Saturday, January 1, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Y2K: Technology Brings A Sharing, Not A Disaster

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The world's peoples began the year 2000 more settled in peace and prosperity than burdened by war, with spectacular public celebrations but without the violence that had been feared from terrorists and with virtually no sign that their computers would betray them.

The New Year (and century and millennium, for all but hardened calendar traditionalists) began with news that on most days would have topped front pages around the world: the resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Yet the most-watched headliner of the day was not a leader but a software glitch, the "Y2K bug." It appeared to have stayed quietly behind in the 20th century as midnight marched across the world's 24 time zones.

The new year reached the West Coast of the U.S. 22 hours after the first fireworks sparkled over Millennium Island in the South Pacific. By the time it did, people had long known they were not witnesses to a technological disaster. Instead, they were late arrivals at a planetary party.

From the Pacific, across Asia to the Mideast and Europe, finally in North and South America, millions watched fireworks, applauded their national musicians, danced in the streets of their capitals and prayed in their churches.

Tens of millions more gathered with family and friends, linked to the day's events through television, one of the 20th-century technologies that made this turning of civilization's calendar the most shared in history.

The images flashed around the globe: fireworks and snow over the Kremlin, fireworks and ferris wheels along the Champs-Elysees in Paris, fireworks that one commentator likened to the World War II Blitz in London, fireworks and lasers where 2 million people thronged New York's Times Square.

Finally, tens of thousands of other people, in cities and outposts around the planet, were not at home, in church or at parties.

They were at work - at power plants, telecommunications control centers, reactors and missile bases - protecting against potential disaster from another 20th-century miracle, the webbed world of computers.

After years of worry and billions of dollars' worth of fixes, the Y2K bug did not bring a crashing halt - or even a quiet pause - to transportation, communications, banking or world nuclear security.

Significant day for all

It did help do something that has been rare through history: It made the governments and most religious leaders of the world agree on the significance of the day.

In the Jewish and official Israeli calendar, today is simply the 17th Sabbath of the year 5760. While Israeli neighborhoods were quiet, Prime Minister Ehud Barak used the eve of the new millennium to urge Israelis to make a "heavy and painful" territorial compromise for the sake of peace with their Arab neighbors. In Bethlehem, there were fireworks for the thousands of pilgrims who had traveled there.

Muslims are in the middle of their holy month of Ramadan, in the year 1420. But Palestinians cheered fireworks and a speech by Yasser Arafat. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, thousands gathered in the streets of Jakarta to blow horns, beat drums and listen to the ringing of a 6,600-pound gong.

The Chinese New Year arrives in February, yet fires blazed along the Great Wall as Premier Jiang Zemin hailed the new millennium and forecast the unification of China and Taiwan. A celebration in New Delhi drew a huge crowd, even though the Hindu calendar says the current year is 2056.

Part of what drew the world together - in addition to telephones, satellites and global TV-news networks - was a shared fear that computers would not recognize the date abbreviation "00" as referring to 2000, and that massive technological failures could occur.

They didn't - the failure of a nuclear-reactor alarm system in Japan (but not the reactor itself) was one of the few effects blamed on the Y2K bug - though most experts cautioned it will take weeks or months for all possible bug problems to reveal themselves.

The wiring of the planet, the light-speed imagery of a new millennium, reflected a truism of these centuries both ending and beginning: that the world has become a place of dramatic, rapid change.

The last half of the 20th century witnessed the power of atomic fission, men walking on the moon, computers that could display 16 million colors. The remarkable became customary.

At such a time, it is sometimes remarkable to note those things that have endured, not always for the better.

Chechnya still in conflict

One place where 2000 began with notable warfare was Chechnya, the Caucasus region where nationalists have fought Russians intermittently for almost 200 years.

Russia launched three Scud missiles, and Russian tanks in surrounding hills fired barrages into the center of the capital, Grozny.

There was a note of hope in another torn place, Kosovo, where bitter feelings have endured for a long, long time, and United Nations troops stand on guard for peace. Serbs and Kosovars still cite a battle fought in 1389 as an abiding point of division between them.

Yesterday, however, ethnic Albanian and Serb leaders stood on a bridge linking the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica in Kosovo and pledged to work toward uniting their communities.

"We must have courage," said Oliver Ivanovic, leader of the Serb community.

For all the world's troubles, of the things that endured as the new year began, these appeared to be the greatest: the courage to hope, to believe that things can be made better, and the desire to stand with family, fellow citizens and the people of the world in celebrating what might be.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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