Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

I know you have a lot of other things on your minds, but I'm beginning to worry about the millennium. First of all, I fear that a lot of people will jump the gun on it. I can't seem to get it across that the year 2000 is not the start of the next millennium but the end of this one. We began counting with the year one, not the year zero. Get it? Most of the people I know don't, and I'm sure that on Dec. 31, 1999, a lot of people will be wishing each other "Happy New Millennium."

Secondly, those who know more about computers than I do, which is practically everybody, tell me that when we reach the 2000 mark, our computers will go haywire. As Lawrence Siskind writes in The Weekly Standard, telephone conversations in progress during the change will be computed as having lasted 99 years, airline computers will try to schedule century-old flights, and senior citizens will get word from their communities about registering for kindergarten.

That's because computers are programmed to focus on the last two digits and thus will treat 2000 as though it were 1900. Now that can be fixed, but Mr. Siskind says it may end up costing $200 billion. But what concerns me most about the millennium is those who associate the year 2000 with doomsday, Armageddon, apocalypse. There has always been a certain fascination with the end of a century - the fin de sicle - and the end of the millennium has something mystical about it.

Almost five centuries ago, Nostradamus predicted that "in the year 1999 and seven months, the great king of terror will come from the sky." I don't worry about those who believe the end is nigh, only about those few who may want to help to make it happen. And so, after some thought, I have decided that it would be best all around if we finessed the year 2000. The number, after all, is arbitrary, based on the Roman Julian calendar, as modified in the 16th century by Pope Gregory. The day follows the rotation of the earth, the year follows its revolution around the sun.

But there is nothing immutable about the second, minute, hour, or the number of the year. Right now it is 1417 in the Islamic calendar, 5757 in the Jewish calendar, and 4694 in the Chinese calendar. Or we could be like the French Revolutionists who started all over again with their Brumaire calendar. At the very least, we could agree simply to skip 2000 and go directly from 1999 to 2001, and hope thus to avoid some of the potential millennial afflictions.

Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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