The Trouble with Computer Dating

by Libs mulling over latest loss in 407 dispute

So Jan. 1, 2000, came and went without a glitch, right? The Y2K Bug was more smoke than fire, and now computing life will go as it did before.

Not so fast.

The Y2K issue, of course, refers to the trouble some computers will have recognizing Jan. 1, 2000, as a valid date, because for years computer programmers used two digits rather than four to signify dates. Thanks largely to a Canadian consultant named Peter de Jaeger, the world was made aware of the implications of the Y2K issue about four years ago, giving computer users time to deal with it. Governments and large corporations budgeted millions-sometimes billions-of dollars for system upgrades. Software developers created programs to help small businesses and home-computer users check and adjust their computers in time. (Some folks just set their computer’s system clock back a couple of years, but that’s another story entirely.). The upside is that the Y2K issue caused companies and top-level managers to assess their information systems and not only make their computers Y2K-compliant, but more efficient and productive as well.

But the truth is, computer-related date issues are still very much in the air, and may plague us for a considerable time to come.

First, the Y2K issue didn’t simply disappear when our calendars flipped over to Jan. 2. Some errors may not be detected until a particular process is used and its inability to do the job noted. In fact, a recently published report from Task Force 2000, the U.K.’s industry-funded Y2K awareness body, suggests that fully 40% of Y2K-related problems will occur after Jan. 1, 2000.

Failure in one area may trigger problems somewhere else, which may not be noted for weeks or months. Another factor is the nature of error correction, which itself is open to error. As more corrections are made, says the report, more errors may occur, and “error congestion” may come into play.

As if that weren’t enough, Feb. 29, 2000, will present its own date-related issue. It’s an extra day in the month, because the year 2000 is a leap year. Many computer systems are expected to miss noting that Feb. 29, 2000, is an extra day, because of short-sightedness on the part of their programmers.

Moving right along, we come to Sept. 8, 2001. In some Unix applications (Unix is an operating system used on large mainframe computers), the number 999,999,999-which is also how Unix denotes Sept. 8, 2001-is used to specify the end of a program. Therefore, on this date, Unix systems running some older applications may just shut down.

Having dealt successfully with the arrival of the millennium, strange leap years, and the nines, we’ll have a bit of a breather, as we can go all the way to the year 2038 before we hit the next date-related doozy.

This one relates to applications written in C and C++, two of the most popular programming languages now in use-which means that a lot of programs on DOS, Windows, and Unix systems will be affected.

When our computers roll over to Jan. 19, 2038, they may think it’s Jan. 1, 1970. That’s because C and C++ use something called a signed 32-bit long integer to keep track of time. This integer counts the number of seconds that have elapsed since Jan. 1, 1970. Trouble is, when the computer gets to its upper limit, it starts counting all over again-beginning at Jan. 1, 1970.

The good news in all this is that we’ve already survived two other date-related issues. The first was all about the Euro, the new monetary unit used by the European Economic Community.

The second was last August, when some computers rolled over a date critical to the Global Positioning System. GPS provides data to handheld tracking systems, and is used by banks to synchronize interest on international fund transfers and by power plants to synchronize generating equipment. We breezed past these events so easily, in fact, that most people probably weren’t even aware of them.

Not that they weren’t important-one involved money, and the other embraced both money and the supply of electricity. We got past them because preparations were made early enough that all date-related issues were resolved before the potential crisis points arrived.

It’s an old saw that time just marches on. Evidently, what we have to get used to is the fact that date-related issues on our computer systems will also march along, right in step.

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