The Millennium Bug Is the Threat Real

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The Millennium Bug Is the Threat Real

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Called the El Niño of computer-based communication, the mysterious Y2K (year two thousand) problem is a topic of much conversation. What is being done about it? Should you be concerned?

While conducting business recently in a branch of a major American bank, I asked a bank officer if the bank is ready for the Y2K problem. When she looked at me with a quizzical expression and said she had no idea what that meant, I thought, This does not bode well for what little money I have in the bank if there really is a serious problem! Another bank patron spoke up and said, “Oh, you mean the Millennium bug” whereupon the light of recognition dawned in the eyes of the bank officer. She quickly assured us, “Oh yes, we’re completely prepared for that. We anticipate one, maybe two heavy business days-nothing more.”

Only a busy day or two? Not everyone is so nonchalant or confident.

The Armed forces of Canada are on standby, ready to provide backup for civil authorities in the event of chaos when the millions of embedded computer chips turn to-or crash at-the beginning of the year 2000. Police forces in Toronto and Vancouver as well as the RCMP have been notified that no personnel will be allowed to take vacation time from a few days before the end of 1999 over into the year 2000. Montreal’s fire department is instituting a similar Y2K vacation ban, as is the Calgary police force. That doesn’t mean that the Canadian military or civil authorities know that chaos will strike-nobody knows. It does mean that the threat is being taken seriously by more than just doomsayers.

Y2K is shorthand for the year 2000. Concern is rife that devices with built-in computer chips will cease to function at the beginning of the year 2000 because their programming does not recognize that date. Prophets of Y2K terrors warn of the sudden failure of devices that utilize pre-programmed chips, including cars, airline navigation, medical equipment (such as pacemakers), virtually all communications systems, and most businesses-from the producers of food to the trucking firms that distribute it to the supermarket shelves! Dire predictions have been widely circulated about these concerns.

Another area of much concern is that of financial transactions. From governments to grocery stores, computers are used to buy and sell. Will your life be turned upside down by Y2K? Will you be unable to access your money in the banks? Will you be able to purchase food, water and other necessary commodities?

The Truth is—It’s Difficult to Say

One assessment characterizes the Y2K problem as the “El Niño” of the vastly complex world of computer-based communication. That is, there may be devastating and catastrophic “storms”-or there may be nothing other than the ordinary glitches. That’s one of the more evenhanded predictions opined on the subject, as forecasts vary from a complete breakdown of life as we know it to what would amount to an extremely loud false alarm.

One thing is for certain: a lot of money is being spent to ensure that the Y2K problem (if there is one) is minimized, if not eliminated. Otis is in the process of checking the roughly one million elevators it maintains, not really anticipating any problem with its own systems, but rather potential problems interacting with security systems in the buildings that have Otis elevators. The World Trade Center has ordered a replacement for its parking system, fearing that the present one is not Y2K compliant.

British Telecom has already spent £350 million on the problem; Railtrack has spent £150 million to prevent rail disruption in Britain. The British government is offering to train up to 20,000 people from small companies to be “bugbusters,” able to help their companies avoid any Y2K catastrophe. The allocated budget for this project?-£100 million!

Similar to their Canadian counterparts, British police forces will cancel all leaves over the four-day extended Millennium bank-holiday next year. The British army is also preparing a program of emergency transportation for assisting police forces in the event of a serious Y2K-caused breakdown in computer-controlled services. Downing Street has denied that the military is involved in any “doomsday scenario,” and emergency plans are being laid out in a quiet and low-key manner.

What possible problems do the British foresee? “The planned use of army Chinook helicopters to airlift police around the country raises the prospect of the motorway chaos because of the shutdown of the computer-controlled anti-congestion warning systems. Millennium bug problems are also officially regarded as posing a potential threat to electricity and telecommunications services” (“Army on Standby over Bug” by Alan Travis ©1998 Guardian Media Group).

Operation Abacus is the Canadian military’s name for its emergency plan. It’s named after “an ancient Chinese bead-and-string calculator that needs no power and is not susceptible to glitches” (“Army Fears Civil Chaos from Millennium Bug” by Jeff Sallot and John Saunders, © 1998 The Globe & Mail).

An honest assessment is offered in the same article. “No one knows [emphasis mine throughout] whether a common programming flaw-a seemingly small matter of dealing with dates beyond 1999-will cause cascading failure in the world’s computer systems, knocking out in the dead of the Canadian winter machines that run everything from traffic lights to nuclear reactors. It could turn out to be one of history’s great anticlimaxes, but the armed forces are taking no chances.

“Navy captains have been told their ships may have to dock to serve as garrisons, power plants, field hospitals and soup kitchens.

“As police, fire and other civilian emergency services make their own plans, military commanders have been told that meeting the threat of the year 2000 bug is their highest priority and will be the focus of all training from January on. The equipment purchases that do not contribute to the effort are to be postponed” (op. Cit. The Globe & Mail).

Some Envision Immense Problems—Others See Little Threat

Is this all a “Tempest in a Teapot?” Perhaps so, according to Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal. “Moreover, the extent of the damage caused by Y2K bugs in embedded chips is likely to be relatively limited. For example, a traffic light with a Y2K problem probably wouldn’t stop working, but it may be out of synch [sic] with the lights at other intersections” (“Will Computer Chips Go down When the Year 2000 Arrives?” © 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.).

On the other hand, concerns about building security systems appear to be legitimate. They “need to work with dates and are usually programmed to open all doors in the event of a glitch. That is one reason that most state prison systems now have active Y2K efforts” (op. Cit. The Wall Street Journal).

Many have speculated that both commercial air travel and airfreight will be interrupted, if not shut down at least temporarily, by Y2K. Is the case overstated? Consider this report about a large American aircraft manufacturer: “Boeing Co. says it has found embedded Y2K problems in three different on-board systems affecting roughly 750 of the 12,000 commercial planes it has manufactured over the years. In 700 of the aircraft, the embedded bug would merely cause the year to be displayed incorrectly on a control panel. In the other 50, though, the bug would keep the plane from ever leaving the gate. One example of a problem: navigation systems that rely on date information. [But…] A Boeing official stressed that these problems aren’t likely to occur because the systems will have been updated by customers by next year” (op. Cit. The Wall Street Journal).

On the other hand, the British government, once again, is taking the possibility of air traffic problems seriously. “The Department of Transport has already talked of banning some flights from Third World airlines to the U.K. because of expected computer-related problems in developing countries” (op. Cit. Guardian Media Group). More than a few experts warn that while computers in the western world may be made Y2K compliant before the deadline, linkage with computers in the developing world that are far behind the technological curve will crash the entire communications system.

What about medical equipment? Should users of pacemakers fear their sudden failure? Indications are that problems will not be serious. Thomas B. Shope, who works on the Y2K problem with the Food and Drug Administration, called the idea that pacemakers will stop working next year “an urban legend,” adding that, “Implanted devices don’t depend on the date.” In addition, the FDA “has sent Y2K surveys to nearly 2,000 medical-device makers and has so far heard back from two-thirds of them. While scores of testing and diagnostic devices may have some problems unless they are updated, most of the problems will be small, like displaying a date incorrectly…” (op. Cit. The Wall Street Journal).

Disaster Preparedness

Many voices can be heard calling for people to prepare for the ultimate catastrophe, including no food, water, or money, for a protracted period of time. Certainly the Bible addresses the subject of preparedness. We are told, for example, to consider the ways of the common ant that gathers food when it is available against the times when it is not (Proverbs 6:6-11 Proverbs 6:6-11 [6] Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: [7] Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, [8] Provides her meat in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest. [9] How long will you sleep, O sluggard? when will you arise out of your sleep? [10] Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: [11] So shall your poverty come as one that travels, and your want as an armed man.
American King James Version×

On the other hand, the Christian is counseled to avoid panic. Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’…. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 7:31 Matthew 7:31
American King James Version×
, 34).

Even if the threat of technical problems associated with Y2K fizzles out, widespread panic could create the predicted shortages as people hoard supplies. In the financial markets, panic-justified or not-can trigger disastrous results.

No matter what happens with Y2K, disaster preparedness is wise. “If an earthquake, hurricane, winter storm or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water and electricity for days, or even weeks.” So says a brochure prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in cooperation with the American Red Cross and the U.S. Departmental of Agriculture.

The brochure contains information on calculating emergency food and water needs for your family, how to store water and food, the shelf life of various foods, how to purify water, and provides a list of disaster supplies that every family should have on hand. Free to the public, the brochure can be found on the Internet at

A final word of caution: the subject of disaster preparedness brings out the basest elements of human nature in some people. Financial counselors stand ready to advise you on how you can make yourself rich by taking advantage of the financial losses of others in a coming disaster. Other people boastfully talk of stocking up on ammunition to use against any that would try to take their food and water. In such, we observe a chilling fulfillment of the apostle Paul’s prediction that “in the last days perilous times [times of stress] will come: For men will be lovers of themselves [selfish], lovers of money [greedy]… brutal [violent]” (2 Timothy 3:1-2 2 Timothy 3:1-2 [1] This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. [2] For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
American King James Version×

How will the Y2K threat end? Only time will tell. WNP

(Guardian Media Group © 1998; The Globe and Mail © 1998; The Wall Street Journal © 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.; U.S. Government Agencies.)

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