Welcoming the Year 2000
by Marilyn McArthur
The great millennium conversion is underway, generating foreboding news stories, causing nationwide concern, and filling our minds with fearful images of suffering and doom. All kinds of information and theories are being spawned concerning the dangers we might face resulting from what is being called the "year 2000 computer bug." Much of this is really alarming news, and the year 2000 could be seen as a potentially deadly force in our computerized world. Consequences have been deemed enormous and global, and recession is even predicted. Personally, I have been warned not to fly that day; nor is there any certainty that I will be able to drive my car, watch television, thaw a chop in my microwave, or get a glass of water from my tap. On the other hand, if the hardcore alarmists have it right, I need not worry too much about those things, as the Pentagon's computers will throw us into a nuclear holocaust anyway.
Certainly, the amount of information we are getting on a daily basis will provide grist for the cocktail party mill for quite some time. But, to become truly knowledgeable on this subject is not an option for most of us because it encompasses such a wide range of disciplines. As a result, we have no way to judge either the seriousness of the problems or the chances of them being resolved before the millennium arrives. We can read one "authority" predicting Armageddon and turn immediately to a second reassuring us that the situation is well in hand. We just don't know how worried we should be. Still, we need to pay some attention to the issues and become familiar with a few of the potential consequences we may have to face.
Where Did this Bug Come From?
The crux of the problem is that programmers have been using only two digits rather than four to represent years: that is, 98 instead of 1998. The practice began over 20 years ago to conserve memory when it cost $600,000 per megabyte rather than 10 cents a megabyte as it does today. What became standard practice intentionally is now a potential crisis. On January 1, the year 2000, any computers not 2000-ready will register that date as 01/01/00, which will in turn, be computed as 1900. And some computers, I have read, may fail completely to recognize 01/01/00 as a date at all. Added to that, date problems will also arise from the fact that the year 2000 is both a millennium year and a leap year.
Experts estimate that some 700 billion lines of programming code are affected; plus most computers have chips that need to be replaced because they have the date hard coded. It is also currently estimated that between15 and 25 percent of the nation's computers are at risk - and many of these are critical! As you may expect, Y2K programmers are working feverishly to eliminate the "bug."
How Great is the Impact on Our Lives?
It is easy to become concerned when you read that "an estimated 15% of software applications prone to Y2K problems won't get fixes before the year 2000." Which of these will be affected gains importance when you consider how pervasive computers are in our lives. Computers impact every aspect of our way of life from the delivery of fresh water and electricity to our homes to the operation of our VCRs. Government agencies and services, communications, health care, and all aspects of banking, to mention a few, are at risk. If that isn't enough, you will be less than pleased to learn that the computer chips that control any number of machines, including elevators, ATMs and traffic signals, are also subject to failure.
In addition, the economy could feel the impact of the massive undertaking to be ready for the millennium. In just the United States alone, this effort will run into many billions of dollars. As a result, it has been estimated that the vast sums of money spent on this massive compliance effort could curb economic growth one-tenth of one percentage point annually.
Where Can We Look for Serious Problems?
Even a sampling of the areas where we might expect serious consequences if compliance is not in place by January 1, 2000 is staggering. Utilities, governments, communications, banking, medicine, travel (especially by air) are but a few of real concern.
Utility Delivery Systems
The delivery of electrical power is a primary and major concern, and this delivery could be interrupted for more than one reason. Applications involved in the delivery of electricity, such as Distributed Control Systems and SCADA (System Control and DATA Acquisition) systems, have dates associated with them because much of what happens throughout the process of generating and delivering electricity is "date and time stamped." Anything date stamped is at risk. Also, our electric company's computers could think all its generators are overdue for maintenance and shut them down - leaving us, of course, in the dark and turning our cities into war zones.
Although power utilities are working to solve the Y2K problem, it was recently revealed that there is no guarantee that the lights will not go out on January 1, 2000. Senator Chris Dodd was recently quoted as saying, "We're no longer at the point of asking whether or not there will be any power disruptions, but we are now forced to ask how severe the disruptions are going to be..."
According to a recent informal Senate survey, only a few of the companies all of us depend on -- oil, gas, electric -- have figured out what systems needed to be fixed, and not one has completed contingency plans.
Water companies are not doing much better. Computers control the flow of water from our reservoirs to our taps, meaning whole cities could find themselves without water on January 1, 2000.
It is estimated that Y2K compliance will cost the Federal Government nearly 4 billion dollars. On the brighter side, it is comforting news that the Social Security Administration planned ahead and began its Y2K program early, in 1993 as a matter of fact. Still, it would be wise to check the accuracy of your Social Security Personal Earnings and Benefits Statement after the first quarter of 2000. On the other hand, risk of delays or foul-ups is higher for Medicare benefits. Renovations are needed, not only by the government, but also by the contractors who are paid by the government to process the nation's $200 billion in annual Medicare claims.
One CNN reporter has labeled all other Federal Government agencies' progress "woeful." Shockingly, some agencies and departments do not even expect to be compliant until long after January 1, 2000. The IRS is rumored to be behind, too. Although many of us would cheer to see this monster crippled, we can only hope we are not presented with back-tax billing statements demanding payments in the millions.
The CIA does not seem to be talking about their computers, but they are definitely talking. Their concern is that "malicious programmers -- perhaps employed by a hostile nation -- will promise to remove Y2K bugs but will quietly insert new ones."
Of course, the armed services and national defense are extremely serious areas of concern. We have been assured that our nuclear weapons' computers either have been or will be compliant, but there still could be glitches. In any event, scientists seem to agree that it is highly unlikely that any glitches that do appear will throw us into a holocaust. It is far more likely that these computers will just warn operators that they are confused. But, we are not the only country with nuclear capability. A more realistic fear is that countries will raise alert levels because of concern about the reliability of other nations' computers. This is not just an unpleasant situation; it's dangerous.
Many of us make a habit of calling good friends and relatives on New Year's day, and if the FCC is truly on top of the problem, as claimed, this tradition can be continued into 2000. But, the telecommunications network is a tremendously complicated thing, consisting of millions of interconnected parts. Further, there are literally thousands of companies involved. So, when we are assured that "there is no reason to believe that one or two Y2K-related failures could lead to a chain reaction that could disable large parts of the nation's telecommunications networks," it is time to get nervous.
Phone service aside, it is really in the areas of public safety communications, national defense communications, weather monitoring information feedback systems, and air travel communications, where matters can turn deadly serious. The fire and police departments come immediately to mind, although there are millions of people prone to medical emergencies whose very lives can depend on the availability of phone services. Mix all these into the massive communications pool if you want to feel just a bit on edge about the issue.
Even the loss of cable television can have an impact on elderly and home-bound persons, as it often provides their major source of entertainment and companionship. And, not only is cable TV dependent on communications systems, it is also dependent upon its own computerized systems.
Medical diagnostic and treatment equipment is computerized. Malfunctioning computers in the equipment can cause serious hazards to heath care. Although no one's pacemaker will fail, hospitals have to take compliance seriously and prepare. Some examples of possible equipment failure are:
On the brighter side, hospitals may not be able to bill you quite so efficiently.
In response to the question of safety in the air, the FAA assures us that all its systems are required to be compliant by June 30, 1999. But just in case, agency level contingency plans to handle system outages are in place. Recently, the FAA announced that the critical mainframe used by the largest traffic control centers will function properly in 2000 - this in spite of the fact that IBM, the manufacturer, has warned the FAA that the computer should be replaced.
In Europe, KLM says it is considering grounding flights on January 1, 2000, out of concern for potential failure of computers controlling European air-traffic systems. Those who fly frequently should carefully monitor both U.S. and foreign progress.
Other airlines have been relatively silent on the issue.
Home may be where the heart is, but frankly most of us feel a pretty close tie to our money too. So naturally, it is unsettling to learn that the Federal Reserve is making contingency plans to assist banks that may be crippled by computer problems in January 2000. It seems that "of the nation's community banks (which hold 16% of U.S. banking assets), some 500 (or almost 9%) either are doing nothing about their Y2K risks or are only beginning to develop correction plans."
An immediate concern for the banking customer is the ability to access funds after January 1. To begin with, wire transfers of funds might be subject to difficulties. And, definitely, I am told, do not rely on ATM machines for cash. Even if the machine itself works, it may inform you that your account is not accessible, as it has been inactive since 1900. Further down the line, you might face inaccurate statements and delays with check clearing and deposit posting.
Using your credit card could really turn ugly. Problems are already beginning to crop up for card-holders who have been issued new cards with a year 2000 expiration date. As not all terminals are yet compliant, these cards, although valid, cannot always be used. Not only is there risk of inaccurate billing resulting from usage, they can, in fact, actually cause a bit of havoc. Recently, a customer tried to pay with a credit card that bore a 2000 expiration date, which caused a store's 10 computerized cash registers to lock shut for half a day. And let us not forget that credit reporting agencies make errors even under normal conditions. It is advisable to obtain copies of your credit report both before and after January 1, 2000, so that you can spot and correct any errors.
Other Financial Institutions
Wall Street itself seems to be right on top of things. They are currently testing their Y2K compliant system, and the tests, which include all major stock exchanges and 29 brokerages, are going well. Since it is critical to our economy, this news could only be better if the Wall Street Y2K system were running at 100% now. But, it is not very comforting when John McLaughlin predicts that if things don't go well, "the Dow would plummet to 7,000 thanks to Y2K."
According to a survey last year, approximately 77% of the larger brokerage firms were actively engaged in either compliance upgrading or system testing process in preparation for the millennium. Unfortunately, at the same time, only about a third of the small to mid-sized companies were following suite.
Life Insurance companies are literally date-dependent; birth dates are critical pieces of information. Fortunately, most of major corporations in this industry, as well as auto and home carriers, are expected to be compliant by the end of this year. But, problems could arise with policies issued by the smaller companies.
What About Closer to Home?
In some areas, you can do more than just worry. You can make your environment compliant or, at least be prepared when you cannot.
Turning to the less serious matter of our home appliances, there seems to be very little to worry about. Although our stereos are going to be just fine, VCRs are not likely to give the correct date thereby taping unwanted shows. But, you can trick the VCR by telling it that it is 1972 when the calendar dates of the week fell exactly as they will in the year 2000. Cam recorders with date and time stamps fall into this category too. Home fax machines will be more critically affected if it is important that the correct date be stamped on faxed documents. And, we might plan to replace that time and date stamping answering machine. Possibly more serious yet are those programmable thermostats and security systems that could potentially shut down altogether; those dependent upon them need to take steps in advance by calling the companies that installed them.
Macintosh users will be delighted to learn that all Macintosh computers are Y2K compliant. All PCs, on the other hand, are not although most manufactured after 1995 should be. It is still wise to check, as "so called" compliant units have failed when tested. Information on most computers can be found on the manufacturer's Web site. Happily, free downloadable diagnostic tools are also available on the Web. And, without additional software, you can perform a simple test by checking your computer's calendar. Simply reset it to 11:58 p.m., Dec. 31, 1999, and let it run into 2000. If this is successful, turn the computer off and wait five minutes; then, restart the computer to see whether it retains the "correct" 2000 date and time.
Your software is another matter even though I have it on good faith that all spreadsheet products can handle dates in both the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. Calculations based on periods of time with date perimeters can be a problem, so some research by users is required. For Windows 95 users, Microsoft was provided a free downloadable patch to make Windows compliant. Also, there are free BIOS patches, which you can download from the web. Most software companies are providing information and assistance, so if you face these problems, you need to dig right in and contact them.
Many of us have been taking the Internet for granted for a seemingly long time now; and it has become, without a doubt, an integral part of life. Incredible numbers of people rely on the Internet for all kinds of reasons, and many earn their living on it. Happily, few, if any, major Y2K problems have been identified yet for this incredible and lovable monster. Some of the more minor difficulties pointed to are:
The majority opinion, I have read, is that if the telephone systems keep humming along, we can expect the Internet to act accordingly.
Anything Else I Can Worry About?
Yes, the rest of the world! Attention has been directed to the European and Japanese banks that, we are told, "are not even thinking about the Y2K problem."
And, if you are not too busy, you can worry about the Y2K compliance status of foreign nations' national defense systems, particularly those with nuclear capability. You can worry about the Y2K readiness of all the nuclear power plants around the world (although you can skip Sweden). You can worry about world-wide satellite communications. You can worry about a general freeze of world trade. You can worry about the distribution of natural resources on global scale. Then, of course, there are always all those things you may have forgotten to worry about.
What is the Bottom Line?
"Good grief," we scream! "I hope someone is doing something about this!" Yes, there is an army of people working non-stop. Actual, massive computer programmer burn out is predicted. And yet, most 2000 compliance programs are behind schedule. But, as one person so aptly put it "you cannot get an extension on the January 1, 2000 deadline." It very well may be true that there will be glitches in any number of systems. January 1 has the potential to be, indeed, very interesting. And, we may well be victimized by some surprising and, perhaps unpleasant, consequences in the days or even months that follow.
Unfortunately, it does seem that some business may fall by the way side as a result of the millennium. The cost of compliance in itself may be too hard to bear. The 20 to 40 million small businesses will have a harder time of it and are more at risk. Also, stock prices of those companies who lag in their compliance efforts may begin to suffer, as investors become more aware of the implications of non-compliance. Investors do not want to wait to see how the companies of which they are part owners weather the storm. The storm, investors are beginning to understand, can be a hurricane bringing down everything in its path.
Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, has said that the probablity of a global recession has risen to 70%, as wide-spread computer failure undermines public confidence. But, a survey conducted by Merrill Lynch found that "corporations across the world are making aggressive efforts to tackle the Year 2000 technology problem, and most are making headway." A majority of the "experts" agree, adding cautiously that although the impact may seem severe at first, it is only temporary. Sit tight, we are told.
But, to return to those hard-core alarmists, I don't think the alarmists do have it right. I believe that the greatest share of the large and critical computer systems will be ready. I do believe that any vital computer system, which can create a domino effect and affect other critical computers, will be ferreted out with all precautions in place. This will happen because governments, business, and organizations of all kinds do not want to be shut down even for a short period of time - they cannot afford it! And, the bottom line is one of the strongest motivators in the world. Business, governments, and utilities will be ready because they will fix all that code and replace those faulty chips. They will, indeed, do whatever it takes! We won't starve to death, or die of thirst, or be marooned in malfunctioning vehicles in massive traffic tie-ups created by malfunctioning traffic signals - at least not for long. There probably won't even be a holocaust. But, this does not mean I will forget to have plenty of cash on hand January 1, 2000, or that I will forget to stock my pantry in case my local store's computerized cash registers fail. I may be an optimist about all this, but I am not a fool!
About the Author
Marilyn McArthur is a veteran technical writer living in upstate New York. Currently, she is working as a contract writer and authoring Web sites. In particular, mystery readers might want to visit the online mystery bookstore she maintains at http://home.earthlink.net/~mamacat. Marilyn's own home page is at http://home.earthlink.net/~mmcart.
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