by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, February, 2000
Okay. It’s over. Year 2000 is here. The survivors can come out of their bunkers in northern Idaho and western Montana now, presumably to enjoy the post apocalyptical glow. However, considering the huge supply of dried beans that were in their larders (as reported during several news broadcasts), I suspect the insides of their bunkers had much more of an Armageddon-like fire and brimstone odor than the outsides.

Of course, if you want to be picky, the Millennium won’t occur until 2001. (Arthur C. Clarke didn’t put "2001" in his book and movie title just for the hell of it!) And, if you want to be really picky, these numbers are off by three years due to a calculation error by a sixteenth century monk who must have gotten into the sacramental wine. That would mean that the REAL Millennium was two years ago.

After an incredibly intense few weeks of catching up on major Y2K-related system overhauls for clients who waited until almost the last minute, I encountered only two problems.

The first was that one of the Y2K fix utilities that was supposed to protect some older machines simply didn’t work. This was only a minor inconvenience, as the solution was to correct the date manually only once in the new year. After that, the computers ran just fine.

The second was a three-hour blackout several days into the new year. Since having random three-hour or longer blackouts is a normal occurrence for Com Ed customers, I would judge this incident to not be related to Y2K. Oh, and in case you think that some future competition among electrical power companies might solve this problem, just remember that the weakness is in Com Ed’s power lines and transmission infrastructure, the same lines and infrastructure that any competitor would also have to use.

On a more global note, we’ve had our spy satellites start speaking in tongues for the first three days of the new near, just in time to miss covering the expected period of increased terrorist activity. In a classic case of bureaucratic obfuscation, officials claimed that the images that were lost during the malfunction contained nothing critical. Let’s see now. Pictures that they haven’t seen are judged as unimportant? I guess those ESP experiments at the Pentagon must have gone better than I thought. Of course, the ultimate irony is that it was a Y2K patch program that destabilized the satellites’ communications. Oops!

On another front, a bunch of slot machines went nuts. Sadly, for the patrons of the casino, they didn’t spew money. They simply didn’t work.

There was at least one report of a temporary boost in wealth when a mutual fund listed a shareholder’s share value inaccurately by two decimal places. A $26,000 investment suddenly became a $2,600,000 windfall! Alas, it only lasted for a few minutes, and the newly minted millionaire didn’t have time to transfer the funds to the Caymans.

Thousands of people all over the country were hit with multiple duplicate charges against their credit cards. The credit card companies were successful in updating and testing their own computers, but they couldn’t force the individual merchants that are their clients to uniformly upgrade their point-of-sale credit terminals. Merchants who didn’t download and install the appropriate Y2K patch were (and in some cases, still are) inadvertently entering multiple transactions for their customers. Luckily, the extra transactions were detected by credit card companies’ the standard duplicate-detecting programs. So only a few customers actually got overcharged.

In an unrelated incident, more than ten thousand credit card merchant terminals in and around London would not accept either credit cards or ATM cards.

A Y2K voice-mail glitch occurred at Staples, even though the company had paid thousands of dollars in early 1999 to allegedly eradicate such errors. Their DOS-based voice-mail system was deleting any messages with a date prior to 12/31/1999 because it "thought" they were too old, presumably by 100 years. It was also producing annoying warning messages about these "old" messages.

These are just a few examples of the reported troubles. Rather than feeling fooled in some way by the dire predictions of various industry prognosticators, we should probably be thankful that they had what it took to scare people into testing and fixing their systems in time. Just as I have noticed that it takes a couple of gun shots in the area to get people to attend Neighborhood Watch meetings, it seems to have taken some VERY worst-case forecasting to get people to prepare for Y2K.

The really scary part of this story is that many of the program fixes were of the "quick and dirty" variety that I outlined in a previous Y2K article. In a technique called windowing, you can add a temporary, time-limited patch to a program to get it past a critical date. I first saw it when fixing programs to handle the 1980 decade change. Some programs written in the sixties already had a windowing type patch top handle 1970!

Now, we have to worry about programs whose windowing-style Y2K patches will expire on some random, probably undocumented date in the future. It was faster and cheaper to put in this type of temporary patch than to analyze and fix the programs properly. Obviously, many computer management and programming folks haven’t learned their lesson from the Y2K crisis. One would hope that corporate management would have caught on by now and demanded proof that permanent fixes were being installed, but, realistically, the "this quarter’s bottom line is all that matters" attitude seems to mask all future-oriented problems.

Now for a quick quiz. What’s the one thing that is worse than being called in late October and being asked to either rewrite a critical program from scratch or completely replace an entire LAN (or both) before January 1? The answer is being told on a Tuesday that you have to do one (or both) of the aforementioned tasks by the next Monday in order to keep a client from going out of business. (Is that your FINAL answer?)

Well that’s just what is going to happen. Many small and medium sized companies (and possibly a few large ones) decided that just crossing their fingers and hoping was the appropriate method to prepare for Y2K. Maybe their systems will fail and maybe they won’t. (What I call "The Peter-Paul Principle" - Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t!) If they do, it could be at any time. If it’s a major failure, they could be out of business quite rapidly. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’ll be selling burnt offering kits, complete with live goats, to assist those business owners and managers in their pleadings to the gods of computing.

�2000, Wayne M. Krakau