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A discussion to be updated from time to time.

If you haven't seen my Year 2000 stuff over on you will want to look at that for starters. I have some mail on it that I will discuss, then comments from readers. I'll end this with a short essay of my own observations, but as of today I have not done that yet.

For a hilarious comment on the whole thing go to

and stand back...

Additions January  1999:

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As the teaser on the title page says, the topics for a while will be the Year 2000 bug as it affects US -- the small computer users -- and some of the reactions by the big mainframe people. In particular, here's a letter in response to my intellectual capital essays. I'll let you think about it while I go do my errands.

Do note who's telling me about the coming disaster.



I am a computer industry professional, I've been in the business for 30+ years, I'm currently the Vice-President of Technology at the Seattle Times (I also wrote a column in the paper and on the internet called 2020world which you may have run across). I'm a senior exec and I manage around 100 programmers and analysts in my organization.

I mention these things because you need to hear the opinion of someone

who knows this business AND who is not tainted with the end-of-the-world mentality that has confused the public perception of this problem.

You are way, way, WAY off base in your understanding of this problem. You fall into a common mis-conception that I have seen frequently. You think the world of computers is mostly made up of wintel desktops. It's not. At our company, and I am sure at most companies - we simply don't care about PC's - they aren't important, they don't matter. The machines that matter are mainframes, unix platforms, network servers, communications equiptment, specialized equipment that has embedded chips, etc..

Your advice to move the clock up and "see what happens" would be catastrophic if followed. It has taken us over four months and many tens of thousands of dollars just to set up an isolated environment just so we could test ONE application. AND please!, Mainframes cannot be replaced by PC's.

One of the things that confuses the public about this story is people like you who portray themselves as knowledgeable about computer industry and yet do not know what they are talking about. This article puts you at the extreme end of that spectrum. You are completely clueless, please stop writing about this - leave it to the people who know.

Kurt Dahl

There are many issues raised here. Let's dispose of the trivial ones first: in a 1200 word column one can't say everything, or even very much. The intent of my Intellectual Capital column -- and do go read it before jumping in here -- was to get across that yes, the problem is serious, but no more so than hurricane season, fires and floods, and the Great Freeze of '76, and a lot less serious than a small war.

One thing I did assume was that any company running on mainframes would have people competent to know whether you can simply advance the date, and what preparations that requires. I also assume, since the Year 2000 Problem has been foreseen for at least ten years -- I first wrote about it before 1990, and I know many others did as well -- that the computer professionals like Mr. Dahl don't need my advice. They are supposed to be on top of the problem. Indeed, they ought to be reassuring the rest of us.

Moreover, I have been warning my readers about this, and giving them pointers to advice on it, for five years and more. I made Ed Yourdon's book a book of the month. In the Intellectual Capital column I included a pointer to Bruce Webster's Y2K report. Both of them are far gloomier than I am, and I have made no secret that I respect their opinions.

One line that was cut (I presume for space) by the editors of Intellectual Capital said "If your system is so dependent on computers that you can't afford to take them off line even for a day, you probably have far worse problems than I can help you with." I imagine the Intellectual Capital editors thought that one so obvious as not to need saying; apparently Mr. Dahl would rather I had said it.

But I am continually amazed that the people who, presumably, saw this coming a decade ago are now the ones filled with panic, and certain that terrible things will happen to the nation no matter what we do.

I don't believe that. Not that horrible, anyway.

Moreover, I have long advocated the computer revolution, decentralization of computing, distributed computing, substitution of small computers for big ones. My column in Popular Computing was called The Computer Revolution and was full of stuff about the Dinosaur Keepers and High Priests of the Ancien Regime in Computing who were trying to keep control for themselves. I long thought that small computers would allow the elimination of a great deal of middle management -- not only in company line operations, but in staff functions like computer services as well.

I still believe all that. And comes now the Y2K bug, to batter those who employed computer professionals, and then didn't listen to them; or else employed "professionals" so busy suppressing the computer revolution that they never advised their employers on what to do if the big dinosaur in the basement stopped working. And I have never in my life advocated that users -- I write the user's column -- stay ignorant of what's happening under the hood, so to speak. I have always tried to educate my readers. If people hired 'experts' and now find the experts can't take care of them, well, that's competition for you. If your business won't run without a computer that doesn't understand 4 digit dates, then you will lose your business to someone who either has a better computer or can operate without them. So it goes.

Yes: it will be a pain in the arse to, (as an example of a workaround) send out lists of bad credit cards and have clerks look those up before accepting your Visa; but it was done routinely for a long time, and for that matter, most major credit card companies have fixed the Y2K problem. The point here is that it wasn't all that long ago that we did right well without all these machines; and human ingenuity being what it is, we'll do all right again. When Lucius Clay and Konrad Adenaeur ended economic controls in Germany, the miracle began. If the Y2K bug makes it harder for the government to enforce its silly regulations, who knows that that will do for business? I have often thought that a great deal of the productivity of the computer revolution was lost because the computers made it possible actually to comply with the reams of useless regulatory reports companies are supposed to file, and also made it possible for the government to know whether the company had complied. The result is a vectorial sum of zero.

There will be displacements in plenty in the year 2000, but God reigns, the government at Washington will still live, and the United States of America will remain strong.

Anyway: I concern myself with desktops. I know something about them. I don't know much about mainframes and other dinosaurs, and never have claimed to. They have their own high priesthood, and if those high priests have not, despite decades of warning, been able to come up with ways around Y2K, then, well, we will have the Computer Revolution a great deal quicker, and probably be better for it.

Clearly I invite comments, and yes, of course I have my doubts. I am a science fiction writer. I can imagine riots in the streets, and all the other scenarios. I wrote some of them. But I also, in my heart of hearts, believe that what man has done, man can aspire to: we got along without computers that don't understand 4 digit dates before we met them, and we'll get along without them now.

LATER: Jim Ransom who does systems engineering on big rockets, says "I expect the Y2K bug to be used to explain a lot of things that would have gone wrong anyway because we don't have as much competence as we used to."

My own view is mild to serious inconveniences with a few disasters; but it won't equal a firebombing raid...

Now it's your turn.

And now this: Larry Aldridge (my competent friend who is VP of PC Power and Cooling, and if you build a machine without using PC Power and Cooling power supplies you are taking a chance I wouldn't) has been experimenting with the Y2K bug in desktops. Here's a major annoyance.

If you set your machine to 23:30 December 31, 1999 and wait, it will probably roll over to January 1, 2000 without problems. Now turn it off, and restart it. With some machines it will come up believing the date is January 1, 2000. With others the BIOS doesn't know what to do! And may give you the year 1900, until you go in and manually reset the date.

I strongly urge you to try this for yourselves. Larry says there are some BIOS patches that may fix the problem, but he knows of none from the major BIOS companies; and installing a third party patch to your BIOS may be a chance you don't want to take. I'll let you know more on this when I know more.



Peter N. Glaskowsky []

Even if you don’t have a Year 2000 problem, you might have a Year 2001 problem.

You wrote in View:

> If you set your machine to 23:30 December 31, 1999 and wait, it will  probably roll over to January 1, 2000 without problems. Now turn it  off, and restart it. With some machines it will come up believing the  date is January 1, 2000. With others the BIOS doesn’t know what to  do! And may give you the year 1900, until you go in and manually  reset the date.


As Microsoft says here:


During the boot process, early Windows operating systems that get a "00" from the BIOS will set their internal calendars to 1980.

Windows NT 3.51 SP5, NT 4.0 and 5.0, and Windows 98 contain special code to recognize "00" and will set their internal dates to 2000. This will pretty much solve the problem for two-digit-year BIOSs.

...For one year, anyway. As Microsoft goes on to say, even these newest operating systems will be confused by a "01". If they get THAT year from the BIOS, they’ll set their internal calendars to 1980.

This seems amazingly dumb. Why did they use a "year " test rather than a "year<80" test? If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d leap to the conclusion that Microsoft wants to force us all to replace our PCs by the end of 2000. (I wonder if NT 5.0 will actually be ready by then? :-)

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NOW for some reader comments:

Frank McPherson []

You might want to check out You will notice that Microsoft has classified Win 95 and NT 4.0 as "Compliant with issues." The issues involve things like how dates are displayed in Explorer.

Microsoft provides a patch to resolve these issues.

There are many software packages that have these types of issues. I believe OS/2 Warp also requires a patch. If you are a company with a lot of these PCs and you want to be certain that your PCs are up to your vendor’s specs for compliance you may be faced with a lot of work.

I support a client/server system which has many NT 3.51 servers. I am waiting on Microsoft to complete their testing and provide a hotfix. In the worst case I may need to upgrade those servers to NT 4.0. I also just found out from my fax server software vendor (RightFAX) that my current version of their software is not compliant. I will need to upgrade that *and* upgrade to NT 4.0 since their current version will not run on NT 3.51.

Yes, these things are not catastrophic but they do take my time, which costs my employer money. While the Y2K problem may be blown out of proportion, it is definitely costing a lot of companies a tremendous amount of money.

Frank McPherson



Fred Grosby []

I just read your Y2K article on It’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

If you’ve tried out the Y2K hardware diagnostic utility I sent you, you may have figured out that getting at the hardware issue is No Big Deal. You find the deficient hardware and either fix it or replace it. Micron, the folks who made my PC, can tell you what BIOS versions on their boxes are Y2K compliant, and how to get a BIOS upgrade if necessary. Same with Dell. Like I said, No Big Deal.

What is a Big Deal is software applications. And while the big, expensive, visible applications have the potential to cause a lot of people a lot of trouble, it’s my opinion that those are not the ones that will drive users and IT shops fits, simply because they are impossible to ignore. I’m convinced that the Big Deal is going to be all those little PC-based applications that were written years ago and have been used in offices everywhere ever since, to the point where nobody thinks about them any more. Well, come 1 January 2000, they’ll be reminded, at which point Kurt Dahl might find a reason to change his thinking in one hell of a hurry.


Fred Grosby

Banned domains:,


I must have stated something incorrectly in my last message.

>Thanks for the information about BIOS upgrades. Unfortunately some outfits

>don’t have upgrades…


That’s true, but it does not serve to mitigate or expand on the straightforward choices one is faced with when it comes to PC hardware.

Either the PC is Y2K compliant or it is not. If it is, move on to operating system and applications software. If it is not, either upgrade the PC or buy a new PC and scrap the old. If the BIOS cannot be upgraded, or if the hardware clock is the problem, one is faced with either replacing the motherboard or replacing the offending PC. Not a complicated set of choices. Expensive, maybe, but not complicated.

Operating system and software applications is where one will really start tearing out hair. For example, how many users, either corporate or home, know how to upgrade Windows 95 to Y2K compliancy? For that matter, how many IT shops know what to do and how to do it? Not those who are ignoring the desktop, that’s for sure.


Fred Grosby

Banned domains:,

Harry Erwin []

The school I teach at has a computerized phone-based system for students to use in paying bills. They discovered that it couldn’t handle credit card expiration dates after 1999, so their fix was to require the 4-digit year, rather than the 2-digit year embossed on the card... If you enter the 2-digit year, you get the error message, ‘illegal expiration date’, with no clue given as to why it is illegal. The system is marginal in its computer/human interface design in any case, but this is over the top. It’s better than the system used there for applying for parking permits—for example, you have to enter a number between 1 and 50 to identify the state the car is registered in. To find out what number to enter, you have to listen to a spoken list of the possible legal values. Neither system is bullet-proof. You can’t correct most errors; instead, you have to hang up and try again.

I think that’s the real problem with Y2K—marginal systems that can’t cope and can’t really be fixed.

Harry Erwin, Internet:, Web Page: Senior Software Analyst supporting the FAA, PhD candidate in computational neuroscience—modeling how bats echolocate—and lecturer for CS 211 (data structures and advanced C++).


From: Allan Vysma <>

Date: Sat, 29 Aug 1998 01:45:32 -0700

Subj: Y2K "problem"


Hello Jerry,

I consider the Y2K "problem" an opportunity for those who understand how to get things done without computer aid. While there is a lot to be said about the added productivity and efficiency that computers bring give us, it seems to me more and more people are relying on computers to do things that we should be able to do out of hand. In the past, people were respected and rewarded for taking care of business, not who could show the coolest PowerPoint presentation. If the Y2K problem is as big as most tend to believe, then the people who can best do without the assistance of computers will have the most to gain. And most likely there will be a shift on thinking about what people really consider talent. In a world without the computer crutch(in some areas. I know it will not be all encompassing), it would(will?) be interesting to see who falls....

By the way, the reason you don’t hear your readership yakking up the Y2K deal is that -they- are the type of people who will thrive in that arena. They use computers as helpers, not as the reason "I" got this job instead of the next guy. They can use Word to make a great report, or a typewriter, pen, or quill. While the "professionals" wait for the network to be repaired, your readers simply work around the problem. I think that in this age of computing, sometimes the most productive thing to do is turn the damn thing off. Just my humble opinion....

Take Care,

Allan Vysma


p.s. Just imagine, headhunters searching for people who know how to work -without- computers. They have a tough job ahead of them!

p.p.s. I really don’t believe the Y2K problem will be that serious, it was just fun to think about the positive side that I haven’t heard a bit about. There’s always a flip side to any "problem".


sschaper []


Just got email from a friend from back in seminary. He told his landlord about y2k from some source that said you should have all your bills settled and have a month supplies of everything on hand, the landlord then lost reason and sold the house my friend and his expectant wife and daughter are living in, so they have to move 50 miles away.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. As you so well put it.



We are all Private Ryan


This is from the;

Newsletter on Information Technology and Telecommunications Standardization

Volume 6, Number 8, August 1997

Which is at;


"Legal Impact May Be Enormous

Another prediction made at the March 1997 hearing related to the legal impact. It was felt that the risk of failure and its liability consequences of punitive and compensatory damages would sprout a large Year 2000 cottage industry for lawyers waiting to file suits. Furthermore, the potential legal damages awarded could ultimately exceed the total cost for actually fixing the Year 2000 problem."

Best to all,

Jim Lee

AAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!! I hadn't thought of that one. The ability of lawyers to mess up the system something awful…

Thursday September 17, 1998

I read that power companies are now beginning to panic and people are buying generators. I have known some of the power company people since I did the articles on nuclear power for American Legion Magazine back in 1974 or so, and they're both smart and cautious -- or were then.  I find it a bit hard to believe they are so stupid as to have got themselves into this kind of box. Some part of the grid may be vulnerable, but ---

I suppose it is a matter of faith. I can't believe people who could see this coming for a decade did nothing about it. Perhaps they did, and we really are doomed...

But do see for another view.


(Following is repeated from MAIL)

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

Attached is Y2k-USG.doc, an article from


It’s sort of scary, but interesting... Food for thought anyway...

Claud Addicott

Thanks. The reference is well worth looking at, and I agree with much of what he has said. He points out that martial law may be needed if the Y2K crisis is as severe as some say it will be, and the thing to fear there is the ratchet effect: once a government uses a power, it seldom gives it back.

There are exceptions. Ex Parte Milligan was one of them. There is just enough antagonism between the judiciary and the military that use of military power in domestic situations is a BIG step, too large for one or two notches on the ratchet; it would have to be used more frequently. A frank declaration of martial law frightens me less than the incident at the border in which Marines shot and killed a young goatherder on his own property, never having identified themselves, and making no effort to help him after they "neutralized the threat" -- the boy thought he was protecting his livestock from predators with his .22 rifle. The Marines were far enough away that the liklihood of his harming one of them was nearly nil, but they took him out anyway. And no one, including the imbecile officer who put a detachment of enlisted men out there with no clear orders or rules of engagement, lost his job or even had a dent in his career, over the murder of a citizen on his own property by Marines being used in 'drug enforcement.'

It is THAT kind of incident rather than calling in the National Guard to distribute coal and suppress rioting that frightens me. Calling in the Guard is a Big Deal, and doesn't ratchet. Borrowing tanks from Fort Hood to burn a bunch of religious recluses to death in Waco isn't so big, and the people in charge of that can be (and were) promoted. THAT ratchets.

But the article is well worth reading. Thanks for the reference.

January 11, 1999

Access to Energy "A Pro-Science, Pro-Technology, Pro-Free Enterprise Monthly Newsletter (Box 1250 Cave Junction, Oregon 97523; $35/year and worth it; oddly enough no web site): Makes the point that one danger of Y2K is hedging: with stocks at 50 times earnings and better, the urge to reduce exposure in the market is going to be high, and if there's a 10% reduction in market exposure the resulting deflation could be severe. A market with 50 times earnings and more is literally a confidence game: the instant people lose confidence in the Long Boom there will be a severe collapse. In another era they called those "bubbles" as in the South Sea Bubble, the Tulip Bubble, and Insull stocks (which always went up…).

The December issue also quotes extensively from the Wall Street Journal of November 27, 1998, page A 10, David Schoenbrod on the real meaning of The Wizard of Oz (Baum meant it as an allegory, the slippers were SILVER not red, and the Wizard in the Capital was a complete humbug who could do nothing. The movie changed it to make the Wizard Roosevelt rather than the Humbugs. Incidentally, the Cowardly Lion was Wm Jennings Bryan…

If the Journal article is on line it's worth finding and reading; as is the December issue of Access To Energy. I had not thought about the Y2K problem in those terms although I have expressed concern about runs on banks as people try to get lots of cash in anticipation of bank failures.

We live in one massive confidence game; confident that stocks whose value is fifty times earnings (i.e. if all earnings were profits then in 50 years the stock would have made back what you paid for it) will continue to grow because the economy will continue to grow. Deflation hurts the big investors; it's actually a pretty good deal for the chap whose salary remains the same as prices go down, and who finds that the money he has salted away is actually worth what it was when he put it in the bank. My suspicion is that stopping deflation will become one of Washington's most important goals; more interesting perhaps is how, now that Y2K has caused fear, uncertainty, and doubt, the confidence game can be continued. Of course government sells its services by offering to reduce FU&;D and claiming that only government can do that (my argument with the pure libertarians is that sometimes that's a correct statement; sometimes it does take government to bail us out of problems. Of course many of those problems were created by governments in the first place, but that's another discussion).

The point here is that Y2K FUD can undermine the Long Boom market.

Now: how do you transfer assets from now to after Der Tag? What will retain its value through the Y2K crisis? Think in those terms when you prepare.


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