The Time To Prevent Y2K From Bugging You Is Now

photo of John Michael Pierobon By: John Michael Pierobon

The Y2K bug, what is it? Computers will interpret the year 2000 as the year 1900 because programmers have used only two digits ('00) instead of four (2000) to represent the year. This creates confusion because computers are not sure if ('00) is the year 1900 or the year 2000.

How we got into this mess in the first place goes back a long time. The constitution of the United States mandates a census every ten years. Late last century, Herman Hollerith invented a device that read census data using punch cards. It was used in the census of 1890.

Punch cards have only 80 spaces, so in order to save space on the card two digits were used instead of four digits to represent the year. Most computer people are not old enough to not know what punch cards are, since they went out of use two decades ago. However, I remember them well, and yes, 80 columns was not enough.

But space on a Hollerith card was not the only thing in short supply back then. Memory was very expensive, and two digits used up half the memory of four digits. The less memory a program used, the more it could do. Back then programmer wages were low and the price of memory was hundreds of times more expensive than it is now, it was cheaper to have a programmer squeeze memory out of program than to buy more memory.

Formerly known as COBOL (COmmon Business-Orientated Language) programmers, Y2K consultants are working around the clock to fix this problem. If I were a Y2K expert I would not have time to write this column. Y2K consultants work a lot overtime and command top dollar.

Fortunately, most of the Y2K problems are fixed. I know this because, for example, my credit card expires 07/01. If there was a Y2K bug with my credit card, the system would recognize it as an expired card (1901 vs 2001).

Also, computers running under the UNIX operating system do not have a Y2K problem because the UNIX operating system uses a different method to tell which year it is.

We will not know until sometime next year if this problem is truly solved. Not all the problems will occur on January 1, 2000 because some programs do not check the date every day, but only when the program is started. Since many computers run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, there is no need to check the date on January 1, 2000, unless you reboot.

If you recently bought a computer or a software package, you might have asked your computer sales person if the product was tested for the Y2K bug. Any good salesman would have said "Yes, sure we tested it. Not a problem. Even if you do have a problem you can bring it back and we will service it right away."

The difference between a used car salesman and a computer salesman is that the used car salesman knows what he is lying about. There is some truth to this joke.

January 1, 2000 falls on a Saturday. It is a holiday. Do not expect any service technician to come to the rescue that day. He or she may be hung over after partying as if it were 1999. The next day is Sunday, the Lord's day of rest, so do not expect business to be conducted that day either. And by Monday there could be thousands of people with the same problem calling their computer store. In a way, it could be like hurricane Andrew, when hundreds of thousands were without water, light and other utilities and the repair people not being able to get to you because they had thousands of others to take care of first.

Government agencies are taking precautionary measures. For example, the federal government will be printing more money than usual later this year, so there will be enough cash. You too, can take precautionary measures. At a non-critical time, set the date on your computer ahead one year. Try running all of your programs. If they do not work, report them now. It will be a lot easier to download an upgrade now than on January 1, 2000.

Personally, I am not worried about it. My computer knows it is 1999 and not just '99. It has four digits for the year instead of two, but not five. It does not have a Y2K bug, it has a Y10K bug!

John Michael Pierobon is an Internet consultant based in Fort Lauderdale.
John Michael may be reached by sending electronic mail to

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