The Y2K problem: It's real, experts say, but don't panic

March 05, 1999

Last Sunday The Herald-Mail printed a letter from a local minister concerned about what's come to be known as "the Y2K problem."

The letter complained that statements on the issue from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and assorted corporations, banks and utility companies are "so ambiguous and nebulous that they can mean almost anything."

What he wanted, he said, was "a guarantee on company, bank or utility letterhead," which would presumably tell him that the problem has been fixed.

Sorry to say, reverend, I haven't heard anybody involved in this who's willing to give any absolute assurances that come Jan. 1, 2000, there won't be a problem of some sort.


I did speak to officials of Allegheny Power at their corporate headquarters this week, and heard about how more than 20 employee teams are doing an inventory on every piece of company equipment, determining whether it's critical to the utility's mission - a boiler-control mechanism, for example, would be, while a copy machine probably would not - and deciding whether it can be repaired, or whether it must be replaced.

More about that later. For those folks (like me) who aren't sure what the Y2K problem is, a good place to start is Peter de Jager's article in the January 1999 issue of Scientific American.

Jager, whose essay "Doomsday 2000" in Computerworld magazine sounded on ther alarm on this issue, explains the problem in fairly simple terms.

Inside every computer (and in many computer chips) there is a clock. When many of these clocks were designed, programmers chose to represent the year by using the last two digits. For reasons too complicated to explain, in the early days of computer development, memory was expensive. Saving memory by using a two-digit representation for the year was considered a wise economy.

Besides, said Jager, few programmers believed that the software they were writing would still be in use by 2000. Much has been replaced, but much is still in and then there's the problem of devices with "embedded chips," in which the two-digit representation of the year is used.

So what's wrong with a two-digit year? Nothing, until you get to 2000, and your computer clock clicks over to "00." Will the computer then decide that the date is 2000, or 1900 instead?

Lest you think that this is just some mind puzzle for egghead intellectuals, consider the failures that have already taken place:

- the Amway Corporation found that its computers had mistakenly rejected some chemicals because it wrongly believed they had expiration dates of 1900, instead of 2000.

- Union Life Insurance Company's computer accidentally deleted 700 files from a database that tracks the licensing status of brokers because the computer mistook 2000 for 1900.

- At a grocery store called the Produce Palace in Warren, Mich., the store's computers repeatedly crashed when customers presented credit cards with a year 2000 expiration date.

Jager says the extreme points of view, which range from end-of-the-world predictions to assertions that there's nothing to worry about, are probably both inaccurate. While major industries - banks and communications companies, among others - are spending millions to solve the problem before it causes any harm, Jager says "a single points of failure can ripple through a system, with disastrous results.

Add to that the fact that any software change needed to correct this problem may have "bugs" of its own, Jager says, and the likelihood is that even with extensive preparations, "severe disruptions will occur and that they will last perhaps about a month."

Whether that prediction is too optimistic depends on how much people can do within the time remaining to minimize problems.

So what can individuals do?

GartnerGroup, a Stamford, Conn. consulting group that's written a great deal on how the Y2K problem will affect enterprises and economies, in October 1998 issued a report tailored to individuals.

The firm says that most companies will address the issue, and like Jager, they reject the extreme views, saying that "for most people, planning for year 200 issues requires getting through January 2000. A 'bomb shelter' mentality is not called for."

The report recommends that individuals have at least two weeks' salary in cash and up to five days' contingency supplies of what they call key consumable materials - medication, fuel and food.

Other recommendations:

- Have doctor and dentist check-ups prior to January 2000, and have any home-medical devices that are computer-controlled checked to make sure they'll continue to function, by contacting the manufacturer directly.

- If you have a home-security system, make sure your provider has taken steps to deal with the Y2K problem.

- Have your automobile gas tank and your heating system fuel tank filled prior to January 2000, but don't store fuel in containers.

- Prepare as you would for a severe snowstorm, by buying at least one week's supply of non-perishable food, some bottled water, extra batteries and first-aid supplies.

In short, anything you can do ahead of time easily you ought to do. The GartnerGroup report compares it to a major storm, and says in all likelihood, it will not be a catastrophe because "one can predict its arrival and thus prepare for it."

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