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Tech by VICE

Fondly Remembering the Y2K Panic

Millennium Bug is a thoughtful look at how we got into this whole Y2K mess and how we are going do to survive it. Because your safety is important to me, I’ve created this digest version of the book. I’ve jumped around page-wise, but I’ve tried to not...

by ANNA JANE GROSSMAN
Dec 31 2010, 3:39pm

Some people sleep walk. Some sleep talk. I sleep shop. Specifically, I buy for books on Amazon.

As far as vices go, this is a pretty fun one. I’m always getting these surprise packages in the mail! Fortunately, I’m usually quite frugal in my somnolence—my sleeping self only buys books that are under $10 (including shipping). What’s more, she has interesting taste. The other day, for instance, she ordered The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos

This tome, by Michael Hyatt, is a work of nonfiction. I say this as you should not confuse it with Hyatt’s novel published the same year, Y2K: The Day the World Shut Down. Millennium Bug is a thoughtful look at how we got into this whole Y2K mess and how we are going do to survive it. Because your safety is important to me, I’ve created this digest version of the book. I’ve jumped around page-wise, but I’ve tried to not take anything out of context. Okay? Okay. Here we go.

The Millennium Bug is a sort of “digital time bomb.” When the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000, computer systems all over the world will begin spewing out bad data—or stop working altogether!

The exclamation point is his. Personally, I’m a little more conservative in my punctuation. After all, somewhere in the world, a computer is dying ever minute. Or spewing out bad data. Have you ever had a Gateway?

It’s inevitable, and it’s going to be terribly ugly..How in the world did we end up in this mess?…The first computers used punch cards and it took a handful of cards to store the amount of information we can store today in a space smaller than a speck of dust. Any method that could save storage space was readily seized.

One such method was to shorten years to two digits by deleting the century. For example, 1967 became “67.” Consequently most computers will represent the date as ‘00" and think this means “1900.” … The Millennium Bug creates enormous problems in all kinds of date-based calculations. The Social Security Administration uses date calculations to determine eligibility for benefits. Consider a person who was born in 1932. Subtract that year 1997 and you get 65, the age at which most Americans begin receiving a monthly Social Security check. But in 2000 the SSA’s computer will subtract 32 from 00, leaving the person at minus 32!

Huh? That’s some serious fifth grade math. But it raises an interesting question: If you could choose between being 65 and being dead for 32 years and then being born again, what would you do? Is it better to frozen alive or burned to death?

If you are like most people, you are probably thinking, Surely, someone somewhere will write a program that will fix the problem. Right!

Yep! That’s me. There really were government employees devoting grueling 40-hour-work weeks to this. Am I the only one who saw Office Space?

Michael Hyatt: "I'm not a computer expert, but..."

In the PC world, most users buy off-the-shelf software packages and run them ‘as is,’ and, as a result, they can easily secure upgrades that fix bugs and add new functions.

I understand all the words in that sentence but I don’t get what they’re doing together.

Once these programs are installed and debugged, they are maintained by the company’ Information Systems staff. But if something needs to be fixed, the original programmers are often long gone. Sometimes they can be hired to come back and repair or enhance the program they wrote. But in the case of “legacy systems” that were written in the 1960s or 1970s, the programmers are either retired—or dead!

Hell, they might be retired AND dead! But seriously: I know that knowledge loss is a problem. I talk about this in (plug!) my book, OBSOLETE. In his 1993 book Beginning Again, biologist David Ehrenfeld writes about how parts of earth worm taxonomy have been lost because the people that studied such things are dead and didn’t pass on the knowledge to others – mostly because everyone else thought that there were things out there that were more exciting than earth worm taxonomy.

I believe it, but it does make me wonder: didn’t people write this stuff down? Isn’t the preservation of knowledge one of our greatest human accomplishments? It’s true that we don’t really know how they built the pyramids. And we might never know. But that doesn’t mean that PBS can’t run a four month series exploring the question.

Oh. There were other books too.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Who, you may ask, is this Michael S. Hyatt? Apparently, he is just a guy who, according to the book flap, has “worked in the book publishing industry for almost twenty years.” In the intro, he explains some of his additional credentials.

I wouldn’t call myself a computer expert [but] over the past sixteen years, I’ve taught myself the art of writing computer software and am fluent in Pascal (Delphi, to be exact) and three dialects of BASIC, including WordBasic, Visual Basic, and Visual Basic for Applications."

I’ve actually gotten this line in bars in Williamsburg.

In short, I am convinced that the Y2K problem presents us with, potentially, the most significant, extensive and disruptive crisis we have ever faced.

When he says “we,” is he including the Jews? Because we’ve been through a lot.

In 1996 the Software Productivity Research catalog of programming languages identified almost five hundred different languages in current use. These include languages such as BASIC, COBOL, FORTRAN, ADA, PASCAL, MODULA and a host of others. I’ve also advised Angelina Jolie on what she should name her children.

Hey, I’m not making all this stuff up. Just some. That last line.

What’s truly scary is that noncompliant computers will start spewing out corrupt data and infecting computers they come in contact with.

In other words: Zombies are scary.

He goes on. He talks about military preparedness and the problems that could be caused by “military institutions that are supposed to protect us.” This is a statement that makes some big assumptions about this book’s readership, no? Then he talks about all the problems that could happen at hospitals because infusion pumps are on timers. Which are connected to the computers that were made by people who never thought about how they’d have to order new checks at the end of the century because the 19 was already written in. Also: people use timers when baking cookies. And no one likes burnt cookies.

Just when I was starting to feel bummed out about this coming catastrophe, Hyatt talks about how “he is not a pessimist by nature, let alone a prophet of doom. I prefer to focus on the positive.”

Of course. But I don’t feel so positive. I’ve just been informed that I have to learn how to “distinguish edible plants from those that are deadly…butcher a cow…set a broken bone, pull a tooth and deliver a baby.”

Towards the end, in a chapter called “Where the Rubber Meets the Road,” Hyatt gives tips on purchasing a gun. “Practice using it, so you know how to reload it under pressure.”

I'll pass. 

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