Y2K

Worry is a useful signal. It’s like a telephone call from your unconscious mind. So it’s good, of course, to notice the call and answer it. That allows you to make the proper response. I mean, you don’t want the phone to keep ringing. Once is enough. So just make the appropriate response immediately and then the ringing will stop.

During 1999, a very bizarre fear and worry filled the newspapers every day. It was called the Y2K problem. The year 2,000 sounds a little ominous, of course, and people may have been looking for it to have a special meaning or even to mark the end of an era in a really obvious way. Or perhaps, Y2K was a serious fear for people.

It’s interesting to consider how this problem began before we look at its more interesting consequences today. Back when computers were first invented and developed, computer memory was really really expensive. And so programmers would try to save bits and bytes wherever possible. So when a programmer was entering the format for the date, he decided to use “55″ instead of the longer “1955.” By doing this, he could use half as much memory to encode the data. Saving two bytes may not sound like much, but when a program used a date in hundreds or thousands of places, this could add up to big memory savings.

Of course, the programmer didn’t imagine that the computer and his program would still be in use in the year 2000. Back then, people imagined the year 2000 as having flying cars and amazing anti-gravity devices. Although the world has progressed enormously, it is amazing how some things can still stay around much much longer than people imagine. And that’s what happened with the code that the programmer wrote. Just like a person can keep snippets of memory from long long ago, in the same way, snippets of code can stay around in newer systems long after could be imagined.

And of course, those snippets continue to play an important role in the system. So in the year 1999, people began to worry very much about the effect of all these old snippets that remained in the system. Because what would happen when the two digit representation of the year 1999 changed into the two digit representation of the year 2000? What the programmers had never imagined – 99 would change into 00 right at the first stroke of the clock in the year two thousand.

Let’s think about this to show what it could mean. Supposing a bank is calculating your interest according to how many years you have had it on deposit. For example, let’s say that you deposited $100,000 in the bank at a simple interest rate of 4% per year.

Interest = (99-60) * 100,000 * 4% = $156,000

So far, so good. But let’s look at the calculation when “99″ changes into “00.”

Interest = (00 – 60) * 100,000 * 4% = -$240,000

Yes, that’s right, instead of being ahead by about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, your account is suddenly going to be massively depleted and you’ll be in the red by two hundred and fourty thousand dollars. That’s an overall loss of almost four hundred thousand dollars. For any investor, that is going to rate as a pretty bad one-second loss.

So it’s clear how financial institutes were worried by Y2K. But everyone else started getting worried, too. A lot of the old American military systems were also using very old snippets of code. What would happen if a nuclear missile computer got the date wrong. If the distance of a potential incoming missile were to suddenly become a minus number, would that mean that an attack had already occured and automatic retaliation was required?

Y2K was the worry of the decade and it showed. People started stocking up on food. They bought guns and gas masks. They expected World War Three, an earthquake, a famine, and a tornado to all hit simultaneously.

All the computer experts got paid huge sums of money that year to sift through these old snippets and to find any potential problems. People even worried that programmers might introduce new problems as they tried to Y2K-proof old code that was difficult to understand.

And at midnight 1999, many many people were very scared and very worried. What happened?

In a word – nothing.

Worry is a useful signal – a way of helping us to check that we have done things right and that we are prepared. But most of the time, nothing happens. The horrors that we can dream up are generally far worse than reality. So the next time worry comes to you – remember that it is like a telephone call to your unconscious mind. Go ahead. Answer the call. Check that things are ok. Make the appropriate response and then move on to a new exciting era.

©2010 by Brian Cullen

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