Remembering Worry Over Y2K

On New Year's Eve in 1999, many people were celebrating the arrival of the year 2000. Some computer experts, however, were on alert, hoping that work reprogramming computers to deal with a date change bug would pay off. Science Friday opens the archives for a look back at worry over Y2K.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. And for the rest of the hour we're going to highlight some - as we've been doing in our 20th anniversary of SCIENCE FRIDAY - we're going to fire up the SCIENCE FRIDAY Wayback Machine and take a trip back.

(Soundbite of archived recordings)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. Any update on Sasquatch at all?

Unidentified Man #1: For you I wore one of my better bow ties, Ira.

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FLATOW: It's a beauty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And this week, we're going to go back to the year 1999. You remember 11 years ago - that was on New Year's Eve of 1999, SCIENCE FRIDAY was worried about computers. You got to remember this. Many folks around the world were celebrating. Some were waiting for the clocks on their computers to roll over to the year 2000, to see if a massive worldwide effort to prepare for that date change - well, did it help? We were trying to avoid something known as the Y2K problem. Remember the Y2K problem? Did it work? We were waiting 11 years ago this New Year's Eve. We talked with one man who was taking no chances.

And now I want to join - I'll be joined by Bruce Beach, who is founder of the Ark Two Survival Community outside of Toronto, Canada. And he has actually built himself or is living now in a bunker in preparation for possible problems with Y2K. Welcome to the program, Bruce Beach.

Mr. BRUCE BEACH (Founder, Ark Two Survival Community): Hi, Ira. Waiting for the ball to drop, are you?

FLATOW: Are you waiting for the ball to drop?

Mr. BEACH: Well, we're going to be watching it. It looks like the problems are quite receding into the background here, are concerns about them. The last words that I had was they had a very good rollover there in Japan...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BEACH: ...and them being one of the big technological nations. The next one we got to watch, though, is the one from Greenwich, England, because a lot of the networks use what we call Zulu time out of there. So that's a bit of a concern. But I've told my kids, fine, go party. And I'm over here to pick up my grandkids, and it's looking very good.

FLATOW: Give me an idea of your setup. For those of us who can't see it, what does your bunker look like?

Mr. BEACH: Well, we used school buses to form the bunker. But really, it - the main thing is it's made out of very heavy reinforced concrete. And we used 42 school buses that are buried there to form an inside shell for it. Over to the top of the concrete then, we have from 14 feet to five feet of earth. It's really a nuclear bunker. And that's what our concern was when we started building it 20 years ago. And we're still concerned about that, even more so here of late. There's been a long hiatus there, people weren't concerned, but the - in the last few months we've had more interest than the last couple of decades.

FLATOW: So what was everyone worried about 11 years ago? Why was Y2K even a problem? Computer consultant Peter Weiss joined us then by phone. He was not holed up in a school bus bunker, but he was locked down in a hotel, in what they call the frozen zone of New York's Times Square, to explain the issue.

Mr. PETER WEISS (President, Vintage Management Company): Computers began selling on a large scale basis in the late 1960s. Many companies bought large computers. And at that time IBM was the totally dominant company in mainframes. And computers did not have the same exact capabilities in terms of memory storage, disk storage, as they have now. In order to conserve space, and in order to speed up processing, instead of writing the date correctly, they would represent the year of the date with the last two digits. So 1970, for example, became just 7-0. This was excellent all the way through 1999.

To give you an example, if you try to calculate the date between 1999 and 1998, you subtract 99 minus 98, and you have exactly one year. If you go to the year 0-0 minus 1998 - minus 98 - you end up with minus 98. How does the computer deal with it?

Because all these larger companies have written - banks, brokerage houses, utilities - have written millions and billions lines of code in - oh, I don't know - 10, 15 thousand different languages, predominantly in COBOL, in PL/I and others, they used the shorter version. And they have so much money invested in those programs that they cannot throw them out.

For example, one large utility company here in Manhattan had programs going all the way back to 1960 COBOL programs, and they had lost some of the source code for their original programs, which were running fine. In order to verify that those programs are working, they would have had to find the original source code and change - make whatever appropriate changes there are.

But the main problem is, again, people have invested millions and billions of dollars in the original, what's called, legacy systems, the systems that surround those companies. Citibank, for example, has banks and business all around the globe. They have - oh, I don't know, several billion lines of code all across the world. Other companies have the same kind of a thing, Exxon, and many others.

And in order to correct all of that, it took quite a large effort. And you cannot throw all the old computers out into one - especially with the large processing power - and replace them with newer computers that don't have the same problem.

FLATOW: So you're saying, basically, that there are companies that have millions of lines of code, even billions of lines of code scattered around the world that's old code, it has to be changed, and it's very, very expensive to do that.

Mr. WEISS: Well, when you change a line of code in the computer, you affect many other things at the same time. And everything that you change - first, you have to find the right place to change, and dates are represented in multiple different ways in computers, different tag names for the dates. And once you find them, you have to, A, correct the problem and, B...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEISS: ...test each program thoroughly individually and also in the context of the entire subsystem that you're testing.

FLATOW: That's computer consultant Peter Weiss, telling us back in 1999 what the real problem - what we were fearful of. Well, we knew that there - some countries around the world had already entered - seen the dawn of the year 2000. So we checked in with them.

Let's go to Australia. It's been about 2000 for six hours in Canberra. And joining me now from there is Senator Ian Campbell, the parliamentary secretary to the minister for Communications and Information Technology.

Thank you for joining us on this program.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Parliamentary Secretary, Minister for Communications, Information Technology): It's my pleasure. It's been a long night, but it's been a good one here in Canberra and Australia, generally.

FLATOW: What do you mean, it's been a long night?

Sen. CAMPBELL: Well, I started work about 24 hours ago...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CAMPBELL: ...so it's been a long day and a long night. But it's been two-and-a-half-year program we've run here to try and minimize any damage from Y2K to the Australian economy and to the livelihoods and lives of the Australian citizens. And to date, as you say, six hours into the millennium, for Australia, it's been successful. No major failures.

FLATOW: Any minor ones you can - you know about?

Sen. CAMPBELL: We would generally only expect to hear about significant problems at this national coordination center we've established in Canberra. But we have had a couple of reports out of South Australia and Tasmania of failures that occurred, actually, at the end of the last - end of yesterday, I should say, to a mobile validation machines for bus tickets, a very minor problem, which has already been fixed.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. There was a report on one New York City radio station this morning that said that New Zealand had lost power for a few minutes. You didn't hear anything about that, did you?

Sen. CAMPBELL: No. That's certainly - I mean, that's all - you've got to be very careful with the reports that are floating around. Those little reports floating around about a problem with a nuclear power station in Japan. And we dug down into that information and found that it was a minor alarm on a minor system that wasn't business critical. And that was blown out of proportion...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Sen. CAMPBELL: ...so I think that's the best advice I can give Americans who were looking forward to their own celebrations shortly and looking forward to going through the date changes, to be very cautious about stories about Y2K failures. There's lots of failures that take place every day around the world with all sorts of systems, and check carefully before you blame it on Y2K.

FLATOW: Did you find that people stayed at home this New Year's - closer to home out a fear of some possibility of something might happen?

Sen. CAMPBELL: Well, if your listeners, sort of, tune into the U.S. television coverage of the celebrations on Sydney Harbor, the answer to that is no. There was in excess of one million people on Sydney Harbor, something like 6,000 boats out on the harbor watching the fireworks.

FLATOW: Wow.

Sen. CAMPBELL: In my home capital of Perth in Western Australia, where I've been enjoying beautiful warm weather, there were just hundreds of thousands of people out down at the beach, watching concerts in the streets of Fremantle. So a lot of people went out. But I think it's been a worldwide phenomenon that people have gone home to be with their families, literally, you know, flown home to be with their families.

All of the airline executives from around the world I've spoken to have had very heavy bookings prior to the date change, and obviously heavy bookings afterwards and very low bookings on the night. So...

FLATOW: Right.

Sen. CAMPBELL: ...people have wanted to be at home on a pretty unique event in world history.

FLATOW: Senator Campbell, thank you very much for joining us.

Sen. IAN CAMPBELL: My pleasure, Ira. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

FLATOW: And a happy New Year to you and yours.

Sen. IAN CAMPBELL: Happy New Year to all the Americans that are listening, our brothers-in-arms.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Senator Ian Campbell, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Communications and Information Technology. He was chatting with us by phone from Canberra, Australia.

Don't forget, that was back in 1999. There were people waiting for a Y2K problem this time. Things were also going well in Tokyo. But not all of our listeners were convinced then that there was a real problem.

Dave in Berkeley thought we and our guests were - we were blowing the problem out of proportion.

FLATOW: Let's go to Dave in Berkeley. Hi, Dave.

DAVE (CALLER): Hi. I have been teaching computer science for 20 years, and I think what's remarkable about this Y2K thing is nobody I know in the field, except those making money from it, are concerned about it. We're not doing a thing. This comment about the leap year problem - I was talking to my daughter-in-law last night. I mean, that was in textbooks 20 years ago.

I think the person you - experts are making money if people are worried about this problem. And I think you might try and get different opinions from different experts about just how serious this is.

FLATOW: Peter?

Mr. WEISS: It's true that some people are making enormous amount of money. On the other hand, some companies are going to lose quite a lot of money in supplies, for example, if the supplies don't come on time. There are a number of different larger companies such as Ford, GM, many of the Japanese companies that have, just in time processing, where inventory show up in time if you don't have the right computers and everybody is not quite ready at the same time, all those people are going to suffer, and we will suffer as a consequence. It's not only those people that are making the money, but those people that own the systems have the problem. It's a real problem.

FLATOW: Okay, Dave?

DAVE: Well, I'd like to have your guests on in a week, when all the newspapers on Monday say, you know, nothing happened, and then have him explain. I...

FLATOW: He said that most of - and he said 95 percent of the people have taken care of it. So why should we expect to see anything happen?

DAVE: He said the problem was legacy code, which was written by big companies 40 years ago. I agree to the problem with that code, but almost nobody is running that code except the very big corporations, and those are the ones that have the money to fix the problems.

If it's really going to be a problem, I'd like to see the people come on the show a week from now and say, I apologize for raising alarms and the concerns and possibly giving terrorists a target to shoot at, and we were wrong.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about the Y2K problem, looking back into the year 1999, when, at this time, we thought that New Year's Eve, a week later, there might be a Y2K problem around the world. And we're hearing various clips from that program. If you recall, other callers were taking a more philosophical approach.

FLATOW: Liz in Escondido, California. Hi, Liz.

LIZ (Caller): Hi. I'd just like to observe that, initially, the Y2K kind of started as this global fear, maybe a subconscious fear of technology, kind of like, you know, Frankenstein hit at the rise of industrialism. But what I see it turn them into is kind of just an awareness of how connected everyone is globally. I mean, if you tune into TVs at all, I mean, we're watching the celebrations, you know, roll over each time zone. And it's really more of a kind of a global love-in or something rather than this (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: You think this is a unifying experience...

LIZ: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...rather than divisive.

LIZ: Yeah. Because it's - we're all now more aware of how connected we are rather than - you know, you just can't go really hold up in your home and not be, you know, dependent on others.

FLATOW: So you think that it's not - then the hype has not been overblown, or it served a useful purpose for you?

LIZ: Well, I'm an ex-COBOL programmer, so I know how code works and, you know, I probably wrote some of the buggy code out there. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZ: But, you know, I think that we have a lot of technical people on the job. I was involved in a Y2K project. And, you know, people are doing what they have to do. I think the problems are going to be minor, and I think part of it is media hype. I agree with your earlier caller that there's a lot folks that are taking the opportunity to cash in on this, too.

FLATOW: Other callers encouraged us to think big.

Kathleen in Cape Cod. Hi, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

KATHLEEN: I think I'm going to go join bunker boy. That sounds better than what I get to do tonight.

FLATOW: What are you doing tonight?

KATHLEEN: I am a psychiatric nurse.

FLATOW: Yeah.

KATHLEEN: And I'm working the 11-7 shift...

FLATOW: Wow.

KATHLEEN: ...on a unit that not only takes in psychiatric patients, but substance abuse. So - I mean, revelers that go over the edge a little.

FLATOW: Wow.

KATHLEEN: So I'm just - I liked what that one woman said a little while ago about this being a time of connection instead of a time of the fear-mongers and people working up fragile human beings into a frenzy. And I just had a call from brother from California who wanted to wish me a happy millennium because it had just turned the millennium in Kolkata. And I thought, that was a nice, little...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATHLEEN: I'd rather focus on that.

FLATOW: So are you worried? If you're working in a hospital...

KATHLEEN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...in a psychiatric ward there?

KATHLEEN: We're very low-tech.

FLATOW: So you're not worried about Y2K at all?

KATHLEEN: No. I would be really worried if I worked in an ICU or something that had a lot of machinery.

FLATOW: Peter, let me ask you. Do you check any of these - is there any, in your experience, to worry about in embedded computer chips in devices and things like that?

Mr. WEISS: Quite a lot in the past. I did not work with it myself, but I have some associates that have worked with testing medical equipment, and it's extremely tough. If you have a heart-lung machine, you don't want it to stop, not even for a minute.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Mr. WEISS: And some embedded chips cannot be easily tested. However, I read that good - most of the hospitals have tested everything. And, in fact, one interesting report yesterday was from a hospital - I think it was from Colorado - that is giving whistles to their patients just in case the bells to call nurses at night or during the day fail.

FLATOW: That is low-tech.

Mr. WEISS: That's definitely low-tech.

KATHLEEN: Yes.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN: Well, thank you. And what I'm going to do with my patients is we're all going to get together and we're going to say, may peace prevail on Earth.

FLATOW: Amen.

Mr. WEISS: Amen.

KATHLEEN: Amen.

FLATOW: Have a good, Happy New Year.

KATHLEEN: Oh, thank you.

FLATOW: Bye-bye.

KATHLEEN: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: And the end of the world, of course, did not end that night. Both sides took credit. Those who were worrying too much said: See, we told you so. Those who worked on the problem said: See, our hard work prevented it.

And if you'd like to hear the full, unedited version of the 1999 broadcast, visit our website at sciencefriday.com for a link to the complete podcast of that.

We're going to say goodbye, and a have a healthy and happy and a Merry Christmas.

I'm Ira Flatow. We'll see you New Year's Eve in New York.

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