The Age of Maximum Confusion is Coming!

It is now the year 2009. We are now in the Age of Confusion. We can tell this by looking at dates everywhere. 08/01/02. 09/01/13. 04/05/06. When are these dates? When's the last one? 2004 May 6? 2006 April 5? These dates were called "Dazzle Dates" by one commentator. At least you can tell what March 03 was. That meant March 2003. But what is March 10? Today is 2009 February 4. Is it 2009 March 10? or is it the entire month of 2010 March?

The Age of Maximum Confusion is Coming! Starting next year, I expect a lot of confusion with dates that don't make it clear whether they mean the 10th of the month or 2010. Before this time, the year was 09, and that leading 0 told you (usually) that this was a year. Not so in 2010. You can't tell whether 10 is a day or a year. This is worse than the Age of Confusion we have been living in ever since New Year's 2001. This is the Age of Maximum Confusion, which will last until 2012, to be followed by the Age of Great Confusion from 2013 to 2031.

People habitually using two digits for the year caused the original Year 2000 problem. For example, 57 represented the year 1957. During this century, computers and electronics became widespread, and it was found that the year following the year 99 would cause all sorts of problems because the computer could not handle the situation. Either the year would be 00, in which case it would be treated like 1900, or the year after 99 would be 100, causing a different set of problems. It took a massive effort by computer programmers to correct the problem.

The new problem coming up is also caused by two-digit years. What is 01/02/03? Since we don't differentiate between years, months, and days, we don't know. It depends on how one's culture orders the digits in a date. It could be 2003 January 2. The military and Europeans give the day first. If so it could be 2003 February 1. Many computers use year, month, and day order. If so the notation represents 2001 February 3. And there are three other dates that 01/02/03 could represent.

We have lived with part of this problem for centuries. The day and month can be confused with each other. Genealogists need to learn when 4/7 represents April 7 and when it represents July 4. We have had this regardless of the year, but we have ignored it because we always represent our dates as month followed by day, as in April 7, except the military which wants it the other way, as in 4 July. The military prefers to use the month name, and that is one way of avoiding this problem. It is clear what Apr 7 represents.

So OK. We have solved that problem. In 2001, the problem became much worse. Now not only the month and day can be confused with each other, but so also can the year. 07/04/01 could represent a date in 2001 or 2007, or maybe even 2004. The digits 01 for 2001 can be confused with either the month or the day. This was the case starting in 2001. In 2000, it is obvious what 00 means. It will be like this until 2012, a period that I call the Age of Great Confusion. Because of the problem I mentioned above with "10 March", the problem will be especially severe from 2010-2012, a period I call the Age of Maximum Confusion.

After 2012, the year can no longer be confused with the month, but it can be confused with the day. That will be the Age of Great Confusion. For example, 07/11/13 could be 2007 November 13 or 2013 November 7, but not 2007 13-ember the 11th. This will go on until after 2031, when things will return to as they were in the years just before the arrival of the new millennium.

So how to deal with this confusion? The foremost thing to do is to continue what we should have been doing the years before the year 2000. Use four-digit years. It is more important than ever to include the "20" because of the confusion that can be caused by a two-digit year. Write July 4, 2009, not July 4, 09. This way it is clear which digits represent the year. Think four digits. Think 2009.

The other thing to do is to use month names, not numbers. 4/7 can be either one of two dates, but if we say 4 Jul, we know which one we mean. There are places where month names may not be desirable. For example, the alphabetical order of the months is not the same as the numerical order. In applications where dates are sorted, one must use numerical months else April is the first month of the year. If we are not sorting dates, spelling the month or an abbreviation is better because it avoids confusion.

The third thing to do, especially where sorting is concerned, is to use year,
month, day order. This is the logical way of presenting it. Say 2009 November
7, not November 7, 2009. If a time is also to be given, use it after the date:
2009 November 7 1900. Military dates are also OK, but they are in reverse order.
7 Nov 2009 can be sorted, but it has to be done backwards. If one is using military
dates, the time comes *before* the date: 1900 7 Nov 2009.

So if we use four-digit years and spell the months, we will get around nicely during the Age of Confusion, 2001-2031. If not, don't be surprised if you miss that very important date because it was 2009 October 11 instead of 2011 September 10.

Revised 2009 February 4

Jim Blowers