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AFRIK-IT  August 1998

AFRIK-IT August 1998

Subject:

Y2K Parallels

From:

Jeff Cochrane <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Sat, 29 Aug 1998 00:22:00 -5

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (108 lines)

Greetings Afrik-ITes!

One of our earlier stops on this tour of the Central Asian region
was at a power station.  We had been asking various organizations
what actions they might take if there was no power on January 1,
2000.  Many laughed, saying that it would be nothing unusual.  But
would there be an extended and extensive blackout?  We were not sure.
It was at a power station that we found an answer.

We had heard about power being "controlled" within a region roughly
the size of Europe all by two I486 computers.  We visited the
computer room and saw these computers.  It was a large room, dimly
lit, big enough for a small dance party actually, designed for a
mainframe computer that has recently been removed.  Wires still
dangle here and there, and dislodged floor plates reveal bundled
snakes now lifeless.  The racks remain, though their contents have
been withdrawn.  Behind a glass window is another room with
workbenches piled with coils of copper wire and bits and pieces of
electronics.  In the center of the room is a small table with a
chair, and the two infamous desktop computers.  A single coaxial
cable passes through the floor.

"Our systems are fully redundant," the Russian programmer explained
through a translator.  "If the first computer fails, we simply switch
to the second."

"But what if both fail at the same time," we asked. "The redundancy
was designed for a random hardware fault.  But what if the failure
occurs in both computers simultaneously as a result of a systematic
software fault when the clocks tick forward into the year 2000?
Particularly with I486 computers having older BIOS that cannot be
easily upgraded, there seems to be a significant risk of at least
errors in any functions dependent upon dates, if not a complete
system crash."

The programmer admitted that this had not occured to him, but only
because it didn't really matter.  He explained that two new Pentiums
were on order and would be installed soon.  The software would be
transferred.  "What about a software fault," we asked.  He answered
that the code had all been written by his own team of programmers,
that all dates were in four digits, and that in any event they
expected to complete a further review of their code within the next
year.

The programmer had obviously been thinking about the Y2K problem, and
we were impressed and reassured with the scope of his understanding.

Furthermore, continued the programmer, the system did not depend
totally on the computers; it was not "controlled" by the computers.
The computers simply provided important information about flows of
power throughout the region to guide the technicians who operated a
largely mechanical power transmission system.  The technicians can
operate via the telephone if necessary, simply calling their
colleagues and asking about power flows.  Even without telephones,
technicians around the region can operate independently, and can even
share power without knowing precise power requirements.  In short,
while there may be annoyances due to the Y2K problem, the risks are
not critical.

I find this the most interesting parallel with many systems with
which I am familiar in Africa.  Existing systems are often
(though certainly not always) only marginally computerized and not
controlled by computers.  In many cases funds have simply not been
available to computerize.  Even where computerization has occured,
the institutional capacity (procedures, knowledge, equipment) often
continues to exist to operate without computers, thus providing a
ready backup system.

Tashkent is a truly beautiful city, filled with manicured
gardens and dramatic fountains.  It was warm during the day, but
perhaps only 22 C in the evening, and very dry.  We dined outdoors
under trees last night on the banks of a small stream, on a plate of
various local dishes -- an egg wrapped in breaded spicy meat that
might sound familiar to those from the British Isles, beets, and a
boiled cracked grain, all for about $3 US.

The sounds greeting me from my Hotel Uzbekistan room radio this
morning were those of the Barbie song, sung in Russian.  I quickly
switched it off, turning instead to the television, and there it was
again on the Russian channel, though this time in the American video
version.  "You can brush my hair.  Undress me anywhere."  At least I
think that's what I heard.  The penultimate cultural imperialism I
suppose.

Our guides here quietly tell us there are problems, again reminding
me of those I encounter in some parts of Africa.  After years of
Russian and Soviet domination, there is an effort underway to
recapture culture and to assert an ethnic identity that is more
Uzbek.  Many Russians have departed, yet we are told that it is
their ethnic group, now citizens of the countries that have broken
free of Russia, that controls much of the commanding heights of the
region's economies.  Certainly throughout the region it is most
likely to be an ethnic Russian programmer to whom we are introduced
for discussion of the Y2K problem.  Even some of our ethnic Uzbek
guides complain, since many of them speak only the Russian language.

But of course we are hearing only from a small segment of the
population.

Cheers!
Jeff @ Tashkent, Uzbekistan
--
[log in to unmask]
http://www.info.usaid.gov/alnk
1111 North 19th Street Suite 210
Arlington, VA 22209 USA
Tel 1-703-235-5415  Fax 1-703-235-3805

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