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Millenium Bust

Where will you be at midnight on December 31, 1999? How about lying under the dining table with the doors nailed shut?

Where will you be at midnight on December 31, 1999? Watching the sun rise on a Pacific island? Flying across the equator multiple times with Virgin Airlines? Partying down with sacrificial virgins? Wandering the streets telling everyone who'll listen that it's not the real millenium so they should save the champagne for next year?

How about lying under the dining table with the doors nailed shut and all your savings stuffed into a duvet cover wrapped around you? Because that's rapidly becoming my favoured option, given the increasing number of doomladen predictions about millenium bug chaos.

The millenium bug/timebomb/hurricane/major disaster epic of your choice, or less prosaically, the Year 2000 problem, will occur when computer software written with two ... blah blah ... 00 ... blah ... same as your bank account ... waffle ... fucking huge electric bill ... jaw jaw ... that'll be 3 billion, thanks ... etc ... you know the story. And yet I find myself, an IT professional (I just threw that in to give my colleagues a laugh), starting to seriously believe the hype. When you find out that Cambridgeshire have cancelled all police leave for five weeks around the vital date, in expectation of wide civil unrest (mind you, is anyone civil in Cambridgeshire?), you begin to worry. My company has yet to undertake any serious Y2K projects. We've had indirectly driven assignments - upgrades, ports, patches - but these have largely been leisurely affairs, simple to execute and carried out well ahead of the big deadline. Customers have yet to ring us screaming frantically for help because their IBM mainframe is a 2 bit architecture. That's not surprising as we deal mainly with Sun products, and Solaris only requires a few patches to survive until the year 2037 (when everyone will be running NT ... under emulation in Linux ... as a screensaver). Hence I'm not deeply entangled in this mess, nor do I stand to rob anyone blind through it. (By the way, lawyers - you'll be engaged to sue or defend lots of people for failing to fix their systems in 2000. Except your firm's computers will all be shafted and so will those driving the legal process. Hahaha.)

Is anyone civil in Cambridgeshire?

We can afford, while we can still afford anything, to examine this dilemma in a more detached manner.

So if we assume that we're all going to be dead, bankrupt or unemployed on January 1, 2000, we can afford, while we can still afford anything, to examine this dilemma in a more detached manner. Most of the noddy explanations I've read in the papers so far seem to pin the blame squarely on the original programmers for cutting corners in implementation. Pish and balderdash, this is grossly unfair. Modern programmers (or rather, "software engineers" - i.e. programmers with degrees and an unhealthy appetite for social climbing) would never bother to reduce the memory footprint of their code. Look at any Netscape or Microsoft product - why run in 8Mb when the poor, dumb user can be induced to buy 64? (Beat the system - buy an N64 instead.) It's all due to bad upbringing. Software engineers are taught at university to code for idealised virtual machines, that possess infinite amounts of CPU, memory and instantly accessible disk, controlled by operating systems dedicated to giving their programs alone as much of everything as they want on demand (because will there be any other significant processes running on these wonderbeasts? Hell no!). You can see from this why Java's popularity as a teaching language is only rivalled by its suitability for coshing Microsoft. No present day software engineer would even consider allocating only two bytes to a year variable in order to halve its size. They'd probably declare it as a 64 bit floating point number and wrap it in a complex object for extra marks.

But the code that forms the bulk of the Y2K problem was written years before computer science classes were widespread, when the world was a cruder, yet somehow more rational place. Memory was severely limited and extremely expensive, and this became obvious to you when you discovered that your Life program was 1025 bytes long. The press have been quick to criticise these early programmers for not thinking far enough ahead (yeah, so when did a journalist ever think beyond the next fad or round of drinks?). But back then, what programmer in their right mind would seriously believe that their groundbreaking efforts would still be running in two days time, let alone thirty years? Every programmer is sure that within the next week, they will have the opportunity to tune and improve their masterpiece such that its eventual, self-evident potential will impress management sufficiently to upgrade the hardware to something with 4Kb of core memory.

Wait a minute, did I say management? Hey, I think we've found a potential culprit worth blaming! Programmers may or may not care about costs and productivity but behind every programmer was a manager whose job was to care about nothing else. All project managers are imbued with one primary goal: to bring their project in under budget and within time. That so few ever achieve these mythological rewards in IT is due to ... well, I dunno ... must be ... perhaps they're not very good at it ... because they're obsessed with time and money ... or something. If cutting every year down to two digits was going to save implementation time and hardware costs, you can be sure they'd order their teams to do it. These are the guys who tell you to pee out of the window to save wear and tear on the carpet.

But much as I enjoy blaming management - because if they're not responsible for this situation, they're bound to have cocked up somewhere else - I suspect the real reason is simply cultural. When did you last write down a four digit year in a date? What's the most common way of writing a date - 25/6/98 (cue all the Americans thinking, "Hey, there's no 25th month!"). We always use two digits to specify the year, on cheques, credit cards, school essays and documents. What dummy doesn't know about the 19' prefix? Uh...ah.

These are the guys who tell you to pee out of the window to save wear and tear on the carpet.

The Big Nothing?

Anyway, this doesn't address the most important Y2000 problem: what to call the new decade. The eighties, the nineties ... the noughties? The oh-ies? The Big Nothing? IT Apocalypso? So Long And Thanks For All The Bits? How will the media be able to place newly hyped phenomena and fads? The real crisis could occur in the newspaper columns and the tabloid section of the Guardian.

There are at least four possible strategies you can adopt to tackle your company's Y2000 problem, but fortunately they all produce the same result: bankruptcy.

  1. Pay lots of contractors, consultants or loyalty bonuses to fix your systems for you, until you go bankrupt. (Loyalty bonuses are like fines for company hypocrisy: they didn't give a shit whether you stayed or went during the past five years when they squeezed all that unpaid overtime out of you, but suddenly they're desperate to retain your services. Until 2000, when they go bankrupt.)
  2. Try to fix the systems yourself, miss something and watch your market share and bank balance become 00 on Jan 1, 2000.
  3. Spend all your money upgrading your hardware and applications, until you go bankrupt.
  4. Ignore the problem completely and either go bankrupt on New Years Day when all your applications crash or be sued into bankruptcy by your customers and partners when your inaction causes their applications to crash.

Concerned directors should take comfort from the fact that there's still plenty of time left for one more round of golf.

The same result: bankruptcy.

A lot of new PCs will be sold.

Personally, I feel that 2000 could be a Good Thing for the IT world, perhaps even the year that the "profession" starts to grow up. For many of the companies that make it through midnight, it may be their first experience of implementing a major IT project correctly, on time (though probably not under budget - as the saying goes, choose two). From this, they may come to appreciate what is required in undertaking such projects successfully. Ironically, the major factor is likely to be the concentrated, clueful and continuous support of upper management. There's nothing like the threat of total business breakdown to concentrate the minds of a board of directors. Project management techniques might improve immeasurably. Of course, it could be that companies who have so far been unable to complete a single IT project successfully will not be capable of meeting the challenge this time either. But the cost of this will be their elimination, which will be no bad thing in many respects.

Other pros and cons:

  • - A lot of new PCs will be sold.
  • + A lot of finance directors may finally realise that PCs are too costly to maintain.
  • + A lot of systems long past their sell-by date will be replaced...
  • - ...With NT servers.
  • + Software engineering practices may be sharpened up, if only by the resourcefulness and cunning needed to fix the problem.
  • - People may go back to using two digit year dates once '99 is safely in the past. Poor recollection of pain is a genetic trait.
  • - COBOL applications will be fixed up to last another 100 years.
  • + Managers who make purchasing decisions may finally be forced to examine what they're buying.
  • - The original programmers are apparently too busy enjoying their retirements on the golf courses of Miami to want to return to work.
  • + ...So their old employers will be forced to accept teleworking, against every senile neuron in their tiny minds.

How did that Prince song go again?

Warning: Big Bubbles (no troubles) has not been certified Y2000 compliant and may cause data loss, hardware errors or software failure if viewed after December 31, 1999. Dates given within Big Bubbles are advisory only and do not necessarily imply a period of time related to the birth of Christ which is, so far as we are concerned, a fictionalised event anyway. If you are concerned about these effects, you should immediately delete your browser software and seek professional assistance.

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