|TIME WILL TELL|
June 11, 1998
January 1, 2000, ushers in not only a new millennium, but a potentially crippling computer problem that could bring chaos to businesses and governments all around the world. How real are the doomsday scenarios, and what can be done to ward off disaster? Paul Solman finds out
PAUL SOLMAN: Few people know the year 2000 computer problem better than Ed Yourdon. and few are more worried. A New Yorker, Yourdon's decamping to Taos, New Mexico for the turn of the millennium--even though they have snow squalls in April?
ED YOURDON, Computer Software Engineer: Well, normally it's not so quite so cold here. But it's sunny most of the time--we're planning to put solar panels up on the roof this summer, along with six little fireplaces inside the house. Hopefully that will keep us warm even if the power does go out.
PAUL SOLMAN: Yourdon's no survivalist, doesn't stash canned goods or gold, seems, in fact, disappointingly normal. But as a computer engineer from MIT, he knows software, thinks 15-25 percent of the nation's computers are at risk--and he's not alone. Richard Grasso, head of the New York Stock Exchange.
RICHARD GRASSO, President, New York Stock Exchange: We view the dimensions of the year 2000 issue as enormous, with potentially disastrous global consequences to both business and government.
|The Y2K bug explained.|
PAUL SOLMAN: The headlines have been screaming "crisis" for more than a year now, and so you've probably heard of the year 2000 bug, may even understand it. But for those who don't, here's a brief primer. The problem was born back in the early days of computers. To conserve computer memory, then very costly, the world's software writers would code dates with the fewest possible numbers: December 31, 1999--simply "12/31/99"--assuming for efficiency's sake that we would always be in the 1900's. Few in the computer industry expected such programs to last until now. But many did, leaving some 700 billion lines of old computer code to be fixed. If they're not, on January 1st, the year 2000, they will register 01/01/00--which a compute would be read as 1900. That's a problem because your bank's computer, say, could suddenly read your mortgage payment as 99 years overdue, in which case off with your credit!
Electric companies' computers could suddenly think generators all over the country were a century overdue for repair and shut them down, thereby crippling the power grid. And the hundreds of thousands of government computers may be especially vulnerable, because so many different agencies depend on so many different computers, and have started to fix them so late. But aren't these easy, even boring fixes? What does Ed Yourdon know that the rest of us don't?
ED YOURDON: There's one big thing, and that is most computer projects encounter difficulty. They're either over budget, or they have lots of bugs in them, or the thing that is significant here is they're behind schedule.
PAUL SOLMAN: Economist Ed Yardeni also worries about the year 2000 bug. Some call him an alarmist.
ED YARDENI: I'm not the alarmist. It's people like the commissioner of the IRS who says it's going to be an awfully close call; it's people like the chief information officer of General Motors who is quoted in Fortune Magazine saying that there are catastrophic problems-quote- -catastrophic problems- -unquote--at every GM plant.
PAUL SOLMAN: Yardeni's a sometimes quirky economic forecaster with a great track record. He thinks the odds are 60 percent the bug will cause a worldwide recession. He runs a year 2000 clearinghouse, and has identified problems from the power grid to--perhaps the scariest of all--the Pentagon.
ED YARDENI: In the early 80's , there was a false nuclear alert in the US, because of a malfunctioning chip. Well, we potentially could have quite a few of these chips malfunction.
PAUL SOLMAN: Ed Yourdon consults on how to anticipate and fix such problems. He's even written a book on them: "Time Bomb 2000". Moving to Taos is his way of buying insurance, he says, against the chance the problems won't be fixed.
ED YOURDON: We have also got our own well here, so we've got our own water as well; whereas in New York City, it comes from 100 miles away through many computer systems.
PAUL SOLMAN: But you don't actually think that New York City will be without water for any extended length of time.
ED YOURDON: A week would be long enough. In the last blackout in 1977 in New York City, it took about five minutes for the looting to begin. And, again, if you imagine some of these problems perhaps going on for a week or more of no food, no water, no electricity, breakdowns in public transportation, not to mention breakdowns in the sending out of welfare checks, and unemployment checks, and food stamps and so forth, no food deliveries, you know, I mean all of that certainly is going to lead to, I think, the possibility of civil unrest and looting and so forth .
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay, maybe it's possible. But how likely is it that New York, say, will be paralyzed by the millennium bug--that the food will run out, the lights go off? How likely is a phone shutdown, that disables Wall Street say and freezes the US. financial markets? Skip Patterson runs Bell Atlantic's year 2000 program: not just rewriting millions of lines of computer code, but replacing thousands of preprogrammed computer chips embedded throughout the system. Patterson says Bell Atlantic itself is on schedule. But--
SKIP PATTERSON: We're very heavily dependent upon suppliers, and we worry about them the way our customers worry about us. And we need them to succeed.
PAUL SOLMAN: Because?
SKIP PATTERSON: Because we will be operating, and if nobody else is operating, then what's the point?
PAUL SOLMAN: Still, Patterson thinks his system will work on January 1, 2000, and that firms which solve the problem will take business from those that don't.
SKIP PATTERSON: If you're not operating, if you're dead in the water January 1, 2000, you're going to lose market share big time.
PAUL SOLMAN: So what about the doomsayers?
|A cottage industry of doomsayers?|
SKIP PATTERSON: Well, you know, Paul, there is more than a cottage industry out there that is feeding on the fear of Year 2000, so the more the Year 2000 fear is out there, the more business they are going to get, whether they are selling consulting services, remediation services, books or anything like that.
PAUL SOLMAN: If the phone company was cautiously optimistic, the electric company, despite its industrial setting and old fashioned exterior, was almost cocky. Wanda Skalba runs Consolidated Edison's state of the art computer operation. Skalba has been working on year 2000 since 1994. She says the critics are simply out of date.
WANDA SKALBA, Consolidated Edison: If you asked me this question three, four years ago, I probably would have said that I am worried because I was worried.
PAUL SOLMAN: But not anymore-and even though the power grid is linked together, a failure in one part of it won't cause a blackout of the 1977 variety, she says. Skalba claims Con Ed has built in all kinds of back-ups since then, as the map behind her shows.
WANDA SKALBA: That shows the list of the feeders that are right now being repaired, because they've been-the system that we have in Manhattan--it's called the network system, so when a feeder in a network is out, the other feeders in that network pick up the load. So we can very easily have feeders out and customers still have power.
PAUL SOLMAN: But what if key computer chips embedded within the system do go down?
WANDA SKALBA: What turns out in most of the cases is that these chips are not even date-dependent.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay, next stop: New York's water: the man in charge, Joe Miele, says it comes from the Catskill Mountains upstate, and flows downhill all by itself--plus he has backup generators and the valves that direct the water could, if needed be run by hand. He was happy to see us, but baffled.
PAUL SOLMAN: Do you think the people who say there is doomsday in the offing are a little nuts?
JOE MIELE, Dept. Environmental Protection: That's a very good expression. I'm glad you used it and I didn't use it. The answer is yes. When you asked us to be interviewed, I couldn't conceive of where the topic of interest was for a local show, let alone a national show, and we have been scratching our heads for a week trying to understand where we fit into the picture of a major national catastrophe.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay, we had our reassurances, so what did economist Ed Yardeni think of them?
ED YARDENI: Look, if the big companies aren't going to give us good news, then we're really in trouble. I'm not at all surprised by good news. However, every computer system on this planet basically has to be working properly. I mean, some may not matter that much, but there is so much interdependence of these computer systems--I'm saying that most companies will have it fixed. But some vital computer systems are not going to be ready in time, and they can have a domino effect and affect other companies.
PAUL SOLMAN: You know, I've heard you on radio for years, I've interviewed you before. This is the first time I hear your voice up here that high. It's as if you're, I don't know, plaintive, straining.
ED YARDENI: I'm a little frustrated honestly. I mean, I may have a very good record, but, you know, maybe my lucky streak is over. People are--I'm not convincing anybody there is a problem.
PAUL SOLMAN: It's not clear Ed Yourdon is convincing too many folks either, even with his book, co-written by his daughter, Jennifer. Publicists tried to drum up interest at Benjamin Books in the World Trade Center, but New Yorkers seemed not to hear the bomb ticking. On the other hand, "Time Bomb 2000" is the best-selling book at this store, according to its publicists, and has already sold 75,000 copies nationwide, thus fueling what alarmism we did find, like this fellow, who said he expects banks and their ATM's to fritz out.
|Time will tell.|
PAUL SOLMAN: You actually intend, then to take your money out of your accounts until the Year 2000 happens.
YOUNG MAN: Yes.
PAUL SOLMAN: I mean, but you'll only take it out like a week or two in advance, or a month.
YOUNG MAN: I'll take it out --I'll take out my money out of my CD accounts, and I'll suffer the consequences.
PAUL SOLMAN: But of course, the consequences of everyone taking their money out of the bank could be dire. No wonder Ed Yourdon is setting up shop in Taos.
ED YOURDON: I'm expecting that any problems that we'll have will be no more than a week or two weeks or a month of severe disruptions before everything settles down and stabilizes again. But I'd rather plan for the worst and hope for the best than, you know, leave myself in a situation where I can't survive.
PAUL SOLMAN: Ed Yourdon's Taos house may be insurance for him. But for those of us who can't afford such a policy, why not bet on each other? True, New York seemed more gothic than usual when the lights went out in 1977 and people looted, but in 1965 the whole Northeast went down and, points out Water Commissioner Joe Miele, in response to Yourdon--
JOE MIELE: There were civilians out at major intersections directing traffic, because society worked as a whole. He envisions the wolf pack. I think that the people of the city of New York certainly have a better sense of themselves, I think, than he does.
PAUL SOLMAN: And in the end, even our economist, Ed Yardeni, fits Joe Miele's image of the Year 2000 New Yorker.
ED YARDENI: I think, you know, the idea of running off, away from civilization, is kooky, and it's counterproductive, and I'm staying in my neighborhood and if there are problems, I'll work with my neighbors to overcome those problems. It's a collective problem. We're only going to get out of it if we work on it collectively. That's all I'm calling for.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, will the lights go out in New York, New Delhi, everywhere, anywhere? Well, we can finally end a story with that journalistic cliche, "only time will tell" and rest assured that in this case, on January 1st, the year 2000 time actually will.