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Y2K: Preparedness Counts

Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre told members of Congress this month that he would be the first to say that some “nasty surprises” are possible. Standard & Poor’s, the New York bond rating firm, said that it will question companies about their readiness. And the National Assn. of Manufacturers has warned businesses that their failure to deal seriously with the threat would be tantamount to inviting lawsuits.

This breathlessness has been generated by “Y2K,” as the year 2000 computer problem is known, and the alarm is deserved. The problem is clear: There are a lot of older information technology systems around that regard years as two-digit numbers, such as 98 for 1998. Unless fixed, those systems might mistake 00 for Jan. 1, 1900, instead of 2000. That obviously would generate enormous problems. Already, a U.S. Defense Logistics Agency computer system dumped a list of 90,000 inventoried items because of an incorrect date.

Some experts say that the fears are overblown, but a series of 1998 General Accounting Office reports suggests otherwise. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, warns that the Y2K problem may result in failures of air traffic control and telecommunications and of computer chips that control industrial machinery and public transit systems. Computer cash registers, individual bank accounts, loans, student records and payroll systems might be affected.

So how did the nation get here? The answers offer a sobering lesson.

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Computer programmers started out using two digits instead of four digits because in ancient digital days computer memory was scarce and expensive; saving two digits made a big difference. Then they just kept doing it, in many cases until the early 1990s.

Surely new technologies would quickly and entirely replace the old and their related shortcomings, it was thought. Wrong. “Backward compatibility” reigned: Each new model or program was made largely compatible with earlier versions, allowing parts of the earlier versions to remain. Improved graphic interfaces allowed very old programs to perform better, adding to their life spans. And who has these old programs? Mainly small businesses that can’t afford new ones and local, state and federal agencies.

Fixing the Y2K problem isn’t as simple as resetting a clock. It can involve the rewriting of millions of lines of outdated and unfamiliar computer code. The nation is ever more reliant on fully automated electronic systems. The increasingly networked electronic world also compounds the potential for year 2000 glitches. A business or agency that has solved its own problem won’t be out of the woods if its suppliers, for example, can’t fill orders because of computer snafus.

The Federal Reserve Board estimates that $300 billion will be spent worldwide on Y2K fixes. U.S. federal agencies like the Defense Department, Hamre says, will spend $2.9 billion on the problem and on sharing early warning information with other nations “so that we don’t enter into the nightmare condition where everybody is all of a sudden uncertain and their [computer] screens go blank.” That could be more than just a big expense; it could be catastrophic.

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To Take Action: The Web site of the Information Technology Assn. of America has a wealth of information and resources on Y2K: https://itaa.org, then click on the icon for “Year 2000.”

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Government Grades

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A House panel recently graded federal agencies on how they are dealing with the year 2000 computer problem. A sampling:

* Social Security Administration, A+.

* Nuclear Regulatory Commission, B.

* Defense Department, D.

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* Justice Department, D.

* Transportation Department, F.

* Energy Department, F.

Source: House government, management, information and technology subcommittee.

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