Dave Barry

Classic '97: Getting the bugs out

BY DAVE BARRY

MIAMI HERALD FILE PHOTO

This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, July 27, 1997.

We need to immediately stop whatever we are doing, especially if it is fun, and start worrying about the Millennium Bug.

Here's the situation: Because of a programming glitch, many large, powerful computers have trouble understanding dates. I can sympathize, because I had exactly the same problem with American History in the eighth grade. The solution in my case was for the teacher, Mr. Fletcher, to occasionally give me a helpful whack on the head with his right hand, on which he wore an Iona College class ring the size of a Buick Roadmaster. This was a highly effective memory-enhancement technique, which is why I still remember that 1924 was the year of the Teapot Dome Scandal (which just this week was linked to Hillary Clinton).

Unfortunately, Mr. Fletcher has retired, which means he is not available to whack some comprehension into our computers. But something needs to be done. Experts tell us that if the Millennium Bug is not fixed, when the year 2000 arrives, our financial records will be inaccurate, our telephone system will be unreliable, our government will be paralyzed and airline flights will be canceled without warning. In other words, things will be pretty much the same as they are now.

Nevertheless the computer industry is very alarmed. Experts are estimating that the cost of fixing the Millennium Bug could run as high as $600 billion, an amount that -- to give you an idea of the scale -- is nearly twice what Bill Gates spends per month on lawn care.

Why is the cost so high? Because experts are estimating it. You want a high price, you call an expert; you want a reasonable price, you call a guy named Skip. Recently, after our roof leaked, we had a guy named Skip come to our house and repair the water damage, which was fairly extensive because I, as the Man of the House, had spent 24 solid hours denying that the roof was leaking. Skip -- who has worked as a painter, carpenter, roofer and lobsterperson -- repaired it in one day for a very reasonable price. I bet that if the computer industry asked Skip to fix the Millennium Bug, he'd take a look at the problem, go get some parts out of his truck and have the whole thing straightened out in a matter of hours, after which he could, if desired, catch the computer industry a lobster.

But since experts are working on the Millennium Bug, it will remain a huge problem for years to come. That's why you need to understand, via the Q-and-A format, how it will affect you.

Q. What, exactly, is the Millennium Bug?

A. In a nutshell, computers don't know what century it is. For example, they can't tell the difference between 1904 and 2004.

Q. What IS the difference between 1904 and 2004?

A. In 1904, Dick Clark was still exclusively a radio talent.

Q. Wait a minute. You're telling me that these giant powerful computers that control our lives -- the computers that are SO PICKY about the information we give them; the computers that get into a big electronic snit if we get one digit wrong in the 27-digit account numbers they're always assigning us; the computers that refuse to put our telephone calls through if we're the teensiest bit inaccurate when we dial the number; the computers that would never, ever dream of giving us one extra dollar when we make a withdrawal from the automatic-teller machine -- you're telling me that these computers don't know what CENTURY it is?

A. These are also the computers that designed the Hubble Space Telescope.

Q. What is the federal government doing about the Millennium Bug?

A. It has formed an Emergency Task Force, headed by Al Gore, which expects, within two years, to have a preliminary design for a logo.

Q. I work in the Accounts Payable Department of a large multinational corporation, where I use my corporate computer primarily to access the Internet for the purpose of downloading pictures of naked people. How will the Millennium Bug affect me?

A. Unless some corrective action is taken, you could very well be seeing pictures of naked people from 1904.

Q. You had better not make another Dick Clark joke here.

A. I'll say.

Q. Speaking of naked people, what's the deal with all this sex in the military?

A. Now we know why tanks don't have windows.

Q. Will the Millennium Bug affect my federal tax return?

A. The Internal Revenue Service, after conducting a thorough review of its entire computer system, has concluded that last year was actually 2096. This means that, in the words of a new IRS directive: ``You people are all WAY behind.''

Q. I have found that if I keep my toenail clippings in plastic bags sorted by date, I can easily retrieve them as needed later on.

A. This is the Millennium Q-and-A column; you apparently have it confused with ``Hints From Heloise.''

Q. Well, could you leave this hint on her desk?

A. She has no desk. She keeps all her worldly goods, including a cheese sandwich dating from 1979, in a shopping bag.

Q. Is there a good way to end these Q-and-A columns?

A. Not that I am aware of.

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