The Corner

Y3k Problems

In my column today I write “Too bad we won’t have another Y2K issue to occupy them until Y3K.” Alas, this has sparked an unexpected deluge from computer geeks. Here are two representative examples. Note: This is not an issue I care very much about.

Ahem, Geek alert:

“Too bad we won’t have another Y2K issue to occupy them until Y3K.”

Actually, there won’t be a Y3K issue (will still need, and already have, a

4 digit year field), rather, we’re only 7,997 years away from the Y10K



Hey, Jonah!

I’ve been reading your syndicated and NR columns for a couple of years now and love them.

In your most recent syndicated column about the federal deficit, you say as an aside: “Too bad we won’t have another Y2K issue to occupy them until Y3K.”

Well, my friend, if you’re looking for another computer date crisis, you’re in luck. The next time bomb is set to go off in 2038 — right about the time that you and I will be ready to retire — and promises to be significantly more difficult to solve than the Y2K problem. It’s also more difficult to explain to non-geeks.

It’s detailed here

and here

In summary, Unix and Unix-like systems mark time as a number of seconds since midnight on January 1, 1970. These systems set aside a data structure for storing the date that can hold only 2,147,483,647 seconds. Add that to January 1, 1970 and Unix runs out of space to store its dates on January 19, 2038. What might happen then is anybody’s guess because different systems will likely behave differently when confronted with an overflow. My best guess is that most software that relies on date calculations will simply stop running.

The 2038 problem is significantly worse than the Y2K problem because it occurs at the operating system level rather than the application level and because the problematic way of storing dates has worked its way into the base libraries for the C language on which most modern operating systems are based. A couple of years ago, I ran some tests with Windows 2000 and managed to crash the operating system when I advanced the date.

If you’re looking for an expert who can describe this in more detail, you’ll need to find a real computer scientist, not a mere application developer like me.


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