Sunday, January 2, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Now Comes The Second-Guessing Over Y2K Fears

Seattle Times Science Reporter

In the beginning, Y2K was supposed to be little more than a snazzy shorthand for the Year 2000.

Over time, it grew in many minds to be synonymous with Y2K - the Computer Problem from Hell. It cost Americans billions of dollars in repairs, created a boom in freeze-dried foods and let loose a river of newspaper ink.

All the money and all the work apparently paid off, leaving us with the usual New Year's Eve dangers: drunken drivers and sloppy kisses.

"The lights didn't even flicker," Microsoft employees wrote in an early-morning e-mail from Washington, D.C. "Someone escaped nearly getting hit by a champagne cork."

Big Y2-Woop.

Tomorrow's workday will be another major test of computers, but not before a bow wave of second-guessing.

The world's passage into 2000 was so smooth, with so few computer-related problems, that the international paranoia over the moment now seems like a strange dream.

You may remember that the bug - a two-digit shorthand that would misread the 1999-2000 rollover as 99 to 00, or 1900 - had people talking about enormous failures in banks, telephone systems, transportation networks and utilities. If the billions of lines of old computer code didn't get us, some 40 billion computer chips with such code embedded in their hardware would.

And with computers linked around the world, a grid of interdependencies, it would take only one failure to create widespread havoc.

We spent some $100 billion on it

But as computers calculated the new day around the world, astoundingly few problems arose. ATMs spit cash, gas pumps spewed fuel, lights stayed on, trains ran and planes flew.

Many apparent Y2K problems - like the University Bridge getting stuck open early yesterday morning - weren't related to computing. (The bridge had a blown fuse.) Other problems, such as a broken clock at a Wisconsin power plant, had no effect on operations.

A viewer of John Gibson's cable news show "Feedback," broadcast from MSNBC's Redmond newsroom, e-mailed the program to suggest Y2K was a plot by Dinty Moore to sell cans of beef stew.

Even John Koskinen, the federal Y2K chief who foresaw so few problems that he was often branded as a Pollyanna, was impressed.

"I'm pleasantly surprised," he said early yesterday. "We expected that we would see more difficulties early on, particularly around the world."

There might have been an easier way to fix the problem, said Koskinen, but that would have required tackling it years ago, when programmers were continuing to use the two-digit code to save precious computer memory. Until the early '90s, many programmers thought the systems they were using would be replaced before the date change. Some thought technology would come along with a quick fix.

In the end, replacing code and entire systems became one of the biggest efforts of government and industry outside of wartime.

Koskinen put the nation's final Y2K remediation tab at about $100 billion, $8.5 billion of which was spent by the federal government.

In the bunkers at Camp Murray

Even then, no one really knew until Friday night whether the fixes would take.

Not far from Lakewood, Pierce County, nearly five dozen workers had braced themselves for the worst. They were at the Washington National Guard's Camp Murray, in an earthquake-proof, steel-beamed building housing the state's Y2K Coordination Center, Ground Zero for problems in local government computer systems and state-operated programs.

At the ready were emergency warning systems, satellite links, and VHF, high-frequency and ham radio systems. That's in addition to computers, phones, faxes, three giant generators and extra food.

Come midnight, the most excitement they got were revelers hollering in the distance and fireworks exploding over treetops. Across the state, in feeds from police dispatch centers, state agencies, banks, power plants and petroleum companies, plus 22 cities and 39 counties, the word was all quiet on the Y2K front.

For the $100 million that the state spent preparing for Y2K, it was all worth it, said Dave Workman, spokesman for the center. The state is now better prepared for general disasters, he said, and the Y2K preparations cut down on injuries and maybe even loss of life.

"How do you put a dollar figure on human life?" Workman said.

Failing to make the right fixes could have driven up other costs, said Eleanor Miller, spokeswoman for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Patchwork fixes and workarounds, which involve bypassing computerized devices, could have cost even more and led to injuries as well, she said.

Worldwide, just a few problems

Several problems did appear yesterday around the world. Glitches were reported in train-pass vending machines in Tokyo, in a program of France's Syracuse II military satellite system, and at the Islamabad Stock Exchange in Pakistan, where computers said the year was 1900. Exchange members were forced to manually record their transactions.

But future glitches are likely to be on the order of nuisance and cosmetic items, said Gene Gorzelnik, spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council.

"I would suspect that most things wouldn't be noticed by customers," he said.

Some Y2K project managers are now going to be out of work.

The domain name, the world's largest Web site devoted to the Y2K problem, is up for sale, too. As of yesterday afternoon, it was attracting bids of more than $10 million on the auction site eBay.

Times reporters Dionne Searcey and Monica Soto contributed to this story.

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


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