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Y2K worries? You might be too late

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Y2K worries? You might be too late

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

Y2K, go away. Y2K, go away.

I was chanting those words under my breath at a conference a few weeks ago. People who understood the grimly fascinating problem of "Y2K" -- the Year 2000 computer bug -- had called a meeting to explain the problem to people who run businesses in Central New York. I was there to give a pep talk as the keynote speaker. But the last thing I wanted to do was cheer them up.

Last year, maybe, I could have spread some cheer. This year, with the end of the millennium so close, it's too late for cheer. I decided I had a different mission. If I couldn't make Y2K go away, I'd have to try something very old fashioned. I'd have to make them afraid.

So I told them they had arrived at the conference a year late. I told them the choice they had now wasn't what to do about Y2K. It was what to leave out -- what not to do. They didn't have time left to do everything they should be doing, so they'd have to pick and choose.

They'd have to settle for what they could get by with, and worry about the rest later.

Why? Because handling the Y2K problem right means doing a lot of plain old work. You have to check all the computer programs on all the computers in your office or business. That means you have to make an inventory first, just to find out what's used.

You have to figure out what devices your office or business uses that might have embedded computer chips in them. Do the doors lock automatically? They're probably controlled by embedded chips. Do the heating and air conditioning systems keep track of the time and date and adjust themselves automatically? They're probably controlled by embedded chips, too.

You don't need me to tell you that finding out whether a computer program or the computer itself is Y2K-compliant can be a hassle. Imagine how difficult it is going to be when you try to find out if your front doors are Y2K compliant, or if your heating plant is going to go south when the date turns over, or if your wall safe will let you open its lock after the first of the year. You've got to find out from each manufacturer -- and that means you need to find out where each manufacturer is.

That's just the first phase. The second phase is the fix-it phase. The secret here is that "fixing" some devices is a totally implausible notion. The only fix might be a replacement. (This is especially true for old software and old computers, but is often true for embedded chips also.)

Then there's the testing phase. You should be doing that now -- right now. (Read that sentence again in case you're missing the point, because there's no sense fooling yourself. You're in for a shock if you haven't reached the testing phase at this time in 1999, because you'll need time to find out how to fix or replace everything that fails the tests.)

If these warnings are arriving in your consciousness a little late, do two things: First, play knock-on-wood by tapping smartly on the side of your head; it's made of pine, and you're a dodo for waiting so long. (There. I got that out of my system.) Second, get all three of these phases done as quickly as you can, making note of the problems you can live with -- things such as check-writing software that can't get the date right (you can do it by hand, remember?) -- while getting the Big Kahuna problems fixed. (It will cost you money, but that's better than going out of business because you ignored the calendar.)

The main thing you need to know is that we can change just about everything in modern life except the flow of time. Jan. 1, 2000 is coming on Jan. 1, 2000 no matter what. Congress can't pass a law putting it off. The U.N. can't issue a mandate. We're stuck with it. So keep this in mind: Y2K is not like your taxes. You can't start working on the Y2K problem at 7:30 on New Year's Eve hoping that some sort of celestial IRS will give you a three-month extension. If you put it off, you could end up in big trouble.

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