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What you really need to know about Y2K

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

What you really need to know about Y2K

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 19xx, The Syracuse Newspapers

What's all the fuss about Y2K? You'd think the world was coming to an end.

Some folks even say it will. They see chaos ahead when this millenium bumps up against the next one a little more than eight months from now. That's when the "Y" meets the "K" -- when the year 1999 ends and we hit 2000 (or "K" in computer lingo, meaning thousand).

Should you be scared about what might happen to your PC? No way. Should you be worried? Maybe.

It all depends. I realize that's not much of an answer, so I'll try to explain it in simple terms. Then I'll tell you what you can do to fix problems your PC might have. (If your computer is an Apple Macintosh, you can stop worrying and get on with other stuff. Macs aren't affected by Y2K problems.)

But before I tell you anything else, I need to give you a pep talk. The best way to find answers to Y2K problems is over the Internet, through the World Wide Web. Every manufacturer of computers and most of the companies that make software have their own sites on the Web, and that makes finding information for specific computers and programs very easy.

The Web also has hundreds of good sites that have help for Y2K problems. Once you've looked around, you'll probably find one or two you trust more than others. If you're just getting started, there's only one Web site to go to. It's, the best source of Y2K information in the world.

If you don't have Internet access, this would be a good time to sign up with an Internet provider. The two largest ones in Central New York are Road Runner and Dreamscape.

Road Runner uses a cable TV connection (but isn't part of your cable TV service). Road Runner provides a very fast connection and doesn't use your phone line. It costs $40 a month if you already have cable TV.

Dreamscape Online costs about $20 a month. It requires a modem (a device that lets your computer use the phone line) and doesn't need a cable connection.

If you've never had Internet access, you're probably tempted to try America Online. My advice: Don't. AOL is slow. Worse yet, AOL doesn't allow its members to do many of the things the rest of us can do on the Internet. (This isn't censorship; it's just lousy technical engineering.) And AOL's e-mail system is primitive and frustrating.

If you can't afford your own Internet access, you can get free access at many public libraries in Central New York. If you can't get to a library, you're stuck using old-fashioned methods. Postal mail and faxing are the worst way, because you can't ask questions as they come up. Call the manufacturers instead.

Now that you know how to get help, you need to find out how much help you need. To do that, you need to have a little background on the Y2K problem. I could fill an encyclopedia on Y2K, but I'll spare all the technical stuff and give you a look at what it's all about in plain English.

The Y2K problem is not just a booboo over the way dates are stored in computers. That's what most people think about when they hear someone mention Y2K, but the Y2K problem actually has many parts. Only the first two are important to PC users.

The first is the two-digit date problem. Computers and computer programs have been very dumb for years. To save memory and to make things a little easier when people like you and me type in the date, computers keep track of the year by two numbers -- a "9" and a "7 for" "1997," for example. That's fine for dates when there's no question about the century, but it's a no-no when the century isn't clear.

Suppose your computer says your grandfather was born in '98. You and I know he would be a really strange grandfather if he was only a year old, so we automatically fill in the right century when we think of things like this. (We know he was born in 1898, in other words. We don't have a problem.)

Computers don't make guesses and they're not as smart as people are. So your PC would assume "98" meant 1998. This would make your grandfather 1 year old. This little booboo would be a "Y1800" problem since it comes from a confusion over the year 1800. (Keep that in mind when someone tries to tell you the problem has something to do with "2000." The real problem has to do with every century that comes before or after 1900.)

We also call this the six-digit date problem, because dates are usually written this way -- 10-24-86, with only six places for numbers. Left on its own, a computer would have no way -- no way at all -- to know what date 10-24-86 actually represents. The important part of what I just told you is that the computer would have no way of knowing the real date. It just couldn't tell.

And that's bad, of course -- real bad for dates that are in the previous century or the next century.

Fixing this part of the Y2K problem means getting computers to use four digits for the "year" part of dates. That way our sample date would be 10-24-1986, and no computer could ever mistake what the date really means. A date written as 04-23-2000 would be very clear. (That's Shakespeare's 436th birthday, and I'd like to think he'd be unhappy if the date ended up in the wrong century.)

The second part of the Y2K problem sounds crazy. Computers and computer programs often don't know how to figure Leap Years properly. This seems crazy because everybody is supposed to know how to figure Leap Years -- right? Don't you just divide Leap Years by four and then factor in the rule that says if you can also divide them by 100 they're not Leap Years?. At least that's what everybody learned in school.

And that turns out to be wrong. A year is a Leap Year according to THREE rules, not two. If you can divide the year by four, it's a Leap Year, unless you can divide it by 100, in which case the year is NOT a Leap Year -- unless, that is, you can divide it by 400, and then it IS a Leap Year.

Whew! Read that over again two or three times and you'll see why just about everybody has it messed up -- especially since the year 2000 fits right into that forgotten category. You can divide it by four. Bingo! Leap Year! But you can also divide it by 100. Whoops! Not a Leap Year! But hold on, because you can divide it by 400, too. Leap Year for sure!

Why would this matter? Don't forget that computers do one thing much better than we do -- they can count like crazy. It turns out that computers can figure out the date in a flash if they just calculate the number of days that have passed since some day in the past, such as Jan. 1, 1980.

Uh-oh. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? If your PC thinks 2000 is not a Leap Year, and if it just adds up the days from some starting point in 1980, it's going to have a real problem when Feb. 29 rolls around. The computer will think the date is March 1. And it will think April 23 is April 24. (Sorry, Shakespeare!) And it will be wrong every single day until the end of time, or until the computer just plain dies of old age.

That's the one-two punch of Y2K. How much of a body blow will your PC get?

In terms of the hardware and the BIOS (more on that shortly), the answer depends on the age of your PC.

If you have a new computer -- one you bought this year -- your PC's hardware should be fine. It's the software you'll need to worry about.

If you have a computer that's one to three years old, your PC's hardware might be fine, but don't trust it.

If your PC is four years old or older, you can bet the farm that it's got problems.

The PC's hardware is controlled by the BIOS, the Basic Input-Output System. (It's pronounced "bye-ohs." Nobody ever actually says "Basic Input-Output System," so don't embarrass yourself. Just say "BIOS.") The BIOS hides out of the way unless you need to take a look at any part of it.

To find out more about the BIOS in your PC, reboot the computer and watch carefully when the PC comes to life. You'll see a brief message on the screen about the BIOS. It will tell you who made it and should also tell you what key (or keys) to press if you want to look at the BIOS settings.

The BIOS can be replaced in two ways. You can buy a new BIOS chip and snap it into place (or, of course, you could have a computer repair shop or store do it for you). Or you can download a program that "flashes" new code into the chip that's already in your computer. The PC or BIOS manufacturer will be able to tell you which method will work with your computer.

If you have a new PC, you're lucky. Just go to the Web site run by the PC's manufacturer and look for the company's Y2K statement about your PC. (Look for your exact model if things are entirely clear.) I'm saying this mostly to make you feel better, since new PCs should not have hardware and BIOS problems with the Year 2000. It's just smart to go out and check on it yourself.

If your PC is one to three years old, you might need to update the BIOS. Go to the manufacturer's Web site and find out. If you can't get the information you need that way, go to the BIOS manufacturer's Web site. (If you can't find the site, go to and search for the manufacturer's name.)

PCs that are older than three years are in trouble. You have to assume that the BIOS needs to be upgraded. Get all the information you can find. If the company that made your PC is out of business, hunt down the BIOS maker's Web site.

The software side of the story is nowhere near as simple. First there's the operating system with all its potential problems and then there are thousands of programs that run using the operating system's rules and regulations.

By "operating system," I'm talking about Windows. Consumers generally use Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 95 and Windows 98. Windows 3.1 and 3.11 are very old and creaky in computer terms, and they're not able to deal with the Y2K problems I referred to earlier. If you have a Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.11 PC, you'll just have to face the fact that your computer is going to mess up dates that have the next century in them.

If you do your banking or your taxes on a PC running Windows 3.1 or 3.11, or if you have any other important information on the PC that relies on date calculations, it's time to get a new PC that has Windows 98 already installed. You'll pay less doing that than you will fixing problems that come up -- assuming you can fix them, of course. And you'll have a much faster PC.

Windows 95 computers will never meet all the standards for Y2K. If you're worried about Y2K problems, upgrade your computer to Windows 98. Be sure to check the BIOS and get it fixed if needed, too.

Software programs need to be checked, too. Find out who makes each major program you run and go to the manufacturer's Web site for Y2K information. Games and simulations don't matter -- don't even think of whether they are OK -- but programs such as Excel and Access (two popular parts of Microsoft Office) need to be upgraded or fixed. Your word processor probably needs to be patched or replaced, too.

There's no real substitute for checking on each program at the manufacturer's site. That's why access to the Web is so important. You can't just assume that your software will be OK. Companies that make software will be able to tell you if their products meet the standards of Y2K.

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