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Y2K--666 or 2865?
Rick Sutcliffe
Professor of Computing Science
Trinity Western University
Published in
The Evangelical Baptist. September/October 1999, p15


After much time spent thinking over the Y2K problem, I've decided to buy an electric generator. My reasons are at the end of this article.

History of some Y2K Problems

In the pre-computing era the standard medium for storing data was the eighty-column punch card. We worked with keypunch machines and card sorters in inventory applications that used tens of thousands of cards. Because much of the data had to be dated, and eighty characters for an inventory record is precious little space, we invariably left off the century. Thus "1966" became just "66". After all, with the month and day, six precious columns were already used up, and the year 2000 was impossibly distant.

Habits are hard to break, and in the early days of computers, memory was incredibly expensive. In the early 1980s I paid over $300 for 16K of RAM. Today, a thousand times as much computer memory could be bought for a sixth as much. However, most early programs were written with two digit dates, no one really expecting any of those programs to be in use ten years later, let alone twenty. Hardware was built with the same shortcut, so that clocks in most systems run out as the 1990s end.

So, on January 1, 2000, many systems will report the year as 1900 instead. Computations involving dates will be wrong, and some software and hardware won't work at all. Financial transactions, inventory, time-sensitive data, e-mail applications, file systems, timed processes, and a host of common applications and devices are vulnerable.

Not just one problem

The problem is not confined to one date. The clocks of various operating systems and hardware run out on a variety of dates ranging from 2000 to 2042. The global positioning system (GPS) used for navigational purposes has a clock overflow in August 1999. Some hardware and software was designed with an incorrect rule for the leap year, and will generate an error on February 29, 2000. Old Fortran programmers often used a series of nines as a "nonsense" date to force an error when testing their programs, and it is theoretically conceivable that some could fail on 99/9/9.

Moreover, some programs, such as spreadsheets, may work correctly when the date is entered with four digits, but not if with two. Since the data display is unaffected until too late, such instances are hard to find. It is far more difficult to locate and upgrade thirty-year-old offending code for which the original (source) is no longer available. In some cases the programmers are long dead, and even if not, would never be able to remember every place where there is a two-digit date. Nor is the difficulty confined to getting past key dates; it affects all calculations (for interest, pension eligibility, etc.) that span across an affected date.

In other cases, the final code (after being transformed into binary numbers by a compiler) has been permanently burned into a chip, then embedded in an epoxy and used to run robotic or automatic machinery such as automotive and manufacturing subsystems. In some situations, it may not be apparent that a system is using a date-sensitive chip. Even if it is, no one might know where it is or what the code looks like.

The worst case scenario

There are a host of books warning of impending disaster. Supposedly, bank machines, airplanes, elevators, automobiles, utilities, government, and business will all come to a grinding halt in utter chaos on the first day of next year--this to be followed by social and political disorder as people dig in to wait for Christ, the Antichrist, 666, a belated communist takeover, or perhaps the earth melting down into a globule of chicken soup. Much of this hype comes from Christians infatuated with the notion that year 2000 has special spiritual importance, and from survivalists who regularly predict we are about to experience massive social breakdown.

Book authors, publishers, and sellers, and the manufacturers of survival gear and generators make undreamed of profits. A specialty Y2K magazine cashes in, fanning fears in order to sell food, guns, shelter plans, security mechanisms, and subscriptions. Investors, police, and the military are supposedly on edge, and the general population is more aware of this technical issue than of any other. Fixing it is costly, and some forecast bankruptcies, breakdown of the food distribution chain, and a variety of other disasters. Even books and web sites claiming to offer a balanced Christian perspective can more accurately be described as hysterical.

The facts

Most of what goes into books and web sites dealing with Y2K problems is just that--grade A hysterical nonsense. Banks have had their hardware and software in order for some time now, and many government departments, utilities, and transportation entities are entirely compliant. Taxes will still be collected and airports will still be open. The probability of a Y2K related catastrophe in the North American financial, retail, utility, or transportation sectors is now remote. Competent programmers have worked hard on repairing and upgrading the old systems. Most of the difficulties with public and commercial systems have been solved, and in many cases, passed simulation tests (where the clock is set forward and allowed to tick over the new year) with flying colours.

That is not to say there will be no glitches whatsoever. Most personal computers bought before 1997, except for those made by Apple--whose engineers knew the 1900s would end--will not work correctly in all situations after 1999. Moreover, much of the standard PC software, including that from the largest companies, is not yet compliant, and manufacturers in some countries have not bothered looking at the problem until too late to prevent some disruption. Even now, lawyers are readying Y2K lawsuits and dreaming of fat Y2K fees.

According to actual tests, embedded systems have a date-related failure rate of under one percent. However, in most cases, such as maintenance schedules for equipment such as automobiles, medical and transportation devices, and automatic controllers, dates are passive data and irrelevant to functionality. For instance, a small number of affected medical devices have already been identified and scheduled for repair or replacement. The same is true in the transportation, communication, and banking industries.

That is, planes will not fall out of the sky, bank machines will still work, elevators will still run, and the world as we know it will not collapse because of the Y2K problem. Even the many billions of dollars spent checking code and equipment worldwide is a tiny fraction of the gains or losses on a typical stock market trading day. Such amounts will not be noticed, except in the rare case of companies that do nothing until after January 2000, and are then faced with unexpected expenses.

Moreover, there have been (and will be more) trial runs before the end of the year. The D10K (the Dow Jones index becoming five digits by surpassing 10000) was one such already; and it went by without notice. If we make it to October 1999 without being much affected by the key dates in August and September, we can expect January 1, 2000, also to go by without incident.

The Theology

"But," you ask, "won't the Lord come back in the year 2000 after all?" Well, perhaps, but anyone who thinks that the Lord, maker, and Almighty King of the universe has His timetable somehow dependent on fallible computer software has a strange and limiting view of God. Why should He follow human timetables, and calendars?

If a person's eschatology dictates the church is about to go through the great tribulation, then faithfulness to that belief suggests heading for the hills or digging a bomb shelter and stocking it with food and emergency supplies for forty-two months. If one believes the Church will be raptured before the tribulation, none of these things are necessary. Neither course of action need be connected in any way to the year 2000.

Indeed, there is reason to suppose that there is nothing more theologically important about this New Year above any other. When in 525 Dionysius Exigius estimated the year of Christ's birth on the old Roman system, he erred by several years. The correct result on the calendar he produced could be no later than 4BC, meaning that 2000 years passed in 1996. If Christians think a span of 2000 years from any particular event is important, surely they ought to focus on Christ's crucifixion instead. Perhaps 2029 will be of importance, but surely 2000 on an arbitrary and meaningless scale is not. Moreover, since there was no year zero, the end of the second AD millennium even in the system we use is December 31, 2000, not 1999.

What are Christians doing in the date-setting business anyway, in the face of Christ's plain statement that no one knows the day nor the hour of His return? Surely enough harm with such foolishness has been done by the cults. If we keep this up, we will end up not simply looking like fools ourselves, but also defaming the name of Christ, discrediting the gospel, and ensuring that fewer people than ever come to salvation. Satan must be having a hot laugh over this affair.

Indeed, at this stage of things, the most likely of all the improbable disaster scenarios has become the self-fulfilling prophecy. If a sufficient number of people become frightened by the scaremongers to pull their money out of banks and the stock market in anticipation of January 1 disaster, their actions could create one, where computers themselves will not. The responsibility would lie squarely with those who provoked hysteria in the first place. Perhaps everyone who makes a Y2K profit should be required to put the money in trust, and pay it back if nothing untoward happens.

What about that generator, then?

Oh, yes. We had a lot of power failures last winter, and it would be nice to have a backup power source. By March, 2000, there ought to be plenty of unused generators being sold off at half price by red-faced survivalists whose date-setting didn't pan out. I'll buy one then. On a nearby shelf I'll store a few Y2K magazines and books; someday they will make great comedy.

And that title? Spell out B.U.N.K. on your telephone.

--Rick Sutcliffe


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