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  • [eerie ambience]

  • 1999.

  • A once-distant year that still sounded like science fiction was rapidly coming to a close

  • as the year 2000 approached, with massivemillennium celebrationsplanned to greet

  • the 2000s with excessive partying.

  • But looking beyond the street festivals and boundless optimism, there was an undercurrent

  • of pessimism and anxiety surrounding a computer glitch known as The Millennium Bug, The Year

  • 2000 Problem, or simply: Y2K.

  • Set to occur at the stroke of midnight, capable of instigating all manner of disruptions,

  • ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic.

  • And yet, once the new year arrived with few newsworthy problems occurring, many assumed

  • the Y2K threat had been exaggerated, or was even an outright hoax.

  • What happened?

  • With the millennium only hours away, many people are working down to the last minute

  • to fend off the Y2K Bug.

  • It's been called the world's most important extermination job

  • eliminating the Year 2000 computer bug.

  • The federal government now has ten response centers

  • across the country staffed 'round the clock.

  • The chance of major dislocation in our economy, the major dislocation in our standard lives

  • is very low.

  • I would certainly agree that it's below 10 percent.

  • When agencies are saying they're making good progress, they're 99% compliant, they're gonna

  • be there, they have every assurance that they'll be ready in time.

  • Lemme translate that to one phrase: they're not ready yet.

  • These global issues are the direct result of an equally real human oversight many people

  • now refer to as the Y2K, or Year 2000, problem.

  • This is a problem.

  • Things are gonna be broken, the electricity may be broken.

  • We will have to be patient while it's being fixed.

  • And y'know what?

  • While it's being fixed, we might actually enjoy some family time.

  • This is LGR Tech Tales, where we take a look at noteworthy stories of technological inspiration,

  • failure, and everything in-between.

  • This episode tells the tale of the infamous Y2K Bug and the crescendo of panic that ensued.

  • So what was the Year 2000 Problem to begin with?

  • Well Y2K, or Century Date Change as it was known for a while, can be most easily described

  • as a calendar problem.

  • For decades, computer programmers abbreviated the four digits of each calendar year down

  • to the last two digits.

  • So the year 1965 would be truncated to ‘65’ for example.

  • While humans had the common sense and context to understand a two digit year, the actual

  • computers might take this at face value.

  • Meaning that the year 2000 could instead be misinterpreted by a computer as the year 1900,

  • deeming 01/01/00 to be an earlier date than 12/31/99.

  • In hindsight, this seems like an easily avoidable problem, but when this shortcut was first

  • implemented it didn’t pose any immediate threat.

  • In fact, it made complete sense!

  • Some of the first widely-used computers in the United States, like the IBM 1401 introduced

  • in 1959, were programmed using paper punch cards.

  • These punch cards were a holdover from the electro-mechanical tabulating and accounting

  • machines computers replaced, and operators of those had often punched in 6-digit date

  • codes in the interest of saving time and space.

  • So when it came time to start using computer programs instead of accounting machines, the

  • same 6-digit date code carried over as well.

  • Then once the venerable IBM System/360 came along in 1964, its operating system continued

  • using 6-digit dates to maintain backwards compatibility when emulating IBM 1400 programs.

  • These abbreviated dates also had the welcome effect of saving a couple bits of data per

  • punch card, slightly decreasing the number of cards per program and lowering memory requirements.

  • Consider that a single two kilobyte board of core memory could cost a couple thousand

  • dollars, around 1 US dollar per bit.

  • And a 5 megabyte hard disk cost tens of thousands more, so it made sense to truncate programs

  • any way possible.

  • Sure, 6-digit years were a tad vague but big deal!

  • No way anyone would be running 1960s computer programs forty years later!

  • But that’s exactly what happened, especially in the realms of government, finance, and

  • infrastructure, where bureaucracy was high and change was slow.

  • And it’s not that computer programmers didn’t think ahead, thisCentury Date Change

  • orCDCproblem as it was called, was noticed early on.

  • All the way back in 1958, computing pioneer Bob Bemer was one of the first to address

  • the issue publicly while he was an employee at IBM.

  • He was working on a genealogy program in conjunction with the Mormon Church, and their researchers

  • needed to distinguish between the years 1900, 1800, 1700, and so on.

  • Two-digit years made this impossible, so Mr. Bemer came up with a way of programming full

  • 4-digit year references in COBOL.

  • Logically, this could become a problem in the future once the year 2000 arrived, but

  • despite Mr. Bemer repeatedly voicing his concerns for years,

  • the practice of two-digit year entry continued.

  • It was considered such a non-issue that on November 1, 1968, the Federal Information

  • Processing Standards Publication 4, “The Standard For Calendar Date,” was introduced.

  • This outlined how all information exchange between US government agencies would use the

  • now-standard 6-digit date, ensuring its usage far into the future.

  • And again, this didn’t go unnoticed.

  • Another IBM employee, Peter de Jager, came to his own realization about the Year 2000

  • Problem in 1977 while testing a new banking system.

  • He recognized the looming glitch, persistently voiced concern to his bosses, and like those

  • before him was very much ignored.

  • It simply wasn’t a big enough deal yet, and fixing so much code would be costly and

  • time-consuming and nobody wanted to do that.

  • A bit more credence was finally given to the idea in 1984,

  • with the release ofComputers in Crisisby Jerome and Marilyn Murray.

  • In this book, the Murrays laid out the history of the problem, what might happen if it’s

  • left unresolved, and how to address the flaws in 6-digit date programming, complete with

  • hundreds of pages showing examples of corrected computer code.

  • Still, even as recognition of the problem rose among programmers and computer users

  • heading into the 1990s, it wasn’t until the rise of fledgling internet services that

  • the Century Date Change problem truly gained traction.

  • Arguably, a contributing factor is the term “Y2K” itself, something far more catchy

  • thanCentury Date Change.”

  • The coining of the term is usually attributed to a programmer by the name of David Eddy,

  • who first used “Y2K” to refer to the problem in an email sent on June 12, 1995, spreading

  • virally from there.

  • But beyond the catchy name, what finally made governments, companies, and the public sit

  • up and take notice of Y2K in the mid-90s?

  • The answer is simple: panic.

  • Never underestimate the power of public panic!

  • "Power outages, water outages."

  • My main worry is the energy grid.

  • And if we can't get power, we can't get water.

  • So it's something that is totally unpredictable.

  • I think there are individual banks that will probably go bankrupt.

  • There are individual credit unions that will disappear over this issue.

  • Some people will die.

  • "The sooner you start your preparations, the better your opportunity to get the supplies"

  • "you need at reasonable prices."

  • News reports, websites, TV specials, radio shows, newspaper opinion pieces.

  • The Y2K coverage grew exponentially starting in 1996 as the new millennium drew ever closer,

  • and IT professionals warned with increasing volume of the impending problems that would occur.

  • By 1997, many experts were declaring a point of no returntime bombwas approaching,

  • and who knew what chaos might ensue if things weren’t soon addressed.

  • Especially when it came to computers that were now a couple of decades old, like those

  • used in electrical grids, air traffic control, social security, emergency response systems,

  • banking and financial institutions, hospitals and hospice centers, oil refineries and gas

  • processing, and of course, all those scary-looking nuclear power plants and missile silos.

  • The more the news coverage increased, the more people started wondering: what if everything

  • turned off, all at once, on January 1st?

  • Or worse, what if the glitch made systems go haywire, dropping planes from the sky and

  • launching nukes at random?

  • Soon, Century Date Change bills were enacted at state and local levels, bringing in tech

  • firms to assist in rewriting old code.

  • Former COBOL programmers were brought out of retirement to help fix their own programs

  • from the 60s and 70s.

  • Individual contractors were hired by countless institutions and businesses

  • starting at $1500 a day in 1997.

  • Governments, corporations, and small businesses around the globe were finally taking Y2K dead

  • seriously in 1998, with an estimated 300 billion to half a trillion dollars spent globally

  • once it was all said and done.

  • Of course, that was just the response on an official level: all those large institutions

  • still using decades-old hardware and software.

  • Youll note that personal computers haven’t really been brought up as a major concern,

  • and with good reason: a sizable margin of home computers were never going to be that

  • affected by Y2K, relative to minicomputers and mainframes.

  • Even going back to the early Macintosh and IBM PC systems from the 1980s, those accepted

  • the full 4-digit year 2000, no problem.

  • Granted, there were countless PC clones, many of which used two-digit years in the BIOS,

  • as well as the bigger problem where your computer

  • and OS was compatible but your older software wasn’t.

  • A good number of applications still only recognized the last two digits, but by the late 90s there

  • were very few of those programs still in use, and what remained likely wasn’t controlling

  • anything *vital* to society.

  • Windows, Mac OS, UNIX, even MS-DOS: none of these systems were ever at much risk, especially

  • by the mid-to-late ‘90s when the public finally started caring.

  • And larger companies like Microsoft made sure to let users know there were updates for any

  • of their outdated software, even offering a free Year 2000 Resource CD-ROM to help users

  • better understand the situation regarding PCs.

  • Still, overarching Y2K anxieties led tons of folks to get the wrong idea anyway.

  • The prevalence of “Y2K Compliantlabels all over the place probably didn’t help,

  • leading to a misguided idea that anything remotely computer-related could stop working.

  • Computers themselves were of course labeled this way, but also software that was never

  • at risk in the first place.

  • Bicycle Rummy?

  • Oh sure that’s Y2K compatible, why not?

  • If an item used a microchip, or heck, used electricity in some way, slap a Y2K sticker on it!

  • Cash registers, KVM switches, otoscopes, digital scales.

  • Of course, remember to turn your computers off before midnight too, because reasons.

  • Thanks, Best Buy.