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Y2K Wasn’t All Fear-Mongering

Elizabeth Uncategorized October 20, 2021

Y2K, for folks who don’t know, was the idea that the world’s computers would attempt to switch over from 1999 to 2000 on New Year’s Eve, and fail because most computers handled date in two digits instead of four – so the computer would see 99 turn to 00 and flip out. Date and time are critical for a lot of automation, even back then, so the fear wasn’t unfounded… but the panic might have been a little excessive. Why didn’t it happen?

The Bug Was Real

Programmers, with limited space and time, would look to optimize anywhere they could. The first commercial computers read years with two digits – memory was incredibly limited, and telling a 1970’s computer it had to count four digits instead of two would have shortened it’s already tiny attention span. They’d cut the “19” clean off the front and told the computer to take “19XX” as a given. This becomes a problem when the year is A) about to turn to 20XX and B) about to have two zeroes at the end because of how linear time works. The computer then might freak out, not knowing what to do with 2000. Automations relying on date could react unpredictably unless programmers got there first.

 It was a real bug. Hospital systems relying on date and time, stock systems, automated manufacturing, everyone used date for something. Documents could become chronologically disorganized. Bank automations would wildly miscalculate mortgage payments. Video rental stores would charge a century’s worth of late fees, not understanding ‘negative time’. Some computers might get into a death loop and crash over and over as they tried to understand what year it was.

The Panic

Echoes of Y2K were seen during the first months of the Covid pandemic: people created the shortages, not the event. Y2K caused an actual water shortage in some spots because people were preparing for the apocalypse by filling up their tubs last minute, assuming their water supply might be interrupted. For what it’s worth now, that’s not a great idea unless you have something to store the water in besides the tub. Water is treated, yes, but if something like an earthquake ruptures the water line, you might end up with contaminated water in the tub, or no water at all. If it’s something that won’t rupture the line, the tub itself is likely harboring some bacteria that could breed in the water over a long period of time – the tub’s where feet go, after all.

Buy your water far ahead of a potential disaster (as in before you can even tell an emergency is going to occur) in a stable, sealed container, because exposure to the open air can make still water go bad over time. Purdue has a good article on the subject here:

Vanishing Point

And then it was gone. The new year came and went, and suddenly people and media outlets  acted like they’d never given in to the panic all along. Things returned to normal. Futurama said it best: “When you do something right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all”. Engineers had fixed the problem so well that people became convinced Y2K was never going to actually happen.

How They Fixed It

As with most things, the truth is somewhere between tabloid and denialist. Y2K really could have screwed some stuff up, but a plane wouldn’t have fallen out of the sky because its GPS said it was time traveling. And on the flip side, it didn’t turn into a crisis, not because it wasn’t one, but because software experts fixed it. The sudden public interest isn’t what alerted software engineers to the problem, either. They generally knew, and they’d been working on it for years.

There were a couple of options to fix the Y2K bug: Windowing, which meant that the computer would treat dates as 20XX instead of 19XX, and full-out reprogramming for four digits. Most programmers went with windowing when they had the option because it was much, much easier (and therefore faster and cheaper) to do than trying to reprogram a legacy system to understand four digits. It’s important to note here that computers are in a lot of things that don’t have very much memory: parking meters, some cash registers, old gaming systems, etc. But they all need to know what the date and time is to issue receipts and count time properly for calculations. And when I say they don’t have much memory, I mean some of these legacy systems had been in use since the initial programming that lead to Y2K, the 1970s. Windowing was sometimes the only viable option.

This did kick the can down the road, but it bought time for memory storage tech to catch up. Businesses now had time to find an alternative to their legacy system, or decide to just keep windowing the problem until it was no longer feasible, which might be a while. Ultimately, it was fixed. Not perfect, not infallible, but fixed well enough to prevent a mass computer meltdown. Windowed systems may go out intermittently, but they’re not failing all at once and causing a choke.

For devices that needed to switch to four digits anyway for futureproofing (like the computers found in nuclear plants, banks and utilities) reprogramming took longer. Again, this was a project in the works for months, if not years, and it came with a very hard deadline. When the issue was described, most organizations jumped to fix it. A total of approximately 100 Billion dollars was spent by the US alone to prevent the potential collapse.


Smaller issues popped up around date and time at the millennium, but they weren’t as potentially catastrophic as the actual Y2K. For example, the leap year problem: 2000 wasn’t supposed to be a leap year in computer logic, because every 100 years the leap year is skipped unless it’s also a year divisible by 400. Some systems accounted for that first part but not the second, leading to more programming work. Ironically if they’d just ignored the 100 year rule, the 400 year rule wouldn’t have come into play, but developers were doing their best to avoid having to patch systems after they’d been installed so close to a new millennium. Being off by a single day in the correct year wasn’t as critical (it was paperwork being dated incorrectly instead of systems crashing), but it was still kind of annoying to try and fix on top of the other crises happening at the same time.

More minor problems include coding only the last two digits of the date as an upwards count instead of all four without limiting the number of characters in the slot, which lead to some websites displaying “19100” until it was fixed later, instead of the more common 1900 also displayed.  

Previous date failures

Y2K was the most famous potential failure because of the potential consequences. But it wasn’t the first! This is actually a good thing, as it gave engineers and software experts a good idea of what can and can’t be shoe-horned or windowed on a large scale. Windows Vista? No. Registers? Yes.

In the 1960s, storage space was incredibly limited. This led to a miniature Y2K, where the computer could only count up to 9, meaning 1969 was the highest it could count to from the year 1960. Computers were significantly less widespread then, so it wasn’t as critical a problem as the Y2K described above. Again, it was done to save any scrap of memory possible. By the time 1970 rolled around, memory storage had improved enough for the second digit.

The date 9/9/99 was another mini Y2K: Strings of 0000 or 9999 are frequently used in programming to tell the computer to take a closer look, since it’s both the upper and lower limit of what a four-digit number can hit. As a result, when a computer sees it, it may react by shutting down the process. 0/0/00 wasn’t a possibility because the calendar recognized that day and month couldn’t be 0, so 9999 became the standard for clock errors!  9/9/99 is a real date, but thankfully – much like Y2K – programmers of affected systems caught it before it became a problem.


Good and Bad Ways to Cool a Computer

Elizabeth humor, Ideas July 7, 2021


Listen, sometimes machines get old, and they work too hard, and then you don’t want to burn yourself by watching Netflix, so you resort to other methods of cooling your computer. There are right ways, and there are wrong ways.


DON’T: Put Your Machine in the Freezer or Fridge


It sounds like a good idea, but it’s really not. Condensation can form on the inside of the machine, which can then permanently break things as said condensation re-melts and drips onto other components inside your device. Plus, if it’s a systemic issue like a broken fan or overworked CPU, this isn’t actually fixing the issue. You’re going to be taking your machine in and out of the freezer forever!

Cold screws up glue over time, too!

As an unrelated hack, freezing gum can usually get it off the bottom of your shoe.


DON’T: Put Ice Packs, Popsicles, or Bags of Ice on or in the Machine


Condensation, once again, can ruin your machine if it drips into the wrong spot. However, ice bags have the added danger of leaking! Ice sometimes has sharp enough points to pierce its own bag. Popsicles, while usually sealed for safety, are not worth the risk of some sharp component in your machine piercing the bag full of sugary dyed liquid. If that doesn’t kill the machine, it will make you wish it had!


DON’T: Run Every Program at Once


You shouldn’t be running high-distance Minecraft alongside high-render Overwatch while also running your internet browser for a live Youtube stream in 4K unless you’ve got a super-computer. If it lets you get those programs open and running, but you notice your computer is unusually, abysmally hot, those programs might be contributing. You can overload your CPU! If you can’t identify which program specifically is eating up all your CPU’s power, check the task manager! Windows devices have a task manager that allows them to see how much of the RAM, the hard drive, and the CPU the program is using. Just hit (Ctrl + Alt +Delete) and you’ll reach a menu with Task Manager at the bottom. If you can’t narrow your issue down to a specific program, then restarting the computer may fix whatever background program has gotten stuck in the RAM. It’s a good idea to reboot regularly anyway!


Now that we’re past the don’ts, what should you do? You obviously can’t let it stay hot, that will slowly fry the hard drive. Excessive heat is worse for electronics than cold is, especially the kinds with batteries in them. You should take steps to cool off your machine if it’s getting ridiculously hot.



DO: Use a Fan


There’s a small fan inside of your computer already. If it’s not cutting it, then the next best step is to use a real fan, and just position the intake for your device in front of it. The extra air flow is just doing what the fan inside the device was already doing, but on a bigger scale! You might find that repositioning your computer so the fan will fit by the intake can help cool it down, too – computers in front of windows might be absorbing more heat than you realize.


DO: Use a Specially Designed Cooling Pad


Some companies sell cooling pads, pads that cool the device down externally. These are specially designed to avoid condensation, while still wicking away heat safely. If you can’t get a fan into the area it needs to be, a cooling pad is a solid second option. Unfortunately, due to the shape and size of PC towers, this is generally only feasible for laptops.


DO: Make Sure the Vents Are Clear


If the machine’s pretty young, and the programs on it aren’t too intense for its specs, the reason may be external. Check where it’s vents are! Especially for PCs. If the tower is pushed right up against the wall, it might not be able to generate the airflow it needs. Also, don’t put stickers or decorations over vents. That’s also bad for the vent’s venting power.

Speaking of vents, make sure the vents are cleared of dust, too! Clean off the vents, and if you have the technical know-how to clean off the fans when they get dusty, that may also help! Cleaning them improves efficiency.


DO: Restart Every Once in a While


Your computer is doing a lot of things in the background for you. Many programs are still doing things after you close them! Steam, a popular gaming platform, is almost always also connected to the internet when users aren’t looking. It does this at start up, and it keeps an eye on it’s own connection to let you know if you lost internet. It’s not the only program to do this! As such, it’s important to occasionally restart, so these programs don’t ‘get stuck’ on eating processing power for their own little functions.


DO: Consider a Shop


If the computer’s hot enough to fry eggs, the odds are pretty good that something’s up with the CPU, the fan, or it’s own internal thermometer, depending on the age of the machine. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to cool it off, or keep it from getting so hot in the first place, it might be time to visit a shop. At the very least, you should be keeping backups of your files. If the heat eventually kills the machine, a backup saves you a lot of money on very expensive data recovery.




Bitcoin’s dip is Affecting GPU Prices

Cryptocurrency affects the price of hardware IRL now. There’s an entire legion of computers that spend their whole lives solving hashes and producing rewards for their owners. So when the reward crashes a little, the market reacts strangely. Some people buy, because BitCoins always bounce back, and some people sell, because BitCoins might not this time. On top of that, China has re-banned parts of trading!


BitCoin Crash


BitCoin has nearly halved in value over the past few months. The ‘why’ is everything from a general decline in the stock market to celebrities tweeting about BitCoin’s fall, to other cryptocurrencies establishing themselves on the market. It’s truly wild how many different things come into play for an untethered resource’s price, but Bitcoin enthusiasts remain as optimistic as ever that BitCoin will return, and better than ever. It did in the 2010s. It did after the first crash. Surely it will this time, too!

Like I said, many things, some material, some not, affect Bitcoin’s price. As such, many businesses and countries are becoming increasingly skeptical of it. Receiving a few % of a Bitcoin for 700$ of repairs, only to have it drop to 300$? Too bad! The business is forced to ride waves of inflation and deflation until they can use those coins at their desired value or trade them for real money. This will eventually stabilize the price, but until then, the leaps and drops are bad for businesses. Imagine getting a cash payment, only to have to hold onto it until it’s worth recovers enough for you to deposit it in savings, or use it elsewhere – your business operations could come to a halt while you wait for your liquid cash to replenish itself. Bartering would be safer at that point.

The government sees many issues with this system, and understandably a country like China can’t afford to have business owners upset in a time of serious unrest. Plus, taxes! Bitcoin was created primarily to avoid third parties, and no third parties = difficult-to-collect taxes.


Confounding Factors


The epicenter of the cheapening GPUs is China, although Europe is also seeing some major dips in the reseller’s market. But why? China’s partial ban on trading or accepting BitCoin has put a serious damper on consumers’ desire to mine for it. It’s not illegal to own Bitcoin, but when transactions to convert that Bitcoin to ‘real money’ are stifled, what’s the point? They have no promise of when or if the Chinese government will lift their restrictions.

Aside from what officials call ‘speculation risk’, which is what I’ve described in the section above this one, certain regions of China are trying to limit energy consumption, and BitCoin’s heavy consumption makes it an easy target. Mining BitCoins has a lot of complicated math involved, and it’s math that has to be done fast. Only the first person to solve the transaction gets any reward, so it’s a constant race to make the computer better and faster. Better computers eat more energy. GPUs, the common bottleneck part, got siphoned up by BitCoin miners everywhere.

Now, China has fewer BitCoin miners looking to upgrade immediately, but BitCoin’s low price is also convincing some of the folks in other countries that upgrades can wait a bit. Europe’s slowly improving prices are a good sign – maybe the US will finally get some GPUs in! Right?


The Market


Turns out, demand doesn’t always behave as expected! Official reports say that the prices of Graphics Cards are falling, when many people have also noticed the prices going up even on ‘ancient’ and less powerful cards on eBay. Is it just a failure of the buyer/seller market to catch on to the news? Is it a sign of an incoming rebound? Or could it be because the shortage in the US hasn’t actually been resolved in spite of less demand from overseas? With international shipping in such disarray, a dip in China and Europe doesn’t have to mean a dip in the US!

As for the future, who knows? Cards might go down. They might also go up. GPUs are expensive to make and buy ordinarily, and given perfect conditions, a new one could still be worth a thousand-plus dollars. It’s difficult to say what exactly waits for the gamers and workers waiting for the GPUs to come down in price, although market watchers like Tom’s Guide can establish patterns based on the past.

Will BitCoin go back up? It’s very hard to tell given the nature of a cryptocurrency and what we’ve seen from it so far. Sometimes a coin drops and crashes so hard it may as well have died – BitCoin once had a dip so severe people doubted it would ever come back up, down to the high four digits. Is this downwards trend permanent? Will China’s ban influence the end results? I have no idea! Experts in similar fields can’t tell either, crypto is a wild, wild West compared to stocks. What they do say is generally along the lines of ‘we can’t tell, but it could dip very badly’.  It’s akin to gambling.

If it does recover, European cards will almost certainly follow, although the depressed prices in China likely won’t until restrictions are lifted. American cards, having shown no sign of going down in price despite a clear dip in Bitcoin values, may not be as tied to crypto-mining as they formerly were, so BitCoin’s movement may have no impact. America is a big country with a lot of people in it, so ordinary demand for the currently out-of-stock GPUs may be holding prices high all by itself.