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View the documentYear 2000 notes

What's so hard about the Year 2000 problem? Senator Bob Bennett compared it with changing all the rivets on the Golden Gate bridge. Changing one rivet is easy, but changing all of them while keeping traffic moving is a tremendous challenge. Another analogy is repairing a Boeing 747 while in flight. Y2K has also been compared with replacing light bulbs in Las Vegas in one afternoon, or to requiring a visual inspection of every vehicle part in an entire town. Or maybe you relate to resoldering all of the plumbing in the US, but with a limited supply of plumbers. (That pretty well conveys the costs involved.) More accurate -- but boring -- is an analogy with reviewing every book in every library to convert dates to a new format, and trying to coordinate the changes across all libraries so that no errors slip through. [Rod Swab ,, 01May98.]

The Y2K problem is complex because there are so many different date formats and ways of doing date arithmetic. Some computers will wrap 99 to 00, others will increment it to 100, and still others will signal an error or fail in non-intuitive ways. Some work with a 2-digit date directly, and may be unable to handle 00 or 100, others will concatenate '19' to get 1900 or 19100, others will add 1900 to get 1900 or 2000. Global Positioning System (GPS) week numbers will wrap from week 1023 to week 0 in Aug99. On many PCs, the clock will go from 31Dec99 to 04Jan80, and on some of them there is no way to force the PC to recognize Year 2000 dates. As many as half of all PCs will have occasional RTC/BIOS communication problems -- especially with slower processors -- and even some Macs suffer from this Crouch-Echlin Effect. (See .)

Some systems know that 2000 is a leap year, but many do not. Any errors will be propagated through sorts, comparisons, and calculations, resulting in unexpected actions, invalid data, and garbled reports. Testing for these problems is tricky because setting your computer clock ahead can trigger license expirations, expire your passwords, or corrupt your databases, and may even make your PC unbootable. See and for safe test procedures. [Pam Hystad , Unofficial Smallish Comp.Software.Year-2000 FAQ, 24May98. Bill Park.]

Incidentally, some Macintosh computers can't handle dates after 2019 and Unix has an overflow problem in 2038. For a list of critical dates, see . [Ibid.]

Of course, for each system that fails there will be people hard at work to bypass the problems and restore basic functioning. People with phasers cutting through bulkheads or crawling through Jeffries tubes. But keep in mind that computing systems are ubiquitous and interconnected, and that many of these people are the same ones that help desks have to tell repeatedly to check the power plug or turn on the computer instead of hitting it with a shoe. (Bill Park recommends Dave Pogue's little paperback recounting real computer help-line calls.) Even if they get something fixed, they have to make sure it stays fixed and that the fix evolves to accommodate changing fixes to other related systems. And all of this is very hard to do if parts are unavailable or the power and communications grids are down -- even if what you're trying to fix is a part of the power grid.

For a long, detailed, and depressing report on what might happen at the turn of the century, see the Sunday NY Post. "Experts warn it could wreak havoc on Jan. 1, 2000 -- triggering a worldwide paralysis." . [Dave Kunkel ,, 24May98. Bill Park.] (You may disagree with the experts' pessimism, but they've studied the problem more than you have.)

Corporate analysts are saying that their earlier Y2K estimates (totalling $600B worldwide) are too low. Y2K was seen as a COBOL/mainframe problem, but it's evident that PCs, networks, and distributed systems will take a nearly equal effort. (The few desktop tools available suffer from "release 1.0 syndrome," and even an upgrade to Windows NT can take 45 minutes of on-site technical work per PC. Authority for desktop systems is often decentralized, and there's no one responsible for checking all the spreadsheet macros.) Gartner Group now estimates average Y2K costs of $6.46 per line of code -- nearly six times their original estimate of $1.10. That's allowing for all languages, PCs, servers, embedded systems, networks, project management, supply-chain analysis, etc. There may be 50M embedded devices with Y2K problems, and only 5% of large US companies have started worrying about it. Embedded systems are often inaccessible, have little documentation, have few testing and development tools, and use code that was not written in-house. (The compilers may no longer even exist.) Vendor assurances of Y2K compliance can't be trusted -- if they even bother to respond -- and in many cases the vendors are no longer in business. . [Bruce Caldwell and Hakhi Alakhun El, TechWeb News, 25May98. Harlan Smith , Bill Park.]

The US government is facing a shortage of programmers willing to work on Y2K problems at government salaries. It is estimated that more than 40% of critical systems will not be fixed by Mar99. Any breakdown of FAA computers could affect air traffic, including mail and freight delivery. Delays in Medicare payments would affect hospitals. Malfunctions in security systems could lock workers out of their computers and labs. [Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post. SJM, 03Jun98, 1C.]

Private sector recruiters are in a feeding frenzy. Y2K programmers are leaving the government for high-paying jobs where they won't be expected to solve problems with ancient systems and embedded chips. Embedded systems are particularly difficult because you can't duplicate the system environment for testing, and in many cases can't roll the date forward without destroying the equipment. Large telecom operations with thousands of hubs and routers cannot be tested simultaneously as they operate in the real world. CalTrans has found that 2% of its chips are going to be a problem, particularly those in buildings put up or remodeled between 1985 and 1993. Access to the chips is difficult, vendors are often unreachable, and testing can take four hours per device. Most companies have yet to develop the specific test procedures they need. Agencies in charge of critical systems are talking about "contingency planning" and "disaster recovery," but few have comprehensive plans. . [Victor Porlier, 27May98. Harlan Smith , Bill Park.]

HP3000 COBOL programmers in Silicon Valley bill at about $80-$100/hour, with project managers and consultants getting more. (25%-40% of the billable rate may go to an agency.) The rate has gone up $10/hour from last year, and $20/hour from a decade ago. COBOL programmers seem to be in their late 30s and above. There are rumors of pay rates elsewhere of $120/hour, perhaps going to $150/hour. [Chris A. Goodey ,, 27May98. Bill Park.]

The new Y2K cost estimates will affect effort and resources required, time to completion, and of course budgets. Citicorp's estimated $600M cost, for instance, would now be more like $3.5B. Federal estimates of $5B may escalate to $30B-$50B, of which they've only spent $1.5B so far. When the crisis comes, we're going to lose power, water, transportation, communications, and other services. (Also manufacturing, which depends heavily on embedded systems.) "The wise will get out of populated areas while they still have a chance. The Federal Government will not feed you. The State will not feed you. The County will not feed you. Your Town will not feed you." [Paul Milne ,, 23May98.]

It may be wise to stock up on candles, food staples, potable water, hard currency, fuel, and batteries, or even move to a farm. Obtaining paper copies of important records is also a good idea. [Pam Hystad , Unofficial Smallish Comp.Software.Year-2000 FAQ, 24May98. Bill Park.]

I asked analyst Mark Anderson where one might invest retirement funds in order to avoid a coming Y2K stock market correction. He noted that people will always need food, shelter, and medicine, and recommended food as a very conservative sector. [, SNS, 19May98.] (Of course, there are going to be winners and losers in every market sector. Wall Street is implementing corporate reporting requirements to help sort that out. Investment will flow to companies with no Y2K problems, and away from those that need help.)

Incidentally, the lawyers are doing their part to save the world economy. Intuit is now facing a Y2K lawsuit. . See also about US legislation and lawsuits, or for The Year 2000 FAQ v2.3 1998-05-05. [Bill Park , 15May98.]

-- Ken