For a condensed version of this article, see: 

Y2k Bug? Y2Worry? Condensed.

Take a moment to cast your mind back to the late nineties. We were obsessed with news about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment trial in the US Senate. We were horrified by the Columbine High School massacre, at that time the deadliest shooting at a school in US history. After the death of Princess Diana, we listened to Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ while being introduced to Britney with ‘…Baby One More Time.’ A new generation of moviegoers was introduced to Star Wars with Episode I ‘The Phantom Menace’ and the phenomenon that is Pokémon started taking over the world. The Euro changed the financial landscape across Europe forever and we were concerned when the population of the world went past six billion. Delegates from 150 industrial nations attending a United Nations climate conference in Kyoto reached an agreement to control greenhouse gases.

In Australia, we debated endlessly about a lovely lady with a rather strange taste in hats being in charge of this nation whilst we were urged to vote Yes in the referendum by the Chair of the Australian Republican Movement – who many of us suspected wanted to be in charge of the county. In Rugby League, the Storm won their first premiership in only their second season in the NRL. Australia beat England in the Rugby League World Cup. The cricket World Cup was won in 1999 by Australia with South Africa dramatically under-performing. Cricket was involved in an international controversy with one country charging three of its players with match-fixing and bribery.

In the world of IT, Microsoft and Apple were in the news with old sparring partners Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Gates became the richest individual in the world and Apple’s co-founder, Jobs, returned to the struggling firm as interim CEO. There were also a couple of newbies on the scene. Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded a strangely named company called Google. SoundJam MP was released to allow music to be loaded onto an MP3 player. Apple later bought this and turned it into iTunes.

And there was one other thing.

Y2k bug fever gripped the world.

First, some context. When room-sized business computers were being introduced in the fifties and sixties, storage was at a premium. Whether the storage was an 80-column punched card or magnetic tape, the smartest programmers were efficient with data storage. The IBM 350, introduced in September 1956, had the world’s first hard disk drive. It weighed 971kg but could only store 3.75MB but would set you back US$330,000 (current equivalent).

In writing various software, one programmer after another deduced that they could save 2 bytes of data if the date was stored with six digits instead of eight. It was obvious to everyone that the year started with 19 so simply eliminate those two digits and save space. For example, the date man landed on the moon was not 16071969 but 160769. Brilliant. Multiply those two digits across millions of records and, at a price for storage of up to US$90 per kilobyte (in current money), the savings in storage facilities easily ran into the billions.

As we all went about our daily lives, we were blissfully unaware that there was a ticking timebomb in our globally interconnected society.

Robert Bemer, an IBM employee, advocated for a four-digit year as far back as 1958 and in 1960, Bemer joined with 47 other industry specialists to deliver universally accepted computer standards. Unfortunately, the almighty dollar won the day. A four-digit year would simply cost too much.

In 1984, Jerome and Marilyn Murray published a book that focused on the Y2k problem. They foretold of how the world would look on 1 January 2000. With almost every aspect of ‘modern’ life in 1984 being computer controlled, many of those systems would shut down. Power grids would fail, air navigation systems would crash – along with the planes. Nuclear power plants would detect problems that weren’t there. All digital records and financial information would be corrupted. Air conditioning systems would stop. Hospitals would be non-functional. People were going to die. The world super powers might even think a nuclear weapon had been launched and retaliate…

With a definite deadline, it was still too far away for anyone to worry about. The problems of today and this month seemed much more important than worrying about an event that may happen sixteen years down the track.

As momentum gathered in the nineties, there was finally some acknowledgement that this minor programming glitch could cause some catastrophic issues. I remember one discussion in the late nineties with a gentleman who thought it was all rubbish. He was a wealthy individual. I explained to him that if he had $100,000 in the bank earning annual interest of five per cent with interest calculated daily, on 1 January he should have $100,013.66 in the bank. If a program only has two digits for years, instead of 1 January 2000 subtracting 31 December 1999 equating to one day, it would actually result in negative 36,524 days meaning his $100,000 investment would now be worth negative $398,961.75. It was now personal.

It was at that point the world had four possible outcomes.

Firstly, there was the unknown. Ignore for a moment the data-based scientific predictions by the computer scientists around the world who had been studying this issue for years and running multiple simulations. They seemed to have a pretty good handle on the possible dire consequences. What really mattered apparently was opinion on the street – and that opinion was fiercely divided. These are, of course, the people that had done zero research and heard a friend at a BBQ say something clever supporting one side or the other. It was either a hoax or the greatest self-inflicted calamity in mankind’s history. Two possibilities. More importantly, what should we do about it? Throw resources at the problem and do everything possible to negate the possibility of this being the worst party to welcome the New Year ever – or ignore it. Another two possibilities. With the Y2k bug either being a hoax or real and mankind choosing to ignore or take action, it gave mankind four eventual scenarios after the date ticked over.

We should drill down into those four scenarios.

First outcome. Do nothing – and it was a hoax. Newspapers on 1 January 2000: Gee, lucky we didn’t waste any time worrying about that problem. As per the Russian proverb, “Why worry about something that isn’t going to happen?”

Second outcome. Do something – and it was a hoax. News reports: Much ado about nothing. What a waste of time, money and resources preparing for something that we all knew was a hoax. We need a Royal Commission into who was responsible for this.

Third outcome. Do nothing – and it was real. News reports – there won’t be any. Society as we knew it would have changed forever. Blackouts across the world. Communication systems inoperable. Chernobyl multiplied by 450 nuclear power plants across the world – but that would be largely irrelevant as the nine countries with nuclear weapons had destroyed each other.

Fourth outcome. Do something – and it was real. TV news after midnight. “And we are standing on the shores of the harbour waiting for planes to start falling from the sky – but all that we see when we look up are the annual fireworks. Welcome to the New Year.” You can hear the artist formerly known as Prince singing in the background: “So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine.”

Of the four available options, the world took the only sensible course of action available to it. If it had been a hoax – mind you the best orchestrated and well-organised hoax in the history of mankind by a factor of a bazillion – then we would have wasted effort on fixing up some programs and the way the dates are recorded. If we did nothing and the world collapsed, if there were any humans left on earth, they would look back in years to come and ask how we could not have taken appropriate action when we knew so much about what was about to happen. Most of us have house insurance despite the fact that, if you live to one hundred years of age, you only have a three per cent chance of the house you live in burning down. The risk is small but the potential damage is large – so we mitigate the risk with insurance. In the case of Y2k, the risk was incredibly large and the damages would have been earth-shattering. Literally. It couldn’t be risked.

Many Y2k deniers pointed to a functioning society after midnight and told everyone that cared to listen that there was never a problem. See? That ignores one little number. 500. That was the minimum estimation, in billions of US dollars converted to current terms, on what was spent across the globe by government and private firms to ensure we were ready for the world’s biggest party.

And we still didn’t get it quite right.

Despite all the money and time spent in readiness for the Year 2000, all the testing and simulations and rolling over dates, there were some issues. Some reported – many not.

For example:

  • United States spy satellites transmitted unreadable data for three days;
  • Golden 1 Credit Union cards found their cards would not work as they were calculated to have expired;
  • Banks that used CyberCash verification software found that merchants that had updated their software to the Y2k compliant version experienced no issues but without the update, credit cards could not be processed;
  • Over five per cent of Japan’s post office cash dispensers failed to work;
  • Japan’s largest cellular operator reported that phones were deleting the newest messages as the phone calculated these messages to be almost one hundred years old;
  • Many schools in the US had students arrive at school to freezing conditions as automated heaters failed to turn on at scheduled times;
  • The Hong Kong Futures Exchange had to cease trading as the option contracts were miscalculating the number of days before the expiration of the options;
  • In Malaysia, heart monitors and defibrillators failed;
  • Seven nuclear reactors across the US experienced minor issues but the precise problems were never released;
  • Similar problems were experienced in Spain with their nuclear reactors;
  • In Japan, one nuclear power plant had an erroneous alarm sound two minutes after midnight and at another site, radiation monitoring equipment failed;
  • A nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee miscalculated the exact location and weight of nuclear material in the plant;
  • Air transportation systems along the east coast of the US were impacted which resulted in massive delays;
  • In Japan the system for collecting small plane flight information failed;
  • A major UK food retailer was rejecting supplies of baked beans as they were seen as being past their expiry date – by about one hundred years;
  • Ticket machines on buses in metro areas in Australia failed – but there is probably nothing that unusual about an Australian government run ticketing machine failing;
  • One customer at a New York State video rental store rented ‘The General’s Daughter’ but failed to return it on time. When he received his late notice, it noted that he had a bill for $91,250 for overdue fees; and
  • In the UK, The PathLAN computer system analysed data on pregnant women to identify high-risk individuals and take appropriate action. After the date ticked over, women over 35 were suddenly aged negative 65 and the computer system didn’t trigger the letters that should have been sent. It took until 24 May 2000 to notice this error.


Even now, in the Year 2019, there is still a Y2k bug of sorts in a program many people use daily. Microsoft Excel. I recently wrote a small calculator for a friend who wanted to calculate when he could retire. He was born on 7 July 1969 and calculated he needed $640,000 in Superannuation plus CPI to retire. At this stage he has $450,000. I made some assumptions of 2 per cent CPI and 5 per cent earnings and calculated at what age his nest egg should allow him to retire. The correct answer is 62 but that depends on how you enter the data. When I first sent him the spreadsheet, it did something strange. His Superannuation kept growing until the age of 60 and then dropped dramatically. He had typed in dates in Excel in 6-digit format. 7/7/28; 7/7/29; 7/7/30 etc. What he didn’t realise is that Excel assumes that 7/7/29 refers to the Year 2029 but 7/7/30 assumes the year 1930. Instead of his Super going from $769,653 at age 60 to $808,135 at age 61, it dropped dramatically to $276,621 as the calculations were now based on the year 1930.

What is the point of this history lesson on the Y2k bug? It is done and dusted now and, apart from Excel, the world seems to have forgotten about the issue and we have moved on with our lives.

Well any fool can learn from their own mistakes, but it takes a wise man to learn from the mistakes of others.

I can’t help but thinking of the parallels between now and the late nineties.

If we look at the world today, there is talk of impeachment of a US President and the unwanted Columbine record was beaten by the shooting in Parkland, Florida. We are still listening to Elton John and Britney Spears. Yet another Star Wars movie hit our screens with Episode IX ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ and Pokémon still rules the world in fictional characters. The European financial landscape is being challenged again with Brexit and we are concerned as the world population has topped seven billion. Lastly, on the world scene, the United Nations held the Katowice Climate Change Conference.

In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull did eventually get his chance to run the nation – just not as a republic. The Storm are still on top of the NRL table and Australia beat England in the latest Rugby League World Cup. South Africa are dramatically under-performing in the Cricket World Cup and three cricket players have just finished lengthy bans from the game.

Apple and Microsoft are still IT giants – along with Google – and iTunes is about to be replaced with another package to make it easier to listen to music.

And looming over everything we do – just as with the Y2k bug – is Climate Change.

Similarly to the Y2k bug, I see four possible combination outcomes based on two variables. Climate Change might be real or it might be a hoax. Like the Y2k bug, the scientists and experts have provided the proof to show the harsh reality of the situation but just for the sake of the argument, pretend it is a possibility that Climate Change is a hoax.

We then have the option for the world to take action…or not.

Option 1.

Do nothing. Climate Change is a hoax.

Result? In relation to the various predictions of Climate Change, none of them come to fruition and we continue to live our lives and not worry about changing our lifestyles…until we eventually run out of coal and oil. Whatever! That is for another generation to solve. We keep polluting the planet. We reduce life expectancy – as a direct result of pollution – by 72 days on average in highly congested cities.

Option 2.

Do something. Climate Change is a hoax.

Result? Climate Change was much ado about nothing. We wasted time, money and resources and for what? We have less pollution now. We have new ways of producing power when we eventually run out of coal to dig up. We have cars that are quieter and we have propulsion methods for when we run out of oil. A bit annoying that we progressed these methods sooner than we needed and spent more money in a shorter timeframe than would be ideal but at least we didn’t take a chance on destroying the world and our air is cleaner.

Option 3.

Do nothing. Climate Change is real.

Result? We destroy the planet and kill most of the people living on it. We dream of the days when the average global temperature took over one hundred years to rise by one degree. If we thought twenty-three centimetres was a large rise in the oceans then we ain’t seen nothin’. Only 422ppm of CO2? Ha! That will seem like luxury!

Option 4.

Do something. Climate Change is real.

Thanks goodness. The world was on the brink but mankind saved themselves from themselves.

When you break down the options, is it really worth the risk? In just the same way as the world could not afford the risk with the Y2k bug, it simply can’t afford to risk taking a chance on Climate Change not being real.

The biggest difference between Climate Change and the Y2k bug is that there was a definite deadline that everyone identified with the Y2k bug. 1 January 2000.

With Climate Change, we may well have already gone past our irreversible deadline.

Mathew Dickerson

Mathew Dickerson is not a Climate Change Scientist. Mathew takes his car to a mechanic, visits his doctor when sick and uses an accountant to lodge his tax returns. He also has confidence in the scientific process. He is applying logic to a problem that is discussed in society every single day.

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