The Linux Today servers failed for five minutes precisely at
00:00 UTC on the new year, depriving Linux news readers worldwide
of their accustomed headlines.
Investigation of the problem revealed a dirty little secret:
dependence upon Microsoft non-Y2K-compliant software.
Budget Constraints and Lack of Y2K
We caught up with Dwight Johnson, co-founder of Linux Today, at his
Sequim, Washington home. He agreed to speak to us even though he
was in the midst of a New Year’s Eve party. Johnson confessed,
“Early on, we needed a way to report the banner statistics and put
them into an Excel spreadsheet. I had this old 386 lying around
that I was using to play solitaire, and I said ‘Heck, this will
do.’ We were under some extreme budget constraints at the beginning
and I figured that no one would ever find out. After all, it was
set to automatically reboot when it crashed under the control of
one of our Linux boxes. But this time it was Y2K — it was down for
When Johnson, who was at home posting stories at the time,
realized that the site was down, he immediately phoned Paul Ferris,
the Linux Today site administrator, in Louisville, Ohio.
Johnson further explained. “When Paul answered the phone, his
speech was thick and slurred and he mumbled something about
Budweiser as he logged into our servers in Dallas to correct the
problem. Unfortunately, in his condition it took him all of five
minutes to execute the simple cron script edit that was needed to
correct the problem.”
By that time the damage was done. For five entire minutes,
news-addicted Linux community members were unable to read the news,
resulting in panic, chaos, and hysteria.
The outage has been blamed for thousands of panic-induced
incidents that have been reported worldwide. Mass hysteria, chaos
on the World Wide Web, uncontrollable E-bay auction price
reductions, email server overloads, failure of important beer
delivery systems and several system administrator asylum
commitments have all been blamed on the incident.
Paul Ferris, also in the midst of a New Year’s Eve party, agreed
to talk to us as well. Still in shock from the outage, he explained
in more depth: “It’s a dirty secret that the Linux Today admin
server has been reporting its web statistics to a Windows 3.1
“I tried to get Dwight to listen early on, but he kept bragging
on how fast that old 386 played solitaire. I was ashamed for a site
like Linux Today to be dependent on Microsoft software and even
tried to get a few of my geek friends to speak to Dwight privately,
but hardly anyone would listen. Those that did listen didn’t seem
to think that Windows 3.1 was that unstable. They’d say things like
‘Hell, anything is better than 98 and NT’. They just didn’t seem to
Over-Dependence Upon Technology?
But the unfortunate outage has unearthed something even more
alarming: outages of this magnitude cannot be tolerated by the
Linux news-addicted masses. We have received reports of riots and
protests that have spanned the globe. One witness described it as
“A crazy mass of non-tanned geeks that were mad as hell and weren’t
going to take it any more!”
The general feeling was one of incredible loss, followed by
general foreboding of Y2K disaster and speculation that the world
was going to Windows 2000 on a hand calculator.
“If you can’t count on Linux Today, what’s next?” Lamented one
A local newsstand operator in Dallas noticed the surge around
00:00 UTC. “It was crazy,” he said. “We sold more Linux magazines
in five minutes than we usually sell in five days.”, he explained
as he shakily lit a cigar with a rolled up sheet of FAX paper. “All
these computer people were pulling up in their cars and climbing
over each other! Three of ’em got in a fist fight over the last
copy of Linux Magazine I had in the place. I thought I was gonna
have to call the police or worse — even register my copy of
The phenomenon of Linux Today newswire addiction is a hard one
for most people to understand.
Thomas Knapp, well noted Linux news addict, explained his
addiction to Linux Today news this way: “Well, I basically cannot
drink a cup of coffee in the morning without the glow of my monitor
and Linux Today headlines. I was working some Y2K overtime tonight
and when the newswire went down for the five minutes right at 00:00
UTC, I got the DT’s and began spouting random quotes from the awk
man page. Fortunately, my boss came along and refreshed the browser
with new headlines and I pulled out of it.”
Bob Doomsday, a survivalist who maintains an automated
Linux-based fallout shelter in southern Montana, reported that the
outage not only caused his automated system to halt, but also
caused his generators to go off-line.
“Add to the fact that I had just taken a couple of sips from a
fresh can of beer, and the lights went out and all…” Doomsday
explained, “I just sat there in the dark, terrified, thinking ‘Oh
my God! What if there’s a new release of Mandrake and I miss it?!
What if that beer gets warm?!'”. Fortunately, the web site came
back on-line fast enough for Doomsday to reach his beer (it was
still cold, he assured us) and catch the next few headlines.
There were reports of panic stricken hackers being rushed into
emergency rooms where nurses ran about with faxed copies of the
newswire, frantically reading headlines to the stricken and
administering sedatives and coffee in alternating doses.
“What!” yelled one Java programmer from Canton, Ohio.
“Debian-Hurd #15 is out!!! — This is Old news!”, he
screamed in indignation, “I read this 30 minutes ago!”, as he
promptly fell into a faint.
Others pointed to the disturbing effects of the outage as
proof-positive that Linux and Internet addiction are signs of a
fatal over-dependence upon technology and information overload. One
out of work typewriter repairman opined, “People need to get back
to simpler days — days when people sat around the fire and used
typewriters to compose simple letters to be mailed via the local
Critical Warnings Went Unheeded
The Y2K was rapidly approaching and Paul Ferris let us know he
needed to get back to his beer and guests, but not before he added
this: “I’ve tried many times over the past months to warn Dwight
and now look what has happened! Thousands of innocent Linux Today
readers were deprived of their headlines for 300 whole
It should be noted that Paul Ferris publishes a scurrilous
column for Linux Today called ‘Rant Mode Equals One’ and,
therefore, one should not put too much weight on his remarks,
especially when ‘$beers >= 3;’.
Nevertheless, Ferris was not quite finished. “What’s the world
coming to! This is crazy! Dogs and cats living together, people
dual-booting GNU/Hurd and Windows NT! God, I can’t believe it.
Now Linux Today, down, bam, like that.“, he said,
boldly. “I tried to warn em’, but no, they
wouldn’t listen!” He underlined, for emphasis.
“Sound the alarm! Don’t put up with it! We can’t live our lives
in the shadow of such uncaring terror as this! People have to rid
themselves of dependence on proprietary software! Windows 3.1 is
not an operating system! Don’t believe the writing on the box,
already. DOS stands for “Denial Of Service”. It’s not something to
base your business on!”
He let us know there was more where that came from, but we
thanked him for his time.
In contrast, Johnson remained unshaken throughout. He spent the
five minutes of outage checking Linux Weekly News to see if it had
any headlines Linux Today had missed. He assured us that people
aren’t too dependent upon Linux Today and that things were being
blown way out of proportion.
“Of course, we should have replaced the Windows box long ago,”
he said. “But you know how it goes. You never seem to have time to
do something until it goes out on you.”
We thought we heard a disgusting belch as he was signing off to
return to his guests, but it may just have been the legs of a chair
scraping on the floor. We are sure about his last words, though. We
distinctly heard “Happy New Year!” as Johnson hung up.