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The Y2K Bug Looms Still

Across the country, revelers and government officials are preparing for New Year's Eve. While some plan parties, others are bracing for a potential Y2K bug disaster.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has established 10 regional centers, with more than 800 emergency personnel ready to monitor potential catastrophes in the United States and its territories.

"FEMA is confident that nothing serious will happen, but we are prepared to respond just like we would for any other natural disaster or any other emergency situation," said Robert Adamcik, associate director for FEMA response and recovery.

Preparing for 18 months, the agency's officials have rehearsed a multitude of scenarios, including explosions, power outages and nuclear disaster. The agency can draw on resources from as many as 26 federal agencies and the Red Cross if Y2K emergencies arise.

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The millennium computer bug is a legacy from software writers in the 1970s and 1980s. Programmers knew that a method of conserving what was then precious and scarce memory by abbreviating year dates to two digits - like 87 or 98 - would cripple data processing if not rectified before clocks ticked into 2000.

This system of dating will appear as 31/12/99 on Friday, but as 01/01/00 on Saturday. The latter date would be read as January 1, 1900 by computers which have not been fixed, and they would either crash, or spew out spurious data.

Programmers in the 70s and 80s gambled that the big old mainframe computers they were using would be obsolete by the time they faced the 2000 problem. They were wrong, and the race was on to fix many computer systems and embedded chips before midnight on December 31, 1999.

U.S. information technology consultancy The Gartner Group has put the cost of this at $300-600 billion worldwide.

Just days before the new year, programmers around the world are scouring computer code previously certified as Y2K-ready - and finding plenty of probles.

CCD Online Systems Inc. conducted Y2K checks at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. Its president, Jim McGovern, has complained about "an unacceptable number of errors" in software already fixed for Y2K.

Most of the Social Security errors caught in the second check were minor, said Dean Mesterharm, the agency's deputy commissioner of systems. "There were probably about four that would have had some kind of effect, a day or so of disruption."

Companies that have gone back over already-fixed software "concluded there are a lot more errors in the code, a lot more problems than they had imagined," agreed Rich Evans of the Meta Group Inc., another analyst firm. "There really is a false sense of security."

Experts said early efforts focused on checking dates typically identified with a heading "mm-dd-yy" or "date" buried within computer code. But prankster programmers sometimes used unusual nomenclature that can make these date variables nearly impossible to find.

Data Integrity said it found a date field called "Shirley" when it reviewed software at a major bank in the Northeast, which it declined to identify. The programmer responsible, it turned out, was dating a woman named Shirley when he wrote the software.

Some Americans who rely on electricity have sought out the advice from the experts of self-sufficient living - the Amish.

Y2K-related stockpiling has boosted business say Amish merchants in Jamesport, Mo, a town about 80 miles northeast of Kansas City, that draws tourists and shoppers from all over the Midwest.

Tobie Ropp of Ropp's Country Variety has been dispensing tips for months about his field of expertise: wood-fired stoves.

Business took off in fall 1998 and this spring. Most out-of-towners said they were preparing for possible Y2K power outages, Ropp said.

Stroking his gray beard, Ropp said with authority, "Nothing works like a wood-fired stove."

Of course, even the best advice is no substitute for common sense.

"Some people will buy a stove and only then realize that they need a chimney, too," Ropp said.