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Just over the horizon: Y2K

Mankind has one year left to reclaim the power it handed to computers. Because of a mathematical glitch, the first moments of New Year's Day 2000 could bring widespread power outages, disrupted phone service and untold havoc to the global network of financial markets, military communications and public transit facilities. That is a worst-case scenario. No wonder some business executives are retiring early, just as aggressive programers are poised to earn billions of dollars fixing the so-called Y2K, or Year 2000, bug.

The problem stems from the decision by programers, years ago, to keep track of the date by denoting every year by its last two digits. The year 1968, for instance, is merely "68." The economy of shaving two digits from a computer's memory was significant when computer science was in its infancy. But the problem with computers is they follow the letter of man's illogic. The "00" in the year 2000 is assumed by most machines to mean 1900.

Fixing computers' biological clocks won't be easy or cheap. Nobody knows for sure whether entire systems will crash come Jan. 1, 2000, or the cost to private business and the government from the damage caused by the Y2K bug. A Gallup survey showed that most of America's 24-million small employers are ignoring Y2K, even though the bug threatens to cost them revenue and customers. Only half the nation's 3,069 counties and one-third of the states, including Florida, have made substantial headway to avert the Y2K problem. A World Bank survey of 128 borrower countries showed that only 37 knew what Y2K was about.

The federal government has set a poor example for readiness. Recent reports to Congress show that most federal agencies have not immunized hardware and software that perform critical public services. Among the worst laggards: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the departments of Health and Human Services, Justice and Defense.

Luckily, the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs are among those federal agencies getting a handle on the problem. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. But a multitude of assistance programs involve participation by local, state and federal agencies, leaving the entire system vulnerable to its weakest link.

The challenge now is to coordinate federal efforts and to begin the testing and inspections necessary for repair programs to work. States and local governments need guidance, and, in some cases, technical expertise, merely to overcome immediate impediments to processing Medicaid payments, public assistance and vouchers for subsidized housing. The same goes for private companies, which increasingly are being contracted to deliver services once performed by public agencies.

Though fewer people are speaking of Y2K in disastrous terms, estimates show the bug could cost from $50-billion to $1-trillion in damages and affect most humans according to their station in the world. Residents of developed countries could experience power outages, bad credit reports and disruption in travel and financial markets, while those in poorer countries may suffer from the cancellation of food and water supplies and the suspension of financial aid. Fixing even 99 percent of the problem leaves millions of opportunities for upheaval worldwide.

There is no need for panic, but it is not too early to start thinking about ways to limit our exposure to damage. Make computer printouts of valuable personal and financial records. Call manufacturers to inquire whether your household electronic goods are Y2K compliant. Stay informed of repair programs and computer software "patches" that may protect information stored on computers. New years have a way of arriving sooner than we think.