Why 2000 Isn’t Your Lucky Number

[Granby Drummer Masthead]

Copyright ©1998 Rob Levandowski, all rights reserved.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the “Year 2000 Bug.” You may not know exactly what it is, but no matter who you are, it will affect you–perhaps seriously. Experts disagree on whether it’s not a big problem, or a possible Apocalypse, or something inbetween–but all of them agree that it’s a problem, and it’s unavoidable, and that it will touch everyone in America.

The Y2K bug, as it’s known, isn’t actually a bug at all, but a combination of a poor design decision compounded by cost-saving measures. In the early years of computing, when memory was very expensive, it was necessary to write programs in the most compact way possible. When computers had 8K or less memory, every individual character was an expensive proposition.

Thus, programmers of the time decided that the “century digits” of the year could be left out of dates. After all, if you see 3/30/72, you know that it means March 30th, 1972. Those who did think ahead to the turn of the century usually thought that their programs would be replaced long before then. Surely, they reasoned, in thirty years’ time, somebody will write something better for the newer, more powerful systems!

Unfortunately, so long as their old software remained functional enough, many companies decided that it wasn’t cost-effective to write or buy new software.

Now, with less than a year and a half remaining until the year 2000, a great many of those programs are still in use. Many of them were written in computer languages now considered “dead,” no longer taught in schools and rare in the workforce. Few of the programmers still work for the companies where the programs are in use. Compounding matters, many recent computer programs haven’t been written properly, either. The workload is enormous, the workers few, and the time grows shorter by the day.

Even worse, companies are procrastinating. By December 1997, with only three years to go before the deadline, only 34% of the nation’s businesses had enacted a plan to deal with Y2K, never mind actually fixing the problem. By March 1998, more than 30% of the nation’s businesses still hadn’t made any plans to handle Y2K. Has your company devoted signifigant time and energy to Y2K? Even if you don’t use computers yourself, you probably depend upon other companies that do.

These problems manifest themselves in many ways. A common example is the calculation of a person’s age. If the Social Security system isn’t “Y2K compliant,” after January 1, 2000, many retirees won’t get their benefits because the computer will think that the current date (1/1/00) is before the retiree’s birthdate (say, 1920), and therefore no check should be issued—or perhaps a warrant should be issued to arrest this person for an “obvious” forgery! The problem is that the computer will assume that “19” gets tacked in front of the two-digit stored date.

There are other problems, too. Some computers use “99” as a year code to mean an infinite date: i.e., 9/9/99 means that this customer’s contract never expires. On September 9, 1999, that “infinite” contract will end. In 1999, one-year financial projections will start failing. On April 1, 1999, New York State‘s fiscal year 2000 starts; 46 other states start f.y. 2000 on July 1. On August 22, the Global Positioning System (GPS) will have a date-code roll-over, possibly killing some early receivers. On December 31, many IBM mainframe systems will declare all of their backup tapes to have expired–they use a date code of “99365” to mean “never expires.” The code 99365 also means the 365th day of the year 1999.

There is no simple solution to Y2K. One commonly-proposed solution is to assume that dates ending in 00 through 49 are dates in the 21st century. The problem here is that non-compliant computer programs often use simple subtraction to calculate ages. If you were born in 1900 through 1949, a computer using this “simple fix” will suddenly think you have a negative age! It will take the current year, 2000, and subtract your birth year. For someone born in 1940, the computer will subtract 2040, just as it was instructed, making you -40 years old. That might do wonders for your ego, but it’ll keep you from using many forms of identification. This problem has already occurred in one state that reprogrammed its driver’s license database. A grocery store chain that used the database to verify IDs for the purchase of liquor discovered that the cash registers refused to sell liquor to anyone born before 1950, as they had not been born yet.

The only reliable solution is to rewrite the computer code so that it uses a four-digit year. With programs running millions of lines of code, this is a Herculean effort, and possibly a futile one. Any computer user knows that big programs have bugs, and a buggy Y2K fix won’t have a second chance.

How hard is it to fix? The Federal Aviation Administration expects that all of its computers will be Y2K compliant in the year 2009. Software Productivity Research estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion dollars to solve the problem. That’s $3,600,000,000,000.00. The U.S. Government alone estimates that the problem will cost them $3.8 billion to fix in their own systems.

The problem is that the Y2K bug exists in most major computers and many personal computers, and in many products with built-in computer chips. Personal computers running DOS or Windows are not Y2K compliant without special upgrades, which may include new hardware. (Mac users are lucky; Apple thought ahead, and Macs won’t have date problems until the year 29,940 A.D.) Even Windows 95, a product released just five years before the turn of the century, will break when the year 2000 comes around if it isn’t “patched” or upgraded.

[amazon-product small=”1″]B00005N7TL[/amazon-product]The nation’s electric grid runs on embedded microprocessors in every substation and junction. These processors were built to be small and cheap, and they have limited memory–and many of them have the Y2K bug. Most of these processors keep track of scheduled maintenance, and shut off power if maintenance hasn’t occurred in a reasonable amount of time. That’s a safety precaution. When 12:01 1/1/2000 rolls around, such processors may decide that they haven’t been maintained in a century. According to Wired magazine, none of the nation’s nuclear power plants have been certified free of the Y2K bug as of July, 1998. That’s 20% of the nation’s electric power. It’s likely that there will be widespread power outages when the ball drops in Times Square. If power is unavailable for more than a few days across wide areas, things may become difficult. Our society is dependent upon electric power to manage our economy and our businesses. Ask your local retailers if they have plans to keep operating in the event of a multi-week power outage.

Your bank accounts run on computers that may have the Y2K bug. The stock market depends upon computers that keep dated transactions. Some cars have automatic monitors that keep track of necessary maintenance by the date. Fire and burglar alarms are date dependent. Phone systems are date dependent. Medical equipment, military hardware, the Internet, even your digital wristwatch may not function after you sing Auld Lang Sine in 1999.

The good news is that this potential disaster is unique in one very important way: no matter how bad it is, we already know with absolute certainty exactly when it’s going to happen. You can make plans around it, unlike a fire, flood, or earthquake.

As it turns out, our best hope for surviving Y2K with minimal damage is the fact that we won’t be the first people to feel its effects. The world will be watching the unfortunate residents of New Zealand and Australia, as their time zones will be the first to undergo the date change. On the East Coast of America, we’ll have 16 hours to learn from their mistakes.

The best thing you can do is discuss it with your neighbors, and be prepared for the worst. If power fails for a long period of time, be ready to work together to keep warm and keep food safe. Identify safe sources of drinking water, or buy high-performance camping water filters. Have plenty of supplies on hand in case shipping gets fouled up. Prepare bartering systems in case you’re unable to access bank accounts, or money becomes less valuable than wood or meat. Assume that anything electrical or computerized will be unavailable, including things like gas pumps. Most of all, work to earn each other’s trust, so that you can work with each other if disaster strikes, rather than working against each other.

You can find all sorts of Year 2000 information on the Internet. One well-rounded site is <http://www.millennia-bcs.com>. At sites such as this one, you’ll find good tips such as: Get your prescriptions refilled to the largest size possible early in winter 1999.

Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that humanity will emerge unscathed from the Year 2000 bug. Even prestigious computer research firm The Gartner Group is pessimistic about the chances of companies meeting the deadline. However, we still have time to understand Y2K and be ready to deal with it, even if we can’t fix it.

This article was originally published in late 1998 in The Granby Drummer.

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