says, “what do you mean?” “Well when it gets to the year 2000, it won’t work properly.” And he looks at me, says, “you’re worried about a problem that isn’t going to happen for 23 years. Get out of here.” And I did, because he’s the manager. He’s wise. I’m a computer operator. What do I know? So I leave. I don’t worry about it.
Rose: And Peter is like, you know what, we do have plenty of time, somebody is going to take care of this at some point, I’ll stop worrying about it.
Peter: Then in 1990, I’m working for an organization. We have an e-mail system called PROFS. And lo and behold, PROFS isn’t using a two digit year, it’s using a one digit year. So on January 1st, 1990, we had a problem with our e-mail system. And I’m looking at this and fixing it and I’m going, “My God. No one is worried about this. We still have problems!” But who am I? I’m a nobody.
Rose: Now, it’s not that nobody was talking about this. Peter wasn’t the first to notice this problem, or the first person to talk about it, but he was looking around and it just didn’t seem like anybody was taking this potential problem as seriously as they should be. And in 1993, just seven years out from the year 2000, Peter wrote an article about this problem for Computerworld Magazine.
Peter: That they gave the title to “Doomsday 2000.” Not my choice, but it turned out to be a good title. And that dropped on September 1993.
Rose: Doomsday 2000. At this point you might be wondering why it’s such a big deal to get the date wrong in a computer system. What makes this a Doomsday scenario?
Rose [on the phone]: I know that you’ve spent a long time trying to — not to panic about this — do something about it. But if you will, perhaps, indulge me in a little bit of panic. I’d love to talk about a little bit more about what could have happened if we had not — I had nothing to do with it — if people had not fixed the problem?
Peter: So you want a doomsday scenario?
Rose [on the phone]: Yes please.
Peter: Fair enough. Go to the banking system. The banking system is the easiest one to understand, because everything it does is based upon dates. When is the mortgage overdue? When is your next payment? Etc, etc. How much interest do I owe on the account? When should money be taken out of your account? And if the calculations are incorrect, literally the money that you own is being misrepresented. It’s not accurate. And if there’s any one thing that we need to get accurate, it’s money.
Rose: And it’s not just that the banks would go down on January 1st, it’s that they’d probably stay down… for a while. Because fixing the problem would take time.
Peter: So if your bank account is inaccessible to everybody in America, for one month, what happens? This was the concern – was that if we didn’t start soon enough, we would end up with trying to fix a problem without any backup systems, without any contingency plans.
Rose: And it’s not just that we’d all have no money for a while…
Peter: The British government looked at their military systems; their missiles. And they discovered that if the date was the year 2000, the missiles would not fire. Now, that’s something they demonstrated. So if we hadn’t fixed it, the military system in the UK would not have been able to respond to an attack.
Rose: Nuclear power plants, electrical grids, hospitals, train systems, earthquake monitors.
Andy Michael: So I’m pretty sure the systems would have just failed, you know? The first earthquake that happened after midnight, the location would have bombed.
Rose: This is Dr. Andy Michael, a seismologist who’s worked with the US Geological Survey for over 30 years. And he and his colleagues spent about two years, on and off, fiddling with their software to prevent the earthquake detection system from crashing on January 1st, 2000.
Andy: There’s actually still some software; so it actually mentioned one version of a piece of software they were using was called Cluster 2000, and I was like, “oh, yeah, well, that’s the piece of software that my colleague Paul Reasenberg, we wrote in the late 90s to include the century and all the earthquake records.”
Rose: If Andy and his colleagues hadn’t done that, and the system had gone down, they wouldn’t have been able to tell you the exact location of earthquakes that happened while the monitors were offline. And that might not seem like that big of a deal, but it is.
Andy: Some of the information we provide goes to emergency managers, and they want to know where the earthquake was and how big it was so that they know how to respond to it.
Rose: These monitors provide data to companies like Pacific Gas and Electric, and local governments.
Andy: And if something starts going wrong on their network — like a substation goes out — they actually want to know very quickly, was that an accident at that substation, like a plane crashed into it, or a truck, or was that an earthquake? Because their strategies to minimize the damage to the electrical grid depends on how localized that damage is going to be.
Rose: If you don’t know where the earthquake was, and exactly how strong it was, you can’t respond properly. Andy pointed as an example to the 1989 earthquake that happened in San Francisco.
Andy: In that earthquake, because it happened during the World Series, and so there were tons of cameras recording that near San Francisco and Candlestick Park. And then there was some very spectacular damage to the Bay Bridge that was heavily filmed, and we had fires and some destruction in the marina district. People could have very easily, without earthquake information from the networks, thought the earthquake was up there. In reality the earthquake was actually. sixty miles away, down near Santa Cruz, in the mountains above it.
Rose: In fact, there were buildings that had collapsed in Santa Cruz, and a ton of damage to the city of Watsonville. Without knowing the center of the earthquake, local emergency responders might not have known to go there immediately to try and save people.
But instead of being caught without earthquake data, they fixed their systems. And on December 31st, 1999, the team gathered in the control room in California.
Andy: We were a bit lucky in that we actually had switched to running all of our computer systems on UTC. So, in California, midnight UTC happened at 4:00 p.m. local time.
Rose: At 3:30 pm they ran through some test data, and it all worked fine.
Andy: And then waited until after 4:00 and put through some test data again. And saw that it all located. And then we knew we were good to go. So we actually did open a bottle of champagne and celebrated. And then we were lucky. Since our Y2K was over, we were able to go home and celebrate New Year’s Eve at home, or with our friends, like people who weren’t worried about it.
Rose: And they were able to have champagne at home, and watch the ball drop, and maybe fall asleep before the ball drops if you’re like me, because they had worked hard to fix these problems. Which is why Andy gets really annoyed when people talk about Y2K as a big hoax or a silly panic over nothing.
Andy: Yeah, the idea that Y2K was a non-event drives me nuts because I know that a lot of work went in. When I see comments about “Y2K that was just, you know, not such a big deal,” it really drives me nuts.
Rose: Peter says this used to bother him, too. But now, he just lets it go. Because he knows the truth.
Peter: The banks that spent $100 million did not spend $100 million because Peter de Jager, or anyone else, said, oh, “there might be a problem.” So this notion, by anybody, that that Y2K was a hoax is absolute nonsense.
Rose: All told, the world spent about $500 bBillion to fix Y2K bugs. But even then, there actually were Y2K problems that did happen. Spy satellites in the United States were down for three days.
Peter: Why didn’t you hear about that? Well, no one’s going to tell you that the missile system is down. They’re gonna keep that to themselves.
Rose: Some banking systems did go down for a while, here and there, but again, the banks aren’t going to advertise that.
Peter: So you’re a bank manager. Head of the bank. And you have a problem. What are you gonna do, phone up The New York Times?. “Hey, Mr. New York Times, we have a Y2K problem.” What would that do? There would be a run on the bank. You’d create panic. So what did we do? We shut up. We didn’t say a word.
Rose: People who banked with the Golden 1 Credit Union, for example, found that their ATM cards no longer worked. One of the Hong Kong Futures Exchange computer systems went down for a few days. Law enforcement systems, in some places, put the wrong dates on their police reports, and therefore calculated the ages of victims incorrectly, including two missing “youths” age 83 and 84 who were not simply young at heart.
Now, I’m not saying that everybody reacted appropriately to Y2K. There definitely was some overreaction. Certain religious leaders and cultists proclaimed the literal end of the world, which is obviously not what happened. TIME Magazine put out a cover featuring Jesus wearing a sandwich board that says “THE END OF THE WORD?! Y2K Insanity! Apocalypse Now! Will computers melt down! Will society! A guide to MILLENNIUM MADNESS” Which is, you know, a bit much. But to say that Y2K was nothing at all, that’s not fair either.
And in fact, just this past January, there was more proof that Y2K was a real problem.
Peter: 14,000 parking meters in New York City wouldn’t accept credit cards. Why? Because of a Y2K problem. Most of the registers — cash registers — in Poland stopped working. Needed to be sent back to the shop for a repair. Why? Because of a Y2K problem. Now, why are Y2K problems happening in the year 2020, for crying out loud? Well, for a simple reason. We didn’t really fix the Y2K problem. What we did was postpone it.
Rose: Some people wound up fixing the Y2K problem with a technique called “windowing.” This method basically told the computer: okay, here’s what you’re going to do. If the two digits in the year slot are less than 20, assume that it’s a year in the 2000’s. And if the two digits in the slot are more than 20, assume it’s the 1900’s. That works great… until 2020 actually comes along.
Peter: There’s an irony here. And it’s a great irony. I’m very, very conscious of it. If the problems that had occurred this year had happened back in the year 2000. Then people would not be saying it’s all a hoax and a scam. They would simply not be saying that.
Rose: And this saga isn’t over, either. We’ll probably see similar things happening in 2025, and 2030…
Peter: Oh, it’s gonna be a problem, and there’s an added twist, there’s an added twist in 2100. How often do we have leap years? Every four years, right? OK. We have leap years every four years. Well, not exactly. It’s a leap year if it’s evenly divisible by four, unless it’s evenly divisible by one hundred. In which case it’s not a leap year. And there’s another rule. If it’s also divisible by four hundred, it’s a leap here again. 2000, a lot of programmers didn’t get it right. They believe that the rule is, if it’s divisible by four, it’s a leap year. That’s all they knew. In the year 2000, they got lucky as the year 2000 is divisible by four. It’s divisible by a hundred; according to the second rule, which means it shouldn’t have been a leap year. But, this is where they got lucky, it’s also divisible by 400, which made a leap year again. Lucky us. 2100 is not divisible by four hundred. It’s not a leap year. And there are going to be all types of leap year problems that year. That’s a prediction. That’s a guarantee. I’ll put money on it. Except I’ll be dead by then, so it doesn’t matter.
Rose: And there’s actually another date in the not so far future that’s going to be a lot like Y2K,, and it’s already causing really expensive problems.
John Feminella: So it cost about $2 million to manually catch up.
Rose: And we’ll talk about that, when we come back from this quick break.
Rose: Okay, so now we’re really going into the future here — so put on your future suits — and we’re going to zip up to the year 2038. And specifically, January 19th, 2038. Because on that day, we will be facing a really similar issue to the Y2K problem, called the Year 2038 Problem. Not a very creative name, but there it is. And it’s similar to Y2K in that it has to do with the way that some computers store dates, but it’s a little more complicated. So here’s the issue.
John: Computers have a funny way of telling time.
Rose: This is John Feminella, an advisor at a company called Thought Works, and he basically helps companies update their software systems. And he’s going to help walk us through this problem.
So basically, this funny way of telling time that computers have is that their entire world, their whole universe, all of time, begins at what’s called the Unix Epoch, January 1st, 1970.
John: So computers measure the passage of time — many computers, not all them — they measure the passage of time by looking at how many seconds have elapsed since January 1st, 1970.
Rose: So, five minutes after January 1st, 1970, the date would be encoded as 300. As I’m writing this, the date is encoded as 1,585,942,258. But by the time you’re listening to this, that number will be bigger. It’s kinda weird, but this is how computers do it. And that time number gets stored in computers, and used whenever they need to know the date.
But here’s the problem.
John: Many computers use what’s called a 32-bit architecture, which means that the kind of numbers that they can store are limited to 32 bits. They can store more information than that, but each atom of information is about 32 bits. And that means that they can’t store numbers that can’t fit in 32 bits.
Rose: So as soon as a number can’t fit into that 32 bit box, there’s a problem.
John: And it turns out that, unfortunately, the date on which the first number that you could store, which doesn’t fit in 32 bits will occur is on January of 2038.
Rose: And even though the 2038 problem is technically 18 years away, it’s already started breaking stuff. Back in January of 2018, John got a text from the CIO of a company he had been working with.
John: And they said, “we have a super duper, DEFCON 1, very bad situation. Can you come in and help us fix it?
Rose: So John gets on a plane, and gets on site, and he’s briefed on what’s going on. So this company is responsible for managing the world’s top 100 pension funds. And to manage pensions, you have to project out into the future, to calculate how much people are required to contribute to these funds. And on January 19th, 2018, it tried to do that and started encountering dates 20 years in the future that were bigger than it could store, out in 2038.
John: No one actually knew what was wrong, at first. As far as anyone could tell, this batch job had never, ever crashed before — at least as far as anyone remembered or had logs for. And the person who originally wrote it had been dead for over a decade at that point, and in any case hadn’t been employed by that firm for a number of years. So essentially, you had this unreadable, very difficult to understand thing that is broken and people are not sure how to fix it.
Rose: At first, the fact that these projections were off kilter wasn’t such a big deal. The system would get to these unstorable numbers, and it would crash, but that wasn’t visible to anybody outside the company. But that didn’t last,
John: There was another program that did depend on the first program’s output. And the first program emitted something that wasn’t right. The second program looked at the first program and said, “huh, I expected to see something here, but the thing I expected to see is not here. And I don’t know what to do in this case. So I’m just going to assume that all contributions that you need to make to this pension fund are zero.”
Rose: That is maybe a reasonable thing for a computer to think. Computers don’t know what pension funds are, they don’t know what they’re doing. So much like you or I might have guessed on a math quiz, it went, well, there’s nothing here, I’ll just put… zero? But zero has a very specific meaning in this context. A zero in the place where a pension fund contribution number should go… is very bad.
John: And this immediately caused a giant cascade of alert e-mails to all the internal pension fund managers, and everybody who was supposed to be in charge of making sure that the right money goes into the right place at this company. And they all promptly started flipping out, because one of the reasons that your contributions may show up is not sufficient is if the computer projects that the economy is about to tank.
Rose: And this is why John got that defcon one text, and flew out to figure out what was going on. So he gets on site, and has to wade through this really impenetrable code to try and figure out what the heck is going on. They obviously did figure it out eventually , but even that short interruption, that one weird blip, wound up being really, really expensive for this company.
John: By then, substantive damage had already been done, because none of the contributions that people should have been making were processed that day. So it cost about 2 million dollars to manually catch up over the next two weeks by making sure that all those funds wound up in the right place, and hiring an army of temporary workers to figure that out.
Rose: Much like with the Y2K problem, the fix here is pretty well known. One thing you can do is just upgrade your software to use a 64-bit system instead of a 32-bit system. And that doesn’t simply double the amount you can store, it actually increases how many digits you can store by several orders of magnitude.
John: And that gets us many, many billions of years into the future, long after the heat death of the sun.
Rose: At that point, you know, we have other problems. But just because the fix here is simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy.
John: It is simple to get in shape. You go to a gym, you eat right. You have a balanced diet, etc, etc. Is that easy to do? Not always. Certainly not for a lot of people. And one of the particularly insidious things about the 2038 problem, in general, is that it’s often hard for people to understand exactly where the issue is.
Rose: There are two kinds of devices that tend to be vulnerable to the Year 2038 problem: there are those old systems that haven’t been touched in a really long time. Systems that the people currently running things might not even understand, whose code was written a long time ago by a person who probably doesn’t work there anymore, like that piece of software calculating pension contributions. But there’s another category too:
John: Long running embedded devices; so devices that have their own hardware and have their own software sort of burned into that hardware. You can think of this as IOT stuff, or maybe your toaster; something where there’s no real reason to update it because it just ships and doesn’t really change. And I don’t know how much of an impact that will be, but you can imagine, for example, let’s say an EKG machine that has this software running on it that somebody just forgot to update or never has updated before.
Rose: So when January 2038 comes around, we might see things like older cars, or medical devices, or ovens just… stop working.
Lots of software engineers know about this problem, and if they don’t know about the problem, it’s not hard to explain to them why it’s going to be a problem. It’s not that it’s hard to convince people this will be an issue, it’s that it’s hard to convince people to do something about it now.
John No one’s going to say that you should invest all your effort in fixing a problem that is going to be 18 years away, potentially, if there’s one right in front of you that’s on fire. But there’s always going to be something that’s right in front of you that’s on fire. And if you keep deferring the important problems down the road, and you don’t make it clear about what the tradeoff is, you’re just going to create another 2038 problem, just of a different sort.
Rose: Remember Peter de Jager’s boss, who was like “you’re worried about something that’s not going to happen for twenty three years? Get out of here!” That’s what’s happening here too. And John says that to him, this is emblematic of a bigger issue in software development; this tendency to emphasize the short term, focus on getting things done and shipping products without thinking out into the future.
John: This is manifested in a lot of ways, not just in terms of the software we write, but in terms of the impacts that that software has. We don’t think about how far reaching it is to improve the efficiency of a facial recognition algorithm that then might get deployed by a police department and be used to discriminate against certain classes of people, because they happen to match or not match the facial recognition system. So those categories of problems are going to keep coming up. And 2038 is just an instance of that same class of problem. And if we don’t want to keep creating instances of that same class of problem, then we need to continue to be diligent about what it means to be a good engineer and what it means to deliver software that helps people.
Rose: To be fair, this isn’t just true of coders. It’s hard to remember to think about the future when the present feels so pressing. It’s hard to learn lessons, like with Y2K or hurricanes or earthquakes. And in reporting on this, and doing this research, I started to wonder, whether we are ever going to get better at this? Will we ever learn? The answer to that question, when we come back.
Rose: There’s a weird irony to the Y2K issue. We remember it as an overreaction, because the problem got fixed. Instead of learning a valuable lesson: that responding to threats and fixing them and preparing for potential problems is a good thing, many people just remember it as a joke. And Peter doesn’t think we’re ever going to learn that lesson.
Peter: There is no solution to this.
Rose [on the phone]: You don’t think we’re going to get any smarter?
Peter: No. We’ve been here for 50,000 years. We’re not gonna get any smarter. We don’t learn from other people’s experiences. We don’t learn from our own experiences.
Rose: But not everybody agrees with him..
Sara McBride: I think it’s unfair to us. I think we have survived and thrived for millennia, and continue to grow and continue to expand our technology.
Rose: This is Dr. Sara McBride, a researcher who studies earthquake preparedness at the US Geological Survey. She pointed out that a lot of communities have weathered a whole lot of really intense disasters, and we’re still here.
Sara: One the one of my favorite things about the Solomon Islands was that they have hurricanes there, they have cyclones there. And we were going out around talking about food security and cyclones. And they’re like, “hey, man, it’s really easy. We just have what we call a Cyclone Taro.” And I’m like, “what’s cyclone taro?” Well, it’s a taro that grows deep in the ground. And just grows and grows and grows for years, for a long period of time. And when there is a hurricane and all the other crops are wiped out, they dig up this taro, and they eat the taro. And, you know, you can’t get more resilient than a community that’s been there twenty thousand years, right? Solomon Islanders are incredibly resilient people.
Rose: Sara has spent a lot of her career trying to get people to think about and prepare for disaster, and she actually loves the Y2K story.
Sara: I mean, it’s such a great story, right? These near misses we had weren’t near misses because of fate. They weren’t near misses because the hand of God came in and stopped something from happening. Actually, people got in the way and made sure that it was… they soften the blow of this event. And that’s the beautiful thing about people, and about all of these professions that work in this space, is that it’s our job to step in the way of these events coming, and try to soften the blow. And sometimes we can do that effectively, and sometimes we can’t. I think in Y2K… Y2K is a great success story. It’s a great success story.
Rose: But I wanted to talk to Sara, because I wanted to understand why something that’s such a success story has been so badly misremembered? Are we just not very good at thinking about risk? What’s at play here? It turns out, the realities of communicating around potential disasters like Y2K, or a hurricane, or an earthquake are way more complicated than I realized.
So take bushfires in Australia, for example — they tend to flare up at certain times, so the month before fire season emergency managers tend to up their public outreach.
But one study, done by a researcher named Brenda Mackie found that in fact, that might backfire.
Sara: And she found that, again, people were less likely to prepare during that month because they were seeing all of these messages coming through. And they had, you know, a complex mix of warning fatigue, where they were just tired of hearing about it all the time. And they were like, “well, that’s your job. That’s what you do. You warn people. So, yeah. Thank you.” And so a lot of people held held back.
Rose: In another study researchers looked at Auckland,
Sara: About 2 million people live in Auckland. It’s the largest city in New Zealand. And Auckland was built on the Auckland volcanic zone, which has basically little volcanoes, can come up quite rapidly. Little to fairly good sized volcanoes can come up rapidly in the middle of this now built environment that has happened in Auckland
Rose: So emergency managers created this really slick campaign to help educate people in Auckland about the dangers they might face, and how to prepare for them. And they did this study looking at preparedness before and after this really great campaign.
SarA: And what he found was that people were less likely to prepare, after the public education campaign came out.
Rose: And one of the reasons people cited for why they stopped getting ready, was that the education campaign was so good and so well produced.
Sara: Well, we’re seeing all of this great material coming out. Surely there’s an agency and a group of people to look after us, so we don’t really have to prepare on our own.
Rose: And for emergency managers this is kind of baffling, right? Like… should they do their jobs… worse?
Sara: Do we just be really incompetent at our job? Is that the goal? Like, do we just not put out public education, or be like the emergency management group says, “it’s all fine. Everything’s good. You don’t need to do anything” to create a sense of cynicism in the public and what is it going to take to actually get these public education campaigns successful?
Rose: Obviously that’s not what they decided to do, but it can be weird and sometimes frustrating trying to get people to pay attention to stuff that isn’t happening yet, or that they think isn’t a big deal. I lived in New York City when Hurricane Sandy hit, which really devastated a lot of the city. And a lot of people didn’t prepare for that hurricane, because the year before we had had a hurricane that everybody said was going to be really big and scary. And then it kinda wasn’t. So the year Sandy hit people were like “wait a minute, last time you said this was a whole big deal, and it wasn’t so… we’ll be fine, right?” And even in the middle of a disaster, when we all recognize that it’s happening, it’s hard to know exactly what to say, or how to best communicate what’s going on or what people should do, or how people should feel.
But Sara did have one suggestion that I found super interesting:
Sara: One of my least favorite messages, and this might be kind of controversia, is the stay calm message.
Rose [on the phone]: Oh, yeah?
Sara: The most useless message I think I’ve ever heard. Because telling people how to feel is an impossible… you can’t control people’s emotions or feelings. What you can do is advise behaviors that will improve their situation. But telling them to remain calm, there’s no evidence anywhere that I’ve ever found actually is an effective message. It’s just a wasted message. And it also implies that people can’t be anxious and calm, because we can be two things at once. We can feel multiple emotions at once. That is that is absolutely a possibility. And so, I really wish we would stop telling people to be calm
Rose [on the phone]: That is true, I feel like if I’ve been to calm down, my reaction is FU.
Sara: Exactly. You know that that’s a relationship killer. Once your partner says, “I think you need to calm down,” you’re like, “oh, that’s it. It’s on. I was calm. I’ll tell you to calm down.” It doesn’t work in our personal relationships to tell people, “I think you need to relax.” What does help, and what we know helps, is to acknowledge that people are feeling these ways, and acknowledge that and have compassion for that.
Rose: I confess, listeners, that I have literally told you to stay calm on this very podcast. So… I’m sorry about that. It’s okay to feel confused, and scared, and even a little bit of panic during a disaster. That’s pretty normal.
Ultimately, Sara says that the kind of forgetting we do about disasters, it’s kind of inevitable. Even the ones that are really bad, and not the ones we narrowly avoid.
Sara: I think it’s inevitable. I think it’s inevitable that we will forget. You have these huge events, like the Great Depression, for instance, which stayed with that generation. I mean, you talk to anyone who did live through the depression, and food storage, and preparedness, and learning how to do things at home, and having home skills; that was a real important fundamental. So that changed the culture of that generation, right? But then those lessons became more and more diffused over time.
Rose: So if we aren’t going to remember disasters very well, how can we mentally brace for them? Along with stocking up on food and having an emergency plan, is there anything you and I can do to feel more ready? Sara says yes; she has three tips:
Sara: The first part of dealing with mental preparedness is accepting what can happen, right? Like, accepting that we can have a huge offsetting earthquake, or we can have a hurricane. Or accepting that these things can, and are likely to occur sometime in your lifetime, I think, is the first step of going, right? Here’s what can happen.
And then the second thing is really finding out as much good, verifiable information you can about that particular event.
The other thing I would say to be more resilient is really do all you can, but then also find as much joy as you can in the situation that you’ve got.
Rose: So, admit that something is likely to happen and come to terms with it, seek out information so you can prepare smartly, and then… try and embrace joy as much as possible. That’s a pretty good way to deal with most things, not just earthquakes or Y2K.
Okay, I want to add one last thing here… and this is Rose, me, talking, not Sara or Andy or any of the other people who you’ve heard from on this episode. I know that this is an episode about Y2K, but… it’s hard for me not to see parallels here between Y2K and the current coronavirus pandemic. If we had done things differently, and we had actually succeeded at flattening the curve, and avoiding the worst of this pandemic, it would have seemed like we had all stayed home for nothing, because nothing happened. And that’s what you want. In some places, there’s already data showing that the stay at home orders have worked to delay the flood of cases coming into hospitals.
If we got this right, in a decade or two, people might have remembered it as the pandemic that wasn’t, the thing that we freaked out about for no reason, even when that’s not what happened. The Y2K situation might be frustrating for those who worked on it, but it’s actually kind of the best we can possibly hope for. If we later remember it as nothing, that’s awesome. That means we did a good job. It’s this weird paradox, because that might also make us less prepared for the next thing, if we’re not careful.
I also think this pandemic has also really affirmed for me how important it is for all of us to be thinking about the future, and imagining what might happen. There were plenty of people who predicted this kind of pandemic in the years before it happened, and who made recommendations about what to do to prepare. Unfortunately, the Trump administration mostly fired those people and those that weren’t fired have basically been ignored. As a result, we aren’t looking at a Y2K situation right now… but instead a Spanish Flu.
So, in this moment of crisis, I will stop telling you to keep calm. It’s okay if you feel afraid. I feel afraid. But I also want to encourage you to find whatever joy you can. Maybe that’s a walk outside, safely, far away from other people. Or maybe it’s TikToks, or maybe it’s facetiming with your friends, or making your dog dance to Despacito… which is a thing that I personally find joy in. Whatever it is, it’s not trivial. And maybe some of that joy can be in imagining futures; imagining different futures; imagining better futures. Take it from a bonafide disaster expert, joy is a survival tactic. So go find it, and hold onto it wherever you can.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Special thanks to all the folks who provided voices for the intro scenes this episode: Stan Alcorn, Lux Alptraum, Meredith Cornelius, Arielle Duhaime Ross, Matthew Pecore, Jayne Quan and Brent Rose.
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