The Bug that didn't Bite.

Post-Y2K, the world is asking itself: Was the Y2K bug a hoax, a way for computer companies to make some money? Or was it a real problem that was solved with a great deal of time, money and effort?

Many of those who believed the Y2K bug would be a serious problem still believe disaster may strike. The people who got us all worried about the bug want to justify themselves and their arguments. Politicians want to reassure the voters they did all they could, consultants want to earn money and prove their skills, and doomsayers want us all to see that they were right to take what now seem very silly precautions.

A great many Americans took such measures and spent a lot of time, effort and money preparing for doomsday. Because of them, an entire industry earned a lot of money selling food, clothing, medicine, equipment for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping, power generators, wood-burning stoves, water filters, survival books and so on. If the bug is still out there they don't have to admit that they were wrong.

Joining the doomsayers are the consultants who remain certain that the bug might still bite, and in fact, is biting even now. Some predicted problems are beginning to happen, and as they do so, it becomes clearer that the money spent might not have been a waste. Some banks did experience account discrepancies, some payroll systems did fail and some computer systems did crash. So some people were right.

The Italian experience

But what about Italy, which did very little to prepare? If the Y2K bug was real, why didn't Italy suffer major problems? What I can say here is that
the case of Italy, and other countries that spent little without suffering any apparent failures, may emphasize a
valid point: Pro-bug people wanted to fix everything, and failed to make the distinction between what really needs fixing and what would simply be nice to fix.

This is the source of the current discussion, and what annoys the less wealthy nations and companies that jumped onto the pro-bug bandwagon. They spent the money, and now have to accept the fact that nothing serious happened. Did nothing happen because they averted disaster? Or, were they indeed deceived by money-hungry consultants eager to sell their expensive services while knowing the problem was less serious? Could be. Such is the nature of business. The money made is often more important than the service provided.

Basic human fear

Yet many people, businesses and countries did choose to spend this money (calculated at up to $200 billion worldwide, with half of that spent in the USA), so in the end, they believed what they were told by the experts and the media. Why? For several reasons, one of which is that the bug and the catastrophes that were predicted spoke to a basic human fear. In the USA, life is good, real problems are not common, and computers are everywhere. Humans did not evolve under such circumstances; they evolved during a time when problems were constant, life was not so good, and computers did not exist. Such conditions created certain patterns of behaviour in us: we react instinctively to problems, and get a lot of satisfaction from solving them. When we have no problems, we create them or simply exaggerate the ones we do have in order to feed this natural instinct.

This instinct can be overcome with information - a big problem begins to get smaller as we learn more about it, and rational thinking replaces the initial, primitive reactions of anxiety, fear, or even paranoia.

But what if you cannot understand the information? Few people really understand computers. Most people who use them have no idea of how they really work. This lack of knowledge leaves them dependent on the advice of those who know better. So, did the experts, consultants and the media that promoted the bug know better? Yes, and no. Yes, because problems are occurring in systems that were not fixed; and no, because everything that was fixed might not have needed it. In the USA, the $100 billion was money well spent for most people; not only could America afford it, but it was also more at risk. Most Americans prefer to overprepare for a problem than underprepare, because in the end, they will probably lose more if the problem does occur than they will lose if it does not.

The bug lives on

But the Y2K bug may have more life in it yet. January 1 was just one milestone in this year-long story. The second was January 3, when everyone returned to work. Again, not much happened. So the pro-bug camp is now turning its attention to February 29. The year 2000 is a leap year, and a particularly unusual one. Our calendar year does not quite keep pace with the cosmic clock, so we have to add an extra day every fourth year - except when the year ends in 00.

The exception to that exception is years ending in 00 that are divisible by 400. So the years 400, 800, 1200, 1600, and 2000 are leap years. Why does this matter? Some who fixed their bugs by changing their clocks to a year with the same day-date relationship as 2000 will have a problem on February 28, as those years were not leap years.

Due to the leap year issue, some pro-bug people say that even December 31, 2000 will cause a problem (because it will be counted as January 1, 2001 by computers that were not fixed). The saga continues, and the bug that didn't bite lives to fight another day.