Bonfire of the Checkbooks

A Facetious Look at the Turn of the Century

by P.J. Del, June 28, 1994

There are some nasty surprises waiting for us at the end of this century, although the Second Coming probably won't be one of them.

Purists may argue that the first year of the twenty-first century will be 2001, not 2000. There was no year zero, so the first century included the years 1 to 100, the second century included the years 101 to 200, and so on. But that's not the point. The real turning point for us will be when the year 1999 turns into the year 2000. That's when we'll be making huge bonfires of obsolete checkbooks.

Every check and every other blank form with the date "19__" will become obsolete and will have to be disposed of. Back in 1899 it wasn't so bad. Life was simpler, and very few people even had checking accounts. But bureaucracy and paperwork--aided by that quintessential twentieth-century invention, the copying machine--have proliferated and will continue to proliferate for the rest of this century.

The sudden obsolescence of nearly all paper forms will overwhelm the capacity of recycling plants and landfills. Loaded barges will go from port to port, searching in vain for approved dumping places. We'll have no choice but to burn the forms, releasing enormous amounts of smoke, ash and carbon dioxide.

It will be especially bad in the paperwork centers of the world--Tokyo, Paris, London, New York and Young America, Minnesota, which is the source of all rebate checks. The pall over Washington, D.C. may not dissipate for years.

We now know that all this smoke will block most of the sunlight for many months and bring an unseasonable chill to the earth's surface. The winter of 2000, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, will last well into the following spring and summer. The Southern Hemisphere will skip its summer entirely. The much-dreaded Nuclear Winter will turn out to be non-nuclear.

When the smoke finally clears, the carbon dioxide released by burning forms will begin to trap solar radiation, bringing widespread climate changes and melting the polar ice caps, causing the sea to rise and inundate coastal areas. The Greenhouse Effect will be coming much sooner than even the worst pessimists have dared to predict.

Electronic transactions will come to a virtual halt, as dumb computers, programmed earlier in the twentieth century, mistake "01/01/00" for January 1, 1900, and reject such transactions as outdated. Bad software won't check the date, and good software will use four-digit year dates by then. It's only the mediocre software that will start bouncing transactions all over the place. Guess what kind of software runs the world?

The financial paralysis will propagate around the time zones of the world, following in the wake of New Year's Eve celebrations. It'll be very much like the dreaded Electromagnetic Pulse that nuclear weapons generate and that was supposed to put all of our computers out of commission. This disaster, too, will turn out to be non-nuclear.

And besides being the turn of the century, the year 2000 will be the dawn of a new millennium, a fact that has great significance to millennarian fanatics.

There's no reason to suppose that Christ will return amid all this chaos. The best scholars agree that He probably wasn't born in the year 1 A.D. Our calendar is off by a few years because of mistakes made in antiquity. Even the fact that a new millennium will dawn in the year 2000 is purely an artifact of our numbering system. If we had eight fingers, instead of ten, the year 2000 (octal) would have arrived early in the Middle Ages (the year we call 1024). There's no reason to think God has ten fingers, or that He uses the decimal number system. (Base seven would be on better theological grounds.)

But don't think this will discourage the millennarians. Some of them think God really does have ten fingers (also a beard). There are decimal numbers in the Bible. And when the sky darkens, the weather turns frigid, and disaster strikes the financial centers, many will be convinced that it's God's wrath (or the Devil's).

Even if agriculture isn't rendered impossible by the smoke from burning checkbooks, famine will descend upon the world, as farmers refuse to plant crops that they think won't be harvested before the end of the world.

The nit-picking question about which year--2000 or 2001--is the first year of the next millennium will degenerate into a religious war of devastating proportions. Religious disputes are most acrid when the differences are slight, as history shows. There were wars over a single letter--the Greek iota--in ancient Christian creeds. There will be wars between the checkbook burners (2000) and the year counters (2001), although they probably will not use those names to describe themselves.

The administrative chaos won't end after that first, terrible year. Ambiguity in dates of a sort that we haven't seen since 1931 will plague us for years to come. Does 01 JAN 03 mean January 1, 2003 or January 3, 2001? Don't answer too quickly. The form with the year first is often used in data processing because it makes sorting by dates much easier. It will take a long time to find and correct all the errors of this kind written into existing software.

But don't despair! There's still time to repent! The disaster can be averted if we take a few simple steps in the next few years.

Starting now, all checkbooks and forms with the notorious "19__" must be replaced by forms in which the date is left completely blank. I call them century-free forms. If we start now, old checkbooks and forms can be phased out without overburdening our recycling facilities. The ink used to write the numbers "19" will be balanced by the ink saved by not printing them.

All computer software must use four-digit year dates. The best software already does, but old software, especially operating systems, must be rewritten. The extra two digits will strain our storage facilities, but only slightly. We can certainly afford it. We have over five years to go. That should be enough time, if computers keep getting faster.

The use of two-digit year dates must be extirpated. Forget racism, sexism, ageism, whateverism--all these things can wait. With centuryism, the clock is running on us.

Nothing can be done about religious millennarianism--at least nothing that I can think of. But without the man-made disasters, it can be kept to a fairly harmless level. After all, nothing much happened in the year 1000, even though people were more religious then. That was because there were no computers, no printed forms, and only a few monks keeping written records. The man-made damage was completely insufficient to inflame the fanatics of the time.

With a little luck and a lot of effort, we can move Western Civilization past this crisis. Of course, the whole thing will come back--ten times harder--in the year 10,000. Let's hope our descendants will be using a different calendar by then.


P.J. Del (Philip J. Erdelsky) is a computer programmer in San Diego, California who worries about little software bugs that cause big problems. He may be contacted at pje@acm.org.

Copyright 1994 Philip Erdelsky

This essay may be reprinted or distributed freely, without permission or payment of royalties, provided the entire unaltered work, including the copyright notice, is included. And don't forget the subtitle! Someone might take me seriously!


Epilogue - Written January 1, 2000

When I wrote Bonfire of the Checkbooks over five years ago, there was very little mention of the problem that has since come to be known as "Y2K". I thought the problems in computing dates after 1999 would be little worse than the "problem" of what to do with all those printed forms containing "19__" on the date line. I thought both were suitable subjects for satire.

When the moment of rollover arrived, it turned out that I was right. There were very few problems with computer malfunctions at that time, and I suspect that some of them were not caused by errors in dates.

But the whole Y2K controversy was blown up, in the news media and the trade press, beyond even my fertile imagination. Our descendants will wonder why we worried so much about so little.

The "nit-picking" question about which year--2000 or 2001--is the first year of the third millennium has been decided in favor of the "checkbook burners". Practically everybody is calling this year 2000 the first year of the twenty-first century, even though a century ago it was the year 1901, not 1900, which was regarded as the first year of the twentieth century. This change in perception may have been caused by the Y2K controversy. I think the change will stick. If it does, it will make the twentieth century unique in history as the only 99-year century.

The New Year's celebrations this year have been awesome. I usually don't do anything special on New Year's Eve, but even I thought the arrival of 2000 was something special. So this year I attended the largest New Year's celebration in San Diego, California, where I have lived for over 30 years. It didn't compare to others in major cities, but it was the largest celebration I have ever seen here.

In fact, the arrival of the year 2000 may well be the most celebrated event in all of human history. I'll leave it to historians to argue whether that is so -- and to debate the reason why.