A Column by Andy Anderson
Special Collections, Ekstrom Library

The Y2K Problem

At the dawn of the computer age everything was expensive, necessitating that costs be cut whenever possible. Most expensive of all was mass storage of data, so every effort was made to devise codes and other shortcuts which would reduce the amount of disk space needed for any given application. One common practice was to abbreviate all dates, using only the last two digits to indicate the year. Thus 1/1/1987 and 1/1/2087 were each displayed as 1/1/87.

Some applications such as dBASE III made provisions for distinguishing the correct century, but many others did not and so are incapable of correctly displaying or doing calculations with dates earlier than 1900 or later than 1999. In practical terms, this means that computer hardware/software systems which issue your paychecks, calculate your interest income, determine your retirement date or report required maintenance dates for things such as airplanes, dialysis machines and nuclear missiles may be incapable of functioning in the 21st century. Already, intelligent cash registers in retail and grocery stores are beginning to reject credit cards whose expiration dates are later than 12/31/99.

William J. McDonough, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said in a recent speech that "Simply put, I do not think it would be possible to overstate the importance of the Year 2000 problem . . . I say this because the Year 2000 problem is an issue for every country, firm, organization, government agency, bank, and piece of critical infrastructure in the world. If the Year 2000 problems that exist within software programs and embedded computer chips are not repaired by January 1, 2000, the affected systems will cease to function or will malfunction."

The cost of fixing our computer/data infrastructure will be hundreds of billions of dollars and many systems will not have been repaired before the century expires. Here are links which provide an overview of Y2K issues, detail the scope of the necessary repairs to our computer/data infrastructure and describe the effect of the problem on our lives.

The University of Louisville Y2K site: http://athena.louisville.edu/year2000/index.html

Overview: http://IT2000.com/problems/index.html

Peter de Jager's open letter to the President: http://www.year2000.com/y2ky2kclinton.html

White House site dealing with Y2K Information and Readiness Disclosure Act: http://www.y2k.gov/new/y2kact.html

The Year 2000 Information Center: http://www.year2000.com/

U.S. General Accounting Office Documents: http://www.gao.gov/y2kr.htm

Legal issues (Forbes magazine): http://www.forbes.com/forbes/97/0707/6001100a.htm

Y2K Compliance Statements (dozens of vendors): http://thebe.worldonline.nl/~vegterda/

Vendor 2000 database of compliance information: http://www.vendor2000.com/

Cassandra project--Y2K preparedness: http://millennia-bcs.com/preplink.htm

Y2K (Survivalist) Supplies: http://y2ksupplies.com/

Year 2000 humor: http://users.deltanet.com/~calspace/laugh.html#compliant