Bugged By the Millennium

A computer glitch has some Dallasites predicting an apocalyptic meltdown. They may not be that crazy.

And that's exactly where companies, large or small, should be, Wachel says. By the end of this year, all companies should have inventoried their computer systems, assessed the extent of their Y2K problems, and fixed or replaced their computers. That leaves an entire year for those companies to test the new systems for flaws.

Not surprisingly, Schmitt dismisses the doomsayers' concerns that the nation's power grid will fail somewhere and cause the lights to go out in Dallas.

"There are natural phenomena that have affected generating systems since the beginning of electric utilities. So there are systems in place to help us mitigate the consequences of those situations," Schmitt says. "There isn't anything in our testing that gives us concern, but we're not finished."

While the electric grid is unlikely to fail, Wachel points out that there are any number of areas that are likely to experience snags. Embedded chips in traffic lights, for instance.

While the city is replacing those chips as part of its $3 million Y2K project, it's possible that some traffic lights will go off. More likely is the chance that on Saturday, January 1, 2000, the chips will assume it's Monday, January 1, 1900, and cause the lights to change according to the patterns they are programmed to run during the week.

Elevators face a similar problem. In big office buildings, the elevators are programmed to behave differently at various times during the workweek. In the mornings, they usually hang out around the bottom of a building to carry people to their offices. At noon and at the end of the day, they float between the higher floors so they can bring people out of the building.

It's possible that on New Year's Day 2000, they could stop between two floors, trapping the unlucky stiff--probably a computer programmer--who has to work that day. But it's more likely that the elevators will think it's Monday and begin floating between floors even though there's nobody there to push their buttons.

"Will there be failures? Yes. I don't think that life as we know it will change," Wachel says. "I think there will be a lot of annoyances and minor inconveniences."

If the Y2K crisis is a war, then we need soldiers to fight the war. And just where are we going to find these soldiers? Kappelman suggests you look in the mirror.

"We don't head for the hills now. We don't say, 'Oh, the hell with it.' That's what people like Gary [North] want. He hopes the global economy collapses, and we go back to Calvinism," Kappelman says. "Well, fine, that's not the world I'm working for. We already tried Calvinism, and that's why people got on boats and sailed to a new world."

The first course of action that Kappelman, Wachel, and other Y2K consultants suggest you take is to stop and think about what you do every day.

When your alarm goes off in the morning, that's the first moment you interact with computers, because they affect the flow of electricity to your house. Computers are also in the coffee maker and the burglar alarm. They're in cars, and they're certainly at work, where you slave away to get a paper check, which you take to the bank to get money so you can buy food. Computers also control the flow of information on Wall Street, where your stockbroker is tinkering with your retirement money and the banks are investing your savings.

The second course of action, Kappelman says, is to begin calling every company you interact with, including the banks, the utilities, and especially local government officials. Those people are in charge of running the city, they spend your tax dollars, and they usually work best when their constituents get in their faces.

"Everyone has a role to play," Kappelman says. "I'm a little professor at a mid-sized college in North Texas, and over the course of several years, I've been able to have international impact on public policy just by being outspoken. Everyone can do that."

The problem with that plan is that when you call, it's very unlikely that you're going to get a candid answer, says Wachel.

"[People] should be checking with those agencies, but those agencies won't tell them they're not going to make it. No one is going to go on the record and say there's going to be a failure because of liability," Wachel says.

The $300 billion to $600 billion that is being spent to correct the Y2K problem could surpass $1 trillion thanks, in part, to Y2K-related lawsuits. Computer vendors and software publishers have already found themselves being sued over non-compliant products, according to Information Week.

A more subtle difficulty with Kappelman's plan of action is that when you really think about how much you use computers, you realize how detached you are from the things you need to survive. When is the last time you ate a tomato that you picked from your own garden? It's more likely that the last tomato you ate was loaded on a truck and shipped hundreds of miles to the neighborhood grocery store.

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