My friend Zach has been a conspiracy buff as long as I've known him.
Back when he was a teenager in the 1980's, Zach was the sysop of Rathead Systems--aka the PolySpock Project--one of the original NirvanaNet nodes. Nowadays, he hosts the Pigdog Journal--a print media side project of the PolySpock denizens that long since migrated to the web in order to serve you better.
The PolySpock Project also spun off the Pigdog list, a hangout for Pigdog contributors, auxiliaries and outsized personalities, such as the legendary Tjames Madison, (he after whom the Usenet newsgroup alt.usenet.tjames was created,) Evangelo Prodromou, (maintainer of the Perl for Win32 FAQ,) and yours truly.
Each of us on the Pigdog list has our function. From his redoubt in suburban Denver, Tjames provides drunken harangues and acid ad hominems, (although, to be fair, that duty is shared by virtually every member of the list). Evan acts as the managing editor for the Pigdog Journal and is a prime contributor of frat-boy humor and general skepticism. I mostly lurk--and occasionally forward to the list press releases I suspect will be of interest to the geekier Schweinhunde.
And Zach? Aside from participating in occasional flame wars over whether Perl or C++ is the superior language and evincing other aspects of his King God Nerd aspirations, Zach continually bombards us with Neo-Fortean, weird science and conspiracy stories. He's been all over Area 51 and Hangar 18, crop circles, chupacabra and cattle mutilations for well more than a decade now--a long time before that Mulder-come-lately, X-files guy came along--and he's gone way, WAY beyond them to hunt down and forward stories about antigravity devices, cold fusion, third world cults and news of the weird in general.
It's also important to understand that Zach isn't some credulous nitwit--he's a scientist, damnit. He may be fascinated by the fringes, but he doesn't actually buy more than the small fraction of the stories he passes along that are backed up by hard data and reproductible experiment. The other stuff he forwards to the Pigdog List is strictly for amusement.
Don't Bug Me When I'm Working
Now that we're all partying like it's 1999, (because, after all, it's gotten a little late to party like it's 1495,) it's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the mounting hysteria about the so-called "Millenium Bug"--the infocalypse that will supposedly consume civilization as we know it the second the clock reads "Happy New Year, 2000 C.E.!" There are so many self-appointed pundits out there, all of them busily churning out predictions about Just How Bad It's Going To Be, that separating fact from fiction is getting harder every day.
Luckily, this whole Y2K thing is just weird enough that my pal, Zach, had a fistful of URLs ready when I asked him to point me at both credible and incredible sources on the problem.
You see, I think the year 2000 is going to be a big problem for some people--people who are still running their businesses on Windoze 3.x or even DOS, for instance. Most of these people are small businessmen who take the attitude that, "If it was good enough for my great-grandfather, it's good enough for me." Mostly that's just an excuse, of course--their real reasons for remaining in the paleolithic computing era have more to do with inertia and..well..thriftiness.
Heck, a lot of these folks are so..thrifty..that they squeak.
Despite the smugness of its rabid devotees, even the Apple Macintosh has Year 2000 issues--not in the operating system, but in applications. Older versions of Quicken and Excel both have serious Y2K bugs. And older versions of FileMakerPro--the most popular Mac database--permit users to enter two-digit dates, to which it then automatically prepends 19 (the latest version gets its millenium/century from the current system time).
Most databases share the problem of assuming that a two-digit date entry belongs to the 1900's. And a big part of Y2K remediation in general simply consists of forcing users to enter four-digit dates.
Naturally, IBM's customers are in for the Big Blues come New Year's Day. IBM maintains a list of its platforms and operating systems and the various white papers, compliance testing and remedial tool sets and, of course, services that it offers its business partners--but not its end users. They have to settle for "The Year 2000 and 2-Digit Dates: A Guide for Planning and Implementation," which you can download in ASCII text, Adobe Acrobat PDF or IBM's own BookManager format.
Even Win98 isn't fully Y2K compliant straight out of the box (does it bug anybody else that Micro$oft absolutely, positively REQUIRES you to use Internet Exploiter to download patches for Win98? It sure tees me off,) nor is any flavor of NT currently in release. And Intel-based PC hardware from the pre-ATX-form-factor days is liable to have one of the three common Year 2000 BIOS- or real-time-clock-related hiccups:
Many 486s and their even older cousins may not be able to handle a date beyond 12/31/1999 under any circumstances. Most of them will either freeze up completely or roll over to their BIOS production date.
Newer, faster 486s and older Pentiums may not be able to roll over to 2000 on their own--but most of them will gracefully accept a date beyond the barrier, if you enter it manually at the BIOS prompt.
However, some of those computers can't be powered down without losing the post-millenial date--which means they have to be reset by hand every time they're turned off or lose power.
Time Has Come Today
And, of course, there's the question of whether your computers understand that 2000 is a leap year. (The rule is that years that end in 00 aren't leap years--unless they're evenly divisible by 400--so this particular gotcha hasn't been an issue since the Renaissance. Until now, that is.)
Operating systems other than MSDOG and Windoze have Y2K problems, as do applications of all kinds. Microsoft maintains a list of its programs that are known to be incompatible, and a huge one (785K!) of programs that it believes are compliant, or are "compliant with minor issues"--whatever that means. Compaq's DEC division offers downloadable spreadsheets on their ftp site that will let you browse for problems with their products, and its parent offers a set of compliance tables of its own, including a downloadable Excel spreadsheet. Ditto Dell, Gateway 2000, Micron, Acer and Packard Bell. Meanwhile Novell maintains a list of both its compliant and non-compliant products with links to updates and fixes for current versions.
They're not the only ones, of course. Heck, my cybernetically-impaired mother understands that there are a host of problems with computers. Unix flavors all share the 2038 "doomsday" problem (at 03:14:07 January 19, 2038, exactly 232 seconds since the Unix epoch on 00:00:00 January 1, 1970--the date and time of Unix's "birth"--every current version of Unix will die in a big pile as the date wraps around to 0). Less well-known is that sundry Unices and their associated admininstration tools have actual Y2K problems. Sun, for instance, provides SunScan 2000, a Y2K compliance testing tool, for users of Sparc- or Intel-based Solaris 2.3 or higher, and Cisco--whose IOS is, of course, based on a Unix kernel--provides a list of compliant and non-compliant or non-tested products. Linux, on the other hand, appears to have neatly dodged the millenium bullet.
But embedded microprocessors are the real wild card. They're tucked away inside practically everything that uses electricity these days, from automobiles to Zambonis. Without knowing the exact make and model of the microprocessor, (not to mention which version it uses of the embedded operating system that runs it,) it's impossible to know in advance if any particular machine will just keep humming along or will crash and burn in some amusing, inconvenient or downright spectacular fashion.
Hewlett-Packard doesn't just build computers. It also manufactures medical devices and testing equipment--both of which employ embedded processors. HP maintains a set of links on its products' compliance that includes everything from HP-UX to medical monitors.
Oddly enough, the very people you might think would be most worried about the effects of the Millenium bug--the John Birch Society, assorted milleniallist Christian sects and conspiracy theorists in general--mostly seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Others, however, are taking up the slack.
If you enjoy horror stories, check out Gary North's relentless hyperventilation on the subject. I'm firmly of the opinion that he's a blatant fraud bent on whipping up hysteria to flog his books and lectures--mostly because he has no credible background as a computer scientist and his breathless insistence reminds me of every telephone solicitor I've ever put on permanent hold--but your reaction may differ.
It's a lot more difficult to blow off Ed Yourdon. He wrote the FORTRAN math library for the PDP-5 and the assembler for the PDP-8 minicomputer, he was the lead developer of the structured analysis/design methods of the 1970s and in the 90's he's been a big noise in defining OOP methods. Unlike North, Yourdon has credentials and he's the author of over 200 technical articles and 25 computer books--as well as of Time Bomb 2000, the New York Times bestseller that lays out in great detail just how bad things could get--and how they could get that way. And Yourdon has put his money--and his family--where his mouth is by moving to rural New Mexico in anticipation of a period of general chaos and ifrastructure breakdown.
Once you've scared yourself half to death with that, you might want to turn to Duh-2000, the monthly contest for the stupidest thing said about the Year 2000 problem for a little relief. And after that, you might turn to the Pigdog Journal for some real silliness.
Because, after all, it's not the end of the world..
(Copyright© 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)