Wrestling with Y2K

This month I'm invoking my "Editorial Privilege" to deal with an issue that might not seem very romantic, but that I want everyone in my audience to be aware of. (And at the end, I'll try my best to put a romance-related spin on it.)

Y2K, The Millenium Bug-- you've probably heard of these, and if you haven't, you undoubtedly will over the next year or so. Some people think it's going to be the biggest problem to face society since the Great Depression and the World Wars. Others expect it to be a minor speedbump that you might miss if you aren't watching the news that weekend. In any case, some amount of preparation, both mental and physical, is a good idea. The more people that are aware early on the fewer problems there'll be.

This essay is longer than my usual ramble, so I've broken it into sections:

THE BASICS -- 1/1/00

Back in the bad old days of computing (circa 1950s-1970s) computer diskspace and memory were very expensive. Every chunk of information you stored cost money, especially when that information was repeated for every entry in your records. For many computer programs, it made perfect sense to use two digits to represent the year. Why spend a lot of money having the "19" of "1960" printed over and over and over again in your database for every record, when there wasn't a single date that didn't start with "19"?

Some programmers have always been aware that there would be a problem when the year stopped climbing from "97", "98", "99" and dropped to "00". At the time however, few managers believed that the systems they were responsible for creating would be around that long without being replaced. (And if you think that's shortsighted, on some projects it made sense to use one digit years, and they had a "Year-1980 Problem" instead.) Also, using a two digit date comes naturally to people. When we talk to each other, we're smart enough to know that if I say I was born in '74, I probably don't mean 1874. Computers lack the common sense to make the same logical leap, but programmers might not have always had that logical gap in mind.

So what happens when a computer tries to work over the transition from 12/31/99 to 1/1/00? It depends. Let's say you ask one of these systems how old a man born in '54 will be in '00. It might happily do the math: 2000-1954=46. It might just as happily think 00-54=-54. In some odd cases, it might try 19100-1954 = 17146! In many cases, it will give the answer "SYSTEM CRASH", and that might be the biggest problem of them all.

Some Odd Cases: 9/9/99, Fiscal Year 2000, And The Rest

Another shortcut was to have the number "99" mean something significant to the program. Perhaps there was a program that would keep reading in dates until it reached a special, "impossible" date like 9/9/99, which would tell it to stop. (Smarter programs would look for a date such as 99/99/99, but not all programs that had to use this trick could be that smart.)

We're also going to see some business and government systems have problems well before the big 2000 rollover. These computers deal with the "Fiscal Year" which can start halfway through the previous year, and run into the whole "00" problems months before everyone else, giving the people responsible for those systems that much less time to prepare.

There's a silver lining to that grey cloud, however: it means more people will be aware of the big-2000 issue ahead of time, and I can't help but think that systems going wrong over the course of a year or two is better than everything going nuts at once.

The other issue is that humanity will always be dealing with these kind of date failures: older Unix systems will fail in 2038, some chips use day counters (instead of human readable dates) that could fail at arbitrary times, and who on earth is preparing for the year 10,000 problem?


So why is this a problem for us? Won't it just mean that some old accounting packages get confused, that maybe it'd be smart not to fly that weekend but besides that, who cares?

To understand the potential size of the problem, you have to recognize a few things:

  • Computers are everywhere in our society. From agriculture to manufacturing plants to warehouses, from businesses to government, from the transportation system to the electrical power grid to the telecommunications setup, computers keep track of records, print up schedules for people to follow, balance situations that are too complex or too boring for humans to handle day in and day out. We could not support the number of people that we have in urban areas, far away from the sources of food and raw material, without computers. And before you say "but we had New York City before we had computers," keep in mind that many techniques for supporting populations without computers are likely to have been forgotten over the last few decades, replaced by computers systems that were becoming cheaper and more efficient than humans doing the same job.
  • There's a variation of Murphy's Law by Douglas Hofstadter (a computer scientist) that goes
    "Hofstadter's Law: Projects always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter's Law into account."
    --this law is especially true when trying to fix or write a computer program, especially ones as complex and mysterious as the ones used by large companies. Overruns of months and months and millions of dollars aren't uncommon. There are even programs that have been quietly working for decades, causing everyone to forget how their internals work, or for which the records for the code have been lost.

    To people who haven't programmed, it might seem to be a matter of finding the one solution and using that everywhere. There is no one "magic bullet" that will work in this way. Many of the computer systems are unique, with their own histories, their own tasks to do, and their own ways of doing it. Even worse, there are literally millions of programs that need to be at least looked at, if not in need of complete overhaul. Jim Lord (I reference his website below) compares it to polishing marbles: each marble that needs to be polished might not be difficult by itself, but we've got a Grand Canyon full of these marbles, all of which need attention. I think this isn't a perfect metaphor, since the marbles are all different and the polishing is far more important for some marbles than for others, but it gives you an idea of the scope of the problem.

There are systems out there that are in the process of being fixed and that won't be a problem. There are some systems that won't be truly fixed, but that businesses can deal with through clever workarounds and people-based systems. There are many systems out there that will catch everyone by surprise when they crash. Some small businesses won't have a problem, but many will, either because of their own PCs/ billing-inventory systems/ computerized cash registers becoming confused, or because other companies that they depend on for resources will be having their own Y2K problems. Remember the chaos when UPS went on strike? Consider what could happen if every delivery service could only operate at one third capacity, or if telecommunication systems stopped faxes and data from getting through for a matter of months. These businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and many are "living dangerously" enough as it is, with "Just In Time" delivery systems and other cost-saving but computer-dependent juggling acts going on all the time. Y2K issues will push some of these over the edge. Given the current shakiness in the world economy, a recession is very, very likely.

Some of the more troubling parts of the Y2K bug are the problems with "Embedded Systems". Unlike the old mainframes that people might interact with on a regular basis, these are computer chips sitting in remote (and not so remote) corners of millions of pieces of equipment: lighting systems, security systems, elevators, railroad crossings, medical equipment, possibly even pacemakers. The good news is that the lion's share of these systems have no clue what the date is and shouldn't have a problem. The bad news is no one has a clear idea of whether any given system will have a problem without doing a series of time consuming and expensive tests. The worse news is that the tests that have been done have shown mixed results at best (A story is circulating that a GM plant rolled its clocks forward and every robot arm (and its entire manufacturing system) just stopped, frozen.) The even worse news is that some of these chips are going to be very, very difficult (in some cases, impossible) to find or make replacements for, particularly before the looming deadline. In some cases, you can fool the system by rolling back the date, which may work but creates headaches of its own.

Even if you don't work for a company that uses these processors, you depend on electricity being steadily provided. The electric grid is a vast network that can barely support loads during times of widespread air conditioning use. If they had problems getting fuel supplies via rail or truck, or in trying to make up for nuclear stations that were forced to go offline for safety reasons, the entire system would be hard pressed. Water and sewage systems, even if they had no Y2K issues of their own, would not work without electricity. Similarly, the transportation system (often running near maximum capacity, and with many Y2K issues of its own) is depended on by almost every other sector of the economy. If the warehouse can't get the materials from its supplier, the local business can't get its product from the warehouse. No one knows for certain how robust or fragile the chain is.


There are some people who have looked at the problem and are concerned, but do not feel extremely threatened. In general, these people don't publish websites, but they do defend their viewpoint in different forums, such as the Usenet Newsgroup comp.software.year-2000


c.s.y2k was a newsgroup established to discuss the technical aspects of getting systems ready for Y2K. However it has become overrun by people wanting to discuss TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) and survivalist issues. There are interesting debates between the "pollyannas" (people who think it will be largely manageable) and the "gloom and doomers" (who think everyone not thinking in a survivalist mode is at extreme risk.)

Natural Disasters and the Hunt for Precedents

One way to look at what might happen is to look at past situations that pushed nations' infrastructures to the extreme. Comparisons to natural disasters are common: people do have a fairly good track record of coming together during floods, earthquakes, and extreme weather. Large scale looting and violence is the exception and not the rule. (The current floods in China, however, are an example of extreme hardship that is provoking a government reaction against looters and price gougers.)

Wars provide another precedent. The former Yugoslavia was a gigantic warzone. Utilities, regular food distribution, and life in general is only now dragging its way to recovery. The people there became very resourceful at keeping alive under extreme conditions, some of which Y2K may come to resemble (the Utilities failing, the trains, etc.) Other people look to the L.A. Riots' example of what happens when angry people have a spark (in the case of Y2K, the risk of losing food supplies or government services may provide a catalyst.)

On the one hand, Y2K (hopefully) will not have many of the large problems wars and disasters provide: people will not be running from sniper fire, they will not be trying to dry out from flood conditions. On the other hand, in all of these situations there has always been an unaffected "somewhere else" to send in relief and help with the rebuilding. With Y2K there will not be a completely unaffected "somewhere else."

Some of these same people believe that the problem will be similar to major disasters that people have gotten through before. The Power Grid may fizzle, but only for a while. Food, large amounts of clean water, and other supplies may be in short supply for a matter of months. Smart stockpiling of the type you should have already done in case of other disasters (earthquake, blizzard, hurricane) will see you through the worst of it. Jim Lord runs a helpful "Y2K Tip of the Week" column-- he's accumulated about a year's worth of advice, from stockpiling to the importance of getting official documents in paper form rather than relying on Business and Government's record keeping. He's a little overly Republican-sounding at times, but has some sound ideas. Y2K Women is a site meant for women (especially women concerned about their families) that has some comprehensive stockpiling advice-- The Government's Emergency Management agency has an Emergency Food and Water Supplies page as well.

Some people believe that Y2K will be a fundamental stumbling block for Civilization as a whole. Some of these people have ties in to Radical-Right Wing politics and come to the debate with an agenda-- they wouldn't mind seeing the end of the current system of Federal Government and expect to see cities aflame. Others in this group are out to make a profit with Survivalist goods, consultant services, or books of their own for sale. Still others of these people have no such agenda, are very intelligent, and are very concerned. The pinnacle of these sites is Gary North's Y2K Links and Forums. Gary North has a huge collection of articles with all links prefaced by commentary by him. It's a very scary read, though I believe his mindset is such that he will usually put a negative spin on things in his commentary.

The Cassandra Project is an effort to increase awareness of the problem and help bring communities together for mutual protection and support.

Yahoo's Full Coverage has a reasonable number of headlines updated on a daily basis.


I can't tell you what the wisest course of action is; I'm trying to figure that out for myself. Still, Here is some advice I'm giving everyone who will listen:
  • Become aware of the problem, and help others to become aware. There's a lot of skepticism out there, and much of the skepticism isn't warranted. Convincing people that many things will go wrong is a large part of the battle.
  • The other part of the battle is to prevent people from panicking. Even if not a single computer ended up having a problem at the rollover, there would be economic problems if people decided to convert their savings into cash and shortages as people wanted to stock up on food and survival gear. The more people panic at the cost of cooperating, the worse it's going to be. Running for the hills may sometimes sound like the safe bet, but unless you've had years of preparation in fending for yourself you'd be in much more danger than if you'd stayed and prepared at home. (Especially considering that the efforts to fix problems with the infrastructure will focus on the cities first.)
  • Prepare. Many people of moderate opinion think that it would be wise to have a supply of food and drinkable water on hand, just in case. You may wish to stockpile prescription medicines if possible, and maybe have a little extra cash on hand (though probably not your entire life savings.) Make an effort to know your neighbors so you can help each other out, as well as getting the word to that many more people.
  • Learn to keep a level head as you keep yourself informed. When some writers speak of "disaster" they might mean something that will have a harmful effect on people's standards of living, not on their survival. If enough things broke without warning, survivability would become an issue-- but we've had warning, priorities have been set, and by the time the date does roll around only the very isolated will be uninformed of the issue. Life may well be very different and somewhat less comfortable for a number of years, but people are tough and smart, and it's my current opinion that Society is bigger than this problem that it faces.
How does this all tie in with love? Because you want to help the ones you love become aware and then prepare. Because in my life, it has caused me to take a step back and think about what's really important to me: love is, safety is, books are, some level of physical comfort is. Everything else is just details.

(For the record, I prefer to write dates in YYYY/MM/DD format, such as 1998-8-30, since it avoids the Europe/ USA order difference, can be used to sort dates in correct order, and just looks so darn cool.)

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