Boston Herald discovers y2k as a serious nomination for the truly schizophrenic article of the week... : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Computer gurus race clock vs. Y2K glitches by Azell Murphy Cavaan Sunday, June 20, 1999

With only six months to go before the dawn of the millennium, the outlook is bleak for scores of computer programmers frantically trying to prepare millions of computers for the year 2000.

``There is no way we are going to make it,'' said Tony Wray, a Framingham-based Y2K expert who has been working on the problem for more than three years. Wray said that despite progress on systems such as aviation, the nation is failing on crucial details.

Wray and other experts say there is still much work to be done to avoid crashing or confusing networks that keep traffic lights functioning, electricity running and prison doors shut.

``We're looking at over 30 years worth of code that needs adjusting,'' said Wray. ``It's insane to think we can correct all of that in just a few years. Even if we started 10 years ago, we still wouldn't have everything ready by Jan. 1, 2000.''

Theories that computers-gone-haywire will cause the accidental launch of nuclear weapons or cause airplanes to fall from the sky have been widely dismissed.

Still, the possibilities for chaos are vast. Computers may not be able to read ATM or credit cards. Electricty could very possibly be lost. And some experts say it is more than likely that air transportation will be interrupted, along with water supplies and telephone service.

The biggest jitters are over the health-care industry, which has been touted as the least prepared. Medical equipment like ventilators and dialysis machines could go on the blink, while pharmacists may find themselves suddenly unable to fill prescriptions. Some hospitals have already canceled surgeries scheduled for Jan. 1.

The problem, of course, did not crop up overnight. In fact, computer types have known about the Y2K nightmare for some 30 years.

``The funny thing about Y2K is that it's really a simple problem,'' said Bob Weir, vice president of information services at Northeastern University and a former IBM computer programmer.

``It becomes insidious because computers are everywhere,'' he said. ``It's the equivalent of having to change the date on every VCR. It's a simple procedure, but you've got to know the location of every VCR in the world.''

Driving the millennial hysteria is a small technical glitch that boils down to just two digits.

When computer programs were created some 30 years ago, storage capacity was at a premium (storage space that costs only pennies today cost thousands in the '70s). To cut down on expenses, pioneer programmers eliminated the first two digits of the year in their programs.

So, many computers will fail at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1 because they will be unable to recognize the four-digit year 2000.

Weir, one of the few who is willing to admit he worked on some of the earliest computer programs in the '70s, said programmers knew the millennium could mean a major system disruption. But, he said, nobody ever expected those early programs would make their way into the '90s.

``None of us ever dreamed that our codes would still be in use at the end of 1999,'' said Weir, adding that he is confident that enough careful planning has been done to ensure the millennium will arrive with little disruption.

``Back then, one mainframe (computer) filled a whole room,'' he said. ``There weren't PCs, and we had no concept that computers would become as pervasive as they are in today's society.''

But they did. In fact, there are more than 700 billion lines of code in the United States, according to Wray.

The country is expected to spend $300 billion to 600 billion on the Y2K problem. The total cost for world compliance is expected to cost $1 trillion to 2 trillion. In Massachusetts, the government has allocated $103 million for the problem.

And though government agencies and major industries like banks and airlines have spent millions in recent years reworking their computers to be ``Y2K-compliant,'' nobody knows for sure how serious the millennium bug will be.

The one thing experts have agreed on in the realm of planning for the Y2K computer bug is that a comprehensive ``fix'' is impossible. And now, experts are scrambling to make contingency plans they can fall back on to keep their operations buzzing in the face of any surprises the Y2K bug may spew.

``To state the problem simply,'' said Howard Rubin, a Y2K analyst and author, ``consider that even if the Social Security system is 100 percent ready, it won't matter if the post office has problems and can't deliver the checks. No system can truly be 100 percent ready.''

Rubin noted that though many federal agencies and large companies are checking internal systems, the test will be how well everything is coordinated among institutions, agencies and businesses.

That's why every community in Massachusetts will have to prove to the state's information technology division in coming months that it has viable contingency plans for 2000, according to Val Asbedian, director of strategic planning with the IT division.

Big cities and small towns alike are now concentrating on contingency plans to ensure that vehicular traffic runs smoothly even if signals are stuck, that essential government employees will be able to access critical data if their computers crash, and, most important, that police and fire officials can continue to do their jobs even in the face of technical adversity.

All things considered, the state is well-prepared, said Asbedian.

``Every community in the state is required by law to have an emergency-preparedness plan,'' said Asbedian. ``But you've got to test the plan to make sure not only will the process work but the people involved in the plan know what their roles are.''

Thorough contingency plans are crucial for cities and towns throughout the state because more than 10 percent of the essential programs dealing with the health, safety and livelihood of Massachusetts citizens are not yet Y2K-compliant.

``We hope to have 90 percent compliance by the end of this month,'' Asbedian said. ``But there are no certainties. That's why you have to have contingency plans.''

The uncertainty of what is to come has raised several questions. And some warn the repercussions will be life-altering.

``The economy could falter because of this,'' said Wray, who has installed a wood stove in his home in case there is no heat on Jan. 1. ``Freighters could start dumping oil in the ocean. Even the government is talking about stockpiling 30 to 60 days' worth of food at overseas embassies because they know countries abroad are in worse shape than we are.''

Some have said the Y2K impact will be infinitely worse overseas, where the botched delivery of food, seed and fertilizer could result in between 10 million and 300 million deaths.

Closer to home, there has been widespread speculation that the U.S. government has quietly considered declaring a four-day holiday at the start of 2000 - allowing the country to tiptoe into the next millennium.

And, if the Y2K problem itself is not overwhelming enough, some say a spirit of deception has wiggled its way into the confusion.

Hoping to cast off any perception of incompetence, some Y2K experts are not being honest with their bosses in describing their ability to ``fix'' the problem - leading management to believe things are under control when, in reality, they are not.

``We're professional liars,'' an anonymous Y2K programmer confessed on Y2KNEWSWIRE.COM. ``We're not telling our bosses how bad it is because of how severely we've seen others treated.''

Said another: ``Of course, we are reporting that we are clean and green - as the politicians require us to report.''

But why would politicians want to sugarcoat the truth?

``Because the nation's economy is built on trust,'' said Wray. ``If you send a message that there are problems, then it could affect the economy.''

Many Americans, including members of the Church of the Living God in Woburn, are leaving nothing to chance.

Convinced that things could take a serious turn for the worse when the millennium barges in, members have pooled their resources and are stockpiling food, generators, flashlights and other necessities. They have also installed a hand-cranked water well behind the church.

``It could be that we won't need any of this,'' said Jim Hicks, pastor of the church, who with his wife is the mastermind behind the church's preparation. ``When you listen to worst-case scenarios it becomes very scary, and we figure it's best to be prepared.''

Others say the radical precautions are the actions of alarmists.

``I just don't think it's going to be that bad,'' said Deena Premo, a 33-year-old mother of two from Hopkinton. ``There's so many people working on the problem that I'm sure it's under control.''

The truth, most likely, is somewhere in the middle, said Weir.

``Will I be out on the streets with my family come New Year's Eve?'' he asked. ``Probably not. But will I be wringing my hands worrying about what disasters are to come? Probably not.''

Averting disaster

How much should you do to prepare for Y2K? Experts say preparation is the key to averting panic when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1. Here are a few suggestions:

Build a library of books that include how-to advice in areas like food preparation, first aid, sanitation, home repair, water purification and sewing.

Obtain copies of all vital records, birth certificates, Social Security cards, financial and medical records.

Stock your home with alternative power, light and heat sources. Be sure to have a supply of candles and flashlights.

Consider how you will get around without a car; gasoline may be scarce.

Stock enough supplies and food to last several days to a week.

Have enough cash on hand to take care of expenses for two months or more. Have plenty of small bills, and 5-10 percent of your money in coins, in case stores have trouble making change.

Information provided by S.F. Tomajczyk, author of ``101 Ways to Survive the Y2K Crisis,'' and the American Red Cross.

-- Arlin H. Adams (, June 21, 1999


Thanks for posting, Arlin. The Boston Herald's rival newspaper, the Boston Globe, had a very similar article on the same day (Sunday). Makes me wonder whether there is a rash of articles about to come out in celebration of T-6 months, similar to the beginning of the year.

-- Brooks (, June 21, 1999.

Hi Brooksbie,

I guess the thing that really got me was that they covered the more problematic possibilities and then suggested preparing for a week or so...which makes no sense at all, but covers the newspaper's rear end should anything happen in the future...


-- Arlin H. Adams (, June 22, 1999.

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