19th Century town may just brush off the feared

By Mary Zielinski
Posted 12/31/98

The anticipated Y2K computer problem and the possible difficulties it may cause is the subject of a series starting with this issue of The Kalona News. The articles will cover the origin and …

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19th Century town may just brush off the feared


The anticipated Y2K computer problem and the possible difficulties it may cause is the subject of a series starting with this issue of The Kalona News. The articles will cover the origin and definition of the problem, discussions of what may occur in a variety of areas in which technology is a key factor and what has, can be and is being done about the possible problem.

When the Y2K problem (supposedly) shuts down the world at 12:01 a.m. January 1, 2000, Kalona could be a good place to be. In fact, this town with its on-going 19th Century presence could just brush the “millennium bug” away.

Exactly what Y2K will produce, if anything, is estimate, speculation, possibility, prediction and, possible outright nonsense.

Y2K, also referred to as the “millennium bug,” stands for the Year 2000. It has become the “shorthand” notation for an anticipated computer glitch that could shut down, worldwide, a number of computer functions in everything from private business to public utilities. No one knows if the shutdowns will occur and, if they do, how long they will last. Estimates range from minutes and hours to days and weeks. And scenarios for what will follow cover anything from reoccurring, annoying inconveniences to outright Armageddon.


How did Y2K arise?

Approximately 30 years ago, computer programmers, faced with a need to conserve memory space on the computers, wrote programs with only two digits (such as “98” to express 1998) to cover a year. In a period where computer memory cost 10,000 times more than it does today, that was an important saving. And, at that time, the programmers expected that software would be changed and updated long before the century ended. It was, but the two-digit shortening stayed in place. Hence, the problem then is that when 2000 arrives the computer will read it as 1900.

So? So, the computer will conclude that a century has gone by and, according to some predictors, will start shutting down things because it has gone far beyond a programmed maintenance schedule.

The problem has not been ignored. In fact, a great number of businesses, worldwide, have moved to make their systems Y2K compliant. The actual work is not difficult, for the most part it means replacing an imbedded microchip.


The problem lies in the number of microchips. As Richard N. Nunno wrote in a recent Congressional Research Service report:

“Correcting the year field is technically simple.” The hard part is finding all the areas in software where dates are critical and figuring out how to coordinate with other computers.

In more familiar terms, consider having one service station that has to do routine tune-ups for 3,000 vehicles by next Thursday, and you have an idea of what the Y2K problem is like.

It’s not the lack of technical skill but of time. The deadline is absolute: December 31, 1999 will arrive on time.

A great many private businesses started moving toward compliance as much as four years ago. The federal government has required banks to become complaint before the end of 1999, and many of them are.

Businesses in this country alone will spend between $300-$600 billion getting their systems ready.

Wild stories

Because no one reallly knows what will happen when the countdown date is reached, the predictions and theories range from it will make no difference, be hardly noticed, to society will completely breakdown and anarchy will rule.

The Gartner Group, a consulting firm that deals with high-tech matters, stresses that “A bomb-shelter mentality is not called for. Preparing for the millennium should be more like preparing for a storm that will last less than a week.”

Reportedly, there have been tests run in which computers were advanced to the critical time and date and that systems have shut down. There are wilder reports, too, with Internet web sites offering everything from gold and silver “at a discount” to guns and ammunition. And, there are many offering books, videos and lots and lots of advice—all for a price. Many of the alleged reports could not be confirmed, and the plan for disaster “frenzy” carries with it the very clear odor of opportunism.

However, the absolute disaster scenarios have led a number of people into Amish areas where sales of lanterns, woodburning stoves and related items have soared, especially in Ohio.

Obviously any area that has a long tradition of self-reliance, of coping without technology, let alone high-tech, could very well just brush off the “millennium bug.”

However, a few precautions and some planning is advised, and the subsequent articles will cover what is happening locally and what steps already have been taken. Areas involved are finance, communication, transportation, agriculture and local government.

Additionally, The News would appreciate any information from local businesses who may be dealing with the potential problem.