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STORY:
Why Y2K?

by Clark Humphrey

By or well before this point, you've probably come up with a few questions about The Whole Y2K Bug Thang, such as- Why's it called Y2K anyway?

Computer people are fond of technical-sounding abbreviations. "K," short for the Metric System prefix "kilo-," is particularly ubiquitous in the cyber-realm. (Remember the days of 400K floppy discs and computers with 64K of RAM?)

Among the inner cyber-circles, "K" has become used for any reference to thousands. Fan sites for the TV show "Mystery Science Theater 3000" routinely abbreviate the title to "MST3K." Postings to Usenet discussion groups invariably refer to, say, a sum of $3,000 as "3 Ks" (instead of the older gangster-movie abbreviation of "Gs," or "Grand").

Of course, this penchant for abbreviation is what started the whole Y2K Bug in the first place. Which brings us to.... What is the Y2K Bug?

Literally, it's not an actual "bug"--defined as an unintended programming mistake causing unintended results.

Rather, it's a planned "feature" in old software coding that worked fine at the time, but is now going to cause problems if it's not dealt with.

How did it start?

In the early days of mainframe computers, everything was limited-memory, data storage, processing power. Programmers had to do the most with the least. One of the oldest programming magazines, Dr. Dobb's Journal, originally promised to help its readers create code that would "run lean and light without Overbyte."

So a lot of early computers were programmed to "read" dates that had only two digits to denote the year. The practice had become an unquestioned convention when the first personal computers came out.

If programmers thought about the future implications of this shtick, they apparently assumed their primitive code would be replaced by more robust operating systems, languages, and application programs long before now. But many businesses and governments kept their old systems rather than switch over. Trade magazines for computer professionals started talking about the problem, and using the term "Y2K" to describe it, as early as 1991.

What does it mean?

Companies and institutions are finally rushing to deal with computers that should have been replaced long ago, and software that should have been rewritten long ago. Will enough of this be done in time? Most experts insist it will. We'll see.

Clark Humphrey's is contributing writer to Everything2000. His pop-culture report is now daily at WWW.MISCMEDIA.COM.

DATE: 09/08/99

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Friday, February 24, 2017

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