Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Great Moments In History: Y2K

Why does an elevator care what year it is?

Today, the polite answer is, "It doesn't."

The not-so-polite answer is "Are you nuts? That's like asking 'Why does a fish need a bicycle?'"

But back in the 1990's many people worried that not just elevators, but cars, planes, the electricity supply, the banking system were all going to stop working on January 1, 2000. The story went like this: Many old computer systems used two digits instead of four to hold year numbers, so "65" was interpreted as 1965. At the end of 1999 when "99" wrapped around to "00" the computers would think it was the year 1900 instead of 2000.

And stop working.

Yes, people really did expect that on New Years Day 2000 apartment elevators were going to wake up and say, "Hey, it's 1900, I haven't been invented yet, I'd better shut down!"

The problem was called "Y2K" or "The Millennium Bug", and for many years famous consultants roamed the land spreading fear and dread ...

"Saturday, January 1, 2000: Suddenly, nothing works. Not your phones, not the cash machine, not even your fancy new VCR ... Science fiction? Almost all computer experts agree, it's very, very possible.

Will your home PC be useless? Will your bank open? Will your money be there?! What about basic services? Electricity, water, mail, food delivery? Will medical devices work? Will social security checks arrive?"

... politicians were exhorted to "Do Something!", companies spent billions rewriting code, COBOL programmers came out of retirement, and ordinary folks stockpiled flashlights and cans of beans as The Day approached ...

"Today, in early September 1999, it's still not too late for an individual or a family to acquire a modest stockpile of candles, batteries, tuna fish, and rice; there are still water filters and generators, but it's getting harder to find wood stoves and other supplies." - Ed Yourdon, "The Y2K End Game" from www.yourdon.com/articles/y2kendgame.html retrieved on November 9, 1999
Well, not quite everyone went nuts.

Turns out many small businesses did nothing, and neither did anyone at all in huge countries like Russia. And when the January 1, 2000 arrived, and nothing bad happened to anyone, anywhere, folks realized that all the Y2K talk was just that, talk.

And then, of course, everyone stopped talking about Y2K... it was just too embarrassing to think about all the money that had been wasted.

Or all those beans in the basement.

Doomsayers did learn quite a lot from Y2K, however. For example, they learned not to pick a Doomsday scenario with an fixed expiry date like 2000-01-01.

It's better to pick a catastrophe that won't happen for a long time, preferably not in our lifetime... but still pick one that needs to be dealt with immediately, and (like Y2K) it needs to be very very expensive to fix.

Carbon credits, anyone?

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1 comment:

Graeme said...

The real question is: was Y2K a non-issue, or did all the significant Y2K problems get fixed in time so that it looked like a non-issue?

My wife worked for a steel company, and they did a Y2K test in the mid-90's by setting all their clocks to 11:55pm Dec 31 1999. At midnight, the whole plant shut down. It turned out to be an exhaust fan deep in the bowels of the plant which decided that it hadn't had scheduled maintenance in 100 years, so it shut down. Everything that depended on it also shut down, and so on. By the time the real 1/1/2000 came around, this and other problems had been fixed and the plant kept right on ticking.

There's no way to really know how many problems would have happened had people not been diligent in the 90's. Having said that, you're probably right that a lot more time was spent fixing stuff than was actually necessary.