THE Y2K COCKROACH

O Doomsday, my Doomsday. Wherefore art thou Doomsday?

It's time to turn those paranoid idiots on again!

I was recently sent a report, The Day the World Shuts Down, apparently written by a Bruce Tippery who may, or may not have been, a little tippery when he wrote it. He wants to sell you something, of course, but has to properly deaden your senses and unlock your wallet first. He tries to do this by yammering about the already yammered about Y2K computer "bug." The "Y" means year and the "2K" (2 kilo) stands for 2000, thus the "Year 2000." Everyone from the Christian TV dimwit duo, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Van Impe," to the local geek, has heard about this asteroid of virtual space and has joined the silly choir. Salesman Bruce starts out by stating that computer programmers decided, way back in the dark 1960's, that they would save valuable computer memory space by shortening year dates such as 1976 to 76, thus – in ignorance, we are told – doing their customers one gigantic favor. The purpose was to save space by eliminating 2 digits, or 2 bytes, as it were. To bring this nonsense into perspective, I'll mention the familiar 3½ inch popular computer diskette. This iron oxide coated wafer of plastic contains about 14 square inches of area which is room for 1.4 million bytes (characters). One byte therefore occupies the same physical space as does the cross section of a single hair! How many 2-digit year dates occur in any representative batch of computer code or data? A little reflection, and calculator work if you are so inclined, readily points out the fallacy of this so-called "space saving." (Space saving is generally accomplished by "compression," or other algorithms.) Salesman Bruce then continues the fable with the remark that when the year odometer rolls over to "00," the processing will assume that the year 1900 is meant. This will cause bank accounts to vanish; insurance policies to be cancelled; missiles to be launched; drinking water to stop flowing and probably, toe nail fungus. Although he frequently uses "crash" to describe every computer problem under the sun, let it be known that "crash" means one of two things: (1) smoke rolls out from somewhere because of a physical failure of some bit of man-made junk thus causing the computer to go physically "ape," and (2) the program itself goes "blooey" and internally chases its own tail thus making it appear that everything has gone to meet that great virtual spirit in the sky. Salesman Bruce, in addition to his already growing pile of fertilizer, tosses on another scoop by stating that "99" is used often to terminate a computer's operation. Wow! See the implications of that one? Honor students would certainly be annoyed when their grades caused a computer to flip out. Imagine the grocery business during a 99 cent sale. 'Tis gossip that Bruce is dealing with and most of it is pure sausage. Often, during the input of data, the computer has no way of knowing where the end of it is, thus programmers often invoke ways to tag the data stream with an end value which has not occurred previously. 99 has certainly been used for this purpose but it has never, to my knowledge, been used as a command to stop computer operation altogether, as in Bruce's propaganda. Assuming that 99 is a command, then how could the computer distinguish this from 99 as a data item, or address reference? It does this by accepting those bytes within a certain context as do we when we hear things such as "there" (they're, their) or "your" (you're, yore) and so on. Salesman Bruce has all of the banks going loopy at certain times depending upon which flavor of loopy he is dispensing. Banks do use computers. Banks do use pencils. Banks do employ people. If all of the employees at your bank instantly died from over-taxation, would the bank cease operation? If the pencil sharpener busted its blade, would the bank shut down until the Pyramids turn into pillars of salt? Bank computer operations are printed out and this is called "hard copy." This paper pile is microfilmed (often microfiche) and then stored in vaults. This represents their permanent set of data. If the electricity suddenly stopped – a far more serious problem than anything emanating from some computer network foul-up – I am sure the bank would find a way to send the ATF to your home, complete with tanks, flame throwers and anthrax, in order to collect that mortgage payment. If the electricity continued to flow, and the computers all went to virtual Nirvana, that payment notice would still be on time and only a quick trip to Zimbabwe would get you off the payment hook. Salesman Bruce would also have you believe that the Pentagon would grow a sixth side and that the entire Military would be shut down depending upon when those nasty 99's appeared. Since the friendly business of the Military is death and destruction, I am confident that they have alternative plans. The Military always leaves room for, and welcomes, schemes for contingencies. Even guard duty has its supernumeraries, as all service men recognize. As an aside, the Military does its thing as a matter of business with not an ounce of hate to be found. It is an observable fact that more mischief has been perpetrated in the name of "love" than it ever has under the flag of "hate." Salesman Bruce has all of the aircraft control towers going bananas. Woe to the airborne! He conveniently ignores those thousands of airports which have no computers at all and operate entirely by radio communications. Even without radios, people still have eyeballs, haven't they? All pilots are required to know the red, green and white light signals. Sure there would be a crash, a smash and a flop, once in awhile, here or there. Heck, this happens even with computers or haven't you been paying attention to the news lately? What with high-tech equipment being progressively manned by low-tech help, it might not be such a bad idea if the computers indeed all burned out. It might be well to remember that the 1948 Berlin Air Lift (Operation Vittles; lasted over 1 year) – was one of the most congested airport uses of all time – was done with make-shift control towers and no computers at all. Traffic controllers are the policeman of busy air corridors. Computers are one of their handy electronic tools which are no better than the people who utilize them. At one time, before the blockheads decided to meddle with the world's best public education system, youngsters were taught Roman numerals and given a taste of the Julian calendar. In essence, the Julian calendar was a day count from "day one," that is, the beginning of the beginning. Thus, July 4, 1997 was Julian day 2,450,634 as counted from some point in the 4000-5000 B.C. period – I forgot exactly when. July 4, 1998 is day number 2,450,999 which is 365 days after – no surprise for those who have mastered subtraction. This daily count is very convenient for exacting the number of days from one point to another. Many things are reckoned by merely counting days since a certain event without the necessity of a Gregorian date ever arising. All sorts of enterprises, from banks to Internet servers, use a similar day count from some identified 'zero' date. From this count, the month, day and year are calculated. No big deal. I have a tiny program which accepts dates in the usual 'mmddyy' format where the 'yy' represents the year sans the '19' prefix which identifies the century. A peek at the code shows how easily one can slightly alter a handful of bytes so that it is workable for other, and multiple, centuries. How much written code is out there which needs this tweaking is anyone's guess. However, anyone with an I.Q. above that of a prune could have foreseen such problems years ago. I have often wondered how any programmer could be this blind to future dates, but then again, our present system of education is like the old grey mare – she ain't what she used to be. Salesman Bruce has something to sell after you are sufficiently brain rattled and pale. He offers an exclusive, and extensive, Y2K Preparation, Protection and Survival Kit. Surprise! Surprise! And when the Y2K non-event arrives, Bruce will be happily spending the money the suckers sent to him. Caveat emptor.

What shall I do as the millions of horrified boobs pester everyone under the sun asking them if they are "year 2000 compliant"? You'll find me safely removed, giggling to myself, and drinking my hot Ovaltine. What have we learned? Salesman Bruce first creates the problem in your noggin, then he offers to sell you a remedy. Snake oil has always been popular here in America.

Robert Frenz

1 July 1998

Note: I am indebted to Mr. Dan Parker for the following:

"Occasionally I read what someone has to say on Y2K just to sort of get an idea of how their brain works and what their politics might be. So, I read your recent essay on the subject and thought I'd send a few comments your way.

As a software developer with almost 2 decades experience, I have my view of the Y2K matter also. Mine is very simple though – not unlike the Y2K problem itself. You understand how simple the problem is technically, and that alone sets you apart from most who comment on Y2K. I think you missed the mark a little though. The problem is simple, and all of us who actually know how computers and programs that execute on them work know that. However, it is made difficult by this simple little bug – or stupid negligence in engineering – because it is so widespread. There are a lot of obsolete systems (or, legacy systems) with this bug and to fix them all takes a lot of work. I wonder why the conspiracy crackpots haven't claimed that all of those bugs were intentionally planted to create a multi-billion dollar industry?

Pervasive as it is, the Y2K bugs are not going to bring "the system" down. Anyone who thinks it even can is a pea-brain or has some vested interest in making people think it can, i.e. Hal Lindsay, Jack Van Impe, et al."