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Y2K Bug in Retrospect

picture of y2k explosion

Do you remember all the hype about the y2k bug in the late 1990's? For those who only vaguely remember that situation, here's the problem in a nutshell. Computer programmers had the practice of abbreviating the year to only the last two digits. As the year 2000 approached it was feared that everything would stop working at the time of the rollover from 99 to 00. The predictions were that long-working computer systems would break down when the ascending numbering of years "...97, 98, 99..." suddenly became invalid when we hit the year "00."

Ten years ago this week people all over the globe were anticipating worldwide calamity. Some people were extremely concerned about y2k, but many others were totally nonchalant. My own take on it was "y2k? — y not 2k?!" But actually it's more than a little ironic that they called the problem "y2k" when it's abbreviations that got us in the problem in the first place!

Here's a cartoon that shows what many thought would happen:

picture of y2k cartoon

People were seriously stocking up on provisions — bottled water, canned meat, vegetables and fruit, TP, etc., in case stores could not open for months. There were all sorts of items available like the Survival Kit below:

picture of y2k survival kit

If you want to read more about the "y2k problem," there's a good article on Wikipedia.

Crisis mentality and hype are nothing new. But the y2k problem apparently wasn't either — those living in 999 A.D. and the year 1 B.C. faced similar situations. I have unearthed several documents that describe those situations, and I share them below. Also in 1999 there were some, in spite of all the reporting about it, who still did not understand the concept of y2k. I'll end the post with one blonde's (mis)understanding of the problem.

The Y1K Crisis

Canterbury, England. A.D. 999:

An atmosphere close to panic prevails today throughout Europe as the millennial year 1000 approaches, bringing with it the so-called "Y1K Bug," a menace which, until recently, hardly anyone had ever heard of.

Prophets of doom are warning that the entire fabric of Western Civilization, based as it now is upon monastic computations, could unravel, and that there is simply not enough time left to fix the problem.

Just how did this disaster-in-the-making ever arise? Why did no one anticipate that a change from a three-digit to a four-digit year would throw into total disarray all liturgical chants and all metrical verse in which any date is mentioned? Every formulaic hymn, prayer, ceremony and incantation dealing with dated events will have to be re-written to accommodate three extra syllables. All tabular chronologies with three-space year columns, maintained for generations by scribes using carefully hand-ruled lines on vellum sheets, will now have to be converted to four-space columns, at enormous cost. In the meantime, the validity of every official event, from baptisms to burials, from confirmations to coronations, may be called into question.

"We should have seen it coming," says Brother Cedric of St. Michael Abbey, here in Canterbury. "What worries me most is that THOUSAND contains the word THOU, which occurs in nearly all our prayers and, of course, always refers to God. Using it now in the name of the year will seem almost blasphemous, and it is bound to cause terrible confusion. Of course, we could always use Latin, but that might be even worse — the Latin word for thousand is mille, which is the same as the Latin for mile. We won't know whether we're talking about time or distance!"

Stonemasons are already reported threatening to demand a proportional pay increase for having to carve an extra numeral in all dates on tombstones, cornerstones and monuments. Together with its inevitable ripple effects, this alone could plunge the hitherto stable medieval economy into chaos.

A conference of clerics has been called at Winchester to discuss the entire issue, but doomsayers are convinced that the matter is now one of personal survival. Many families, in expectation of the worst, are stocking up on holy water and indulgences.


The Y zero K Crisis

While browsing through material in the recesses of the Roman Section of the British Museum, a researcher recently came across a tattered bit of parchment. After some effort he translated it and found it was a letter from a man called Plutonius with the title of "magister factorium," or keeper of the calendar, to one Cassius. It was dated, strangely enough, 2 B.C., December 3 — about 2,000 years ago. The translation of the text of the message follows:

Dear Cassius,
Are you still working on the Y zero K problem? The change from B.C. to A.D. is giving us a lot of headaches, and we haven't much time left. I don't know how people will cope with working the wrong way around. Having been working happily downward forever, now we have to start thinking upward. You would think that someone would have thought of it earlier and not left it to us to sort it all out at the last minute.

I spoke to Caesar the other evening. He was livid that Julius hadn't done something about it when he was sorting out the calendar. He said he could see why Brutus had turned nasty. We called in Consultus, but he simply said that continuing downwards using minus B.C. won't work. As usual, the consultants charged a fortune for doing nothing useful. Surely we will not have to throw out all our hardware and start again? Macrohard will make yet another fortune selling clay tablet upgrades out of this, I suppose. The money lenders are paranoid of course! They have been told that all usury rates will invert and they will have to pay their clients to take out loans. It's an ill wind ....

As for myself, I just can't see the sand in an hourglass flowing upward. We have heard that there are wise men in the East who have been working on the problem, but unfortunately they won't arrive until it's all over. Some say the world will cease to exist at the moment of transition.

I have heard that there are plans to stable all horses at midnight at the turn of the year as there are fears that they will stop and try to run backwards, causing immense damage to chariots and possible loss of life. Some say the world will cease to exist at the moment of transition.

We're continuing to work on the Y zero K problem, and I'll send you an e-parchment if anything develops.

Best regards,


Blonde secretary's memo to her boss:

To: My Boss
From: Blondie
Subject: Changing calendars for 2000

I hope that I haven't misunderstood your instructions because, to be honest, none of this Y to K stuff made much sense to me. At any rate, I have finished the conversion of all of the months on all company calendars for next year. The calendars have returned from the printer and are ready to be distributed with the following new months:

Fortunately I happened to think to fix all the days of each week to:

In general, all references to "Day" were changed to "Dak" (e.g. "President's Dak"). And all references to "Birthday" were changed to "Birthdak" (e.g. "Washington's Birthdak").

I had a hard time figuring what to do with New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah, because the y and k thing made it really challenging. I finally decided to change them to New Kear's Dak, Martin Luther Ying Dak, Kom Yippur, and Hanuyyah. Sorry — I left some y's because I thought everything looked a little weird with all those k's.

I hope I caught everything and that we are now "Y to K compliant" — that's what you said in your memo to me, but I'm still not sure I get it.


In an iv I sent out in early January 2000, when my computer, e-mail, and everything else still worked perfectly, I added a closing word from my wife. She told me, "Now that y2k has fizzled, we're stuck with a 4-month supply of canned Spam." I gave her an odd look and then heard her say, "NONE!" We had done basically nothing to get ready for the impending doom on January 1, 2000. 😎

In all the hubbub over the y2k bug, the Second Ice Age, Bird Flu, global warming, Swine Flu, etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum, isn't it wonderful to know that the Lord will take care of His own and will keep all of His promises no matter what? He has not lost control, nothing takes Him by surprise, and everything is moving towards His ultimate ends. Go confidently into 2010.

Blessings in the New Year!


"Faith is not optimism. Faith is treating God as God — it's actually worship." - Drew Conley

=^..^= =^..^=

We survived the year 2000 problem. I wonder when they'll start trying to get us worked up about the year 10,000 problem!

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8 Comments on “Y2K Bug in Retrospect”

  1. #1 Cindy C.
    on Dec 28th, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Hmmm, I think I still have some beans around here someplace. 😉

    Great post!!

  2. #2 Vikki
    on Dec 29th, 2009 at 12:43 am

    It is hard to believe that was 10 years ago already! I remember the excitement of waiting to see if anything major was going to “blow up”. Because just about anything with a circuit board in it has an embedded clock function, there were predictions that society was going to grind to a halt – right down to the automatic flush toilets! Cars were predicted to just stop dead in their tracks and the power company was going to go dark. Gas pumps would no longer operate and planes would fall out of the sky. The phone company went to great lengths assuring people that they were Y2K ready and were putting out the word to NOT test the phone lines at midnight because, if everyone did that, it would crash the phone system simply by overloading it. Huge selling points on products were whether or not they were Y2K ready.

    People make a small fortune by coming into a company, testing their systems and searching hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code looking for all the 2-digit years and changing them to 4-digit and testing the systems. My husband worked for Motorola at the time in the IT department and they spend months testing software systems looking for problems and fixing them. In fact, he and his crew had to work on New Year’s Eve in case something major did crash – so that left me at home alone with the kids that night.

    When the time finally came, midnight passed with hardly a whimper. A few things did crash, but nothing major. I actually found myself disappointed in a way. I was looking forward to an adventure!

    One of the biggest problems actually happened in I believe 1997 when credit card expiration dates of 2000 started showing up. Stores like WalMart found their systems kicking out the charge cards as expired.

    Wow. Was Y2K really 10 years ago?!?!? Where has the time gone?

  3. #3 David
    on Dec 29th, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Y2K38 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_2038_problem) is probably going to be a little harder to fix. Thankfully, we have 35 years or so before the media finds out, so we should be spared the hysteria for a while. 🙂

  4. #4 Rob
    on Dec 29th, 2009 at 9:33 am

    @Cindy – YIKES! I’m not sure I’d each want to eat 10-year-old beans….

    @Vikki – Tempus fugit, as I always say. I was a little nervous and concerned as the year 2000 approached, mainly because so much of life is computer-dependent. But I really wasn’t concerned because I know that God’s promised aren’t at the whim of human technology. I knew He would meet our needs, even if society as we knew it collapsed. I have similar misgivings going into 2010 with our current administration at the helm in DC, but I know that even if those buffoons mess things up royally, the Lord will still take care of us and give us grace for whatever we have to face.

    @David – Wow! That’s one I haven’t heard of…. Maybe when the inevitable hype begins in 25+ years, I’ll not be here to worry about it. 😀 Who knows how many such things lurk out there that we’re blissfully ignorant of.

  5. #5 Rhonda
    on Dec 30th, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Thanks to David for the Y2K38 tip. Another exciting panic to anticipate! 🙂

  6. #6 Rob
    on Dec 30th, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    @Rhonda – I’m predicting many more panics in the meantime. The news has to have something to sensationalize — ratings are so low, you know.

  7. #7 Cindy C.
    on Dec 31st, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Kidding. I didn’t even stock up for Y2K, but know those who did. I did let my son stay up late that year, as everyone was talking about it. He was terribly unimpressed by what “happened” at midnight. He said “That’s it?” and went right to bed. 😉

  8. #8 Rob
    on Jan 1st, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    @Cindy – Even kids were able to figure out it was hype.