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The First Millennium Bug

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Why call it the "First Millennium Bug"?

Remember the Y2K bug problem – the so called (2nd) Millennium Bug? 

A quick refresh from book titles in the late 90s: The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos, Time Bomb 2000, and The Computer Time Bomb: How to Keep the Century Date Change From Killing Your Organization.  And from other sources:

  In 1998 the chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities Ed Yardeni projected a 70% chance that the Y2K bug will cause a severe global recession.

  "The year 2000 problem is the electronic equivalent of El Nińo,...this is going to have implications in the world ... that we can't even comprehend." U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre.

  "The writing is on the wall: it is not only possible, but probable that there are going to be food shortages," Geri Guidetti biologist and moderator of an Internet forum on Y2K and agriculture.

  Jason Matusow, Microsoft's Year 2000 Solutions program manager said only 5% of the world's computer codes contain dates, though that small number affects 85% to 95% of all other codes.

In the late 90s, the computer infrastructure of the world, and the human beings dependant on it, came to the brink of chaos. A congressional commission was established. For years it was an international news story. Do you remember what caused it all?  The Y2K bug resulted from the shortsightedness of a few programmers in the 1970s.  Concerned with minimizing the use of the computer’s then precious memory, these programmers used only two places (19xx) to ‘encode’ the calendar year for dates. They simply didn’t think beyond the year 1999. That one lapse in contingency thinking, on the part of so small a number of programmers, became part of a tiny piece of ‘code’ that in turn was taken for granted by thousands of other programmers and billions of other lines of code. These programmers were among the best in the world.

Remember the Y1K bug problem?

Not many do. It's very much the same story except that rather than being about a small piece of code in our computer operating systems it’s about a small piece of code in the operating systems of our minds. It's about the root code of the English writing system. The code we use to write (encode) the English language.

Even more than the date code of the Y2K bug, the writing code of English underlies just about everything in our modern world.  Like the Y2K bug, we are talking about a small piece of code. Much more widespread than the Y2K bug, the code we are talking about has been taken for granted by hundreds of millions of people and trillions of lines of text.

If we were to start today to develop such a code, we would consider it on a scale of importance rivaling or exceeding the Human Genome project. We would have the best programmers, cognitive scientists and linguists, learning theorists, psychologists and representatives of other disciplines involved. After all it’s a piece of code that affects the minds of everyone who uses the English language.

However, in the days when this code was developing there weren’t any programmers, cognitive scientists or psychologists to help in designing it.  Our code, the code of English, has its roots in the invention of the alphabet by Middle Eastern scribes some 3500 years ago. It was later upgraded by the Greeks to represent their very different language and subsequently spread throughout Europe by the Romans.  It became the roots of our code, the English code, during the first millennium as the written language of the Romans began being used to represent the English spoken language.  The problem, the origin of what we are calling The First Millennium Bug, is that the English spoken language used over 40 distinct sounds but the Latin written language had only 24 letters (later 26).  Unlike the modern 70's code programmers who at least understood the nature of codes, it was a 15th century king and his small band of Latin biased scribes, and some years later, the printing press technicians, who created this bug. Like the Y2K bug, the Y1K bug was the result of the shortsightedness of the people involved. At the time that the two language systems were con-fusing the ‘people of power’ were more concerned with the integrity of Latin (the elite written language of Europe) then with the future generations of English language users. Unlike the Greeks who added letters to the alphabet to adapt its fit for their sound system, the English scribes, again, more concerned with preserving the alphabet's use for Latin than in adapting it for English, used convoluted letter sound patterns to stand for the sounds that didn't have letters. Absent enough letters to phonetically spell the sounds of English, the scribes borrowed many of the morpheme level letter-sound spelling patterns of Latin, French, and Greek to spell their respective imported words.  The result:

"inconsistencies, absurdities, facts contrary to the etymology of a word... it's a mess" - Dr. Thomas Cable, Co-Author: A History of the English Language

Over the centuries as 'phonics' developed as an attempt to ‘patch’ the 26 letters to the 40 plus sounds, very few people thought to concern themselves with how the underlying code would effect the minds of the people that would have to learn it. Today, we tend to look at reading problems as if they reflect something wrong with the 'user' rather than the 'code'.

(See: Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies for recent work on the relationship between 'orthographic depth' and reading difficulties)

Today, as the Children of the Code project is revealing, hundreds of billions of dollars, and millions of lives are suffering the effects of the First Millennium bug.  In this part of our work, we will tell the story of the First Millennium bug and the efforts over the past few hundred years to remedy it. (see: Franklin, Webster, Dewey, Spelling Reform, Roosevelt, Carnegie, Twain.... more coming)

Noah Webster, father of Webster’s dictionaries, was one of the earliest to understand the issue and develop a plan to rectify it. From his words, over 200 years ago, we can glimpse how important he thought it to be:

"Letters, the most useful invention that ever blessed mankind, lose a part of their value by no longer being the representatives of the sounds originally annexed to them. The effect is to destroy the benefits of the alphabet." 

"Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal ... the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time and accident will perpetually multiply."

Sounds like what people were saying about the Y2K bug in 98… 

Let's Stop Reading Shame!

Millions of kids grow up ashamed of their minds because they blame themselves for not being good enough at reading. It's a crime they feel this way and we want your help to stop it. We are raising money to give our DVD sets to the teachers and literacy volunteers that need it the most but can afford it the least. Help us raise funds that will spread the word about and help stop reading shame!  Donate now!



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Note about interviews: Participation in the preceding Children of the Code interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the Children of the Code project or documentary by the interviewee. Conversely, including an interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the views, organizations, books or products of the interviewee, other than as explicitly stated, by the Children of the Code Project and documentary.  

There is no substitute for your first-person learning.

Click to go to the index of Children of the Code video sequences

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Siegfried Engelmann Professor of Instructional Research, University of Oregon; Creator of Direct Instruction  
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 



Copyright statement:  Copyright (c) 2012, Learning Stewards, A 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization, All Rights Reserved. Permission to use, copy, and distribute these materials for not-for-profit educational purposes, without fee and without a signed licensing agreement, is hereby granted, provided that "Children of the Code -"  (with a functioning hyperlink when online) be cited as the source and appear in all excerpts, copies, and distributions.  Thank you. (back to top)