HEADLINE FOR 2000:
Failing Computer Systems Create Global Disaster.
Volt & GasUtility Company
Statement for usage ending 02/05/00
John or Jane Anybody
Anytown, Anystate, Anycountry
Last payment 12/31/99 $42.47
Amount due for gas $24.17
Amount due for electricity $25.62
Interest due $753,920.18
Payment due 02/25/00 $753,969.97
***Your service will be turned off
until we receive payment in full.
***Legal action has been requested in
The above statement reflects one of the many possible problems that could occur in computer software not fully tested to work into the year 2000. The above customer was wrongly being charged for 99 years of interest on one payment. While it is very unlikely that the utility would actually try to collect this bill, the customer might remain without service for several days. The utility may have numerous errors and problems and simply to be unable to tend to everyone at once.
The last time you purchased a digital clock, video tape recorder or computer, did you ask if it would work into the year 2000? Did you ask if there were other models availableeven if they were more expensivethat were tested and guaranteed to work in year 2000?
Your answer might be, "What? Am I supposed to ask those questions?"
Unfortunately, computerized things, from watches to aircraft carriers, are subject to possible failures on January 1, 2000. It is caused by tiny flaws in the working of computers that, until this time, have had no affect whatever. Sadly, nearly all of these problems will hit us at once.
Isnít this a problem that will be solved by the people who manage the production of computerized equipment? It could have been, but it was not. Of the millions of computers serving governments, hospitals, utilities, banks, other businesses and people world wide, as many as half may not work normally in the year 2000. Why have managers of government and business bought and relied upon computers with these problems? Because they were like youthey did not know they were supposed to ask such questions.
Just because you do not own or use a computer, do not think that you will escape this disaster. Unless you "live off the land," with your own food and energy sources, you will probably be affected. You may lose power and water, you may lose your job, you may find buying essential supplies very difficult. The biggest problem is this: since it has never been the year 2000 before, and since most computerized equipment was not tested to work in that year, no one knows exactly what will happen on that day.
Most governments and big businesses are now aware of the problem. Somemaybe less than halfsmall businesses are. Most of the computers could be fixed. The rest could be replaced. Unfortunately, there are probably not enough technical people available to fix all of them by the year 2000. And those that are fixed will not be fixed perfectly. Nearly all of the difficulties will show up on one day. There has been no other problem like it in history. Even invading armies do not attack every part of a country in the same day.
Stories about these problems have been in the computer magazines for at least 10 years, but only a few have appeared in the popular media (See Newsweek cover story, The Day the World Crashes, June 2, 1997). Why? Because people do not want to hear stories that are long, technical, complex and have little immediate impact. You may have been wondering whether or not you want to finish reading this article! How can a non-technical person evaluate whether or not the technical information they receive is correct? We advise that you take the same approach to this problem as you should with other vitally important technical decisions: go to competent sources that you trustget several opinions.
If your car stops working and the repair shop gives you a complex technical explanation of what went wrong and requires a large amount of money to fix it, what do you do? You will listen to the explanation, and if you trust the repair shop, you will pay to have it fixed. Otherwise, you may get second or third opinions from other repair shops.You can handle this technical problem the same way: Listen to this explanationit is much more important to your life than a broken-down carand then, if you do not trust it, get other opinions from sources you trust.
In another page we will explain the nature of the problem in technical detail. But first, we believe it is vital that you understand the size of this problem and its far-reaching scope.
Let us first think about the car story from a different angle. Suppose the repair shop told you that your car had a major technical problem that would take a lot of money to solve, but would probably continue to run well for 3 years. Would you be in a hurry to pay that money now, or would you think that you might be ready for a new car in 3 years? A lot can happen in 3 years. Your money today would be wasted if some other completely separate problem developed that rendered your car obsolete, or if your job changed and you decided you needed a truck instead. Similarly, businessmen have been slow to pay money to upgrade computer systems that they might stop using before 2000 due to their business changing or some other reason. But here is the main difference between cars and year-2000 computer problems: some cars quit working everyday. The large number of auto repair shops can handle this continual traffic. With this computer date problem, all computers that have the problem break down at about the same time. There definitely are not enough computer people to fix all of the problems that will occur on January 1, 2000.
The Gartner Group, a well respected computer "think-tank" has estimated that 600 billion dollars will be needed to solve the problem worldwide, and about 10% of businesses will go bankrupt. Only about 25% of USA corporations have a plan implemented to fix all of their computers by 2000. Some of them will not be ready in time, some will have trouble but survive, some will go bankrupt.
One of the reasons that this problem is so difficult to deal with is that there are so many unknowns. Most computer systems today have not been specifically tested to work into the year 2000. Nor has anyone thought out how various computer systems will interactsome of which are year-2000 compliant and some of which are not. We reject the conclusions of some industry analysts who are predicting the year 2000 will be only a nuisancethese optimists seem to ignore many facts. We also reject the conclusions of analysts who are predicting the end of the technology-based world as we know ittheir writings usually ignore some of the known solutions to the problems. What actually happens will probably be somewhere between the extreme predictions. The truth s, no one knows exactly what will happen until it happens.
What and Where Is the Problem?
When we write dates, we normally write only the last two digits of the year: 1/18/98 or 12/31/99. The first two digits have been "19" as long as we can remember, so we do not write it every time. Similarly, computers often store only two digits of the yearit has been century 19 as long as they can "remember." Unfortunately, much computer hardware and software was not designed to make the transition from 1999 to 2000 and has not been tested to perform calculations for those years. Hence, we have the "year 2000 problem" (or "Y2K problem").
Equipment affected by these problems is everywheresome of it might be in your house! These possibly errant computers are in three main categories:
Mainframe Computers. These are the computers that handle the transactions of banks, airlines, large governments, etc. Most of their hardware will work into the year 2000, but many are running old software programs that will not. Repairing these programs is possible, but is a slow process requiring highly skilled people. There probably are not enough people to finish the job, even if every available person started working on the problem nowwhich they are not.
Personal Computers (PCs). There are millions of personal computers working in every imaginable capacity. Probably over half of the ones in existence will need some kind of upgrade ($5 to $100) just to make the hardware fully year-2000 compliant (see box on page 24 for more on PC problems). Since nearly all software used on personal computers is prepackaged (most people do not write their own software for a PC), and since a number of year-2000 compliant packages are becoming available for the PC, PC owners could be able to avoid problems by fixing their hardware and by converting to software that is known to work. The question is: How many PC owners know about the problem and how many have the desire to fix it before it is too late? Computer stores and repairmen have time to help with the problem nowbut how busy will they be in late 1999?
Embedded computers. These are found almost everywhere today: digital clocks, VCRís, automatic bread-makers, fax machines, medical equipment, fire trucks, and almost every imaginable industrial process. These are computers that essentially do only one job. Almost any device that has a way to set the current date has the potential for trouble in the year 2000. Some devices have been properly designed and will work fine. Others may fail during the transition between years (from 1999 to 2000). Some equipment will be able to be used only by setting its date incorrectly to a previous year (still in the 1900ís). Some medical and construction equipment have embedded computers that keep track of monthly or annual maintenancethe equipment will not operate if the maintenance is not performed regularly. These computers also may be designed to prevent the date from being set earlier as that would allow a user to avoid periodic maintenance. These devices simply may not work until their computer is replaced. Most of these devices are easy to test now, but how many people will test them before the year 2000? How many will simply be overlooked? Some of them are in hard-to-get-to places, like satellites, under-sea oil rigs, and human bodies (pacemakers and other medical implants).
Each of these kinds of systems pose their own set of unique problems. Certainly, some individuals will die due to embedded computer failures in medical and other critical equipment. This is a tragic loss, but it probably will be small and not well-publicized. The real worry will be computers embedded in utility and industrial applications. Will millions of people be without electricity, water, and gas because of failures there? Will environmental disasters be created? Many businesses and individuals will lose a lot of time and money due to personal computer problems. But many business owners can still run part of their business without a computer system.
The most far-reaching problems will probably occur in mainframe computers used by big business (especially banks) and government. They have no way to process their millions of checks and payments if their computer systems do not do it. The big store chains cannot stock their stores without their mainframes. Governments cannot pay employees, pensioners or the poor, nor can they collect taxes without their big computers. These are the systems that take a long time to develop and fix. Even systems designed to work properly in the year 2000 may not have been thoroughly tested and will all fail at once. What is even worse, some of these computers will not appear to fail, but will continue working with corrupt results.
This writer was responsible for design and programming of mainframe computers for 15 years, ending in about 1992. Many of the computer systems I worked with would have failed or produced erroneous results in the year 2000. From 1987 on, I began designing new systems to work through the year 2000. I helped formulate and implement a plan to convert the other systems, also. But before the plans were complete, all of the corporationís software was replaced when a new mainframe was installed. Was the new software all year-2000 compliant? Since it was still the early 1990ís, management felt that it was not an issue at the timethey might replace the entire system again by then! Of the many friends that I still have working on mainframe computers, some work in places that have fixed nearly all of their softwareothers work at places where no one even wants to think about ityet.
Why Is These Problems So Hard To Find and Fix?
We hope our readers will make an effort to read the next two sections of this article. They are technical, but we have tried to make them as easy as possible to understand. Without some knowledge of the technical complexities involved, you will have a hard time understanding the problemís nature.
Computers are very good at following rulesdoing the same thing millions of times without making a mistake. But they have no innate intelligence. They will do the wrong thing millions of times as happily as they will do the right thing. Computer programmers are people who write the rules for the computers. If the computer programmer did not think about writing rules that will work in the year 2000, then his computer program may fail when a date in the year 2000 is processed. Now, computer programmers often make mistakes and write the wrong rulesbut their mistakes are usually found when they test their programsor very soon after others begin to use them. Unfortunately, computer programs that have bad rules for year-2000 dates have not been tested or used in that manner yet. Unlike other computer problems that are found here and there, a few at a time, all of these "bad rules" will be foundall over the worldnearly all at once.
There has never been a law passed requiring computer programs to correctly process dates in the next century. For decades, most managers who write specifications for programs (documents telling a programmer what results to achieve), or who buy programs, have not paid any attention to year 2000 problems. Only within the last year or two have big industries and governments actually written year-2000 compatibility into their computer requirements. Unless year-2000 compatibility was a system requirement, computer users are at the mercy of whatever a particular programmer decided to do. Since displaying and calculating with dates requires dozens of program statements, there was a great tendency for programmers to simply copy statements from older programs (which were even less concerned about year-2000 dates). Today, large systems written by many programmers may be partly year-2000 compatible and partly not.
The root of the problem began back in the 1950ís when computers were new and storage was very expensiveover 100,000 times todayís cost. Computers store items in little places called "variables" that can hold a certain number of characters of information. At some time, you have probably filled out a form where you are asked to put one letter of your name in each little box. There are only so many boxes on the formif you have a very long name, the extra letters may simply not fit. The computer "variables" are a lot like these little boxesif a name is too long for the variable, the extra letters are lost by the computer. Our early computer designers only allowed 6 little boxes to store a date. The date 1958, March 21, was usually represented as "58.03.21". (We have inserted the periods (.) for claritythey are not stored in the computer.) It seemed wise to computer designers not to store the date as "1958.03.21" because the 19 would never change for the next 40 years. Also, since large systems could have millions of these date "variables" in computer storage, many thousands of dollars of storage could be saved by using the short form of the date with a two-digit year.
After a while, this practice of storing dates became common on mainframe computers. Programs and computers that needed to communicate dates to each other would use 6-digit dates. Today, many trillions of 6-digit dates are stored in computer files all over the world.
As early as the 1970ís, major computer designers began to design "computer interfaces" that would talk to other computers with 8-digit dates (e.g. "1958.03.11"). But they were in the minority until the 1980ís. Since computer systems are sometimes replaced every 10 years or so, most companies did not even begin thinking about requiring the use of 8-digit dates until the 1990ís.
But now, it is the older, heavily used, very large mainframe systems that are in the most trouble. We are talking about banks, corporation payrolls, warehouse inventories, social security, air traffic schedules and other large systems. Some of these big mainframe systems have many millions of lines of program codeinstructions written by computer programmers to tell the computer what to do. It would be nice if these computer programs were organized inside like a big department storea door where you come in, a door where you go out, and everything neatly categorized in betweenany item can be quickly found, removed and replaced if necessary. Unfortunately, most old computer programs resemble a huge, teetering pile of stuff in the middle of a barn. People have come at it from many different directions not knowing what was in the pile to begin with. When they find what they want to change, they do it very delicately so as not to upset the rest of the things in the pile. It is sometimes easier to add more stuff to the pile than it is to try to fix what is there.
Ideally, a computer programmer should organize everything nicely, like the department store, and provide an index so others coming after him can easily find the right parts. But when computer programmers work, most non-technical managers are simply interested in making certain required changes to a program. They do not evaluate whether the programmer left the program orderly, or left it in a big messas long as it works now. So the pile grows messier.
Actually, to continue our analogy, some old programs get so messy that companies have to make a rule that "programmers are not allowed to work in the barn anymore." If they want to change the way the "barn" works, they have to write new programs that "guard all of the exits of the barn" and replace those functions of the barn that are no longer desirable. Yes, there are some computer systems that no one understands any more that handle millions of dollars. Worse yet, some companiesmaybe some very large oneshave locked all of the doors on the barn and lost the key. They have lost their "source statements" (humanly understandable rules), and all they now have is "machine code"the rules that only the computer can understand and follow. The people who originally wrote the programs have probably moved on to other jobs, are retired or are deceased.
The problem with 6-digit dates is not simply a matter of finding all of them in computer storage and changing them to 8-digit dates. (Although that problem is bad enoughsometimes a computer record or file is already at its maximum permissible sizethere is no extra space to enlarge date "variables". A programmer must then split the records or files into multiple smaller onesa lot of work!) Besides expanding dates to 8 digits, the programmer must examine and test every little piece of a computer program (the rules) that processes datesand see if they work correctly for years 2000 and above.
What Can Actually Go Wrong?
When a computer program sends you a bill, it may, for example, add 20 days to the current date to calculate the day your bill is due. Other programs perform special things for people in certain age groups: they will probably subtract the personís birthday from the current year to tell how old the person is now. We will use these examples to show what might happen to computers where the software does not use 8-digit dates.
If a person born in 1940 walks into an office on January 3, 2000 and someone accesses their age on the computer, it would try to subtract 40 from the current year, 00. (00 40 = ?) Depending on computerís programming rules, it might do any of the following:
(1) Fail due to a calculation error. The computer has never received a negative number when doing this calculation before (99 40 always gave a positive number in the past). The office clerk might be unable to retrieve any information about anyone.
(2) Show the person as being 40 (negative 40) years old. This may confuse the office clerk, or cause her to assume it is the same as the next result.
(3) Show the person as being 40 years old. This is similar to the above, but the computer rules might not display a negative sign because it never expected to have a negative age. This is a particularly dangerous option, since someone using the computer may not know anything is wrong, believe the person was 40 years old, and deny "senior citizen" benefits to this person.
(4) Correctly show the person as being 60 years old. The computerís rules may work.
A bill is printed for a person on December 14, 1999. The computer calculates the billing due date by adding 20 days. This produces a date of January 3. When the computer ads "1" to a 2-digit year ("99"), it might get the date 1/3/100. Depending on how the system was programmed, any of the following things might happen:
(1) The computer might reject this bill because it produced a 3-digit year ("100") which it considers an error. The customer may not get his bill.
(2) The computer might simply print "Due Date: 1/3/100" on the customerís bill. If the customer figures it out, no major harm is done.
(3) The computer might lose the "1" off of the hundred, print 1/3/00, and everything might work fine.
As you can see, some non-repaired computer programs may experience problems and others that do the very same job may not. Much of this will depend upon what a particular computer does with arithmetic calculations: Does it allow negative numbers? Does it allow "overflow" when numbers are too big, or does it consider that an error? With some computers, these features are options that can be independently controlled. A desperate computer manager may be able to set his computer to "ignore all arithmetic errors where the numbers are too big." But altering these options may cause trouble for other programscausing the "pile of stuff in the barn" to come crashing down on the floor.
Please stay with us to understand one more very real thing that will certainly happen in less than two years. Let us reconsider that billing program that we previously mentionedit calculates a due date of January 3, 2000. When the statements are actually printed, another program may check to make sure that the billing date is less than the due dateit would be embarrassing to tell a customer that his bill is due before we even print his bill (billing date). Adding redundant error checks like this is a common practice in large systemsit increases the chances that errors will be caught. When the printing program compares 12/14/99 to 01/03/00, it may conclude that "99" is greater than "00" and then wrongly decide that the bill is in error because the "due date" appears to come before the "billing date". It may send the bill to a clerk in charge of billing errors rather than to the customer. If a lot of bills were being printed with similar dates, the "error clerk" may find himself with 10,000 bills on his desk in the morning instead of the normal two or three.
This is a typical type of software bug that is hard to find during software testing. If both dates were in the year 2000 (e.g. 01/05/00 and 01/25/00), the dates would compare correctly. It is only when the billing date is in 1999 and the due date is in 2000 that this error occurs. There may be big corporations that think they have debugged their software, but have left errors like this waiting to surface! Notice also, that this error will manifest itself up to 20 days before the year 2000 begins.
If such an error occurred, what could the company do about it? Amazingly, we can think of a number of solutions, some that require computer programming and some that do not.
(1) If computer source code and programmers are available, find the computer error, fix it, and print correct statements.
(2) Use their own people or temporary workers to manually hand-write the correct date on all of the bills, and send the statements out anyway. This may not work perfectly as the computer system may not have stored any information about payments really being due. People who do not pay their bill that month may not be detected by the computer system. But it is better to get most of the payments than it is to get none.
(3) Write a new, temporary computer program that will print the simplest statements for current monthlet any complicated statements wait until next month.
(4) Simply wait until the year 2000 to run statements for both printing date and billing date that are in the same century. This company will have to have money in reserve to do this as many customers will not pay unless they get a statement. Also, they run the risk of not being able to send statements due to other failures in the year 2000. However, this approach is better than the next approaches.
(5) Temporarily (or permanently) convert to a completely new accounting system. This could take months.
(6) Cease business. Readers must realize that this is not a completely unattractive option. In some cases, people can put a lot of money in their pockets by liquidating a business. They can personally buy its assets at reduced prices or "short sell" its stock before others know the company will go bankrupt. (Most of these practices are illegal, but they still take place in various clandestine ways.) Unfortunately, liquidating a business is not so good for the workers who are out of a job, or the people who used to patronize the business.
We have tried to explain above some of the main failures of computer logic. There are many others. For example, some programs may consider a date of "00" to be no date at all. If, for example, a program requires a bank teller to enter the deposit date into a 2-digit place for a year on a computer screen, the teller may not be able to enter the transaction at all. If she enters "00", the program will tell her to "enter the year of the date, please." She could enter 99 or some other incorrect year, but that will create even more problems later on.
There are probably a host of other "funny appearances" that will occur on computer screens and reports. Most can be worked around by intelligent humans, but some may cause mistakes. Some computer reports may try to include a 4-digit year, but will not have room, printing something like"1/4/200." Most date programs may only print two digits for each year, so everyone will need to get used to dates like: "01/04/00." But other date programs remove leading zeros from each of the three numbers, so they may remove both zeros from the year and produce cryptic dates like: "1/4/." That is fairly confusing unless you know what it is.
What a Mess!
We use the above examples only because they are easy for most people to understand. We agree there would be little cause for alarm if the only year 2000 problems were funny-looking bills or no bills at all for a few months. However, if your local electric utility stops billing you, and stops supplying you with electricity because it has no money to buy coal, you will probably take notice. Furthermore, if the computer that prints your paychecks fails, or if banks in your area are unable to process checks, then you will definitely take notice.
The previous examples are complex enough, but problems that could occur in banking, inventory and other systems can be far more complicated. Errors in banking programs may cause computers to charge or pay 100 years of interest on outstanding transactions. (100 years of interest at 10% on $1000 is about $21 million.) Computers may automatically close individual accounts based on those errors or shut down all bank processing due to insolvency.
The systems most likely to be completely unusable are specialty systems designed in the 1950ís, 60ís and 70ís. At that time, it was common for governments and large corporations to design new hardware, programming languages and software for each computer project. This allowed systems to work very efficiently, but left only a few people in the world who understood them. Some of these specialty systems are still in use. However, the method of reprogramming them has been totally lost. Unfortunately, a number of government weapons systems may fall into this category. If they fail in the year 2000 (lets hope they donít "go off"), they will simply have to be scrapped.
The category with the next highest risk is organizations using mainframes with substantial custom-written software: the Federal government, most state governments, and many specialized businesses. They have to fix their software or stop using it. They cannot go to a commercial software vendor and buy a "social security administration system," or an "automobile manufacturing system." There are still experienced mainframe programmers available, and there are still consulting firms which will fix otherís computer programs for a fee. But as 1999 approaches, these will probably all be completely busy. Most colleges and universities no longer offer any classes in the Cobol (Common Business Oriented Language) or IBM assembler computer languagesyet these are the languages needed to fix many of these ancient systems.
Entire consulting firms now exist for the purpose of helping companies convert old software so it will run in the year 2000. Some of these consultants have developed computer programs that fix the date problems in other computer programs. But they are not perfecttheir results still need to be checked and tested by humans. Since so many programs will have to be tested at once, some organizations will need a duplicate set of computer hardware to do a thorough job. Many organizations simply do not have the money or office space to obtain a test computer. Nevertheless, some will install test mainframesprobably creating a shortage of them in 1999.
Even with all of this testing, computer experience shows that all problems are not caught by testingsome do not show up until the system is actually used. This is a recurring problem the computer people are used to dealing with. The difficulty this time is that all of the hidden year 2000 bugs will show up at the same time.
The potential for disaster is high in large hospital mainframe computers (as well as the embedded computers described earlier). While these computers often have backup systems, it is likely that both will fail if they have date problems. In some cases, these computers hold all of a patients recordsif the computers do not work, hospital staff may have to rely on their memories for how to treat patients. Some hospitals even have computerized control of prescriptions. Erroneous computer programs may decide that a patient is 99-years ahead or behind schedule on receiving his or her drugs. Either one could cause a death.
Most of this article covers computer systems in the U.S.A. It is much more difficult to find good information about the problem in other countries. However, the indication we have is that both Europe and Japan are behind the U.S.A. in repairing their own custom software. International organizations using year-2000 compliant, up-to-date versions of commercial software may have little trouble. However, numerous international organizations use older versions or in many cases stolen copies of softwarethey will be in worse shape than the U.S.A. The one thing that may be a redeeming factor: nations that have few computers or that have only recently become computerized can still function fairly well with their old manual systems.
If anything will cost more than fixing errant computer systems, it may be the cost of lawsuits arising from the computer errors. The case on page 22 is just the first of many. In the minds of many, the legal issues are not certain at all. Who is responsible for losses due to failed computer systems? Much software sold today has a broad disclaimer that essentially says "we like to think this is good software that could be very helpful to some businesses, but you better test it for yourself and decide if it is worthwhile because we make no guarantees of anything."
Even if the software does not have such a disclaimer, is the software vendor responsible if he never claimed that the software will work in the year 2000? What kinds of insurance cover these disasters? If a business has insurance against computer failures not a result of their own negligence, is this going to be considered "negligence?" Some insurance companies, as policies renew, may drop business interruption and directorís insurance if companies do not have a year 2000 program in place. Directors without such insurance may resign.
Unfortunately, liability is based on provable negligencewhich is determined by records showing that a business knew about problems in time to fix them. This is why most businesses are saying little or nothing about the progress of their computer repairs: to admit exactly how much they know and when they know it provides legal ammunition to someone who might sue them. A litigant can always ask why didnít they start sooner and why didnít they spend more money to fix the problem. If there are no public records, it is hard to prove that a business could have done better.
In order to encourage businesses and governments to talk more about their computer repair plans, Senator Moynihan introduced Bill 22, on January 17, 1997 (see page 31). The bill would have limited the liability of businesses for year 2000 computer errors. As of this writing, the Bill had not passed, but it shows how seriously at least one congressman regards it.
Not only are there legal issues for businesses, customers may be affected as well. Who is responsible if "computer errors" cause someoneís utilities to be cut off? Who is responsible if someoneís "credit rating" is damaged by a computer mistake? Who is responsible for medical problems or death caused by computer errors? What is a bankís responsibility if they cannot cash checks or give a customer access to his accounts for many days? The fine print on many account agreements, gives banks the right to take quite a few days (maybe 30 or more) before crediting deposits or letting the account holder withdraw funds. They normally give much better service, but these long delays were written into the account agreements for emergency situationslike the one coming up.
Is Anybody Solving Their Problems?
A few businesses are making statements about their year-2000 progress. The most vocal are software vendors who would like more customers. Computer magazines now have advertisements for accounting, database, and other software that is "guaranteed year-2000 compatible." Indeed, conversion to standard software may be the easiest approach for some businesses. Rather than fix their old programs, it may be easiest for a business to move all of the important data to new software and junk the old program. Such conversions are labor intensive and usually result in some loss of data or functionality, but they also give the business new software features and may reduce future maintenance costs.
Some businesses are reporting their expenditures and progress:
NASDAQ, the stock exchange, has assigned half of its 1000 computer people to work on the year 2000 date problem, costing about 20 million dollars. NASDAQís plan is to be finished in mid-1999, and to have a day to test their systems with all of the many other computer systems that connect to theirs.
The Morgan Stanley corporation is spending about $60 million to fix their software date problems. It is the largest single computer project they have ever undertaken. After 18 months of work, they uncovered over 250,000 potential problems.
The Bank of Boston commissioned an internal investigation to determine what would have happened if they did not fix any of their programs before the year 2000. Con clusion: they would not have been able to handle many of their transactions in the manner prescribed by applicable law for a minimum of several weeks. After seeing the complexity of these problems, many of the big banks are setting aside money to cover loans that will never be repaid because of year-2000 bankrupted corporations.
Other big corporations have disclosed how much they intend to spend throughout the world to fix computer systems:
Federal Express: $500 million.
Chase Manhattan Bank: $250 million.
Merrill Lynch: $200 million.
The state of Michigan plans to spend $11 million dollars before 2000 just to correct critical systems. They realize that they will not finish some of their secondary systems (management reports and other internal reports).
The cost put forth by a May 1997 Federal government report is 2.8 billion dollars for the federal level (they are also committed to provide matching funds to states that must make their computers conform to federal programs.) However, many analysts consider the above figure much too low. If the four business corporations, above, together will spend over 1 billion dollars, the federal government will probably require many times that amount.
The May 1997 report showed how the money would be spent among each branch of the government. The Social Security Administration has been working on their system for several years and has a chance of being ready. (But can the banks process their checks?) The departments slated to receive the most money were Defense and the Treasury$900 million (most for the IRS). The state of IRScomputing is much more clear when we look at a document that they posted on the Internet at the same time (see box, this page). Very few computer industry analysts believe they have any chance of completing their upgrade before 2000. If they spent half their money to hire programmers at current rates, they would be hiring 2250 programmers for 2 years. Where are they going to find them, and how are they going to train them? Some analysts have proposed that the government may have to pass a "flat tax" or a sales tax at the last minute.
In spite of the good work that many people have done, there seems to be a lot that isnít getting done. Larry Martin, president of Data Dimensions, a computer consulting firm said, "Only about 5% to 10% of actual conversion work has been done. The problem isnít money, but personnel and computers." Complex computer systems take months for new programmers to understand. There is a saying among computer managers that this author has found to be true: "If you take a computer project that is late, and suddenly assign twice as many people to work on it, you will make it twice as late."
Reasons Why the Problems May Not Be as Bad as Some May Claim
Some authors on the year-2000 compliance issue seem to be going out of their way to paint the gloomiest picture possible. They predict many years of non-technological life for everyone until computers can be fixed. Below, we give several factors that doomsday predictors seem to ignore.
(1) Most businesses really rely on only a small percentage of their computer programs for their main operations. If a bank has 10 million lines of computer program code, their day-to-day vital functioning may be done with less than half a million lines. Another 1 or 2 million lines might be essential to perform functions that are vital on a monthly basis. Another 1 or 2 million lines will be systems such as marketing forecasting or annual reports which help the bank operate, but are not actually essential. Studies have shown that almost half of the programs in a large computer installation are nearly obsolete.
(2) Most embedded computers will not have to be "thrown away" in the year 2000, but can be used by setting the date to some time in the 1900ís (see box on page 23). People, unlike computers, are flexible and they can put a piece of tape on a device with an embedded computer that says: "To read date properly, add 28 to the year." That will work until the device can be fixed or replaced.
(3) The danger that one bad computer system will infect all the other systems connected to it is limited. Good programmers working in multiple-computer systems will be careful to check information coming from other computers to make sure that it is valid before entering it into their own database. For example, astute banks are probably now programming their computers to reject checks and other financial transactions that claim to have taken place in the 1900s. However, a certain amount of errors can still proliferate. If a bank improperly processes a date and wrongly charges a customer $1,000,000 in interest, it might transfer just the amount owed (and not the date) to another properly functioning computer that may stop the innocent customer from using his funds.
(4) The USA is still largely a free country and businesses are free to make contracts among themselves without anyoneís approval. Usually, food stores operate on a margin of only a few percent. If computer failures prevent the automated stocking and trucking systems from working, food stores can still try to sell certain basic foods at much higher profit margins. Food distributors could simply send last weekís or last yearís order to the local stores. Items not available would simply not be sent. The system will be far from perfect, but hungry people do not need marketingthey will buy whatever food is selling from whomever is selling it. If bank computer failures prevent checks from clearing, stores can buy items from their distributors with a signed promise to pay. A retail store owner can then sell to people for cash, checks (if he knows the people) or maybe even barter with a promise to pay (Iíll give you $40 dollars of groceries for a working TV setwith a promise that you will pay the $40 and reclaim your TV set later). If the store owner raises prices 20% to cover losses, people will still probably rather shop than be hungry. If the storeís cash registers are not working, they may need to use pocket calculators and clerks may need to keep records by hand. Yes, it sounds a little messybut it will keep people fed and keep stores in business.
The "mom and pop" stores or the few independent groceries are even more flexible: they can buy from any supplier with food to sell. Many of them have run their business without computers for years and will be able to continue. During the year 2000 crisis, small, flexible businesses may be able to out-do the big giants.
What Can You Do to Get Ready?
(1) Pray that you will be able to escape whatever minor difficulties come to pass as the result of computer failures in those days. We find that most of the great miracles performed in the scriptures were not simply for the recipientís own comfort, but so that they could get on with the preaching of the Gospel or other important functions. Most Biblical figures who asked the Eternal for deliverance gave him a reason for it. We must ask ourselves, why should He deliver us? Nevertheless, we should be good stewards of our physical possessions and be sensibly prepared for difficulty that might befall us.
(2) Ask ourselves what we should be doing to help prevent the problems from occurring. This would include testing devices with embedded computers at home and at work, if we are responsible for them (see box page 23); testing personal computers at home and at work, if we are responsible for them (see box page 24); and letting other people know about this problem. Are we our brotherís keeper? (Gen 4:9Yes!). This is not some issue that "might happen." It will happen, the only question is "how bad is it going to be?" People who start working on the problem now will have a good chance of solving itthey can get help now. By the time the issue is in the every-day news, computer help will be hard to find. You can give friends with computers copies of this or other related articles. Friends who run businesses that use computers may also be glad to know in advance.
(3) Be prepared for the worst in case utilities, banking, or merchandise infrastructures break down. Obtain a few months supply of emergency food and water. One of the main reasons these computer problems are so dangerous to "advanced" societies is that our stores are so reliable that few people stock any emergency provisions. Less developed countries are used to finding empty store shelves now and then. Buy inexpensive canned food that is easy to keep and that you can use in normal eating if they turn out not to be needed. By buying this year, you will help to encourage increased production. If you wait until December, 1999 to buy, you will help to create a shortage then. This "get it early" principle applies to the next two items as well.
(4) If possible, gradually purchase minimum supplies that you will need to maintain your familyís essential needs for two or three months. Do the same thing for your business, or encourage your manager to do it. If the computer systems of your suppliers and department stores become completely inoperative, your emergency supplies will help you to continue to work until they get the mess straightened out. (If no trouble occurs, you can consume the supplies as you normally would.) When most peopleís businesses are not operational, anyone whose business is operational and who provides a useful service will have plenty to do.
(5) If possible, save some money for the year 2000paychecks or pensions may not reach you for a while. Cash is the most apparent choice, but gold is selling at its lowest price in twenty years. A stock market crash and various other financial disasters certainly might occur at this time.
Of the above three items (food & water, supplies and money), do not let anyone else know exactly how much you have and where you have stored it.You may wish to be kind to others and sell to or share with them in the event of a real disaster. But you will not be able to help your family or other truly needy people if your items are all stolen by someone else. If you live in a crowded metropolitan area with large numbers of people who will probably not be storing any food or water, you might pray about moving before the fall of 1999. If utilities, transportation, or banking problems prevent stores from being stocked, hungry peopleas individuals and as armed gangswill simply rove around and take what they can find.
(6) Know your friends, neighbors, and local business people. In difficult times, they may help youyou may help them. Make a plan with neighbors as to what you will do if the public utilities fail. Electrical power is likely to be a hit-and-miss operation even if just some plants fail across the nation. In the Northern Hemisphere, January 1 always comes in the winter. If your family has a way to heat your home, good. But if it is too expensive, several families can write an agreement to buy the necessary equipment to heat one of their homes in emergency, and to let all of the families live there temporarily. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss how to survive without public utilities, but many "survival" books are available from libraries or bookstores. If you do not have one, now might be a good time to get one!
(7) Do not plan any critical financial transactions (house purchase, business deals, etc.) for the months of October 1999 through March 2000. Do not plan any trips from December 1999 to March 2000. If people are suffering, helping travelers will be low on the priority list.
(8) Do all you can not to be a hospital patient in December 1999 through February. If a family member is in the hospital during the beginning of year 2000, you might want to stay with them from December 31, 1999 through the first few days of January. If there are major system breakdowns, the staff will not be able to help everyone at once. Check for obvious signs of equipment malfunction or unusual changes in prescriptions.
(9) Make a point to know when all of your payments will be due during December 1999 and the first few months of 2000. For essential services, like utilities, make the payments even if no bill arrives. It would be better that you pay for services you actually receive before you are actually billed, than it would be to lose your service because someone thought they sent you a bill, but they did not. Customer service departments will be hopelessly overworked by all of the related problems. You do not want to lose essential services even if is completely someone elseís fault.
(10) Stay flexible regarding work. People working in customer-service and computer areas may have to work a lot of overtime helping to recover from computer foul-ups. People in manufacturing, some sales areas may be out of work because suppliers cannot deliver materials essential for production. New construction will probably halt as companies scramble to recover from computer messes. During times of crisis, employment in non-essential industries always falls to a fraction of what it used to be. Non-essential industries include music, sports, clubs, other entertainment, interior decorating, cosmetics, physical fitness, etc. If you end up out of work, you might be able to find temporary workmanually taking over functions that computers are failing to do.
(11) On Friday, December 31, 1999, shut down as many computer systems and other power-consuming devices as possible at your business. This will help ease electric power shortages. Get your family together as early as possible Friday afternoon. Do not forget about grandparents or others who need your carehave them with you if possible. Use as little electrical power as possible. Turn off electronic equipment that might be damaged by power brown-outs (lowered voltage). Listen to radio reports about what is happening in time-zones East of youthe new year creeps around the globe one time-zone at a time.
WhereIs It All Going?
Computer failures in the year 2000 are not a reason to panicpanic almost never helps anyone. This will be a major world event that is going to be remembered for many years to come. It is a time to be doing what we can do nowas the day approaches. It is a time to think about our relationship with our Father in Heaven, and ask "What is He doing in My life, and what am I doing for Him?"
Knowing the depravity of human nature, various groups will probably use this crisis as a means to get more money or more power for themselves. People may try to sell you fraudulent "year 2000" insurance, or emergency "survival packs" at greatly inflated prices. Desperate financial institutions and government agencies may drop their screening process for hiring technical people to help fix computer systemsspies or high tech criminals may infiltrate financial or military networks for their own power and/or profit. Corrupt individuals may successfully use stolen or phony checks and credit cards when verification systems are not working, or by simply putting on a good act and saying, "Your computer must be having year 2000 problemsthis is a valid credit card, Iíve had this number for 12 years!" Businesses may take advantage of leniency during the year-2000 problem to violate laws that they were afraid to violate in the past. Businesses with working computers will certainly use this time to take away market share from businesses experiencing computer problems.
Religious zealots and con-artists may use the year 2000 problem to push their private prophetic agendausually offering deliverance to those who contribute to or follow them. Even government officials may use it to try to grab more power for themselves. Some are predicting that it will be an excuse for governments to take away personal liberties. Others say the reverse will happencomputer-dependent governments will be forced to give up much of their present control because many of their computer systems used to enforce control will no longer work. Ultimately, some governments see it as the ideal time to start a warto attack a nation plagued by technology problems.
On the other hand, disasters bring people together for goodwill. We need to use this time to reach out to others and help them in a physical way. "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil 2:4). Acting for the good of those around us will definitely help them to act in a similar fashion. If people fight with one another rather than help one another in this crisis, there could be more damage to lives and property from fighting than from computer problems.
Helping people to be ready to survive this disaster should be a high priority in our lives. Big governments and organizations will probably not be much helpthey will be too mired in their own computer problems. If you work together with another group of people to survive a week of no utilities together, you will probably not forget it as long as you live. If our works are good, others may also look to us for help in a spiritual way.
Difficult times help us reflect on what is important in our lifewhat are we really doing with it? If we put this much emphasis on preserving our physical lives and the lives of others, how much emphasis should we put on preserving our collective spiritual lives? We need to do the things that we can do in preparation for year 2000, but we do not need to worry about it. Our Savior said:
So do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt 6:31-34, NIV).
Norman S. Edwards
Return to December Index.