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ISO 8601 Dates: What They Are and How to Use Them
Contents 1. What They Are 2. In Programs 3. In Output 4. On Personal Computers
5. Fix Data/Programs A1. Important Dates A2. Leap Years A3. A Y2K Parable  

Appendix 3: The Case of the 100-Year-Old Babies


or: One Researcher's Encounter with the Y2K Bug

The scene: a fictitious research department here at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The date: March 1, 2000. You are finally relaxing about the year 2000, feeling that you made it through both January 1, 2000, and February 29, 2000 (the year 2000 is also a leap year) unscathed.

As you read horror stories in the newspaper (now that it is being published again), you are feeling good about all the preparations you made for your systems. You changed your computers, updated your software packages, and everything continued to work. Your important longitudinal study of children's health is continuing without skipping a beat.

Some of the news stories have been rich!

There was the largest local dairy distributor who went suddenly and dramatically out of business, when its stock stopped rotating and it shipped badly spoiled milk, bottled in December, to hundreds of stores in February. "Ship oldest stock first" was the rule, and the milk made in the last week of December never got to be oldest, because 00 comes before 99, and it sat spoiling in the warehouse for a month. Now the EPA is trying to figure out how to get rid of a whole lot of milk that smells worse every day.

Then there was the surprising letter your daughter received. She's a college sophomore, but she got a fundraising letter from the schools Alumni Association: "Dear members of classes of '50 and before: Have you remembered your Alma Mater in your will?" Half the people on her dorm floor got the letters, to their immense amusement, and to the school's immense embarrassment when that TV crew from a local station showed up.

And then there was the county that found cases that had been in its court system for over 100 years and began to automatically dismiss them. The Clerk of the Circuit Court was forced to resign. Your son got off of a speeding ticket on that one.

You can laugh at these stories, because it's clear that you were ready.

But then . . .

Your research assistant comes in with shocking news: "Professor -- I need help! I just generated the quarterly summary report to send to our government sponsors, and the babies born this year are showing up as 100 years old!"

How did this happen?

Turn the time machine back to the study's inception, in 1973. The department had rented its own keypunch machine, so that your researchers could enter their own data. Your research assistant comes in with good news: "By fiddling with some field widths, we can get all the data for each case on a single80-column card!" This will cut in half the number of card cabinets you need to buy, so you compliment him for a job well done. You start thinking that the room you were saving for card cabinets might be reused for a new family interview room. The world is good.

Your Very Own Year 2000 Bug

Time warp back to March 2000. How wide is the field for the children's birth year? You can bet only two characters! Our researcher has just been bitten by the Year 2000 Bug. He prepared everything for the year 2000 except for those things that are exclusively his -- his data. This is the price he is paying now for that extremely useful family interview room he built back in 1973, instead of using the space to store data cards.

You are probably already thinking about checking your PC out and upgrading your software packages. But that's not enough. It is important to debunk the myth that "fixing" your computers and upgrading your software will solve all your problems. If you have a broken toaster, and you move it along with everything else you own into a new house, you still have a broken toaster. Even if our fictitious researcher had moved his data from one kind of computer to another, from the mainframe to UNIX or to his PC, the babies would still be 100 years old. It's his data that's broken.

PS. What is the right format for dates in data?

The ISO 8601 format: yyyy-mm-dd

See ISO 8601: The Right Format for Dates for more information.

This page last updated 1998-09-25. Please send comments and reports of broken links to the author: Roger Deschner
Using ISO 8601 Dates Previous:  A2. Leap Years

2001-12-21  ACCC Documentation
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