What is Y2K?
Since the dawn of the Computer Age, programmers took shortcuts to save room in the limited and expensive memory banks of the mainframe computers with which they worked. The use of dates were, and are, very important pieces of data. To conserve space, these dates were written as dd/mm/yy, a style that we are familiar with ourselves. We normally assume the 19 is in front of the year given, for example 1975 would just be 75. This saved only two digits, but the savings were compounded millions of times as dates are used as a reference point, an indexing constant, and for calculating time oriented projects.
As time went on, the conservation of memory became less of an issue, but this programming style had been institutionalized, meaning it was perfectly normal to write it that way. The early mainframe programmers did not think that their work would be used for more than five to ten years. As time progressed, programmers began to realize that the date change on 1/1/00 would not be recognized by these computers and would think that it is now 1900. In a two digit year field, when dates are compared, someone that was born in 1960 would be considered to be either -60 years old or 60 years old, but not 40 which would be correct. Some computers are not programmed to operate past 12/31/99, while still others are not able to deal with negative numbers and will shut down. In any case it is a problem that should have been addressed many years ago, but unfortunately was not.
The reason that many managers and CEOs ignored the pleas from their staff programmers is that the Y2K issue is a problem without symptoms. Most systems will operate fine until mid-1999 or 1/1/00. It is an issue that requires large amounts of money in which there is no return on investment, save for the continued existence of the firm. In some cases the messenger was killed. Those that repeatedly asked for funds were fired. This being a possible result, other programmers opted to stay quiet, hoping that their managers would hear it from other circles of this problem. Once decision makers understood the problem, many waited for a silver bullet" to come on the market. A silver bullet is any program that would automatically scan and replace the two digit date fields in a computer system. Unfortunately this is a mythical creature because every mainframe system is different and requires painstaking inspection by a trained programmer. By waiting for a solution that never came, many companies hesitated until it was too late to proceed in the normal fashion. Year 2000 consultants agree that for a successful conversion of a large system that it should have begun by late 1996.
Today many companies are not yet to the code remediation stage. For them it is a forgone conclusion that they will not be finished in time. I myself first heard of the problem in March 1996, only two years ago. At that time I was in the Internet / Computer business, and received much of my news from those more knowledgeable than I. Even so, the issue did not impact me in the least. The next time I heard of it was six months later, in an article that concerned the military computers. Still, I was too busy to look into this further. Almost a year passes. Then I read an article which explained how transportation could be affected. I started to think about this. But it wasn't until the first of March this year (1998) that I finally investigated this issue in depth. In the last month I have easily logged over two hundred hours hunting on the Internet and reading about the Year 2000 Problem. What I have found are various shades of evidence that are confusing, disturbing, reassuring, and otherwise total in scope. No matter what the actual truth is, we will all be impacted by this problem. To what degree is yet to be seen.
What Is Affected By Y2K?
The one thing about Y2K is that it is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. It is found in systems and equipment that one would not normally assume would be date sensitive. I will endeavor to outline some of the key areas below. Keep in mind that all of these areas are interrelated. If one suffers, then the others do as well.
This field is heavily reliant on computers. The banking industry could not function without the speed and exactness that computers deliver. Somehow the banking industry had not addressed the Y2K problem until 1996 for the most part. Very few are out of the assessment stage. The are various stages that one must go through in correcting the problem are: Awareness, Inventory, Assessment, Planning, Code Remediation, and Testing. The first three comprise about 10% of the effort. The actual code changing is about 40% of the effort, and testing should be about 50%. The major banks have hundreds of million of lines of code to inventory and assess.
As of this writing there are no major banks that are Year 2000 compliant. Many claim that they will be ready by December 31, 1998, which gives a full year for testing. We will have to see just how much can be done in the remaining eight months. The problem with this deadline however is that if it is simultaneously achieved, then there will not be enough available mainframe computers left to test the corrected code. The banks, as well as every other industry, will be clamoring for testing platforms while their own computers continue to operate in the 24 hour / 7 day a week manner in which they must. In every programming task there are additional bugs (mistakes) that are added. This is why testing is mandatory, in order to find those bugs before the program is deemed compliant.
The FDIC which issued the guidelines for bank compliancy is not yet compliant itself. The Federal Reserve Board is quite concerned about this. They are more concerned however about foreign banks. Europe is preoccupied with the conversion to the Euro dollar, Asia is suffering set backs due to their current recession, while South America, the Middle East, and Africa are totally unaware of the problem. The Federal Reserve has already stated that non-compliant banks will be quarantined. The entire scope of International Banking, and thus the Global Economy, is in a dire situation.
Every aspect of Government is affected by the Y2K issue. No Federal agencies are yet compliant. Several will not be done at their current progress until 2019. The Social Security Administration has been working on their system since 1993 and is not yet done. The IRS is way behind schedule, and has had several key people resign in resent months. If the IRS can not function, then the revenue generation of the United States is crippled. The FAA has been in bad shape to begin with, and now its aging IBM mainframes are said to be impossible to upgrade. Without the FAA planes do not fly. If planes do not fly, the aviation industry collapses. The Department of Defense has found that its brand new Command and Control systems are not compliant. Without them, we can not defend ourselves. It has been reported that our nuclear missiles are somehow affected. If this is true for us, then the same can be said our our allies, and for Russia. The geopolitical implications are unsettling.
By industry I am including power generation, telecommunications, manufacturing, health care, shipping / transportation, and municipal services. Another very important element of the Y2K problem that is essential to industrial processes are noncompliant chips, otherwise known as "embedded systems." These are microchips that are in fact tiny computers that have their instructions burned in, and that function perpetually at their specific jobs. By embedded, these chips are typically hardwired into a piece of machinery govern many types of activities such as process control, environmental monitoring, automatic fail-safes, security systems, routing systems, among many others. Billions upon billions of these chips have been produced in the last several years. Only a small percentage are date sensitive, but each chip has to be found, tested, and replaced if necessary. These chips can not be queried remotely, nor can they be reprogrammed. Somehow the chip manufactures did not take this situation into consideration when designing these chips.
In industrial settings these embedded systems are prevalent and outstrip the problem of making mainframe computers compliant by a factor of four to one. Unfortunately an estimated 96% of companies have not even inventoried their embedded systems as of yet. These chips are of crucial importance in power generation plants. A recent test by a power plant in England found that when one system was set to 1/1/00 that it shut down, and it in turn shut down other systems in the plant. It took 13 days to get that part of the facility back on line. Oil rigs are particularly affected by these chips. There can be up to 10,000 chips on one platform. Some are encased in silicon and are far below the surface of the ocean. Many industries, including the oil companies, invested heavily in computerized automation in order to become more competitive. Without these systems working properly, it makes the operation of these industries virtually impossible.
There are many devices and vehicles that require routine maintenance. They have chips that will shut down that item if it is not maintained within a certain amount of time. If the chip thinks it has been 99 years since its last oil change, it will refuse to allow that machine to work. This includes sophisticated hospital equipment, modern fire engines, jet fighter airplanes, just to name a few.
Aside from embedded systems, the mainframe computers of companies large and small will have to be converted in time. Some of the smaller firms have found the cost to be overwhelming and have opted to not become Year 2000 compliant. Either they will ride out the date change and see to what extent they are affected, or they are planning to sell the company to someone else. A true case of Caveat Lector! (Buyer Beware) The larger corporations have too much invested to take such a chance and are spending millions of dollars in the process.
The interconnections of various industries makes them dependent on the compliancy of others. An obvious one is the Banking Industry. Data from one system will corrupt the compliant data in another one. Other examples are not so obvious. General Motors has 85,000 suppliers. Lets say one third are critical. That is still 28,000 individual companies that have to be complaint themselves. If they suffer shutdowns, then the assembly line of GM stops. You can not build a car with missing parts and put them in later. The telephone system is another concern. It is a system of systems, and they all have to work in unison in order to work at all. British Telecom has already written off many Third World countries who will be cut off from the rest of the world come 1/1/00. Without telephone service, trade will slow to a standstill. This affects the industrialized countries because we import many essential goods that are critical to our manufacturing base. It is to be seen if we have international calls ourselves.
The Global Infrastructure:
As you begin to see, the threat that the Year 2000 Problem presents is far reaching. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the problem one must see the global infrastructure, and its resulting economy, as an interlocking system. Throughout history nations were agrarian, news and information traveled slowly, and there was not much to go wrong. The Industrial Revolution changed that, and brought us many conveniences. But there was a trade off. We became dependent on these advances and today find ourselves in a symbiotic relation with technology.
The various industries that I have commented on so far are dependent on one another for their continued survival. Without banking, everything stops. How are goods and services to be exchanged? How will people be paid? Without power generation, everything certainly stops. Even without telephone service, the coordination of society would be thrown into turmoil. Without transportation, shipping would end, and in turn stop power production as coal and oil would not arrive.
What happens in an event such as this is the breakdown of the division of labor. Without a high degree of coordination, society can not bring together the various materials in order to create even the most basic things. The average person has lost the skills it took to get by a hundred years ago. We assume the light switch will work, and the stores will be stocked. That is a dangerous assumption. Additionally, the smooth operation of an urban infrastructure is mandatory in order for a city to function. A sustained lack of services will make a modern city uninhabitable within a matter of days. The massive populations of these cities are maintained artificially by means of these services. A breakdown in these services will drive out the people that make the city operational. An exodus of skilled technicians will make any remediation an impossibility. Multiply that situation to every city, in every state, in every country, and you will start to get an idea of the magnitude of such an event.
But Is Y2K Real?
The Year 2000 Problem is a very complex one, with many variables. The one constant is the deadline. December 31, 1999 is coming up fast. No matter how you look at it, it is an issue that is only getting closer by the day. So the real question is one of severity. There are many who claim the whole thing is made up, that Y2K consultants are to blame for the hype surrounding the issue. Others refuse to believe that such a problem is either severe, or could be capable of creating anything major. I have spoken to those that work in the computer industry. A number of them share this belief, that it is a minor issue, nothing to be alarmed at. There is one however that works for a company that coordinates the computerized stock trading in this country. He has told me that they have been working steadily since 1996 to fix their systems. Even if they are compliant, any others that they share data with that are not will destroy all of their efforts.
There is a spectrum of concern, or the lack of it. Many say that it is hype, there is nothing to be concerned about. Then there are others that see this as the end of the world and have sounded the alarm. In the middle are those that are not quite sure and are still investigating. But keep in mind, Murphy was an optimist. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment. What a better situation than a simultaneous global event such as Y2K to test such a theory.
But this is not an intellectual exercise that will be debated for years to come. It is a situation that must be assessed and addressed as rapidly as possible. If it is no big deal then we can relax and enjoy the dawning of the new millennium in high style. If it is a cause for concern, then we must spend these remaining days preparing for the eventualities that will result. The sources that I base my concerns on are not the opinions of those in the computer industry, but of those giving testimony to Congress and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The BIS is the most important secular institution in the world. If they are concerned, I am concerned as well.
There have been several Congressional testimonies that are notable. One was from a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association regarding the FAAs systems. Basically it was a bleak assessment. Statements from the IRS comptroller admit that if they do not fix their system that the economy of the United Sates will fail. I do not see any motivation for hype from the IRS.
In another more recent testimony, the Y2K PR man for the White House was painting a pretty picture for Congress and assuring that all critical systems will be fixed in time. Senator Fred Thompson (R-Utah) demanded to know that if that was the case then why are there reports coming out that are so disturbing that they have to be classified? I would worry about what are in those reports myself.
Then there are industry newsletters that speak of the dangers presented if their own issues are not adequately addressed. One from the World Oil newsletter from Gulf Oil states plainly that only 30% of the industry can be remediated, and that present strategy should be for contingency planning. To think that a 70% loss in energy production is possible is enough to make one pause.
Business Week asked the experts in the field of power generation if Y2K could disrupt the electrical grid of North America. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) basically said I don't know. The electrical grid of North America is interdependent and a sudden disruption in power could knock the grid out. This has never happened before, and apparently the experts don't know what would happen. Similar statements are made throughout the various industries. If they are publicly, but quietly, making pronouncements this dire, I would err on the side of caution and plan accordingly. At least it demands closer attention over the next several months.
But as we approach 1999, time runs out for any meaningful personal contingency planning.
According to Josh Mailman, founder of Social Venture Networks, that is the question."
It is amazing to observe several old friends suddenly and uncharacteristically clinging to an almost apocalyptic vision of the Y2K issue. They appear upset to hear others voice doubt about the intensity of the eventual problem, or the inevitability of the dire consequences that are now so in vogue to predict. It appears that some people have a deep need to believe in an impending dramatic event that will suddenly cast the entire socio-political economic global machine into a state of total dysfunction. Perhaps the real need is to regain a new sense of possibility for rapid revolution... just like the events of the sixties allowed us to believe in.
I'm skeptical of rapid revolutions. At the same time I'm cognizant of something many people may not readily see: that our lives are taking place against the most intense backdrop of constant change and evolution ever known in human history- day by day. I think the industrial machine will crumble, but gradually over time under the sheer weight of its unsustainablity and stupidity. Y2K will, most likely be a relatively minor blip in the turning of the century, and for reasons that are patently clear, the megalithic transnational engine of commerce will likely find the means necessary to sustain itself, even if it means providing free hardware and software to the Y2K non-compliant.
I recently read a quote from Tom Browne, executive director of the Air Transport Association, the trade group representing 28 major airlines, including American, United, and Northwest. He said that flight safety is not at risk. "We're going to have some problems," admitted Browne, who compared Y2K's impact to that of a blizzard, but "my prediction is that they'll be minor annoyances."
Meanwhile, it makes sense to inquire whether appropriate government agencies have taken steps to be ready in the event of communication difficulties. It is also a positive step to get personally prepared-- try getting a Macintosh computer (All Apple machines are Y2K ready, and all Windows 95 run machines are Y2K non-compliant) and make sure you will be able to feed your family if the food trucks don't make it to the stores in early January. The issue Y2K activists should be addressing is the problem of embedded systems in the sites that host nuclear missle systems, nuclear reactors, and bomb storage. But I still maintain that the millennium panic or seeing Y2K as a panacea are both off the mark.
Lists of doom and gloom Y2K websites, as well as government sites with memos from officials about how bad it will be are floating around email lists and among friends. But there are also large sectors of the info industry who see this as a financial and computerization boom. There are also lists of websites that indicate Y2K is a workable challenge, suggesting that the web itself will play a key role in managing the needed changes. Ironically, the doomsayers themselves are clearly a necessary factor in the mobilization of Y2K readiness.
Perhaps our collective vision of the future, borne from our mutual and heartful yearnings for a peaceful, just, and prosperous future, is better focused on what we will use technology to create of value for future generations, versus the mythical but dubious image of a crumbling technosphere and all that goes with it. I don't have the Y2K answer right now-- no one does-- but I do have a positive vision of the future.
Some "alternative" Y2K resources:
* In August, The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned of possible widespread disruptions in basic services around the world due to computers not being able to handle internal calculation upon the arrival of the year 2000.
- the agency says most countries are far behind the U.S., Canada, Britain, and Australia in upgrading software to deal with the problem.
return all those annoying credit card offers, get 4 or five cards, leave a trail of credit all the way to the jungle, and party like it's the end of the world...and hope that all the computers do go -poof-