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ISSUE 534: The high tech office- Jan 18 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

The Y2K bug was very real, in a small, annoying way

As we all know, the world made it safely through the New Year without major trauma, either computer- or terrorist-based. Presumably, chagrined survivalists have already started streaming back to the city, though information technology Y2K professionals are likely satisfied,
suggesting that the lack of disaster is a result of our all having thrown attention, money and resources in their direction.

While electricity flowed, aircraft flew and elevators and pacemakers operated without a hitch, Y2K was not entirely trouble-free. One site that I visited on January 4 was full of 486 PCs, all of them proclaiming that they'd had a happy new year, 1980. For most of these, a simple reset of the date brought them back to the future, while the rest re-
sponded to Symantec's free Norton 2000 utility.

As predicted, however, a number of date-sensitive programs failed to make sense of the new year -- often changing the year from 99 to 100, and in some cases, chopping that to the two-digit year 10. Reports are just trickling in, but it seems that this was most likely to occur
in custom-programmed business programs, but cropped up in a wide range of other settings as well. Eight of Vancouver's secondary schools, for example, found themselves unable to communicate with Victoria about student records. The older, DOS-based terminal software they were using was refused connection when the date it reported was wildly out of sync with the date on the other end.

I found myself in a similarly problematic situation when date-handicapped software on my computer was no longer able to communicate with the rest of the world. One of my activities is to moderate an online discussion about Windows issues, which is carried on a network of BBSs worldwide -- seemingly made obsolete by the pervasiveness of the Internet, but carrying on nonetheless. The messages are similar to but not compatible with Internet UseNet or mail messages and requires specific software. Not a mass market activity, so the software comes from a variety of shareware sources. The program I was using was last updated in 1994 and the company that made it is no longer in existence.

Starting on January 1, I slowly realized that I could receive message packets without problem, but when I tried to respond to messages, they were bounced by the receiving system. My software reported the year as "100," the software on the other end saw that as 10 (2010 presumably) and complained that my messages were dated more than 48 hours off from the actual date.

Luckily, several newer replacements had been written, including at least one that's available for free. A quick download, a few tests, and I was back up and running.

But rather than suffering from the effects of date confusion, a bigger problem in 2000 may turn out to be computer viruses. I've written recently about the spread of virus hoaxes, but, at the same time, the end of 1999 saw a dramatic increase in the number of real virus infections and in the number and virulence of types of viruses -- mostly spread via e-mail attachments or downloading files over the Internet.

Whereas a few years ago most viruses were spread on infected floppy diskettes, now any computer connected to the Net is potentially at risk. Some have suggested that the increasing number and virulence of computer viruses may make 2000 a digital plague year.

I used Symantec's Norton Anti-
Virus and had it set to run all the time in the background, checking e-mail attachments and downloaded files. It was also set to check my entire hard drive early every Friday morning.

The morning of New Year's Eve, when I looked at my computer screen, Norton AntiVirus reported that it had found and quarantined three files -- not traditional viruses, but "Trojan Horses," part of a program called NetBus that allowed a remote computer to control, and potentially damage, mine. Presumably, they were part of a program that had been downloaded and installed onto my computer -- probably by my teenage son -- and somehow Norton AntiVirus's autoprotect feature had been disabled.

But removing them broke Windows -- no applications started up.

So, I spent the better part of the day reinstalling Windows 98 and discovering that while this fixed the problem of the nonstarter applications, it led to two new problems. A series of "Blue Screens of Death" appeared, complete with obscure error messages at startup and shutdown, and my Internet connection no longer worked.

Rogers service quickly and efficiently walked me through restoring a working cable-modem setup (well done, Rogers!) and I managed to track the error messages down to a Microsoft security patch -- following the company's online instructions for removing their IGMP Security Update also removed the annoying Blue Screens of Death.

I've turned the antivirus autoprotect back on and have set it to scan the drive early every morning. But between the virus attack, problems reinstalling and date-stupid software, I had a digital New Year's that I'd sooner forget. *

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