feature 549 

Welcome to the next millennium. Is the coffee on? Your first challenge on New Year’s Day, 2000 may be trying to turn on the lights By G.D. Maxwell Depending on the camp you fall into, 13 months from now when the Christian world’s odometer flips over all the zeros, computers everywhere will pull a collective HAL and become worthless desk sculpture or we’ll all be in for the biggest hoax since comet Kahoutek failed to light up our night skies back in 1994. Y2K? Well, why not? The year 2000 problem, the Millennium Bug, the computer glitch to end all computer glitches, doomsday, is just around the corner. Let’s not dwell on the fact that when the zeros roll we’ll all still be one year shy of the third millennium. It may be our collective lack of numeracy or our attraction to easily identifiable events that will make us kick out the jams for an event that isn’t really happening for another year, but who cares? Happy New Year! Now, in the fog of January 1, 2000, if you’re like me — and as I’ve said before, let’s hope you’re not — you’ll eventually pour yourself into a chair in front of your computer to do some work, maybe play some games, or more likely just stare hypnotically at the bright, shiny screen while your cranial computer tries to process all the reasons you shouldn’t have mixed tequila with champagne the evening before. What’s likely to happen when your BIOS clicks into the New Year? A fair portion of the popular press, and most of the world’s reworked computer consultants who have found new life preaching Armageddon, want you to believe your computer is likely to stare back at you at least as numbly as you’re staring at it and do, well, nothing. Welcome to the new century. Now go find your calculator and whatever paper backup you’ve kept to document all of your life’s important bits and bytes and get to work reconstructing it. Of course, this scenario assumes you have any electricity flowing into your house to turn your PC on to begin with. Lots of people, some of whom work at BC Hydro, wonder whether we’ll all be sitting around in the dark sucking half-thawed frozen food when the New Year starts. The fact is, no one knows right now whether the lights will go out at midnight, January 1, 2000 or not but don’t be surprised if maternity wards have a scheduling problem right around October 1, 2000. This uncertain state of affairs has naturally led to some pretty weird behaviour on the part of people prone to weird behaviour. Survivalists — those wacky guys who dress in camo and live in underground bunkers in the parts of Montana that exist in all states and provinces — are gearing up for Y2K the same way they gear up for impending UN invasion forces, coming race wars, fluoridated water and the return of disco. They’re squirreling away food, clothing, currency, gold, and anti-tank bazookas, in order to ride out the destruction of society as we currently know it and gird their loins to spawn a new world order of peace through purity. At the other end of the continuum, there are the perpetually don’t-worry-be-happy people who are sure everything will be "taken care of" by the benevolent people who always seem to take care of things for them. They are oblivious to the loud and persistent warnings of the doomsayers. Somewhere in the levelheaded middle are a cadre of interests like the Gartner Group, a techie market research firm out of Stamford, Connecticut, who have made a name for themselves consulting to business and government on the impact of Y2K. It seems their estimates of the scope and costs associated with the problem are revised upward every fortnight or so. The most recent estimate I’ve encountered is somewhere in the neighbourhood of US$3.6 trillion to fix the information technology problems the world is likely to encounter and settle the cascade of lawsuits spawned by them. Unless you own a fleet of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, or countries in what used to collectively be called Arabia, that’s a neighbourhood you’ve probably never visited. It’s almost impossible to put a number like 3.6 trillion into perspective. For starters, it looks like this 3,600,000,000,000. If you had $3.6 trillion Canadian dollars — which is a mere US$2.3 — you could buy 61 billion Whistler lift tickets or 2.4 billion season passes at this year’s prices. Then every day could look like Christmas week on the mountains. You could buy 400 new Roundhouse Lodges. Or if skiing’s not your thing, you and 3,000 of your closest friends could smash new Corvettes into brick walls every day of your lives if you lived to be 70, which you wouldn’t. Fascinating, isn’t it? All that money is going to be spent fixing a problem everyone knew existed but no one thought would ever actually come around. If that sounds like a riddle, it is. In the early, middle, and surprisingly recent days of computing, programmers and managers who tried to control programmers decided they’d save time and money by truncating, to two digits from four, the way software kept track of years. A business case could be made for this decision on the basis that computer storage, until recently, was very expensive and even dumb people knew 73 meant 1973 even if smart computers didn’t. Well, duh. Besides, no one thought the programs they were writing way back in the dark ages would be the programs their progeny would be using when the century changed and it became important to differentiate 1973 from 2073. Surprise! Many of those programs are still the very heart of what make current systems do trivial and mundane things like spit out payroll cheques, calculate the amount you owe on your mortgage, determine whether or not you are eligible for a pension cheque, and unleash the dogs of thermonuclear war. Details, details. The year 2000 is a triple whammy for literal-minded computers: It has lots of zeros; it’s a leap year; and its almost the start of a new millennium, which is to say it is a new century. Because it has lots of zeros, it may affect computers’ system clocks in funny ways. 2000 may be read as 1900, 1980, 1984 or some other number computer specialists and other scientists have a technical name for, which is: Wrong. Since what your system clock believes is true often affects the way it lets your application programs — spreadsheets and such — operate, this could have some interesting wrinkles. Remember what trying to divide by zero did to your brain? 2000 is also a leap year. Leap years are more tricky than you may realize. They’re not as simple as the old "numbers divisible by four are leap years" rule. For starters the first year of any century — always divisible by four — isn’t a leap year. Except every fourth century, when it is. Which 2000 happens to be one of. Which a surprising number of computer programmers didn’t realize. Which may cause some problems involving date calculations. Finally, 2000 is the year the century changes. This is where Gen-X’ers and younger kids get revenge on Yuppies and their elders. See, when you or I subtract 1935 from 2000, we get 65. But a computer with a year 2000 problem might get 35 because it is subtracting 1935 from 1900 and ignoring the negative sign. Likewise, if that same computer subtracts 1965 from 2000, it will get 65 instead of 35. Who cares? All those 65 year olds waiting around for their first pension cheques that aren’t coming because the computers think they’re only 35 years old and have sent their cheques to 35 year olds they think are 65 instead. Ah, sweet revenge. Only if you were born in 1950 do you not care one way or the other about this. These simple brainteasers are at the heart of the Y2K problem. They might make your car not start in the new year. Some people estimate they might affect upwards of 30 per cent of all high-tech medical machines. They might make banks’ ATM networks think your money belongs to them — like they don’t already. They might make airplanes lose their way or simply fall from the sky. Then again, they may not. You see, at this point in time Y2K is a bit like the lottery. It’s fun to sit around and think about what you’d do if you won a couple of million bucks and it’s a lot of fun to sit around and wonder whether elevators will stop running, GPS satellites will stop telling ships, planes and Cadillacs where they are, banks will "lose" our money, and we’ll all sit around in the dark freezing our butts off in the hangover of the new year. It’s all very interesting but what’s it really mean to me? Digging for answers at a local level doesn’t make me feel like joining the survivalists. Will my computer work? Well, why not find out for yourself. Back up important data. I forgot to do this when I tried this experiment and it didn’t matter, but everyone says you should back things up before you do it. Of course, you should floss regularly, watch what you eat and get plenty of exercise too, so make your own choices. If your PC runs on Windows, go into your Control Panel or DOS and change your system clock to 12:58 p.m., December 31, 1999. If you run in a Mac world, you might as well skip to my column because none of this interests you anyway since Macs are perfect just like the Macheads who own them always say. Now, turn the machine off and go have a smoke or worry for a few minutes. Time’s up. Fire up your computer and hope like hell it loads Windows. If it doesn’t, sorry. Better call Tim at Zoomy and don’t even think of suing me; I said it was an experiment. If everything looks like it always looks, congratulations. But you still have a few more things to check. Load your word processor or spreadsheet or some other application where you can create files. Make a file and save it. Go look at the date on the file in your file manager or that silly My Computer nonsense Microsoft came up with. Is the year date 84 or 80 or something even stranger? Ah-ha. My own computer saved files as 01/01/:0 whatever that means. Load your spreadsheet software. Enter the date February 27, 2000 into a cell as a whole number, which is how spreadsheets treat dates. Now make a mental note that that’s my birthday and remind yourself to send me a nice present. Okay, now back to Y2K. Increase it in the next cell by a factor of 1 as a formula, that is, Cell2=Cell1+1. Did it come out February 28, 2000? Of course it did. Do it again. Did it come out February 29, 2000. So far, so good. One more time. Did you get March 1, 2000 or February 29 again? If you got February 29, you have a big leap year problem. Don’t dwell on it but remember my present. After you’ve passed all these tests, start your programs up one by one and see if each work. Don’t forget those old DOS based Pac-Man games you’re still addicted to. When I did this test, everything on one of my PC’s — I was too lazy to test the other — worked just fine except for that colon in the date which I can live with because I’m willing to accept that :0 means 2000 and hope it works itself out by 2010. If you’re the kind of person who sees your computer as a scary box that could break down entirely if you do the wrong thing and just reading this gives you the heebie jeebies, there are alternatives for you to consider. You can find programs on the internet that will "check" your computer and its programs for Y2K problems. I downloaded one of these from a site I like to get free software from and it told me I had problems out my yin yang. It said my command.com, a whole truckload of dll’s, Netscape, Eudora and maybe even Doom were going to thumb their noses at me in the next millennium. Well, I guess I’ll have to wait until the real thing rolls around to find out because when I tested them, they all worked just fine, thank you. So who can you believe? The boys at Zoomy will test your machine’s hardware and software, all the hidden nooks and crannies, and give you the good news or bad for about $150. Ian says it’s unlikely a fix would set you back much more than the price of a new motherboard and even that would be a good excuse to jazz up your processor to blindingly fast from merely lightning quick. Either way, I’m inclined to think things in my PC world will be pretty much okay in the opening days of the 20 hundreds. Will I be able to see? When you start to ponder the bigger picture of North America’s electricity distribution grid or even the smaller BC Hydro grid, you begin to get into the really interesting world of embedded systems and their potential for failure when 1999 becomes 2000. Compared to fixing big mainframe systems or even little PC systems, both of which in aggregate represent a large but manageable job, just identifying and troubleshooting — let alone fixing — embedded systems is a bit like trying to kill every mosquito on the planet with a BB gun. In an overly-simplistic nutshell, embedded systems are computer chips found in things you might not consider to be computers. Some are stand-alone systems like your VCR, microwave oven, or garage door opener, and some of them are distributed systems reporting to and/or controlled by other, larger, computer systems. Valves that control natural gas pipeline distribution systems for example, or electric relay stations, or heating and cooling systems, to name only three. One estimate of the likely number of embedded system devices that will be operating in 2000 is 25 billion. The Gartner Group predicts that more than 50 million embedded system devices will exhibit Y2K date anomalies. The problem is determining where they all are, which ones are the bad ones, and which are critical. If your VCR can’t tape the Simpsons every night because it can’t understand dates after December 31, 1999, that’s not a big deal. But if you’re running, say, New York’s subway system with maybe 200,000 embedded chips in your far-flung control network and only 1 per cent of those have a Y2K problem, you’ve got some serious chaos beneath the streets of the Big Apple. A sample of what might happen at 12:00:01 on January 1, 2000, because of embedded chips happened in New Zealand on January 1, 1997. The New Zealand Herald of February 22, 1997, reported: "Apart from misgivings about missing out on New Year parties as the last seconds of 1996 ticked away, it was much like any night for the staff at the Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter in Southland. Midnight and crisis struck in the same moment. Each of the 660 process control computers that run the smelter’s potlines hung, their digital chips frozen. Five pot cells were ruined, leaving New Zealand Aluminium Smelters with a repair bill estimated at more than $1 million (NZ), though the company will not confirm the final cost." Comalco's Bell Bay smelter in Tasmania shut down precisely two hours later: 1996 was a leap year and unable to cope with the extra day — and apparently not detected until the year changeover — the computers at Tiwai Pt (New Zealand) and Tasmania (Australia) stalled with expensive consequences. Not worried about chaos at aluminium smelters? Well, how about nuclear power plants. Nadine Cohen, Public Affairs Co-ordinator at BC Hydro was optimistic when I spoke to her about the possibility of not being able to get up the mountains to go skiing on New Year’s Day, 2000. "We don’t think there’s going to be a problem," she said. "We’ve done an assessment on all our initial inventory (of systems) and completed some testing. We’re scheduled to complete all testing on the entire distribution system by June and July of 1999 and we’re confident there will be no major problems on January 1st." No major problems. I don’t know about you, but I view electricity as pretty binary. It’s either on or off. Not on a little or on in a major or minor way. Just on or off. The bottom line on hydro is this: BC Hydro isn’t making any guarantees. If you read through their voluminous literature on the subject and press the issue with their PR department, there are no guarantees, period. Can I make coffee? Well now, if I still have hydro and can get my own computer to work so I can make a living, will I be able to jumpstart my hangover with strong, black coffee to make the world right again and face the new century with something resembling sanity? Probably. At least so says Brian Barnett, Manager of Environmental Services for the Muni. None of us are too worried about whether the Muni can pump out paycheques, unless we work for them or know someone who does who owes us money, but it would be nice if they could make sure the water flows into our houses and the sewage flows downhill as is its wont. This might be especially nice if there are 40,000 or so extra guests in town that weekend. "The Canadian government recently released a study that said up to 30 per cent of all municipalities have public utility systems that are non-compliant," Brian said. "Whistler has about 50 utility stations that either collect and distribute water or collect and pump sewage. Of these, most are controlled by some field computer so there’s quite a lot of computers out there serving our water and waste water collection system. Very few are time dependent though and we aren’t expecting any problems." Just in case, the Muni has called on the services of Dayton Knight Engineering, municipal engineering consultants, to do assessment and testing. During their preliminary assessment conducted last week, they found no significant problems with either utility system, so it looks as though the Muni’s early assessments may have panned out. But I’m still leaving a note on in the kitchen to fill the coffee pot the night before just to be safe. But can I ski? If the hydro works, the lifts will get me up the mountain, right? Probably. To a lesser extent on some chairlifts but to a larger extent on the three gondolas, computer systems and embedded chips control the movement, and particularly the lack of movement, of the lifts on Whistler and Blackcomb. Sensors along the line can bring things to a halt at the first sign of conditions that, if left unmonitored, might lead to greater trouble. Ciy Young, Project Manager Year 2000 for Intrawest, has a "warm fuzzy feeling" all the lifts will be running on January 1, 2000. "We’re fairly well prepared for it," he said when I asked him about moving holiday visitors and especially locals up the mountains. "We started on this two or three years ago. Our focus has been making sure all the safety concerns were addressed and customers were served. More so than many businesses, we absolutely have to be up and running for Fresh Tracks on January 1. "Our assessment process has been consistent across the organization. We’ve been working over the past year with the lift and component manufacturers to determine whether there are any problems. At this time, we have yet to find any date-sensitive chips in these systems and based on our discussions, we don’t anticipate a need to do further testing." Well, if I can operate my computer and other electrical appliances, have coffee, flush my toilet, get up the mountain to go skiing, and see in the dark, I guess that just leaves worrying about whether the Royal Bank plays dumb when I try to get my money out, travel agencies forget where Whistler is, and delivery trucks can’t get up the mountain for a few weeks. But hey, I can live with that. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling Y2K has some tricks up its sleeve. Maybe it’s just the media hype, maybe it’s the consultants’ hype. The Boy Scout in me figures it’s a good idea to have a nice, big wood pile and a lot of matches. I’ll stock the house with plenty of food for my Perfect Partner and myself and if push comes to shove, we can live off Vince the Cat for a couple of weeks. Candles will be a nice romantic touch and I’ll score an extra tin of fuel for the camping stoves. And don’t be surprised if you see me trying to sneak my skis and boots up the gondola for New Year’s at the Roundhouse. If BC Hydro screws the pooch and we’re all in the dark at midnight, at least one of us is going to have powdies for breakfast the first morning of the new century. Me.


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