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It was 20 Years Ago Today: Y2K, First Night Nyack

by Dave Zornow

It was Warren Rueffer who first mentioned the Y2K problem — albeit a decade or so before it had a name. “I’m going to time my retirement just before the turn of the century and work as consultant fixing all of the two digit year programs everyone has written,” said the IT manager with whom I worked at Arbitron in the mid 1980’s. I don’t know what happened to Warren, but I assume he had a bright future predicting stock market crashes, hurricanes, blackouts and other major calamities.

Twenty years ago today the world was bracing to see if planes would begin to fall out of the sky, power grids would fail, trains would stop running, cats and dogs would begin sleeping together and other signs of mass hysteria. None of that happened. Instead, we got the Internet, super computers in our pockets that are occasionally used to make phone calls, and Vladimir Putin.

On Dec 31 1999, Nyack was looking forward to an indoor/outdoor community event to usher in the new century. “I remember First Night Y2K very well,” says Karen Tarapata, Mayor of Upper Nyack. “It was such a celebration with performances in venues all over town, fire barrels in the streets, and fireworks at midnight. I remember particularly the sense of community,” she said.

Main Street and and Broadway were closed to traffic and pedestrians ruled. Or more likely, shivered and huddled together against the cold. “There were ash can fires everywhere,” says Amazing Grace Circus’ Carlo Pellegrini. He fondly remembers puppet performances at the Nyack Village Theatre and freshly made chocolate chip cookies handed out all night long at the First Methodist Church on South Broadway. And some juggling — provided by Pellegrini. “My Major Bowes’ Road Show and Astrological Extravaganza juggling street act played to a packed crowd of 50,” he said. “The bars were not pleased.”

A good time was had by all — but it was never repeated. “First night was such a great thing. I’m not sure why they ended it,” says Sabrina Feldman, owner of Weld Realty. “It was one of the better events in Nyack and it seemed to bring the community together in such a wonderful way.”

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What Ever Happened To Y2K?

When my dad passed away a few years ago, we found this notepad attached to his refrigerator, leaving the question it posed, “are you ready?” forever unanswered.

There’s a conspiracy theory that says Y2K was a hoax. But no one who worked as a programmer from 1970-1995s subscribes to that silliness: it was a common software design practice back in the day to devote only two digits to the year, because space on main frames and mini computers was at a premium. Also, that’s how all of the original programs were written — why rock the boat? It was a known problem of which senior computer professionals were aware, but corporate management looked at the software department (long before they got a cool acronym like IT — Information Technology) as overhead: let’s spend as little as possible on those punch card people, and not worry about problems that might occur 10 and 20 years from now.

The response to the “OMG THE SKY IS GOING TO FALL” concern which gave a green light to the massive investment which begat the Internet. And cellphones. And electric cars, etc. It spurred an estimated $100 billion investment to rewrite and upgrade the software that ran banks, transportation, public utilities, government, and academia. Government was on the case: the Clinton Administration even appointed a Y2K czar to coordinate IT fixit efforts. He spent New Years Eve on an airplane with some brave reporters to reassure the public that it was still safe to fly.

Futurist and adjunct professor at Stanford University Paul Saffo told Time Magazine that the Y2K crisis didn’t happen precisely because people started preparing for it over a decade in advance. “The general public who was busy stocking up on supplies and stuff just didn’t have a sense that the programmers were on the job,” he said.

That big investment after decades of neglected software maintenance gave rise to the Internet. The network of networks had previously been the non-commerical domain of academia and the military. As a result of the Y2K investment and IT infrastructure upgrade, computing left the desktop and moved to the cloud…and a web of pockets and pocketbooks around the world.

Although the predicted global collapse never happened — the night did include one event that had long term implications. Russian President Boris Yelstsin announced his resignation and the ascension of his vice president, Vladimir Putin, to lead the country.
Dave Zornow is co-founder and publisher of Nyack News And Views.
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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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