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I recall spending time adding the two extra characters to the date field in lots of COBOL programs in the late 1990s. I also remember being asked to be available New Years Eve. Nothing happened, everything just worked.


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    Y2K was an interesting time for me. I was 20 years old and the sysadmin of a mom’n’pop ISP (dial-up only, not that there were many other kinds at the time, really…) in a small Texas town.

    The mom of the owner was also our account manager. We found out in January that she hadn’t done any of the billing for that month because she was absolutely convinced Jesus was coming back at the stroke of midnight January 1st, 2000. Several other members of our staff were terrified of mass panic or civilization collapsing, and I know at least one person had prepared a “bunker” of sorts and spent NYE there.

    Before we found that out, however, I had spent weeks making sure all our infrastructure was good to go (FreeBSD, Cisco, and Ascend, mostly). I still was requested to spend my New Year’s Eve at my desk to watch everything tick over in case anything exploded. Nothing did, so I just sat around playing Civ II on the tech support desktop until my girlfriend at the time got off work and she came and hung out with me and we watched a movie with the VCR in the breakroom. All in all it wasn’t a bad time and I got a nice bonus.

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      Y2K is fascinating to me as someone born afterward. Such a silly thing looking back, but I’m curious as to why many people found the mythical bug a serious issue. Perhaps it was that knowledge of computers was not yet ‘mainstream,’ and people just didn’t understand computer systems in general?

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        It was a serious issue, and we fixed it.

        A lot of folks look at the fact pattern as: people said Y2K was a problem; we took them seriously and spent a lot of money addressing it; nothing happened — and therefore there was no problem to begin with. That’s just not the case: there was a problem, and those sums of money solved it.

        It’s though a bit cried ‘wolf!’ and the villagers banded together and drove it off, successfully defending their flocks — and then got angry at him, because the wolf didn’t eat any sheep.

        What really worries me is that the next Y2K issue won’t be fixed, and will result in death and destruction, precisely because folks think that the first one was a hoax.

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          This, exactly. A couple weeks ago, my daughter was raving about the cleanliness of the floors in our house, as if this sort of thing happened naturally. I had to remind her that she’s just absent when I spend a lot of time taking care of home things like cleaning the floors. Not so different.

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            What really worries me is that the next Y2K issue won’t be fixed, and will result in death and destruction, precisely because folks think that the first one was a hoax.

            I’m not really that worried about that; anyone who knows how computers work would find an argument like “These old machines count time as a 32-it number of seconds which overflows in a few years” convincing. When the entire IT department takes the issue seriously, I can only assume the people above that would let them so what they deem necessary to keep the critical systems running. This isn’t really something the general public needs to believe in to fix.

            Or maybe I’m just naive and people in charge don’t trust their IT staff to know what’s best for IT infrastructure.

            I’m worried about sporadic failures going forward due to the hacks intended to fix y2k though. If some people’s solution to y2k was to read all numbers below 20 as 20xx and all numbers above it as 19xx, because those 20 years ought to be enough to fix the issue properly…

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              This is why good(and public) history sources are something I will always champion. A post this week comparing these attitudes on Y2K to the 1987 treaty banning CFCs really resonated with me, having grown up witnessing both events first-hand.

              Even here in Seattle where newcomers love the views: Metro didn’t start as a bus service and many of our beaches were unsafe for swimming until the 80s.

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                I had no idea it wasn’t a hoax. Thanks for filling me in; I’ll go research it more for myself.

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                There were some people who were scared that old computers running deep down in cold war nuclear silos might go haywire and launch missiles (I kid you not). I guess it’s the unpredictability of the whole thing that scared people, mostly. Nobody was able to tell exactly what would happen when these date counters would overflow, which kind of makes sense because overflow bugs can cause really strange effects.

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                “Well I guess putting out that fire was a waste of effort given that the house hasn’t burned down.”