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Summary and Comments

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1998-01-05 19:08:55


Problems? Yes. Disaster? Maybe Not



Orlin Grabbe (long e) is a computer programmer, an author of an international banking textbook, and a conspatorialist. He has his own Web site. This article appears on another Web site: Zola (as in Emile) Times.

He thinks that y2k is a problem that is not being dealt with. He also thinks that any chatter about "the free market will solvce this" is nonsense. People solve problems; the free market only sets the price.

He says the problem is technically easy to solve. This statement ignores the problem of noncompliant embedded chips. It also confuses two things: (1) the repair of a finite number of lines of code by a programmer who reads the all of the code's ancient languages and who has the original source code and compiler, with (2) an insufficient number of programmers worldwide who must solve the problem in every significant computer-based system on earth. The first task is technically easy; the second is technically impossible.

I argue that the y2k problem is systemic. We do not have enough programmers worldwide to solve it in time. We do not have an agreed-upon 8-digit standard for writing the dates. We do not have an agreed-upon standard for making the repairs (windowing -- which the IRS now rejects -- vs. expansion vs. encapsulation, etc.). We do not have the original source code. In any case, "we" is an abstraction. The key question is: What official in charge will decide to pay for the repair out of his organization's budget this quarter and the next?

All this does not necessarily mean that we are facing the end of civilization. It also does not necessarily mean that we aren't. We don't know. What we do know is that there is no 2000-compliant national government. There is no large corporation, including public utilities, that is claiming 2000-compliance today.

If it's so easy to fix, why hasn't any large organization fixed it?

The big problem with the standard line -- "Yes, there is a problem here" -- is that mild-mannered talk about "a problem" doesn't persuade anyone to commit millions of dollars to solve his local version of the problem. So, the problem does not get solved this quarter. Or the next.

Eventually, it's too late.

"Eventually" is Jan. 1, 2000.

* * * * * * * * *

But sometimes I cringe when people bring up "the market" as a solution to a flaw in technology. Maybe it's because I make my living solving problems of a technical nature. The market doesn't solve the problems: I do. The market just determines what I'm paid for doing it. When you are staring at a blank sheet of paper, or a blank computer screen, turning your thoughts to the market doesn't help. . . .

Is there a Year 2000 problem? Yes. Is it technically difficult to solve? No. Will everyone get their software fixed before 2000? No. Will there be problems? Undoubtedly.

One of the virtues of the marketplace is that it is also a great destroyer. . . .

I find it hard personally to take the Year 2000 problem seriously. It's not that big a deal to fix. But it is also clear that there are lots of people not doing anything about it. They don't read computer publications. They don't think about how their computer uses dates for sorting files. And a "Year 2000 Problem" sounds like some heralded event in apocalyptic religion. So they don't pay much attention to the newspaper either. . . .

Finally, the [Bank for International Settlements] report concludes: "The Year 2000 issue is potentially the biggest challenge ever faced by the financial industry." I guess the BIS thinks the problem is serious. Certainly the Year 2000 will come to all financial institutions, and the Market will sort them out.


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