"De Nile Ain't Just a River in Egypt"
Social Pressure, Group Think, and Denial vs Common Sense
in the Y2K and Embedded Systems Crisis
by Paula D. Gordon, Ph.D.
October 25, 1999
Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher.
Essays, "Art" (First Series, 1841).
Surely common sense should play a major role in efforts to address the
threats and challenges posed by the Y2K and embedded systems crisis.
Unbelievably, not everyone agrees.
Part 6 includes a discussion of some of the habits and patterns of thought
and action that seem to be keeping us from acknowledging and understanding
the threats and challenges posed by the Y2K and embedded systems crisis. It
includes a discussion of some of the habits and patterns of thought and
action that are also keeping even some of those who understand the crisis
from addressing it as effective manner as possible. It also includes an
account of a dialogue between a key player in national and global efforts to
address Y2K and myself, a dialogue that is straight out of the theater of
Y2K and Common Sense
Wisdom, knowledge, reason, and common sense need to be in abundant
supply in times of crisis.
Humor is also a precious commodity. It can serve the important role
keeping us balanced even in the darkest moments. The absurd and totally
irrational ala Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, or Samuel Beckett is yet another
The following are some anecdotes concerning recent incidents that relate
Y2K. The anecdotes pertain in one way or another to the application of
common sense. Appreciation of the first anecdote requires a very strange
sense of humor and a sense of the absurd. The second anecdote is likely to
be appreciated by more people than the first. The last anecdote is a
recounting of what for me was truly a bizarre exchange. While I offer my
own interpretations, it is really up to the reader to determine its
Anecdote #1: Y2K vs EMP ~ How to Tell the Difference?
Threads in the Time Bomb 2000 discussion forum can at times be very
humorous, although, one should be forewarned, the humor may humor of the
darkest sort. (The Time Bomb 2000 discussion forum can be found at
An example of the humor that can be found among the threads is the
following submission on October 4, 1999 made in response to the following
How do you know the difference between Y2K and EMP?
[According to Websters, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) results from a nuclear
detonation high above the surface of the earth that generates "high intensity
electromagnetic radiation". EMP can knock out anything electronic that
is not adequately shielded. It has not as yet been used in warfare and one
hopes it never will be, but its effects are known from direct experience as
a unanticipated result of a test conducted in the early 1960s.]
An extraordinary response to this question was as follows:
"Get yourself an early microwave oven that does not (have) embedded
chips. Buy a generator that is Y2K compliant. Plug the microwave
oven into the generator. On New Year's eve, start the generator.
If the lights go out, see if the microwave oven will work. If it
does, its Y2K; if it does not, its EMP."
-- King of Spain (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 05, 1999.
This seems to me to be a perfect, albeit strange, example of the
uses of common sense. (It may also be therapeutically humorous
for anyone with a really strange sense of humor, who has been
immersed in the subject of Y2K for much too long a period of time.)
Earliest Lessons Connecting the Use of Common Sense
to Health and Survival
Most of us have had it dunned into us from childhood "to use your
common sense". In fact parents, teachers, among others, may castigate their
charges for failing to use their common sense. To avoid harsh words or certain
punishment, most of us listened when we were told: "Look both
ways before you cross the street." "Don't play with matches." "Don't
pick up a lighted firecracker." "Be sure you're careful when closing the
car door so that you don't get your fingers caught in the door." "Don't
drop a hammer on your foot." "Careful not to burn your mouth." "Put
something on your feet; you'll catch your death of cold!" "Watch out for
the poison oak." "Don't stand so close to the edge." Who among us has
not heard such warnings or wished that they had heard and heeded them?
As one gets older, one recognizes that common sense dictates that lighting
a match next to a gasoline tank can have disastrous consequences. We are
even told now that cell phones should be turned off around automated gas
pumps at the gas station. Once most of us get the picture that certain
actions can bring certain negative, if not dire consequences, we are apt to
act in accordance with our understanding. Some people, however, have to be
warned several times. Some people don't seem to understand the warning
however many times they hear it. Others may simply fail to hear it. In
nearly all of these cases, save those involving divine grace or blind luck,
their actions can usually be traced sooner or later to certain negative
For some, simply being given a warning once is enough. Sometimes
dangers and risks are obvious and no explanations need accompany the warning.
Wisdom, experience, knowledge, reason, and common sense ~ some or all kick in
and, unless we are developmentally challenged, we usually opt for the most
reasonable or sanest course of action.
In fact all of these ~ wisdom, knowledge, reason, and common sense,
with well honed instincts and intuition ~ are at the root of all kinds of
progress, including technological progress. The creative geniuses that have
contributed so much to mankind utilized all of these human attributes in
"Common sense is judgment without reflection, shared by an entire
class, an entire nation, or the entire human race."
Giambattista Vico (1688-1744), Italian philosopher, historian.
The New Science, bk. 1, para. 142 (ed. 1744; tr. 1984).
In the next century, T.H. Huxley wrote,
"All truth, in the long run, is only common sense clarified."
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95), English biologist. "On the Study of
Biology," lecture, 1876, at South Kensington Museum, London (published in
Collected Essays, vol. 3, 1893).
How far could we have progressed as a civilization if common sense
had been factored out somewhere along the way?
Anecdote #2: An Electrical Engineer and Embedded Systems Expert
from a Multi-National Company Based in France
In May of 1999, I had a lengthy discussion with a French electrical
engineer who works for a multinational corporation based in France. The
company focuses on water purification plants, water distribution systems and the
like. I talked with him at length about embedded systems and sought his
perspective on why it is so many people in the United States, including many
engineers, do not seem to understand date sensitive embedded systems and the
subtleties of embedded systems that are connected to real time clocks.
(More about this exchange will be discussed in another part of this White
My key question to the French electrical engineer, was the following:
"What do you say to a person who will not accept as fact that malfunctioning
embedded systems could in and of themselves cause major problems?" He
said, "Oh, that's easy. I just tell them that if you have an (automated
date sensitive) embedded system that controls a valve that in turn controls
the amount of chemicals that flows into a water supply (in a water
purification plant), and, if that embedded system malfunctions, you can end
up with no chemicals, not enough, or too much."
I said, "That's all you tell them! That's just common sense. We don't
use common sense in America." We both laughed.
Anecdote #3: A Dialogue Out of the Theater of the Absurd
On October 7, I had a conversation with John Koskinen. It was after
press briefing in which he and others had reported on the August 30, 1999
Chemical Roundtable. During the briefing he had expressed some
understanding of the dangers that malfunctioning embedded systems could pose
for chemical plants. He showed an appreciation of how one malfunctioning
date-sensitive embedded system could interact with other systems and trigger
interactions that could culminate in some significant problems. He however
dismissed the possibility that one malfunctioning embedded system could in
and of itself trigger catastrophic consequences. He dismissed the possibility
because he knew of no example that could be used to "prove" that it could be so.
After the briefing, I spoke with him one on one concerning his assertion
that one malfunctioning embedded system could not in and of itself trigger
catastrophic consequences. I said, "But what about common sense? What if
the excess uranium that was the cause of the nuclear processing plant
accident in Japan had been automatically dispersed in the same excess amount
owing to a failure in a date sensitive automated system? Wouldn't that be
He said emphatically that it would not, and that he would only accept
proof an example that could in effect be validated.
I said, "But it is common sense that if the amount were automatically
dispersed in an excessive amount....." He broke in saying in effect that
he was not going to apply common sense to embedded systems. He said this
more than once as I continued to try to reason with him.
Electrical engineers apply common sense along with technical expertise
the time. Indeed you have to use common sense to figure out why things went
wrong and how they can be repaired. It makes no sense that Mr. Koskinen
would in effect dismiss the applicability of common sense.
His rejection of common sense in this instance also helps explain at least
in part why he dismisses the statements made by the Institute of Electrical
and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in their June 9, 1999 Open Letter to
Congress. (For a discussion of this letter and a URL, see Part 4 of my
White Paper at http://users.rcn.com/pgordon/y2k/.)
How do you reason with someone who rejects the use of common sense?
can you help someone understand the seriousness of the embedded systems
crisis if they are not open to increasing their understanding of the mechanisms
whereby a malfunctioning date sensitive embedded system could trigger,
either directly or indirectly, a failure that could have a catastrophic impact?
When I shared this theater of the absurd scene with a colleague, the
colleague wondered what Mr. Koskinen's response might have been had I posed
a far more personal question along the lines of the following:
"What would you do if you discovered that a plant next to your house
used hydrogen cyanide as a part of the manufacturing process, and if you
learned that no Y2K remediation had been done? Wouldn't common sense
suggest to you that your family is in peril? Wouldn't common sense,
together with the responsibility and love you feel toward your family,
dictate that you move your family away from such a plant long before New
At least Mr. Koskinen accepts the idea of cascading impacts that one
embedded systems failure could trigger. But he nonetheless seems to
downplay the likelihood of major failures in the United States that could
cause significant public health and safety consequences and environmental
impacts. He seems to be less sanguine concerning other parts of the world.
Denial, wishful thinking, and other means of avoiding reality could also be
at play. These will be discussed later in Part 6.
If one does not fully understand the nature and scope of the threats
challenges posed by the Y2K and embedded systems crisis and if one does not
understand, the likely impacts of the crisis, one cannot very well be an effective
architect of efforts that will begin to address the crisis and minimize the impacts.
Indeed, Mr. Koskinen does not even view the crisis as a crisis. He rejects
the view of the IEEE that we are in a crisis as a result of Y2K and embedded
systems. He rejects their summation that we are failing to respond as we
should to the situation that we are in.
It is easy to see how a person with such a limited perspective would
also have made such an extraordinary miscalculation concerning the need for
public preparedness. This extraordinary miscalculation has been responsible
in part for the failure to inform the public concerning the seriousness of the
threats and challenges that face the nation and the world. The public not
only fails to be fully informed, they have not been urged to take steps to
prepare themselves and their families adequately. Mr. Koskinen has said in
early September and again in conversation with me on October 7, that the
Administration would be encouraging increased attention to preparedness in
October. When I heard that I wrote to him that he should not wait until
October, that it was already too late to do just to preparedness efforts.
It is not apparent as of October 25, 1999 that there has been any increased
effort on Mr. Koskinen's part to urge the public to prepare.
The public counts on its public officials, on the President, to look
for their best interests and for the best interests of the country when it
comes to Y2K or any other pending set of challenges that threaten the
general welfare and national security. By failing to let the public know
what dire straits we are in, the public has been discouraged from becoming
fully informed concerning the essential nature of the crisis. The public as
a consequence are not in a position to let their will be known to their
elected officials. The public has little idea of what they should do or
what the nation should do to address the crisis. Indeed a vast majority of
the public do not even realize that there is a crisis.
If the public were fully informed, they might well support the kind
of proactive, crisis-oriented effort that the Federal government launched
during the energy crisis of the 1970s. A fully informed public would
presumably want their elected public officials to take all possible actions
that would minimize the impacts of the Y2K and embedded systems crisis for
the nation as well as for the world. They undoubtedly would want to see
adequate resources dedicated to such purposes, particularly when they
realized that to do less could have ruinous consequences. The public would
doubtlessly be all the more concerned about the rest of the world if they
realized how the negative impacts in the rest of the world could in effect
threaten the health and safety of people everywhere, including in this country.
There is no common sense in the approach that the President and the
Administration have been taking, even if they feel that the impacts will be
between a 3 and 5 on the impact scale. Perhaps, Mr. Clinton has also
rejected common sense.
From all appearances and all reports, Mr. Koskinen, at least for the
being, has beendelegated total responsibility for leading Federal Y2K
efforts. It seems that he has rejected the applicability of common sense in
crucial aspects of his role. Surely the nation deserves to have an
individual in this all important role who not only comprehends the
seriousness of the crisis, but who brings extraordinary wisdom, knowledge,
reason, and common sense to the task at hand. Surely the nation deserves to
have an individual in this all important role who is intent on doing
everything possible to prevent and minimize the impacts of the crisis,
including informing the public and helping the public prepare.
Funnily enough, and this is where one begins to have empathy for the
Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Koskinen apparently does not find it a bad
thing to fail to use common sense.
As Emerson said, "Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and
plain dealing." Were he alive today, I expect that he would add, "Nothing,
however, is needed more at this point in our history than common sense and
(End of the first installment of several of Part 6.)
Copyright © 1999, Paula Gordon Return to Paula Gordon's Y2K Web Page