Why the millennium bug didn’t bite

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When discussing things like climate change, brexit, nuclear waste et al, you’ll often hear the response, oh it will all work itself out in the end. After all, remember that millennium bug which was supposed to cause Armageddon and then nothing happened. Surely this is more of the same? Well yes and no. Because the truth is that the millennium bug is something that is often misunderstood, and hence worth discussing in a bit more detail.

Firstly, things DID fail as a result of the millennium bug, causing some minor disruption. The reason why this disruption wasn’t more widespread was because of all the preparation work undertaken in the lead up to the millennium. Indeed, most of the systems that failed turned out to be things that were overlooked during those preparations.

A few years prior to the millennium I was working in an office over the summer. And as I was the youngest that made me the designated computer nerd (even though my knowledge of IT was somewhat limited). Anyway, I checked a few of our older PC’s and indeed a couple of them did fail the test, including one that was acting as a printer server. Now this wasn’t any reason to panic, it just meant earmarking those PC’s for replacement at the next round of IT upgrades and making sure that upgrade happened before December 1999.

I climbed through the roof spaces of maximum security prisons doing inventory of PLCs [programmable logic controllers] for Y2K – 80% of systems worked fine, 15% date-rolled over to [the] 1970s, 3% failed, maybe 2% catastrophically.Matthew Hackling, IT expert.

Other companies took things a little further. In 1999 I was working for a major manufacturing company (in the labs) and they decided to upgrade their entire stock of PC’s before the millennium. This wasn’t solely done to protect themselves from the millennium bug, but it was also intended to standardise the computers and the operating systems across the site (some were so old they were still using VMS and Windows 3.1!). Longer term this would hopefully reduce costs and help to improve network security. So assuming most companies were following similar policies, its perhaps no surprise not much happened because we spent a lot of money to make sure it didn’t happen. Indeed, one of the IT guys pointed out to me the company was spending the equivalent of twice its annual IT budget on this IT roll out.

But where did those predictions about Armageddon come from? Well there were tests conducted prior to the Millennium which did highlight a number of potential serious problems, prompting a bit of a panic, but again this just meant those systems got upgraded and fixed. Also the tabloids inevitably talked up the more outlandish stories, because that’s what sells newspapers, and largely ignored the fact that action was being taken to deal with the problem.

Yes you literally had Daily Mail journalists banging out stories predicting Armageddon and the end to civilisation, while some PFY from the IT department worked their way around the office upgrading PC’s to make them millennium ready. Then after January the 1st, those very same tabloids started claiming that it was all a hoax and overblown. Failing to point out that they’d been the ones responsible for all of the panic.

So, what can we learn from all of this? Well firstly, not to trust the tabloids. I still recall how a few winters ago they predicted tens of thousands of deaths in the UK would happen due to a little bit of snow. But the scary stuff about climate change isn’t coming from the tabloids, its coming from the IPCC and respected scientists. And as noted, the scientists were largely correct about the millennium bug, some machines would have failed if they’d not be replaced and that would have caused some serious problems (e.g. if that print server had failed, they’d have gotten back after the Christmas break and not been able to print, meaning a tender could have been lost, costing a small firm tens of thousands of euros).

In fact the millennium bug had a much wider economic impact, one we are arguably still living with the consequences of today – the dot-com bubble. Recall what I said about companies spending shed loads of money on upgrading their IT infrastructure prior to the millennium. Now like I said, this wasn’t solely about the millennium bug, it also made sense in terms of standardising IT infrastructure to bring down operating costs. The rapid pace of the computer age meant there was a lack of standardisation and many IT departments took the opportunity to standardise across their networks. This produced a strong surge in orders for new PC’s and software leading up to the end of 1999. But of course after the millennium, given that they’d essentially spent the year 2000 IT budget in 1999, there was a sharp drop in spending.

The trouble was that many in the dot com industries just assumed that current trends would keep going on forever. They failed to spot the fact that the rise in sales was temporary and that there would be a sharp drop in orders just after the millennium. In fact the penny only dropped around about April 2000 when major IT firms started to post profit warnings, sparking the bursting of the bubble, which wiped out tens of billions of dollars worth of investments. So you could argue the millennium bug came with a fairly significant price tag, both in terms of preparing for it and the losses in the IT industry afterwards.

This is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. The X factor that will often come into play with many scenarios. And this is one of the things that most worries scientists about climate change, or economic experts about brexit. Its not the stuff they can predict (and thus potentially do something about), its the stuff that’s going to come out of left field which you can’t predict.

And it has to be acknowledged that the millennium bug had a clear and obvious solution – upgrade all computers, electronics and software to be millennium compliant. And there was a definite date by which action had to be taken. By contrast climate change is a bit of a harder problem to tackle. And by the time we see the more serious consequences it will be too late to do anything. While there are solutions, its a lot harder to plan for.

As Matt Simmons once commented, we avoided nuclear war in the cold war and we dodged the millennium bug because we spent many years worrying about these problems. Similarly maybe the solution to problems with climate change and peak oil are to spend many years worrying about them and doing something about it.

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News roundup

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The Pedo party

Is it just me or does it appear like the major qualification you need to get ahead in the Republican party is to be a pedo, kiddy fiddler or sex offender of some form or another? Since Trump took over we’ve seen a long line of dirty old men going into the white house. I mean they even set up a dating site (for straight blue blooded republicans) and the male model they chose in the ads turned out to be a sex offender. Its like Trump is some sort of magnet for this sort of thing.

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Consider that evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote GOP, have gone from being 80% likely to say that a president should resign for having an affair (and quote a bible verse), to being 80% likely to say, ah it doesn’t matter, the bible? Well that says lots of things…

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Salzburg and the sound of brexit madness

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Theresa May went to Salzburg this week….without watching the sound of music first (which is practically a crime in Salzburg, the hostel I stayed at showed the film every day!). She was hoping to get the EU to endorse her dead parrot chequers plan….that everyone in the UK (other than her) has already rejected. Inevitably it fell to Donald Tusk to point out to her that it was bleeding demised and was now a late plan, bereft of life that rests in peace. This threw May into a tizzy, claiming that the EU weren’t showing her respect (she’d been told many times before that the plan would be rejected, it could hardly come as a surprise) and if they don’t like it what’s the alternative.

Well the problem with this statement is it shows two years in and the UK still hasn’t got a clue what its…

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Sweden and the incineration dilemma

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An interesting video here from Journeyman pictures about Sweden and its policy of incineration. The Swedish banned landfills on environmental grounds back in 2005 and took to adopting stricter recycling policies, with the idea being that anything that couldn’t be recycled would instead be incinerated. Those incinerators not only generating electricity but also providing winter heating for towns and cities.

However, like everywhere else, Sweden has problems with its plastic waste. And while some portion is being recycled, quite a lot is finding its way into incinerators. The Swede’s claim that this counts as “recycling”. However, burning plastics is basically burning low grade fossil fuels. And as your supply of fuel is tied to the availability of fossil fuels, as well as all of the downstream carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel production, its not a practice that’s sustainable.

On the other hand, before we start trolling the swedes (and they have enough problems with trolls at the moment), it has to be said that incineration is better than land-filling of plastics. As I discussed before with regard to plastic waste, incineration is very much the least worse option compared to landfill. Not only do landfills create an awful stinking mess, but they will leach chemicals and methane (a potent greenhouse gas, many times worse than carbon dioxide) into the environment for decades. However the criticism is that incineration is providing the swede’s with an easy way out, a method to essentially fudge the issue.

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What Sweden’s dilemma highlights is the problem with tackling plastic waste in a bottom up manner, rather than a top down approach. As I’ve mentioned before, the waste pyramid runs reduce, reuse, recycle, recover (i.e. incineration) and then and only then disposal. The trouble is for too long governments have got things back to front, they’ll chuck it all in a landfill…..until people complain, or watch the blue planet, and then they’ll ban landfills and start incineration. Then when its pointed out that, while an improvement it isn’t a sustainable solution, they’ll look at recycling, and so on.

Instead, we need to reverse the process. If there’s plastics entering the system that are difficult to recycle, then either that needs to be stopped, or a price needs to be put on that. If every plastic food container or cup cost a euro (which can be redeemed upon completion of recycling), people will bring their own or return it for recycling. Or some enterprising individual will go around and collect the stuff and find a way to reuse/recycling them. Similarly if you start to charge people by the kilo for disposing of non-recyclable waste, then so long as the price is high enough, people will start to recycle more.

Can’t we just ban plastics altogether? Easier said that done. It was recently pointed out to me that eliminating plastic containers would increase the rate of food spoilage, meaning any reduction in carbon emissions would be negated by the increased carbon emissions from food production. Oh and the cardboard alternatives to plastic (at least those used for frozen foods) sometimes aren’t recyclable either.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t just redesign those containers to make them either easier to recycle or reusable. Although that reusablity would require reverse logistics. Or use different types of plastic. As I discussed in my prior post on plastics, historically most plastics were derived from natural substances, making them not only more carbon neutral and more sustainable, but also in many cases biodegradable.

But what’s Sweden’s waste dilemma does show is that, while there are answers to the problem of plastic waste, there are no easy silver bullet solutions. Our handsomest politicians can’t fudge the issue with a little tweak here and there. But like so many things, if there was a easy quick fix, someone would have already implemented it. A fundamental shift in how waste is handled is needed. And as this is a global problem, it will require a global solution.

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TSR2 – the (not so) little plane that couldn’t

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Get any British aviation enthusiast drunk and they’ll inevitably bring up the TSR-2. This you will be told was a “world beating” British plane design of the 60’s that would have put British aviation on the map, if it hadn’t been shot down by its own government.

However in truth, had the TSR-2 programme not been cancelled in 1965, it would have probably crippled the UK aviation industry, becoming the hill on which it would have died on. As one aviation blogger contemplates, the likely outcome, if the programme had continued, would have been an RAF in the 2000’s entirely equipped with US made aircraft, with no indigenous aircraft manufacturing industry left in the UK.

The TSR-2 is merely an example of everything that was wrong with the UK, both in terms of its industry and politics, in the pre-EU days. Given that we’re on the…

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More Cumbria fudge

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The Lake district perfect spot….for a nuclear waste dump!

Before breaking up for their summer, the government revealed how it planned to complete its search for a suitable site at which to store the UK’s nuclear waste. They could put it anywhere, under the sink, behind the dresser….under the lake district national park (where they’ve always wanted to put it, but long denied this fact), anywhere really! Needless to say including a line in such a report that specifically mentions a particular site doesn’t exactly give confidence its going to be unbiased.

And the thing is we’ve been here many times before. As I discussed in a previous post, the UK government were so confident about the safety of their nuclear technology that they pushed it into a remote part of Cumbria and well away from London and the country estates of the upper class. And they’d rather keep it all there for the same reason. The trouble with this is that the locals, whose main industry is tourism, kind of don’t want to see a nuclear waste dump built under one of the UK’s favourite national parks.

Various studies have been done before and while they’ve reached many different conclusions about where the best place to site such a facility, generally the consensus would be that Cumbria, while a potential site yes, it won’t be the best option. Other alternatives include parts of Scotland, Wales, the home counties and the Midlands.

Of course while these might be acceptable sites from a geological stand point they are unacceptable from a political point of view, as you’d be upsetting so many marginal seats (as well as the devolved assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh who will almost certainly say no) as to guarantee the Tories will never get a majority government again. So really this process is about finding somewhere that is politically acceptable first, then trying to find the evidence to justify this decision.

Its all very reminiscent of the Yucca mountain fiasco in America. Back in the late 80’s the Reagan administration decided to dump America’s nuclear waste under a mountain in the Nevada test site. Why? Because it was a desert in the middle of nowhere in a state populated by hick’s, hillbillies, conspiracy theorists and gambling addicts. It was also so safely republican you could end up in a hole in the desert for just voting democrat. 

Well a couple of decades later, when the time came to follow through on this decision Nevada was now a swing state. And it turned out the locals did actually care and were prepared to kick up stink about the whole thing. At one point the state capital cut of water supplies to the Yucca mountain site. After the 2008 election, with Nevada senator Harry Reid in a key position to potentially block legislation, the whole thing was finally put out of its misery, although it has recently been resurrected by Trump (probably more to get back at Nevada for offending his ego and voting against him than a genuine desire concern about nuclear waste).

So its very easy to see how history could repeat itself. The Tories put their sleuths to work who scour every inch of the country asking where or where will we put this nuclear waste. Then conclude, ah feck it! we’ll just chuck it over the fence from Sealfield. Because, by a remarkable coincidence, its the best site for it. Seriously, scouts honour! The locals will kick up stink of course, hiring their own experts to pick apart the government’s position line by line, but of course they’ll be ignored and railroaded over. So they’ll lie down in front of bulldozers, fight the plan through the courts and elect anti-government politicians (likely Green party or single issue candidates), until eventually its no longer politically convenient to continue. And it gets cancelled, while in the mean time nothing gets done and we’ve wasted 20 years.

As always I do want to see a long term solution to the UK’s nuclear waste issues, but that means finding a solution that’s going to work, not something hastily cobbled together to save the blushes of politicians. Not least because if a facility is pushed through in such circumstances for all the wrong reasons, then its equally likely it will be cancelled at some future date, so the next generation of politicians can save face.

And it is this constant helicopter parenting that is what puts me off nuclear energy. In fact they are starting to transcend helicopter parenting for snow plough parenting. Consider how the government recently announced they were cancelling the Swansea bay tidal barrage on grounds of cost….even though it will cost about a tenth of what Hinkley C is going to cost. Or how we have seen some significant progress recently in wave & tidal energy research, on a shoestring budget, with almost no help from Westminster.

The little spoiled brat nuclear encounters the slightest obstacle and the government bends over backwards, signing blank cheque after blank cheque. They’ll literally move mountains for their little darling. But when anyone else asks from a few penny’s, oh sorry there’s no magic money trees.

Posted in climate change, energy, environment, nuclear, politics, power, renewables, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Post-brexit trade delusions: Africa edition

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Theresa May is starting to remind me of a 80’s film, weekend at Bernie’s, the plot of which was how two low level employees are stuck with pretending their boss isn’t dead, or else assassins will kill them. Not a great film (it has one joke that wears thin pretty quickly), but an apt metaphor for Theresa May dragging around her Chequers deal, unwilling or able to admit its bleeding demised and joined the choir invisible, because if she does that will be the end of her. But for brexit to work both she and the hard brexiters still have to prove that life outside the single market can bring benefits to the UK. That we’re better off out than in, a question Corbyn refused to answer last week – six times!

PARROT.jpg Theresa May’s Chequer’s deal, its just resting!

So, having realised that the kebab model

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