Monday, September 28, 2015

Reason for Optimism

Reason for Optimism

I feel strongly about unresolved issues (such as climate change) and write about them with a sense of urgency. Still, I hold a personal optimism that problems will eventually be addressed and adequately resolved. Let me tell you a story.

Back in the early 1990s, I belonged to an engineering department of Amoco Oil Company and started agitating about what eventually became known as the "Y2K problem." That is, most computerized data tables and program algorithms held dates using only the last two digits of the year. The problem was that dates after 1999 would appear to be a hundred years earlier than they actually were. The vast majority of computer programs would malfunction if they were not rewritten. No bank, florist or traffic light could be assumed to be immune.

My hair was on fire about this issue but I didn't seem to be getting any traction with my management. But, about 18 months before crisis time, the whole world seemed to spontaneously generate a burst of awareness and activity. Specialty consulting and contracting firms suddenly appeared, along with emergency appropriations from senior management, to undertake the work. Some program applications were systematically combed and rewritten; some were simply replaced with newer programs. It was an inconceivably massive and complex international effort.

A few companies suffered temporarily for their inattention or incompetence, but most of the world got the job done. January 1, 2000 came and went. Most of our lights didn't go out and our bank deposits didn't disappear. There was a related story about an airplane on cruise control that turned itself upside down when it crossed the equator. The world gave a collective sigh of relief, shook their heads at all the silliness and tucked in to watch reruns of Bonanza and comment that nothing much had come of all the fuss over New Coke either.

In the local news today, there is a new project to build 170 wind turbines on the slightly higher ground just north of my small Iowa town. Local governments in Southern California have committed to make the greater Los Angeles basin energy- and water-independent by 2050. It's almost enough to make me an optimist.

David Satterlee