The Rise Of The Y2k Bug


The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Ni?o and there will be nasty surprises around the globe.--John Hamre, Dep. Secretary of Defense
When I was in the first grade, my elementary school invested in several computers and started Introduction to Computers classes. I remember playing math games and drawing with art programs, in awe of, and slightly intimidated by the beastly piece of technology in front of me. I had little idea of how it worked, and even less of an idea of what was in store. Over the years, the technological world has advanced rapidly, and humans have come to rely on computers for just about every aspect of daily life--from education, to communication, to banking, to electricity, we depend on technology. The Y2K bug seems to be a vicious reminder that our technology is just a tangled connection of imperfect, haphazard systems we have come to let run our lives.
The Year 2000, or Y2K problem is caused by a shortcut imbedded into many computers and microchips. In the 1960s, to conserve what was then precious and expensive memory space, computer programmers shortened the four-digit year to use a much more economical two-digit method--for example, 78 would mean 1978. Unfortunately, computers and microchips that still use a two-number year will recognize 00 as the year 1900, not as 2000. When using data involving dates, the problem will cause failures in arithmetic, and can corrupt databases with incorrect information. These types of calculations are necessary in systems involving administrative information, scheduling, and billing. A statement issued by the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion states: This [Y2K bug] could cause [computers] to either shut down or generate incorrect data. In our electronic information-dependent society, that could be a big problem.
At the time the two-digit year was first used in computer programming, no one addressed or was prepared for a problem when the year 2000 rolled around, because, like today, technology was advancing and changing quickly. Computer programmers assumed that the two-digit year would eventually be changed and become obsolete. This, obviously, did not happen. In many cases, the older applications that use the two-digit method have been built on, and are buried deep into systems that are the basis of large corporations and other industries that run civilization as we know it. Computers are everywhere in government, business, utilities, and our jobs. When one system fails, there is a cascading effect to other systems. Despite a lingering skepticism in some realms, I assure you: The Year 2000 problem is real; its consequences are serious; and the deadline remains unstoppable. said Stephen Horn, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology
Scratching beneath the surface frenzy of Will my home PC work? and Will my microwave make the transition? it is not difficult to find an even more threatening danger. The North American Electric Reliability Council sites four critical areas that pose the greatest direct threat to power production and delivery: energy management systems; telecommunications; protection systems; and power production itself. Their Y2K Coordination Plan for the Electricity Production and Delivery Systems of North America states that The threat is most severe in power plants with digital control systems (DSCs). Numerous control and protection systems within these DSCs use time-dependant algorithms that may result in unit trips.
Despite extensive plans and endless explanations, the potentially catastrophic nature of this problem cannot be accurately figured. No one knows exactly what will be affected, or how much. While the government and its assorted departments and councils have taken to releasing longwinded, optimistic reports and coordination plans, computer programmers hired to seek out and fix the bug have been learning how to live in a world independent of technology. Bad news lurks in every corner and statistics are depressing. The consulting firm GartnerGroup has estimated that Venezuela and Saudi Arabia (two of the largest exporters of oil to the United States) are 12 to 18 months behind the United States in their Y2K-compliance efforts.
Being faced with the threats of loss of electricity, oil, and unfortunately, any hope of technological stability is a serious matter that should not be dismissed quickly. Knowledge and preparation is the key to surviving this glitch in civilization.