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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Don't get smug about the Year 2000 Syndrome: for at least one company, it's here already


    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #349 July 2, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    You may have heard some of the advance paranoia about the upcoming Year 2000 and corporate computing. The germ of this is that many computer programs use two-digit date fields for years, e.g. 96 for 1996. So when users start entering 00 for 2000, all those nice calculations for payment due, etc., start failing, as the very literal computers assume that 06-21-96 occurs after 01-01-00, not before, so no payment is due.

    Most problems are expected to occur with custom-designed software for large mainframe equipment, which was designed in the '70s and '80s, when no one expected they would still be in use at the turn of the century, but some problems are also being found in nearly-new shrink-wrapped personal computer software, and in applications designed for trendy new client-server networks. Some companies are starting serious searches to root out such problems before they occur, but many or most computer users are assuming "it can't happen here." Well, too late--the Year 2000 Syndrome is already upon us.

    According to Joe Celko, of Atlanta's Ososoft Development, one of his clients date-stamps material entering its warehouse with a five-year expiry date. Goods produced in 1996 should be stamped with 2001 dates, but the new computer system has been setting the dates as 1901, and writing off the inventory as spoiled. This causes the automated inventory system to reorder the merchandise, and the automated accounting system to write off the inventory as a loss. Celko isn't naming names, but swears it is a true story. Stay on top of Y2000 from http://www.year2000.com.

    * * *

    And then there's viruses... Until recently, there were two basic sorts of viruses: one infected your computer when you ran a program that carried the virus, while the second, known as a boot-sector virus, was only passed on if you booted with an infected diskette in your floppy drive. A new type of virus emerged last year, and as a result, companies have seen a dramatic increase in the rate of infection.

    The National Computer Security Association (NCSA), after polling a range of companies and government agencies, suggests an infection rate of about one in 100 business computers per month--a rate it says is five to 10 times as high as last year's. Fully half of all infections are from the new virus type--a "macro virus" which infects data files, most often (at least for now) Microsoft Word documents.

    Simply reading an infected document, including files attached to e-mail messages, infects Microsoft Word. All documents saved by the now-infected copy of Word can spread the infection further. And since Word documents can be opened on both PCs and Macs, these new and improved viruses also can spread between computers of different types, something that was never possible with older virus varieties. NCSA estimates that viruses cost North American businesses $1 billion last year, and expects that this year will see that cost double or triple.

    New versions of virus-protection software can check for and remove macro viruses. Most companies have purchased antivirus software, but few computer users use them regularly enough. And since new viruses are being created and spread all the time, it's important to upgrade this software regularly--last year's version won't know about the entire category of Word macro viruses, for example.

    For PC/Windows users, one of my favourites is the Icelandic shareware, F-Prot. It's very effective and easy to use, in my experience, and is upgraded every two months or so. The registration cost is a humble $1 per machine per year (free for home use), and registration gets you annual payment-due letters with collectible Icelandic stamps. Check ftp://gar
    bo.uwasa.fi/pc/virus/ for the latest version.

    * * *

    A plug in every port... Taking a computer travelling? Did you know that there are 17 different phone plugs used in Europe, along with two different power plugs? Port Incorporated (www.portinc.com, 1-800-242-3133) claims to support 40 different so-called standards in phone plugs, and offers kits for different parts of the world--Europe, South America, Asia-Pacific. Prices range from about $150 to $300. They probably even support Iceland, in case you want to get your copy of F-Prot from the source.

    * * *

    Http://www.sicko... We all knew it, and now it's official: Internet Addiction Disorder has been recognized by the Canadian Medical Association and placed on the same level as drugs, alcohol and gambling addiction and other psychosocial perils that can cost sufferers their health, money, relationships and jobs. If this sounds like you or someone you know, take a look at either Netaholics Anonymous (http://simba.safari.net/~pam/netanon/) or the Webaholics Home Page (http://www.webaholics.com:80/). The Catch-22, of course, is that you need to use the Internet to access these self-help groups.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan