Y2K 1/6/23

Memories with Richard Bleil

Since I’m actually ahead in my posts, as I write this, it is actually New Year’s Eve.  On my social media page, I’ve been seeing posts recalling the tragedy of the Y2K disaster that saw the end of civilization as we knew it. 

For those who don’t remember due to memory loss caused by the radioactive fallout and starvation, programmers using the ancient language called “Cobol”, responsible for writing the code creating the infrastructure of the computer networks of today took a shortcut.  Instead of writing any dates using the four digit code, such as “1920”, they only used two, or “20”.  The problem is that they wrote these codes in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.  Damn.  Now I’m doing it.

By the end of the ‘80’s, their codes were all installed and running our military and financial institutions and medical conglomerates and insurance and (skip ahead a bit, brother).  So, they fired all of the Cobol programmers who, having written the code to make others wealthy found themselves without an income.  Because that’s how American business works. 

Unfortunately, by the upper mid upper lower mid upper ‘90’s, somebody realized that the Cobol programmers had taken this shortcut and worried what would happen when suddenly the first two digits of the year becomes significant when the clocks turn “2000”.  Will the computers realize that time is marching on, or will they assume we are in some kind of funky time warp and suddenly it’s 1900 again?  And what will be the ramifications to this change?  Will all of the nuclear missiles simultaneously launch like some doomsday trigger?  Will the planes fall out of the skies?  Will the food suddenly turn into rotted dust because it’s all suddenly a hundred years old, except for gefilte fish which is best served after a hundred years? 

The old Cobol programmers suddenly found themselves in demand once again, for a very brief time, but in excessively high demand.  And they did the right thing.  They took jobs for WAY overinflated wages to fix the “problem” they created, although, to be honest, some of us assumed it was all just paranoia.  At 37 and working in my new tenure-track position in South Dakota, I really wasn’t worried.

South Dakota isn’t exactly the mecca of New Year’s celebrations.  It was the second time zone to see the new year in the US, most of which watched New York City for the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  So there I was, in my little hovel even before getting my dog, watching the millennial celebrations on my television.  And it was astounding pretty much everywhere around the world, except for the US.  In Australia, ballet dancers celebrated by performing on the side of the world-renowned Australian Opera House.  In Paris, the entire Eiffel Tower literally exploded in fireworks from all sides engulfing it in a simply astounding show of sparks and beauty.  And here in America, we got a new ball for Times Square.

I guess it was kind of a big deal.  The New York Times Square ball had been used for years, and always lowered by hand (which is why some years it seemed to stall partway down, and other years it would suddenly drop quickly as the two men who had been doing it for decades tried to time it to touch at exactly midnight).  This year, a brand new crystal ball made by Tiffany’s lowered by a new computer controlled device that hopefully was already fixed for the Y2K bug. 

It was the new millennium.  The last one that we would see for a thousand years (and only the second one seen by my ex-wife).  To say that it was disappointing, especially with the celebrations that had occurred around the world prior to reaching the US, is an understatement.  It almost felt as if people were so paranoid about Y2K that somebody forgot to plan for the celebration.

And in South Dakota, there was nothing.  Even the network television stations used the time zone to review how other nations celebrated rather than showing anything live.  And as for Y2K?  Yes, it really was a disaster.  The next week one of the news stations reported the extent of the damage, which apparently had been limited to an EKG machine where people would have to cross out the year “1900” on the printout strip of paper and write in “2000” by hand.  And all of those Cobol programmers?  Yes, after the new year they were once again let go, but much better off than the first time.


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