Saturday, June 8, 2013

Letter to Astronomy Magazine

I recently sent a letter to Astronomy magazine about one of the articles in the April 2013 issue. The article was titled Astro April Fools and was written by the columnist Bob Berman. I didn't like how lightly Bob treated Y2K, so I wrote the following letter:
I have been a subscriber to Astronomy magazine for about 3 or 4 years, since I was about 12. Probably my favorite part of Astronomy magazine is Bob Berman's Strange Universe. However, in the April 2013 issue, Bob seems to treat Y2K a little too lightly. Although not as bad as advertised, there really were dangers; computers really did fail, and bad things did happen.

Caption:A French sign displaying an inaccurate date because of the Y2K bug.
Image taken from Wikipedia.
Think about a normal computer problem, like the one that happened a few weeks ago: an airline's computers were down for only a couple of hours, but it cost them thousands of dollars. When something like this happens, the computer can be reset; once the bad data is gone, everything goes back to normal. Reseting a computer wouldn't work in the Y2K scenario. The date is the bad data, and restarting the computer doesn't help with that. Instead of computers being down for a couple of hours, they could be down for a couple of days.

Why did so little happen during Y2K, then? The bug was more widely advertised than any other in the history of computing. Software companies received worried phone calls from airliners and many other companies asking about the problem; so realizing the danger, they hired whole teams of programmers to ensure nothing happened when we time-warped.

However, not everybody took action, so some bad things did happen as direct results of Y2K bugs. Down's syndrome test results were inaccurate, resulting in 2 abortions after false positives. Radiation-monitoring equipment in Japan failed. An alarm sounded in a nuclear power plant. Not so bad; but that was after preparation. What would have happened had we ignored it?

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