Media praise for Year 2000 in a Nutshell

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The approach of the Millenium presents society with a chance to consider the issues, technological and otherwise, that affect the planet as we enter the next century, from the grinding poverty that engulfs billions of people to growing toxic waste problems to decaying nuclear weaponry and the spewing CO2 exacerbating global warning. Instead, thanks to dumb reporting about chaos, bunkers and food shortages, the country is coming to associate the year 2000 only with computer software problems. These are very real but manageable. A technology scholar explains why this is ironic and sad, and a new Y2K book from O'Reilly and Associates offers some of the clearest and most useful info yet on what this Millenial bug might really do. It says volumes about our times that when most Americans talk about the year 2000 they think not of the many symbolic or mystic implications of the Millenium, but of the mundane but potentially significant programming glitch that threatens many computer systems. "Because programmers in earlier decades economized on space by cleverly dropping two digits," writes Langdon Winner in the Tech Knowledge Revue, "we are now obsessed with the problem and the costly challenge of minimizing its possible damage." It's typical of the mass media's narrow-minded approach to technology to focus so obsessively on the worst possible consequences of Y2K computer problems that some people are planning to stockpile food, water and cash in case our collective lights go out. And it's typical of cyber-gurus geeks, programmers and Web developers to forget that there are political, social and cultural issues surrounding the approaching Millenium that go far beyond technics. Winner, a political scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and one of the country's most thoughtful technology scholars, argues that the approach of the new century offers an occasion to ponder the condition of humanity and the planet that sustains us. "How many of the worlds nearly six billion people live well or in circumstances that are even marginally agreeable?," he wonders. "How many still suffer poverty, war, disease, illiteracy, and the other scourges of the species? Will the policies of global civilization merely magnify well-known ecological, economic and social ills? Or will the next century finding ingenious remedies?" Nobody knows, and nobody's even talking about it much. The media's technology coverage has increasingly focused on Internet stock prices, Silicon Valley businesses, the gee-whiz computer gadgets of tomorrow, and the handful of panicked people digging bunkers in preparation for the supposed havoc to be wrought by the Y2K bug. Small wonder some people are scared out of their wits. Few people outside the computer industry know how seriously to take the Y2K bug. Are predictions of possible chaos alarmist and exaggerated? Should reasonable people take steps to protect themselves and their families? Should we, as a culture, be taking the Y2K issue more seriously? Will we be able to withdraw our cash from banks next January? Turn on our faucets and furnaces? Will our E-Z passes still let us through the toll booth? Journalists don't seem to have a clue. While every Internet stock blip is covered like the outbreak of World War III, Stories on Y2K range from the hysterical to the ignorant. But there is at least one intelligent, useful and highly credible guide, Year 2000 In A Nutshell, by Norman Shakespeare. (www.oreilly.com). O'Reilly is perhaps the best publisher of technical and computing books in the United States. Its Running Linux and
Linux in a Nutshell were so coherent and intelligently presented, I almost ordered "Year 2000" hoping it would make some sense of the pproaching traumas.

It did. "Year 2000" has O'Reilly's trademark clarity and organization. It contains one of the best overviews of the Year 2000 problem I've seen anywhere, along with a master plan for conversion projects, ways to identify Y2K problems and fix them, and reference information on the date and time functions in the computer languages most likely to be affected: COBOL (a business language), PL/1, Visual Basic C, and MVS LE. For those who don't grasp the origins of this mess: decades ago, when programming code was tight, it was common practice to use two-digit storage (e.g. 69 for the year 1969) for date code within software. The arliest computer programmers had so little memory to work with that any trick for saving two bits was worthwhile. The chances that a year entered into records would need to begin with anything other than "19," seemed so unlikely that dropping the century digits was adopted as a memory-saving method. As computers became more powerful, this abbreviated dating convention continued to be the standard, mostly out of habit. In l950, asks Shakespeare, "who was even worried about how computers would handle data in 2050?" But when the clock rolls over at midnight on the last day of December, l999, many of these older computers wont recognize "00" as the correct date. How odd in the Digital Age that poorly designed computer programs wont be able to handle the transition to the next century. The (Y2K) dilemma might render applications and hardware ineffective unless the original code is altered, an expensive, time-consuming but urgently necessary task. This is not merely an American, but a global problem. As politicians and Wall Street analysts like to remind us daily, we live in a global economy whose infrastructure literally is computer networks. Small Year 2000 errors are already occurring, says "Year 2000." A computer program recently determined that a prisoners release date, 1/10/15, had passed and he was almost released after serving only a few days. New York Stock Exchange executives want to close on the 31st of December in l999, because NYSE managers fear that all prior dealings could somehow be accidentally invalidated due to Year-2000 computer errors. Malfunctioning programs could cause businesses to lose track of critical systems that affect both production and cash flow. For organizations and institutions in the health and public safety areas, Y2K problems could be life-threatening. Lawyers and firms are already cranking up in preparation for all sorts of litigation, as companies and governments try and pin blame and responsibility on someone. And it will be tough for companies to argue that they weren't warned or didn't have time to prepare. There is widespread disagreement about just how urgent and dangerous the Y2K problems will prove to be. Some warn of the collapse of power and utility systems, along with banking and other financial operations. I know sober and knowledgeable computer programmers and engineers who say they won't fly on the last day of December in case air traffic control systems fail, and who plan to set aside cash in case banks shut down. Plenty of other knowledgeable computer experts ridicule these alarms and insist that the disruptions will be numerous but minor. Meanwhile, engineers and programmers are making a fortune helping government agencies and corporations scramble to get their programs in order.

For most Americans, it's all as disturbing as it is bewildering. Clearly, some of these fears are real. Many computer programs still aren't ready to handle the transition from l999 to 2000. Not only are most computers and applications suspect, but electromechanical equipment, networking and process-control hardware and operating systems could also be affected. Unless all such systems are checked and converted, there could be global repercussions.

While most banks, utilities and government agencies are working to update their programs and applications, nobody really knows how companies or countries -- especially outside of the United States and Europe haven't, or how their problems might affect a world of networked computing systems. "Year 2000" is sober and clear-headed. The book doesn't warn of apocalyptic disasters so much as smaller problems: the point-of-sale terminal at the counter of your favorite diner won't print a receipt; the gas pump won't work because the date set by the company's back-office computer is invalid; the parking gate at work won't function because its logic has been reset; elevator buttons all flash simultaneously since routine service appears a century overdue. And operating systems on computers fail to work because of network failures sparked by invalid dates. When you call your Help Desk, the phone may not accept your code because it automatically expires extensions that haven't been used for a year or more. This book suggests that Y2K problems will be greater than most Americans think, yet fall well short of media-invoked notions of Armageddon. And Shakespeare reminds us that in our litigious culture, the biggest costs might be legal bills. "The actual cost of achieving Year-2000 compliance will go far beyond analysis and conversion costs," says Shakespeare. "Production delays, reduced market share due to poor PR and media reports, and the loss of profitability or important data will all affect companies. Once the dust has settled and everyone is compliant, another ugly chapter will unfold: the search for culprits within companies, and the search for corporate accountability by shareholders and victims of accidents or other losses."

According to "Year 2000", the U.S. government is budgeting $30 billion for conversion, and Fortune 500 corporations have earmarked between $20 million and $200 million. Thats excluding, in most cases, the cost of litigation, which without some form of government intervention, could exceed that of conversion. Government figures suggest that only 30 per cent of small to medium size companies (those with between five and 100 staffers) will be even close to compliance by the big day. Small wonder Americans are increasingly coming to associate the Millenium with still more computer troubles instead of more symbolic and ultimately, much more significant, issues. This, Winner suggests, has a hidden and poignant irony. Our culture has become so slavishly dependent on digital technology that it is increasingly unwilling to face any technological issue other than Y2K. "Among the issues that cry out for attention as a new era dawns is the widening gap of inequality that characterizes the worlds population, " he writes. "Our much heralded global economy has been good at producing a handful of millionaires and billionaires, but a third of the earths people live in grinding poverty. "While were at it," Winner suggests, "why not tackle some of the bugs that threaten the environment that we hand to our children? How about fixing the technologies that spew millions of tons of CO2 into the air each day, exacerbating global warming? How about replacing the systems that pour toxic chemicals into the air, water and land, slowly poisoning human populations and other species?" Winner is right, but he needn't hold his breath if he thinks journalism will suddenly start covering technology in this more detached and thoughtful way. Like other scholars of technology, he guesses that if enough time, money and effort are invested this year, most of our computers will actually remember that a new Millenium has arrived. Its the humans that might forget. You can buy this book at [1]Computer Literacy and help Slashdot out. [2]jonkatz@slashdot.org

References

1. http://www1.clbooks.com/FindItNow/Services/MWE552/home.cl?from=MWE552 2. mailto:jonkatz@slashdot.org