Monday, January 09, 2006

Cats, pianos and the Y2K scare

There's an old, sick joke I read in an old, sick joke book. It goes;

Man: "I moved my piano upstairs to the attic yesterday."

Other Man: "Boy that must have been a job."

M.: "Nah. I got my cat to drag it up there."

O.M.: "How did you get a six-pound cat to drag an 800 pound piano up the attic steps?!?"

M.: "Used a whip."

Before the animal lovers amongst you start writing your irate letters, I'll stipulate that I am a cat fancier (my wife calls me a "cat magnet"). The point is not cruelty to animals, it's cruelty to humans, as the remainder of this column will illustrate.

History shows there are two basic ways of dealing with human predicaments. One is to use the whip to force people to do what's necessary. The other is to allow people to figure out for themselves what needs to be done and then leave them free to do it.

The first method, exemplified by the monolithic governmental command-and-control, top-down philosophies of socialism, has never worked worth a darn. The poor suffering Russian people - the same brilliant and innovative people whose culture produced Aleksandr Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Sergei Rachmoninov - spent 70 years living in a land where all their major personal decisions about where to work and what to do with their time and money were made by an authoritarian government.

The irony gets pretty thick when one discusses the late, unlamented U.S.S.R. The fact of the matter is, without tons and tons of wheat supplied by the capitalist bloodsuckers of the United States of America, beginning in the Hoover administration and running through the Carter administration, the poor production of collective farms would have resulted in famine after famine.

The second approach to fixing real problems, exemplified by democratic republics with capitalistic economic systems, has worked stunningly well. Wherever people have been left free to solve their collective problems with minimum interference from whip-wielding authorities, there has been material prosperity, intellectual freedom and all the blessings of liberty.

A modern, classic example of that principle may be seen in the successful campaign to avoid the predicted disasters of the Y2K "millennium bug." Remember the dire predictions? At midnight, December 31, 1999, the entire civilized world was supposed to grind to a halt. It never happened, mostly because across the planet, individuals and voluntary corporate collectives went to work, free of government interference and in most cases without government funding, fixing the problem before it could fix us.

On the Web site, "the history of computing foundation,"* there's a history of Y2K called "A short narrative on why nothing (much) happened."

It explains that the effects of Y2K were slight "thanks to enormous extra efforts put into detecting possible millennium bugs, primarily in the utilities industry, insurance and banking institutions.

"Risks, governments reasoned, were assumed to be the problem of the financial and merchant industries itself," the story continues. "In some countries, spin-off companies of local universities were able to cover the most urgent needs, making use of work[ing] students or [other] trained ... people within organizations .... All very low profile and at low costs."

On the list of other positive influences upon the pending crisis are things like "most legacy systems were replaced due to the normal update cycle before the year 2000, where the millennium bug was treated as a routine check in the new systems; most software had been checked for the Euro-related issues and as routine [and] took the millennium bug into consideration ... ; programmers got strict instructions to pay attention to date-related algorithms before issuing a new version of software prior to the year 2000; most software manufacturers released new versions [in which] the millennium bug was treated as a routine check, long before the millennium came into effect and almost all computer related magazines published (routine) millennium checks for software that helped users detect problems long before the year 2000."

Let us take note of the fact that in this brief history of disaster averted, there is no mention of gigantic government programs. No laws were passed, no emergency powers were assumed by authorities, nobody went to jail, yet, curiously, things worked out quite well.

Not to belabor the obvious, but it must be noted that instead of governments whipping us into shape with a lot of legislation, threats and coercion, what happened was, a lot of individuals and private companies voluntarily did the right thing. They, not elected officials, were the ones who voluntarily got us all out of the mess created when the first computers failed to take into account that sooner or later, the date would begin with the prefix "20" instead of "19."

"The history" does make mention of government and its minions. And its observations upon these institutions are not kind; "Some of the most voiced [panicked sounds] were [those] of politicians. They and other public figures tended to forget that the smooth transition was the result of some thousands of persons [working] very hard ... Most people were unaware of the huge amounts of money and time spent by private corporations and some public organizations," it says.

In other words, if governments would just learn to leave their little whips alone, what a fine, peaceful, productive world this would be.

* Copyright: the history of computing foundation, 2002

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