Monday, February 22, 1999

Week of 02/22/1999

Target: Y2K
Much Ado About A Little Problem
- by David Matthews 2

Okay, let’s see if I can get this straight.. On midnight of New Year’s Eve there will be a huge pop of champagne corks, followed by the sudden snap of every computer in the world shutting down. All electronic accounts in banks and trading centers will be erased. All databases containing your vital information will be gone forever. Power plants will shut down because the computers running them will shut down. Hospital life support systems will shut down, killing patients by the thousands. Nuclear reactors will go haywire, creating hundreds of Chernobyl-like meltdowns. Planes will crash because the onboard systems will fail and there will be no way for air traffic control to guide them down. Military bases will go on alert as nuclear silos suddenly go online and begin automatic launch sequences. Dogs and cats will begin sleeping together. Car stereos will change all their preset channels to the local radio station that plays nothing but 24-hour non-stop elevator music and will be stuck on high volume. Mongolian warriors will stampede through Europe as they did in the old days. Society will crumble into a sea of anarchy as pockets of survivalists and religious extremists ride out the chaos in their own small communities for the promised Second Coming...

Did I get that in the right order? I sometimes get the sequence mixed up.

Anyways, the end of the world is coming - or so we are told - riding on a black horse called "Y2K."

Now let’s get brutally honest here. As someone who is involved in computers, I have been asked over and over to speculate about the pending event called "Y2K" - or the Year 2000 Bug. Will it be the end of the world? Will I still get my paycheck? Will I still get to work on time? Will I still have money in the bank?

Let’s look at what Y2K is all about. The Year 2000 Bug was first discovered by Peter de Yeager, whom I think should get the Nobel Prize, because while the whole world was so full of this nonsense about kids accessing the Playboy web site, this guy asked a very simple question that had a very complex answer.

When you write down a date, like the year of your birthday, or today’s date, do you write down the whole year every time? For instance, do you write down the year 1999 on each and every time, or do you just abbreviate it to the last two digits - 99 - and hope the other people will know what you mean? Most of us do the latter.

What about your computer? Computers aren’t like humans - they can’t assume things spontaneously like we can. Computers are only limited to their programming. So when you say to a computer that this is year 99, does your computer know that you mean the year 1999, or is it programmed to know that when it reads 99 that it should think 1999?

Now ask yourself what that computer will think next year.. year 00. Will your computer know you mean 2000 or will it think it is 1900 all over again? And how will it handle things like dates, bank transactions, personal organizers, and the like if it thinks it went from 1999 to 1900?

THAT, essentially, is the Year 2000 Bug. It is a flaw in a computer program that set two digits for a year designation instead of four digits.

So how did we get this flaw? Simple - because somebody was looking for a way to save some money. This flaw actually goes way back when computers were done on punched cards. Yes, we’re talking pre-Internet, pre-Windows, pre-Apple, pre-Microsoft, and even pre-Generation X never mind pre-Generation Y. This was back when the smallest of computers still took up a whole room, and you were lucky if your computer had a monochrome monitor.

Back then, computer space was at a premium, and programmers had to find ways to cut corners at every opportunity. That meant that they sometimes had to abbreviate things like states or first names.. or using the last two digits of a year. Nobody at the time was concerned about the year 2000 because at that time it was almost fifty years away, and they believed that either (a) the discrepancy would be fixed by then, or (b) we would all be killed by thermonuclear war.

But in that passage of time, nobody thought about correcting that little abbreviation. And so it was passed into subsequent programming language like COBOL, FORTRAN, BASIC, C+, C++, DOS, DR-DOS, MS-DOS, OS/2, and subsequently into operating systems like Windows. Each of them inherited some of the shortcuts of those earlier card-punched programs. Some would be corrected, others would not. The two-digit year abbreviation was one that wasn’t caught until now.

Notice, however, that one program was missing from that list.. If you guessed Apple’s OS, give yourself a hand! The programmers at Apple made sure that they used four-digits for their year designations, and thus Apple is the only computer company that has been Year 2000-safe since day one! (And you thought those HAL commercials during the Super Bowl was just hype!)

Getting back to inherited programs for a second.. I know a lot of you are saying "well, if it is a software glitch, just come up with an upgrade!" It’s not as simple as just coming up with an upgrade because it is not just confined to computers that can be easily upgraded. We’re talking about older computers, like the kind still being used by the government for things like air traffic control and power plants. We’re also talking about household appliances like video recorders, television sets, and even personal devices like digital watches. Any computer-based appliance that records dates including years is potentially involved.

Now here’s something that sounds ominous - nobody really knows how much of a problem Y2K will be until it actually happens! That’s why there’s all this talk about Armageddon, and guys like Art Bell going off on tangents about the end of civilization. The uncertainty of the extent of Y2K gives people yearning for the apocalypse an open forum.

Hey folks, remember "The Great Cosmic Convergence?" This was in the 80’s, when all the planets in the solar system were going to be in relative alignment to each other. Remember the talk about throwing the sun off balance, causing solar flares and possibly spinning a few planets out of their rotation? Doom and gloom talk came from that as well.

Now I’m not going to say nothing could happen, but neither can I believe that the destruction of human civilization will occur on January 1st, 2000. There has been too much talk on the issue, even before the media started playing their Chicken Little games, and some progress as well. Wall Street, for instance, has been working on updating their systems when they first heard of the Y2K bug. Government agencies have been working on updating their systems, not only to be Y2K safe but also to appease the efforts of the Clinton Administration in going "paperless" by 2002. (Or is that 1902?) Private corporations are reassessing their own systems and are aiming at making their systems Y2K safe as well. Banks and credit card companies have already been addressing the issue since they were the first to experience Y2K troubles, thanks to those first few renewed credit cards with the "00" expiration date.

Still, there might be some preparations you should make for New Year’s Eve besides champagne and party favors. Fill up some gas cans, stock up on canned foods and bottled water, buy plenty of batteries for your radios.. if you can afford it, look into getting a portable generator. It might be for nothing, but then again you never know. Have some cash ready. You don’t have to draw all of your money out, but certainly have enough to go on for a few days without having to hit the ATM machine or call on your credit cards. Also make a print-out of all of your bank accounts, including numbers and last balances, just to be safe.

And of course, make sure your computer system is updated. Microsoft has posted a couple of Y2K upgrades on their site you should consider looking into, if you haven’t already.

There are places where you can go to get more information about the Y2K bug that don’t necessarily cater to the survivalists and religious zealots who yearn for the apocalypse to happen. Bone up on that information, because it is the only thing that separates the justly concerned from the lunatic fringe.

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