Y2K Millennium Concerns

Well, we find it amazing that we even have to discuss this topic!

The popular media have made such a big thing about Y2K concerns that a LOT of people seem genuinely worried. It's still over a year away, (12.98) and people are already panicked! It's hard to imagine how wild the panic will be as we get closer to Jan 1, 2000.

We are quite knowledgeable about this subject, and can assure you that you do NOT need to panic. Will there be some computer systems that will become confused? Sure! But will the effects be long term, or seriously affect you? NO!

We are creating this page to address a variety of comments from people of the past few months. A man in Missouri has already bought 8,000 cans of food and will only be satisfied once he has 11,000. He expects the Y2K problem to disintegrate all of society for years, and is arranging to have enough food and supplies for his family for 4 years! A lady in Wisconsin wants to know if our product will be able to continue to work after all the electricity and gas supplies are cut off at Y2K. It sounds like she also expects the effects to last for a long time. Another man is certain that all of our military and defense systems will stop working, and all of our F-18 aircraft will crash, and so other countries will attack and invade us. (So he's buying guns to defend his family)


Here are the facts on the Y2K situation:
Computers that were built in the 1960s until the early 1980s, did not have very large memory storage capabilities. Therefore, all data that COULD be compressed into smaller size, WAS compressed. In particular, dates, which could take up many characters (January 13, 1991) were compressed to (011391) or similar formats, which only took 6 characters for each date. Even more compressed formats existed, which only took 4 or even 3 memory locations (or bytes) to save the same date, but those formats use weird characters and are not recognizable in English. It was assumed that there was no reason to keep recording over and over the digits '19' as the start of the year, because it was always the same!

Modern computers (those since about 1990 or so, have much more (cheap) memory. There is no longer the need for such ultra compression of dates, and so modern computers save dates which include the century digits.

MOST computers presently in operation are relatively new (since 1990). Since they know dates which include the century digits, they will have NO problems at all at Y2K, and the day will be just like any other day.

But some of the large mainframe computers, generally used by the government agencies and by very large companies for their databases, were built and programmed long ago, when dates were recorded without the century digits. Many of these computers are so huge and have such enormous databases, and do such mundane things (as holding names, addresses, birth dates, etc on everyone), that the computer owners and managers didn't have much incentive to replace them with more current types or with more current programming. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!


Now we can finally get to the specific types of problems which can occur at Y2K.

Let's say you were born in 1934. Your birth date is recorded in such computers as 09/04/34. The Social Security computers will look in December 1999 and see that you will be 65 years old (99 - 34) and therefore be eligible for Social Security, and so it will print a benefit check for you.

The following month, January 2000, it will look at you and see that it is year 00 and that you will not even be BORN yet, because you will be born in (34), many years in the future. That computer will therefore conclude that you do NOT qualify for benefits, because you are not even alive yet! It will probably NOT send out your benefit check.

Similarly, some credit card company computers will get confused when it tries to figure out the interest due on your balance from (99) for the statement that will be sent to you in January 00. It's hard to say what kind of bill it will send out. It could be zero! or it could be interest for a hundred years! The results will depend on specific programming that was written when those programs were first installed, ten or twenty years ago.

The ONLY other computers that could be affected by Y2K are other very old main frames. OK. It IS true that electric power companies have some of those old computers. Since all those old computers were written in computer languages which are now considered obsolete, there are few modern programmers who are able to understand those old programs enough to update them, or even to have a good idea on how they will react at Y2K. It COULD happen that some generating facilities have computers that will become confused and disconnect or shut down the generator at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day. But it is an absolute certainty that all such companies will have a HUGE staff ON SITE that night. If they find that their generator decides to shut off, they will QUICKLY act to restore electric power. It will NOT take them years or months to restore the electricity. So, even if there is an outage, it should only be seconds or minutes before power is restored.

All food supplies, utilities, services and products will be effectively unaffected by Y2K. IF any effects exist, they will be momentary, except for bureaucratic handling of such things as incorrect credit card bills or missing Social Security payments.

Look at it another way. Do you think ANY business or utility or bank would allow itself to become inactive for months or years? Not a chance! They ALL know that anything beyond a momentary disruption would encourage their customers to consider going to a competitor, and they will NEVER allow that!

The sky will NOT fall at Y2K!

Food stores MAY be relatively empty, but NOT because of Y2K itself. The panic that the media is inspiring in people, will almost certainly cause rushes on grocery stores in the weeks leading up to Y2K, which will empty the shelves (which will probably cause even MORE panic!)

Will YOUR computer fail or blow up? You must realize from the preceeding discussion, that the answer is resoundingly, NO! If you could ignore the media hype that will certainly arise at the time, you probably wouldn't even be aware that a new century is arriving.

OK. Having said all this, how does this impact on your life? Well, it's always a good policy to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on gas and oil supplies, which continue to depend greatly on foreign (read Mid-East) oil supplies. So, if your long-term plans involve concerns worries about those supplies being interrupted (and WE agree that that is some day likely to happen), then long term planning for a vague future crisis is appropriate. But, if your concerns are exclusively about Y2K, then we think you should NOT worry so much about it, and we think you do NOT need to get all bent out of shape over it.

About the only thing WE intent to be careful about that night is to NOT be flying in an airliner at midnight. The planes themselves probably won't be affected, since most were built relatively recently, and most of the older ones almost certainly have had updated avionics installed at some time. Our concerns lie more in the Air Traffic Control systems at airports. Many of those computers are pretty old, and many might be subject to some kind of effect of Y2K. What kind of effect? Nobody knows. But it would be a bummer to be on final approach when all their radar screens blanked out or something. We have already heard some airlines speculating about grounding all their planes for an hour then, just because noone knows how those computers might react.

Other than that, relax, and look forward to the new Millennium!


There's another way of looking at this. Twice each year, you probably reset your computer's clock for Daylight Savings Time. In the Spring, there is an hour that NEVER EVEN EXISTS! And, in the Autumn, we go through one hour TWICE! Does blue smoke come out of your computer at these times? NO! Does it lock up or otherwise stop operating? NO! Does anything at all get messed up? Probably not, with the possible exception of programs like real-time accounting programs that record sales transactions automatically and time-date them. Rather few peoples' PCs have this situation, especially for sales that take place in the middle of the night!

So, if you are REALLY paranoid about Y2K and your own computer, you could probably just reset the date (temporarily) a few days or weeks ahead or behind. If you back it up a few days, you would have the chance to watch the news programs to see what had happened to everyone else at Y2K, before allowing YOUR computer to know about the new century! We are certain that the news programs will mention a few problems in large old mainframe computers, but virtually none in PCs. At that point, you could confidently reset the date to the correct value and go merrily about your business!

Our guess is that there will probably be a very simple and quick solution for any large old mainframes, as well. If such a computer somehow interrupted a generating station or other utility, for example, it is probable that if that computer is just shut off momentarily (including disconnecting battery backup) and then restarted (in the new century), it will have no memory of the previous century and therefore recognize no Y2K problem! If such computer had a database of records and files, obviously it would be important to previously have made a backup copy, but that should always be done anyway. So, even the Social Security and Credit Card company computers should be able to be up and running again in moments. Of course, THOSE computers would still be confused about the ages of check recipients and of account dating, but those problems could possibly be resolved afterwards, on an individual basis.

The point here is, even if problems will exist (and a few will), the implications should NOT be very disruptive to society, and in general, will probably be resolvable momentarily in each case.

First Published on the Web: Nov 12, 1998



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C Johnson, Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago