Flashback: Nostradamus and Y2K

1 07 2012

I admit this has little to do with the topic at hand but is such a cool photo I thought I’d put it up anyway! Think of it as a photo of planes NOT dropping out of the sky. Read on for more…
photo credit: licensed under Creative Commons from Beverly & Pack

Growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century, the year 2000 loomed large. It didn’t help that famed soothsayer and bane of the Spanish Inquisition, Nostradamus had predicted the end of the world in the year 2000.

Yes, way before the Mayan calendar, Harold Campling and unnumbered apocalyptic suicide cults, we worried that a middle-ages apothecary and reputed seer had predicted our demise in his obscure and vague quatrains. After all, the year 2000 was a nice round number, some Christian sects felt that God had given us two millennia to get our act together and was probably losing patience with our lack of progress. And if you looked hard enough, with enough confirmation bias, signs of impending cosmic doom could be spotted (fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 symbolised the coming-together of Europe etc).

Spoiler Alert! Earth survived.

However, even for those not prone to flights of fantasy, there was another impending doom associated with this date: the Y2K bug.

This was going to end our (increasingly computer-dependent) lives as we knew them. So the story was this. Apparently computer programmers in the late 1980s and 1990s didn’t realise that the year 2000 was coming. Seriously. It snuck up when no one was looking and all the computers that had a date in their programming were going to stop working. At least that was their story.

Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Water filtration and pumping was going to fail leaving cities to die. Banking systems would crash. Medical life-support machines would expire. And worst of all, having recently come out of the cold war, missile “defence” systems would malfunction and cause world war three, the nuclear version. Truly apocalyptic.

We responded in the normal rational way we humans always react. People stockpiled water, canned goods and medicines. Some built underground bunkers. Some left the cities or holidayed in the country at the fateful time. Staff were trained, emergency plans were formulated and put in place, back-up communication systems were tested, generators were on stand-by. People stayed at work overnight “just in case”. Computer programmers no doubt found themselves in great demand – job creation, perhaps?

Midnight New Year’s Eve came and went with the usual fireworks and sense of disappointment.

Nothing. No-thing. Not-a-thing. Nothing happened.

We all went back to our lives with a sense of mild embarrassment alleviated only by our commonality with others. If they didn’t mention it, we wouldn’t either. What to do with casks of water? Gradually the canned supplies dwindled away and we moved on with our lives. The only issue that remained was whether the new millennia started in 2000 or 2001. And really, who cared?

All in all, the 30 June 2012 leap second caused more drama, bringing down the airline booking system in Australia, Reddit, Linked In, Gawker, Foursquare and Yelp. Again one assumes the computer programmers didn’t know about leap seconds. There have only been 25 since 1972.

So when the Mayans (or latter-day crackpots) predict the end of the world – well, some of us have seen it all before.

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Did you sleep well?

1 07 2012

Did you wake this morning feeling especially rested? Or did you toss and turn all night wondering why the night was taking so long?

Either way, you were right. Last night we had an extra-long night (30 June 2012), thanks to a leap second.

Yes, our official time (courtesy of the atomic clock which measures time via atomic vibrations) gets slightly out of synch with “real” (solar) time, by which I mean the natural time set by the rotation of the earth around the sun. Again, the moon is at fault; the tidal surges, waxes and wanes are causing a slight slowing and wobbling of the earth’s rotation. Hadn’t you noticed the wobbles?

We could adjust the length of the unit we call a second to account for this, a minuscule lengthening. But then counting “one-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus” etc might not work so well. And it’s not even regular about how often the atomic clock needs adjusting. It has been adjusted 25 times since such accurate time measurement began in 1972. The first year saw two leap seconds (June 30 and December 30), followed by seven years of one second per year. The last three adjustments were 1998, 2005 and 2008.

So instead we wait until a whole second has accumulated and add a leap second, just as we add a leap year, thereby adjusting our inflexible human system of measuring time to the mutable system that exists in nature.

And so we got an extra second last night, to sleep, toss and turn, or party, whatever you happened to be doing at 11:59:60 last night, which fell between 11:59:59 and 12:00:00 (midnight at the International Dateline).

Hope you enjoyed it! And if you wasted it, don’t worry another one is sure to come along sooner or later!

UPDATE: Latebreaking news! While the Y2K bug turned out to be a fizzer, the leap-second has actually had consequences! For those who are too young to remember the Y2K bug, this was the predicted beginning of the apocalypse caused because computer programmes in the 1980s and 1990s apparently didn’t have the forethought to realise that eventually in the not too distant future, computers with a clock in their functioning would need to click over from 19XX to 20XX. People (who would now be called preppers) stocked up on water supplies and canned goods and built underground bunkers. Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Nothing happened. Complete fizzer.

The leap second on the other hand has managed to bring down the airport check-in system at Australian airports, resulting in airline staff having to check in passengers and luggage by hand, delayed flights and lots of irritable grumpy passengers. Also reportedly brought down, Reddit, Gawker, LinkedIn, Yelp and Foursquare. And according to news reports, this is because the computer couldn’t cope with the leap second (which was 9:59:60 in Australia EST).

Have you heard of any other effects?

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Why the moon rules your life and..
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