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The Glitch That Didn't Steal New Year's

Where were you on Y2K? Scientific American's readers report their experiences and share their observations.
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J. W. Stewart
rear view mirror

Y2K really did sound pretty ominous. It was said that as the clocks rolled over to the year 2000, unprepared computers would interpret the date as 1900. And this seemingly small error would create chaos, shutting down transportation, communications, finance and other essential systems, crippling nations defenses and leaving us all to contemplate the first night of a new millennium howling in total darkness.

And, yes, many people took this specter of technological apocalypse very seriously indeed. They hoarded cash and food, bought generators and steered clear of air travel. But as the first second of January 1 slipped around the globe, surprisingly little went wrong. Many failures attributed to Y2K soon turned out just to be the day-to-day creakiness that plagues almost everything; most were quickly corrected. Some people breathed a sigh of relief and lauded the massive effort to head off disaster. Curiously, others were deeply chagrined, charging that Y2K was all hype and evidence of corporate greed.

On January 3, we asked our readers to tell us what their Y2K moment was like. We received answers from nearly all time zones that provide a very human and often insightful look at Y2K. Many rushed to their computers to verify in the glowing screen that the world as we know it still existed. Some report very real glitches that were quickly fixed; some--like the reader whose automotive electrical system failed--well, who knows? There was praise for a disaster averted and anger from those who felt they had been exploited. There were even some who felt--technology aside--a sense of mystery at the dawning of a new era. And there was that best of all human traits: amusement.

At the end of first night, one thing was brilliantly clear: We were all still here. Below is a selection of your responses.

--Alan Hall


I guess the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were too busy partying like it was 1999 to bother us.

I think many people assumed that all technology, from large mainframes down to their toasters, would suffer a sudden and gratuitous "Total Existence Failure" at the stroke of midnight. I am acquainted with a gentleman who was concerned that his set of drums (an ordinary bang-on-them-with-sticks-to-make-noise drum set) was not Y2K compliant. Why is this?

Simply, because so many people have no interest in the world around them. They have no interest in why or how the world around them (i.e. computers) works. They were intrinsically unable to understand the problem. It's like trying to teach my four-year-old son that there are no monsters under the bed. He believes me right up until the lights go out and he can't see what's in the closet anymore. Rationality gives way to fear. After fear comes embarrassment. Now that the light has come back on, so to speak, people are asking "Was it a hoax?" and "Did those computer geeks (not to mention prophets of the Second Coming and Post-Apocalyptic survival authors) bilk us out of $400 billion?"

Just proves the old rule: No good deed ever goes unpunished.

Steve Fritz
Garner, N.C.


Indeed some computers in my office are spewing out strange dates like 1900 or 2099. But come on! We're still here to correct those errors, and those doomsayers believed that we were totally dependent on computers, or that computers would go on strike because of two digits. Well, thanks to God the first hypothesis is wrong, and the second is simply ridiculous! And anyone who thinks a nuclear missile would launch itself because it believes it is 1900 is utterly deluded.

Angelo Ventura
Brescia,
Italy


The computer that organizes the Media Lab at Montana State University informed me that there were over 36 thousand days until the end of the semester, which I took as excellent news. This year I may actually finish everything I am supposed to.

I could grumble about this Y2K bug, but I wrote the software myself, so I just treated the programmer to a nice dinner and asked him to try to do better next time.

Bill Freese
Bozeman, Mont.


So far we have only heard about petty nuisances like the video store that charged $73,445 late fees, and the ATM that went down. There has not been enough time for the oil wells to shut down and the gasoline stations to show the result. No billing has been printed out for the New Year yet, so it is too soon to tell. We have heard that Social Security had an independent check of their software and it disclosed 2,000 errors in code that had been rigorously scanned.

We just have to wait and find out where the goofs were made.

Lyndon S. Cox
Chapel Hill, N.C.


I don't think it was complete hype. The awakened awareness for the possible problem made companies actually look into it and make necessary changes. If no one had said anything, no one would have done anything, and we could have had a huge crisis by now. My opinion several months ago was that there wouldn't be any big crash the 1st of January, just because of the hype and hysteria. Several big companies (especially utility companies) took action when it was brought to light. I could never believe that an electric company, with most of its revenue coming from paying users of electricity, would be so stupid as to take a chance and say "let's see if we will lose our whole customer base, just by being naive." That sounds like pointy-hair management and not like normal, profit-driven leadership.

Lange Karlsson
Coto De Caza, Calif.


I suspect that the scope of Y2K problems is being quietly under-reported.

As an example, I'm a senior software engineer at one of the largest institutional money management firms on the globe. We spent 20 months of grueling effort and millions of dollars to insure that our applications and interconnections with the rest of the global financial community were Y2K compliant. The size of the task was truly huge; the number of lines of code in our in-house applications alone is in the tens of millions.

I can report that--starting several days before January 1st--our applications started experiencing minor failures due to Y2K issues. These have continued, sporadically, to this moment. We are also aware that other entities (banks, investment firms, etc.) in the financial community are having similar 'glitches,' some serious. None of these problems appear to be show stoppers so far... but I can tell you that the public picture of a non-event doesn't correspond to the reality on my monitors. I can also tell you that the chances of any of this being reported publicly approach zero.

Why?

1. Who wants to appear on any lawyer's radar screen as they wait to unleash a barrage of Y2K-related litigation?

2. Who is eager to publicly admit that, even after all the time and money spent, we STILL missed some Y2K-related bugs?

Better to give the public the story that the problems didn't occur because of massive mitigation efforts, directed by enlightened management.

Name Withheld
San Francisco, Calif.


I doubt there was any real truth to the Y2K bug. First of all, supposedly it was bug written in an old machine language that few people in the world still fully understand. There was no real explanation to the public as to why it would create havoc in computer systems. For these reasons, no one really understood why these systems should fail. But hey, there was always the possibility that it could.

I believe that some people took advantage of the fear of the unknown workings of computer language to hype the problem. Most, if not all, of these people did not know what they were talking about. Most common sense people did not believe them anyway. In fact the Y2K bug became some what of a joke in public circles, in the media and was also used in advertising to sell everything from condoms to automobiles. As to all the money spent on making systems Y2K compliant, the figures quoted are greatly exaggerated.

What does Y2K compliant mean? It means we tested our system by prematurely rolling over to the new millennium and nothing happened. No one has fixed the Y2K bug or ever found it in any system because it was not there. All the programs developed to "correct" the bug were nothing less than a small program to tell the computer the correct date should it be confused at the turn of the millennium.

Richard Lange
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada


The hype surrounding Y2K was beautifully orchestrated. Think about it: if nothing happens, then the $250 billion we spent was worth it; whereas, if we had a major glitch, then, "told ya we shoulda spent more ..." The scales of Credulity vs. Skepticism have just been MAJORLY TILTED!!!

Jim Ball
Memphis, Tenn.


Nothing happened to my family's main computer. However, my personal computer (an old 386 that runs windows 3.1 with an effort) now believes it is 03- 27-99.

Stacy Haponik
Calvert City, Kentucky


We have a DOS program that controls a state-of-the-art Digital Signal Processing console made in Switzerland by Daniel Weiss.

Every project gets logged in with a date. The program writes "2000" as "19100" !! I was sure it wasn't Y2K compliant and we know the software won't be rewritten by the manufacturer. I would never have thought that the date would have come out that way!

We also found a minor glitch in Peachtree Accounting 7.0, which was released to fix Y2K issues. When changing a posting from Nov 99 today, the software prompts you to enter a date when the posting was modified. You can choose to keep the date in Nov 99. But if you chose today 3 Jan 2000, it came out 3 Jan 1980 instead.

Bob Ludwig
Portland, Maine


As a computer consultant, I've seen a couple of computers revert to 1980, but considering the fact that those users still live in that era, I don't think they've noticed.

The truth always lies somewhere in the middle. We have to respect the fact that so many dedicated people have worked long hours to correct this. On the other hand, Y2K became our new fear, temporarily replacing the cold war until something else could come along. What's next?

Jim Greene
Bethel Park, Pa.


After countless hours updating operating systems and application software at work and at home - nothing happened - so far. Surprise! I still have some updates to do to non-connected and infrequently used laptop computers running win 95/98 and MS office 97, but other than that, all of the Y2K updates have worked as advertised.

George St. George
Billings, Mont.


In hindsight, Y2K can be wrapped up in just a few thoughts:

1. The short-sightedness of the software industry (applications written in 1998 not compliant...come on!)

2. The ability of the media to overdramatize and hype any event.

3. The general populus always expecting the end of the world or a similar crisis.

4. The ability of the human race to somehow come through in spite of it all.

Jason Harmon
Lewisville, Texas


So many computers... so many morons. I'm so glad that this scam is finally over.

Garry Burgess
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Canada


Right after the clock hit 12 in the morning on January 2000, I felt as if my mind went into a tremendous dark blank, filled right afterwards with emptiness and sorrow. This experience had never occurred to me in the past. It was and still is very frightening.

Today, every time I write the numbers 00 or 2000 to indicate the present year, I feel as if I had lost one of the most precious things in my life. Can someone tell me what is happening? Do others feel the same way?

I am male, 53 years of age, father of three and very curious about almost everything. Was my internal clock trying to reset to this millennium transfer or am I beginning to lose it?

Juan C. Gonzalez
Dallas, Texas


My 1998 GMC Sonoma's electrical system malfunctioned on January 1st.

David
Mandeville, La.


The truth of the matter is I didn't prepare. But it is my understanding that the worst is yet to come. Considering that all bad things are to come at the end of the millennium. Well it ain't here yet. We have another year to go. Then we can stockpile for the end of the world, tornadoes, earthquakes and God only knows what else. So hang in there folks. All that stuff you bought may come in handy.

Don Adams
Chicago, Ill.


All the big systems worked well, but a few of the computer systems at the hotel where I work had problems. The payroll punch-in clock went down, as well as the restaurant computers. Nothing too serious as things were fixed as soon as they came up. Still, I hope my paycheck comes out ok, as that system was still down as of yesterday. I think the hotel knew about it, as they had installed a new system, but that one doesn't work either. What we do now is just sign in, on a piece of paper. That's about it.

Brooks Groves
Seattle, Wash.


My online computer is stubbornly convinced it is 2094.

Don Parr
Sacramento, Calif.


I think that Y2K was a real menace. But, fortunately, all efforts spent to fix the 2-digits trouble were valuable. Think about what could have happened if nothing had been done? What if people had thought that it wouldn't be serious and so turned their backs to the trouble? The answer probably would have been that the year 2000 would have been born with an "apocyliptical" face. I hope that this episode will be seen as how we were smart enough to solve our troubles before they happened.

It's better to prevent problems than to fix them.

Joao Cura D'Ars
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais
Brazil


I had no problems with the so-called Y2K bug. I wonder if the bug was just a "product" of computer companies that tried (and were very successful) to make even more money.

How about that?

Jernej Zidar
Podgrad,
Slovenia


The Y2K didn't have any impact on my life. All the calendars of the computers that I know show the year 2000. Everything works fine.

Aapo Varpula
Vantaa,
Finland


January 1, 2000. Alarm clock rang. Got up. Kettle, toaster worked. So far, so good. Peeped out of window for rioters. Saw none. Garage door still opened, motorcycle still started. Set off for work. Noticed traffic lights were ok. Looked around for crashed aircraft. Saw none. Still no rioters. Two revelers waved; I waved back.

Arrived at TV station. Electric door still worked. All equipment okay. Checked computers. All okay except two. The remote studio controller thought it was 1980, but still controlled remotely. The other, handling Gaelic subtitles, thought it was 2001. Reset both. Checked other networks for rioters. Saw none. Watched the festivities from around the world. Opened emergency supplies (large jar of coffee), then set about tidying up the huge pile of program and commercial back-up tapes that I knew I would no longer need.....

Happy New Year to you all.

Anthony Langton
Aberdeen,
Scotland


Y2K turned out mostly OK because of, not in spite of, early alarmists. I myself was a Y2K "Watchdog" for our church. 15 months ago, when I began putting Y2K inserts into the worship bulletins, I got a lot of flak--"Oh, it's all a bunch of hype" and "Don't be a fear monger." I deliberately avoided such hype, putting in only reports that seemed to be from reputable sources, like ITAA, the Senate special committee on Y2K (Senator Bennett's and Senator Dodd's), the Presidential Commission on Year 2000 Conversion, US Navy, Treasury, SBA etc.

I also daily scanned Yourdan's and Cassandra's and www.Y2K-links ("Scary Gary" North's, sans commentary) sites; etc. Gradually, folks began to take it seriously. Folks began to say, "Better prepared than scared." On the last Sunday of the year, I was asked to lead a Y2K service--we laughed at fate with several Y2K silly-songs to pop tunes and I led a dialog on "The Amazing Grace of Y2K: How it taught my heart to fear...and my fears relieved" (by being prepared and building resilient communities). We now plan to distribute our over- stocked goods to charity.

I believe much of the preparation that resulted in a non-event would not have happened without such warnings.

Paul McBroom
Irving, Texas


On Sunday, Jan 2, I visited the Arizona Diamondbacks (major league baseball) website because my six year-old son is a fan. I wanted to sign up for their "Insider" email to keep abreast of the upcoming spring training events. I entered my son's name and email address--and where they asked for year of birth, I entered 1993. When I submitted the form, I got an error message that stated the date was incorrect because "1993 has not occurred yet."

No biggy, but it stopped that process cold.

Mike Martin
Phoenix, Ariz.


My 1991 KLH-1, 1 meg RAM, 40 meg HD computer woke up New Year's Day thinking it was 1980. I tried to convince it the date was 2000, but it refused to believe me. Having tried and failed with the truth, I told it we were reliving 1999. It seems content with the lie and I don't use it much any more anyway. I would have thought that MSDOS 6.22 would have had a better grip on reality. Sad. Not important but sad.

David Huie Green
Century, Florida


This is no hype. I am a computer programmer and have been working since the late 70's. I already have an example of a Y2K bug in my previous sentence! This thing isn't really about saving precious memory, it's about people using 2-digit years!

Nick
Westfield, N.J.


The most expensive ''no-show'' in the history of show business.

Filoktitis Salaminios M.D.
Athens
Greece


Working as an information systems specialist, I have to use PCs all my working hours. I knew that our PCs in the office are modern ones, so no Y2K problem should occur for us. But one interesting thing I found in the new year was that everybody who finds a problem in his or her work tries to relate it to Y2K! Unfortunately many people believe them.

Hamid
Tehran
Iran


Nothing happened. My computer didn't even burp. We did sell a piece of property and the papers had a printed date of 1900, which they marked out and wrote 2000. Something the title company missed. I laid up no stores. No food. Nothing. I also had several hundred dollars cash, but then, I always do.

Pat McAlister
Springdale, Arizona


I work for a major computer firm and despite warnings galore for as long as I could take it, I took no preparing action for Y2K. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it strikes me as a mite coincidental that the people who caused the problem (1970's programmers, note the 4 digit year) are the ones who profited from Y2K. These are the people who control the computer industry today and who are reaping the benefits of all the extra soft and hardware sold in the panicstricken days before the big date. Like I said, I'm not much of a theorist but this one has got a bee in my bonnet, not that I can do anything about it.

Baz Oglesby
Dublin
Ireland


Consider the largest Ethernet LAN of the world, the Stockholm Local Government Net, with 20,000 users spread over a 20-mile-wide area and about a hundred applications.

Nothing happend.

Andreas Ericson
Stockholm
Sweden


Shortly after the clock struck midnight, I went down into the basement and uncovered my old IBM PC, with programs dating back to 1985. I was really curious as to what might happen when I powered it up. All of the Y2K hysteria had made me imagine this old pile of electronics would be dead as a doornail. My son predicted that it would blow up!

With a certain amount of trepidation, I pushed the ON button. It fired up and the screen came to light. It was working! But......what about the date? This ancient silicon monster now thought the date was January 4, 1980. (I amused myself with thoughts of turning the basement into a disco so that it didn't feel out of place.) I decide to try to punch in the correct date. 01-01-00. "Invalid date" was the response. "Ha, ha, I've got you!" I thought, "Here it is, my own personal Y2K bug!"

One more try - punching in ...........01-01-2000......I waited.........bingo! The date changed, and it has been correct ever since. I went back upstairs to watch the fireworks on TV. I felt really disappointed. Y2K was supposed to be much more exciting!

Pam Nester
Kutztown, Penn.


As a senior systems engineer for a major Fortune 500 company, we were anxiously awaiting calls as users started their test scripts early New Year's Day.

I received a call from one of our development team leaders: "The dates are different," I heard her say.

"Here we go," I thought, expecting to start the drill to analyze programs and files for a rush fix.

"How is it different?" I asked.

"On the program I just created it says 01/01/00 but on my report it says 00/01/01."

I suggested she check a program compiled in 1999 and look at the corresponding report and call me back to let me know if the month and date are transposed, as they would be if the date formats were different.

A few minutes she called back. "The program says 12/17/99 and the report says 99/17/12. It was indeed just different formats.

That was the full extent or our Y2K troubles. The rest of the day was coffee, the Rose Bowl Parade on TV and football games.

Paul Bohn
Columbus, Ohio


I intentionally left one of my computers, a Gateway 486/DX2 system, as I left it in late 1996--Windows 3.11 with older applications. Two of the main applications blew to hell at midnight at the turn of the new year, and a menu program returned a date of 1/1/100. Worse, some of the Microsoft Office applications, including Excel 5.0 and Access 2.0, do not handle dates properly any longer. The system did successfully roll over to 1/1/2000, even though it has a 1992 level BIOS. All Y2K problems that have surfaced have been in the application programs, not the operating system. All of my other systems, which I upgraded, appear to be okay.

If you meet someone that believes that Y2K was a hoax, I would be glad to show them the result of complacence, or, in my case, doing nothing to one system to see what would occur.

I believe that if the media had not hyped the problem (and we all knew it was being over-hyped), a lot of people would have been stung by the Y2K bug. It's like recreational drugs, I suppose. You cannot say "just say no" too much. Similarly, there was no such thing as too many reminders of Y2K.

Bob Nelson
Jacksonville, Florida


I saw one local hardware store that had a sign at the counter stating that generators could not be returned.

I noticed one fellow bringing back two propane tanks that were filled with fuel. The store stated that according to the fire department's laws, they could not take back tanks filled with fuel. The guy stated the valves were defective and he could not download them. He is taking the store to small claims court.

Lyman Delameter
Temecula, Calif.


With all the text generated by the over-hyped twaddle concerning the opinions and responses of the populace of the planet, there has been a deafening silence from you and from other journals concerning the simple arithmetic of the real turn of the century.

At the risk of being accused of pedantry, it is clear that the 'new' century starts on 1/1/2001 because the 'old' century must include the 100th year completely.

The farcical drivel of the 'zeroists' or 'odometer-watchers' has swamped the 'arithmetists' who can at least count to 100 inclusive! Perhaps you might redeem the indulgence in this swindle by examining the sociological effects on the great unwashed when they find out that the cruise they had to the International Dateline was a year early and the astrological reading they bought for this pivotal conjunction is a load of old codswallop.

Maybe there will spring forth a new industry exploiting the real turn of the century aimed at the likes of yours truly.

James Pringle
Melbourne, Victoria
Australia

Editor's note: See When is the beginning of the new millenium?, Scientific American, December 20, 1999.


One of the most interesting experiences I had to do with the coming of 2000 happened when I went to reset the date on my old VCR. I was expecting to have to set the year to 1972 since it is an older model. I was surprised to see that the date was correct for 2000.

Darrell Penner
Port Coquitlam, BC
Canada


I was in programming on IBM mainframe, payroll systems. I quit (retired) back at end of July - got sick and tired of working with third-party software. I will say, if so many companies/government agencies had not spent as much effort as they did, I really do think we would have had a major disaster on our hands. I'm sure many were talked into buying new software instead of fixing the old, when the fix could have been much cheaper.

The company I was with spent over $150,000 just in man-hours installing a new release of our payroll system. We had to because we knew the prior release was NOT Y2K compliant. There was an astounding amount of effort applied all over this country. I wonder how many programmers simply got burnt out over this? (I ended over 35 years in programming, and this finally did me in.)

My only 'preparation' for 2000? I left my car in the driveway because I wouldn't have been able to get the garage door open if we didn't have power.

Clyde
Vinton, Va.


I feel cheated and angry that people who did not have the credentials to be Gurus and High-priests of the Y2K fraud are allowed to tell their unfounded claims and doom and gloom stories. The government should have verified this stupid thing first before spending billions of dollars for nothing. If Canada spent billions and South Korea did not and still have the same result, then some is wrong with the equation. Not a single glitch in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.

What is this? It was a definite fraud and should be investigated so it will not happen again.

The Y2K fraud caused massive unnecessary psychological and emotional stress to untold individuals, especially the elderly who did not have a clue what to do but follow the flow of the many have already been victimized by this ridiculous bug. I also blame the engineers, computer programmers and other professionals who knew that computers in cars, for example, are not date sensitive and that elevators have safety mechanisms and electric power plants are generated by water and not by computers and that lawn mowers will not attack people. They all kept quiet allowed this fraud to happened. Some people should go to jail for this.

No Name
Vancouver, B.C.
Canada


As a computer support worker for Brigham Young University, I have encountered a number of problems. First of all, the programming deficiencies of Netscape version 4.05 and earlier have necessitated upgrading the browsers of more the 10 percent of our professors. This has tied up staff and administrative personnel. In addition, we are seeing failures among scientific software packages. We have been contacting vendors for upgrades, but have thus far had to set computer clocks back to 1999 to retain functionality of the software.

Matthew Perkins
Provo, Utah


Instead of going out New Year's Eve (despite having tickets to an event -- I was concerned about being on the road with countless drunk drivers--like Y2K, a concern that appears to have been unjustified), I decided to remain home. I ended up on the Internet trying to see if the phone system crashed, and if not, to see which sites crashed. The phone system did not crash, and I only discovered two glitches on the Internet in several hours (actually, almost five hours).

First, a major computer magazine company's credit card verification was down -- it may or may not have been Y2K related. Second, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, one of the best magazines published in this country, and one that exhibits expertise in a wide variety of fields (including computers) was down.

Admittedly, the problem could have been with my ISP (but it only occurred with SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN), it could have been with your ISP; it could have been with your server and completely Y2K unrelated, etc.

There has to be some irony or humor, however, in that perhaps the only Y2K glitch I know of was with SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.

By the way, as soon as I send this message, I am renewing my subscription.

David Singleton
Fort Worth, Texas


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