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by Eileen Adams
Does your computer know that January 1, 2000 comes after December 31, 1999? How can you tell?
Well, you could hand it a noisemaker tell it it's New Year's Eve. If it's less than three years old you have a 95% chance that it will burst into Auld Lang Syne and gracefully bring you into the 21st century.
Otherwise it might throw you back to 1900. If it gets really confused, it may decide that it's 1980-kind of like the year 1 for computers. In either case, sweep up the confetti and set the date manually.
In a most informative presentation, Harry Phillips discussed the Y2K "Problem" at our last meeting. With the clarity and depth of research we have come to expect from Harry, his presentation was clear, understandable and entertaining.
It all started when memory was expensive. Somebody had the great idea that using 2 digits to store a date would save 2 precious bytes per transaction and besides by the time the century turned, nobody would still be using these programs.
The scope of the problem is threefold:
- Hardware-whether your BIOS and CMOS chips are able to agree that 2000 comes after 1999 and make the transition automatically, (if you have a Mac, you are immune.)
- Software-whether your favorite financial package stores the date as 4 digits
- Embedded chips-present in a myriad of semi-smart devices we use every day and also in systems which control power plants, banks, prisons and airports. This last area is the scariest. Apparently these chips have many origins, most of which are unknown and the documentation had gone the way of most computer documentation.
According to Harry there are upwards of 50 million of these embedded systems, 1% of which are date sensitive and not Y2K compliant. Due to the costs involved, many of these systems will be "tested" on a wait and see basis.
How you can tell if your computer is ready? There are web sites that will test your system for you online. You can download utilities that will test your system and suggest corrective action. You can manually test your system by setting the date ahead and seeing if it maintains the correct date. In addition to January 1, 2000 there are other key dates that can send your system into calendar meltdown: leap years are another trouble spot as is 9/9/99 long used as an error code in programming. According to another expert, there is also the bug associated with programs that only use one digit for the month, but we've known about those for a long time because they crash every October.
What you can do?
- If you are buying a new system, check before you purchase.
- Don't assume that a new computer is immune from this bug, especially if the price is too good to believe.
- Get used to entering dates with a 4-digit year.
- Design your spreadsheets and databases with this in mind, and be aware of the defaults your program uses. Excel assumes that a year from 00 to 29 is in the 21st century while one from 30 to 99 is in the 20th. Upgrades to Excel also include date wizards to check your existing spreadsheets for problem dates.
We thank Harry for sharing his research and interpretation on this important issue and we appreciate his continued support of and participation in our group.
Sonoma Valley Computer Group
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