|by Bill Sievert|
Sorry, Millennium Fans, the Party Is 18 Months Away!
Whats all the rush to make party plans for the night the new millennium begins? After all, we still have a year and a half to prepare for the big date.
You heard me. Weve got plenty of time. Despite all the volumes of hype, the countless errors in fact that have appeared on television and in the print media (this publication included), we are not in the midst of the final beach season of the second millennium, and this New Years Eve wont launch the third millennium. Millennium three will not begin for another 18 months.
Its a simple matter of math, based on the Gregorian calendarthe one we use, the one that numbers the current year as 1999. No matter how many times you count them, 999 years dont add up to 1000 (the number required by definition to make a millennium).
When Pope Gregory XIII introduced our modern calendar in the 16th century, he began with the year AD one, not zero (perhaps figuring that most abacuses were not year zero compliant). Since his calendar did not exist back in the year 1000, Gregory never envisioned the confusion he would cause come his year 2000.
Renowned futurist Arthur C. Clarke knows the score. He wrote the novel "2001: A Space Odyssey," choosing the title because his story is set in the first year of the third millennium. Clark is as peeved as I am about the popular notion of when the millennium changes. He offers a simple analogy to help the public understand the truth: If the scale at your grocers produce department began at one pound rather than zero, would you be happy to pay for what the scale reads as five pounds of potatoes?
Though it doesnt mark a new millennium, Clark understands the magic of the year 2000. Its a nice round numberone that, for the first time in almost anyones lifetimedoes not begin with a 19. And, despite the fact that the 20th Century doesnt end until Dec. 31, 2000, Clark suggests calling next year the "centennial" year, leaving the millennium description for the year to which it truly begins.
But dont try to tell that to the travel agents, caterers, liquor companies or Madison Avenue hype artists who plan to make billions of dollars from all the hoopla scheduled for the evening of Dec. 31, 1999. And please dont say a word to Barbra Streisand who is charging upwards of $1,000 to perform her millennium concert in Las Vegas this coming New Years Eve. If you try to correct the myth, you might face the heat that struck Australian Prime Minister John Howard when he publicly pointed out the truth to his citizens. Outraged newspaper editors described Howard as the "party pooper of the century," and some people wanted him removed from office for trying to destroy the city of Sydneys big New Years Eve bash. (Having been in Sydney for a New Years eve, I dont believe the city has anything to worry about. Each year opens with a spectacular citywide street party and dramatic display of fireworks over the harbor and Opera House fit for a millennium.)
Part of the reason 2000 has achieved so much notoriety is because of an issue totally unrelated to the millennium. Its that Y2K computer "bug," an element that has some people stockpiling reserves of food and water while others are plotting to be more glutinous than they ever have before. While I can calculate the number of years in a millennium pretty easily, I cant quite figure out why theres so much fuss about the way computers read dates.
Sure, Ive been told repeatedly that far-sighted computer programmers failed to foresee that time would continue to pass and eventually years would begin with 20 instead of 19. The fear is that many computers will read the year 2000 as 1900, unable to distinguish the opening digits (because computers only think years have two numbers). But, if the first two digits are the problem, why dont computers perceive 1999 as 1899? Or if the 00 is a problem, why dont computers perceive 1900 as 1800? I thought that the reason computers were invented was not to provide us with chat rooms, nude pictures or shopping opportunities, but to count numbers. The fact that many computers cannot count to 2000 without a trillion dollars worth of re-tooling simply boggles the mind.
Furthermore, who cares if a computer "thinks" the year 2000 is 1900. We humans know its not 1900, and are we not still in charge here? Cant we simply read a 00 date as indicative of 2000? With a little common sense, an officer of a bank should know that an account opened in the year 2000 has not earned interest from the year 1900. In fact, how many bank accounts that were open in 1900 still exist? How many banks that were open in 1900 still exist? And, how many people who were collecting Social Security or Medicare in 1900 would still be collecting it today? (None, because those government programs didnt even exist in 1900.) Cant some human look at the 00 date on a computer screen and realize what it means?
I dont know. Perhaps Ill go back to Arthur Clarkes "2001" and search the answers from his eloquent computer pal, HAL.
Meanwhile, there is some good news in the truth about the millennium for those of us who schedule our social lives by the fashionably late clock frequently described as "gay people time." For once, we might actually arrive early for a big event.
Bill Sievert is co-owner of Splash, a clothing and accessories store on Baltimore Avenue, and the Program Director of CAMPsafe, CAMP Rehoboths AIDS education and prevention program.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 8, July 2, 1999