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©02 The Media Desk
Telling Keia about one of my first assignments for the Bishop that didn't involve going here or there, gunplay, and high speed driving through pouring rain in the middle of the night brought back some memories.
It had involved the so called Year 2000 computer bug.
The Bishop wanted a report on all the nuances of the problem. An identification of the various layers, things people might not think about. And some possible solutions, both permanent and temporary.
I have since learned that he forwarded the report up his chain of command and then it floated around the upper layers of business and government until one of the desks it sat on was that of the Secretary General of the United Nations.
I had begun with the things everybody pretty much knew about. Power company computers, credit card companies, and the IRS.
Then I went into things nobody but a computer type would think about. And this was where the fun came in, projecting real world problems.
My first example was the Global Positioning System and other satellites in orbit. Nobody truly knew what the change of the millennia would do to that hardware. Which ones had date driven programs preloaded, could they be reprogrammed from the ground, and would it stick when the last two numbers changed to double zero? If the GPS died, what would that do to everything from civilian air traffic to oil tankers on autopilot at sea?
The on board computer in my car. Was the maintenance schedule date dependent, and would it run when the chip told the car it hadn't been serviced in 90 years? If it didn't run, could the dealer's diagnostic computer, which also might be date dependent and dead, fix it?
I ran down the most likely scenario.
I assumed that about thirty percent of the known date driven systems in the US would be fixed, tested, and bug free when the ball dropped on December 31, 1999.
But so many systems these days were interconnected, who could even guess what would happen when, say, the stock exchange's computer in London, which had been fixed, was contacted by a system at a small time broker that hadn't. Would the bigger system be corrupted, would it go insane or out and out crash?
Again, I told the Bishop, nobody had any idea. There were a lot of guesses, speculation, and theories. But nobody could say for sure.
Another thirty percent would be partially fixed. Maybe they still had bugs in them that would only show up as they were used over time. They might work fine for three weeks after the date change until somebody ran a particular program that still had the glitch in it. Then... once again, who knows?
Another thirty percent nobody would get to, or maybe even know about, for whatever reason. These were small businesses without the money or expertise to debug them. Corrections had been started and never finished. And so on. Here it was a crapshoot as to what would happen. Some might lock up, some might go insane, others would run fine. These were the major danger to the major systems they interacted with. They might work like nothing was wrong until they interfaced with a system that had been repaired, and then, both might go down in flames.
The last ten percent were the ones everybody had forgotten about, like the navigational buoys in the shipping channels, the chips in two-way radios, transponders implanted in wild animals that talked to satellites, the little machines here and there with the embedded chips nobody remembered were there.
These things might go on working just fine. It depended on the type of information they were programmed with, was it date related, and whether it was critical to its operation.
As with the other things, in many cases, the information on these systems was lost, buried, or incomplete.
How would they interact with outside systems once the date changed, or even would they?
Would an automatic lighthouse quit and cause a major accident?
Would some remote railroad automatic switch decide it wasn't going to work?
No matter what anybody said. They didn't really know.
As a beta tester at the programming company, I had gotten to play, work, and fool with a lot of machines, and even more software.
The level of intricacy was astounding in these things. One machine dealt with another on several different levels at once. The software interacting in even more ways. How all this would fit together when something like the change from 1999 to 2000 where machines and programs had for ages been told to just look at the last two digits of the year was a mystery to people that were supposed to be trying to correct it.
I spent weeks researching the problem and looking at possible solutions, listening to the doomsayers, talking to guys that had bought property near Amish enclaves and were now contracting to have a water well drilled.
Besides a headache, I came away with the revelation that nobody had a clue as to what was going to happen.
It could be the end of the world, as we know it.
It could pass and nobody would even notice.
But more likely, it would be a patchwork quilt of machines working as usual, and others that would stutter to a stop and refuse to move ever again.
My advice was simple. Better to error on the side of caution.
Manually shut down things like nuclear reactors beforehand and wait until the date had passed and all systems were checked before restarting them. Ground all commercial airliners until things were found to be stable. Bring the military to standby alert and convert everything that could be to manual control until the systems were found to be sound.
As for the business side of things. I advised lots of backups to tape and printouts.
The most vulnerable were commercial on line systems that dealt with a hodgepodge of private sector computers. They needed safeguards and firewalls against the outside world whether they had been debugged or not.
Bishop42 seemed to grasp this part of the problem immediately. If one lone mail server at a lumber camp in the North Woods went insane and logged into a major Internet Service Provider, things might get interesting in a hurry.
But the second half of this project created a headache that took a year to go away.
I got sent hither and thither. Riding around all over Hades and half of Georgia, reading code and loading programs into machines for everybody from some coal company halfway up a mountain in West Virginia to a major brokerage house right in the middle of Wall Street.
And to be honest... Now, hindsight is 20-20 right? I don't know if I did them any good or not.
Another part of the project never happened. While some power plants were on alert, when asked exactly what that meant in terms of what to do if something just this side of the 'Worst Case' happened, they grimaced a little and asked if I wanted another cup of coffee. Other installations were ready for everything up to the Second Coming. Others didn't know the New Year began on Saturday.
The results in the real world were just as scattered. While major systems- power, phones, air traffic control, all worked more or less as usual. The list of minor glitches and malfunctions read like a who's what of human and computer errors. Everything from slot machines to birth certificate databases got sideways. A few of the systems I had worked on even had problems, but out of hundreds, it was only a handful, and none of them were critical. Unless you were the guy stuck the elevator for three hours.
Later it turned out that two system managers hadn't been satisfied with my efforts and had gone back in and undid most of my work. I simply nodded and smiled and didn't rub it in. Too much.
Keia was of the opinion that I thought I was doing what was best, the Bishop approved it, and in some cases, it did work. So I shouldn't worry about it at all.
Given the fact that after I had debugged our own computers, we had one bite the big one as soon as I touched it on January 1, 2000, I'd say my record was less than sterling.
I dug into that machine. Tore it apart piece by piece, and found the problem that illustrated what I had been saying all along. On one of the cards inside the machine, I found a second BIOS chip. I didn't know it was there, even the documentation for the card in question only mentioned it in passing. Evidently it was date driven and critical. When I clicked on a program on the machine after the date change, something started that queried that chip, and ... nothing.
Bishop42 laughed a long time about that on line. Then he told me he had to buy a new microwave.
His had gone belly up.
The error message flashing on its digital display said it hadn't been cleaned in 99 years and wouldn't accept any information otherwise.
Then Keia wanted to know about the first time I had gotten into a firefight where I had to actually kill somebody or I would have been killed.
The memories of computer bugs weren't exciting enough for her.
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