Was the Y2K threat real, imagined, or invented?

In response to my post regarding false predictions not being properly punished, some blog readers took exception to my argument that the hysteria that surrounded Y2K was a false prophesy. Their argument is that all of the preparation leading up to Y2K averted what would have been a disaster.

That just doesn’t ring true to me. Was there not anyone, anywhere who either failed to properly prepare, or maybe happened to overlook some aspect of how Y2K might affect their systems? Did every small business and third world country catch every bug? Did anything go wrong as a result of Y2K? Did anyone ever test a system in advance of Y2K and find that had they not tested, something catastrophic would have happened?

Here is a good article from Larry Seltzer who knows much more than me about the subject and holds the same view.

My recollection is that programmers were getting paid far above standard wage rates due to the great demand for their services with Y2K. Could it be that there were strong incentives on their part to exaggerate the danger? Sounds logical.


I think that the Y2K bug was one of many potential tragedies that was averted. No, I don't think the hysteria matched the real consequences of the problem. Very few people truly understood what a break down of computer systems could have done. Since the proper authorities had ample time to deal with the problem a solution, or series of solutions, lessened the problem and we were able to come out on the other side relatively intact.

Those of us who lived through the black out a few years ago probably have a better idea of what can happen when systems break down. For more than a day my city didn't have functional street lights, traffic lights or television. As well, financial institutions were closed and consumers were forced to live off the cash they had in their pockets. In my case that was about $5.45.


I worked on code - i.e. I was a programmer - that had y2k issues. That is, the programs would not have worked if they hadn't been fixed and money would have lost.

Sure, there was a lot of hype around y2k and much of it was commercially cunning, but the problems were real. Would we have taken it seriously if there hadn't been the hype?

In fact, here's a Y2K problems that still exists in Excel.
- Imagine you are doing long range planning.
- Start up MS Excel and type in the 1/1/29. Exel adds 1st of January 2029 into the cell.
- Now type in 1/1/30. What does Excel come up with? It's not 1 January 2030.

This problem won't hit most people because they're not using dates that far in the future, but what if you - or your pension manager - is using Excel to caculate retirement dates and making investments based on how many years until you retire. I'll turn 60 in 2029 so my calculations will be fine. What if you're younger than me?


Charlie (Colorado)

The answer to your question is "yes."

It was real, in that there were programs written in the 60's and early 70's that didn't consider the century change. (Why? because it meant saving 2 bytes a record at a time when 20 megabytes of disk memory cost tens of thousands of dollars.)

It was imagined, in that most of the catastrophic predictions simply didn't make sense: elevators weren't going to fail and stop, because elevators don't actually care whether its Tuesday or Saturday. And while there might have been exceptions, not all odd behavior is a catastrophic failure.

And it was invented, in part: folks like Ed Yourdon made significant chunks of money blowing the story up, selling books about it and selling consulting services to resolve it.

Quoderat » Remembering the Y2K panic

[...] Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) has started a small controversy by casually mentioning that the Y2K crisis was a false prophesy (his more detailed followup posting is here; he also points to a paper that I didn’t bother reading, but probably does a better job than my posting of going over the issue). [...]


I believe three things: some disasters were averted because of the hype; some programmers were overpaid or did unnecessary work; and some real problems occurred. I was surprised at the time that I couldn't find anyone producing a comprehensive list of the last, but I heard of three major incidents: in the US, a 911 telephone system failed to prioritise calls correctly; in the US, a nuclear power plant suffered a fail-open in its security system; in Japan, a nuclear power plant suffered a control failure in its safety systems. There have, of course, been similar disruptions in the years since Y2K when various other clock systems have rolled over.


Also, the fact that Y2K was so anticipated, and many CEO (and then CIO) had been made responsible from the board for the problem, had made them cover the failures.

I have esperienced at least an example of a very big company here in Italy that had a problem on 1/1/2000 but did not acknowledged it.

I was their client, at that time and receiving a data flux from them, and their data did not make sense unless they had fixed it by hand.


"or maybe happened to overlook some aspect of how Y2K might affect their systems?"

Those things that were overlooked, and there were some, were just quietly and quickly fixed. No one had any interest in advertising their failures.


The title of this entry and the text are at odds. Do you want us to answer
real, imagined or invented?
the hysteria that surrounded Y2K was a false prophesy?
Y2K was real and there was also both hysteria and false prophecy.

At the time I was CEO of an electronics manufacturer. Our first reaction was our products were clear of Y2K issues and we were wrong.

We learned that problems caused by Y2K bugs can be quite subtle. We fixed most and let one ride without disclosure betting that the failure in about 2016 would be well past the date any of the devices would still be in-service AND that said failure at that time would be merely inconvenient.

One of my siblings was a C_O at a large New York investment firm and was in charge of a $20+ billion bond house. Our family was together that weekend and the s__t really hit the fan on Saturday Jan 1. Interest was not being dealt with properly and the dollar amounts were significant. Stress levels were high until Sunday when the fix was made and the database(s) corrected.
Interestingly, I was asked to refrain from discussing the event even in sanitized form. A promise I kept for just over 6 years.

A lot of older computer equipment could not be easily fixed and thus folks bought new stuff.

I am a bit fuzzy on facts below so please correct mistakes but be gentle.

Pre-Y2K UNIX had a time system counting seconds from January 1, 1970 and the 32 bit number used to store time would run out in 2038 (or thereabouts).

Many systems had nailed the date to be 19xx where the 19 was fixed and the xx was a counter. So if you see an old website today with a year that reads 19106 you can just smile knowingly.

Here is a subtle one.
Early Global Positioning System equipment had a bug that probably was only fixed by equipment replacement.

GPS runs on Ephemeris Time. This is essentially a counter that just runs forever - just like time itself. However, earth-time has occasional leap seconds inserted. Since Ephemeris Time never changes they built in a counter for the number of weeks between the Leap Seconds. Unfortunately they did not foresee that there would be a period of about 4 years or so between Leap Seconds at one point and the week-counters overflowed. The error of position/location introduced by a second is significant.

For further research go find the archives of comp.risks
Look for articles by Dave Parnas and Peter Neuman.


Orcmid's Lair

What Was Y2K All About?

Levitt gives programmers a bad rap. I think there are three levels to this question: the catastrophe predictions, the situation in computer-based systems and information technology at the time, and the specific technical matter and the role of program...


Hysteria -
How does Hysteria work?
How does it grow?
In the midst of an hysterical time HOW can we quantify the "overshoot" above (or below) the level of reality?

Why did WC fail to gain critical mass in the 1930s as Hilter rose and Germany clearly violated the Treaty of Versailles by rearming?

Why did Y2K become so ominous?

Why has the GWOT received as much or more attention than the Soviets during the cold war?
The Soviets had (have?) 1000+ armed missiles with the range to reach America.
Saddam had missiles that could reach Israel.
OBL has what?

more on my earlier post:

Fixing Y2K issues was drudgery for programmers. The program code for time and date was typically old, not written or documented to then-current programming standards and NOT written by the person called upon to fix it.


During the Y2K buildup, I worked in a customer-service calling center and Imade a bundle of overtime--especially on January 1, 2000 when I sat around and perused the Internet while the

It wouldn't surprise me though if there was some malice, however. IT people would never recommend a company switch to Macs. If the computers work, the IT people don't.


I recall a store near me putting up a large sign in mid-1999 proclaiming it to be "Y2K Preparadness Center."
It was a gun store.


I was recently told a story on how Boeing took one of their airplanes into a hanger started it up and set the onboard clock to a minute before the year 2000.

When the clock ticked over to midnight the plane shut down.
Now can you imagine if they hadn't been prepared for that and an unfixed plane had been flying at that time?


Wasn't Y2K just a defect that was fixed before any real harm was done? In the auto industry many defects aren't noticed until there has been an injury or loss of life. Yes, Y2K affected many different high tech systems. But really it didn't affect my day to day life.

wild horse

For the Y2k scare to have been a real problem in the sense that the alarmists at the time were suggesting, there would have had to be lines of code in applications saying something like "if the date is earlier than (some date after 1900), [do something horrible like shut down/explode/make the satellite fall onto the nearest city/whatever]." Unsurprisingly, not a lot of systems contain code like this.

To take the (apocryphal) Boeing example, what possible reason would a programmer have ever had to put a check in his code such that the plane would shut down if the date was before a given date? Perhaps something somewhere had such code for a dumb reason or by mistake, but anyone who has any experience programming knew that just wasn't likely to be widespread.

Now, certain systems might have had problems. Keeping track of dates is important in accounting and billing code, so systems of that sort were probably very dangerous to companies' bottom lines. Database entries might have been entered incorrectly, or bills sent out with the wrong date. That sort of thing. And there were probably some critical systems whose operation requires knowledge of past events for proper function, which needed to be updated. But again, nothing like what the hype at the time was suggesting.



I'm a software engineer, and knowing the quality of code I'd run into in my career, I considered the threat to be real but not devastating; the "planes falling from the sky and a new dark age arriving" was pretty obviously hype. I expected that there might be several days' disruption of information systems and attending confusion as people coped, and figured it was as good a time as any to make sure my earthquake survival kit (I live in California) was up to date and I had paper copies of all my relevant financial information.
I would have been blasé about a blackout lasting several hours and huge waits at airports due to air traffic control systems needing to be operated off Post-It notes, and surprised if it took more than 24 hours for people to figure out how to reset all the crucial clocks to 1994 (which would give until 2/29/2000 to actually fix the systems).
wild horse, the danger is not that a programmer would have put in explicit code to make the plane shut down before a given date, but that the programmer might never have tested their code with a "0" in the year field. If the code hadn't been tested and an unknown bug were present, that could knock out that subsystem until someone rebooted it and entered a number it could cope with. (e.g.: code trying to figure out the amount of time between a pre-Y2K time and a post-Y2K one might wind up with a large negative number instead of a small positive one, throwing off all kinds of possible calculations... which could be bad if, say, you're calculating fuel usage.)



Some code does not handle exceptions gracefully. It just shuts down. This is bad if you are at 30,000 feet at the time and the code is running the autopilot off switch. That's why time code is important. Not that it's inherantly important, just that the exception handlers were not thought through.
The reason we corrected almost all the Y2K problems is simply that we could simulate them so easily. Set the clock ahead and watch the computer do amusing things.
We could not set the weather ahead and watch New Orleans drown. If we could have, we would have arranged for the levees to be fixed. You will note that the NYC subways are much more vulnerable to storm surge than the New Orleans levees, and we aren't fixing them, either. A big hurricaine into NYC and we can kiss goodby to several million commuter trips each day.
We would fix it if we could prove to the mayor that it was going to happen. Unfortunately, NYC does not have a clock we can set ahead to June 23rd of 2008 at six in the morning and watch the waterfall going down the Battery Park subway station steps.



Here is a true story related to a product that is made and sold today. There is a Computer and a Complex Electro-Mechanical Device (CEMD). The Computer accepts information, processes it and feeds derived information to the CEMD. For a variety of reasons the information being fed to the CEMD needed to be secret and the electronic circuit used to carry the information was easy to "monitor". So the information was to be encrypted.

If you were a code cracker you might simply feed certain sets of data into the Computer and observe the variations in the data passed to the CEMD. So the encryption algorithm was designed to encrypt with a key which included the current time.
The decryption software inside the CEMD also had the current time and thus was able to confirm the validity of the decryption.

Later a need arose to locate the Computer at some distance from the CEMD and sporadic system failures occurred. It turned out the delays in the overall process lead to the time being different at the CEMD and thus the time used to decrypt was not the same as the encrption and the system halted.

The "fix" was crude. The decryption now uses the time it has and if that is invalid it tries times 1 second earlier and later than the time it has.

As you should be guessing this may work quite well today and fail in the future if the process delay grows beyond 1 second.

Going back to my first post regarding the financial instituion and the failures that did occur on January 1, 2000.

These folks knew they had Y2K software design issues and had been working for months changing the software AND performing system tests. Despite that the many different softwares that needed to interact could not all be tested together until the day of Y2K.

Why we may never know how bad it was.

Neither my company nor my sibling's ever admitted to the defects or the repairs. We merely stated we had tested and confirmed our products. Customers were told that if they had needed a software upgrade they already had it (which was true) so there was no need to worry.


wild horse2

You're right about the exception handling. Still, I find unlikely that a system that actually had to keep track of time in a precise way wouldn't have been written using something like C's time_t's, instead of some hand-cooked system designed to carry the year around in two decimal digits. Of course, as I said, there was boneheadedness here and there.


The Boeing story seems an awful lot like an urban myth.