Corrections or additions?

Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January

5, 2000. All rights reserved.

Y2K: The Post Mortems

Y2K judgment day has come and gone, but no one has

answered

the obvious question: was it all worth it? Worth the Senate hearings,

the millions of dollars in compliance efforts, and the columns and

columns of articles in the media?

Again, no answers. "If you’re asking if there would be some major

breakdown because of something we didn’t do, I don’t know," says

David Feyrer,who led Sarnoff’s Corporation’s Y2K Readiness

Project.

But Alan Wallach, a former IBM programmer and author of "The

Year 2000 Hoax," has heard that line too many times. "We did

know," he says. "We just didn’t ask the right people. We asked

economists and people making a fortune on this thing."

Feyrer and Wallach come together to discuss what might have gone wrong

on January 1, what didn’t go wrong, what never was going to go wrong

(Wallach’s stance), and what we can learn when fear and technology

mix, at the Princeton ACM/IEEE meeting on Thursday, January 20, at

8 p.m. at the Sarnoff Corporation. Joining them is consultant Perry

Weaver, who helped in Y2K compliance efforts at a hospital in

Philadelphia.

Call 609-924-8704. Free.

Ira Fuchs, vice president for computing and information

technology

at Princeton University, discusses the same issues that morning,

Thursday,

January 20, at 10 a.m. at the 55 Plus meeting at the Jewish Center

of Princeton. Call 609-737-2001.

Like many consultants, Feyrer (who is also an ordained Episcopal

priest)

reconciles his own job with the apparent no-show of Y2K by invoking

scientific prudence: "Until you go into a specific situation you

don’t really know," he points out. "I get in and get up to

my knees in what’s going on and piece together the information that

I need."

What Feyrer found was, out of the nearly 2,000 projects that went

out of Sarnoff in 10 years, only about 50 contained date-time issues

susceptible to glitches. Of those, he adds, fewer than 10 required

substantial amounts of time to remediate.

The fear that embedded chips would bring the world’s infrastructure

tumbling down — that was stuff of science fiction, not science,

says Feyrer. "From a scientific standpoint," says Feyrer,

"the hysteria around Y2K made no sense. The collective

apprehension

was exacerbated by charlatans, P.T. Barnums who saw profit, and in

fairness, there were people who really believed that the end of the

world was at hand."

Feyrer grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where his father was an

accountant for Bethlehem Steel. He graduated from Muhlenberg, Class

of 1963, and after three years in the army went to Philadelphia

Divinity

School. He left the clergy in 1979 so he could raise his six children.

For the first part of the 1980s, he worked for a car dealership in

Wilkes-Barre. His son led him to computer programming. "When I

was in the car dealership I was always intrigued with computers but

I was frustrated with them too," he says. "I bought my kid

a computer, and he kept teaching me and I became familiar with a

number

of database programs. Eventually, I made the computer do what I wanted

it to do."

Now a resident of Westford, Connecticut, he is the state chaplain

for the Connecticut National Guard as well as a consultant. He doesn’t

preach in the workplace — unless it’s about better asset

management.

From the technologists’ standpoint, that was one of the potential

contributors to Y2K error. "One of the problems that many

corporations

have is they have poor asset management — they didn’t know what

they bought or what they had," he says. "Many corporations

just had no idea what computers they had. At Sarnoff, we had over

3,000 computers on our books, many of them nonoperational."

By taking inventory and upgrading their clients’ systems, Y2K

consultants,

if they did nothing else, at least gave corporations a good spring

cleaning, says Feyrer. "If they didn’t do it now they’d have to

do it later," he says.

Alan Wallach rejects such cozy justifications — on

scientific grounds: "I’ve heard people say `because we’ve upgraded

it’s going to take our economy to new heights,’ but I feel that’s

one of the worst things to do — rewrite programs when you’re

trying

to fix a bug," he says.

A former IBM programmer, Wallach has earned himself a place on the

blacklist of Michael Hyatt ("The Millennium Bug") by

claiming that Y2K was an all-out hoax and has become something of

a thorn in the side of his peers. "I’ve been taken as a nut,"

Wallach readily admits. "I had one guy E-mailing me every time

he read something that was going to happen on January 1, asking me

why I think it’s not true. I told him to try Prozac."

In reality, Wallach is a stoic in a fanatic’s world. He’s been arguing

since 1998 that Y2K is a sociological, rather than technological,

problem, caused by the voluntary surrender of society to mass

hysteria.

Wallach uses the story of Chicken Little, the alarmist fowl who spread

the word that the sky is falling, to illustrate the power of group

psychosis in his book. The crisis mentality in America, however, is

more serious because it is "a movement with an economic structure

of its own," he writes in "The Year 2000 Hoax" (Safe

Goods,

1998, $9.95). "A meteorologist on TV can’t stand to give just

a `fair and mild’ forecast. They look for something bad to report

even if they have to say it’s a long way off or only a remote

possibility.

There are many companies making incredible sums of money from the

crisis. There are many with a vested interest in encouraging the

crisis

rather than debunking it. I would worry more about the fear of a

crisis

than an actual crisis."

Wallach lives in western Massachusetts, where he runs a consulting

company. "In retrospect, what I’ve seen in my travels since I

wrote the book is that I guess the wrong people have been asked what

to do," he says. "A whole bunch of incompetents advising

people

who knew nothing. Programmers all said the same thing: we don’t know

what the big deal is about. The embedded chips — that was the

biggest joke I ever heard. As an old programmer, I knew that things

don’t happen that way. "

Rather, Y2K was the invention of a few politically and financially

motivated people, says Wallach, including the media, consultants,

and even IS people. "What we have is a situation where the

managers

of the companies saw an opportunity to get a lot of money for a big

project," he says. "If management gives me an opportunity

to have a $15 million budget to rewrite the thing I’m not going to

turn it down, because it makes me politically important."

And after January 1, many businesses would dare not question their

decisions, says Wallach. "I think they’re still sold a bill of

good that they did the right thing," he says. "I think anybody

who spent a couple of million dollars redoing their software, but

if you ask them, they’ll say we had to do it — nobody wants to

look foolish."

There’s a hint of resignation in Feyrer’s summation of the Y2K effort:

"We had to diligently do what we had to do," he says. "If

a corporation didn’t bring on someone to do what I did, then there

could have been legal repercussions."

Like Wallach, though, Feyrer hopes to leave collective paranoia and

professional chicanery behind in the 20th century. "The world

has a lot of people who are out to make a buck," he says.

"Somebody

who is knowledgeable about computers can look at this and say it’s

fine. Somebody who is older and not conversant with computers may

think there’s some kind of magic there. I think people are still

afraid

of technology and that’s why they let gurus lead them. What we need

to do is not park our brains at the door and let our emotions run

amok."


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