Turning Sausage Back Into The Pig

The Year 2000 Problem in Northfield, Vermont

by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

Copyright ©1999 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

Part 1: How it happened, what Y2K affects, embedded systems
Part 2: Your money, your electricity, your telephones, your television
Part 3: A block of cheese, Vermont independence, elsewhere
Part 4: So you own a computer, what you can do, what next

In two days, thousands of the world's computers will fail as they work with contracts and plans and schedules. They'll need to use the year 2000, and they won't know how. It's the Year 2000 problem: Y2K (K is short for 'Kilo' -- 1,000). This series will outline the problem, the scare stories, and how you can prepare yourself.

     Y2K affects you whether or not you own a computer. If you watch cable TV, make a phone call, pay with a credit card, switch on a light, or get bills in the mail, Y2K matters. If you depend on oil or propane or gasoline, Y2K matters. If you shop at the supermarket, Y2K will be shopping with you.

How it Happened

Why is there a Y2K problem? Because the future always seems far away. Because 1960s-style punch cards only held 80 characters. Because 1970s computer memory was expensive. (The first computer I had in Vermont more than 20 years ago had a tiny bank of memory chips. If memory prices had stayed the same, a $99.95 memory upgrade at Staples would cost $1,064,960!)

     So programmers conserved precious space by using '70' to represent 1970. The century digits were expendable. As years passed, data stayed consistent with a two-digit format. Then someone looked up and saw the millennium coming. Uh-oh.

     When 1999 rolls over to 2000, some computers will read only the '00' and understand it as 1900. They'll bill customers for 99 years worth of rent or fuel or breakfast cereal, or award 99 years worth of interest.

     Duncan Connell of Global Software says, "After the stroke of midnight... time will appear to have reversed. Old will seem young, a few moments will seem like an entire century, future events will have already occurred."

What Y2K Affects

Back in 1995, The Gartner Group estimated that 90% of computer systems would be affected in some way by the Y2K problem, one out of five businesses would fail, and 45% would be unable to pay their bills -- an economic domino effect of catastrophic proportions. The Y2K crisis had begun.

     Businesses responded first. Retired programmers -- those who were still alive, that is -- were re-hired to fix programs they had written decades ago. New companies were started to find and stamp out Y2K bugs. The government began updating machines responsible for Social Security checks, FAA flight control towers, nuclear power plants, and fuel pipelines. Questions arose. Would planes be grounded because they were 99 years overdue for maintenance, or just fall out of the sky? Would phone calls be billed for 53 million minutes? Would bank vaults pop open automatically because January 1, 1900, was a Monday? Would prisoners walk away because their convictions never happened?

     Date failures have occurred before, but programmers didn't take the hint. Mortgages computed after a 1970 date rollover failed, Digital Equipment's minicomputers couldn't handle the move to 1975, the Michigan Time Sharing system crashed when 1990 arrived, and even some IBM software went belly-up in December 1997. The Japanese had a century problem when the Showa period ended in 1989 and the Heisei era began with Emperor Date 1. There are even 1999 problems coming: The date 9/9/99 was often used in the 1980s as the dummy expiration date for 'permanently' archived data, and -- get ready -- your hi-tech GPS system will malfunction on August 22, when its date system overflows!

     But Y2K is the Big One.

     And no one knows how big. That's right: No one knows. A single program glitch brought down the long-distance phone system a few years ago. Earlier this month, a clumsy custodian caused San Francisco to go dark for a day.

     The problem might be vast. For example, COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) was the mainstay of financial departments, representing over 180 billion lines of computer code that was still active in the mid-1990s. All of it is susceptible to a Y2K crash. How many programmers will be needed to fix it? And who will wade through the dozens of other computer languages that are still running programs, but which no programmer knows how to use anymore?

     Starting next week and climaxing in January 2000, hundreds of thousands of computers will have glitches, program errors, and catastrophic failures.

Embedded Systems

Did you know you have embedded systems? It's not a disease. Embedded systems are computer microchips that help run your modern world: car engines, coffee makers, televisions, cable boxes, thermostats, elevators, gas pumps, digital clocks, water purification plants, medical equipment, ATMs.

     Embedded microchips also run equipment far away, such as buried pipelines, ocean oil platforms, underwater cables, and satellites. Some systems have been on 'autopilot' for decades, and little is known anymore about how they work.

     Embedded systems like these have to be emulated. An excavator or diver or astronaut is sent to find the computer and retrieve a copy of the software (a lot of it wasn't kept after it was written!). A software model of the original computer and everything it runs must be re-created. The Y2K date rollover is performed, problems examined, changes made, and effects evaluated. If there's a dangerous problem, excavators or divers or astronauts go back to the equipment and update or replace it.

     How many embedded processors are there? As with the extent of the Y2K problem as a whole, no one knows. Estimates run in the tens of millions, and one company conservatively estimates that 7% of them will fail.

     With companies and governments investing billions in solving the problem, Y2K may only cause a ripple. Or not.

Next week: Money, electricity, telephones and television