The myth behind Y2K: hip names and dire predictions

August 26, 1998|By Mark Lane

WHY 2K?

Does it really take so long to say "year 2000"? Abbreviations got us into this mess in the first place and now we expect to fight back with more of them.

For those still in denial, the Y2K problem -- or Millennium Bug, except that it happens a year before the millennium, but let's not get into that -- is a chain reaction of terrible computer problems that will kick in when years begin with twos instead of ones.

And what will happen after 00: 01 in the year 2000?

Planes will show up late at airports and be misscheduled by people who don't care. ATMs will refuse to work and charge outrageous fees when they do. VCRs will forlornly flash 12-12-12-12. Chewed gum will drop from under desks and chairs and onto our shoes. Candy bars will get caught hopelessly in vending machines. Soda machines will contemptuously spit back dollar bills. Pens will leak permanent ink. Teen-agers will wise-off and wear ugly shoes.

Cats will chase around the room for no apparent reason.

It will be the end of the world as we know it.

For those too sophisticated to believe the world will come to an end just because warrantees tend to expire when odometers accumulate zeros, Y2K offers an alternative catastrophe theory.

Unseen mysterious forces will not plunge the world into chaos. Short-sighted programming will.

That's much better.

The problem has its roots in the way our machines remember numbers. They often store only two digits. This means that what they do after 99 is no sure thing.

Anthropologists tell of primitive cultures whose words for numbers go: one, two, three, many. We laugh at their simplicity. We have developed to where we can design machines that count: 1997, 1998, 1999, many.

The two-digit shortcut for four-digit years means when the year 2000 rolls around, some computers will think it's the year 1900. They will refuse to believe they exist or accept commands from operators wearing celluloid collars.

Other machines will think it's the Year 1K and promptly expire from plague.

For those who take comfort in the belief that our machines are no smarter than we, this is deeply reassuring. And we make a mental note to pay for New Year's dinner in cash before going home on foot.

But not to worry, pros are working on the problem. Sure, they are the same kind of pros who created the problem in the first place, but let's not get all panicky. There are reasons for optimism.

The first sure sign that a solution is on the way is when the pros develop a snappy name for a problem. So now we have a Y2K problem. Y is for the year, 2K is for 2,000. This is A Great Advance.

This is in keeping with the way we attack many of the world's great challenges. First we worry awhile and identify the problem. Then, we make insane alarmist predictions about the disruptions and terrors the problem will cause. Then we give the problem a cool name. We repeat the cool name until everyone is thoroughly sick of hearing about it and wants to move onto something else. And then people stop worrying.

This is how we solved global warming. OK, maybe we didn't "solve" global warming in the strict sense of the term, but we sure do worry about it less.

One side effect of the cycle this time is the way people throw Ks around. K used to be baseball shorthand for a strike. Now it means 1,000.

Even nonmetric folks, who would never walk a kilometer if they could help it, are busily attaching kilos to everything. Folks have become so cozy with kilos that they have affectionately nicknamed them Ks. And use them everywhere. I've heard it 1K times.

I suspect that after having so much fun with Y2K, construction won't go away. The next year will be Y2K1. Then we'll toast Y2K2.

Assuming, of course, that it's still an industrialized world then and everything with a microchip didn't melt when Y1K99 ends.

Still, the end of the world as I know it has been happening on a near-daily basis for years now. It's hard to get worked up about it anymore. I'll just make sure the typewriter stays in the closet and doesn't get thrown out right away.

Mark Lane is an associate editor for the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal.

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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