Effing the ineffable

Effing the ineffable

Matthew JC. Powell ~ at large

Effing the ineffable

Emerging from his lead-lined anti-Y2K bunker, Matthew JC. Powell crosses his fingers and starts up his computer . . .

Well, wasn't that Y2K disaster thing a load of old sweatsocks? Didn't we all make a lot out of nothing, running around with our heads in the air, warning of impending doom? Isn't it startlingly clear that we were all wasting our time and lots of people's money?

Poppycock! I won't hear a word of it. I actually saw a headline on the front of one of our daily newspapers, perhaps on the third of January or so, asking `did we need to spend $280 billion?'. Of course we did. Asking that question is akin to walking outside after a storm and saying `the town didn't flood - I guess those sandbags were useless after all'.

And those in the press who are now trying to pretend that they said all along it wouldn't amount to much should be ashamed of themselves. We all foretold tales of doom, and with good reason. I said in one of my columns late last year that I thought waiting in front of a computer at midnight on December 31 was `a bad idea'. Some of my colleagues had to do just that, and I feel especially sorry for them considering that it turned out to be not much of a story. Good news never is.

I'm going to let you in on a secret now - something I dared not say out loud (or at least in print) before. I never actually did think the world would end. This isn't me backtracking here - look through your collections of back issues (I presume you at least keep my page) and you'll not once find me telling you to do nothing about Y2K. I always expressed the opinion that caution was necessary.

I remember the first Y2K stories, way back in the late 1980s when no one listened. Back then, the predominant tone of the columns was `hey, have you ever noticed that computers only store the last two digits of the year? What do you suppose will happen when the first two digits change?' But it was all too far away to bother about, and at that stage computers weren't as omnipresent as they are now. Then in the early 1990s, the focus switched to financial dread, and dire warnings of the banks' liabilities if they didn't get their acts together.

As the 90s progressed, and computers became more commonplace, the fear spread from finance into daily life. Starting from the fact that some computers could not handle four-digit dates, people made the logical leap that when 2000 arrived, the computers would malfunction. Then they assumed that the malfunction would be severe enough to noticeably affect the operation of the computer. Then (and this is the good bit) the assumption was made that these visible malfunctions could be potent- ially threatening to human lives and/or property.

I'm not exaggerating there - I know people who were hunkered down in the mountains with canned food and bottled water, ready for the apocalypse. They believed, at some level, that if they were anywhere near a city, the millions of computers would go all Demon Seed on them.

And I let them believe it. Why? Because the problem needed fixing, and sometimes panic (and a doomsday deadline) is the only way to make it happen. We were running mission-critical public utilities and financial systems on code that had been written in the 1950s and 1960s, and that couldn't have gone on forever. Chances are that old code would have been considered `good enough' if no one said we'd all die if it didn't get fixed by December 31.

I have no regrets. Those of you who were involved directly in fixing the thing shouldn't either. Everyone thinks you made too much fuss, so you must have done a good job.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@

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