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Why Should I be Concerned with a Little Y2K Bug Byte?

December 21, 1998

For the past few decades, the world has been fascinated with, and focused on the year 2000: the new millennium. For some, the year 2000 represents the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. For others, the year 2000 represents a time of great global catastrophe and upheaval. But to many thousands of computer programmers around the globe, the year 2000 represents the meltdown of our high-tech computerized world due to something called the "millennium bug" or "Y2K problem" ("y" standing for year, "2" standing for the year 2000, and "k" standing for one thousand).

What is this Y2K bug? It has to do with how a computer's internal clock interprets the date after the year 2000. About 30 years ago, computer programmers, faced with very limited and expensive space in memory banks of mainframe computers, made a catastrophic decision. In order to save storage space, the year in the date field was recorded with only two digits (e.g. 98) instead of four digits (e.g. 1998). So after midnight of December 31, 1999, most main frame computers will "think" it is 1900 -- not 2000, and go haywire, either shutting down or spewing out bad data.

Dates are extremely important in computers. Social Security, pensions, Medicare, retirement benefits, driver's licenses, voter registration, and tax refunds are all computed by computers using dates. Without accurate dates and times, the computerized navigational systems on trains, airlines, missiles, submarines, satellites, and nuclear power plants will either malfunction, give erroneous information, or crash.

To fix the problem in computer software, hundreds of billions of lines of computer code must be searched manually (that is, line by line) to find the affected date fields.

U.S. government computer experts estimate that 500,000 to 700,000 experienced COBOL programmers are needed worldwide in 1998 to make the necessary repairs. There simply are not that many programmers available.

It is not unusual for a company to have 100 million lines of code. The IRS has 100 million, Chase Manhattan Bank has 200 million, and AT&T has 500 million. Each one of those lines has to be looked at individually to see if there is a date ensconced in the code.

Often the programming work was done by different people (in many different languages over the years) often with very few manuals to explain previously performed code work.

In hardware and industrial equipment, there is an additional problem: billions of non-Y2K-compliant "Trojan horse" embedded microchips which first must be found. Documentation regarding chip location is often nonexistent.

Even if the two digit hardware (chips) are located, replacing them often is no easy task in the case of exhaust stacks of power generating plants, in missiles, at the bottom of the ocean on deep sea oil drilling rigs, and in satellites. If even 1% of these chips fail (100 million) or 5% (500 million), our modern high-tech world may implode.

Embedded computer chips can also be found in telephone systems, elevators, security systems, pacemaker monitors, feeding tubes, air traffic control systems, traffic lights, heating, electricity, air conditioning, fire and burglar alarms, plumbing, doors, elevators, security systems and assembly lines of hundreds of thousands of businesses. Tens of millions of them will fail in 2000. No one knows which ones. Recently a medical respirator was tested by a hospital by turning up the clock to midnight 12/31/99. It stopped cold and would not start up again. Happy New Year, goodbye world!

The world's computer systems are highly interconnected. Just as a person with a disease can infect a person without a disease, ill-computed data will infiltrate other systems within a short period of time.

The Y2K bug is the greatest threat to global economies, indeed to modern civilization, since the bubonic plague of the Dark Ages (1348-1350) killed one-third of the population of Europe. And it could be the ultimate trigger, the mother of all triggers, for a coming global depression.

Could Y2K plunge us back to the Dark Ages, or just back to a low tech manual era such as the 1800s or early 1900s?

What can Americans do to prepare for the Millennium Bug? They can make basic preparations such as securing hard copies of vital records, storing an adequate amount of non perishable foods, stocking up on toilet paper, soaps and other personal items, and reducing debt as much as possible.

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