1999: Some people fear massive computer problems, but does 9/9/99 create headaches? Nein, nein, nein.
As 1999 entered its final months, most of the tech anxiety focused on Jan. 1, 2000, and what would happen if older computers interpreted 00, a year marked with only two digits, as 1900 rather than 2000. The Y2K problem was getting plenty of attention in IT departments, in the media and in government.
But there were also worries because some data systems used the digits 9999 to mark the end of a file. If a program was coded to stop running at 9999, the logic went, it might abruptly terminate processing a file if it came to the date 9/9/99.
Sept. 9 was not the first date that caused concern. Some nervous nerdies also worried about Jan. 1, 1999. 1/1/1999, with three 1s, three 9s. But … no prob.
Sept. 9 in fact was not even the first 9999 date of the year. That came on April 9, the 99th day of ‘99. Any dating system that simply counted days from the first of the year and used just two numbers for the year might have been vulnerable. But nothing of note happened.
Nonetheless (or ninetheless) 9/9/99 was still causing some apprehension. Those who downplayed the concern noted that the date would translate into machine code as 090999, which would not stop any process.
Conversely, at least one expert worried that the real problem wasn’t in the date being interpreted as an end-of-file marker (or trailer), but in an end-of-file marker being interpreted as a date. In this scenario, ill-written software itself intended to patch the Y2K glitch might go overboard and read an intentional 9999 end-of-file value as a date and convert it into an explicit 1999 date. Without the 9999 trailer at the end of the file, a program might go on running after it was supposed to stop, said Fred Kohun, associate dean of the school of communication and information systems at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh.
Some IT people regarded the whole thing as a “pernicious myth … in the order of credibility of the abominable snowman.” Other IT departments took the 9/9/99 opportunity to test their contingency plans for Y2K. If nothing happened, they’d had a rehearsal for a perceived larger threat. If something did happen, they were at the ready, or at least as ready as they could muster.
In the end, no big problems materialized. That turned out be a preview of Y2K itself, which — depending on which view you adopted — was either a colossal waste of time, money and effort, or the lack of trouble was a vindication of all the time, money and effort that prevented problems before they could occur.
This much is certain. Today is the dozenth anniversary of 9/9/99, and that won’t happen again in our calendar for at least 99.9999 years.
Photo: Duty officials of the Ukrainian government’s Y2K crisis center, attached to the Emergency Situation Ministry, monitor computer screens in the capital Kiev in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2000. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
This article first appeared on Wired on Sept. 9, 2008.
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