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High-Tech Times Article 009

The Year 2000 (Y2K) Bug

The Year 2000 Bug.  Sounds like the title of a science fiction novel, doesn't it?  But this seemingly innocuous bug will almost certainly cause all of us to enjoy the new millennium a bit less for the first few months of the year 2000.  In fact, if you're sleeping well, it means that you just don't understand what's about to happen. So here's a wakeup call.


Just what is the Year 2000 Bug (Y2K)?  Well, it seems that the companies that created the very first computer systems back in the late 1940s didn't have a whole lot of room for memory-related storage and data processing.  The first computer memory was actually huge banks of thousands of vacuum tubes, and the first installation of a 1 MB memory bank cost over $4 million, and required an air-conditioning unit the size of your house!  So the scientists that started creating application programs did their best to minimize the amount of supposedly unnecessary data.


One easy way of doing this was to use only two digits in data fields to represent four-digit years.  So the year "1950" was truncated to "50", and this standard continued to be used until well into the 1990s.  So what happens when all our computer clocks strike midnight on December 31, 1999?  When the year switches over, all of these two-digit fields all around the world will now see "00".  This will usually cause them to think that it's now the year 1900!  Let's first look at this dilemma from the standpoint of our home and business PCs.


Most PC applications get the system date from the operating system, whose

software‑based calendar is initialized at boot with the date from the BIOS  firmware, which gets the date from the internal real-time clock, which is hardware.  If the BIOS date does not make the 1999‑2000 transition correctly ‑ or if the machine loses the correct date after rebooting ‑ it is not Year 2000 compliant and will become a problem if it is not corrected or removed from service by the end of this decade.


There is a simple test you can use to check your PC's or Mac's Y2K compatibility. If you try this, you do so at your own risk.  Some date-sensitive software, such as programs with automatic expiration dates, may cease to work if you try this test.  You have been warned!  To check your PC, simply set the time and date to 11:55 PM on December 31, 1999.  Turn the computer off and wait 10 minutes.  Turn the computer back on.  If it comes back up with a date of January 1, 2000, then you should have no hardware problems.  If it comes back up with a 1900 or 1980 date for the year (or some other date), you will have to procure some type of fix.  Tests of mainframe and mini-computers often are far more complex.


And your software is the primary culprit for Y2K incompatibility.  According to The Year 2000 Information Center <>, over the next 50 years at least 60,000,000 software applications will need modification because of various date problems. The total costs of these modifications can top $5 trillion dollars.  As of April 1998, Microsoft has eliminated or patched all Y2K glitches, with the exception of three outdated applications, but nearly all other software companies are "still working" on the fixes.


But please don't think that these are your only problems.  Information professionals have largely stopped trying to hide their sense of panic as the massive job of getting government and business computers to properly function after the year 2000.  The industries and agencies that Americans depend upon are still largely unprepared and, even if they began an all‑out effort today, there simply isn't enough time to avoid serious disruptions to the nation's commerce, industry, and government services.


A recent government study says that it is all but impossible for the world to change the massive amount of computer code needed to make even government computers compliant with the new millennium. Thus, for January 2000 in New York City, it predicts:


Electricity supply only 50% available January 1‑10

Hospitals emergency‑only for four weeks

Schools closed for four weeks

Stock market and banks closed for eight days

Telecommunications ‑ 50% availability January 1‑10

Post office ‑ 10 days disruption

Transport (air/rail/bus) ‑ 30 days disruption


Okay, so we can live with a little disruption in our lives.  But there's more.  On August 27, 1997, in a General Motors car assembly plant in Canada, engineers adjusted the programmed date on some assembly robots, moving it ahead three years.   And the entire assembly line shut down.  GM did ease some concerns about individual vehicles and the computerized system that most new models depend on for timing, ignition, and basic operations.  Because the chips and controllers used in cars and trucks do not recognize or perform time or date functions, the company said the Y2K should pose no problems in new passenger vehicles.  This may not apply to aircraft, trucks, buses, satellites, and tanks.


Visa and MasterCard have been feverishly working to upgrade their computer systems to recognize expiration dates after the year 2000. They now believe they have largely solved their own problems with balky old software that could only handle years that began with the digits "19". But whether the computer systems of the banks, retail stores, and service outlets they hook up with will also be able to recognize and process such transactions is another issue.  To minimize incompatibility problems with other systems, Visa and MasterCard plan to gradually start issuing their new cards this fall on a regional basis.  That way previously undetected glitches will not shut down the entire system.


Other card-issuing firms, however, are not as far along.  American Express still isn't issuing cards with expiration dates later than December 1999, and a spokesperson said she has no ideas when the company will be able to handle the Y2K problem.  A spokesman for Discover Card, the fourth of the nation's so‑called "Big Four" of credit cards, said they will be ready to test Year 2000 expiration dates on cards "hopefully by the end of the year."


I know of computer experts around the country who are planning to stockpile food, are practicing home "power drills" to see what it would be like without electricity, and are enrolling in basic survival skills training like carpentry, first aid, meat processing and butchering, and organic gardening.  There are predictions that the banks will be forced to close to avoid a "run"; that government pension, Social Security, and Veterans checks will not be mailed; that the Federal Aviation Administration's already outdated and flawed computer system will totally shut down the nation's air traffic.


Are these people alarmists?  Maybe.  Hopefully.  But the more I look into this problem, the more worried I've become, and I'm looking from the eyes of an engineer with more than 30 years experience in these fields.  You may wish to consider doing what my wife and I plan to do:


1.  Take out enough cash in early December 1999 to ensure you can pay for groceries and other essentials for at least 30 days, and stockpile enough non-perishable foods and drinks to last you for as much as 90 days


2.  Be prepared to lose power, water, and other essentials for extended periods of time during mid-winter; this isn't as much of a problem in Hawaii as it will be in, say, North Dakota, thank goodness


3.  Defer any non-essential air, rail, bus, and ship travel from at least mid-December 1999 to early February 2000


This may not be your standard computer column, but after 50 percent of my in-house computers failed the Y2K tests, I decided that Hawaii computer users may not want to stay in the dark much longer.  Log onto The Year 2000 Information Center and take a look around.  My thanks to Jon Toynton at On-Line Connection for publishing an upcoming crisis that the mass media has ignored for too long.