Shortly after midnight on a clear night in June, four million gallons of raw sewage began to pour out of a manhole in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys. Within hours, the disgusting mess had flowed along several streets and down into a huge park. Street crews worked until dawn, hosing down the roads and vacuuming the soiled park grass. The smell, as one resident said with West Coast understatement, “wasn’t pleasant.”
The cause of the problem was a computer error, which occurred as officials at the Van Nuys waste-treatment plant tested systems to see whether they would function in the year 2000 or fall prey to the so-called Y2K (or millennium) bug. Like government departments and companies around the world, the waste controllers simply rolled their computers ahead as though the new year had arrived. But this would go down as a failed test, a “glitch”—in the innocuous language of computer programming. The rollover had shut down the main sewage line.
Studies show most critical systems in North America are Y2K-ready—although a defence department study revealed that several Canadian sectors, including hospitals, airports and prisons, are months behind in rewriting programs or installing new software. And already experts have confronted serious glitches in Canada and around the globe. In England, 4,000 London homes lost power for an entire August weekend when Y2K upgrades to meters failed. In July, Manchester’s airport booted up a new Y2K-ready system and the information screens went haywire—giving passengers incorrect departure times, guiding others to the wrong baggage carousels and displaying erroneous check-in information. July 7 was equally chaotic at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport as Air France discovered that its attempt to millennium-proof its baggage system hadn’t worked.
Closer to home, there have also been problems. During a February Y2K test, the Ontario government issued hundreds of traffic violation notices dated a hundred years in the future. Also in February, 2,700 residents got a particularly nasty jolt while new Y2K-compliant systems were being installed at Ottawa City Hall. Among those affected was Erwin Dreessen, who discovered that the city had yanked $1,880—a year’s worth of property taxes—out of his bank account without notice. Mayor Jim Watson wrote Dreessen an apology, but the taxpayer is still frustrated. “Somewhere in the bowels of the tax administration,” he says, “someone dropped a stitch.”
In fact, some of the Y2K foul-ups are caused by people rather than software. In Texas, a Bank One clerk inadvertently sent out 1,200 bogus overdraft notices to customers in April; they were only meant to be props during Y2K testing. Technicians at a New York City insurance company rolled the date forward on the computers in January and happily noted that the system worked fine. But they forgot to roll the date back, triggering a feature that deletes files that have been inactive for a number of months. A similar oversight by Hydro Quebec technicians left utility executives locked out of the garage at the Montreal headquarters. The computer read their passes as being expired.
Vancouver-based technology commentator Steve Dotto believes that, despite inconvenience, the recent spate of Y2K failures and miscues are a positive sign that needed repair work is getting done. “You may not like it,” he says, “but the problem gives you time to do something. Plus, companies are probably finding other potential problems they never even thought about.” In Canada, Y2K testing is certainly widespread. A recent Statistics Canada study found 99.5 per cent of Canadian organizations with more than 250 employees making fixes to their systems.
As the new year grows closer, there will be more tests, and more glitches— but experts like Dotto say that testing, failing and recovering is a small price compared with going down for the count on New Year’s Day.
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