Reflecting on Y2K. Ten years on. Thirty eight years on.
I used to write an Internet column for a daily newspaper in Toronto. I started writing it in 1995. Back then web browsers were new fangled ways to access the Internet, although I was certain the Web was just a fad and Gopher and FTP were the way to go. To toot my own horn, I was the first person in Canada to write a regular column about the Internet for a Canadian daily paper.
The paper I wrote for was better known for running a picture of a half naked 20 year old on page three. It wasn’t the kind of paper most people turned to for cutting edge computer information. I rarely got much email from readers. My editor noticed I always tried to be very fair and logical in my articles. She urged me to be more controversial. Take a side. Really come down on something. In a fit of pique, I compared Ayn Rand to Hitler. That was the only way I knew how to be controversial. I got zero email complaints.
A few months later I said something bad about Jar Jar Binks. I got an email from a very irate female reader. Something about the tone of her email said she was either a cat lady or collected a lot of plushy toys. My web site at the time had a picture of me lovingly holding a Tinky Wink teletubby, so maybe she had developed a fantasy about this dashing young computer journalist who could not only fix her computer problems but would understand her need to collect cute stuffed animals and I would never disparage her or roll my eyes, unlike all the other men before me. When I wrote about anti Jar Jar web sites that were springing up, redolent with open contempt for Jar Jar, I probably destroyed this poor woman’s fantasy. Wouldn’t be the first woman’s fantasy I’ve destroyed, I suppose.
What started generating a lot of emails was the growing buzz about the Year 2000 problem (aka Y2K). I had certain canned responses to some of the more common questions:
Q. Should I give my Windows PC to my grandmother and buy a Y2K-ready iMac?
A. No. iMacs are ugly.
Q. Should I buy Y2K-ready software?
A. No. Get a contract job and steal what you need from work.
Q. Should I hunker down in my basement Dec 31, 1999 and guard my possessions?
A. Yes. (Not that I thought anything big was going to happen. This just happens to be the way I’ve spent every New Years of my adult life. Alone. Looking at my things. Why should my readers be so special?)
Spending it alone was my plan but at the last minute, I decided to go all out for New Year’s Eve. I spent it on a friend’s couch. I ate sushi with software developers and we watched CNN’s coverage of Y2K celebrations around the globe.
We all wore matching khaki pants. Most wore grey vneck sweaters. The alpha geeks wore T-shirts from companies that don’t exist anymore like Infocom or T-shirts advertising products that never existed like Microsoft OS/2. Some never undid faded collegiate jackets from universities with well known computer science programs so I don’t know, and didn’t really care, what they were wearing underneath.
While waiting for Y2K EST so we could all go “happy New Year” and go home, we talked of MST3K, DS9, T2, and B5. By an unstated convention, no one spoke of Ep. 1. It had all been said by that point.
As the night wore on past 8 pm and drinks flowed and ice cream was mixed liberally with mugs full of Coke and some joker spiked the Coke punch with Pepsi, developers spoke of matters more serious to the heart. They talked of how hard it is to wait 3 years for a $1 million worth of stock options to vest, and, oh yeah, the beautiful women we’d never, ever meet.
But there was one thing we were waiting for more than being able to jump in our Volkswagen Golfs and go home. We were waiting for chaos.
So many countries had spent so little on such a big thing, it was assured the Y2K bug was going to give us something to sneer at.
And then it happened. Nothing.
Every time the ball dropped in such places as Auckland, Seoul, and Moscow, there was a sense of let down as events failed to unfold. How could this be? Nuclear power plants didn’t explode! Terrorist didn’t lay waste to Seattle and parts of Redmond! Cars with more computers under the hood than NASA owns didn’t become self-aware and rise up against their creators!
My microchip-tagged cat never once stood on two legs and talked like a human.
I had a friend who had practiced, for three full years, screaming “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” at the stroke of this very midnight. He tried to OD on a mouthful of wasabi.
In the critical hours that followed the disturbingly smooth transition to the Year 2000, Y2K consultants went to ground and destroyed their dental records. Who could forget Benito Mussolini’s fate at the hands of enraged Italians?
The Ebay auction site slowed to a crawl as consultants hopelessly tried to unload Y2K-related domain names. Desperate attempts were made to remove even a hint a person ever once made a single dollar suggesting (only suggesting) companies spend one hundred million dollars making sure every bit of hardware from the computer room to the lunchroom fully understood Y2K meant 2000 and not 1900 or 19100.
The long-ignored pundits who said the date flip would be no biggy suddenly appeared on the op ed pages of very important newspapers saying “I told you so” in 850 words. A few suggested mass arrests of the Y2K doomsayers would soon follow. It would be a victor’s justice.
About the only thing actually selling on Ebay was carry-on airplane luggage being sold off by the Y2K Doom consultants to the Y2K I Told You So crowd. I think the Y2K I Told You So crowd expected to make big money giving seminars to executives on how to avoid expensive hype-fueled boondoggles in the near future.
Of course, it’s anybody’s guess how the next generation of VPs look at my generation’s experience with Y2K and apply it to the warnings of the Y2K+38 consultants.
Simply put, time-related functions in C/C++ runtime libraries use a 32-bit long int variable type to define the current date as the number of seconds that have elapsed since Jan. 1, 1970 (the notional start of the PC era and more specifically the day Peter Norton first donned a pink dress shirt). Naturally, a long int overflows past 2,147,483,647. When computer clocks strike 03:14:07 Jan 18, 2038 (exactly 2,147,483,647 seconds since Jan. 1, 1970 and by coincidence, a Monday) computers will reset clocks to 1970.
So, momma, don’t raise your boys (and girls) to be consultants.
— Karl Mamer
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