Year 2000

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Andrew Stringer unpacks some of the myths
around the Millennium Bug.

What is the Year 2000 (Y2K) Bug?

(see Lancashire Family Magazine: Spring 1999, page #4)

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Well, It's a rather picturesque way of describing a problem present in many computer systems around the world.  Years ago, because computer memory cost so much (/byte), programmers used two numbers to store the year.  For example, 96 would mean 1996.  Programmers then didn't think that their systems would still be around now.   The problem is that on the 1st of January 2000, computers that still use a two-number year will interpret the 00 to mean the year 1900.  Why is this not a good thing?   Well, if the tax man was to calculate how much tax you owe in the year 2000 by looking at the difference between "99" and "00" you may end up being asked to pay 99 years worth of tax!  Now if he's done his job properly and made his computer systems "Year 2000 compliant", he'll be looking at the difference between "2000" and "1999" - only 1 year of tax, phew!

 

What is "Year 2000 Compliance"

Most responsible companies and organizations have been spending the last year (at least) looking at their computer systems and either changing them to cope with four digit years (memory is so cheap these days that this is not a restriction), or replacing them with new systems designed to store the year in four digits.

 

So need we worry then?

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Well, yes and no.  As with all walks of life there are no absolute guarantees.   It is unlikely that there will be any major catastrophes caused by the date issues outlined above.  It's equally unlikely that absolutely all computer systems will have been checked and corrected, so we can expect some minor mishaps.  With the work and precautions being taken by the airlines and the world's aviation authorities, we're unlikely to see any planes dropping out of the sky.  With so much at stake in the financial community it is unlikely that your bank will have not fixed any problems before the 1st of January - but make sure you get printed statements for all your accounts in December!

 

Is it just computers?

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A low-tech millennium bug

People often think of computers as either that box that sits under/on their desk at work/home or some great room full of whizzing tapes and flashing lights.  Little do most people suspect; most electronic devices built in the last decade probably have a computer chip inside that keeps track of the date.   Some of the more esoteric of these (known as embedded systems) are; lifts in buildings, video recorders, fire & burglar alarms, cars, and traffic lights.   They all need checking which can range from, "Oh my car was built in 1945 and definitely doesn't have a chip in it.", to getting an engineer to inspect and certify your alarm system.  If you are in doubt about your video recorder (most are compliant) then contact the place you bought it from - or talk to one of the major electrical retail chains, they all have lists of compliant/non-compliant models available.  Amongst the media hype about the millennium there are also some gems of stories.  A very pragmatic couple in Los Angeles had their gravestones engraved with "19  " in readiness for their deaths sometime this century.  Now at 82 and 84, Jesse and Lewis Stibitz look like they'll have their own millennium bug problem to cope with!   Apparently there are estimated to be 250,000 pre-engraved headstones in the USA!   Some ingenious solutions are being hatched to address this problem.

 

Is it just the 1st of January 2000 I need to worry about?

The 1st of January is the one date that most people concern themselves with but the problem is a bit wider that that.  There are several other key dates coming up that computer systems of old (and sadly some as recent as last year!) cannot cope with.   The year 2000 is a leap year, so February has 29 days; some systems are not aware of this.  Another key date, coming even sooner, is the 9th of September 1999.   This is represented numerically as 9/9/99 - in some systems this date was used as a marker for the end of all dates!  There are several other less significant dates too.

 

So what do I do?

The simple answer is, "don't panic, little if anything is likely to change in your life that is related to the 'millennium bug'".  More problems will be caused by people's perception of the problem than the problem itself.  Take some sensible precautions, like get printouts of all your financial accounts in December, if you have a home computer then check it and the software running on it - there are a variety of Year 2000 checking software packages available to do this.  Take our quiz and see how ready you are!

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1. Where do you plan to be on New Year's Eve, 1999? a. In an aeroplane
b. In an lift
c. Waiting in line at an cash machine
d. In my well-stocked pantry, shaking with happy anticipation
e. In bed, worrying
2. If you go to the cash machine on 1st January 2000 and it doesn't work, what will you do? a. Try again the next day
b. Turn on the TV and find out if it's a "trend," an actual "crisis," or a declared "disaster"
c. Pull out a wad of cash from beneath my mattress
d. Panic and start rioting
3. When someone invites you to a huge party that they're holding on New Year's Eve, how do you feel? a. Excited since I haven't firmed up my plans yet and it's only 9 months away!
b. Slightly afraid: what if people start rioting and looting as the clock strikes 12?
c. Slightly afraid for reasons too unfocused and neurotic to tell!
d. Smug, since I'll pretend to be enthused but there's no way I'll be at some party instead of at my wood stove-heated cabin in the woods.
4. How are you preparing for the year 2000? a. I'm taking all the minimum precautions: food, water, flares, purification tablets, guns, ammo, gas masks - you see, just the basics.
b. I'll run Norton Utilities on my computer.  It'll tell me if there's a problem.
c. I'm worrying a lot and planning to worry even more as the year progresses.
d. I'm reading everything I can find on the subject so when the end of the year arrives, I'll be even more worried about my lack of preparedness than most people.
e. What year 2000 problem?  That's all just a myth to line the pockets of computer consultants, isn't it?
5. How much of an effect has this quiz had on your awareness of the Y2K problem? a. About as much effect as most very important awareness-raising messages have on my awareness: none at all.
b. I'm hungrier for a can of Spam than I was before.
c. I hate abbreviations for potential worldwide disasters more than I did before.
d. I'm more certain than I was before that the author is just plain nuts!

Scoring:

Q A Score
1
a 0
b 1
c 2
d 3
e 4
2
a 0
b 2
c 3
d 4
3
a 0
b 2
c 3
d 4
4
a 4
b 1
c 2
d 3
e 0
5
a 1
b 2
c 2
d 0

What the scores mean:

Total Score Meaning
0 You're either too macho for your own good or you've just beamed back from the year 2001.
1 - 6 There's some awareness there but you're really not too sure about what day it is today are you?
7 - 13 Starting to get a little panicky here aren't we.  Keep taking the tablets, you'll be fine.
14 - 18 Please move to another town, better still another hemisphere!  There are cults for people like you.

 

 

My Score is:

 

 

This article can be viewed online at www.pendle.net/News/Y2K.htm

You can contact Andrew Stringer at Y2K @ pendle.net