Out of the frying pan

My local fish and chip shop still wraps its goodies in newspaper. A clean, hygienic bag for the greasies and a good insulating read on the outside. On the way home the other night I read about the Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ new Web site on the year 2000 problem (www.consumer-ministry.govt.nz/y2k.html).

My local fish and chip shop still wraps its goodies in newspaper. A clean, hygienic bag for the greasies and a good insulating read on the outside. On the way home the other night I read about the Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ new Web site on the year 2000 problem (www.consumer-ministry.govt.nz/y2k.html). After tea I signed on and discovered the reassuring news that my washing machine won’t go into a spin nor will breadmaker turn half-baked once the clock ticks past midnight, but that my PC apparently needs quite a bit of attention. Here’s what they suggest: list all your hardware and software; take note of electronic data you share with others; check with retail suppliers or manufacturers to see if you’ll be affected and how much repairs will cost; if they can’t check it for you or guarantee it’s compliant, think about hiring a consultant(!); decide whether repairs are worthwhile or if you’d be better to upgrade. Am I a lazy sod or is this all wildly impractical for the average home user? (And woefully simplistic for small-business folk?) Let’s start with the hardware. There’s the motherboard, BIOS chip, I/O and graphics cards, hard disk, floppy disk, CD-ROM drive, backup drive, modem, mouse, monitor, keyboard, printer and scanner to consider. All come from different manufacturers. And amongst the 20,000+ files that litter my hard disks there have to be close to 100 different producers, from mighty corporates to home hackers. Just listing them won’t help much because you’ll need version and/or model numbers, too. Remember it’s often the interactions that are critical. You know, the "Wind95 OSR/2 with a Kamakuza graphics card using version 1.06 drivers when Netscape 3.00 is the primary browser..." type of thing. Trust me, this problem ain’t list-tickingly simple. No mention is made of the simplest solution, which will drag most of us home users through the millennium unscathed: a full system backup. If it all does go splat you can reset the beast to sometime in ’99 and continue working while you find a fix. But there’s more worrying fluff over at the Y2K Readiness Commission’s site (www.y2k.govt.nz) .This august body was established to "advise, monitor, promote and increase the understanding of the Y2K risk so that the private and public sectors of NZ are able to conduct business through the year 2000", so the first thing they did was have a survey. In February. With results available in late March. They had another one in April (results available about now), and you’ll be pleased to note that these will continue "at two month intervals during the remainder of 1999 in order to build up a comprehensive, up-to-the minute picture of progress and issues." This strikes me as a strategy perilously close to the captain of the Titanic posting an iceberg lookout on the stern. (I can’t wait for the December survey. The results should be available sometime in January 2000...) They didn’t select businesses on the basis of operational criticality or use of potentially vulnerable technology, they just picked ’em at random from a business directory. The two guys at my local chip shop could be in there along with the handful of folk that run my local ISP. Both get equal billing in terms of the survey, but guess which one has the greatest potential impact on other businesses should their systems collapse in a steaming heap? You’re right, it’s my chippie. Only 63% of those surveyed actually replied to the preliminary survey and in most cases we’re left to speculate on the actual sector-by-sector response rates. The State sector’s was "good for statistical purposes", Local Government’s was "very good for statistical purposes", and we’re told 16 out of 23 CHEs responded—but whether this means they deserve a gold star or a smack on the bum is uncertain. The report’s full of useful information, like the results for the retail and wholesale sector. None are given—they have to be analysed in more detail, which sounds ominous—but we’re assured they’re consistent "with those for the comparison group". What comparison group? A Turkish tap-dancing waiter’s? Of the four telecommunications companies who responded, one was "unwilling to complete some questions because of the complex nature of its business". This is an 18-question, tick-in-the-box survey "designed not to take more than 10 minutes" yet this crowd couldn’t even manage that? Now that is worrying. But what do we learn from this survey? For a start that though the Sate sector seems to be dragging its heel the Commission recommends a sound thrashing be given to "very small businesses". Like my local chippie. And after all the analysis, percentages and coloured graphs we find that "impacts really will occur, most will have trivial effects but a few will be severe". This is the sort of unmitigated drivel that’s designed to make ministers look as though they’re actually doing something. If the wheels come off the economy as a result of Y2K, the inevitable enquiry will no doubt exonerate the Readiness Commission because it simply couldn’t conduct enough surveys. As to simple, straightforward advice you won’t find it at either site. And if I stagger down to the chippie on New Year’s Day and find the deep fryer’s crashed, things could turn ugly. Geoff Palmer is a Wellington-based writer and analyst programmer. consumer@idg.co.nz.

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Geoff Palmer

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