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Y2K: Computer glitch came as no surprise

Friday, June 25, 1999

By DOUG WILLIAMSON, The Abilene Reporter-News

The Year 2000 problem isn't sneaking up on Bob Bemer. He's been warning folks about it for 30 years.



Bob Bemer SHNS

Bemer, 79, is "The Father of ASCII," the method computers use to translate letters and numbers into digital language they can understand.

And the "Esc" escape button on the standard PC - he developed the sequence behind that, too.

Bemer belonged to a group of computer programmers back in the 1950s who, led by Navy Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, developed COBOL - the "common business-oriented language" used by most PCs today. In fact, Bemer coined the name.



Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hoppper AP

It is in COBOL that the Y2K bug, which may cause computers to fail to distinguish the Year 2000 from 1900, most often exists.

How serious is the Y2K problem?

"I'm a firm believer that, if ignored or avoided, it will turn the world upside down," Bemer said.


The awakening

A group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approached IBM in the 1950s to see if the company's new computers could be used to help the Mormons in their genealogical research and record-keeping. Bemer was working at IBM at the time.

Y2K TIMELINE

A look at the history of the Y2K problem:

1959

A team lead by Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper develops COBOL, a computer programming language that used two-digit year dates to save storage space.

...

1998

John Koskien is named Y2K czar by the White House.

SHNS

Programmers had to find a way to save expensive storage space in huge mainframe computers.

As a standard practice, they used only six columns of the 80-column computer punch card for the date - two for the day, two for the month and two for the year.

The Year 2000 was not as important to the genealogical research project as the years 1900, 1800, 1000, 600 and the like.

So, Bemer created a way to use a four-digit year reference in COBOL.

Bemer realized that if the problem existed in historical research, it could become a crisis in all sorts of applications at the turn of the century.

The problem was even worse in the federal government. Data being exchanged between government computers used different codes for states, places, names, organizations, dates and the like.

Historically, the month-day-year sequence is used, but in the military and throughout much of the rest of the world, it was customary to use a day-month-year sequence.

In data interchange, how would a computer know that 12-10-99 is Dec. 10, 1999, and not 12 Oct., 1999?

"Initially, the most interest was not in the number of digits in the year, but in the order the information was put," said Harry S. White Jr., who held several key governmental positions in the 1960s and '70s.

"For the year, there were three options: one-digit, two-digits or four-digits. Two digits was chosen as the standard since that is what the Pentagon wanted."

Russ Kelly, of Seneca, S.C., a certified systems professional with 36 years of computer industry experience, remembers hearing warnings about the Y2K problem as early as the late '60s.

"We started thinking, 'Boy, we're going to have to do things differently to get us through the century,'" he said. "But we were dealing with 80-column punch cards; we didn't have space. In the late '80s and '90s, we knew it was going to be a huge problem, and there would be the dickens to pay."

In the '60s and '70s, "we were just beginning to get into larger-scale computers when memory was very, very expensive," White said. "Even a little later, when there was more space in the computer, people had their minds set in 80-character increments."


The blame

Bemer doesn't blame the COBOL programmers of four and five decades ago for the Y2K problem.



Bob Bemer talks with a reporter at his Possum Kingdom, Texas, home. Bemer had the first published warning of the potential of the Y2K crisis in the early 1970's. Steve Hebert / Abilene Reporter-News

"It was everyone else's fault," he said. "If you place the blame on Grace Hopper and me, you would be wrong. The worst thing we did was making the language so easy that anybody could use it."

And he said it wasn't his fault for not sending out a warning. As for the programmers, "they just did what their employers and the country did."

Bemer said expensive memory wasn't the problem. Memory could have been saved "by writing programs that were less sloppy. Else, how did they get PacMan on an early chip?"

The real blame, Bemer said, lies in us, as "lazy, fix-it-later people."

White said it has been common for business and government leaders for years to say, "Well, we won't do it now. Let's just leave it until we upgrade (our computers) the next time."

Many blame the Pentagon.

The Department of Defense was by far the largest user of computers in the world in the 1960s.

"When I was working with the Defense Department, we worked to establish a four-digit standard in the DOD," White said. "They said the only thing they would accept was two digits. They were not flexible and did not want to have choices."

But White, who has retired from government work and teaching at the University of West Virginia, won't say the Pentagon got the world into the Y2K crisis.

"What took place back then was economically justifiable at that point. Had we had the resources then, we would not have the problem today," he said.

It was not until last October or November that the federal government finally issued a standard for all government computer systems to use four-digit dates, White said.


Sounding the alarm

Many other computer scientists joined Bemer in an effort to declare 1970 the National Year of the Computer. Through this campaign, Bemer hoped he could get a forum to warn of the approaching Y2K train.

He persuaded presidential science adviser Edward E. David to approach President Nixon with the idea. But he was ignored.

Probably the first published warning about Y2K came from Bemer in an editorial he wrote to the 6,500 technologically influential readers of Honeywell Computer Journal in 1971. His first writing for public consumption came in February 1979 when his article "Time and the Computer" was published in Interface Age.

In this article Bemer wrote, "Don't drop the first two digits. The program may well fail from ambiguity in the Year 2000."

Bemer notes that fixing Y2K is the second most expensive operation since World War II.



Peter de Jager is shown at his home with some computers in Brampton, Ont. in this Dec. 27, 1997 photo. De Jager was one of the first prominent Y2K preparedness activists. Canadian Press file photo

Peter de Jager, a young computer operator for IBM, began wondering about the Year 2000 in 1977 while testing a banking system. He saw the problem, alerted his bosses and was ignored.

Today, he's one of the most vocal Y2K alarmists.

In a 1993 Computerworld article, de Jager sounded his first public alarm with this analogy.

"Have you ever been in a car accident? Time seems to slow down as you realize you're going to crash into the car ahead of you.

"It's too late to avoid it - you're going to crash. All you can do now is watch it happen.

"The information systems community is heading toward an event more devastating than a car crash. We are heading toward the Year 2000. We are heading toward a failure of our standard date format: MM/DD/YY (month, day, year).

"Unfortunately, unlike the car crash, time will not slow down for us. If anything, we're accelerating toward disaster."

White said there was a great awakening in the late 1980s, around 1989-1990. "The light came on that in another decade, what will we do? People were saying, 'We've got 10 years to solve that problem,'" he said.

The call sounded, but the warning fell on unresponsive ears.

Many scientists and programmers who today say they warned superiors of the approaching problem, cite flippant responses from their bosses. They were told to get back to work, don't worry since they won't be around the company in 20 or 30 years when the bug bites, and most commonly, "Somebody will fix it before then."


The problems to come

Bemer says we'll see the problems soon. Most of the states are on fiscal years that will begin Thursday.

On Aug. 22, atomic clocks inside Global Positioning Satellites - a network that helps planes, trains and ships navigate - will be reset.

"Half of the truckers in this country are unaware they need to check out their GPS receivers. Otherwise, the truckers may go to the wrong town with the wrong load," Bemer said.

Some of the problems will surface on Jan. 1, but not in the volume most people expect.



Bob Bemer talks with a reporter at his Possum Kingdom, Texas, home. Bemer published the first warning of the potential of the Y2K crisis in the early 1970s. Steve Hebert / Abilene Reporter-News

"The press has been painting a picture of this airplanes-falling-out-of-the-sky crap," he said. "Look out for next February and March. That is when people are going to realize some things are wrong. Their statements and bills don't come out right. Other things may go wrong."

White is cautious but not a survivalist. "I'll tell you that I will not be in an airplane or in a large metropolitan area on New Year's Eve," he said. "We have a two-month supply of food, but that's not unusual for us. We have some additional soft drinks and bottled water. We already had a gasoline-powered generator."

On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being little or no problems and 10 being worldwide catastrophe, White forecasts a 2 with some disruptions and annoyances. Bemer sides with many other Y2K experts with a 7 or 8.

But in six months, on New Year's Eve, Bemer will be sipping his scotch and milk, looking out over Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas.

He and his wife, Bettie, spent $5,400 for a year's supply of food, tucked away in 63 boxes in their million-dollar-plus home. He ordered a Scandinavian water filter to make sure the lake's water is potable. He recently discovered that the home in which they have lived since September has a 500-gallon underground propane tank, and it's full.

As for the scotch and milk, "It really improves the taste of milk," he said.


This is the license plate of Bob Bemer's Ford Expedition sport utility truck. It reflects that he is the father of ASCII, a computer language code. Bemer sounded early warnings about the Y2K problem. Steve Hebert / Abilene Reporter-News


Russ Kelly, a Seneca, S.C., computer consultant, has reminders of the approaching year change throughout his home office. Will Chandler / Anderson Independent-Mail


Russ Kelly, a Seneca, S.C., computer consultant, has reminders of the approaching year change throughout his home office. Will Chandler / Anderson Independent-Mail


Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, a Rear Admiral in the Navy, lead the government team that developed COBOL computer programming language. The foundation of many additional software programs, COBOL used two digits to designate years. AP file photo



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