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  Y2K: Sleep Through It or Stock the Refrigerator?
By Steve VanderLeest '88, Calvin professor of engineering
 

At midnight, December 31, 1999, a computer bug will strike, potentially affecting thousands of computers across the world, disrupting banking, transportation, utilities, and many other segments of our society. The Millenium bug, or Year 2000 bug (Y2K for short) is a problem in the software of many of the computers that now run many of the day to day operations in our society. Some Christians have joined other media doomsayers, declaring a major disaster will occur when the clock strikes twelve. Should we be worried, or is this just more media hype?

The Millenium Bug
The Millenium bug occurs in software that keeps track of the date with only the last two digits of the year, e.g., "98" rather than "". When the year changes to 2000, these computers will roll their date digits over to "00". Computers with the Y2K bug will think the date has gone from 1999 to 1900. The inconsistency of the year changing from 99 to 00 can cause the computer to perform incorrect or spurious operations. Potentially, airport runway lights could suddenly turn off because the computer thinks it is time for maintenance, or a bank computer could think a loan payment is 100 years overdue. The problem can occur not only in personal computers, but also in embedded microprocessors hidden inside the systems they control, such as traffic lights, telephone switching gear, or security systems.

As an example, look at how a bank computer might compute how long it has been since your last mortgage payment. The date is January 1, 2000 and you made your last payment on December 1, 1999. If the computer does not have the Y2K bug, it will subtract the last payment date from the current date, resulting in 31 days. However, if the computer has the bug, the subtraction will result in an incorrect value. The computer could think you are 100 years behind in your payments, or 99 years ahead, depending on the exact method used for storing dates in the computer's memory.

The Y2K bug is relatively simple to fix for a knowledgeable computer programmer. So if the fix is so simple, why are they not finished yet? There are two major reasons. First, although the Y2K bug is easy to repair in most cases, there are millions of instances that must be identified and corrected. Just one mid-sized company can have tens of millions of lines of custom programs that the programmer must examine. Compare this to the complete works of Shakespeare, which add up to a mere 125,000 lines. Each line of program must be investigated carefully - the original programmers probably did not leave helpful comments like "Y2K bug HERE" in their code. A second difficulty in solving the Y2K problem is that much of the affected code is located in embedded processors - tiny computer systems hidden inside appliances, control systems, manufacturing assembly lines, and many other places. Embedded processors are difficult to access because they are not connected to a monitor and keyboard, as you would find on a personal computer. The engineers must use special equipment to investigate and repair the embedded systems, and this takes time and money.

There is no question that the Y2K bug exists. However, the extent of the problems the bug will cause is not certain. Some so-called experts predict everything from a worldwide depression to societal collapse. However, these "experts" often have something to gain by such dark prophecies - they may profit by selling sensational stories, or boost their pay if they work as programmers who fix Y2K problems. Others may be tempted to minimize the problem so as not to cast their own company in a bad light. Senator Robert Bennet, a member of the Senate Y2K committee has said, "when we get to New Year's Eve, everybody, no matter how informed we think we are, is going to be holding his breath."

How do we ferret out the truth in the face of conflicting testimony from "experts"? The truth is probably somewhere in between. Although we can expect there will be some problems, they will probably be short term and not as severe as some would have us believe. It is a good sign that companies and governmental institutions are reporting work on Y2K bugs. Those that are not reporting work on Y2K are the ones we should worry are over-confident or are ignorant of the problem lurking in their systems. Many institutions have already been dealing with the bug for a number of years, such as credit card companies with cards that expire in the year 2000 or beyond, or banks that are issuing loans that extend into the next millenium. Most North American corporations and the U.S. and Canadian governments are all working hard to fix the bugs in their computer systems before time runs out. Most of the 24 U.S. government agencies will be ready for Y2K, such as the Social Security agency, which is ready now. A few agencies are behind, such as the department of transportation, and they may not finish on time. Unfortunately for them, Y2K is a deadline they cannot postpone!

Despite the progress that has been made in eradicating the bug, there still may be some disruptions. How should a Christian respond? I believe this is an opportunity for the Church to minister to those around us. We can offer a calm response to a societal need by planning, offering support, and trusting in our Lord.

Planning for the Coming Storm
Individual families should plan ahead. The Y2K bug will probably not cause wide spread problems, but it is wise to be ready for short-term difficulties. Proverbs 13:16 says "a prudent man foresees the difficulties ahead and prepares for them; the simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences." One can find dire predictions of long term problems as well as predictions that nothing at all will happen. Reasonable preparations do not go to either extreme. I suggest preparing as you would for a coming winter storm or a hurricane. Prepare for interruptions in basic services for a few days, up to a week or so.

There are a few simple precautions to observe. First, banks may temporarily have trouble using their computers to access accounts. If everyone rushes to withdraw their life savings in cash, what was a small computer glitch could become a run on the banks. We can help stem such problems by putting aside some extra cash now (a few days worth). Keep your paper records on hand too, from now until a few months into the new year. Second, stock your cupboard with some extra nonperishable food, a flashlight, batteries, water, and so forth - just in case. I only recommend storing items that you will be able to use afterwards, even if no interruptions occur. I do not recommend purchase of a generator for most people, since one could get by for a few days without electricity. Third, check for the Y2K bug on your family computer and other household technology that keeps track of dates. If you cannot determine whether the bug is present, call the equipment manufacturer. There are a number of low-cost or free software tools to check your personal computer. Also, shut down your family's computer on December 31 - it is much less likely to have problems if it is not running at the time the calendar rolls over to the new year. Turn it back on the next day. Finally, although most experts do not expect there to be any safety problems with transportation, there may be extra hassle traveling on New Year's Day, 2000 - especially by air. It may be better to fly a few days before or after. This is particularly true if you will be flying to or from foreign destinations, where Y2K preparations might not have been as complete as in the United States.

Businesses should plan ahead. Most large companies are already working on the Y2K problem. If you own or manage a smaller business, be sure the Y2K problem is being addressed. Custom software must be reviewed, and computers must be checked for Y2K compliance.

Churches should also plan ahead, keeping some extra cash in the safe for use in January 2000, in case the church bank accounts are temporarily inaccessible. Food pantries should have extra food on hand, perhaps including some irregular items, such as batteries & flashlights, or candles and matches (although unlikely, power might temporarily go out). Deacons should plan how to distribute help if it is needed. If the church uses a computer, double-check that it is Y2K-compliant.

Families that have prepared ahead of time can help families that did not, if the need arises. Deacons should be prepared to offer assistance using the extra cash or food supplies. Let the community know that your church stands ready to help. Perhaps do a bulletin announcement, or maybe pass out flyers explaining what support services you will have available the first week of the year 2000. Technology, as is all creation, is under God's control. We can trust Him to care for His world and for us. We can cast all our cares on Him, including the Y2K bug. Pray that the Lord will bless our preparation, and bless our efforts to minister to those around us.

What Have We Learned fromY2K?
Colin Norman, in The God That Limps: Science and Technology in the Eighties (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981, pg. 19) has said: "the technological revolution of the past few decades thus seems like a Faustian bargain to many people - economic and material progress bought at the expense of growing dependence on nonrenewable resources, of environmental degradation, and of loss of control over many aspects of everyday life." The Y2K bug is proof positive of this Faustian Bargain - what is efficient in the short term must be paid for in the long term. The Y2K bug also illustrates a point we often make to students studying engineering at Calvin - problems that appear to be purely technical in nature rarely are. Engineers must consider the broader societal context in which a problem is embedded, contemplating, for example, the economic, historical, cultural, and spiritual realms in addition to the technical aspects of the problem.

For Further Information
Some good sources of information on the Y2K bug can be found on the web, such as the Christian Computing Magazine Y2K page, www.gospelcom.net/ccmag/y2k, and ZDNet's Y2K site, www.zdy2k.com Calvin College has its own Y2K information site at www.calvin.edu/it/news/y2k Expect more intense coverage of the bug by the popular media as the year draws to a close. Read these reports with care and do not be drawn into either panic or complacency.

 

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