John's Journal and PPSA News


John D. Johnson, Ph.D.


I don't see much data in many Y2K arguments that downplay the significance of the event. Granted, the problem with personal "stand alone" computers is minimal. If you can't get your Quicken to work or if your Windows 95 is not Y2K compliant it won't affect many others and may only be a minor inconvenience to you. But there are legacy systems that large corporations and the government have that are responsible for cutting paychecks and scheduling and inventory. These systems are the ones that have gotten much of the press. The idea is that these huge programs with millions of lines of code that were written in COBOL twenty years ago, will not properly account for the change over to the year 2000. Indeed this has been the focus of many people, and most of the large corporations, public utilities and government agencies have thrown money at this problem over the past year to several years. I hope they are successful, but we just won't know until they perform tests on their systems. Some companies and utilities don't have redundant systems so that they can properly test the rewritten codes. So in those cases, we will just have to wait and see how it turns out.

Many people overlook the myriad imbedded systems that we don't see day to day. These systems run everything from bank vault doors to sprinklers to street lights to elevators to expensive telecommunication satellites. These chips can either work with the wrong date after the year 2000 (i.e. 1900) or they can fail altogether. It is no longer a matter of the year being confused, if you have certain chips with two registers that try to roll over into three digits they may cause the imbedded system to fail to work at all.

Sure, a middle aged computer repairman in Santa Fe may have nothing to worry about. I think that Santa Fe is a pretty safe place. But if you compound the "inconvenience" of Y2K problems (computer programs AND imbedded systems that you can't just "flip a switch" to fix) and the knee jerk reactions of people en masse, you can have great problems, especially in larger metropolitan areas.

The argument that a company won't let its flow of profit be interrupted may be valid for Citicorp, but not so for the small business that doesn't have the resources to properly fix the problem. This argument also doesn't address the imbedded systems that rely on date calculations to function properly. Many of these systems will be isolated and fixed, but there will still be many chips imbedded in some piece of machinery (especially those that are hard to reach and repair like transatlantic or space satellite systems) that won't be found out until after Y2K. And with everything tied together as networked as we are today, how many weak links need to break to bring down an ATM system or a portion of the power grid or telephone service? Remember that the US Government has given dismal grades for fixing the Y2K problem to departments like DOD, Education, HHS, State Department, DOT and AID. And if the progress of the richest country on the planet can be unsatisfactory, how well do you expect poorer nations to fare? If you have an answer to this then please respond to my proposition with some facts. It is simply impossible to know where every failure will occur on a planet wide scale. We don't have records of what has been installed that needs fixing from the past few decades. How detailed are you when you install a sprinkler system? You generally know where things are, but will the next person who buys your house? We just don't know where all the problems will occur and how they will interrelate. Faced with that uncertainty, the logic that businesses collecting profit or the government collecting taxes won't be impeded is silly. I am sure that everyone is trying to some level to prevent loss of profit - but we won't know how successful they will be until after the fact.

People prepare for earthquakes, but they feel that computers can't hurt them. Maybe when there is three feet of snow in Chicago over the same weekend and plows can't get out you can consider that an inconvenience - unless you can't get your prescription from the pharmacy or unless you happen to be particularly susceptible to "disaster situations".

I don't think that it is merely a computer glitch. Public perception/hysteria over the millennium, deep seated desires for a release of responsibility due to a chaotic breakdown of society, financial worries because of the media focus as 2000 approaches on what could happen, and all hell could break loose. I don't think it is worth going crazy over though. But seriously, what is wrong with preparing a little bit?

Let's say that out of the millions and millions of imbedded chips that regulate based on day of week (it isn't that they really care about the year but they have to calculate the day of week) there are shortages and outages. Combined with public panic this could lead to looting and riots in major cities. I wouldn't rule that out.

People are going to seem to be radical if they encourage preparation for something that is as unseen as the Y2K bug. All I encourage people to do is prepare for the inconvenience. Doctors who believed in viruses and bacteria (also "unseen" and not understood by the common public) were considered radical once too. No one believed those who tried to convince people that malaria was carried by mosquitos. People who try to downplay the significance of this event, either don't understand that the issue is not just "My computer thinks it is 1900", or they are eternal optimists, because I don't see them backing up their rosy view of things with any facts.

It is insulting to hear someone say that Y2K is much ado about nothing. The US Government and US Businesses have spent billions attacking this problem. Because they understand the devastating effects that will occur if they don't address it. Will all the critical systems in this country be fixed. One can hope so. But many less critical systems will still have problems, they will be jury rigged (and we will spend the next decade upgrading these systems that are fooled into believing it is 1972), many less critical systems will cause public concern as they cause inconvenience. Then consider the inconvenience that economies around the world will face that haven't spent the money or had the expertise to upgrade their systems and wrench out and replace all their imbedded chips. We simply don't know the magnitude of the problem, we only know that there is a problem and untrained people poo-poo'ing this and minimizing it are as harmful as the doom prophets.

As the year 2000 approaches we will have precursor shock waves to warn us to the actual magnitude of the problem. August 22, 1999 there is a major GPS software rollover. This is the first time it has been tested and could affect international fund transfers and navigation. On 9/99 programs that use 9999 as end of file will be vulnerable. When the Dow hits 10,000 programs that haven't been updated to account for the extra column will be affected. I expect that uncertainty and fear will compound the problem and along with weak and failing world economies we will see a volatile year in the stock market.

Is all doom and gloom? No. Not at all. We are a very resilient society and our track record is to sit around until we get hit by a problem and then react and fix it. We certainly have the manpower and intellect to remedy a fix to a problem such as this, but we don't like to be told the sky is falling until after it happens. We are also not the society of WWII. We do not pull together as we once did. We no longer know our neighbors and have block parties. We tend to be introverted with ourselves or our families and we don't trust and rely on strangers any more. When faced with a disaster that lasts more than a few hours we start looking out for our own first and not the needs of the community. Plus, there are groups in our society that are eager to exploit such a disaster, were it to occur. Groups that are armed and eager to take power and possessions of others. So even if the worst doesn't happen, isn't it common sense to not bury your head in the sand and prepare? If there is even a strong chance that the hysteria, panic, fear and those pesky little computers that run our lives will cause a few days of outages and inconvenience then we should be better prepared than we are now.

I awoke the other day without power in my house. Granted it was 40 degrees in Santa Fe and I wasn't going to freeze like a grandmother in Buffalo who just got hit by 55 inches of snow overnight. But it was strange to see how much I relied on electricity. I didn't even have a transistor radio in the house anymore. Everything that I own relies on the phone company and the electric company and city water. When I was a kid it wasn't a big deal to go without power for a day or two, but can you do that living in a city today? What happens when refrigerated food starts to spoil, air conditioning doesn't circulate the air in a high rise any more and garbage disposals just ferment food? When garbage doesn't get picked up and roads aren't plowed... Imagine you are in metropolitan area when outages hit. No TV, radio, pagers, cell phones, microwave ovens... How many of us have stocked cellars or pantries these days? I don't. I live a few days at a time. I don't have money put aside to pay the rent if my business wasn't able to function for a week or more. Maybe we should make the best of the possibility of disaster caused by the year 2000 and start to become a bit more self sufficient. Even if we sail through the year 2000 without a hitch it may be good practice to divorce ourselves from relying on computers and gadgets as much as we do. We may eat an unhealthy diet, but why wait for that first heart attack to make a radical change in our way of living?

Is the Y2K bug real? Yes. Is the Y2K bug likely to cause the downfall of our society? No. Is the Y2K bug, compounded with the societal effects of the millennium likely to cause a great deal of fear and inconvenience? I believe the answer is an emphatic yes. I can't say for how long or to what extent the problems will manifest themselves, but a little preparation over the coming year can't hurt, can it?

(c) 1999 John D. Johnson, Ph.D.

Dr. Johnson is a computer consultant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has managed computer systems at Los Alamos National Laboratory and continues to consult there on computer related issues. He uses a Macintosh which is invulnerable to Y2K nasties, however he worries that managers have tried to cover their asses by spending money without actually addressing all the problems, and they will either be laying on the beach in Rio when the year 2000 rolls around or raising their prices to scramble and fix the problem after it occurs.

© 1999-2000 PPSA