ONLINE ISSN: 1525-898X
PRINT ISSN: 1525-9366

January 6, 2000

Published by Kevin G. Barkes | 1512 Annette Avenue | Library, PA 15129-9735-125
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Copyright ©2000-2013 by Kevin G. Barkes

Written by Kevin G. Barkes

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A mystery newsletter from your past... for the last couple weeks we've been working on some consulting projects, getting the business' records in order, enjoying the holidays and planning what we're going to be doing this year.
Look for some diversification in the great KGB communications empire. We're looking into e-zine versions of the report, a published version of our quotation and aphorism collection, perhaps doing something on radio and an overhaul to the KGB web site. We'll keep you posted.



We're not gloating, even though we consistently predicted western civilization would not end with the arrival of the year 2000.

The sad fact of the matter is complex systems will continue to fail randomly and with increasing frequency in the days, months and years ahead.

Unlike the nearly crash proof mainframe and minicomputer systems of the 1970s and 1980s, today's complex applications are frequently constructed on platforms about as stable as Robert Downey, Jr.

Current operating systems and the personal computers on which they run are actually designed to be unreliable. Most manufacturers admit that when low price is the major design goal, as it is with most PCs, reliability has to suffer.

Tom R. Halfhill wrote the best explanation I've ever read about the differences in mainframe and personal computer system reliability, published in the April 1998 issue of Byte
magazine. If you're currently on a mainframe or minicomputer system and thinking of migrating to a PC-based platform in order to save money, you owe it to yourself to read this article. It's available on Byte's web site, but if you don't have web access or can't find it, drop us a line and we'll try to get you a copy.
Interesting piece of trivia: Intel, which manufactures ninety percent of the world's microprocessors, uses Compaq's (formerly Digital Equipment Corp.) OpenVMS operating system on non-Intel powered computers to control its chip fabrication process.

What does that tell you?


Was the whole Y2K business a scam?

No, it wasn't.

It appears the media, especially broadcast journalists, seemed greatly peeved that no disasters of biblical proportion occurred. I even heard one hairdo on MSNBC use the phrase, "alleged Y2K bug" in a piece on Monday morning when Wall Street did not collapse into a pool of molten silicon at the opening bell.

Most large business systems did require repair, and it was an expensive, time-consuming process.

Typical home and small business users had it relatively easy, since most commercial software vendors offered free or low-cost fixes to their programs. Many users avoided the problem completely by simply replacing their old systems with new Y2K compliant hardware and software.

For big companies using custom-written code, it
was another story. Some had relatively ancient programs that had been patched over the years and lacked accurate documentation. Those were a real pain to fix.

Imagine that you knew certain bricks in a building had the potential to disintegrate on a specific date, but you didn't know which bricks were affected. In all probability, the failure of a few bricks probably wouldn't threaten the integrity of the structure. Would you be willing to take the chance?

Large public corporations didn't have a choice, with federal disclosure requirements and the threat of onerous class-action litigation. They had to examine every brick in their computer infrastructure for defects, and that's what cost US firms $100 billion.

Truth be told, many systems managers used the general hysteria surrounding Y2K to get the funding to do what they should have been doing all along: retiring obsolete hardware and software, inventorying their systems and documenting their applications. This guerrilla upgrade effort undoubtedly contributed to the inflation of the final cost figures, but also contributed to the great success of the remediation effort.

Why were Y2K repair costs significantly lower in other countries, and why were some nations able to delay repairing their systems until the eleventh hour?

With the possible exception of Japan, no nation has more complex systems in use than the United States. More computers, more cost. Less computers, less cost.

It also appears less developed countries weren't as dependent on high technology as some experts originally believed. And they're less anal retentive, too. Who cares if the water pumps think it's 1900 if they still run?

Also, the US magnanimously shared its collected Y2K remediation information on the Internet and in other public media, allowing foreign sluggards to concentrate their efforts on known problem sources, rather than having to start from scratch.
Instead of launching line item audits of Y2K expenditures, most companies should instead be thanking their information management staffs for successfully dodging the bullet.

As for the media's response? It reminds me of people who live miles downstream and out of sight of an expensive dam, who wonder if the cost was worth it because heavy rains no longer produce floods. Duh.

While countless programmers merit our congratulations for avoiding serious Y2K problems, there are three groups in particular who deserve special praise for providing the motivation necessary to deal with the millennium bug:

First, the doomsayers and survivalists, whose preparations for Armageddon captured public attention;

Second, the media, which fell over itself to spotlight obviously outrageous behavior and cluelessly speculate about impending doom.

Third, and most important, the legal profession.

Well, more accurately, the innate fear of the legal profession.

Programming experts and trade journals had been issuing warnings since the 1980s about Y2K problems. The captains of industry routinely and soundly ignored them.

But when word started to spread that hordes of lawyers were salivating en masse over potential Y2K liability suits, businesses started throwing serious money and manpower at the problem.

Better to replace a company's entire PC installation than fund a tort attorney's new Ferrari.


There are really lots of Y2K problems still out there, just none serious enough to grind things to a halt. When you're waiting for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to descend upon you with the Wrath of the Almighty, you tend to ignore the mosquito that just nipped the bridge of your nose.

I'd bet good money there are a not insignificant number of systems out there currently running with their calendars set to 1979 or some other pre-millennial era. These are probably infrastructure computers inaccessible to the general public. I know of one company's voice mail system that thinks it's 1970; a security system in a building that believes it's 1969; and one or two small accounting systems printing 1900 on the checks it generates.

For that matter, PNC Bank has been sending me credit account statements dated February 30 for 15 years now, and they seem to be doing quite well, thank you.

It's quite possible we'll hear after the fact of major breakdowns in the weeks ahead, just as it took the guvmint a few days to fess up that the network supporting one of its super secret spy satellites went belly-up on 1/1/00.

A quick pass through various Usenet newsgroups revealed scores of Y2K troubles, most involving various non-critical shareware utilities. Bugs in both Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers also caused some dates to be presented incorrectly.

In any event, glitches will occur throughout the year, although the source of the difficulties may not be what you'd think.
In repairing actual Y2K-related difficulties, programmers probably also introduced new bugs into the software they were fixing. These errors will pop up unpredictably for months and even years to come.

In other words, business as usual.

If you really want to worry about the next potential technological meltdown, forget about the highly touted Leap Year bug.
Worry instead about SolarMax. Old Sol will enter the peak of its 11-year cycle of intense solar flare activity in the spring and will buffet the Earth with huge electromagnetic storms. A number of earth-orbiting satellites could be rendered brain dead and the possibility exists for widespread disruption of terrestrial-based radio and television broadcasts as well as damage to electrical power transmission systems.

In March of 1989, during the last SolarMax period, a huge magnetic storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power system, affecting about six million Canadians. Power distribution companies learned a great deal from the episode and have taken a number of steps to reduce the possibility of another outage of the same magnitude occurring during this cycle.

The potential for satellite disruption remains great, however, especially since business and consumers have become much more dependent on the orbital platforms for delivery of communications services. Would you want to be in New Jersey when a magnetic storm fries HBO's bird just before the season finale of The Sopranos?

So, it's probably not a bad idea to hang on to that stockpile of canned goods and bottled water. You may still need them; if not for SolarMax, for the inevitable winter blizzards, spring thunderstorms and summer/fall hurricane seasons.

I sometimes believe the reason we haven't been visited by extraterrestrials is that their long-range probes focused on the weather along the eastern seaboard of the US and decided the planet wasn't suitable for long-term colonization by carbon-based life forms.

Fear mongers who were exploiting Y2K paranoia, here's a hint: redirect your marketing efforts to capitalize on the remaining media-hyped potential catastrophe, global warming.


As we've warned on several occasions, cable modems can provide a wide open door into your system for hackers, unless you have a reliable software or hardware firewall in place.

Windows really wasn't designed with Internet security in mind. Hackers know this, and constantly scour the net for unsecured systems.

Port scanning is a lot more prevalent than you might think. We use a hardware firewall to separate our local area network from the Internet, and the firewall machine keeps detailed log files.

Reviews of the log reveal an average of at least two unauthorized telnet login attempts and port probes every day.

A successful hack into our system could have devastating effects. Our mail server could be commandeered to distribute spam around the world. A thief accessing our PC could collect the numbers from all our checking and credit card accounts, access all our personal records, and potentially leave a totally erased disk behind.

If you have a cable modem or other Internet access with a static IP address, you need to visit Gibson Research Corp at

Steve Gibson, former InfoWorld columnist, author of the legendary SpinRite disk utility and GRC's head kahuna, has set up a free comprehensive web-based security test that points out the holes in your system.

GRC sells a marvelous piece of software called ShieldsUP! which pretty much makes your system invulnerable to hacker attack.

The site also provides, free of charge, a concise and lucid explanation of Internet security considerations. It's so good GRC could charge for it. In fact, I recently saw an "analysis" of site security by a big-name consulting firm that was pretty much a direct steal from the GRC site.

So much for intellectual property rights.


Sound bite heaven: Maybe it doesn't mean much to you that David Farber has been named chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission. Sure, he helped invent the SNOBOL programming language, was one of the developers of the first electronic telephone switches, did ground-breaking work on the design of networked computer systems, is an Internet pioneer and gave expert testimony for the government in the Microsoft anti-trust trial last year.

Ah, but Farber is the Yogi Berra of computerdom. Several websites are dedicated to the collection of " Farberisms" , his quasi-malapropisms that are a delight to collect and share.

Some of Professor Farber's better efforts:

· A problem swept under the table occasionally comes home to roost.
· Don't jump on a ship that's going down in flames.
· Don't let the camels get their feet in the door.
· He may be the greatest piece of cheese that ever walked down the plank.
· He's running around with his chicken cut off.
· I march to a different kettle of fish.
· Don't look at me in that tone of voice.
· Gee, it must have fallen into one of my cracks.
· Give him an inch and he'll screw you.
· An ounce of prevention is better than pounding the table.
· Cheapness doesn't come free.
· Don't bite the hand that stabs you in the back.

I hope C-SPAN covers Professor Farber's press conferences.
They'll be more fun than a barrel of lemmings coming home to roost.

Useless Web Site of the Week is the place to go for beverage news. Interested in apple beer gourmet soda? Borgnine's Coffee Soda? Did you know they're still making Fizzies? Who else would tell you that Yoo-Hoo Chocolate-Coconut drink "tastes like sun block"?


"Imitation is the sincerest form of television," Fred Allen once said, and it's turned out to be an immutable truth. Because of the success of ABC's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, virtually all of the broadcast networks are rushing to air their own big money game shows.

NBC and CBS tried to cash in on the success of ABC's Batman in the late 60s. Name the two campy superhero shows that aired from January to August 1967 and the names of the actors in the title roles. Use your lifelines and email your final answer to

Quotes of the Week

Herman E. Talmadge: "Virtually everything is under federal control nowadays except the federal budget".

Cicero: "If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity."

Max Kauffman: "The amount of sleep required by the average person is about five minutes more."

Idries Shaw: "Most people think they need information when they really need knowledge, and think they need knowledge when they really need wisdom."

Noel Coward: "Thousands of people have talent. I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head."

Tara Lemmey: "I think there's a very fine line between good service and stalking."


The KGB Random Quotations Generator has over 4,000 entries and is frequently updated. Visit it online at, and be sure to try the search feature.

All About Us:

Kevin G. Barkes publishes the KGB Report, a somewhat curmudgeonly-skewed weekly look at business and technology-related issues.
We operate the website, which contains an online version of this newsletter, the KGB Random Quotations Generator, additional information about our company and links to other interesting places on the Internet.
We're members of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and the Home Automation Association. Advertising space is available. Contents may be used with appropriate attribution.