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CPSR Newsletter - Vol. 17, No. 1
CPSR Newsletter

Winter 1999
Vol. 17, No. 1


Marsha Woodbury
Y2K: The Broad View

CPSR-Y2K Working Group Web Pages

Arthur C. Clarke
The Century Syndrome, from The Ghost from the Grand Banks

Anthony Ralston
Y2K and Social Responsibility

Peter Neumann
A Perspective on Y2K

Gary Chapman
Now For Another Daunting Y2K Task: Educating America's Masses

Lenny Siegel
OOPs 2000: The Y2K Bug and the Threat of Catastrophic Chemical Releases

Norman Kurland
How Y2K Will Impact the New York Times

Y2K and Nuclear Weapons

  • Letters Seeking Help on Nuclear Weapons Issues from
    Michael Kraig
    Alan Phillips

  • Four Prominent Scientists on Nuclear Weapons Concerns:
    Khursch Ahmed
    David Parnas
    Barbara Simons
    Terry Winograd

  • Gary Chapman
    A Moral Project for the 21st Century: Stop Creating Better Weapons


    Y2K Humor from the Internet and Beyond

    Cartoon (may crash older browsers)

    CPSR News:

    Aki Namioka
    A Letter from CPSR's President

    Netiva Caftori
    Chapter News

    Return to the Index.

  • The Century Syndrome
    by Arthur C. Clarke

    Published with permission of the author.  "The Century Syndrome" is a chapter from the book The Ghost from the Grand Banks (New York: Bantam Books, 1990, pp. 19-21).  You can buy books by Arthur C. Clarke through the CPSR Online Bookstore.

    When the clocks struck midnight on Friday, 31 December, 1999, there could have been few educated people who did not realize that the Twenty-first Century would not begin for another year. For weeks, all the media had been explaining that because the Western calendar started with Year 1, not Year 0, the Twentieth Century still had twelve months to go.

    It made no difference; the psychological effect of those three zeros was too powerful, the fin de siécle ambience too overwhelming. This was the weekend that counted; 1 January 2001 would be an anticlimax, except to a few movie buffs.

    There was also a very practical reason why 1 January 2000 was the date that really mattered, and it was a reason that would never have occurred to anyone a mere forty years earlier.  Since the 1960s, more and more of the world's accounting had been taken over by computers, and the process was now essentially complete.  Millions of optical and electronic memories held in their stores trillions of translations--virtually all the business of the planet.

    And, of course, most of these entries bore a date.  As the last decade of the century opened, something like a shock wave passed through the financial world.  It was suddenly, and belatedly, realized that most of those dates lacked a vital component.

    The human bank clerks and accountants who did what was still called "bookkeeping" had very seldom bothered to write in the "19" before the two digits they had entered. These were taken for granted; it was a matter of common sense. And common sense, unfortunately, was what computers so conspicuously lacked. Come the first dawn of '00, myriads of electronic morons would say to themselves "00 is smaller than 99. Therefore today is earlier than yesterday--by exactly 99 years. Recalculate all mortgages, overdrafts, interest-bearing accounts on this basis. . . . The results would be international chaos on a scale never witnessed before; it would eclipse all earlier achievements of artificial stupidity--even Black Monday, 5 June 1995, when a faulty chip in Zurich had set the bank rate at 150 percent instead of 15 percent.

    There were not enough programmers in the world to check all the billions of financial statements that existed, and to add the magic "19" prefix wherever necessary.The only solution was to design special software that could perform the task, by being injected--like a benign virus--into all the programs involved.

    During the closing years of the century, most of the world's star-class programmers were engaged in the race to develop a "Vaccine '99"; it had become a kind of Holy Grail. Several faulty versions were issued as early at 1997--and wiped out any purchasers who hastened to test them before making adequate backups The lawyers did very well out of the ensuing suits and countersuits.

    Edith Craig belonged to the small pantheon of famous women programmers that began with Byron's tragic daughter Ada, Lady Lovelace, continued through Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, and culminated with Dr. Susan Calvin. With the help of only a dozen assistants and one SuperCray, she had designed the quarter million lines of code of the DOUBLEZERO program that would prepare any well-organized financial system to face the Twenty-first Century. It could even deal with badly organized ones, inserting the computer equivalent of red flags at danger points where human intervention might still be necessary.

    It was just as well that 1 January 2000 was a Saturday; most of the world had a full weekend to recover from its hangover--and to prepare for the moment of truth on Monday morning.

    The following week saw a record number of bankruptcies among firms whose accounts receivable had been turned into instant garbage.  Those who had been wise enough to invest in DOUBLEZERO survived, and Edith Craig was rich, famous. . . .and happy.

    Only the wealth and fame would last.

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