Dang Bug!

Just for Kids

Kid News

February 04, 1999|By Michele Fitzpatrick | Michele Fitzpatrick,Chicago Tribune

This Y2K computer bug seems pretty creepy. We know it isn't really a bug, of course; but we asked some savvy computer programmers to explain what this pesky pest is up to.

What is Y2K?

Y2K is a nickname for Year Two Kilos (kilos are thousands in scientific notation). Y2K is the date 2000, when computer operating systems and programs with dates in their codes are likely to malfunction.

Why is the year 2000 a problem for computers? The computer won't know it is 2000. Computers will act as if it is 1900 all over again.

Why will they make such a goofy mistake?

The dates in their programs assume that the first two numbers of any date are 19. Many computer programs were designed 20, 30 years ago, and nobody really expected them to stick around later than 1999. So the programmers took a necessary shortcut and dropped the first two numbers when they entered dates into computer codes.

Why didn't programmers do it right the first time? It isn't the programmers' fault. In 1970, it cost a whopping $3 million for one megabyte of RAM (memory). Today one megabyte of RAM costs a measly $5; but way back then, it would have been too costly for programs to remember four numbers. Programs just remember the last two digits from 01 to 99.

So how big a deal is the Y2K bug? It's big. The Y2K bug could be a pest in computers and electronics that operate transit systems, elevators, power plants, air-traffic control systems, bank transactions, business accounting systems, you name it.

How could it affect us?

Here are two examples: Let's say your dad was born in 1950. He will be eligible for Social Security when he turns 65 in the year 2015. But, the computer, if nothing was changed, will calculate that the year is 1915! Luckily, President Clinton announced last month that the Social Security Administration has fixed its Y2K problem.

Even your grades could turn up missing. Teachers who stored all of your hard-earned A's by computer may lose them in the database because, according to the computer, you haven't taken the test yet! On the other hand, your absences will be erased too. Hmmm.

Why not just squish the Y2K bug? Well, the fix is on, but it isn't easy. Programmers have to scour maybe millions of lines of code in a program to find where the date is and change it.

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