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Tuesday December 21, 1999

Early Y2K bugs aren't all fun and games

Lisa M. Bowman, ZDNet

The Y2K-related glitches we've seen so far have ranged from the silly to the sc ary.

In Maine, an inconvenient yet innocuous glitch registered automobiles as horsel ess carriages. But in California, a Y2K-test-gone-awry spewed sewage into the streets.

Still, counties, cities and companies in the U.S. ar e learning from the snafus, and vow to at least ensure health and safety, even if they can' t thwart minor annoyances.

"In this country, we're very optimistic that it's go ing to be along the lines of inconveniences rather that tragedy," said Don Meyer, spokesman for the U.S. Senate's Y2K committee.

Anyone's guess
However, he acknowledged that even the experts don't really know what's going to happen after the clock strikes midnight at the end o f this month. "The minor inconveniences we've seen may be a harbin ger of things to come," Meyer conceded. "Of course, we hope that's not the case."

The glitch, as most folks know by now, occurs when computers read the date 2000 as 1900, because of software designed to read only the last two years in a date. The first major manifestati on of the glitch occurred a few years ago, when computers started rejecting purchases from people using credit cards that expired in 2000.

Others lost their ATM cards, after cash machines gobbled them up because the 20 00 expiration date just wouldn't compute.

Banks moved swiftly to address the problem, and have become leaders in addressi ng Y2K fears. But after the debacle, many delayed issuing cards with 2000 expiration dates for several months while they tackled the glitch.

Since then, other date-related problems have surfaced as companies and governme nt agencies have tested their software to make sure it's Y2K compliant -- only to find in some cases that it was not.

In June, one of the largest Y2K tests spawned a potential health hazard, as fou r million gallons of raw sewage spewed onto Southern California streets. During testing at local reclamation plan, a c omputer shut a gate by mistake, backing up sewage into the city of Van Nuys. City officials now say the problem has been r esolved.

Others are hoping that the medical community has addressed the glitches it has seen so far.

Tufts Medical plan dropped 18,000 Medicaid patients earlier this year, after it decided fixing Y2K glitches took precedence over keeping up the Medicaid system. The city of San Jose, Calif., f ound a glitch in the defibrillators in its ambulances, and sent them into the manufacturer to be repaired.

Glitches also have plagued businesses. At least one food distributor lost a lar ge amount of inventory before it discovered its computer system was tossing out items that expired in 2000, thin king they had sat on the shelf for the past 99 years.

Keeping a sense of humor
Other incidents, such as the horse-less carriage snafu in Maine, have been almo st laughable. In Philadelphia, about 500 people got a jury summons in November telling them to show up in 1900. And the Social Security Administration alarmed 30,000 people earlier this year by sending them notices that their benefits wou ld expire in 1900.

The biggest worry among some tech experts is the virus explosion that could com e as malicious hackers take advantage of people's Y2K fears. So far, researchers have found at least seven Y2K-relate d viruses, including some that masquerade as a Y2K fix and others that could harm computers when the New Year strikes.

The White House was so concerned about New Year's viruses and hacks it appealed to hackers and virus writers not to pick New Year's weekend for exploits.

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