Y2K Jitters beginning to show

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Y2K - Jitters Beginning To Show



Up against the deadline for fixing an unprecedented technological blunder, the world exhibited some jitters Thursday over the prospect of failures in the computers on which we so depend. There was testing galore and a few confessions of Y2K-unreadiness.

Experts say that given this planet's hundreds of millions of computers and tens of billions of embedded microcircuits _ and the inexactitude of computer science _ some failures are inevitable on Jan. 1 and in the ensuing weeks and months.

Governments and companies have been too vague on their Y2K preparedness, however, for anyone to predict the scope and severity of this once-in-a-lifetime shock to the systems.

And when cyber-disasters strike _ be they in small businesses' workstations or government mainframes _ getting systems back on line will depend on the quality and thoroughness of any initial Y2K repairs.

"If you've done a majority of work you can sort of get that thing fixed in a few days," said Peter de Jager, a Paul Revere of Y2K awareness. "If on the other hand you haven't done much work at all it could take a few weeks to fix."

News of a Y2K glitch that this week triggered failures in 20,000 credit-card swipe machines in Britain sent Chinese troubleshooters hurriedly checking their nation's banking systems Thursday _ with no problems reported.

Technicians in the United States made last minute Y2K repairs Thursday to a vital air safety system. And 352 nonessential U.S. diplomats and their families left Russia and three former Soviet republics deemed at high risk of Y2K-induced power and telecommunications outages.

South Korea's government also worked diligently, checking systems to the end. It declared itself fully prepared on Thursday after a final test involving 14,000 technicians from 620 government offices, Internet providers and businesses.

Officials on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada also claimed readiness, but admitted that government computers that track import tax revenues had not been purged of the software flaw.

Central banks across the globe have printed tens of billions of dollars worth of currency _ from 10 to 40 percent more than normal _ to hedge against possible bank runs, though experts are fairly confident the financial sector is in good shape.

Most worrisome to analysts are manufacturers and their supply chains, small businesses and government agencies, particularly in vulnerable regions including eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia.

"I think some organizations, particularly smaller businesses that find they haven't done the work they needed to do, could go out of business," said Bruce McConnell, director of the World Bank-funded International Y2K Cooperation Center.

Governments could fall or be forced to devaluate their currencies by major Y2K catastrophes.

"If Y2K problems are severe, the incumbent politicians will be blamed for it and be voted or thrown out of office," said Capers Jones, chief scientist at Artemis Management Systems and another early prophet of Y2K.

He estimates more than $1 trillion will be spent overall on Y2K fixes, and more than twice as much on cleaning up _ everything from bug-wrought damage to lawsuits filed against those responsible.

Some early damage was felt Thursday in Nigeria, where the state-run telephone company disconnected private carriers who it claimed had failed to prove themselves complaint and thus threatened the entire national network.

A few thousand phone users lost service in Nigeria, a country widely assessed as poorly prepared. A minor crisis compared to the income lost by an estimated 1,800 to 3,500 seasonal hotel workers laid off in Jamaica because of a dropoff in holiday tourists blamed on Y2K worries.

Holiday hotel bookings on the tropical island, normally at 90 percent this time of year, dropped to 60 percent, the industry said. Ditto to the south on Aruba. Tourism industry officials worldwide report a holiday slump because so many people want to be close to home _ or work _ in case of serious Y2K-triggered disruptions in vital services.

Precaution is the watchword worldwide.

Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights, citing low demand and also out of concern that air traffic control systems in regions such as the Asian subcontinent and Latin America may not be ready.

"We're not taking any chances," said spokeswoman Liz Rahaman of Guyana Air 2000, which despite its name has canceled all flights on Friday and Saturday over concerns that aviation systems in that South American country are not Y2K-ready.

Many airports, from Denmark to Bolivia, will also be closed for the rollover to the new millennium.

So will everything from Korean and Polish steel mills, Israel's nuclear power plant, ports from Australia to Holland and Turkey barred big ships from its narrow Bosporus strait.

In much of the developing world, where Y2K work began late and money was short, many of the fixes were makeshift.

Colombia's air traffic radars, for example, were forwarded to the year 2028, which is identical to 2000 in having 366 days and in their distribution.

And in the eastern Russian republic of Yakutsk, another bit of technical trickery was applied _ computers' clocks were turned back from five to 20 years, deferring, not fixing, the problem.

-- matt (matt@somewhere.nz), December 31, 1999

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