Year 2000 bug
Boffins baffled

By Kevin Au

     Imagine the following scenario: Stock markets all over the world close down indefinitely, and banks charge extra interest for mortgages.
     Elevators in your building malfunction. Electricity at your house is cut off. Even your fax machine cannot receive any messages.

     It is not Friday the 13th.
     It is 1 January 2000.
     When computers became common 30 years ago, programmers tended to store the calendar years in two-digit form.
     This was meant to save storage space — as well as money — at that time.
     But little did those programmers know that their method to save money at that time would turn out to be more expensive and time-consuming than the alternative.
     With the existing two-digit representation for calendar years, the year 2000 will be mistaken as 1900.
     It is known as the Y2K Problem.
     As a result, great chaos in data management, or even total breakdowns of computers, will occur.
     The government, the largest user of computer systems in Hong Kong, is aware of the problem and has designated the Information Technology Services Department as responsible for solving it.
     Its chief systems manager, Mr. Dennis Pang, said the government discovered the Y2K Problem in 1990.
     But it was only in 1996 that its seriousness aroused concerns.
     “It is hard to say which government department will be affected the most,” he said. “The Y2K Problem affects every computer system in every department.”
     Among the private sector, financial institutions are thought to be the most seriously affected.
     One interviewee who asked his name to be withheld is working for a credit card company.
     He said that transactions, especially from the evening of 31 December 1999 to 1 January 2000, will be messed up due to the computers’ failure to sense the turn of the century.
     This is likely to cause inconvenience for consumers.
     He said that computers would deduct the last two digits of the expiry year by that of the current year to make sure the credit card would still be valid.
     When the number is negative, the computer will assume the card has expired.
     Though consumers might be troubled by the Y2K Problem, few have thought of its effect on their daily lives.
     Miss Yvonne Fung is a student majoring in Information Systems at the University of Science and Technology.
     “I have not heard much about the problem,” said she.
     “With the modern technology, I think it will not affect my life very much.”
     Mr. Nelson Ngan is an assistant director of the Computer Services Centre at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
     He mentioned three ways to tackle the problem.
     One method of conversion would be to change all existing two-digit year representations to four-digit ones.
     “It is the only complete, long-term and obvious solution to the problem,” said Mr. Ngan.
     “You would not have the same problem again until year 9999.”
     Under this system, not only are changes in programs needed, but also in existing databases.
     Otherwise, past data will not be recognized by the revised programs.
     According to the August issue of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority Quarterly Bulletin, 43 percent of the financial institutions choose to use this manpower-consuming method.
     Another method is called windowing.
     The two-digit year code is converted with a preset number called the “window boundary” just as in some digital watches.
     If the boundary is set at 31, the years in the range of 00 to 30 will be taken as year 2000 to 2031 while 31 to 99 will be taken as 1931 to 1999.
     Though this method only involves minor changes, it is not applicable to every application.
     For example, the problem of those covering periods well beyond the window boundary cannot be solved.
     The last and the least used method is called compression.
     It compresses the storage space of the four-digit year code to that of a two-digit code.
     Mr. Ngan said, “Though solutions are simple and ready-made, it is fuzzy to convert and test every application and dataset to make sure of smooth functioning.”
     There may come a much more user-friendly solution.
     A 14-year-old Australian boy alleged in September that he succeeded in finding out a solution for the Y2K Problem for hard-disks.
     But he declined to talk about his invention, claiming that he was applying for copyright.
     Whether the boy succeeds or not, the government is still confident in solving the problem.
     Mr. Pang of the Information Technology Services Department said, “We will solve the Y2K Problem before 2000 — it’s in the public interest.”

 No mercy

November 1997

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