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Weekly Column

The Perils of Pauline: Y2K Minus One and Relief is Nowhere in Sight

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Well, here we are, 365 days from the big Y2K meltdown or non-event, depending on whom you believe. One thousand years ago today, much the same hysteria was taking place as medieval Europe prepared for the first millennium. Half of those people were certain that the end of the world was approaching, while the other half were just hoping to sleep in. The only real difference between then and now, other than hair shirts, the plague and Jerry Springer, is that people in 999 were convinced God was operating on the decimal system, while we know today that God is digital.

What everyone wants to know is what is going to happen at that stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999. We may not have even that long to wait. Some folks think that whatever is going to go wrong will have gone wrong long before that particular moment. Here is the view from one of our own, a reader who e-mailed me this week. "On the 4th of January 1999, everything that uses a rolling year forecast is going to start going haywire if it's not Y2K-compliant," said my correspondent. "There's a lot of stuff that uses a rolling year forecast, like budgets, to start with the obvious. I think the first month of 1999 is going to be a pretty good preview of whether Y2K is actually anything to worry about or not."

He may well be right. The fact is that none of the experts I've talked to says Y2K will be a non-event. Their predictions range from minor annoyance to Armageddon. Things will happen, bad things, and anyone who says otherwise either doesn't know what he is talking about, or is just flat lying. We may have seen a little of both this week in Washington, DC, where President Clinton announced that the Social Security Administration had finished fixing their 35 million lines of bad code, and is ready to continue printing pension checks into the new century.

Here are President Clinton's words: "We just heard that the new millennium is only 368 days away. And we want it to be a carefree celebration. The reason we're here today is to announce that on New Year's Day 2000, and on every day that follows, people like Pauline (a senior citizen there for the event) can rest easy because the millennium bug will not delay the payment of Social Security checks by a single day. The Social Security system is now 100 percent compliant with our standards and safeguards for the year 2000. To make absolutely certain, the system has been tested and validated by a panel of independent experts; the system works, it is secure. And therefore, older Americans can feel more secure."

I have nothing against President Clinton, but this is complete hogwash. There are times, I suppose, when leaders decide to push public opinion toward a good end. There are times when non-technical leaders have to just accept the judgement of their technical experts. But it takes a heck of a lot of non-inhaling to believe this particular fantasy.

Sure, the Social Security Administration has fixed and tested its code. But have they fixed and tested the code on the Post Office computers that help deliver the checks? Have they fixed and tested the code on the computers at the local utility that power the check-writing machines? Have they fixed and tested the code at the Federal Reserve and at every bank in the electronic chain between Washington, DC, and my Mom's direct deposit at the Bank of Bentonville, Arkansas? The answer to each of these questions is, "No." The system might be fixed, sure, but it probably isn't, and the only sure thing about it is that nobody really knows.

Maybe this comes down to more legalspeak. Perhaps Y2K won't delay the "payment of Social Security checks," but it sure might delay the delivery of those checks. We're not that stupid.

But we're also not that smart, because there has been a lot of bad planning happening in this whole Y2K arena, starting with the concept of triage, a very popular word among the Y2K crowd and among viewers of old "M*A*S*H" episodes. My Emergency Medical Technician handbook says triage is the division of a group of accident victims, say, into three groups. One group is so badly injured that it requires immediate care even to survive. The second group can go an hour without care, and the third group could go a whole day without care and still survive. The original triage system of France in the First World War was a bit more brutal than my EMT manual, dividing its three groups into one that was hopeless and could be left to die, another that could still be saved, and a third that could wait. In the trenches of 1914, all the effort went into group number two.

How is triage generally interpreted in the Y2K crisis? It's interpreted incorrectly, according to Peter de Jager, one of the earliest and best-paid Y2K gurus. Part of this misinterpretation is inevitable, because there is a fundamental difference between war casualties and computer systems. In Y2K, we're not trying to save lives of computers, we're trying to save the organization that relies on those computers. This leads us to divide business software into these three groups: mission-critical (the programs that actually run our businesses); non-mission-critical (programs that are useful but we can survive for awhile without them); and non-essential programs. It's obvious, de Jager says, that we'll put all our effort into the mission-critical apps and forget about everything else until the mission-critical parts are working right. But what if the mission-critical application is too messed-up to be fixed? This MIS triage system misses that possibility completely. The result? Some companies are pouring all their resources into impossible projects.

Dale Way, who is the Y2K point man for the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), puts this crisis management problem even more bluntly. "The suits in charge, the remnants of the mainframe era who still control the MIS departments, are unsurprisingly approaching the problem from a crew-cut, button-down, 1960s point of view. This will not only fail to protect the world information system infrastructure, but it will actually create more difficult problems than what we started with."

The IEEE's answer to all this is to declare itself a Web-based clearinghouse of what works and what doesn't when it comes to fixing millennial bugs. This is Dale Way's mission.

So is it time to gather canned goods and Kruggerands and head for the hills? Probably not. But it is very clear that there will be many Y2K problems, and that some of them will take years to resolve. In part, this is because there is no way to test just part of the system and have any clear idea how the entire computer infrastructure is going to perform. Will the fact that there isn't yet a U.S. nuclear power plant with an approved Y2K plan mean that reactors will be melting-down across America? No, but it will mean that extra human attention is going to be paid to those plants, and some of them may even have their nuclear fires banked next December, just in case. And of course, there's the likelihood that Saddam will march into Kuwait City if the F-16s won't fly.

Here is the likeliest Y2K symptom: a dragging of the economy as systems slow down and businesses use man- and woman-power to augment machines. The planes will fly, but their pilots will be looking out the window for a change. The truckers will truck, but a bit slower. Those of us on the Internet will hope the servers come up and stay there, but some of them will not. Certainly Microsoft, for example, has just recently realized the extent of their (and our) Y2K problem. And as consumers, we'll take it on the chin, not only paying the $600-odd billion in remediation expenses, but probably buying new everything, from VCRs to fuel injection systems to Windows 2001. Bill always wins.

Or, if the doomsayers are completely right and next year, the lights go dark, the economy stalls, and insurrection takes over the land, then we'd better be following my pen pal from this week. "I'm personally not worried," he gloated, "because I'm lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest where there's lots of untracked forest and lots of snow in the winter. So sometime this summer, I'll buy myself a cheap snowmobile, take my last three years of accumulated vacation, and starting December 15th, head out to one of the more inaccessible hot springs which dot the mountains. I'll set up my base camp, and spend the next couple months lolling around in natural hot tubs writing my memoirs. I'll come back around Valentine's Day and find out how the rest of the world got on."

At Chez Cringely, we're a bit more optimistic. I'm just hoping for a few days off, and perhaps, the total extinction of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

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