What a Difference an Hour Makes

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005; 10:33 AM

Just as I started thinking that the term "Y2K" might have reached the point where it's the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, I was proven wrong.

I have Congress to thank for this. The Senate and House of Representatives last week approved an energy bill that President Bush is expected to sign today. In it you can find language that would extend Daylight Savings Time by four weeks, starting it three weeks earlier and ending it a week later.

The move, according to the Associated Press, is designed to help save energy, but consumer electronics experts are saying things that should sound vaguely familiar to anyone who remembers late 1999.

"When daylight-saving time starts earlier than usual in the United States come 2007, your VCR or DVD recorder could start recording shows an hour late," reported Anick Jesdanun at the AP . "Cell phone companies could give you an extra hour of free weekend calls, and people who depend on online calendars may find themselves late for appointments."

These kinds of glitches were the least of the problems that technologists said we could expect around New Year's Day 2000. The problem is that many computer systems and electronics devices were designed with internal clocks that marked the passing years with two digits instead of four. That meant that at midnight on Jan. 1, PC clocks would flip from the year "99" to "00," which most software at the time was designed to interpret as 1900. Many feared this would crash all sorts of date-dependent systems, from accounting spreadsheets to nuclear-reactor mainframes.

We awaited all kinds of calamities because of the date shift. Businesses and governments spent about $200 billion to upgrade systems in a frantic effort to avoid disaster, according to the AP.

The White House appointed a special adviser. My colleague Dave and I got to work out of an official Y2K nerve center in D.C., ready to report on pandemonium. The Senate even established a special committee on the problem, giving us reporters plenty of article fodder to please our editors on otherwise dry news days. Dave even parlayed his "Year 2000 bug expertise" into his first television appearance -- C-SPAN in the middle of the night, the time when, as everybody knows, survivalists tune in to public access programming for signs of the apocalypse.

Y2K was good to us.

The "extra hour" is expected to be a convenience blip at most. Jesdanun wrote, "The daylight-saving transition will be at most a mini-Y2K, with the impact of any failure far less reaching."

In other words, there's no need for the hunker-in-the-bunker mentality except, perhaps, for those of us who think it's time to head for remotest Wyoming if we can't TiVo the finale of "Survivor: Lost in the Quad Cities" or "They Saved Hitler's Brain."

Still, technology is only useful to us when it works, and Jesdanun quoted several sources who suggested that the less tech-savvy (i.e., most of us) might suffer some jet lag: "'It wouldn't be a society-wide catastrophe, but there would be a problem if nothing's done about it or we try to move too quickly,' said Dave Thewlis, executive director of a group that promotes standards for calendar software."

"Some electric utilities have advanced meters to adjust rates based on peak and non-peak hours, and studies would be required to determine if any modifications are needed. The telecommunications industry, meanwhile, must ensure that its clocks are properly adjusted to bill customers properly. Adding to the complications is the fact that many computer programs now treat U.S. and Canadian time zones as the same. If Canada doesn't adopt the new dates, too, Windows, calendars and other software would have to learn additional zones."

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