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The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine by Charles Petzold

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3  Centuries of Progress

As the seconds ticked down to midnight on Friday, December 31, 1999, the festivities that normally accompany any new year were tempered by anxiety and fear. At the stroke of midnight, it was possible — some even thought inevitable — that major technological crashes and shutdowns would ripple through the world's interconnected computer systems. This crisis wouldn't be an act of global terrorism, but instead the momentous result of a simple little shortcut used by computer programmers for nearly half a century. In programs written for a variety of different applications on multitudes of different systems, programmers had saved valuable computer storage space by representing years by only their last two digits, for example, 75 rather than 1975. At midnight, that two-digit year would roll over from 99 to 00, suddenly getting much smaller rather than larger. What had once been an innocent shortcut had become a treacherous bug referred to by the high-tech nickname Y2K.

Programmers themselves, of course, had known of the impending problem for decades. Alarmist warnings to the general public began around 1998 with books such as Y2K: The Day the World Shut Down; Deadline Y2K; Y2K: It's Already Too Late; Y2K: An Action Plan to Protect Yourself, Your Family, Your Assets, and Your Community on January 1, 2000; 101 Ways to Survive the Y2K Crisis; Y2K for Women: How to Protect Your Home and Family in the Coming Crisis; Crisis Investing for the Year 2000: How to Profit ...

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