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For use with Chapter 2
A Mathematical Toolkit

The Y2K Bug?
Posted January 25, 1999

How do you write dates using only numbers? If you're like most people, you use one or two digits for the day, one or two for the month, and two for the year. For example, you would probably abbreviate the day the first astronaut walked on the moon as 07-20-69.

When the clock rolls over into the year 2000, people will realize that the date 01-01-00 will mean January 1, 2000 and not January 1, 1900. Unfortunately, this cannot be taken for granted when it comes to computers.

Until as recently as the early 1990s, computers were programmed to reference dates using a two-digit year. Early computers had severe limitations in memory. Programmers saved two valuable digits by abbreviating dates with only two digits instead of using four digits. Today's supercomputers measure data by the gigabyte (a billion bytes) and terabyte (a trillion bytes), so memory limitation isn't such a problem any more.

When the year 2000 hits, any dates carrying a "00" in the last two digits will be interpreted by the computer to mean the year 1900. At the least, this will cause some machines to start spitting out bad data; at the worst, the machines may shut down completely. This problem is referred to as "the millennium bug" or simply as Y2K (meaning the year 2000).

Many businesses have become partially or completely reliant on computer systems, even if it is possible to do the work without them. Businesses that are more than a couple years old have at least part of their computer systems built with software that is not Y2K compliant.

Businesses all over the world are pouring billions of dollars into this problem, hoping to avoid major problems at the turn of the millennium. Many companies have issued official statements on how they are making their computer systems Y2K compliant and, to legally protect themselves, have been tight-lipped about their status. Legal experts predict a windfall of lawsuits from consumers who will be affected by the Y2K computer problem.

What can we expect when Y2K hits? Predictions have ranged from the severe (like mass panic in the streets and global power outages) to the mundane (like getting your paycheck a couple days late and not being able to program a VCR). Technology experts suggest that the effects will be somewhere in the middle, with some major problems being worked out before the end of the year. Still, no one will know what the impact of Y2K will be until January 1, 2000. We'll just have to wait.

Activity
Visit the web site of a major computer or technology corporation and look for their Y2K policy. What sort of steps are some businesses doing to avoid problems in the year 2000?

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