Are you ready for the biggest problem of 2000?

Are you ready for the Year 2000 (Y2K)? You've heard about all those old mainframes that will fail in 2000, but that situation is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the Y2K problems you're not expecting, such as the effect Y2K might have on your VCR. And I don't think you'll remember Y2K so much as a disaster, but more as a corporate excuse.

Software that uses two-digit years in dates accounts for most publicized Y2K problems. The computer industry certainly needs to deal with such software, but two-digit dates aren't the only millennial problem. Programs that calculate days of the week will also have trouble. A well-known and widely used algorithm for computing which weekday a particular date falls on relies on the fact that January 1, 1900, was a Monday. That algorithm won't work for the 21st century because January 1, 2000, will be a Saturday. The result? Well, suppose you program your VCR to tape Babylon 5 every Wednesday at 10 p.m. Come the year 2000, your VCR will faithfully try to tape Babylon 5 at 10 p.m. every Monday.

Some people say that January 1, 2000, will bring plagues of locusts and other disasters. Other people say the public shouldn't worry because Y2K will cause only a few annoyances. The folks in the second camp are probably more right, but one person's annoyance is another's disaster. If, for example, Fidelity Investments lost just one of my accounts because of a Y2K bug, I'd be closer to a locust fest than I care to get.

The Y2K bug will have at least two opportunities to strike in addition to January 1, 2000. These two opportunities are September 9, 1999 (i.e., 9/9/99, the date the computer industry has used to represent forever) and February 29, 2000 (many programs erroneously don't allow for a leap day in 2000 because 1900 wasn't a leap year).

In the next couple years, you'll hear plenty of Y2K horror stories. But I'll bet you won't hear that some companies will use Y2K to duck responsibility to their customers.

Over the past 50 years, the phrase "the computer is down" has found a place in the American lexicon right next to "the check's in the mail." This excuse is pretty pathetic when you think about it. Can you imagine a business telling a customer, "Sorry, we lost your account records because the shoddy roof we installed keeps collapsing"? Of course not.

A firm that installed an insufficient physical infrastructure wouldn't advertise that fact. Why, then, are businesspeople so eager to reveal their weak computing infrastructure, as if bugs and network failures were acts of Nature rather than results of bad planning?

I can imagine the excuses: "We're sorry we couldn't send you your W-2 until July, but we were having Y2K problems." And don't expect the IRS to be lenient. It's one of the few government agencies that is ready for 2000.

My advice? Be prepared for problems and worry about your assets. Starting November 1998, keep every document you receive that relates to your bank accounts, mutual funds, stocks, pension funds, 401Ks, or IRAs. In addition, call the firms that handle your finances and request a statement of Y2K compliance, a declaration that they have a Y2K plan in place and will be ready to tackle Y2K by September 9, 1999. A statement of Y2K compliance doesn't guarantee that a firm won't have problems. But if something goes wrong with one of your accounts, you'll have a better chance of winning a lawsuit if you have all the account's documentation and a statement assuring you that your assets are safe.