Sitting on a Time Bomb

The truth is no one really knows what might happen. Everyone examining the problem agrees there is a problem. No one doubts that a majority of computers, from antiquated mainframes to laptops to the tiny microprocessors in copiers and camcorders, are not prepared to understand the date Jan. 1, 2000. In fact, because of a programming shortcut, most of those computers will read the date as Jan. 1, 1900.Doomsayers have predicted nothing short of chaos, a pall of destruction moving east to west, time zone by time zone, from Greenwich Mean as Dec. 31, 1999 turns to Jan. 1, 2000 and system after system fails to accept that date. All sorts of nightmare scenarios have been devised: planes falling out of the sky, inmates being released from jails by the thousands, traffic lights failing all at once, bank accounts being reduced to zero, the stock market crumbling.For instance, a phone call made from New York on New Year's Eve to Los Angeles, where it would still be 3 hours from the year 2000, might get billed as a 99-year long phone call. An elevator, whose imbedded microprocessors lets it know when it needs maintenance, might believe that it hasn't been serviced in 99 years. Similar maintenance programs embedded in systems controlling fire suppression, security and street lights may also shut themselves off. Or perhaps behave erratically. Or not change at all.And while many experts are stepping forward to call the apocalyptic visions hogwash, few can offer any guarantees that everything's okay. As a matter of fact, Year 2000 consultant Peter de Jager, a recognized expert on the subject, sees a majority of people treating the Year 2000 Problem (frequently simplified to Y2K) with "unjustified optimism." Before the U.S. House of Representatives' Science Committee in May 1996, de Jager emphasized that "the deadline is real, immovable and cannot be missed ... (and) the sense of urgency required to complete this task on time is absent."Why 2K?Computers are still dumb machines. Despite advances in technology, they only know what programmers have told them. They do not assume or speculate; they calculate. They know. For instance, up until a few years ago most computers knew that the number which followed 99 was 00. Unfortunately, the computers also knew that the two digits preceding both 99 and 00 were 19. The computers were unaware that 2000 could follow 1999, and that 2000 was a vastly different year than 1900.The so-called "millennium bug," which is less a bug and more a programming oversight, was created along with and fostered by the computer industry. In the early '60s, when computers took up entire floors of buildings and input and output were done through punchcards, memory space was costly and rare. Since memory upgrades weren't as easy as a 1-800 phone call and a credit card purchase, the finite space had to be saved in whatever way possible. One of the shortcuts used by those programmers was using a six-digit code for a date. So Feb. 28, 1966 became 022866. The 20th century prefix "19" was made a given. "Abbreviating years to two digits did save memory," Reuters reporter Nick Edwards wrote earlier this month in The Netly News, "but set a time bomb ticking for the end of the century when clocks inside computers will read a meaningless '00' for the year 2000."At the time, few people imagined those enormous mainframe computers would still be around and functioning at the turn of the new millennium. Few imagined that the shortcut which was so necessary in the '60s would become a programming standard in an era of cheaper and cheaper memory availability. But that was exactly the case. And so the "bug" became a full-fledged time bomb.The dangers of such short-sighted planning only crept into the mass consciousness in the early '90s, when people started discovering that the computers they depended upon to project future scenarios -- such as those used by the Social Security Administration -- were having trouble dealing with the years beyond 1999. Instead of projecting figures from 1982 to 2002, for instance, the computers were having difficulty comprehending just how to adjust interest for an account that ran from 1982 to (as the computer understood it) 1902.The six-digit date shortcut is such a basic part of most computers that changing it is not as simple as changing a battery or even adding a chip to a computer's motherboard. Adding the extra two digits to the year stored inside a computer is, as NPR Talk of the Nation host Ray Suarez summed it up, "less like changing your hair color and more like changing your DNA."Ready or NotTo most people, the Year 2000 problem (or challenge, as the higher ups at IBM prefer to call it) means little beyond a minor inconvenience. "So the date on my computer is wrong," goes the common refrain. "So my computer thinks it's 1900. Big deal." Well, for starters, the year 2000 is a leap year whereas 1900 was not, 366 days long instead of 365. And beyond that, computers of all sizes depend upon the date for more than the time clock on the upper right hand corner of most computer screens."There's more to it than just a date, than just a program," said Noel Strong, assistant vice-president and project manager for the Year 2000 at UMB bank in Kansas City. "There's a lot more to it."According to Robert A. Martin of the MITRE Corporation, a Web-based clearinghouse for Y2K information, "Representation of the year as a two digit number (can cause) failures in arithmetic, comparisons, sorting and input and output to databases or files when date data is manipulated." The inability of a computer to understand the difference between 1900 and 2000 could easily provide the tiny spark which shorts out an entire system.Anyone who thinks that the problem is a trivial one has obviously never suffered through a computer glitch caused by incompatible data within the computer. Just as a computer user can never be 100 percent sure whether new programs will conflict or exist amicably with the programs already on his computer or how that conflict might manifest itself, there's just no telling what the millennium rollover might do. Incorrect date information can cause as much havoc inside a home computer as a golf ball driven inside a racquetball court. And like that golf ball, just where the problem will hit is equally as difficult to predict. Since each computer's hard drive contents are as unique as the user, no predictable result can be expected."Year 2000 compliance" is the hot catch phrase in the information technology (I/T) field. Each piece of software and hardware currently employed, which is expected to be used into the year 2000, must pass the test of Y2K compliance, in other words, be able to understand dates outside of the 1900-1999 window. On the issue of compliance, there is a measure of good news for owners of Macintosh and newer PCs. All Apple Macintosh computers have been year 2000 savvy since their inception -- and will continue to be so, oddly, until 2019. And according to Greg Lund of Gateway 2000, all Pentium equipped PCs will have no problem with the year 2000.But many of the programs which run on Macs and the newest PCs are still not year 2000 compliant. Even industry leader Microsoft isn't claiming to be Year 2000 compliant, instead claiming only to be Year 2000 ready.In a September article on the Web-based publication, reporter Cory Johnson warned of the lack of readiness. Johnson quoted Karl Feilder of the English firm Greenwich Mean Time, who spoke at a conference in San Francisco. "We have tested 4,000 PC programs," Fielder said. "Only 28.2 percent claimed to be Year 2000 compliant, 4.4 percent didn't know that 2000 is a leap year, 3.5 percent only work in the 20th century and 11.5 percent stored dates different from the user input."Fielder also noted that of computers manufactured in 1997, 47 percent failed Y2K compliance. "Of course, if only 47 percent of the world's PCs fail, it's still a pretty serious problem, but at least it's encouraging."Fielder had no words of optimism concerning the Y2K problem. "I think that this problem is going to be far worse than anyone expects," he said. "PCs are full of programs, they're full of software, they're full of hardware bits and one or each part of those can have Year 2000 problems. Worse still, most companies haven't begun to even assess the problem. I'm taking bookings into the middle of next year for awareness programs. What am I going to tell them? 'Hey guys, wonderful that you're here. It's too late.'"The Enemy WithinSadly, mainframes and home computers are the least of the Y2K worries. In a recent ComputerWeekly article, Julia Vowler explained embedded systems, like those in the elevator example, may pose the largest challenge. "The good news is that in the past few months there has been growing recognition that embedded microprocessors are a major ingredient in the millennium headache," Vowler writes. "The bad news is that recognition is still not turning into sufficient action."Microprocessors are everywhere. Modern cars have as many as 14 separate microprocessors inside them. Heating and ventilation systems, water and sewage systems, phone systems, ATMs, fax machines, cash registers and hundreds of other systems all depend upon tiny computer chips whose programming is based on the six-digit date code. And there's no telling just how each of these tiny computers might react when the time bomb rolls over to 00.According to Vowler, outside the petrochemical, pharmaceutical, nuclear and rail industries, there is little reassurance that embedded systems are even Y2K ready. The manufacturing and processing industries could be hit the hardest. As one expert Vowler cited put it, "You can't just turn off a steel plant."Ferreting out and testing each of those independent microprocessors may be the most daunting aspect of the task. "It's not hard fixing the problem," said Sprint Director of Systems Development Bob Bender. "It's hard finding it. That's because it's everywhere.""Either it does or does not have a processor in it," said Don Eatherton, Kansas City, MO's Information Services applications manager for the year 2000. "And anymore you don't know what does and doesn't, even copy machines, fax machines, a lot of these are going to fail."And if these embedded microprocessors fail, they could have a domino effect. When the long chain of suppliers which bring any product to consumers is outlined, the repercussions of a break anywhere (or everywhere) in that chain are easy to comprehend.Consider a pair of jeans. They begin as raw materials; are woven into fabric; are sewn into jeans; are shipped to a distribution center; are shipped to local stores; are then purchased by a consumer. Each of those stops is controlled by different computer systems. And each is subject to the whims of different embedded systems: within the factory's machines, within the shipping company's trucks; within the heating and cooling systems in the mall. If any one of them fails, including the store's simple cash register system, the consumer is affected.This is the situation for virtually every product available.No Time Like the PresentWith less than 800 days before the millennium rollover, and that's including weekends, time is of the essence. Year 2000 compliance involves three distinct steps: assessment, modification and testing. And each of those is time-intensive. The scale of the problem is virtually all inclusive. Most medium-to large-sized corporations carry the burden of 6-8 million lines of code that need to be repaired."The very first thing you have to do is determine where the problem is and what it is, before you just start code changing," said UMB assistant vice-president and project manager for Year 2000 Noel Strong. "So essentially what we have done, what we have accomplished at this time, is we've identified all those systems that appear to be affected by it. We've contacted all vendors and outside entities that are affected by it."We have already done the analysis on the software, and we began renovation, the modification of the code."If all date-dependent code were easy to locate, the solution would be a much easier one, but that is rarely the case. "Such code can appear throughout a program, and although the format might be standard, it may not be conventionally flagged within a program," PC Magazine writer Neil Randall wrote back in September. "The result is that automating changes is difficult, if not impossible, and correcting by hand is a time consuming, tedious (and hence error-prone) line-by-line process."In a Florida Times-Union story, writer Simon Barker-Benfield spoke with industry analyst Bob Austrian, who compared the fix with changing a light bulb. "But you wouldn't want to change every light bulb in Las Vegas in one afternoon," Austrian said.Finding the lines of programming code which relate to the millennium bug amid (literally) millions of lines of code is very much like finding a needle in a haystack: possible but very time consuming."Let's say you have a million lines of code," Bender explained. "Out of that million there might be 60,000 lines you have to physically change. And if it's COBOL, 60 percent of our portfolio is COBOL, there's tools (software packages) out there that virtually go through and do it."But if the program was written in another language, there is no easy automated answer. And the number of trained professionals who can adequately deal with the problem, programmers fluent in COBOL and other machine languages, are decidedly finite.Paying for ItAccording to a U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report released in August 1997, the cost of bringing the federal government online with year 2000 compliance has risen to just under $4 billion. But few of the agencies within the government are on schedule, with the exception of the Social Security Administration which has been working on Y2K since 1989. As the report states, "Most of the work remains to be done. As of today, 75 percent of the 8,562 (or over 6,400) agency mission critical systems identified must be repaired or replaced."The Department of Agriculture is only 38 percent complete with the assessment phase; the Department of Transportation will not complete its assessment until December of this year and does not plan to complete the testing phase until December 1999. In addition, the departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy and Treasury all missed their assessment completion dates.In interpreting the data, James R. Carroll of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted recently, "The Department of Transportation, which includes the Federal Aviation Agency that operates the nation's air traffic control system, received an F from lawmakers for not having completed an assessment of its potential problems and being far from making any fixes."Even the most optimistic estimates only put about 40 percent of businesses nationwide up to speed with rectifying this problem (Kansas City is reportedly 30 percent prepared; UMB claims to be in the top 1 percent)."We really looked at it seriously just at the beginning of this year," said Tom Owens, president of First Bank of Kansas City, "and the reason that we didn't prior to that time is that it's not going to affect us that much. We contract out our data processing service ... We've got several PCs here, but that's the extent of it. We don't have any alarm system that works on a date timer. "The doomsayers are saying that everything will fall in the year 2000, and it may well, but it's not going to affect us.""We got off the mainframe several years ago, which really gives us a lot more flexibility," said KCPL Director of Information Systems Chuck Tickles. "We're running KCPL, from a technology perspective, as more of a standard open system, a client-server environment.""We've been aggressively replacing our applications over the last several years," Tickles added, "so we feel pretty good about where we are ... We're doing all our time lines to be complete by the end of next year. That gives us a cushion."Eatherton sees the city of Kansas City, MO well on track for year 2000 compliance. "We have a plan in place, and we are on schedule," he said of the city achieving its May 1998 deadline. "Can I guarantee you 100 percent everything's going to be done? Hell no. That would be unrealistic. We're on schedule and we plan to have it done ... If it doesn't get too awful worse, we'll make it."While less forthcoming with specifics, Capt. Harold Barlow of the Kansas City, MO Police Dept., computer services unit, echoed Eatherton's optimism. "I'm confident all our critical systems will be year 2000 compliant," Barlow said, "in plenty of time to test them and make sure they work."As for specific costs, Tickles, Eatherton nor Barlow would elaborate. "We're still working on those issues and exploring different issues of things like that," Barlow said, "but I'm not at liberty to discuss any of that information." "Let me put it to you this way," Eatherton said. "What's more critical getting the job done or figuring out how many dollars it costs?"Though he would not give even a ballpark figure, Tickles estimated that KCPL's overall Y2K costs would be fairly low, primarily because of the company's lack of a large legacy system (an antiquated mainframe) which would require major code renovation and a policy of updating applications regularly.Strong estimated UMB's "chunk of change" in the neighborhood of $6 $28 million. "We were really pleased at Sprint when we got in and we found that we have much less code that we have to deal with than our competitors," Bender said. "I don't think we'll go over $100 million, but it will be in the tens of millions."With an industry standard of approximately $2 per line of code, these numbers appear to be in line with the national average. Larger companies have already completed their millennium renovation, or at least assessed the costs: Chase Manhattan Bank -- $250 million; Prudential -- $110 million; Merrill Lynch -- $200 million; Federal Express -- $300 million; Hertz Rent-A-Car -- $15 million; and GM -- $2.5 billion. The total cost worldwide has been estimated $600-$800 billion (with at least half of that amount going simply to the testing phase, according to a recent Reuters story).But much of the year 2000 compliance may be occurring after the "bomb" has gone off, which means a messy cleanup where the "fixers" may be even more difficult to come by. And if those companies who have yet to begin their Y2K renovation, the estimated 60 percent, wait too long to begin work, they may find programmers either unavailable or too expensive to hire. Already, programmers' salaries are increasing as the demand for them rises."I'm not concerned about it (regarding) fixing Kansas City Power and Light for the year 2000," Tickles said of the possible shortage of programmers. "Where it becomes an issue is it will start impacting all I/T resources. So that project will start absorbing resources that would otherwise be used for something else." And because the limited resources are currently being focused on the larger companies, medium to smaller companies (which make up approximately 70 percent of all businesses) might find great difficulty in getting their problems fixed as larger companies with larger payrolls could easily outbid them for the services of necessary personnel."By the end of next year, there might not be any more resources to work on the problem," said John Andrews of CSX Technology of Jacksonville, FL, in Barker-Benfield's article. "This can put businesses out of business -- and frankly, costs will escalate and resources will become more scarce."Another lingering effect of the year 2000 will be the ensuing litigation; something that has already begun. A Michigan produce seller has filed suit against TEC-America Corp. and All American Cash Register for providing a brand new computer system, which as it turns out could not process credit cards with expiry dates after 1999.Another whole subset of litigation lies in the agreements currently being hatched between large companies and the vendors who supply them, agreements or assurances of Y2K compliance. "I think it's your general business vendors that we really have to worry about," Bender said. "You know, the guys that give you the office supplies, or trucks, or elevators, security systems, those groups that we're really sort of worried about."The liability when a company finds itself shut down because supposedly Y2K certified software or hardware crashes could be quite great. Not to mention work stoppage as a result of a supplier unable to bring materials to the company because the supplier failed to bring itself up to Y2K compliance. The preliminary estimate for the costs of litigation over Y2K related issues is $1 trillion.The Lighter SideHowever, not all is gloom and doom on the Year 2000 front. Already a joke is circulating.God decides that it's time to end the earth. It's been a pretty decent experiment, but it just didn't turn out the way he wanted it to. So God summons the three most important people on the earth to his celestial realm. He summons Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates and tells them he'll destroy the earth in three days and it is up to them to spread the word.So the three men return to earth. And Boris Yeltsin calls the members of the Russian Parliament to a special session and says, "Comrades, I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is a God. The bad news is the earth will be destroyed in three days."President Clinton calls both houses of Congress together and interrupts that evening's television programming. He says, "My fellow Americans, I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is a God. The bad news is the earth will be destroyed in three days."Bill Gates goes back to Microsoft and calls a teleconference with all of his employees. "My friends," he says, "I have good news and better news. The good news is I am one of the three most important people on the earth. The better news is I no longer have to worry about the Year 2000 Problem."And as for the image of the elevators taking themselves out of service on the morning of Jan. 1, a representative of the Otis Elevator Company simply laughed. "Don't know where you got that one. It's good, but it's not true," she said. Otis is confident their products will work perfectly through the millennium rollover. In fact, the company has been working on the millennium problem for over a decade. "We thought about this stuff in 1985, a hell of a long time ago." And though he didn't debunk the long distance phone call scenario, Sprint's Bender did make one correction to it. "Actually, you'd get a credit for 99 years." Making it more of a windfall than a nightmare.The Magic BulletThe sad truth about the year 2000 problem is that there is no easy fix, no silver bullet. Despite stories reported by CNN and other news organizations in September that a 14-year-old New Zealand boy, Nicholas Johnson, had devised a Y2K panacea, no such cure has been found. Unfortunately, many people are expecting someone like Johnson or Bill Gates to deliver the magic elixir to save the day. And as a result, many companies are still doing nothing.On a grander scale, Kansas City, MO may be more prepared than most cities of comparable size. None of the businesses or agencies contacted for this article was unaware of the potential danger. And many of the city's key components appear to be on track to make their deadlines long before the clock ticks down to 00."I cannot see that it's going to cause us any great deal of problems," said Owens from First Bank. "Maybe on our PCs the date won't be right after the year 2000. Well, that's no big deal, because you can put your own date in your letter, for God's sake. It's going to be a non-event for us.""We're really quite comfortable, not to the point of being able to sit back and say we're done, but we've got it on track," UMB's Strong said. "We appear to meet all guidelines that are there. We have contingency plans very solid. I'm hoping to get done early, as a matter of fact.""We have to go out there and actively do everything humanly possible to prevent a problem," Eatherton said of Kansas City's year 2000 plans. "And that's really what we're trying to do. We've got enough time if it's done right." Eatherton also added that with a project of this size, no matter how much planning goes into it, there are still going to be problems.That sentiment was shared by Strong. "In any major application or program like this, any project, you have to assume that something somewhere could go wrong," Strong said. "That's the assumption that I take: something somewhere could go wrong."As for fixing what is broken, de Jager probably has the best answer. "We have one solution," de Jager was quoted in a recent CMPnet article, "Roll up your sleeves, get to work and fix it."For more information on the Year 2000 Problem, visit de Jager's Web site


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Happy Holidays!