Computer specialist Martin Leung does not come over as a worried person. But he says he will not fly on December 31, 1999 - in case the plane crashes. 'Every year my wife and I normally fly back from the States on December 31. But not in 1999. That year we'll leave it about a week after January 1.' In fact, he suggests the safest thing for everyone to do that Saturday morning is to stay at home, and that's not because of hangovers. 'Monday will be tough,' he says. If you have not guessed, he is talking about the currently hidden trouble that may burst into frightening activity the second the millennium changes. In the jargon, it is the Y2K (Year 2 thousand) bug, the glitch that means those super-duper computers that do everything from calculate your tax to fly planes cannot recognise the year 2000. And if you are under the impression that it will not affect you because you do not run a huge mainframe computer, keep reading. 'I know my home computer won't work. Neither will my fax machine. I've tested them,' says Mr Leung, who has the remarkable title of 'principal consultant year 2000', for computer firm Platinum Technology. 'Have you got a video recorder where you set the timer? That won't work. Does your mobile phone give the date in two digits? Then that might not work either.' And as for those handheld organisers that contain all your essential information like appointments . . . In fact, anything that uses a timer and calculates dates to function could be affected. Imagine it. That Saturday morning, once you have stumbled out of the door leaving behind your dead appliances, the traffic lights go on the blink, with parts of the MTR and the cash machine. The shop staff might not accept your credit card because they cannot get any authorisation and you have to climb the stairs in the shopping centre because the lifts, timed to run differently at different times of the day, are running nowhere. And when you get to the front of the longest queue you have ever seen in the video shop, the harassed cashier says that, in theory, they owe you $5,476,950 for those three videos you rented on Christmas Eve at $150 a day. Then there are the real disaster scenarios: the computers that control the safety systems of power stations, steel mills, air traffic control - and Mr Leung's aircraft. The 2000 problem comes about because computer programmers until recently have only put two digits for the year to save computer storage space. Saving space was a big deal, and 2000 was such a distant speck that no one thought of the machines lasting that long. But in many cases, instead of swapping their computers, firms have simply added to them - leaving the old hardware and software deep within the system, says Mr Leung. And the enormity of putting the problem right means companies are running out of time. Doomsters predict that many firms will go out of business and that world recession may be the result. US consultancy Gartner Group has estimated the worldwide cost of putting it right at between US$300 billion (HK$2.3 trillion) and $600 billion. Western firms, which have used computers for longer than those in Hong Kong, are likely to be worst hit, but the territory is in a worse position than Singapore and Korea which came later to the machines. But it will not happen, say the scoffers. We have new machines, it is all hype. For them, here is a real case of computers failing due to date error. Last year, on December 30, computers shut down at the stroke of midnight in two smelters in Tasmania and New Zealand because they were not programmed to accept an extra day in the leap year. 'The computer could not handle the 366th day of the year and all the 660 process control computers hung up simultaneously,' a spokesman for New Zealand Aluminium Smelters told the news agencies. Five aluminium cells overheated: the cost of putting the problem right was US$500,000. (Oh, and by the way - 2000 is a leap year too.) A computer will either regard the date '00' as 1900 or as an error. Even if it accepts it, take 99 from 00 and you get -99. The video shop till above worked out that 01/01/00-24/12/99 is -36,513. It is not only in big computers but small home and business PCs too, including the software. Arleta Chen, operations manager of IBM China/Hong Kong, last month told the first conference held on this topic in the territory: 'For PCs introduced before 1996, manual intervention may be required to set the century byte to the correct value' - and that may require calling in an IBM representative to fix it. This reporter was sceptical - until I tried it at home. Although my IBM PC passed the simple date test, a spreadsheet program that used dates I input to calculate how long a magazine takes to arrive did exactly the same as that made-up video store till. To test your PC, switch your timer to 11.58 pm, December 31, 1999, make sure to switch your computer off - it will not work if you just watch it tick over - and switch on again in a few minutes. Did it work? Many do not. A common fault is that the date appears as that when the program was created, because the computer cannot actually go back as far as 1900. So what is the big deal? Just change the date. But just changing the clock will not change the way your computer works. If you use it for any date calculations at all - to pay wages, send out invoices, work out your cash flow - it will all be wrong. Then even if yours is right, what about your suppliers? If 10 per cent of the companies you deal with have problems, how long can you manage without their payments? In the best case, says Mr Leung, none of this will happen. All the glitches will be solved and no one will notice the odd one that is not. But, he says, the main problem is how many of those odd ones there might be. Of course, the Airbuses, the Boeings, the power companies and so on around the world know about this and are seriously working on it. And because of fail-safe systems, one error is unlikely to crash a big computer, particularly in safety critical situations. But say 100 will. Big companies have millions of dates to change, and even in the changing, errors may creep in. Hongkong Telecom's general manager of software services, Raymond Chu, told the Hong Kong conference, organised by Financial and Business Associates that his company had discovered 1.1 million lines of computer code that needed changing. It will take between 125 and 170 staff one year to do it at a cost of $90 million to $120 million. 'Even if one in 1,000 cases has a problem, that's a lot,' said Mr Chau. 'I'm sure there will be problems, it will not be 100 per cent solved.' And that's why Mr Leung will not be flying. Mr Leung and Mr Chau admit they stand to gain hugely from this whole business. Platinum Technology offers advice and software tools which they say will solve the problem - and they are currently run off their feet as they speak to many companies and the Hong Kong Government. An Internet worldwide web page set up by one of the first predictors of the problem, Peter de Jager ( http://www.year2000.com ), carries job adverts for those ready to cash in on the problem. One company seeking a vice-president for its new Year 2000 business unit says 'the millennium has created enormous opportunities for revenue growth over the next three years'. In fact, they say, the lawyers will be the real winners. Companies buying equipment now should ensure they have a contract stipulating the equipment will deal with 2000 and that the supplier will put it right if not. And the real sticky problems come with existing equipment, in which companies and suppliers may argue about who is liable for the problems when it crashes. Mr Chau says: 'If we are cheating, why are so many firms taking it seriously? Why is the US Government demanding that all its suppliers are 2000 compliant?' So is the Hong Kong Government, which has set up a steering committee under the Information Technology Department to find out the extent of the problem, how long it will take to fix and how much it will cost. Secretary for the Treasury Kwong Ka-chi says a preliminary survey last May pinpointed 200 affected jobs done by computers and seven departments most at risk: among them are the Inland Revenue, Census and Statistics and the Ratings Department. And other members of the information technology industry are as worried as Mr Leung and his boss. Head of information services at Hongkong Bank, Bob Carlson, says that between now and the deadline 'there isn't enough time, and there aren't enough programmers to get the whole job done'. His company began swapping its computers to four digits in 1986. The New York Stock Exchange started in 1987. The bank's moves will only be completed next year. Mr Carlson points out that testing the whole system, while still performing its daily duties, is a massive task that may take a year by itself. There are other problems too. Computers often cut off at 99. More companies will realise the need and panic. Then there will be a run on upgrading equipment, software and staff. Most of all, he says, it is not a problem to leave to the computer whizzes (who, according to other surveys, consistently underestimate the size of the problem), but to be led from the top. Hongkong Bank has an advantage in this: chairman John Strickland began at the Bank as a programmer, so he probably needed less persuasion than most to do something. Other Hong Kong responses on the problem vary. China Light and Power says it and the Guangdong Nuclear Power Joint Venture Co set up taskforces in 1996 to examine the extent of the problem and modify them. 'All modifications are scheduled to be completed by 1998,' a spokesman told the South China Morning Post. However, the firm declined to give further details of how many people were involved or how much it would cost. At the MTRC, representative Miranda Leung said a review of all the operational railway computer programs began last November and was expected to be finished in May. Outside computer experts say the company may have to rewrite its whole system, but the firm's line is more sanguine. 'The initial indication is that there is nothing of a major problem that we should be worrying about,' said Ms Leung. The Civil Aviation Department says it has ordered 2000-compatible computers for Chek Lap Kok and is testing them now. But if Kai Tak has to remain in operation over the period, no work will start on those systems until the start of next year. Acting assistant director Leung Woon-yin takes a calm approach. Because this is a worldwide problem, air traffic control computer suppliers will handle it and provide the solution, he says. 'It should be the system suppliers who take the lead.' He has a point. Air traffic control experts are not going to sit around and let Hong Kong's system plunge into chaos at the change of year. But Mr Chau says all customers should take the initiative to contact the supplier and demand certificates stating that what they buy meets the 2000 need. 'That supplier may have 50 customers in the US. Latecomers will have a big problem assembling a team to do the work,' he says. More worrying might be what other nearby airports, for instance in China, are doing. Mr Leung says he hopes they are looking into it, but to raise it in any formal manner would be 'embarrassing'. Hong Kong staff could raise it informally at the next meeting with mainland colleagues. 'I don't think it will be a difficult job,' he said. 'I think you may be misled by some statements from the computer industry.' He is echoed by Dr Cheung Yiu-sing of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, who says his members do not seem worried about it. 'Most of them use computers for word processing. I do not feel there is a very imminent problem in Hong Kong. 'Anything that happens three years down the road is too long to look at (for Hong Kong companies). If it's a big problem I'm sure the software companies will try to sell us software.' But he said that small businesses might not be talking about it because they have not looked into it - which Platinum's Mr Leung says is the big problem. 'Companies are in a state of denial,' he says. Only time will tell whether it is a catastrophe or a hyped problem. But on this one the deadline cannot be pushed back. One thing in your favour is that if you use a security card to get into your office, you probably cannot get into work on Monday January 3, 2000, unless your boss wakes up to the problem before that. The trouble is, you might lose 100 years of wages. As Mr Leung says, perhaps the best thing is to stay in bed.