The Millennium Bug
and The New Industry of Hysteria
by Michael Theroux
It's 1998. In less than two years the so-called Millennium Bug, also known as "The Year 2000" (Y2k) software problem will be upon us. If you haven’t already heard, this is a problem with computers that arises from the use of a two-digit field to identify years in the computer’s programming (for example 76 = 1976), and that the computer assumes there is only one century — the 1900s. Software written for computers will read (or try to) "00" for the year 2000 as the year 1900. Computer programs that use this two digit date scheme instead of a four digit one will fail or malfunction if the errors are not corrected.
Champions of this problem insist that it will be catastrophic — that everyone on the planet will be seriously affected — and that the world may end as we know it. One website says, "It may be the biggest problem that the modern world has ever faced." Fears range from international telecommunications malfunction to total economic collapse.
The Industry of Hysteria
The negative side of this situation is that "hysteria" is fast becoming one of the biggest marketing tools ever thrust upon an unsuspecting and gullible public. The creation of such "mass hysteria" campaigns has had an excellent history where there is money to be made. For instance, in 1991, the discovery of a computer virus called "Michaelangelo" (so named as it would do its destruction on the birthday of the famous artist, March 6th) spread hysteria "across the planet." Representatives employed in marketing departments of antivirus software companies deemed "Michelangelo" a "very serious threat." On March 5th, 1992, the day before Michelangelo was supposed to strike, John McAfee (of McAfee Antivirus software) appeared on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour and debated with virus researcher Charles Rutstein. McAfee stated, "anywhere from 50,000 to five million [computers will suffer], but we’re still talking $60 million at the very low end" for virus damage and cleanup costs. Rutstein, on the other hand, estimated that only "ten to twenty thousand [computers] worldwide" could suffer on March 6 when Michelangelo triggers.
Frightened computer users drained computer store shelves of antivirus software, and when every last bit of antivirus software had been purchased, customers flocked to the stores to get books about viruses. Well, March 6th came and went without much impact. Of the 5 million predicted infections, there were only at most 10,000 (note: any computer malfunction on this day would be attributed to the virus). Some say this is because most had protection before the virus hit, but subsequent years (up to 1998) have reported zero infections of the virus to antivirus companies (I personally have never had protection from this virus and balked when everyone else ran out to buy the software. None of my computers have ever been infected by the Michaelangelo virus, or with any virus for that matter). Many other hysterical virus warnings have appeared over the years — all have been inflated myths.
Another great technological myth involves the hysteria stirred up concerning the "HAARP" project. It isn’t bad enough the government plainly states their intended purpose of heating up the ionosphere with the huge transmitting station in Alaska, but industrious booksellers would have us believe that the HAARP device is really intended to alter global weather, control our minds, and jam all communications over the entire planet.
The media has always played a crucial role in the propagation of these myths. This is due to the fact that "fear" and "hysteria" make for the best story material, and that "expert" journalists failed to do any serious research into the subject matter. Even the computer industry’s reporting lacks the simple understanding of the scary computer term, "virus". In a recent instance concerning the so-called Millennium Bug, Web Review reporter Stephen Pizzo opened with an ominous warning: "The biggest and baddest computer virus in history is less than four years away from smashing the world’s computer systems senseless. It’s called the ‘Millennium Virus.’" Pizzo’s story includes a weblink on the phrase "Millennium Virus." It leads to an earlier online story by Vance McCarthy, entitled "Keep the Millennium Virus Off Your Net." And, this statement comes from a website dedicated to the Y2k problem:
"Never before in history have we been able to predict the date of a catastrophe...until now. ..[The] ‘Year 2000 computer bug’ (or Y2K). Most are aware of it, but there is widespread lack of concern and knowledge of the magnitude of this problem. The potential large-scale impact is far more serious than is commonly believed. It is an integral, monumental built-in ‘virus’ and time bomb that pervades most computers and all of society's systems."
The Millennium bug is obviously not a virus. A computer virus is simply a program that is able to replicate by itself (not necessarily sinister). A program that does not replicate is not a virus, regardless of whether it does damage to a computer or not. In order for a computer virus to actually do anything, it first has to be run on the computer — it doesn’t do anything all by itself until it is run by the user.
Further Y2k hysteria from computer media professionals can be found in the January ’97 issue of PC/Computing. Here they warn of economic catastrophe — a full-blown Depression — in three years: "The Gartner Group estimates that [the ‘year 2000’] problem could cost U.S. business as much as $240 billion dollars. [this figure has since jumped to $600 billion] As a result of the huge price tag, it’s possible that as many as 10 percent of all businesses won’t survive the transition."
Book publishers have also rushed to get in quick on the marketing hysteria surrounding Y2k (see the reference section for several examples). Michael Hyatt, author of the new release, The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos, published by Regnery Publishing writes, "[The Y2k crisis is potentially] the most significant, extensive, and disruptive crisis we have ever faced. Almost every aspect of our lives is regulated, controlled, monitored, enhanced, or made more convenient or efficient by computers." Hyatt spells out three scenarios he sees as most probable — Brownout, Blackout, and Meltdown. Each of these is discussed in detail, "In Blackout, I predicted hunger as a result of the shipping and transportation industry's inability to distribute food. In Meltdown, it is starvation. Without electricity, telecommunications, and banking, the long arm of Washington will have zero effect on most local situations. If this scenario comes to pass, the public will live in a state of terror."
How did we ever survive before the advent of computers!
Most of the published books are by authors who seem to have some stake in the Y2k industry, either as consultants or programmers, and I could not find a review of one of these books that is unfavorable.
The Day the Earth Stands
By far the title of the "worst offender" associated with hyping the Y2k problem goes to Gary North. Deemed by other Y2k web authors as "alarmist and controversial", North was recently featured on one of the most popular late night talk radio shows in the U.S. (talk radio is by far the number one culprit of spreading hysteria). Mr. North runs a website called, "Gary North’s Y2K Links and Forums" with the subtitle: "The Year 2000 Problem: The Year the Earth Stands Still." While he might be esteemed for his ability to stir things up, he lacks credibility when it comes to several of his statements concerning the Y2k problem. For example, he begins the essay by saying, "At 12 midnight on January 1, 2000 (a Saturday morning), most of the world’s mainframe computers will either shut down or begin spewing out bad data. Most of the world’s desktop computers will also start spewing out bad data." The emphasis on the words "most" are mine. This statement is completely false. First of all, most computers have no Y2k problem at all. The major problem (if there is to be one) with Y2k will be with old software — software that was written many years ago for specialized applications, and was generally programmed with old computer tongues such as COBOL. Some companies may run into problems if they don’t fix this, but if they are in the business of making money (yes, they are...) you can bet they will have the problem licked before there is any indication they will lose their shirts. For instance, major banks have already sent Y2k patches to vendors who use credit card data capture systems. They are well ahead of the game.
Most of the world’s desktop computers will NOT start "spewing out bad data" either. Since the majority of the world uses Microsoft products, and Microsoft long ago created patches and upgrades for any date scheme problem that may have occurred, there will be NO PROBLEM. Yet North claims, "Uncorrected PC architecture DOS and Windows-based desktop computers will revert back either to 1980 or 1984. They can be corrected briefly, but as soon as a PC is turned off, the correction dies. It will reboot to 1980 or 1984. Meanwhile, PC programs must be redesigned." His statement here is based on a simple test that can be run on any PC, supposedly telling you whether or not your system will be a Y2k problem. You first set the date to 12/31/1999 and the time to 11:55pm and wait for the clock to roll over. Then reboot the computer, and check the date. Most older computers will revert back to 1980, or the more Orwellian 1984. But, what Mr. North doesn’t tell you is that one simply has to go into the BIOS and change the date (when you turn on your computer, the microprocessor passes control to the BIOS program first, and then loads your operating system). When you first turn on your computer, it usually says something like, "press <del> to enter setup". If you press the "delete" key, this will take you to the BIOS configuration where you can set the date. I’ve done this on all the computers at BSRF, and even the old 386’s running MSDOS (which is compliant back to version 3.2) had no problem turning over to the year 2000. But, many so-called experts in the computer business would have you believe that you will need to upgrade to a new computer to fix this simple "tick-over"problem, and there are even some firms selling hardware you can install (for an unknown price) that fixes the so-called "problem." A good deal of evidence exists that millions of dollars are being spent by companies to "upgrade" (i.e., replace) their PC based computer systems to make them Y2k "compliant." In all but the very oldest equipment (which most institutions have upgraded long ago), these replacements aren’t necessary, but as you can see the computer industry greatly benefits from propagating such deliberately scary myths.
North continues by quoting Ed Yourdon, a mainframe computer programmer and author of two dozen books on programming. He and his daughter have written a new book called Time Bomb 2000. North says that, "[Yourdon] warns programmers that it may soon be time to quit their big city jobs and head for safer places...the exodus of programmers will begin no later than 1999." More hysterical quotes include, "Months before January 1, 2000, the world’s stock markets will have crashed. Who is going to leave his money in his bank if he thinks his bank’s computer is not reliable? A worldwide run on the banks will create havoc in the investment markets. People who have placed their retirement hopes in stocks and mutual funds will see their dreams vanish. How reliable will stocks and mutual funds be if the banking system has closed down? How will you even get paid? How will your employer get paid? How will governments get paid?" Head for the hills, as North prophesies Armageddon. All very captivating reading, but written by a historian with no programming knowledge, and littered with technical inaccuracies.
What About Embedded Chips?
Embedded electronic chips, (such as the PC BIOS) that are programmed at the factory, are in everything from automobiles to VCRs, and no one seems to know if they will work past the year 2000. But, many of these embedded chips are either not date intensive or not in systems that will create significant problems, while some others could present problems or at least an inconvenience. Electronic locks, power generation/transmission/control systems (in utilities), elevators, telephone switches, and other major systems, as well as smaller systems or appliances could be at risk of failure.
In this case, I have had a very difficult time getting any real information on this potential problem. On several websites supposedly containing links to examples of such problems, I have continually found the statement, "This document contains no information," or "The website or webpage you were attempting to access does not exist on our servers." For instance, I did a check on "Satellites and Global Positioning System (GPS) embedded chip problem" on one website, only to get the message returned, "File not found"(I later found this on the Navstar Global Positioning System Joint Program Office’s website, "All GPS satellites found to be Millennium [Y2K] Rollover compliant and transparent to End of Week (EOW) Rollover").
Other examples that were actually found were extremely suspect such as: "according to an April 17, 1997, report from the state of Texas, an estimated 25% of fire trucks built since 1985 could fail to start on Jan. 1, 2000 [because of faulty embedded chips]." Further down the page one reads, "in the official version of [the] June, 1998 [article], someone was just speculating —wondering — at the meeting if some — no percentage mentioned — fire trucks might possibly be in trouble in 2000, and somehow, this got posted in the minutes..." Another article warns of impending disaster:
A recent and dramatic Y2k embedded system example was brought to the attention of the readers of the St. Louis Post Dispatch on 11/19/1997 in a column by Virginia Hick that was only available on the web for a short time. The article writes of an interview with Peter de Jager who was speaking locally on Y2k issues. Hick writes: "De Jager talked recently with an executive of a company that makes a volatile gas — he would not identify the company more specifically — who told de Jager how his plant discovered the seriousness of faulty embedded chips. The plant found a chip that failed when the date was moved forward. When the chip failed, it shut off a valve that would have shut down the cooling system. A cooling system shutdown, the executive said, would have caused an explosion. ‘That was great news,’ de Jager said. ‘Because they checked - there will be no explosion. They're replacing the chips.’ De Jager worries about the companies that are not checking."
No company name, no positive ID of the chip, and no proof that any of this actually happened. The story is completely vague and very suspect. Peter de Jager is most outspoken on the Y2k problem and owns the very commercial website, called "The Year 2000 Information Center™"at http://www.year2000.com.
Several other examples or scenarios of embedded chip problems exist, but all are vague or really inconsequential (like your automatic coffee maker, after the year 2000, may not work properly and force you to get up and turn it on manually). Still, it seems no one has yet come forth with one positively identified instance of a faulty embedded chip(not excluding that at some point this may actually happen). One disgruntled programmer’s response to this was, "The status quo may be philosophically and psychologically entertaining, but it is scientifically absurd, and...executives and managers are entirely correct [to say]: show us an [embedded chip failure] or get out of our face."
The Burgeoning Y2K Industry
Further evidence that the Y2k problem may not be the impending global disaster many would have you believe, but a marketing enterprise motivated by big business can be found on several websites "devoted exclusively to the burgeoning Y2K industry." One can find a multitude of products created exclusively out of the Y2k myth such as the "Y2k phone Card", "Uh-Oh! - The Y2K Game", Year 2000 CountDownTM Watch, Year 2000 Video and Audio Tapes, Year 2000 Toolkit/Handbook, etc. There is even a special 150 page report (Xephon Special Report) that "every business should have", and can be ordered for a mere $265.00. That’s about $1.76 a page!
If you don’t believe this yet, check out the "Year 2000 Information Center Stock Index." It will give you stock quotes on some 200 companies that are in business specifically to handle the so-called Y2k problem. Even C-NET Magazine stated, "Fortunes will be made by companies that specialize in fixing the millennium bug." There is also a section called "Jobs 2000" which opens with: "Welcome to Jobs 2000, the labor exchange devoted exclusively to the burgeoning Y2K industry."
Mundus vult decipi
As the millennium approaches, I imagine we will see the advent of more terrifying cabals and doomsday prophesies emerging — mainly from those who stand to profit monetarily — and the scarier the scenario, the more people will be willing to accept it. The Y2k problem could be one that is destined to be self-fulfilling — that is, its belief will effect the results already foretold. There could be a run on banks (some banks are already preparing for this); the Stock Market could crash; the IRS, by non-compliance to fix their Y2k problem, could be out of commission (I don’t see the problem there); Computer programmers may flock to secluded hideaways (no problem again). A whole host of real problems may be created by something that wouldn’t have been much of a problem if it weren’t for our increasing reliance on the technology itself. This suggests the real Y2k problem is a people problem — people who misunderstand the technology, have total reliance on this technology, and are willing to embrace the idea of societal collapse due to technological failure. With hysteria as the fuel of the masses, anything could happen. If we continue to welcome radio talk show paroxysms, and ranting internet madness, then we deserve the frightful outcomes that these questionable venues are in business to promote. Remember, there is no specific media conspiracy involved here, it is simply what many people want to hear and believe. Mundus vult decipi — "the world wants to be deceived".
Y2k immunity Website: http://www.sitewave.net/y2ksb/ dedicated to the relatively simple Y2K solution of turning back the computers clock and ageing (and unaging) the data appropriately. "With the announcement of Y2K Immunity, the Y2K doom and gloomers have nowhere to hide, except perhaps, for a short while, in adhominum attacks, flames, and off the cuff dismissal. The fact is, their role in making the public aware of the problem has now been eclipsed."
Dealing With The Year 2000 Problem: http://www.erols.com/steve451/doom.htm#Contagion
Computer Virus Myths Home Page: http://kumite.com/myths/
Y2k and Gary North: http://www.serve.com/thibodep/cr/y2k.htm
CNET personalities - Don Steinberg - 2/26/97: http://www.cnet.com/Content/Voices/Steinberg/022697/index.html
Y2K Cinderella Project — "Dedicated to the Fairy Tale Ending. An investigation and information exchange of zero-cost, minimal-impact computing solutions to address the Year 2000 problem": http://parsifal.membrane.com/y2k/cinder.html
Intel Based PC BIOS Test for Year 2000 Problems: http://www.gatech.edu/year2000/biostest.htm (tests you can run to see if your computer is a Y2k problem with simple solutions: FREE)
Navstar Global Positioning System Joint Program Office: http://www.laafb.af.mil/SMC/CZ/homepage/y2000/y2k/
Internet Info for Real People - The Year 2000 Bug: http://www.thebee.com/bweb/iinfo28.htm
The Year 2000 Information Center: http://www.year2000.com/y2k-main1.html
Gary North’s Y2K Links and Forums: http://www.garynorth.com/
Future, Doomsday, Year2000: http://www.angelfire.com/or/truthfinder/
Westergaard Year 2000 Daily Email Alert: http://www.y2ktimebomb.com/index.htm
Fernlink 2000 Millennium BIOS Board Reviews: http://www.implement.co.uk/biospres.htm (PC Board Y2k fix for BIOS that costs money but no price could be found??)
Motherboard BIOS and year 2000 compatiblility: http://www.freetech.com/SUPPORT/TECH_BB/Tsvst198.htm
Not a complete list, and not necessarily used for reference, but to show how publishing companies have jumped on the Y2k bandwagon. All books listed can be purchased through the Westergaard Year 2000 Book Center at http://www.y2ktimebomb.com/Books or through Amazon.com:
The Complete Guide to Software Testing by William Hetzel
Computer Crisis 2000 by W. Michael Fletcher
The Computer Time Bomb by Minda Zetlin
Electric Utilities and Y2K by Rick Cowles
Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs by Ivars Peterson
Finding and Fixing Your Y2K Problem: A Guide for Small Businesses and Organizations by Jesse Feiler
Managing 00: Surviving the Year 2000 Computing Crisis by Peter De Jager and Richard Bergeon
Meltdown 2000: 25 Things You Must Know to Protect Yourself and Your Computer by Lawrence Cleenewerk and Pamela D. Jacobs
The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos by Michael S. Hyatt
Practical Methods for Your Year 2000 Problem: The Lowest Cost Solution by Robert B. Chapman
Software Change Impact Analysis by S.A. Bohner and Robert S. Arnold
Software Engineering Economics by Barry W. Boehm
Solving the Year 2000 Crisis by Patrick McDermott
Solving the Year 2000 Problem by Jim Keogh
A Survival Guide for the Y2K Problem by Jim Lord
Time Bomb 2000: What the Year 2000 Computer Crisis Means to You by Edward and Jennifer Yourdon
2001 Questions and Answers About the Year 2000 Problem by William N. Franklin
Y2K: It's Already Too Late by Jason Kelly
Year 2000: Best Practices for Y2K Millenium Computing by Dick Lefkon
Year 2000 Compliance: A Guide to Successful Implementation by Alea Fairchild
The Year 2000 Computer Crisis: An Investor's Survival Guide by Tony Keyes
Year 2000 Computer Crisis: Law, Business, Technology by Michael D. Scott, Warren S. Reid
The Year 2000 Computing Crisis by Jerome and Marilyn Murray
Year 2000 Crisis: Developing a Successful Plan for Information Systems by Janet G. Butler
The Year 2000 Problem Solver by Bryce Ragland
Year 2000 Software Crisis: Solutions for IBM Legacy Systems by Keith A. Jones
The Year 2000 Software Crisis: the Continuing Challenge by William Ulrich and Ian Hayes
The Year 2000 Software Problem by Capers Jones
The Year 2000 Software Systems Crisis: Challenge of the Century by William Ulrich and Ian Hayes
Year 2000 Solutions for Dummies by Kelly C. Bourne
The Computer and the Incarnation of Ahriman by David Black, St. George Publications, Sring Valley, NY, 1981 (although written in 1981, most of the information in this book is timeless).
Letter from Wade Griffith, Vice President and Year 2000 Project Manager for United Security Bank.
Various conversations and interviews with power industry engineers, embedded systems designers, system administrators, computer salespeople, programmers, and Y2k consultants.