SHCC WYSIWYG Article from December 1998

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This article appeared in the December 1998 WYSIWYG newsletter.

Y2K - Ask the Expert

by Jerry Carson

Q: Dear Ask The Expert,

What's the deal with this Y2K bug?


A: Dear Confused,

First let's start with what the Y2K problem really is.  When people write out dates, they usually use only the last two digits and the 1900 is assumed.  When people started writing computer programs they were written the same way.  This made perfect sense at the time, but probably wasn't such a great move looking back.  When the year 2000 comes, people will have to start assuming 2000 for all future and current date, but probably still assume 1900 for things like birth dates or recent historical dates.  People can do this fairly easily, computers can't.

The computer programs need to be changed to make the correct assumptions for the date (or better yet, to include the centuries and not make any assumptions at all).  This means re-writing a LOT of programs.  It's unlikely we'll be able to re-write all of them in time and even the ones that are corrected may not be adequately changed.  This means that come 1/1/2000 there are going to be some computers making silly mistakes.  For example, if your birth date is 5/5/60 the computer may assume that to be 5/5/2060 instead of 5/5/1960.  Which means you aren't even born yet.

Mainly what people want to know is: "How will this impact the average person?" Unfortunately, no one knows.  If we knew what things would break we could just fix them.  We'll just have to wait and see what happens, then try and fix things as quickly as possible.  Most companies have some sort of back-up plan in case the computers start really misbehaving.  It's unlikely that your power will be turned off, or that you'll lose all you money, but these things could happen.  If they do happen, they'll happen to a large number of people and the more serious bugs should get straightened out fairly quickly.

The biggest problem may not be with computers at all.  It may be that the publics impression of the Y2K problem (built up by the media) will cause people to panic and start pulling money out of the stock market and local banks.  This sort of behavior on a national (world?) scale can cause a great deal of damage.

On the brighter side, many companies (banks, credit card, etc) have been dealing with this for quite some time and should have a good handle on it.  Any way you look at it, it should be interesting.

The Expert

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