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Media Hits and Misses in Y2K Coverage

by Amara D. Angelica

Y2K was the buzz in the media as the New Year kicked off. Coverage ranged from creative (Business 2.0s January issue offers a great visual overview of the problem) to clueless.

A CNN "expert" advised testing your computer by resetting the system clock to February 2000 from within Windows 95. Bad idea. This could cause leased or demo software to expire, calendars could lose appointments, file dates could be set to 1980 and time-sensitive system resources such as user IDs, passwords and databases could be damaged. Its also not a complete test. Better idea: NSTL ( offers free downloadable Y2K BIOS test software for PCs, which is run from DOS.

On CNN Talkback Live, Atlanta Constitution Y2K special editor Marilyn Geewax said companies were "bringing in new computer systems" to fix the Y2K bug, overlooking the real problem: software fixes. CNN also glossed over potentially the most serious Y2K crises: the domino effect and embedded systems.

Speaking of glossing over, on Dec. 28 President Clinton announced that Social Security Administration computers are now Y2K-compliant. He failed to mention that 75 percent of benefit checks are electronically transferred to bank accounts, according to a statement by SSA commissioner Kenneth Apfel on the "PBS News Hour." The banks arent ready. Neither are the state contractors who determine eligibility for Social Security benefits due to medical disabilities, according to a General Accounting Office report issued in May.

More gloss from USA Today: Its Jan. 2 front-page headline proclaimed "Y2K bug fears subsiding," quoting a poll that indicates only 35 percent of the public expects "major problems."

The paper missed the real story. Sixteen percent of poll respondents said they would withdraw all their money from the bank and 31 percent would withdraw a "large amount." Sixteen percent of $3.7 trillion (current bank deposits) is $592 billion. The banks only have $44 billion in cash reserves plus a $200 billion backup promised by the Federal Reserve. Thats a shortfall of $248 billionnot even counting that 31 percent.

Whats worse, the Fed uses about 30 telecom services, according to its Dec. 11 quarterly report. The Fed is "tracking their progress  working to obtain information  " but wont be conducting a coordinated test of payment systems and the S.W.I.F.T. bank wire transfer system until June.

Plan to take out some cash? Warning: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.s proposed "Know Your Customer" regulation (, comments due March 8) would require banks to report customers with "unusual" banking activity to FINCEN, the 1984-style financial transactions tracking center portrayed in the "Enemy of the State" movie.

Its already happening

A Cap Gemini America survey of U.S. corporations and governmental agencies found that 55 percent had already experienced a year 2000 problem, most causing processing disruptions or financial miscalculations. Look for some serious bloodletting this year69 percent of companies surveyed say they plan to stop doing business with noncompliant suppliers.

The Coca-Cola Co. has contingency plans to stockpile raw and packaged materials, increase inventory levels and secure alternate suppliers, Reuters reported on Jan. 2. Chevron Corp. said it will not fix all its systems by Dec. 31, 1999, and Y2K problems could prevent it from delivering oil and gas.

According to Y2Knewswire, "a major long-distance company knows they wont make it," based on the companys internal documents. "The company acknowledges that corrupt data could cause the shutdown of entire systems," the news service said. "We think all the major telecommunications firms are in the same position."

Meanwhile, "Food Supply Update," (December 1998) by Geri Guidetti says 1999 may be a "year of food panic" unless we get some honest answers from food suppliers. The report ( lists questions to ask your supermarket, food processors and distribution centers, such as, "How will you function if telephones arent working or railway shipments are delayed?"

Contra Costa County: Y2K-ready, sort of

OK, now the good news: At least one Bay Area county has its act together. Contra Costa County ( has been named the "best prepared county in the state of California" for Y2K. Steven Steinbrecher, Contra Costas chief information officer, says his 20-member Y2K project team has been working on the problem since June 1995 and has completed the county data centers remediation and testing, working closely with all 18 city managers, law enforcement and other emergency staffers.

But Steinbrechers work isnt done. "Whats keeping me awake at night is Buchanan Field Airport, which is dependent on the FAA having its house in order, embedded systems in emergency, health, traffic, sewage and water equipment and a bunch of other stuff I havent even thought of yet." Not all these systems are fully documented in the blueprints for the 350 buildings in the countyand the county has no control of sewage systems.

"Im also concerned about power. If theres no power, whats the use of a Y2K-compliant data center?" he asked.

Steinbrechers worse-case scenario: On New Years Eve, a ship hits one of the three bridges that span Contra Costa waterways, one or more of the major refineries experience an embedded-system breakdown and theres a plane crash. Meanwhile, inebriated celebrants are shooting off guns and driving on icy or foggy roads. "We only have so many people available in response to problems, and I do worry about the system being overextended.

"We are concerned that FEMA and the state will be overloaded with issues of their own. If a large number of the countys sworn personnel and EMTs are ational guard members (something the county is assessing right now), we may have some serious staffing challenges."

Going off the grid

The January/February issue of Backwoods Home magazine offers some practical tips for setting up a livable survival retreat. Check out for the details.

If you prefer to stick it out and help prepare your community, check out Utne Readers "Y2K Citizens Action Guide" (, printed version available).

The Cassandra Project site ( is another excellent resource.

-- a (a@a.a), January 13, 1999


Good one a! Hotlink...

http:/ /

-- Diane J. Squire (, January 13, 1999.

"The banks arent ready. Neither are the state contractors who determine eligibility for Social Security benefits due to medical disabilities, according to a General Accounting Office report issued in May. "

This line hit home for my wife as she works for one of these state agencies. They have an abysmal record of software support. They are supposedly upgrading their mainframe in March and have cancelled all leave for all employees during the upgrade period. I do not have much confidence in them. They are already experienging windowing problems with existing applications.

A couple of years ago they said they were upgrading their system to Windows. I though "cool". Turns out all they did was bought a bunch of PCs with Windows 3.1 and started running their form based mainframe apps in a DOS window. They can't even handle routine maintenance work. They have to press CONTROL to exit out of one form instead of ENTER because they were told it would be too hard to fix. Programmer turnover at this agency is atrocious.

-- a (a@a.a), January 13, 1999.

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