Y2K – Overreacting or Under Prepared?
CS 100: Lab 8 a.m.
March 5, 1999
In recent news, a Minnesota woman over 100 years old received an invitation to attend kindergarten in her hometown (“Here now, Y2K”, 1999). Also, Unum Life Insurance deleted hundreds of records from a financial reporting database (“Here now: Y2K”, 1999). What could have caused these strange occurrences? The culprit was none other than the computer, modern hero. What could have persuaded our technological helpmate to turn against us, deleting files and causing companies great confusion and embarrassment? After much investigation, the root of the problem was found to be the long-feared Y2K bug.
Now, for those who either were not part of the computer revolution that began after WWII, or have been in a hole in the ground during the last few years, the Y2K (Year two thousand) bug has been an integral part of computer programming since the early 1960’s. When programmers needed to use dates, they used a two-digit system to save space. For example, October 21, 1990 was programmed, nicely shortened, as 10/21/90. Programmers assumed that technology would have advanced far enough by the turn of the century not to be affected by this two-digit method. However, these old programming languages, like FORTRAN, are still in use, and when the year 2000 arrives, the computers will assume that the year is 1900 due to the 00 at the end. This will promptly cause companies’ records to be reverted to their status in 1900, thereby holding long-paid debts as still existing or resulting in numerous computer failures. Some people fear that because of Y2K, there will be massive power-outages, food shortages, etc. Basically, to them, the millennium signals the world’s end, as we know it. Others argue that fear is silly, and a very minimal crisis will occur, if any. Personally, I feel that if people take the necessary precautions, the issue over the year 2000’s advent will resolve pleasantly.
The people who advocate much advanced preparation for the millennium are represented in part by a Christian non-profit organization called the Joseph Project 2000. This group calls upon American citizens to consider the following: “How would I communicate with family and friends, and stay abreast of news locally and around the world in the event of power or phone outages?”, “How would we bathe, do dishes, or laundry?”, and “How would I heat my home if there were no electricity or gas service for several days or longer?” (“Joseph Project 2000”, 1999). These are just a few of the suggestions being offered by the group. Some Internet sites provide elaborate techniques and plans for long-term survival, designed to answer these and other questions. The site, Y2K Survival, at http://www.dimensional.com/~zeb/survive1.htm lists specific kinds and amounts of food that should be stored, and how to insulate your home using aluminum foil to cover your windows, as well as other methods for financial and medical survival.
Some of society’s prominent figures also estimate that the year 2000 will bring many problems, most of which they feel we won’t be ready for. Ed Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, New York, and named The Wall Street Journal's top economic forecaster of 1997, stated, “The Year 2000 problem, in my view, is a very serious threat to the U.S. economy. Currently, I believe there's a 70% chance of a worldwide recession, which could last at least 12 months, starting in January 2000, and even late 1999" (“Joseph Project 2000”, 1999). Many people and organizations, like the Joseph Project, are taking this warning literally. Brown University is reportedly doing what it feels is necessary to apply “Bug Spray” to its campus. Brown’s plan for replacing obsolete software and hardware in the University's 60 major computing systems will cost $4 million, according to Don Wolfe, vice-president of Brown’s Computing and Information Services (CIS) (Feldman, 1998). Apparently, other Ivy League schools have spent similar sums of money, generally ranging from three to six million, to exterminate the bug, depending on the size of the school (Feldman, 1998). At present, it is estimated that, “Billions of dollars are being spent to fix the problem. The Federal Reserve Board estimated that the 500 largest U.S. companies will spend about $50 billion by 2000 on Y2K programs. The Senate panel estimated that the federal government will spend $10 billion to $20 billion. Some industry predictions put the cost as high as $1.2 trillion worldwide” (Towle, 1999).
However, not everyone is taking the Y2K dilemma seriously. In fact, they may not even have heard of it. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of Y2K, yet many are ignoring the problem. A small business could suffer through exposure to customers or suppliers who are dealing with their own Y2K problems, and also through malfunction of machinery or equipment that operates on time-dependent embedded microprocessors, such as security cards, elevators or telephones (“Small Firms Shun Y2K Bug”, 1998). While the Small Business Administration fears the under-preparedness of small companies, others argue that there’s nothing to prepare for anyway. Mike Walker, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, cautioned that "Nothing about Y2K is preordained except for the date" (Towle, 1999). Walker does not think that people should start withdrawing money from banks or stockpiling large amounts of food.
Through researching this project, I have been bombarded with information from both extremes of the spectrum. I think that we should try to find a middle ground of preparation. It is important, first and foremost, to have an adequate understanding of what exactly Y2K is. From there, it is easier to make connections about how it will affect each of us personally. I believe that, should a crisis occur when our clocks toll January 1, 2000, it will be a minor one at best. The world economy may suffer a lower level of prosperity than previously, but our basic needs should be met. Although it may be wise to stockpile enough food to last a week or so, I think it is unnecessary to install hand pumps, methods of solar heating, and other outrageous precautions. Should the power go out, it would last temporarily, for a few hours most likely. Surely the whole country is not going to starve if milk delivery is delayed, nor will we freeze; though schools may be canceled, chances are there will be emergency shelters to stay warm.
Since news of the imminent Y2K crisis presented itself to the public several years ago, the world has reacted with various intensities. Some say there is nothing to fear, that life will continue as usual. Others are taking action to prepare in advance should any problems arise when the year 2000 arrives. These preparations vary from stocking food to installing new heating methods and plumbing. Due to the fact that we are already experiencing inconveniences because of Y2K (like the elderly lady being invited to kindergarten), concern is mounting and Y2K is a central issue in the media. To prepare personally for the arrival of the millennium, I will advise my parents to do a little advanced grocery shopping. But as they are people of good sense to begin with, throughout my whole life our pantry has always been well stocked, so I am not worried about starving by any means. To prevent computer failure, I purchased my computer new this past summer, assured that any Y2K bugs were squashed before it was sold to me. To be sure, I have run mine through a competency test, which it passed with flying colors. If techniques like mine are followed to prepare sensibly for the millennium, no computer bug will squash us. As Jake Kirchner said in PC Magazine, “The millennium should be a time of hope…. technology is still on the whole a very positive influence. In fact, we can’t solve our problems without it. As we get closer to the end of 1999, you can look to the future with equanimity. You don’t need to buy weapons, amass gold bars, or stockpile rice and beans. Above all, you don’t need to be afraid” (30).
Feldman, E. (1998, October 26). Brown exterminates Y2K bug with $4 mill. in new
equipment, The Herald Sphere, [on line]. Available: http://www.netspace.org/herald/issues/102698/y2k.f.html
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Kirchner, J. (1999, March 9). Y2K without fear. PC Magazine, 18, (5), 30.
Towle, M.D. (1999, March 6). Y2K bug may sting, but it shouldn't kill, Star-Telegram Washington Bureau, [on line]. Available: http://www.startext.net/news/doc/1047/1:BIZ71/1:BIZ71030699.html
Y2K: Hype or hiccup?. (1999, March 9).
(1998, July 2). Small firms shun Y2K bug- Inability of small businesses to confront problem could hamper economy, CNN Financial Network, [on line]. Available:
(1999, March 9). Y2K survival [on line]. Available: http://www.dimensional.com/~zeb/survive1.htm
(1999, March 9). The Joseph Project 2000 homepage, available: http://www.JosephProject2000.org/
(1999, March 9). Y2K News Magazine [on line]. Available: http://www.y2knews.com/
(1999, March 9). PC magazine’s year 2000 resource center, PC Magazine, [on line]. Available: http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/special/y2k/index.htmlTo read more, a subscription is needed: Click here to subscribe