When nines come out to play, log off; This Thursday's date of 9/9/99 is viewed by some as a threat; 9999 an old ending code; Expert says problems are likely to be limited to a few mainframes; Computers


In Aztec lore, the number nine is a fearsome symbol of night, death and damnation. In the modern computer industry -- a civilization with its own intricate mythologies -- there has been some speculation about what will happen Thursday, when the nines come out to play.

On that day, Sept. 9, the calendar will read 9/9/99. While no one in the high-technology sector is talking, publicly at least, about the prospect of a volcano or horde of demons laying Silicon Valley to waste, some in the trade press have floated the possibility that this once-in-a-century cavalcade of nines could mess up some computer functions.

Years ago, the number 9999 was occasionally used as a marker to indicate the end of a program. This has given rise to the theory that certain computers might read the 9/9/99 date as a cue to halt a procedure or erase a record prematurely.

Computer experts said the so-called "nines problem" isn't much of a problem at all, but a product of hype.

"I'm sensing this is really getting overblown. I think people are looking for stories. I just got a call from the 'Today' show," said Lisa Pellegrin of the United Nations-affiliated International Y2K Cooperation Center in Washington, which plans to run a test Thursday to gauge whether computer systems are prepared for the Year 2000 computer bug. She added, "The only reason we're doing this test is because so many people kept asking us" about the nines.

"Some minor things could happen, but we don't expect anything major," she said, observing that the 9999 code was not widely employed and would be irrelevant for many programs anyway, since they would read Thursday's date as 09/09/99, distinct from the four-digit, all-nines termination code.

Pete Moulton of the Moulton Co., a Columbia computer training and consulting firm, said any difficulties that do arise are likely to be limited to old mainframe computers used by some businesses. "For people at home, it's probably a nonissue," he said. "Most people won't notice it."

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