Number Nine, Number Nine
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorBy now, many people are aware of the year-2000 computer problem, in which two-digit year codes will cause a problem by interpreting the year 2000 as 1900 instead. I wrote about this "Y2K" problem in my editorial of June 28, 1998. But another computer problem is coming in just a few weeks, the "99" computer bug, also known as Y1.999K.
There is an old Beatles song in which a voice says "number nine, number nine" over and over. I wondered what this meant, and now, maybe we have one answer. Computer programmers have been using "99" as a code to flag a particular situation. For example, a 99 in the two-digit year code may mean an infinite date, such in a mailing list where the entry has no expiration date. Other uses for 99 include flags to delete the record, the last record in a file, or terminate the program. One system used by the British courts used "99" to indicate an unknown trial date.
Some have pointed to the date of September 9, 1999, which in numbers is written 9/9/99, as a major problem. A "9999" in the date code, used as a special flag, would be mistakenly triggered by that date. Personally, I think this particular date problem may not be that severe, since the day and month typically have two-digits, making September and the ninth day appear as "09" instead of just "9", so the date would appear as "090999" rather than "9999". But the "99" code in the year field is a known problem. Several web sites have paid attention to it.
For example, in www.data-dimensions.com/html/milj45.htm the Millennium Journal, November 1997, has an article "The Great Crash of 1999" (the site said to "Please pass this article around"). It points out that the number 9 is "the most frequently used element to mean transfer of logic." Corinne A. Gregory, author of the report on that site, states that "This systematic failure due to 'the nines' is potentially very damaging. It is no major exaggeration to say that every date processing program is potentially vulnerable to this error."
Another web site on the "99" problem is prepare4y2k.com/1999b.htm, says that this error will cause some computer systems to go offline. It too reports that the "99" code is often used to mean "go do something special". One authority there is quoted as saying that embedded chips, which are in many machines nowadays and can fail in the year 2000, are not as susceptible to the 99 problem.
Because the "99" code in the year field has been so commonly used, many organizations and applications will have errors or fail on January 1, 1999. Since January 1 is a holiday and a Friday, a business or government program may crash on the first business day, Monday, January 4, 1999. Computer users should therefore be testing their programs now, before the end of 1998. But with only a few weeks left and many applications not yet tested for Y2K, let alone 1999, there may be quite a number of computer failures in January 1999. Most of this will probably be bad data or problems that can be fixed quickly, but there is a small chance of a major breakdown in key financial and utility applications.
All organizations should test their systems for the 99 problem. But what can an individual do? Financially, one could hedge against the possibility of a stock-market decline. One can also keep some cash, water, food, and candles on hand in case of a disruption of services. If we are lucky, there will only be a few breakdowns here and there, nothing that will wreck the economy but rather act as a warning for the greater year-2000 problems that will arise later in 1999 when the fiscal years start.
We are on a river headed towards a waterfall, where nobody knows how big the fall is. We can ignore it, try to find a rock or a branch to cling to, or hang on tight and hope to survive the fall.
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Copyright 1998 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieveal system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.