Adobe Flash and The Demise of a Chinese Railroad – Rewind

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Originally released May 31, 2021. When Adobe announced it would be discontinuing Flash in 2017, developers started replacing it with newer, more robust software. But one railroad system in Dalian, China didn’t get the memo. When it was finally globally disabled in January of 2021, the entire railroad was disabled. In this episode, I get nostalgic about the good ole’ days of flash animation, then tell the story about how it affected the railroad. Then we chat with Erik Tait, from Ships of the Northern Fleet and Penn & Teller Fool Us for the Quick Quiz!

Duperrault Sea Orphan

The headline of this story says “When Adobe Stopped Flash Content From Running It Also Stopped A Chinese Railroad”

Firstly, if you weren’t an Internet user in the early 2000s, you really missed out on the best part of Flash. I’ll try to tell this story without making it super boring for people who aren’t into internet programming stuff. I’m not, I’m just familiar with Flash because of all the internet media it created. 

Around the time I was in college, there was huge Internet phenomenon. One of the first Internet-based regular cartoons. It was called Homestar Runner.

Homestar runner was a comedy series made by Mike and Matt Chapman and it starred this main character, Strong bad. He was based on a character from an obscure wrestling computer game and he would basically just answer people’s mail and it was always something funny. They were short form animated videos and some of the first viral content. They continue producing videos to this day, but they really saw their heyday in the early 2000s. 

The Strong bad cartoons on Homestar Runner were flash-based animations. Flash is this file format and platform that was used to create simple animations. They were known for being able to use very small file sizes and load quickly in the early days of the internet when Internet speeds were a fraction of what we have today. Most of them just played when a video was loaded, but some were made to be interactive, such as the popular “frog in a blender” flash animation where you see a frog swimming in water in a blender and you have the option to press the button to turn the blender on. Frog in a blender has hundreds of millions of views since its release in 1999. 

It was the popular choice for web-based games like online casinos.

Even YouTube was powered by flash until about 6 years ago. Videos were converted to flash because it was a way to compress information into something that loaded very quickly.

But it’s much more than animation. It was a software platform that was used in desktop and mobile apps, games and apparently – some public utilities.

That brings us to the train system of Dalian in the Norther Part of China. They built their train system to operate using Flash.

So when Adobe announced it was discontinuing Flash, there were a few places where that might have an affect – this train system was one of them.

Dalian China is located on a peninsula just northwest of North Korea. It’s not a city I’ve ever heard of before, but with a population of 6.6 Million people, it’s bigger than every American city except for New York. For reference, this one Chinese city has about the same number of people as the entire state of Indiana. 

And the China Railway Shenyang Group in China is hugely important for getting people around. When it was constructed in 1903, the Dalian Railway Station was one of the most advanced and largest in China. 

And this railway was using Flash-based displays in its control rooms. The software used flash to view train operation diagrams, formulate train sequencing schedules and arrange shunting plans. I didn’t know what shunting was, so I googled that. Shunting is the process of sorting items of rolling stock into complete trains. In the US, we call it switching. So basically it’s the way train cars are compiled into a train. Anyway – at 8pm on January 12 of 2021, all of these systems stop working. Because Adobe disabled Flash.

Despite the name, the decision to disable it didn’t happen in a flash. It might be the slowest obsolescence in software history. They announced in July of 2017 that they would be disabling flash. Adobe acknowledged that it had served its purpose, but wasn’t needed anymore. More powerful open-source platforms like HTML-5 and CSS 3 had made it weak by comparison. Not only that, a more efficient standard was needed for the many platforms that web content needs to be displayed on – tablets, phones, desktops and…train control panels apparently. While they announced its demise in 2017, they waited quite a while to announce WHEN that would be. Finally – last June – June of 2020 – Adobe announced Flash’s death date – It would no longer be supported after December 31st 2020, and would completely stop working on January 12, 2021. This was because if you had kept your Flash software up to date, they had built a kill-switch into it. So, starting on January 12, if you tried to view anything in Flash, you’d see a message that said “Adobe Flash Player is blocked.”

And so that’s why – at 8pm that night – 8am here in Eastern Standard Time on January 12, the trains stopped running. All of the software to run them was inoperable. In the 3 and half years since the announcement of the end of Flash, no one bothered with updating their system software. So for 20 hours – all the way until 4pm the following day – no trains ran on the Shenyang System in Dalian. 

So you may be wondering how they solved their problem. They could have hired a crack computer whiz to build a new system based on software that’s still be supported in that 20 hours. Sorry, no. They found a pirated “ghost version” of the Flash software to run to get the trains back on track. So there you have it…. 

Obsolescence problems …require obsolete solutions. 

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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