The First Millennium Bug

The year, though only the most educated classes realised it, was AD 999. The teenaged Otto III was Holy Roman Emperor, Sylvester II was Pope and Ethelred II was in the middle of his long reign as King of England. But there came warnings of a disaster that could cast Europe into darkness. "We’ve left it too late," moaned Edward the Confuser, the man who had personally been selected by King Ethelred to head his Millennium task force. "The only hope now is to train 20,000 carpenters to make enough abacuses to replace all those being used by small businesses throughout the country." Edward has been warning small businessmen for more than a year of the hazards that faced them when the calendar ticked over from IM (or DCCCCLXXXXVIIII as some preferred to write it) to the year M Anno Domini – or MAD as it was commonly known. Abucuses which had been made with only three beads on them to save space and money were in danger of resetting themselves to the year zero, which never existed in the first place because Arab and Indian mathematicians who knew about zero had not brought the concept to Europe yet. "The time for action is now," said Edward. "Any abacus designed for use with Roman numerals will fail. And they won’t be able to be fixed, as many people seem to think, just by twiddling a few beads. The fault is deep in their operating system and the nation as a whole has not begun to appreciate the seriousness of the problem. Just imagine what will happen when the year M arrives. Abacuses, which code the number as 1000, will need not only an extension to their memory, but three extra zeroes which our number system does not yet recognise. That’s three zeroes for every abacus in the land. Even if we started all-out zero production now we wouldn’t have enough of them ready in time." Ethelred was confused. The idea of producing large numbers of nothings was one he had difficulty getting his head around. "Explain to me again," he asked Edward the Confuser, "how this can bring about a catastrophe. How can a lack of nothing be bad?" "Mark my words," Edward said, "nought shall make us rue. It’s not just the abacus owners but their customers and suppliers who will feel the effect. Have you ever tried buying anything from a shopkeeper with a dud abacus?" The King admitted that he had never tried buying anything from any shopkeeper at all. He had servants to do that sort of thing. "Well I can tell you, my liege," Edward went on, "it’s a disaster.

They simply can’t work out the right amount of change. The butcher won’t sell any meat, the baker won’t sell any bread, and as for the candlestick-maker, all I can say is that if we don’t take drastic steps now, the candles will go out all over Europe and we shall be plunged into the dark ages. It’s Your Majesty’s decision, of course, but if you don’t order a nationwide alert now, you will forever be known as Ethelred the Millennially Unprepared.

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