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ED DeJesus on Y2K

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Monday, December 12, 2005

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The BYTE Fiasco

Y2 and You

Edmund X. DeJesus

 Edmund X. DeJesus was one of the BYTE editors I much enjoyed working with. The following were sent as letters, but I think deserve their own place.

Y2 and You

#1 in a series by Edmund X. DeJesus

This could be the start of something bad

You have probably already heard about the Year 2000 computer problem. I feel that theres not enough information out there about year 2000 on the practical level: things you and I should be aware of, and consider, before January 1, 2000 hits. It is my intention to write a series of short articles, each on a different aspect of the problem, that I hope will help to spread some of the useful ideas that Ive heard about.

First, what is the year 2000 computer problem? It is simply this: many computers use two digits, rather than four, to represent the year. This is true both in hardware—the chips in computers—and software—the different programs that a computer runs. So, a computer would represent the year 1999 as the number 99, for example. This works fine as long as all the years you use begin with 19. The problem is that the number after 99 is 00, which computers interpret as 1900, while the year after 1999 is actually 2000. This means that many computers and their programs will have the year off by 100 years in the year 2000. This problem is called the Year 2000 problem or Y2K for short (2K representing 2000) or, sometimes, the Millennium Bug.

But why is this such a problem? What does it matter if a computer thinks its 1900 if we know its 2000? The problem is that computers use years for a lot of calculations, and for making decisions. For example, suppose your company uses the year to calculate how long youve worked there, which in turn determines benefits, vacation time, and so forth. If you started in 1995, the computer should know that you will have worked there for five years in the year 2000. But if the computer thinks that year is actually 1900, it will think youve worked there for minus-95 years, messing up your benefits, etc. Suppose that a certain medical device has a chip that keeps track of time, and takes the device out of service if the equipment hasnt been calibrated in 30 days. When the year 2000 hits, that chip may think that over 36,000 days have passed since the last calibration, and incorrectly shut that device off.

The problem, then, is that computers, programs, and chips are in so many areas of the world today. Those that use the year to do calculations or make decisions could get that calculation or decision wrong. The results could range from silly (some over-100-year-old people have gotten notices to attend kindergarten because the computer only looked at the two digits of their birthdates in the 1890s) to the catastrophic (nuclear weapons that must be monitored according to a certain time schedule), or anywhere in between. No one knows just exactly what the result of Y2K will be.

This problem is unique in human history. We know precisely when it is going to happen. It is going to be a problem everywhere on earth that uses computers. Yet, we cannot predict what the exact consequences will be. Still, there are things we can do to prepare. There are even things we can do to help fix the problem—in our homes, in our communities, and where we work.

I think a close analogy to Y2K is a hurricane. If you live in an area that is threatened by hurricanes, you often know well in advance that one is coming. But, you dont know exactly where its going to go, or what its going to do. Even so, there are practical and sensible things you can do to prepare. Thats my attitude about Y2K: there are things we can do to prepare. Those are the things Im going to start writing about next.

Copyright 1999 by Edmund X. DeJesus (



Y2 and You

#2 in a series

"Y2K begins at home"

If you have a computer—and if you’re getting this by email, my guess is that you do—then you’re probably a little curious about whether Y2K will affect your own computer. That’s a good concern to have. One thing you don’t want is to wake up on New Year’s Day 2000 with a $2000 space heater.

For this column I am going to distinguish between computer hardware and software. The hardware is anything you can touch, the software is the programs you run (just like a TV is the hardware you can touch, while the programs are the,er, programs you watch). For now, let’s just talk about the hardware: your machine itself.

If you have a Macintosh, you’re in luck. Their time-keeping is done in such a way that year 2000 problems won’t affect the machine. Y2K might affect the software (we’ll talk about that later), but the machine itself is fine.

If you have a PC—and most of you do—you may have problems. The way PCs keep time is complicated, and involves things like the real-time-clock (RTC), the Basic Input-Output System (BIOS), the CMOS non-volatile memory, and the operating system you are using. I don’t want to go into all that. Let’s just talk about what this interaction of pieces can make happen.

Rollover problem: On December 31, 1999 after 11:59:59 PM your computer may not know that the next minute is the year 2000, instead thinking that it is 1900, 1980, 1984, or something even more bizarre. If your computer has this problem and—for some reason—you need it to be running 24 hours a day, you really do have a problem. If your computer has this problem, but you don’t need to run it 24 hours a day, you can try just setting the year to 2000 sometime after New Year’s.

Year set problem: Not only doesn’t your machine rollover to the right year, but you can’t even SET it to the right year either: the year change doesn’t "take". You might try turning it off and on sometime after New Year’s.

Year boot problem: Turning your machine off and on again after New Year’s may cause year-amnesia. You might have to set the date EVERY time you boot the computer on—yuck.

File year problem: When you save a file, its year tag may be something weird. This may mean the operating system can’t handle the year 2000.

Year propagation: When you run some program, something in the program can’t tell the right year. The program may be getting the year from some non-okay part of the time-keeping process.

Well, if you have any hair left at this point, you probably want to know just which disaster you’re looking at. To find out, you need some Y2K test software. You can download a very simple test program for free at This must run under DOS—not a DOS window—and will give you very rudimentary results.

For more detailed results, there are a number of commercial products you can buy that will do thorough testing, make suggestions about how to fix things, and check many other problems besides. I like Symantec’s Norton 2000, for example. When you go shopping, however, make sure the product you get matches your system: if the product requires a CD-ROM and Windows 9000, it’s probably not going to run on that 286.

So your next step in the wonderful world of Y2K is to check out your own machine’s hardware. We’ll talk about software next time.

Copyright 1999 by Edmund X. DeJesus (

I encourage you to please distribute copies of this as you like, as long as you include the whole text.

Y2 and You

#3 in a series

"But soft..."

Even if your computer’s hardware—the actual machine—is year 2000 compliant, your software—the programs that you run—might not be, and that can cause you problems. This is something that Macintosh users must not be complacent about, even though their machines ARE compliant.

Computer software includes several things. One is the operating system you are running: DOS or Windows for PCs, MacOS for Macintoshes. A non-compliant operating system can store nonsense dates for files you create or save.

Software is also any program you run: word processor, email, Web browser, even games. Finally, although most people think of them as data, spreadsheet and database files are actually programs that run in the special environment of the spreadsheet or database product. Year 2000 problems can wreak havoc in a spredsheet or database.

As an example, you might use a program that helps you keep track of your checking account, like Quicken. The question is: how will that program behave when you start using years like 2000? It might work, it might gag, it might appear to work, but actually be gagging invisibly. How can you tell?

To find out which software is compliant, you need to perform an "audit". No, leave the IRS out of it: this is just checking each piece of software to see if it is compliant or not.

Now you could perform your audit manually, and a tedious and frustrating experience it would be. You would have to find out every piece of software on your machine, then find out from each vendor what its compliance status is. If you enjoy painting houses with fingernail polish brushes, this is the path for you.

For the rest of us, there are Y2K testing products that contain a database of compliance information on a vast variety of software. When you run this Y2K test product, it first scans your machine and notes all the software it finds. Then it compares that software against its database of compliance info, and lets you know what is compliant, what isn’t, and—best case— what to do about it.

One such product, for PCs, is Symantec’s Norton 2000, which I mentioned previously as a good test tool for checking machine compliance. For Macintoshes, I’m not sure what would be a good choice. Mac savants, what say you?

When you run an auditing program, go out for a cup of coffee—or possibly a seven course meal—while it works. After all, it does have to go through every program on your machine. The result will be a report of the compliance of each piece of software. If the software is not compliant, you may have to upgrade to a new version, perform some workaround, or move to a different equivalent program entirely. For spreadsheets or databases, the auditing software should tell you where the problems are, and what to do about them.

Having completed the hardware and software parts of checking your machine, you should have a good idea about what to expect come 2000. You’ll know what to fix, what to replace, and what to throw away. Having achieved this level of enlightenment, don’t forget to pass it around. Ask around and see if you can help others with their computers also. We’re all in this together.

[By the way, David Berlind brought to my attention the Web site, which has lots of useful information, especially in its Consumer section. Don’t spend a lot of time there at one visit, though, or you’ll be overwhelmed.]

Copyright 1999 by Edmund X. DeJesus (

I encourage you to please distribute copies of this as you like, as long as you include the whole text.


Y2 and You

#4 in a series

"No mayonnaise in Ireland"

John Donne’s verse, "No man is an island," seems more applicable today than at any time in history. A web of interdependence links nearly all people, businesses, and organizations on the planet together. In the modern world, computers are often a part of that global web. For that reason, the Year 2000 problem can not only affect us directly, but indirectly, through a kind of ripple effect.

Suppose a manufacturer needs 10 parts to make its product, from 10 different suppliers. Now, even the rosiest predictions estimate that no more than 80% of American businesses will be Y2K-compliant by 2000, and most peg compliance at 60% or less. But let’s be as optimistic as a CEO and assume that 90% of businesses will be ready. This still means that one out of ten businesses will not be ready. Of the 10 suppliers required, therefore, one will not be able to deliver its part. The manufacturer will not be able to make its product. They will not be able to ship their product. They will not get paid for their product. They will not have that money for payroll and bills. Their workers and creditors won’t have that money for their expenses. No one depending on their product will get it— not serious for esoteric products, but possibly serious for loaves of bread or bottles of milk. So the ripples spread, affecting people, businesses, and organizations far removed from that one non-compliant supplier.

Suppose that an oil refinery, which uses computer chips to monitor and control the chemical processes, cannot produce diesel fuel (or heating oil, or gasoline). Trucks will have trouble finding the fuel they need. Shipping companies may miss deliveries of gasoline, food, oil that fuels electric plants, medical supplies, and so forth. Shortages may develop. People may panic. Anyone dependent on the missing items may be unable to fill their own roles, causing further problems. (I recently heard of a natural gas provider whose pipeline is monitored exclusively by 286-level PCs, which are not compliant. Until the company replaces all those computers with compliant machines, that pipeline will shut down in 2000.) Ripples.

Suppose that a bank—and banks have one of the poorest compliance records of any business sector—is unable to process direct-deposit payroll information for, say, the first week of 2000. Those people depending on those deposits will be without that money to pay bills. Automatic payments dependent on those deposits will fail. That will affect credit. Services may shut off; mortgages may go into foreclosure; cars may be repossessed. (This actually happened, accidentally, at a major bank recently when one payroll tape was mounted incorrectly. It took them 8 weeks to straighten everything out.) Ripples.

There are people, businesses, and organizations that believe that they have no computer dependencies, and are therefore immune from year 2000 problems. However, almost everyone depends on having heat, water, sewage, electricity, telephone, food, deliveries, gasoline, radio/TV/newspaper, and access to money. Suppose at least one of these ten items is inaccessible for a week: how will that impact you, your family, your company, and your town? Ripples.

In thinking about the possible effects of the year 2000 computer problem we must not narrow our focus to computers, but try to imagine the possible scenarios that computer problems may precipitate. We must anticipate the ripples, before they become tidal waves that flood our islands.

[Jerry Pournelle, a colleague from our days at BYTE, is posting these articles on his Web site at: This might me useful if you want to refer people to earlier entries in the series.]

Copyright 1999 by Edmund X. DeJesus (

I encourage you to please distribute copies of this as you like, as long as you include the whole text.



Y2 and You

#5 in a series

"Lights out!"

If an errant squirrel fricasseed in a transformer, or an errant car mated with a utility pole, can knock out the power, you can bet that the year 2000 computer problem will have an effect on electricity. The utility industry has one of the poorest records of Y2K compliance to date. It is my personal opinion that loss of electric power is practically guaranteed for the first few days, if not weeks, of January 2000.

There are several possible scenarios leading to loss of power. First, embedded computer chips in the production, monitoring, and distribution of electricity may have year-2000-related problems. While the incidence of such problems is low (I’ve heard one quote of "less than half of one percent of embedded chips"), the sheer number of chips used all along the line make a disruption possible, if not likely. Also, year-2000-related ripples may interrupt supplies of oil, coal, or other fuel for generating the electricity. In addition, the electrical supply grid is a real house of cards: problems with one local system - for whatever reason—can actually bring down other neighboring systems that you wouldn’t think they could affect. Finally, there is the rather ticklish question of whether Y2K uncertainties with billing may affect power distribution: will the electric company provide you with electricity even if they can’t reliably charge you for it? Moreover, the difficulties involved in resolving any of these situations means that, if there is a loss of power, it probably will be days if not weeks before it comes on again.

Loss of electric power means bidding farewell to electric heat and lights, refrigerators and stoves, TV and radio, toasters and microwaves, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and - shockingly—computers. Outside the home, power outages affect gasoline pumps and ATM machines, grocery store lights and heat, traffic signals and highway lighting, fire alarms and security systems, cash registers and electric doors, elevators and escalators, subways and trolleys, runway lights and air traffic control, and radio and TV broadcasting. The ripple effect creates situations including shutdown of schools, factories, businesses, and stores; decreases in hospital services, transportation systems, and communications; and increases in fires, health emergencies, and crime. When the lights go out, so do the looters.

The first thing you should do is start bugging your local electric company, and publicizing what they tell you. Their denial is a matter for public concern, and your effort may make a difference in edging them closer to compliance.

Ultimately, however, your supply of electricity, or lack thereof, is your own problem. Do not depend on others to solve it.

Given that January is wintertime in the Northern Hemisphere, electric heat is one of your prime concerns: I will address heat in a separate article shortly.

Unfortunately, unlike canned goods, you can’t really stockpile electricity. What you need to do instead is to examine and deal with each of your electrical needs. Use the list above as a starting point, then start going around your home making a checklist of electrical devices.

Now start thinking creatively about solving the problems that the loss of each device represents. Lights: battery-powered flashlights and lanterns. Radio and TV: battery-powered radio. Alarm clock: mechanical windup. And so forth. The result of this will be a shopping list of equipment and various types of batteries. Because you have to plan for the long haul, buy batteries in bulk: don’t buy 2 of each kind, buy 2 dozen. Since batteries have a limited shelf life, purchase them in November or December. Plan on recharging anything rechargeable during the last week in December.

I strongly advise against the use of anything that involves burning any kind of fuel indoors: kerosene or butane lanterns, propane stoves, heaters, whatever. The risks of fire or noxious gases are simply too great. That said, I do think you should have candles on hand for emergencies. Not the long slender romantic kind: the short squat kind often called votive candles. Put them in a small glass or ceramic bowl or cup, within a larger shallow bowl containing water, on a metal or porcelain surface, where children and pets absolutely can’t get to them.

Electric generators are an interesting idea for the electrically-dependent. Don’t wait until November or December to buy one: start looking now or during the summer. Remember that fuel may be in short supply, so have enough available beforehand. Use it only for essential purposes, such as if it is the only possible source of heat, not to run the microwave. It has to go outside, so don’t be surprised if it gets stolen.

If you do lose power in January 2000, start implementing your solutions, and congratulate yourself on your foresight. However, don’t forget the electrically-challenged around you. Find out how your relatives, friends, and neighbors are doing. Check out that nursing home, or hospital, or college close by to see if anyone needs a haven. You’re probably not going to feel so great about your own foresight if you find out later about some preventable tragedy nearby. Remember that we’re all in this together.

[Special thanks to Steve Chu, who told me about Pedagoguery Software’s Year 2000 Software Audit for Mac. The free unregistered version <> checks up to 1000 files. Registering for $38 removes this limitation and includes future updates.]

[Jerry Pournelle, a colleague from our days at BYTE, is posting these articles on his Web site <>. This might me useful if you want to refer people to earlier entries in the series.]

Copyright 1999 by Edmund X. DeJesus (

I encourage you to please distribute copies of this as you like, as long as you include the whole text.


Y2 and You

#6 in a series

"It’s a small world after all"

Most predictions suggest that only about 60 percent of United States companies will be ready for Year 2000 when the time comes, a failing grade by any standard. However, the situation is worse in other countries. In Europe and Japan, only some 40 to 50 percent of companies will be ready. And in other parts of the world—Asia, Africa, South America—the predictions are for even worse compliance.

Unfortunately, this is not the time to start chanting "We’re number one!" We are not so much competitors in the 50-meter dash as we are crewmates in a raft going through the rapids. That some of the crew aren’t doing much with their oars is not cause for celebration.

What does it matter if other countries lag behind? The problem is that we are dependent on the well-being of other countries. The recent Asian financial crises have had their impact all over the world. Y2K is similar. If a major European or Japanese bank fails, for example, its consequences will reach far beyond its country of origin.

Even smaller-scale failures can affect us. The cumulative effects of many small failures all add up. An oil pipeline in Kuwait. Fruit shipments from South America. Factories in Asia. Cargo ships from wherever. These things accumulate and have their effects on our lives and our economies.

Keep in mind that we cannot really predict what is going to happen as a result of Y2K. However, it is unlikely that it is going to have a positive impact economically. Far more likely is a number—probably a large number -- of small failures all over the world. On a cumulative scale, this can only mean a drop in worldwide resources, the Gross Global Product, or whatever you want to call it. That chunk of world economy is going to just drop out.

We must also remember that other countries are the customers for United States products. If their economies take a nose-drive, they can’t buy our products. Their failures become our failures. It is possible that this can become an ever-widening spiral, feeding on itself.

There are some who feel that the countries who are doing lousy at Y2K compliance are also those countries without so many computers, so they will feel the effects of problems less. According to this view, people in those less computerized countries might actually fare better than we will. This may be true in the short term. But, it is a strange way to look at things, since it is the most advanced parts of those countries—the financial industry, communications, factories—that are most likely to help the people of these countries in the long run.

So, what does all this mean? Well, first, we can’t fix these problems for them. We can’t even fix our own. Second, we can’t insulate ourselves from the effects of these problems. It may be as minor as not getting grapes in January. It may be a shortage of heating oil or fuel. It may be as major as a world recession. But there is nothing we can do to prevent it—whatever "it" is—from happening and affecting us. Third, while we can’t know precisely what the effects are going to be, we can at least not be too surprised when they occur: somewhat forewarned is somewhat forearmed. Finally, what we CAN do is choose how to regard this. Do we try to keep the world at arm’s length and hoard our resources for ourselves—and watch the global economy swirl down the drain and eventually take us with it? Or do we recognize that this is not a nation vs. nation problem, but a human vs. machine problem—and support each other the best we can?

It’s your decision. It’s my decision. It’s our decision. But one thing’s for sure. Wherever we are, whatever will happen, we really are all in this together.

[Jerry Pournelle, a colleague from our days at BYTE, is posting these articles on his Web site <>. This might me useful if you want to refer people to earlier entries in the series.]

Copyright 1999 by Edmund X. DeJesus (

I encourage you to please distribute copies of this as you like, as long as you include the whole text.


Y2 and You

#7 in a series


"Can’t take the heat"

Since New Year’s Day seems to fall in January every year, and since January is the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere, and since most of the earth’s population lives in the northern hemisphere, and since winter is generally colder than other seasons, the problem of heat or lack thereof is a matter of concern when planning for the effects of Y2K. Depending on the type of heat your home or business uses, there are a number of ways to prudently prepare for problems that Year 2000 difficulties might cause.

If you have a properly ventilated wood stove, you’re in good shape. You can use this both for heat and for cooking, should other methods fail. A fireplace is the next best alternative. You can heat one or more rooms, although cooking might be a bit tricky. Either way, you will want to lay in more than your usual supply of wood, and make sure that you receive it before December 1999.

Next best to have is a natural gas stove or oven. Again, you can use this both to heat a few rooms and to cook. Less desirable is natural gas heat or natural gas hot water all by itself, since you can use it for heat, but not to cook. There are several possible problems with natural gas because of Year 2000. It is possible, but unlikely, for natural gas pipelines to shut down temporarily due to computer problems, interrupting the supply of gas. However, if that happened, it would get immediate attention from the companies or government agencies involved. Closer to home, if your natural gas stove, oven, heat, or hot water rely on electricity to ignite the gas, interruptions to electric power may also knock out the natural gas units. You can test this by turning off the power to the appropriate areas and see if they still work. (Follow safe procedures when turning the power back on again.) Also, if using a natural gas stove or oven for heat, make sure that you ventilate the space adequately. No sense being toasty warm if you suffocate.

Oil heat and hot water are the next best choices. You can get heat, but not cooking, with this option. Y2K-related problems include trucks that can’t make deliveries (no fuel or drivers) and the same electrical ignition necessary for natural gas. To cope with the former, schedule an oil delivery for as close to the end of December as possible.

Electric heat, hot water, and cooking are least useful, since they depend on continuous electric power that might not be available due to Year 2000 problems (see article #5 on electricity). If this is all you have, start looking for alternatives.

You can’t really store heat, unless you want to fill every container (don’t forget the bathtub) with hot water on New Year’s Eve. (Personal note: when I was an impoverished graduate student living in a freezing apartment, I used to fill a large plastic jug with hot water and put it by my feet in bed every night.) So, your choices are to find ways to conserve the heat you do have, and find other ways to generate heat.

Conserving heat can involve insulating buildings or rooms. It can also mean having warm clothing and plenty of blankets. People generate heat, so the more of that heat you can keep from escaping, the better. You generate more heat if you eat well and if you exercise, so you might come through this healthier than before.

Generating heat is trickier than conserving it. I recommend that you not use fuel heaters, unless that is your only feasible alternative. The dangers from fire and from suffocation due to improper ventilation make them risky. A step up is a fuel-powered electric generator. You need to run this outside, and it can power electric space heaters inside a building. If you go this route, make sure that you have enough fuel for it, stored safely. If things are grim enough, don’t be surprised if it gets stolen.

If all of the above fails for you, you have to start thinking creatively. Who do you know who has a wood stove, fireplace, or gas or oil heat? Time to start getting friendly with them. Public buildings may have better alternatives for heat than you do. These might be government buildings like town hall or schools, or businesses like malls or stores. (Another personal note: once, when a winter storm knocked out my electric heat, I found that a local pizza restaurant had their propane-fueled ovens going all day. I ate a lot of pizza that day, and it took me a long time.) And it’s always a good time to visit your local house of worship, but especially if they have a divine heating system.

For a short term respite from cold, you could use your car’s heater. Just do not sit in a closed garage or snowbank with the engine running, okay? Even if your favorite color is blue, you don’t want to turn that color from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Lack of heat can produce its own ripples in the Y2K pond. People are not going to be in a hurry to go to work if their families are freezing at home: their jobs aren’t going to get done. Businesses without heat are unlikely to be open: that link in the chain could drop out.

Finally, if you turn out to be one of the heat "haves", don’t forget the "have-nots" around you. Invite cold family, friends, neighbors, and strangers to join you. Be especially mindful of the elderly or anyone who lives alone. It will be a good opportunity to share your warmth.

[Jerry Pournelle is posting these articles on his Web site

<>. This might me useful if you want to refer people to earlier entries in the series.]

Copyright 1999 by Edmund X. DeJesus (

I encourage you to please distribute copies of this as you like, as long as you include the whole text.