Andalucia Steve the dream

How Y2K and Leaving the EU have nothing in Common

I, like many of my colleagues in the IT industry had a sober night on December 31st 1999. I was at the time the technical director of a London based web design company with hundreds of clients most of whom had heard of and were concerned about the Millenium bug.

I case you're unaware, the Millenium bug was an umbrella term used to describe the possibilty of software that would cease to work correctly when the year changed from 1999 to 2000. There were several common scenarios in which this issue would manifest itself. If a pieces of software represented the year in a two digit format [97,98 for example] then clearly after 99 the year 2000 could not be distinguished from 1900. There were several other issues some related to hardware representations, others to do with leapyears, but going into detail here would take us off track.

So back to my story, I stayed sober until midnight so that I could login and check that all our systems were working correctly and that the dates had all moved from one millenia to the next without issue. After about an hour I was satisified that all was well and cracked open the champagne.

Fastforward to today, 13 January 2019 and another potential disaster, Brexit is hard on our heels. I have seen several Tweets and comments in online newspaper articles to the effect that a no deal Brexit is 'project fear' i.e. propaganda from the remain side that exaggerates the risks of leaving the EU to fool people into believing that remaining is the only safe option. This say is exactly like the Millenium bug, the danger of which was blown out of all proportion - nothing ever happened they say!

Well trust me on this, there is a big  BIG difference between Brexit and the Millenium Bug. As someone working in IT for a long time I had heard about the year 2000 problem at least a decade previously. As long ago as 1997 the British Standards Institute had published a standard for Y2K conformity. Magazines were full of informative articles about it before that - I think I read about it in Unixworld magazine which ceased publication in 1995 so clearly there was plenty of warnings which meant programmers such as myself had plenty of advanced notice and starting coding 'defensively' so that programs we wrote years before hand were already compliant. Similarly large organizations on whose systems we depend, Microsoft, Oracle and the like were working years before 2000 to make sure there code would work. In the months prior to the big day, most of us in IT were engaged in preparitory testing, taking servers offline, advancing their dates to see if any thing broke and fixing it if it did. Basically the IT industry put the work in years before the event took place.

So it came as little surprise, to me at least, that when the clock struck midnight on the last day of the twentieth century that there were no nasty surprises. However I cannot truly express much confidence that we will be feeling as content come April the first 2019.

The Millenium Bug was contained to software that was date dependent. As such it was relatively straight-forward to search through code looking for date specific commands for checking. Brexit however presents a completely unconstrained problem set. Not only are there a seemingly endless set of rules and regulations that will cease to operate in a 'no deal' scenario, the scope of each issue, who or what it affects, to which degree and how often are all questions that cannot easily be answered. Quitting the EU presents us with an incalculable problem set.

Also preparations for the the problems presented by a 'no deal' Brexit seem late and inadequate. So far the government has been caught on the hop giving a £14million contract to a ferry company that has no ferries, and performed an experimental traffic jam in Kent where only a fraction of the number of trucks expect actually turned up on the day. The governments information on Brexit preparedness was not published until 23 August 2018, those specifically for 'no deal' not until December of the same year and are a scantling compared with the Brexit preparedness papers published by the EU and countries such as Ireland (which curiously rank higher in Google than the governments own website)

Clearly then the idea that 'no deal' Brexit and the Millenium Bug were both project fear and that we should therefore have no fear of Brexit is an ill thought out trope. The Y2K problem was solved years before it would have happened. If only we could be similarly confident about 'no deal' Brexit.


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