That’s great, it starts with an earthquake…

From 1998 until 2001, I worked in the tax department of a major financial company, overseeing the production of tax forms for clients for whom we had a tax reporting requirement. A particular incident from early 1999 sticks out in my head.

We had just produced the tax forms for activity that had taken place in the year 1998, and the phone calls with inquiries and complaints had started coming in.

Apparently, around about April, 1998, a customer who had been born in the year 1914, had an annuity contract that reached its annuitization date. Like all legal contracts, an annuity contract has an end date. And when that date comes around, the contract holder has to choose what to do with the proceeds.

With this customer, she didn’t choose anything and, by default, we sent her a check for the lump sum proceeds of the contract, after withholding the necessary taxes. Everything about this transaction was, simply put, normal. All calculations associated with the transaction, including the calculation of the taxable gain on the transaction, and the necessary withholding, were correct. There were no problems with actually cutting the check, and none of the information printed on the check stub seemed off in any material capacity.

There was one minor problem, though, with the transaction. Like just about every company around the world that used computers, we were making changes to our systems to prevent the infamous Y2K bug from being a problem. And in so doing, when we expanded her birth year out to four digits, the computer decided that she had been born in the year 2014 and not 1914.

So when we produced our tax forms, the form accurately reflected what we had distributed, but when the system subtracted 2014 from 1998, it came up with a number that was less than 59 1/2, and, as such, it said that it was a “Premature Distribution”.

If the only thing wrong with that tax form was an incorrect age calculation when literally everything else worked fine, I knew that Y2K wasn’t going to be that big of a problem.

If you remember, a lot of people were literally predicting the end of the world because of the Y2 K problem. In a couple of weeks, we’re going to come face to face with the next predicted date of the end of the world. The Mayan long-form calendar will come to the end of its current cycle on December 21, 2012.

The world doesn’t end when our calendars end — on December 31 every year — so it’s really strange to me that anyone might take the end of a written calendar seriously.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to ask everyone to do a little experiment. Launch Microsoft Excel or some other spreadsheet program. In cell A1, I want you to key in a “1”. (Without the quotes, just the number). In the cell below it, you can either put in a 10, or the formula =A1*10 . Below that, put in a 100 or copy the formula from the cell above. Keep going until you’ve filled in a total of six rows, with the sixth row having the number 100,000.

Now highlight all six rows and reformat those cells as a date. (Format cells can be brought up by right clicking on a cell…) Make sure you format it in such a way that it displays the full four-digit year.

Depending on the software you use, you’ll see that the “1” has transformed into either January 1, 1900 (which is how Microsoft Excel does it) or December 31, 1899 (which is how does it). The “10” is either January 9 or January 10, 1900. 100 is April 9 or 10, 1900. And so on down the line. This is how the spreadsheet works with dates, and most computers nowadays perform this type of calculation. (Which is fair, when you consider that, as of December 2, 2012, there are a total of 18 unique verified people still alive who were born before January 1, 1900, according to the Gerontology Research Group.)

But take a look at what 100,000 became: October 14 or 15, 2173. That’s when our computer systems will need an extra digit to interpret our the dates. Any systems that only fill five characters in to their numeric representations of the date will need to have the field expanded. Otherwise, it might run into the problem that Hartford, CT, ran into in the late 80’s. A court clerk noticed that quite some time had passed without anyone from that city being called for jury duty. They did a little bit of research and traced the problem to a field expansion on a computer database, where the eighth character of the city name ended up falling into the next field over. so the D became not the last letter of the city, but rather a status code that the computer interpreted to mean “deceased”.

Feel free to bemoan the fact that computers control as much of our lives as they do. But nothing to do with computers gives me any reason to think the world is going to end. At least, not in the apocalyptic sense of the word.

And I feel fine.


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