This appeared in the December 25, 1998 issue of Peak Computing Magazine. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
"Computer problems related to the year 2000 could lead to significant disruption in all kinds of services that the public takes for granted -- from traffic signals and electric power to banking and other financial transactions and even computer chips in the family car. It is critical that we bring the public and the private sectors together to make sure we have the least possible interruption of services to citizens in Colorado -- especially those services necessary to health, safety and welfare."
"There is very little realization that there will be a disruption...I think most people are again assuming that things are going to operate the way they always have. That is not going to be the case."
"I would like to raise a vitally important issue, which has been mostly ignored in the discussions of the Year 2000 Problem (Y2K). I am concerned that no one on this planet is assessing the potential negative impact of Y2K on the global food supply. I believe that with so little time left, it is very unlikely that all mission-critical systems will be properly fixed in time. I am an alarmist in this respect. I believe that only naive optimists can assume that there won't be any significant malfunctions, and consequently major disruptions to our global economy. It is important to understand that whatever systems are doomed to fail will all do so at exactly the same time, i.e., at the start of the new millennium. These failures are likely to have a domino effect on systems that are Y2K compliant. Consequently, I believe there is a 70 percent chance of a global recession in 2000 that could be at least as severe as the global economic downturn in 1973 and 1974. We are especially blind about the possible problems that will hit the global food supply in 2000. This must be a top concern for all of us."
"It will cost between $300 billion and $600 billion to fix the problem worldwide."
If you saw the TV show "60 Minutes" on November 30 or watch Dan Rather, the Christian Broadcast Network (with Pat Robertson) or read any newspapers, magazines or communicate over the Internet, you likely heard of the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem by now. It is a simple problem in theory. To save on valuable and expensive storage space, programmers were told to trim down four digit date fields like 1972 to read 72. Everyone does this kind of shorthand with dates, after all. We write 12/25/98 without a thought. It is assumed the year is 19. There would be plenty of time to replace these computer systems long before it became another century, or so it was thought. As we rollover into the year 2000 the computers will see the year as 00. The computers understand this to be 1900 and will act appropriately. If you made a bank deposit on 1/12/2000 and the bank's computer is not Y2K compliant, the computer could understand that your deposit was made in 1900 and record it as such. There are other possibilities of how the computers could act. Some may not be affected. Others may spew out bad data; some may lock up or crash and simply stop working altogether. The biggest single concern is the fact that no one knows which computers will react which way. No one can tell us what problems there will be or their magnitude.
As if it weren't a difficult enough picture trying to figure out how all the billions of lines of code can be fixed, tested and refixed in time (due to bugs that are introduced into code when it's changed, Y2K remediation will most likely cause new bugs that have to be fixed again), there is the issue of embedded systems.
Explained at http://www.euy2k.com/embedded.htm, embedded microprocessors and other time sensitive logic are silicon integrated circuits, generally with permanently coded instructions that are not designed to be easily changed. These monitor, regulate or control the operation of devices, systems, networks or manufacturing plants. These are generally in the form of silicon microelectronic chips, such as microprocessors, timers, sequencers and controllers built-in to machinery from small devices such as wrist watches and consumer electronics, to dedicated processors controlling large industrial plants. The term "embedded" refers to the instructions that are permanently loaded in one of the chips comprising the system. Embedded systems are all around us, as seen in this graphic image.
Some are easy to get to and replace the chips -- VCRs, PCs, door locks, mobile phones, faxes, phone systems. Others are not so easy to get to -- chips that are submerged under the sea in oil drilling platforms, or chips in satellites. These chips were embedded for a reason and it was generally decided they would not need to be changed or replaced. They are difficult to get to and even more difficult to test since many have no input device. Imagine a box inside a box inside a box. Many embedded chips are in situations just like that.
How many embedded chips are out there? "A total of 3.5 billion microprocessors (the "chip" that constitutes the embedded system) were sold in 1995, and 7 billion were sold in 1997. It's reasonable to expect that equally large numbers will be sold in 1998 and 1999; thus, we're likely to have an aggregate of 25+ billion of these little machines floating round the planet on New Year's Eve 1999. Only a small percentage of these chips are likely to be "year-sensitive" and only a small percentage could be described as "mission-critical" (in the sense that a failure could cause severe economic consequences and/or loss of life) -- but even a small percentage of a small percentage can be a large number when we start with a population of 25 billion chips." --TimeBomb2000 by Ed and Jennifer Yourdon.
"We just don't know the status of the federal government...Our entire way of life is at risk_ We are so dependent on digital equipment. We won't be able to conduct national security, collect taxes, distribute benefits, manufacture products or manage commerce." -- Rona Stillman, U.S. General Accounting Office (GOA)
"They" meaning the armies of programmers and managers and support teams all over the world are trying to fix it. But has the effort been too little too late? It's a normal reaction at times of impending crisis to look to our government for help. How is the government doing with its Y2K remediation?
Representative Stephen Horn, R-CA, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology, at http://www.house.gov/reform/gmit/y2k/index.htm, says this:
I am releasing the sixth Report Card which reports the progress of the largest Federal Government departments and agencies' efforts to avoid year 2000 problems in the computer systems and embedded chips that relate to the agency mission.
The grades are based on agency information provided to the subcommittee's staff, on November 13, 1998, addressing the status of the agencies' most important, that is, their mission critical systems. These are the computers that the agencies have determined must be fixed in order for that Federal department to perform its key duties. As you can see on the "Year 2000 Progress" chart, the picture is a gloomy one.
Overall, the Executive Branch of the Federal Government has earned a 'D.'" Unfortunately, the Federal Government has not made enough progress since the last report card when it also received a 'D.'
Agencies given an "A" for their progress: Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration and National Science Foundation. Agencies given an "F" for their progress: Dept. of Justice, Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Health and Human Services, Dept. of State and Agency for International Development.
By their own admission, the estimated year for 100 percent compliance:
Those figures are alarming, but especially for the Department of Energy. Energy is the pivotal point for all other things working. If there is no electricity, it won't matter whose computers were fixed on time because none of them will run. "There are 7,300 U.S. electric utilities-- none are Y2K compliant today. This includes 108 nuclear reactors, which account for approximately 20 percent of the nations power," according to Ed Yourdon, software guru and co-author of TimeBomb2000.
Colorado's Y2K Project Office Web page has a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page that is "under construction", a "Compliance Verification" document with an updated icon that has a date of June 30, 1998. The most recent monthly report, October 31, 1998 is available online. It shows a very positive picture of the remediation efforts, with all systems showing a completion date no later than June 1999. The conclusion to the report states:
"The project office has two major concerns: 1) slippage in completion dates, and 2) unplanned Fatal/Critical systems without verification plans. First, the Project Office is concerned about slipping end dates and work being replanned into the future. With only a few months to go, the slippage in projects erodes the Project Office's confidence that projects will complete by June 1999. Slipping projects demand special attention and clear accountability by the departments. The departments cannot afford to miss or push their self-defined end dates. If the slippage continues at its current rate, the state may not have all Fatal/Critical systems compliant by June 1999. All projects listed in last month's report remain on this month's report. Also, two of these projects slipped another month from last month's report. In addition, three new projects were added to the list. Second, approximately 39 percent of the Fatal/Critical systems do not have a defined completion date. These systems were previously assessed to be compliant by the departments. However, the departments must test these systems to ensure continued service beyond the millennium. The Project Office believes that these issues can be resolved in a timely manner if appropriate measures are taken now. In spite of the Project Office's concerns, overall the State's Year 2000 effort is reasonably healthy, as it is possible to meet the Year 2000 deadline."
What are people doing to prepare for Y2K? Unfortunately, many are still unaware. Some who have tried to spread the message have been labeled "alarmists" and "troublemakers" and told not to cause a panic by telling people. The question is, would people rather be a bit panicked now and have the time to get over it, have the energy and calendar days and money to solidly prepare themselves for any possible disruptions by storing water, food and medicines and have an alternative heat source set up or prefer to be kept in the dark until after the rollover occurs, and have to make do with whatever is on hand? In other words - have no warning at all of what may be coming? Jan Jackson, a resident of El Paso County, says that she heard about the Y2K problem on a local talk radio show. She is expecting moderate disruptions and preparing herself by "heading for the hills" and stocking up. When asked, "How do you think your local/state government has been handling the remediation?" Jan replies, "Very badly. At our local level, we seem to have County Commissioners, a City Council, and a number of Town Councils that care more about power and money (being in the hip pockets of developers) than doing the business of the people."
Willie Rodriguez, a Terminix employee in Colorado Springs, is moving himself, his wife and their four children to their newly purchased 40-acre rural parcel of land. The driving factor? Y2K. "We've always wanted to move out to the country, but Y2K is a motivating factor right now to go sooner. Living paycheck to paycheck, I'm not confident in the system and don't believe order can be maintained." On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being a minor bump in the road and 10 being The End Of The World As We Know It) he sees the Y2K problem as a 7.
There is one group that is making a big difference as it spreads the message and offers help and support to people concerned with Y2K. It's called Rocky Mountain Survival Group. The group's web page states, "Interested in joining a Survival/Self-Reliance community that isn't caught up in politics, sexual revolutions, militias or hitching a ride with comet-hounding aliens to the "next level?" RMSG is now forming a survival community incorporating the best of natural technology (non-invasive) and self-reliance techniques." Even if you are not interested in joining any type of group you will find their website amazing with all of the self-sufficiency information it provides.
One Colorado resident runs a virtual online community -- an email list by the name of y2k-homestead@MyList.net, which helps people prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. The members share Y2K news sightings as well as share self-sufficiency information. People from all over the United States as well as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Japan share common concerns with surviving disruptions.
It is hard to find an expert today who believes there won't be a problem of any kind when the year rolls over to 2000. But many vary on how severe the effects will be. Rob Savoye is a programmer who believes, "Community is *always* a good thing. I live in a community now, and I think it's the way to live. Folks should always be prepared against disaster. Where I live in the mountains, we all are prepared anyway against the power going out (it does all the time), spare food, (you should see our blizzards...), no gasoline, (horse are great), etc... But we don't need to do this cause of Y2k. Communities and being prepared for emergencies is always a good thing."
Harry Browne writes for Liberty Magazine and says, "Yes, there's a problem. But companies in the free market are handling it -- just as they continually handle all sorts of problems." Mr. Browne's articles disputing the Y2K hype can be found online (scroll down to "Year 2000").
You can test your PC online (vl2.zdnet.com/scripts/y2k.plx), but realize this may be the least of your worries. The interdependencies of computers throughout our society could cause much more to think about than if your desktop home PC works. At Y2KNewswire, there is an online probability engine. You supply the numbers (estimates or guesses) for each of several nodes in the infrastructure and it calculates the interaction of the nodes to produce the odds of a complete melt down.
Even if you believe that Y2K is not going to be a problem, most people agree with the stand that it is wise to stock up on supplies and be ready for whatever emergency may occur. Westergaard Year 2000 states, "No matter how diligent one is in their efforts, they cannot forsee every possible area vulnerable to the Millennium Bug, therefore the necessity of contingency planning is realized. This section of coverage is presented by Westergaard Year 2000 in an effort to minimize the damage done by these unanticipated debacles." Their site includes personal as well as organizational contingency plans.
The American Red Cross has created a webpage for Y2K preparedness. They say, "Experts who spoke at the Senate hearings believe that there may be localized disruptions. For example, in some areas, electrical power may be unavailable for some time. Manufacturing and production industries may be disrupted. Roads may be closed or gridlocked if traffic signals are disrupted. Electronic credit card transactions may not be processed. Telephone systems may not work " They also offer this advice, "Because no one can be certain about the effects of the Y2K problem, the American Red Cross has developed the following checklist for you. These are some easy steps you can take to prepare for possible disruptions. All of these recommendations make good sense, regardless of the potential problem."
Advice to store up on water, food and a heat source are shared by Holly Deyo, of "Noah's Ark". Personal contingency plans generally seem to include:
The best plan for anyone who is wondering about the Y2K problem is to start educating yourself about the possible risks and deciding for yourself. This phrase is seen all over the Web when reading about Y2K:
"Prepare for the worst, hope for the best."