The Year 2000 Problem (a.k.a. Y2K)

On December 31, 1999, your computer will stop working. Your lights will go out because the utility company's computer stops working. Planes will crash because there will be no Air Traffic Control. There will be a global recession sparked by a run on the banks when they cannot open on January 2. Payrolls will no longer be on time. Your telephone won't work because the switching computer thinks it's January 1, 1900. And the sky will fall.

Why will all this happen? Is there anything we can do to prevent it? Why haven't we thought about all this before now? Well, maybe it's because this is all just a bunch of horse crap.

There are three major factors that are contributing to this "Year 2000 Problem":

You'll notice that I didn't mention any computer problems in this list. To be fair, there are a few, older computer programs that save the date with a 2-character year, such as "98" or "00". Some of these programs will need a single line of code added wherever the year is tested to allow "00" to be later than "99". Seems pretty simple, huh? It is.

Could all the "experts" who are predicting major problems be right? Next time you hear one or read one, ask yourself this: Will this person make any money from the Y2K problem? In almost every case, the answer is an unequivocal "yes." And because of this, is it conceivable that this person could want to make the Y2K seem to be as big a problem as possible? Hmm.... I wonder.

To be fair, there are a few computer programs that are so old and archaic that it's hard or impossible to make any changes. Consider a program that was compiled with a compiler that's no longer available. If the owner (or writer) of the program was dumb enough to get rid of its last copy of the compiler, then they won't be able to fix the program. This is something that would not happen very often, and if it does, the dummies deserve what they get.

And what would they get? First, consider what types of organizations might have this problem: (a) Government organizations who haven't upgraded their computer software for a long time, and (b) small companies who haven't upgraded their computer software for a long time.

The government organizations may have a hard time correcting this problem, but for those that do have this problem, it's not the worst thing in the world. The Air Traffic Control system is a good example. Y2K consultants (and the press) often point to this as the epitome of the year 2000 problem. They say planes will not be able to fly, crashes will happen, etc., etc., etc. This is another bunch of horse crap.

The ATC computer system is archaic, and that's an understatement. It wouldn't surprise me at all if they have a hard time recompiling parts of their programs. The ATC computer system was supposed to have been completely replaced years ago. But there were stupid decisions and cost overruns, and eventually they had to scrap all the upgrade plans because they were so far out in left field that it would have been an absolute fiasco. So we still have the old ATC system.

In the worst case, if nothing is done to the ATC system, what would happen? Not too much. Flights at midnight on 12-31-99 might have to have the flight plans put on paper. This is not uncommon. Flight plans filed for 1-1-00 would have to be filed sometime after midnight. That's a minor inconvenience.

ATC computers are so old and unreliable that it's common for them to quit running for hours at a time even without any program problems. The ATC can handle air traffic without their computers, although a slightly lower level of service is provided to the planes in the air. Not that big a problem, is it?

How about the IRS? I heard on the radio the other day that I should get a copy of my IRS files with Freedom of Information forms because the IRS computers will fail and lose all their data on 1-1-2000. This is really dumb. The computers won't fail. I suspect that the IRS computer programs require so much maintenance with the new tax laws all the time that they already handle years larger than 99. Even if they didn't, they could be fixed without too much effort. And even if they weren't fixed, the data will still be there.

What about a small business? Joe's Sign Shop, for example. He got a PC a long time ago, and just won't upgrade to Windows, let alone Windows 95 or 98. His computer works like it is and there's no point in spending more money on it. Now, most PC software handles dates well into the next century -- longer than Joe will live. This is true even for DOS software. But suppose Joe has an old program written in an old version of Cobol. The company that wrote his software is out of business, so no changes can be made to the program.

Joe will probably find out that his invoices aren't right, and he'll have his secretary do them by hand for a couple of weeks until he buys a new computer and accounting software. (He'll be surprised how much cheaper and better they are now.)

What about banks? Banks use software that's certified and upgraded regularly. Almost all banks have software that handles dates beyond the year 2000, and those that don't should know enough to fix it. But just in case they don't, our Federal Reserve has been listening to chicken little and has required banks to have a written plan to test and verify that every computer and every piece of equipment they have with microprocessor is "year 2000 compliant." That means they have to write a plan to test each cash register, adding machine, and even many locks! If you wonder why your monthly account fees are high, consider the overhead involved with things like this.

How about other companies? Take ViaGrafix, for example. ViaGrafix makes computer software -- graphics software. ViaGrafix also sells training videos. All the software and training videos do not use dates, so there is no "Y2K problem." The accounting and other internal software used by ViaGrafix are modern and can handle large dates, so there is no problem there. It looks like ViaGrafix gets off without wasting money on this alleged crisis, right?

Wrong. The Chicken Littles of the world have attacked even ViaGrafix. ViaGrafix receives lots of forms from large companies and government organizations requiring the software and training products to be certified as "Year 2000 Compliant." This is a minor pain in the rear, but it costs some money to deal with it all.

But there's more. ViaGrafix recently made a public stock offering. In the SEC filings, the company stated that there were no "Y2K problems." The SEC sent a standard response that amounted to, "Are you sure?" ViaGrafix ended up spending thousands of dollars in legal and printing fees, "beefing up" the statement that said, "there are no Y2K problems."

There are people who are making a living consulting for the "Year 2000 Problem." All levels of the government are covering their collective rears by requiring everyone to promise, plan, and prove they have any Y2K problems taken care of. This is because the "experts" told them they had to do this. These same experts make lots of money "helping" people handle their Y2K problem.

Even the Federal Reserve has said there may be a recession because of the Y2K problem. The Clinton Administration predicts dire happenings if we don't do something now. The Republican Congress points fingers at the administration for not doing enough about this, so in case there really is a problem they can say, "I told you so."

As a result of all this, what would not otherwise amount to a hill of beans has become an industry unto itself. And the worst part? On January 2, 2000, there won't be any major problems (although the press will be searching far and wide for examples.) When it's finally learned that this wasn't such a big deal, the Y2K consultants are going to be saying, "Boy, it's lucky we were here to save you! Thanks for the cash."

Bob Webster 4-11-98


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