End of the World? Or just another day at the office?

"The Y2K business - and it is extremely profitable - is full of misinformation, hype, fearmongering, and exaggeration by consulting and programming shops which stand to benefit from spreading fear about Y2k meltdowns." quoted from PC Magazine in Millenium Quarterly

We ran across a good-looking and informative newsletter the other day: Millennium Quarterly. This cool zine is published by San Francisco's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services. It bears alarming news. The most recent issue screams: ONLY 565 DAYS LEFT UNTIL JANUARY 1, 2000.

Fewer than 575 days remain until the year 2000, so there is no time to lose. As before, our mission is to get you to:

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Analyze and identify your exposures.

"Take Action."

Is there a secret eschatological cult conspiring inside the office cubbyholes of a potentially theocratic City Hall? Are our civil servants buying Nikes and getting ready to board The Ship? (We should be so lucky!) Alas, no. The Millennium Quarterly is the voice of a faction within the City's Information Services Division that is worried San Francisco's cyberops will meltdown as the clock moves forward into the past at 11:59:59 on Dec. 31, 1999.

According to Ron Hass, public servant and publisher of MQ, the City's computer systems are so "decentralized" that efforts to fix the Year 2000 problem can not be coordinated by ordinary mortals. Every one of the City's 54 departments is handling cybergeddon on its own. This means that each department gets to hire code rewriters and spend its share of the City?s $15 million Year 2000 budget on consultants of their choice.

The MQ newsletter is a voice in the wilderness crying out for reason. It urges City Hall's management information systems specialists - we employ about 500 - to get off their doofuses and get to work before its too late and nobody gets paid.

(Actually, City Hall has contracted out its payroll to a Y2K-proof vendor to make sure that the paychecks continue without interruption through the millennium. Of course, given City Hall's tremendous computer capacity it would be easy to generate payroll in-house, but that's another story!)

R on Hass declined to reveal the cost of producing his expensive-looking newsletter, which employs a five-person staff. He said the cost of MQ's 2,000 copies "comes out of overhead." We had an interesting talk, however.

Hass seemed intelligent and genuinely interested in his work, which is an anomaly in the local civil service. (Robots would be more dynamic and engaging than most of our City employees!) Mostly, Hass fears that the flimsy cyber networks linking City departments and individual machines will collapse at midnight of the last day of the century. He was actually aware (!) that the City's independent auditor KPMG Peat Marwick has been severely criticizing the City's Unpreparedness for the Year 2000 over the last few audits. It appears that damage control is now being practiced "so that the payroll and a few emergency communications and the water billing system can weather the cyberstorm" even though the rest of the City's computers might not make it. (Avoid the Airport!)

A disaster scenario is not without its devotees, however. A ton of money is to be made selling brand new hard-and-software and the services of gold-eating consultants to clean up the cyberscape on the Day After Cyberia.

We asked Hass how this seemingly obvious problem became such a big deal? His answer is interesting. It seems that in the 1960s storage space on computer machines was very expensive. Code writers decided to leave off the first two digits of century numerals to save money. For instance, 98 was 1998. 03 was supposed to be 2003. Only the computers couldn't tell if 03 was 2003 or 1903! Ha, ha, thought the well-paid bureaucrats of yesteryear. By the time the Year 2000 rolls around all of these new systems will have been replaced several times over by newer systems that will deal with the glitch. So why should we worry?

Guess what? Progress did not progress.

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