Remembering Y2K

As we end a decade, my thoughts go back to January 2000. It seems long ago, yet also seems like yesterday: the rush to convert computer software so that it would work properly as of January 1, 2000. The rumors and truth were hard to decipher and many, in my opinion, just exploited what was not as severe an issue as many believed. Buildings were not going to fall, cars were not going to explode, and the toilets would still function in 2000 as they did in 1999. But I get ahead of myself.

The problem falls on the computer technicians, of which I was one. Yes, the tendency was to blame management for not anticipating the problem, but management must rely on its specialists when such details are vital. It all began with the lowly punch card, the media used in the 50s through the 70s for primary entry of data into computer systems. These cards only allowed 80 characters, so the decision to limit the year to two digits was appropriate.

Unfortunately, once into the computer system, the software to process the data left the year intact at two characters, when the year could then have been expanded to four, e.g., convert 65 to 1965 (or 1975, etc.), as mainframe computers had no 80 character restrictions. (In fact, mainframe computer data was stored on reels of magnetic tape, which was endless in capacity).

Do I oversimplify? Probably, but the solution was readily available. More likely, the computer wasn’t programmed for a four-digit year because we didn’t contemplate that the software would still be in use thirty-plus years later. But that is what happened: the software developed in those early years became the bread-and-butter corporate applications: payroll, billing, inventory and more that addressed cash flow, all being heavily dependent on arithmetic involving dates, such as figuring interest on loans or aging inventory.

However, dates were only part of the problem. That early software was not developed with structured methodologies, but with more of a spaghetti approach, so locating the places in the software where date-related decisions were made was non-trivial, sometimes requiring complete rewrites of systems because earlier programmers took pride in writing indecipherable solutions (yes, I admit being guilty to occasionally doing that).

Yet 99% of all this just affected the corporations, not you or me. I recall much smoke about Microsoft Windows PC software not being able to roll over to the year 2000. And I also remember people spending many $$$ to prevent that problem, even abandoning quality applications for fear of problems on January 1, 2000. Now, it was true that the Windows version in common use then would not switch properly from 12/31/99 to 01/01/00, but the solution was simple: turn the PC off on December 31 and turn it back on after midnight. Ta da! It worked. I’m pleased that I was able to save at least one corporate application by that one simple act.

How would it have affected most of us if there were problems? Incorrect credit card statements and other documents of a similar nature would have been the largest problem. For example, an interest calculation for the time period of December 1999, to January 2000, might easily show interest due for ninety-nine years, not one month. A minor inconvenience for most of us, but the media didn’t miss the opportunity to capitalize on the situation. This newspaper image at https://davidfromnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2021/07/7bca5-y2kimage.jpg is an example of what people were reading, and there were books to advise us, such as this one at https://davidfromnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2021/07/895b3-y2kbook.jpg . Still, despite my belief that life would go on, I was pleased on January 1, 2000, to see no significant problems. The problem was huge, but that serious business problems were averted is proof of what billions of dollars can do to fix a problem. For me, I was glad to see that chapter end. The funny part is that, if business processes are similar in the year 9999/12/31 (f the world even exists), the same problem will be facing civilization. I hope someone saves a few of those Y2K books to help them.

19th Century People

Once upon a time, long log ago, people had these absolute beliefs:

  • We knew distances were real. If a town lay 10 miles away, it was always 10 miles away. If you walked 5 miles per hour, it would take 2 hours to reach the town. No argument.
  • A clock in San Francisco would record the passage of time the same as a clock in New York. Time was fixed and unchangeable.
  • The universe was big and its size was fixed. How else could it be?
  • If you could see it, it was real. Nothing could be more obvious.
  • Light moves in a straight line, as anyone could see when using a flashlight or spotlight.
  • There was yesterday (the past), and tomorrow (the future). So obvious that no one questioned it.
  • We knew we had free will, that everything we did was purely our own decision.
  • Time is an absolute; the clock just keeps on ticking and always has. Time has no start or end.

 

And we still pretty much retain those beliefs, don’t we? Yet we’re wrong on all of them.  Back in 1905, at the beginning of the 20th century, this guy Einstein started publishing his theories, starting with his Special Theory of Relativity, showing there is a relationship between space and time. Huh? Not being content with that, he continued to write articles that eluded most of us, such as his Theory of General Relativity, his Unified Field Theory and, of course, his mass-energy equivalence formula that we’ve all heard of since childhood: E=mc2.

With all this (and more), our vocabularies expanded to such terms as quantum mechanics, black holes, particle theory, dark matter, and more—yet we don’t really understand any of it, do we? Scientists do, but all we have is faith that they’re right.

Now I don’t disbelieve any of the new information. If scientists tell me that clooks run at different speeds, I’ll accept it. If told the universe is expanding, who am I to disagree? If told that what I see isn’t there, that it’s just light reflections, I’ll blink my eyes in wonderment. If they council me that yesterday and tomorrow are really the same, that will sorta’ justify some thoughts I’ve had from time to time when I’ve been puzzled.

Yet what that means is that you and I are living, from a scientific perspective, in the 19th century. Yes, us. You and I. All we managed to grasp in the recent 20th century was a snippet of electrical knowledge, radio waves (well, sorta’), computer concepts, and how to use a computer (but we still struggle with smartphones). We can quietly forget that learning to use a rotary-dial phone was complicated when first introduced, and that typewriters were an enigma to many. But we did prevail, eventually.

As I stated, this all began with Einstein. Really, now, couldn’t this have waited? I mean, just consider the facts: we were just learning how to build airplanes and make the world smaller, we had just learned how to manufacture automobiles to free the family to expand their life experiences, we had just discovered radio so we could improve communiations with others, and we finally had street lights so we could have safer streets at night. And here he goes with this knowledge that none of us can use.

That’s the core of it: we have information that we cannot use in our daily lives and the understanding of that new information remains foreign to us. Seriously, do you believe there was a time when there was no time? Face it; we’re 19th century people and so we shall remain. We may have TVs, smartphones, and microwave ovens, but that only makes us consumers. There are the scientists, and there are the rest of is. Life happens. Let’s live with it.

Chronographs, 10-speeds, and other excesses

My first chronograph came from a pawn shop at age 18. It had heavy gold plating, several dials and looked impressive on my wrist. A real chronograph. Being 18, I didn’t realize its many capabilities. To me, it was an object of conversation among friends when we escaped from our teenage responsibilities and visited the local drag stip to watch the races. Pushing its buttons caused the second hand to start or stop, and seemed to function differently, depending on the sequence of buttons pushed. Not having a user manual, and being decades ahead of the internet, I didn’t understand—or care—about such details. It was a watch that gave me immense pride, despite my not knowing its features, and it stopped working the day I first kissed my future bride. Repairing the watch would have cost more than a month’s salary, so it lay in a drawer for years before being finally discarded. There was a lesson there, buying above my ability to maintain.

Years passed. My choice of watches were practical, inexpensive, reliable devices. The chronograph memories were deeply hidden and rarely revisited. But a future surprise awaited me. Our 50th anniversary loomed, and my dear bride gave me a new chronograph watch as a gift. Such happiness in my face on seeing it. From Germany, no computer chips, real gearworks—and a user manual. Lewis Carrol’s words, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”, filled my thoughts. I was one happy guy.

The following week found me regularly timing whatever happened. No, you don’t want to know. Too trivial to write about, but my many timings expanded my watch knowledge. I mastered use of the tachymeter and the telemeter (two amazingly simple mathematical jewels), features of which I had never known. And I finally mastered the buttons’ many features.

Years passed. My daily choice of a watch to wear now infrequently is the chronograph. The watch that does not show date or day of week or even numbers is my regular choice. Simple. Does what it needs to do. The chronograph, though rarely worn, is still revered and I find myself enjoying the tactile experience of just holding it and admiring its design. It remains my favorite, though I wear it less.

Thinking about the chronograph brings back related memories of my recently-sold 10-speed bike. A beauty it was, a classic Panasonic Tourist. Black, pinstriped, fenders—a real beauty. Why a 10-speed? Because I liked its looks. A sexy bike and, with 10 speeds, I should have no trouble on hills or other road challenges. Each day gave me the joy of a ride, shifting gears, enjoying the wind in my face, and the silence of being on a bike. Over time, what I noticed was that I typically began my rides in 5th gear, shifting shortly thereafter to 10th gear. Either that, or starting in 3rd gear and shifting up to 8th. First gear? Useless to me. Second? Ditto. Ninth? Why bother.

Somewhere in this great land, there are people who need first gear, and maybe ninth, and conceivably all ten, but I am not among that minority of our population. Yes, I’m aware that 15-speed bikes roam the land and there is a tight niche of 27-speed bikers out there, as well. But my name isn’t there. Once upon a time, I had a 3-speed Raleigh, purchased used for $10 because the frame had a slight wrinkle in it. That was all I needed.

The chronograph and my 10-speed bike share similarities: they provide features most of us never use, yet they remain popular purchase items. Chronographs have become so popular that I now see “wannabee” watches in the stores: painted dials and imitation buttons. And how many chronograph owners can even pronounce tachymeter, anyway?

This demand for more than we use seems to be proliferating in our world, and causing us to shorten our attention span, not intentionally, but because we are letting too many interruptions in our thoughts. I will share that I have two phones: a simple phone and a smartphone. My preference is the simple phone. A call can be initiated by clicking two buttons. On the smartphone, I must click in the security code, then click the phone button, then click the favorites button, then scroll to the desired recipient, click that, then click the phone icon and the call is initiated. Besides the excess of clicks, the screen is impossible to read in direct sunlight. Yet people tease me when I use the simple phone because their comment is that it leaves me without email access or web access. That I don’t care to read and send email continually is a concept not grasped by these well-meaning people. Surely, what they’re doing should be what I’m also doing, or so they believe.

Do I use the smartphone? Sometimes, but it is just overkill most of the time, as I refuse to let my life be interrupted by phone, email, and text except when I so choose. Remember when we looked up information in the encyclopedia and wrote letters on typewriters? Am I a dinosaur, or are we losing our ability to pause and focus and enjoy the simpler moments in life? My current book read is Innumeracy, by J. Paulos. In the book, he broaches the question of whether civilization, as it becomes more complex, may become more unstable and eventually self-destruct. Does that sound like us? Does a cow moo? Technology is taking charge, and we, as a society, are happily relinquishing the reins of our destiny. Just because something can be done, does not mean that it must be done. Now, where did I put that chronograph?