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March 2020 – Walking Contradiction

Damned If You Do

The recent spate of canceled conferences, sporting events, etc., due to concerns about spreading infection of the coronavirus COVID-19 has made me think about what will happen if these efforts are successful.

Back in the late 1990s, people realized that a lot of software written in the mid-20th century had a problem: due to the expense of storage, programmers shortened the way years were stored, so that something like 1978 would be stored as 78, with the century assumed. This was fine, but as that software aged, and the coming change of century approached, it was realized that many critical software problems would go from December 31, 1999, to January 1, 1900. This was the Year 2000 problem, commonly abbreviated as Y2K.

Having recognized the issue, most software companies invested heavily in updating their software to use full 4-digit representations for the year. It was tedious work; I personally had to write a series of tests for my projects that verified that things would continue to work in the year 2000. But because the warning was heeded, by the time that January 1, 2000 came most software had been updated. As a result, all of the doomsday scenarios (such as planes dropping from the sky) had been avoided. Yes, there were some billing glitches that were missed, but because of the intense efforts to address this problem, there were no serious problems.

What was the public’s reaction to this? Did they laud the developers for successfully averting a potential problem? Of course not. Instead, they reacted with disdain: “I thought this was going to be the end of the world! Nothing happened!”.

And that’s the point: because the warnings were heeded, and action was taken, nothing catastrophic happened. It didn’t mean that the problem wasn’t real; it just meant that the tech community understood the problem, and addressed it head-on.

So I’m wondering what will happen if the common-sense steps we are taking now to avoid spreading this virus ends up that not that many people get sick or die: will the Fox News people start complaining that it was all a politically-inspired hoax? That the liberal media tried to make Trump look bad by crying wolf? It almost makes me think that if there is a terrible body count, people will be ridiculed for taking ineffective steps, but if there isn’t such a terrible outcome, the steps that were taken will be ridiculed as overreaction, or, even worse, a political stunt.

Damned if you do; damned if you dont.