We are always grateful to the readers who write us either by fax, e-mail, or snail mail ? about this column.
The volume of our correspondence has grown sharply in recent years, no doubt because e-mail makes it so easy to send a letter. We try hard to answer everyone, but some weeks it is just not possible to respond to each comment or query. So we'll use this column to reply to some of the most common questions in our mailbag.
One of the hottest topics in our mail queue recently has been the famous "millennium bug," also known as the "Year 2000 problem" or the "Y2k." The problem is that some large office and research computers were programmed long ago to treat the year field in a date as a two-digit number ? that is, 1998 is stored as "98." The computer just assumes that the first two digits of the year are "19."
(This programming peculiarity, by the way, was not the fault of stupidity or laziness. It's just that memory space in computers used to be expensive and limited, so early programmers were constantly using such tricks to reduce memory usage. Reducing a four-digit year to a two-digit number was considered an act of genius at the time.)
But now that people routinely have credit cards, mortgages, contracts, etc., that extend to the 21st century, a two-digit year is not enough. If your bank's computer sees that you have a loan payment due on 1/15/00, it may decide that you owed a payment in January of 1900, and assess 100 years of late fees.
"Y2k" is a big problem for corporations and government offices that use huge, old mainframe computers. It is not a problem for a personal computer user. Just about every PC and software program sold for the past 15 years has been programmed with the new century in mind. We even fired up an old Heathkit computer, 1980 vintage, running the antique CP/M operating system (this was the predecessor of DOS, which was the predecessor of Windows), and it had no trouble with the year 2000.
You can check this if you like by changing the "system clock" on your PC to 11:55 p.m. Dec. 31, 1999, and waiting five minutes to see what happens. What you'll find, we'll bet, is that all your software will glide smoothly into the new century without a glitch. If you do find a piece of software so old it doesn't know about the 21st century, the maker will almost certainly have issued an upgrade by now.
To answer some other frequent questions you send us: Yes, the Brit Hume who writes this column is the same Brit Hume who is the Washington bureau chief of the Fox News Network. Yes, the T.R. Reid who writes this column is the same T.R. Reid that many of you listen to on National Public Radio.
We get a lot of queries from readers who can't find Internet locations that we mention in this space. Most recently, many wrote us about their inability to find the International Lyrics Server, that charming site that gives the complete lyrics of 75,000 different songs.
The problem here is that many newspapers are not set up to print World Wide Web addresses accurately. With presses and typefaces designed long before there was such a thing as the World Wide Web, it is hard to reproduce the various slashes, colons, and tildes that make up a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), which is the techie term for an Internet address.
For this reason, we've been reluctant to put Internet addresses in this column. But there is a solution to this problem: the Internet search engines.
The easiest way to find a specific Web site is to type its name ? or part of the name ? into one of the search engines (such as Yahoo!, Lycos or InfoSeek). The program will then return a Web address for what you are looking for ? and you can simply click on the address to go there.
For example, if you ask any search engine to look for "lyrics," it will pop up with the address of the International Lyrics Server. Click on the address on your screen ? and when you get to the Lyrics Server, be sure to add it to the "Bookmarks" or "Favorites" list on your Web browser.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Brit Hume at email@example.com.
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