450 days until ... doomsday?

By Brenda Tavakoli

Daily Cougar Staff

It has all the elements of a Hollywood movie. Mistaken identities. Rumors. Lost money. Fear. Mass chaos.

People have been talking about it for years. Some are even stockpiling food and ammunition - just in case. Churches are holding meetings to prepare their congregations for the inevitable.

Yet some scoff at the paranoia, calling it unnecessary and excessive.

Who's right?

Welcome to the Year 2000 Bug, also dubbed the "Y2K" bug or the "millennium bug."

Only 450 days remain until Jan. 1, 2000. That's when some computers' hardware and software will not be able to recognize four-digit dates, which could potentially throw computers - and lives - into a tizzy.

The fears are real. So are the solutions.

The paranoia "kind of runs the whole gamut," said Management Information Systems Professor Dennis Adams.

"On one end, you've got the survivalists - somewhere in the fall of 1999 they're off in the hills," Adams said. "I think (the problem) is really somewhere in between."

UH Information Technology officials agree.

"We want to be relaxed and confident in the fall of 1999 that we don't have anything to worry about," said James N. Bradley, interim director of Information Technology customer services.

Yet, as Bradley put it, "There's no magic solution to this. It's a very serious issue that requires a methodical approach."

Living in the moment

The problem started with computer programs written decades ago. Programmers back then designed programs that only recognized the last two digits of dates, assuming the default first two digits would always be "19."

For example, a program would recognize "01" as 1901 instead of 2001.

Still confused? Adams offered this analogy.

"Take a look at your checks. Most checks have a 19 and then a little dash (for the date). Computer programs for the last three or four decades were written the same way - with two digits for dates instead of four."

Dates might seem like small concerns, but these glitches matter when a credit card expires in 2001. If the computer "thinks" the card expired in 1901, charging items becomes impossible. This scenario could also apply to ATMs, debit cards and interest calculations.

How could computer experts make such a short-sighted mistake?

"Back then, you didn't think this software would be around that long," Adams said. "Nobody plans for software to live that long."

Repercussions could affect myriad facets of daily life.

For example, those who are claustrophobic might consider taking the stairs as the year 2000 nears. Some elevators are programmed to shut off if they are not maintenanced at given intervals.

If an elevator was last maintenanced in 1996, the internal computer might mistakenly think it had not been maintenanced since 1896 and shut it off.

Rumors abound about grounded airplanes as Y2K nears. Lufthansa airlines has been fighting such rumors since late 1997, said spokesman Mel Torre.

"Unless we hear something that causes a hazard, we are planning to fly according to schedule," he said.

Still others are bracing themselves for errors in utility bills, at grocery store scanners and on personal computer software.

Title match: UH vs. Y2K

If UH officials have it their way, students, faculty and staff will experience few on-campus Y2K repercussions.

Chuck Shomper, Interim Vice President of Information Technology, said the University began converting to a Y2K-compliant computer code in 1993.

This code will ensure that UH's business operations - including registration, financial aid and payroll - meet Y2K without glitches.

Only two UH computer systems are being completely replaced - financial aid and institutional advancement, which handles alumni development and campaigns.

A 1997 systems review showed the newly coded UH systems to be in good shape. In December of this year, Information Technology "will run all the converted applications to make sure everything is running properly," Bradley said. That will give the staff time to fix any remaining bugs.

Shomper said the University is nearly through solving the business aspects of the Y2K problem. The next phase involves addressing problems with desktop computers on campus.

Information Technology has established a Year 2000 Project Office that handles communication between the UH campuses and other state universities and agencies.

This office also puts together UH's Y2K Web site.

Shomper and Bradley envision the Web site and upcoming Y2K information meetings as key to keeping the UH community informed. The Web site, located at www.uh.edu/

infotech/Y2K, provides information on the Y2K problem and advice on addressing it.

"We've got to keep the information in front of folks so they don't forget about it," Shomper said.

Both Bradley and Shomper stressed the individual's role in dealing with Y2K problems. They advised personal computer users to visit the Web sites of their computer's manufacturer to determine if its hardware and operating systems are Y2K-compliant. Questions about software can be addressed in the same manner.

Money in my pocket but nowhere to go ...

Though UH has apparently reigned in much of the potential Y2K chaos, students should still take steps to protect themselves.

"In late December 1999," said Peter Todd, a decision and information sciences professor, "make sure you have a fair amount of cash in your pocket. Avoid traveling on those dates."

He also advised keeping records of banking, bills and the like for several months before and after January 1999.

Complications will arise for some students, but many will profit from Y2K - including computer-savvy UH students and alumni who can help with the de-bugging.

"Times are good for computer geeks," Adams said with a laugh.

"Demand for our MIS students is one of the highest I've ever seen it," he said. "One out of 16 people who graduate from the University of Houston are MIS majors."

And what about those who are bound to feel skittish as the year 2000 nears?

"I don't think it's any reason for paranoia," Stanley said. But, he cautioned, "It is a serious problem. Pretend it's a hurricane coming and be prepared."

Reach Tavakoli at

btavakol@bayou.uh.edu.

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