Oversight Hearing on Year 2000 Preparedness
of the California Legislature
Wednesday, February 24, 1999
For further information see the WWW page at
The Year 2000 problem ... is going to have
implications in the world ... that we can't even comprehend. ... If we built
houses the way we build software, the first woodpecker to come along would
destroy civilization. -- U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre, in
testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, June, 1998.
In this testimony I will be focused on Plan C. Plan A is remediation of the
Y2K problem. Plan B is replacement of non-compliant systems. Plan C is about
what we do if Plan A and Plan B don't work. It is also about what we do if
public anticipation of the failure of Plans A and B results in disaster,
something that now seems likely to occur even if Plans A and B do work.
While Y2K is in many ways unprecedented in human history, the potential
scenarios stemming from public loss of confidence in the monetary system and in
the delivery of vital products and services do have precedent in history. We
need to study those precedents.
First, we need to plan for the collapse of the world monetary system. It is
essentially fragile, a gigantic Ponzi scheme to which we have become addicted.
The Y2K problem doesn't have to be very severe to trigger a world depression
worse than that of the 1930s, and at this point it seems likely that Y2K will
be severe enough. We have started too late, put too much emphasis on
remediation instead of on replacement, and there is no longer enough time to
either remedy or replace everything. People know that, and knowing that, they
will do what they have to do to protect themselves, and the result will be a
cascade failure of the division of labor.
The onset of economic collapse is likely to occur before the worst of the
computer problems do, and make it more difficult to deal with them when they
do. But when they do, the failure of many systems is likely to compound the
depression with effects that most nearly resemble those that have come with
civil wars and natural disasters. But whereas most natural disasters have been
confined to small areas, this will be global, depriving us of the relief that
would be available to disaster areas from unaffected areas.
At its worst, Y2K could be very bad indeed. As bad as a civil war following
a depression. Everything depends on how long essential supplies and services
are disrupted. If it is only a few weeks, we could avoid major public
disorders, but if it goes into months we could have a major loss of life.
We need to keep in mind, however, that while Y2K may provide the occasion
for this systemic failure, there are many other things that could trigger it,
and probably will during the years to come. Therefore, the Plan C preparations
we contemplate today are likely to be needed even if Y2K effects turn out not
to be as great as they could be. They are like preparations for an earthquake.
We may not know when it is coming, but we know it will come eventually, and
almost anything we do to prepare for it is likely to ultimately be a good
We'll reach the end of the century still using
software that will crash when it has to handle years starting with
"20", and people won't get excited until it's too late to do anything
about it. -- Jon Roland, in a talk before a chapter of the Association for
Computing Machinery, 1978
2. Preparing the public
The dilemma for public officials has been to try to prepare the public
without causing them to panic and thereby precipitate an economic collapse.
They have therefore been underplaying the severity of the Y2K problem, while at
the same time advising people to take precautions. This approach won't work.
The people are too smart for that. And if they feel that they are being
deceived, the result will be worse than it would have been if officials play it
At this point I am recommending the public be advised to stock up on a
month's worth of supplies, in anticipation of a failure of most services and
supplies, including electric power, water, fuel, food, and medicine. More than
that would create a demand that can't be met anyway, and any less is likely to
leave them short. Most suppliers don't have storage facilities that can handle
more than that, so we need to get people to store what they will need in their
homes and places of work.
The people also need to be told, bluntly, that they cannot expect normal
police, fire, and emergency medical services, that they will be on their own.
The lesson of South Central Los Angeles is clear. If there are riots, the
police won't be there, and there will not be enough National Guard or military
personnel to cover ever city, much less the countryside, and involving the
military, besides being a violation of law, would be a fundamental mistake,
leading to a police state and civil war. The people are going to have to
provide their own police, fire, and emergency services in their neighborhoods.
That means they need to be told to get together with their neighbors to
organize, train, and equip themselves to do so. The main job for regular
police, fire, and emergency personnel will be to assist in the organizing and
training of citizens, who will need to supply their own equipment.
The people also need to be told that evacuation to the countryside is not a
viable option. There is no way that hoards of refugees from the cities can
sustain themselves there, without housing or other facilities, and they are
likely to meet armed resistance if they try to seek refuge on private property.
People might have been able to feed themselves by hunting during the Great
Depression, but that is no longer possible. There are too many people now, and
not enough game.
They also need to be told that families and households are not viable under
such circumstances, even in a remote area. Only neighborhood groups of at least
several hundred persons can effectively meet one another's needs. Each such
group needs to have a mix of skills not unlike those needed by a military unit
in the field. Everyone needs to do his or her part. There must be no free
riders. And groups having a surplus of supplies, equipment, or persons with
some skills need to be prepared to trade with those lacking those supplies,
equipment, or skills.
3. Community organizing
The first step in community organizing is to divide the state into
neighborhoods. These will vary in size, and the boundaries will need to be
somewhat flexible, but in cities people need to be organized down to the level
of the city block. A meeting site needs to be designated for each such
neighborhood, such as a school, church, office, or warehouse, and the people
asked to meet together and elect a neighborhood commander and vice-commander.
Existing political divisions, such as voting precincts, may serve as the basis
for this division, and existing community leaders, such as party chairpersons,
neighborhood watch coordinators, or ministers, might be asked to lead the
organizing effort, going door to door to urge everyone to participate.
The key to making this work is to make it socially acceptable for organizers
to approach their neighbors for this purpose. One of the main impediments to
such neighborhood organizing is the anonymity of most neighbors today. Too many
people live next to one another without knowing one another, and most people
feel awkward approaching strangers. If this effort accomplishes nothing more
than getting neighbors to know one another, and become friends, it will be
worth a great deal to the future of this society.
While we must try to get the people organized voluntarily, we must not leave
it entirely to volunteer action. In case volunteerism fails, we need to have a
The legislature needs to adopt legislation authorizing local magistrates
to impose fines and jail time on non-exempt persons who fail to respond to a
community call-up, in the same way they may be imposed for failure to respond
to a notice for jury duty, and penalties for failure to obey lawful orders of
the neighborhood commander or his elected superiors, who shall be designated
constables. The sheriff shall be the commander of each county. Exempt persons
would be those with disabilities or who have official or professional duties
that take precedence over their community duties.
Such penalties should be imposed only as a last resort, after voluntary
methods fail, and after repeated and willful resistance. The people in this
country have lost the tradition of such community participation and discipline,
and it will take some time to get them used to it again. If it is done right,
they will embrace it rather than resent it, and develop a new community spirit
that will sustain community participation and service voluntarily.
People should be asked to meet on a regular schedule, at a regular location,
for preparation and training, more frequently as the end of the year
approaches. They should be urged to follow a regular program that covers every
aspect of the preparations that need to be made. The program should also
include preparations to deal with such eventualities as nuclear and biological
attacks, toxic chemical releases, and other disasters that might require
evacuation, and each neighborhood should have an evacuation plan to a
designated evacuation site, with at least two backup sites. They should
rehearse their responses to a variety of possible threats, including injuries
to community members.
One of the critical services threatened by Y2K is electronic communications.
We have seen how during disasters either phone lines go down or are tied up as
everyone tries to call one another at the same time. The advent of digital
communications like the Internet has brought a more efficient use of available
bandwidth, as messages are broken up into digital packets, which are routed
from one node to the next, perhaps along multiple paths, until they are
reassembled at their destination. The Internet was designed to survive a
nuclear attack on the United States, but the reality of the Internet today is
that, while local subnets might survive calamity, the Internet as a whole
depends on long-distance, high-bandwidth backbones to carry the major part of
the message traffic. Therefore, it is dependent on "wires", that is,
fixed channels that require more power than batteries can supply, including
fiberoptic cables and microwave satellite links. These are subject to
The traditional answer to the problem of emergency communications has been
the amateur radio community. The current system it offers is the National
Traffic System, which supports a cooperating network of radio operators using a
variety of equipment and transmission protocols. For more details see
Unfortunately, the number of participants in it are few and scattered, and
while this system may be helpful for localized disasters of short duration, it
would almost certainly be overwhelmed by a worst-case Y2K scenario.
The ideal system would be a wireless Internet, consisting of a nationwide
network of independent portable, battery-operated handheld or wearable
computers, linked together by high-bandwidth transceivers, that could relay
digital message packets along a route to their destination, without ever having
to go through a fixed station or backbone. I have been advocating such a system
since 1994, and my latest short version of the proposal, which I call the
WIPnet, for Wireless Internet of Portable Nodes, is at
The good news is that the hardware components needed to build such a network
at a low unit cost are now becoming available, just in time for Y2K, and the
software needed to make them work could be developed during the next few
months, if a focused effort to do so were being made. The bad news is that the
hardware manufacturers, many of which are based in California, are mainly
focused on niche commercial markets in which they can tie their transceivers to
base stations and charge usage fees. Research on something like a WIPnet is
being left to poorly-funded amateurs.
Perhaps the single most important thing members of the California
legislature could do would be to put personal pressure on the manufacturers of
the components needed to build a WIPnet to focus their companies on developing
the essential hardware and software, and on marketing the units at a low cost.
The legislature might budget for the purchase of some number of such units, at
a fixed cost, as an incentive to the companies to do so.
Such state-purchased computer-transceivers would then be distributed to key
agencies, perhaps even down to the level of local neighborhood commanders or
their designated communications officers.
However, if we could establish a statewide or nationwide network of
computer-transceivers we would still require a way to communicate in broadcast
mode with the general population. For that purpose, since power may not be
available for commercial broadcasting, I recommend that we encourage the
establishment of a network of AM and FM microbroadcast stations, radiating at 1
to 10 W, to serve as a link between the WIPnet and the population. The FCC is
currently considering granting licenses to station operators of this kind, but
it is being opposed by the commercial stations, and it seems unlikely that they
will act in time to meet the emergency that Y2K presents unless pressure is put
on them. See
The California legislature should address a resolution to the FCC to
immediately grant free AM and FM operator licenses up to 10 W for
non-commercial, public-service microbroadcasting, subject to noninterference
with established commercial stations. It should also ask them to allocate more
bandwidth for spread-spectrum transmission to be used for the WIPnet.
A plan should then be made to get such microbroadcast stations set up in
strategic locations, covering the entire state, and operated by volunteer
operators as part of the statewide emergency communications system. The
frequencies of these stations should be widely publicized, and persons
encouraged to listen to them at regular intervals for important public
information. There should be regular reports on Y2K and other preparedness
subjects, and news of any early difficulties that may arise and responses to
As developments unfold, a regular news service should emerge to keep
everyone informed, provide necessary guidance, and allay public alarm. If
disruptions should occur, people can be warned to avoid the areas of
disturbance, or respond to contain it.
The legislature should budget funds to convert all printed materials
relevant to Y2K and other preparedness matters into digital form and put on Web
sites or otherwise distributed over the Internet.
There is also a need to free up the time of state and local personnel having
special skills that need to be imparted to citizens in training sessions.
The legislature should authorize and direct diversion of state and local
personnel with preparedness skills from their regular duties, and be allocated
travel funds, so that they can travel and provide training to local citizens
preparedness groups all across the state.
5. Other recommendations
Enact greater discretion to department heads to reallocate resources to
solve computer problems. Present legislation tends to micromanage departments
to the extent that they often cannot even evaluate their needs, much less do
anything about them, without an act of the legislature.
Authorize increased pay for programmers, with discretion to managers to pay
what it takes to get qualified personnel. A top programmer may be 100 times as
productive as an ordinary programmer. The state is likely to lose many of the
programmers it needs to solve its Y2K problems to the private sector if it does
not match what the private sector will offer them.
Reorganize departments to have technical decisions made, and technical
personnel hired, by technically trained persons.
Set up a network of investigators, outside the State Auditor's office, to
inquire into how well departments are operating generally, especially on
computer matters, and how well critical private sector providers are dealing
with their Y2K problems. The legislature should not have to rely only on
reports by top officials who may or may not understand what is going on in
their own organizations. Someone needs to talk to the people actually doing the
work. And if some sector like the railroads refuses to testify, someone needs
to be able to find out why and what is really going on.
Put the priority on replacement, not remediation. Most old software and the
machines it runs on are probably long overdue for replacement anyway. And
replacement is the only way anyone can be fairly sure there won't be Y2K
failures, especially in the time available. Mainframes should be phased out
wherever possible, and replaced by networks of supermicros. A regular schedule
of replacement should be adopted when systems are acquired, with hardware
replaced at least every five years and software replaced at least every seven.
It if ain't broke, it will be soon. When in doubt, replace it anyway.
Break up the 58 existing California counties into at least 200 smaller ones.
Present counties are too large. They are like small states, and have too much
political clout to manage them effectively. Most authority should be moved down
to such counties. They should be further subdivided into wards and precincts
with their own elected officials who enforce the laws at the lowest possible
Forget gun control. What we need to do is arm the good guys and disarm the
bad guys, but everything proposed on the subject so far will do the exact
opposite. The last thing we need during a worst-case Y2K catastrophe will be
for innocent citizens to be unable to protect themselves and their neighbors,
when the police won't be able to do it. Without deterrence from a well-armed
citizenry, we can expect to see the emergence of gangs of looters seeking easy
targets. And the only constitutional way to disable the right to keep and bear
arms, or any other right, is either within the sentence upon conviction in a
criminal trial, or by order of the court in a competency hearing. The state
should maintain a database of such disablements, rather than just records of
convictions or commitments, disablement on the basis of which are
constitutionally prohibited bills of attainder.
Proposal | "Counterintuitive Behavior
of Social Systems" | "Three Futures for