Montréal, le 26 septembre 1998
Numéro 21
(page 6) 
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 by Ralph Maddocks
          The title of Roy Atwell's poem would seem to be an appropriate and cautionary remark these days as we stand poised to enter a new decade. During the next four hundred and seventy some days, we will witness in the press an increasing number of stories devoted to that phenomenon known as Y2K. If you are not already familiar with this curt expression, Y2K is computer speak for the Year 2000. A date when many of the computers in the world could abruptly plunge us into a massive state of confusion. 
          The reason for this goes back to the original programming of computers when memory space was limited. At that time, a programmer could save a lot of space by compressing a date, say 3 March 1963 into 03/03/63, an elegant and space saving arrangement. Such a date could also be expressed as March 3, 1963, 3-3-63 or even 63-03-03, and a human being would have no trouble understanding it. Computers however cannot make such assumptions, they must be given explicit instructions to interpret the data. A computer must be told that 63 is 1963 and not 2063 or 1863. What was not realised at that time was that when the last year of the century would arrive, then 1 January 2000 would become 01/01/00. The question which now arises is: is it the year 1900 or the year 2000? 
2000: the end of the world 
          When that first second of the year 2000 arrives, all kinds of catastrophes have been predicted. These range from massive bank, stock market and hospital computer failures through devastating power outages and disruptions of air travel to failure of the US Emergency Alert System. The latter at a time when it may actually be needed. Predictions of a computer Armageddon abound. 
          Some may think that this system breakdown is nothing much to worry about. However, one must consider how many occurrences of dates occur in computers in business, in government, in various electronic apparatus such as microwave ovens, aeroplane computers, and so on. In general, any kind of activity, performed on any computer, anywhere in the world involving dates after 1999 could be affected. Anything involving forward planning, tax processing, scheduling, sell-by and expiry dates, metering, billing, all kinds of records and transactions, communications; in fact any aspect of our lives touched by a computer. Manufacturing plants, food processing, waste treatment and water treatment plants, all could be affected to a greater or lesser extent. 
          Perhaps an even bigger problem is contained in the embedded computer chips which inhabit our watches, cell phones, refrigerators etc. It has been estimated that there are billions of these items throughout the world. If just 1% of, say, 3 billion chips have a Y2K problem we are talking about 30 million problems. 
          Many elevators for example have safety programmes that disable the elevator if it hasn't been serviced recently. The elevator goes down to the basement and stays there until someone tells it that service has been performed. On 1 January 2000 an elevator could decide that it hadn't been serviced for 99 years and shut itself down. All that would then be needed would be someone to tell the elevator that service had been done. The next such problem will occur on 1 January 2100, if the elevator is still in service. 
          One estimate of the number of times a date appears in a computer programme is once per 20 lines of code. A line of code being a line of instructions to a computer programme required to perform some activity. A simple calculation of the number of days between two dates requires some 25 lines of code to accomplish which gives you some idea of the enormity of the problem. In fact the problem is largely that, the need to change every single line of computer code which refers in some way to a date and year. A thirty year mortgage for example issued in 1971 will expire in 2001 so to some extent the problem has already been dealt with in part. 
What is being done about it? 
          Well all governments, including our own, claim that they are busy working on it. The US has appointed a « Year 2000 Czar » and one may hope that he is more successful than his counterpart « Drugs Czar » has been. The Group of Eight have agreed to share Y2K information and have dedicated some $16 million to dealing with the problem. In the US earlier this year, a law was passed which forbids banks to issue loans to any business that is not Y2K compliant. A study last year revealed that 50% of health providers in the US had no budget allocated to deal with the problem and fully a quarter had no team working on it. Last December, another survey indicated that only one-fifth of employers had begun to implement a strategy, an incredible 80% had underestimated their costs for the work and almost 10% had already experienced a Y2K related failure. 
          By the end of next year the US Federal Reserve will have printed some $50 billion additional currency just in case it may be needed by people whose credit and ATM cards will fail on 1 January, 2000. Airline computer systems represent another area in which grave problems could be expected. They rely on computers to schedule maintenance, order fuel and parts, issue flight plans, track luggage, etc. Pondering the state of some computers in lesser developed countries, or even in places like Russia or South America is enough to induce heart failure. The Tulsa Oklahoma data processing centre, where the SABRE reservation system is located, operates 17 mainframe computers, handles 190 million messages a day and provides online information for 30 000 travel agents, 3 million individual consumers and countless corporations. It also has access to 35 000 hotel properties, 400 airlines and dozens of other forms of transportation. Their task is to replace or repair all the hardware and software associated with some 160 000 terminals as well as to review over 200 million lines of code. They now expect to spend $160 million to fix their system. 
          Given the dramatic potential of this Y2K problem, it is surprising that Hollywood has not come out with a futuristic blockbuster movie dealing with the problem. The possibility of an Iraqi or Russian missile being fired, or firing on its own, because their incoming missile tracking systems fail at midnight on January 1, 2000 cannot be ignored. A fine conclusion to the start of the last year of the twentieth century. 
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