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Y2K: It Is Not a Bug If It Was Deliberate

© 1998 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, January/February 1999, reprint information

For a couple years now the media (computer magazines, Web sites, newspapers, television news, soap operas...) have been trying hard to address "The Y2K Bug." This "bug," once it arises on January 1, 2000 AD, will allegedly do everything from screw up your alarm clock to bring an end to air travel. The elevator at work will stop working, your car alarm will blare into the night, and you won't be able to tape I Love Lucy on your VCR. Reverend Jerry Falwell is selling a videotape in which he advises people to stockpile food, gasoline and ammunition. "If I'm blessed with a little food...I've got to be sure that I can persuade others not to mess with us." Apparently, he forgot to stockpile a copy of The New Testament.

Most of the things attributed to the Y2K bug are actual possibilities except: it isn't a bug. These devices -- alarm clocks, bread makers, elevator controllers, GPS (Global Positioning System) units, videotape recorders and such, were designed with two-digit values for the year. It was an intentional decision; well-known algorithms existed for calculating leap years and such using two-digit year values, so programmers and designers used these algorithms -- deliberately. A "bug," in contrast, is a program action that was unplanned.

An analogy: you look up a phone number in a phone book for Tsuji's Genuine Mexican Pizza. You call the number listed, only to get a recorded message saying the number is no longer valid. Is this a "bug" in the phone book? A "bug" in the paper? The ink? Or is it simply a case of expired information? Not to mention really bad taste in fast food?

The Y2K problem isn't even a unique problem. During the American Civil War, Union forces created standard pre-printed forms for doing various bureaucratic functions, and the forms came with pre-printed year dates: 1862, the year the war was supposed to end. Then 1863. At the end of every year, the Quartermasters were forced to toss unused forms, since the year date was incorrect. So then they printed forms reading 186_, which worked fine until the post-war Army, still using the forms, blundered into the year 1870.

Early computers suffered from a Year 1960 problem in the late 1950s; then a Year 1970 problem, then a Year 1980 problem. In 1990, hundreds of thousands (possibly even millions) of computers were trashed because they couldn't handle January 1, 1990. The next big hurdle, however, will be awesome: whereas there were half a dozen computers in 1949, and a few thousand in 1959, and tens of millions in 1989, there will be hundreds of millions of computers in use by the end of 1999. In addition to these hundreds of millions of computers, there are literally tens of billions of computer chips calculating dates in cameras, clocks, environmental controls, and other devices. Many of these will still be useful even if they have an imperfect understanding of the calendar, but millions will end up in landfills.

Apple's Macintosh line of computers will not have problems. Even the oldest machines, the original 128K Macintosh and later "Fat" Macs and Mac Plus machines, are happy at least until 2040 AD. Newer machines are good for a 60 millennia span, from 30081 BC to 29940 AD. So, if you have a Mac, you don't need to worry about the "Y2K Bug." Right?

Not quite. If you set up a database in FileMaker Pro (which is Y2K compliant) but decide to bypass its date format for your own, you can run into problems. Similarly, if you are sloppy in doing date calculations in Microsoft Excel (many people don't bother with date formats, opting to just enter two-digit numeric values for the year), you can run into problems. But, aside from creating your own problems using perfectly good programs, you need not worry about the "Y2K Bug." Right?

No, not quite. Macs are designed to be plugged into things, from printers and scanners to blood gas analyzers to the Internet. To take the most common problem: E-mail. While Macintosh E-mail clients (the part you use on your computer) are Y2K compliant, the servers, particularly if they run on "other" operating systems, may not be. You may have seen this phenomenon before: one server somewhere gets out of synch, and sends you a message dated sometime in the past. Since most people sort their incoming mail by date, the new message appears, to your E-mail client, to be "old," and gets buried in the past. You may not even notice the message until someone complains about your failure to respond.

Recently I ran into my own Year 1999 "Bug." For many years, starting on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, I've maintained a database of publications I've written. If something had been accepted by a publisher, but not actually published, I entered the date 1/1/1999 as a placeholder until I had the correct bibliographic data. This database, now maintained on a Macintosh in FileMaker Pro, is fully Year 2000 compliant -- except for the deliberate errors I've been entering into it. I felt somewhat sheepish: my placeholder values are now colliding with those far-off dates, which aren't far off anymore.

The world will not end on January 1, 2000. Electricity will still flow, garbage will still be picked up, and bills will still arrive in your mailbox. Many government agencies and businesses will, finally, be forced to upgrade their accounting systems, climate control systems, and burglar alarms, which should create a small economic boom. Millions of people will discover their MS-DOS and Windows computers are greatly confused, but that won't bother Macintosh users and owners. Unless you, too, have been entering false data for placeholders, or using text fields instead of date fields, or doing other things to confuse your poor Mac.

There is no Y2K "bug," but there is a Y2K problem. You need to do your part to clean up your errors before the calendar catches up with you.


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Revised December 13, 1998 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/