"99 Problem Caused 'Few' Computer Glitches"

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"99 Problem Caused 'Few' Computer Glitches"

More glitches. Define few and what kind. -- Diane


Posted at 4:02 p.m. PST Sunday, January 10, 1999

'99 problem has tripped up few computers

New York Times

The world apparently sailed through the first days of 1999 with only scattered mistakes by computers confused by the approaching Year 2000 -- an outcome that added to growing optimism about the chances of avoiding widespread disruptions 51 weeks from now.

Transitions to new years are always a bug-ridden time for information managers, because some devices and programs do not automatically adjust calendars. But computer users had feared that the advent of this year might be rougher than usual because many computer programs look a full 52 weeks ahead and so would be encountering dates in 2000 for the first time.

Reports filtered in about mixups with taxi meters, with accounting software that spewed out faulty bills or -- alternatively, failed to issue valid ones -- and similar glitches. But the disruptions seemed to be isolated, quickly handled and in some cases not really linked to the 2000 date at all. Year 2000 experts were especially impressed that the financial sector had fared so well, despite having also committed huge computing resources to the introduction of the euro, the new European currency that began trading last week.

``It points to the likelihood of a few hellish days rather than big failures next year,'' said Ian Hayes, president of Clarity Consulting, who advises large multinational clients from his base in South Hamilton, Mass.

The Year 2000 problem stems from the longtime use of just two digits to refer to the year, and the inability of some computers to recognize 00 as 2000. Some computers mistake 00 for 1900 while others, programmed to expect steadily higher numbers in their two-digit year data, cannot read 00 at all and shut down or revert to some earlier date.

Another uncertainty last week was whether some computers using two-digit dates might be tripped up by programs that had used the digits 99 to mean ``end of file,'' ``shut down'' or some other message having nothing to do with dates. That practice was used as a shortcut by an unknown number of programmers.

It is unclear whether the 99 problem is a serious threat. For one thing, the use of two or more 9s as an end-of-file signifier within date programs is relatively rare. And even where it does exist, it is typically easy to locate. In any case, although some had warned that this last week was also a danger zone, Sept. 9, 1999, is seen as the most likely minefield of 9s.

In the end, the most widely reported glitches last week turned out to be 99 problems, not failures to handle 2000. Taxis in Singapore, for example, were unable to run their meters for several hours on Jan. 1. And some in Stockholm -- to the delight of Swedes out celebrating the New Year -- were unable to switch to higher fares authorized for 1999.

DaimlerChrysler Corp. discovered on Jan. 1 that a program in its regional data centers that helps run auto production had a 99 problem that could be fixed by the same patch the company was planning to install later this quarter to deal with a Year 2000 defect. So Chrysler rushed the patching job through, and no disruptions were suffered, according to Roger Buck, head of the company's Year 2000 project.

Goldman, Sachs & Co. said it encountered four minor glitches, including a commodities accounting program that would not allow it to schedule a metals payment in the Year 2000. It turned out that all four defects had been identified by Goldman's code scanners and would have been scheduled to be eliminated anyway by program fixes set for this spring. ``I feel good about that, but it doesn't mean we are going to cut back on our contingency planning or other Year 2000 work,'' said Leslie Tortora, the firm's chief technology officer.

As expected, government computers in Washington and in several states were unable to sign people up for unemployment benefits using standard forms, which set a date one year ahead as the end of the benefits. But, as previously planned, those agencies continued to sign people up for the benefits last week by plugging in Dec. 31, 1999, as the ending dates.

``It will create a nightmare of paperwork to rework these if it goes on for long, but most systems should be ready for Year 2000 dates by the end of this quarter,'' said Howard Waddell, a Labor Department spokesman.

John Koskinen, chairman of President Clinton's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, said the unemployment benefit scramble underscored the need to plan for breakdowns well in advance. He said he was worried that last week's calm might encourage local governments and small businesses to settle on ``wait until it breaks'' policies.

Environmental Systems Products in Bohemia, N.Y., was one company that paid a price for not paying attention in time. One of three companies that supplies automobile emission-testing equipment for use in New York state, Environmental Systems was surprised to discover that equipment it had been phasing out could not produce a 00 windshield sticker for drivers whose vehicles had passed inspection. Stickers in New York use two digits for the month and two digits for the year to indicate the expiration date for an emissions validation.

The 00 sticker should have started appearing Dec. 22 because New York motorists get a grace period of eight days for their one-year validations. But the older Environmental Systems equipment printed out stickers saying 91 instead, and many inspection stations simply put them on car windows. Parking agents promptly began ticketing the apparently out-of-date cars.

Environmental Systems quickly reported the problem to the state and procedures were set up to quash the tickets, but the crash effort to complete the transition to newer equipment that issues 00 stickers was not completed until last Wednesday.

``It cost a lot of money,'' said James Richardson, the company's director of operations.

Hayes, the consultant, cautions ``there are a hundred problems for every one reported.'' And he and others also warn that companies with a faulty program creating bad data may not realize it yet. Nevertheless, after this first week of the Year 2000 shakedown cruise, Hayes said it was hard not to see the results as good news.

-- Diane J. Squire (sacredspaces@yahoo.com), January 11, 1999


Looks like we were on the same wavelength, Diane!

-- pshannon (pshannon@inch.com), January 11, 1999.


What that article doesn't take into account is the embedded systems problem. Most of the date related glitches of the past 10 days have been in software. Most of the embedded system problems will happen in the vicinity of January 1, 2000.

-- Kevin (mixesmusic@worldnet.att.net), January 11, 1999.

Synchronicities, pshannon!

Yep, Kevin I noticed the embedded chips issue lacking too. That's the really nasty "hidden" whopper, IMHO.

Just won't know until we get there, but it sure could be the Y2K doozy!!


-- Diane J. Squire (sacredspaces@yahoo.com), January 11, 1999.

Kevin, That article doesn't take MOST things into account. And it wasn't supposed to, that's not the point. It's simply the "newspaper of record" for the global financial elite pointing out some current glitches in order to justify its stance that "everything will turn out just fine. Don't worry." Let's hope the 00 rollover goes as smoothly as the 99 rollover seems to have so far...

-- pshannon (pshannon@inch.com), January 11, 1999.

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