KANSAS CITY STAR:"Things went well because people worked hard"

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Meanwhile, the data errors are silently accumulating...

Things went well because people worked hard

Date: 01/07/00 22:15

David Letterman saw it this way: His Top 10 "other things to worry about now that Y2K is over" list included: "No. 9. `Peanuts' is gone, but `Wizard of Id' endures."

Over at ABC, late-night satirist Bill Maher had another view: "We spent all this money for nothing. It's like a worldwide Ken Starr investigation."

Y2K has gone from being the worry of the century to the butt of late-night TV jokes.

But was it a scam or waste of money? Definitely not.

Just look at what happened when some people chose to do nothing:

* CyberCash Inc., a company that processes online credit card payments for 100,000 merchants, said 50 or more of those merchants had not updated software and were double-, triple- and quadruple-billing customers.

* An unidentified state agency left three nonessential computer systems untouched, and all three crashed at midnight Jan. 1, said John Koskinen, President Clinton's Y2K guru.

* And it turns out the country's spy satellite system was totally blind for about two hours the evening of Dec. 31. Pentagon officials this week conceded they had initially lied about the extent of the Y2K glitch to protect national security.

Those are just three of hundreds of relatively minor Y2K hang-ups that have been reported, most of them in the United States.

The lack of any real problems has led some to question whether the $100 billion spent by government and business in the United States -- $365 for every resident -- was wasted.

But looking at Y2K spending in perspective, government and industry spent about $33 billion a year for the past three years. In comparison, the government spends $130 billion every year to develop new nuclear weapons.

The best explanation we've seen of why things went so Y2K well comes from Cathy Hotka, vice president of information technology for the National Retail Federation in Washington.

"The reason we got through this so well is because (everyone) really did work hard, and they worked early and they worked together," Hotka said.

Next up? Feb. 29. 2000.

"At this point, we're not expecting anything on the leap day beyond what we've seen so far, which is nuisance glitches, which retailers are finding and fixing on the fly," Hotka said.

Say you're sorry

When the world didn't come to a screeching halt on Jan. 1, former pastor Steve Hewitt of Raytown launched a crusade of Y2K accountability.

"Anybody who now wants to come back and say, `I've led a lot of people astray. I was wrong and I'm sorry,' -- You have immediate forgiveness as far as I'm concerned," said Hewitt, editor of Christian Computing magazine and a Y2K speaker.

Hewitt, who crisscrossed the country in an attempt to unravel technology from evangelical Christian prophecy, is encouraged to see economist Ed Yardeni and doomsayer Gary North recant their Y2K predictions. But he has yet to hear a word of apology from Y2K author Michael Hyatt, who sold millions of copies of his alarmist books, the 700 Club's Pat Robertson or Focus on the Family's James Dobson.

All three tied Y2K to apocalyptic judgment.

Without a public act of Y2K contrition from such leaders, Hewitt says, Christians will remain an easy mark for nonsense and hype.

"We will all be labeled as kooks and crazies because of the Christian leaders who led us astray," he said. "There is a Biblical cry for accountability."

Lessons learned?

"I don't think we've learned anything from this," said Peter de Jager on a scratchy phone line from a distant airport in the obligatory post-Y2K follow-up interview.

After spending more than six years on Y2K, logging hundreds and thousands of frequent-flier miles and mobilizing his entire family into a giant pest-control juggernaut, the Canadian Y2K expert was despondent.

Maybe he was still smarting from the news that the $10 million eBay bid for his domain name -- year2000.com -- was a hoax. Or maybe it was just the natural course of events. But de Jager was bummed.

"Y2K is one of the biggest embarrassments of the information technology profession," he said. "And I don't really believe we've learned anything from it."

Consider how many programmers went about checking out the estimated 300 billion lines of faulty computer code. In many cases, they didn't scrap cobbled-together systems but used a technique called "windowing" that tricked computers into thinking it was the correct century.

But windowing is only a Band-Aid on a broken arm, de Jager said. And it is exactly the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.

And, according to the man who is credited with bringing the Y2K issue into the public eye, companies justified the use of windowing with the same lame excuses given in the early days of modern computing:

"We'll use it just to get over the pressing deadline of Y2K."

"Someone else will fix the problem later."

"This software will be replaced long before it breaks." Sound familiar?

Decades from now, de Jager says, computer programmers can expect to find code written in the 1960s still running.

Glitch patrol

Technician Bruce Armentrout at the Computer Depot on Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park spent the first days of the new year performing Y2K first aid.

One of his customers, a video rental store using 12-year-old accounting software created by a firm that has since gone out of business, was unable to access its records after Jan. 1.

Fixing the problem has been a tedious and time-consuming affair that required all the old information to be retyped in a new accounting software program, Armentrout said.

Days before Jan. 1, another minor Y2K bug surfaced in Olathe, this time in a calendar program.

When the computer showed February 2000, "the screen started freezing and acting all goofy," said Roy Walden, owner of Computerman retailer and service center on Santa Fe Drive.

His advice to the customer? Scrap the useless program. Problem solved.

Other than that, few new glitches emerged. Calls placed to more than two dozen computer retailers and service centers in Kansas City this week did not turn up major concerns.

"This is the biggest problem that never was," said Walden, who estimated his computer sales were up 20 percent after the Y2K angst dissipated.

See ya...

This is it. We've tried to be a voice of responsibility on the Year 2000 issue, while keeping you informed.

The worst of Y2K is over, and it's time to end Y2K Watch.

We leave with this advice: Watch your bills closely for the next few months. And, if you did purchase extra food, consider donating it to Harvesters.

Although this column ends today, we will be vigilant. For instance, we're already hot on the trail of the next computer glitch, expected on Jan. 23, 2045.

Watch for our upcoming book, "Jan. 23, 2045: 012345 -- The primary numbers virus."

Sorry folks, nerd humor. Maybe you had to be there.

We're outta here.

After 17 months on the Y2K watch, Hayes and Bullers will resume life as beat reporters. To reach David Hayes, technology writer, call (816) 234-4904 or send e-mail to dhayes@kcstar.com. To reach Finn Bullers, suburban affairs writer, call (816) 234-7705 or send e-mail to fbullers@kcstar.com All content ) 2000 The Kansas City Star

-- John Whitley (jwhitley@inforamp.net), January 08, 2000

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