Predictions vary over impact of millennium bug in the year 2000

West Proviso Herald/September 30, 1998
By Jerry Wallis

If all goes well, millions of people all across the nation will be breathing a huge sigh of relief come Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2000.

If all doesn’t go well, however, they’re likely to be tearing out their hair by the handful.

Because that Tuesday will be the first normal business day following Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000, the much-feared date when this highly computer-dependent world starts to experience what’s known as the Y2K effect or the "millennium bug."

Simply put, Y2K is the result of some three decades of relying on a two-digit number to represent the year in computer coding.

Early programmers of room-sized computers, some of which had less memory than a modern laptop, decided to save memory space by reducing four-digit years to two digits.

So 1968, for example, became just 68, and so on. No problem.

No problem, that is, until the year 2000 was sighted on the horizon. Then people began to wonder what would happen when Dec. 31, 1999, ended at the stroke of midnight and literally millions of computers had to deal with what is, to them, the year 00.

1900 revisited?

The worry is that computers will either think it’s 1900 again or just refuse to recognize the two digits as a new year.

Experts disagree on how much of a problem will result from Y2K.

Some say the worst-case scenario will amount to little more than minor annoyances such as a few checks being issued late.

But others predict a veritable doomsday during which huge portions of the public and private sectors will virtually grind to a halt, cutting off everything from emergency services to utilities.

Attempts to head off the potential doomsday brought federal lawmakers to the Chicago area earlier this month for a hearing about the Y2K problem.

At the Palatine hearing, U.S. Rep. Philip Crane, R-8th, and members of a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight heard testimony about what the federal, state and local governments and others are doing to address Y2K.

Rep. Stephen Horn of California, the subcommittee’s chairman, said it’s important to make sure that interconnected computer systems will be able to communicate with each other come Jan. 1, 2000.

Getting a grip

For instance, Horn said, the Social Security Administration recognized early that there was a Y2K problem and began working on a solution in 1981.

"They are probably about 93 percent fixed right now," he said.

But that doesn’t mean Social Security payments will continue to flow uninterrupted, Horn said, because the checks are cut by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which is "not in good shape" in getting a grip on the Y2K problem.

Joel Willemssen of the U.S. General Accounting Office testified during the hearing that most federal agencies have been slow in adapting their systems to handle Y2K problems.

Another anticipated Y2K difficulty involves the billions of microprocessor chips in everyday devices.

These "embedded systems" run everything from hospital equipment to air conditioners to traffic signals. And sometimes not even the manufacturers know which chips were used in the devices.

Some experts say that each and every device will need to be tested and, if necessary, fixed.

Y2K solutions are far from cheap. Estimates of fixing Y2K problems in the United States range up to $1 trillion. The city of Chicago alone budgeted $28 million for its efforts in 1998 and anticipates spending another $24 million during 1999.

Also addressed at the hearing were the potential legal ramifications of Y2K problems.

In the absence of legislative relief, it’s said that companies could find themselves held liable for failing to deliver goods or services because of Y2K malfunctions.

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