What May Happen

...The most important millennial event associated with the technologically dependent world's reliance on computers.  About 180 billion lines of COBOL code worldwide will be affected by the date 1-1-2000.  It's a programming problem related to "00".  It can be easily solved.  Just put an additional five or six hundred thousand COBOL programmers to work over the next few years.  The most conservative cost estimates necessary to correct our little "00" problem begin at $200 Billion Dollars over the next 2.5 years.  Just to reprogram the software that we know about.  It's really worse though. The source code for many applications was lost long ago.  "Fortunes will be made by companies that specialize in fixing the millennium bug."  C-NET Magazine
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Much of the information on this page comes from Timebomb 2000 by Edward and Jennifer Yourdon.  I am deeply indebted to their work and have no intention of reproducing it here.  I highly encourage anyone who is serious about understanding the potential for problems purchase and read this book.

The Yourdons cover in detail the possible effects that non-compliant systems could have on business, the government, banking, social services, public works, the exchange of information, etc.  I am going to list briefly some systems that you use daily, how they involve computers, and how they might be effected if those computers do not operate correctly because of the Year 2000 crisis.  It is left to you to consider the long term effects that the failure of these systems might have on you.

First of all, let's consider some of the places where we can find computers these days:

automobiles
satellites
trains
airplanes
reservation systems
gasoline pumps
dialysis machines
glucometers
defibrillators
telephones
televisions
ATM's
the bank
the gas company
the cable company
the water department
the electric company
nuclear power plants
TV stations
radio stations
the grocery store
the post office
the parcel service
the traffic light system
the police department
the fire department
the hospital
911 services
Wall Street
microwave ovens
coffee makers
clocks
burglar alarm systems
AFDC
FEMA
SSI
IRS
your home PC
the Internet

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Think for a moment about what these systems do and what might happen to you if they didn't work for a day, a few days, or a week.  (Although the Yourdons speculate about month, year, and ten-year failures, I don't think that things will be that bad.)

For example, what would happen if your bank's records were corrupted?  What if the ATM was shut down for a day or two?  What if your bank converted in time, but connections between banks were spotty, and direct deposits or transfers were slow, or checks paid to you cleared slowly?  What if network failures meant you could not pay-at-the-pump or pay for groceries with your ATM or debit card?

What if the electric company's computers fail?  What if the power delivery system works, but the billing computer decides you haven't paid a bill in 99 years and shuts off your power anyway?  What if your bill arrives and indicates you owe a billion dollars for service since 1901?

Think about the same for your gas, water, telephone, and cable companies.

By the way, what if your electricity depends on a nuclear power plant?  The FAA is shutting down the airports on 1/1/2000, and the NRC might do the same, just to be on the safe side.  Depending on where you live, your power grid might be short by 40%.   Fortunately, it will be a weekend and a national holiday; we could handle a power shortfall.

If the air traffic controller computers aren't operating, what will happen on 2 January?  On 3 January?  If the problem is resolved within even two days, the airports will be pandemonium on the first day that planes are allowed to fly.

On 14 September 1998, BusinessToday.com reported that the Department of Transportation may ban airlines from flying to countries which have flight control systems that are not Year 2000 compliant.  Do you do business overseas?  Were you planning on being in Edinburgh on 1 January 2000?   What would you do if you could not get home?

My recommendation: do not be any farther from your home on 31 December 1999 than you could walk in whatever weather your region normally experiences during that time of the year. 

What happens if you have a modern pacemaker that records irregular heart beats with a date and time for your doctor's retrieval?  Is your pacemaker Y2K compliant?

What if a dialysis machine or defibrillator or other critical medical device requires regular service?  What if it is programmed to not respond if someone tries to operate it when it hasn't been serviced?  What if its computer chips indicate that it hasn't been serviced in 99 years?

What if a diabetic has a Glucometer™ that stores results with dates?  Will the Glucometer™ function improperly?  Additionally, how will he refrigerate his insulin without electricity?

Does your car tell you when it needs servicing?  How does it know?  Is it just a mileage thing, or does a chip store the date somewhere in your car?  What if that chip fails and renders your car inoperable?  What if you are driving home early from a New Year's Eve party at 11:59?  If you are on the freeway, and your car is not affected, you are still surrounded by hundreds or thousands of cars which may be affected.   If the car in front of you fails and comes to a dead stop, your car may not be working for much longer.

Remember also that many newer systems are built with off-the-shelf chips.  These chips may be able to perform a variety of functions, only a few of which are being used.  For example, even if your less-expensive car doesn't tell you when to visit the mechanic, it may have a chip monitoring engine temperature that can also tell the date and time.  Even if the date and time features are not accessed by your car's engine temperature monitoring system, the failure of one unused segment of a chip could cause problems in other portions of the chip that are being used.

And you thought you were fighting year 2000 fires

After a tour of six cities to hold year 2000 field hearings, U.S. Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) last week said a troubling side of year 2000 testing is how hard it is to tell if workaday systems that contain embedded chips will pass millennial muster. "Representatives from the city of Baton Rouge, La., told us about testing the year 2000 status of equipment to their fire trucks," he said. "To their great relief, the trucks' water pumps are year 2000-compliant. To their dismay, however, it turned out that the mechanisms operating their ladders will not work without year 2000 repairs."
           --"Liners"
             Computerworld
             14 September 1998

What if Wall Street can't open on 3 January 2000?  What if Wall Street opens, but the market in Tokyo didn't (European and Asian countries are behind us in conversion)?   The Russian government has stopped work on Year 2000 issues, announcing that they will deal with problems as they arise after 1 January 2000.

Robin Guenier, the man charged with solving the "single most expensive problem in history," tells a story.

"The micro-chip controls when the bank vault can be opened and closed.  It allows the jackpot vault to be opened during the working week, but keeps it closed at weekends.   For security reasons, it has been buried inside the 20-ton-door of the vault, and can only be inspected by removing the whole door.

"The big problem arises because the bank building has been built around the vault, again for security reasons.  So to inspect or change the micro-chip requires half the building to be demolished and the door removed.  The people who built the chip, the vault and the bank never imagined that the chip would have to be removed in the lifetime of the building," he added.

"But at midnight on December 31,1999, something they never foresaw will happen.  The chip has been programmed to read only the last two digits of the year, and assumes the 19 prefix.  So it believes that it is back in 1900.  That would make no difference, except that January 1, 2000, falls on a Saturday, while the same date in 1900 was a Monday.  The vault will open on Saturday and Sunday, but not on later working days.  So, to ensure depositors have access to their deposits, the bank building has to be demolished.  That sums up the millennium problem."
          --Frank Kane,
            "Moving to Millennium Meltdown,"
            The Times of India, May 18, 1997

What happens if, at the end of 1999, the IRS owes you money, but their computers have not been satisfactorily converted?  If the IRS owes you money at the end of 1998, adjust your 1999 withholdings downward.

Your grocery store probably uses a system called just-in-time ordering.   Using highly sophisticated purchasing information models, the store keeps hardly more than the stock on the shelves.  You've seen the FedEx commercials explaining how FedEx supplies small merchandisers with their wares on a daily basis.  The grocery store does the same thing with large trucks running from a central warehouse.  What happens when the computer system fails?  What, if anything, will get shipped?   Will there be bagels and lox in Biloxi and chitlins in Chicago?  Or will there be no food at all on the shelves for a week?

The Social Security Administration is one of the few government agencies that is on top of the Year 2000 crisis.  They began converting their computers in 1991!!  Huge programs like AFDC and the welfare system will not be compliant in time.   Although this probably does not affect you directly, it may end up affecting you indirectly if you live in an urban area.  There is a portion of society that will loot and riot at any perceived loss of control by the police.  This is not a race issue; in Los Angeles in 1992, the African-Americans looted in Watts, the Hispanic Americans looted in East Los Angeles, and the Whites looted in Hollywood and North Hollywood.  The only key concept is poverty.  If things are bad, the poor will riot first.  But if things get very bad and stay very bad, almost anyone can turn to violence as a method of survival.

Note that there were riots in New York City during the electrical outage of 1977.  What will happen if power goes out at midnight on 1/1/2000?  How many people will be in the city watching the ball drop in Times Square?

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Lauren Eve Pomerantz
August 1998
last updated 15 August 2007