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Y2K For Dummies - The Straight Scoop

Well, we are now way past the Y2K rollover in our calendar. Seems like a million years ago, huh? So, now that some time has passed, I think we may be able to give the preparation for Y2K some perspective. Remember all the hoopla spread by the government, business, and ordinary, "chicken little" citizens? This was my take on the issue five months before, as some thought, chaos would consume our lives.

August, 1999 -

I have been amused and amazed at the emphasis placed on the mysterious, seemingly frightful "Y2K problem" - the millennium bug. It gets more frenetic each day. By the end of December, we'll all be in a huge panic - those of us who have not retreated to an underground bunker with a six-month supply of food and water. Well, before we go nuts, I am going to shed some light on the issue. This is for the non-techie person. If you are a computer nerd, you are not going to like this one bit. Just go away and play with some RAM chips; go fix your BIOS. My explanation is for the rest of us... us normal folks.

I have considerable authority to comment on this issue; I can see it from both sides. Because I am prepared to admit... that I am engaged in a 12-step program for recovering computer nerds. Step one is to realize that I have no power over my nerdiness. That's easy; women have been telling me that for years. Step four is to confess my weaknesses. Prepare yourself:

True Confession

I have a bachelor's degree in computer systems, and for more years that I choose to admit I have been directly involved in the computer industry: Mainframes, minicomputers, PC's... "been there, done that"; now struggling with all my might for recovery and salvation. For over a decade I toiled as a programmer, and was able to escape the clutches of corporate America just weeks before serious mental deterioration set in.

Or maybe not.

When all the shouting, pushing, and shoving is over, this Y2K thing is little more than the ultimate revenge of the computer nerds. Like most great issues of the day, it is a story about power, money, and prestige. (Yes, it is also a little about sex, but this being a family-oriented web site, I do not wish to get into that here. There is nothing worse than mentioning computer geeks and sex in the same paragraph. Thank you; no.)

The Nature of the Nerds

You know them. In high school, they were members of the industrial arts projection club; they ran the film projectors, the tape players, the video cassette recorders. They wore their hair slicked back; white socks; and yes, many of them proudly displayed a pocket protector.

Me? No, I was not one of them. I stopped wearing white socks in eighth grade. I was perhaps, at best, a borderline nerd. (I developed my chronic nerdiness later in life.) In high school, I was 5'4", 98 pounds, with thick glasses, curly hair, and freckles. So I had other, more fundamental social burdens to bear, thank you for asking.

Most of the geeks (I use the terms "nerds" and "geeks" interchangeably) in high school got over it and went on lead normal lives. Oh sure, some of them became accountants; and frankly, I don't know how much lower you can go than that. A few of them became lawyers... well, there I go, answering my own question. But most of them grew up to become responsible adults. A suspicious few, however, stuck with the habits they acquired in high school, and became computer programmers.

For years they wallowed in the basement of corporate America, writing program code in Fortran, COBOL, or assembler. Gobbly-gook, to be sure, but gobbly-gook that took on an increasingly important role in business. It took them the better part of 20 years, but the geeks realized that they had power. Business needed the computer, and the geeks had their hands all over the computer. Not a pretty picture, is it? So they demanded more power, and more money... and they got it. The geeks were on their way up... not up to respectability, but to money, power, and for some, even a measure of prestige. (But sex? No, not for most of them.)

Then came the eighties. You know: Ronald Reagan, the decade of greed, ugly America... and the personal computer. If you had a personal computer in your office in 1986 and you wanted a new, computer-generated report that showed... whatever, you no longer had to crawl on your hands and knees over to the den of the computer geeks, hold your nose, and beg for their nerdy help. You didn't need to stroke their greasy hair, their ring-around-the-collar paisley shirts and their slimy backs to get what you desperately needed to do your job. You could do it all on your personal computer! As the eighties drew to a close, the geeks saw their power diminishing, their egos bruised... and pimples popping up on their peach-fuzz faces. "I'm melting, I'm melting.... What a world, what a world."

Enter the Dragon

So what's a half-million angry geeks to do, with their fragile empire facing destruction, their whole plastic, powerful world about to cave in on them?

Well, to borrow a phrase: Hell hath no fury like a computer geek scorned! They invented the Y2K problem. Oh sure, for decades the computer programmers had been storing dates in the computer without using the first two digits of the year: May 24, 1999 became 052499. And yes, it does present a problem in the years after 1999. It does require some attention and correction. It may even be a big deal to some of the world's largest corporations.

But it is not a huge, earthshaking deal for the nation as a whole; at least not any of us in the U.S. (Sorry, I just do not know enough about the rest of the world to comment. Step six: Know your limits.) The U.S., being a free market economy (for the most part), suppose the corner gas station cannot pump gas on January 1. How long do you think that will last, six months? Nuts!! By noon on January 1 (traditionally one of the heaviest travel days of the year), the gas station across the street will find a way to pump gas, I assure you. And minutes after that, so will the other gas station. Despite what the nerds would like you to believe, this is not rocket science.

The Fear Mongers

My high school buddy, Skip Gray, has been writing about the Y2K problem for a couple years. Skip is not a computer nerd; in fact, he used to be a rational, smart guy.

Late last year, he sent a dire warning to his friends:

"The government may restrict access to your cash early in '99. If you don't have one, open a savings account immediately. Place enough in the account to carry you for a year, at least $20,000. Allow time for it to clear, then withdraw that amount in cash before the end of '98 in small bills, tens and twenties, preferably old money, not new."

"Order a year's worth of dried food for four (about $4,000 worth) from Millennium Gourmet Foods. It has a shelf life of many years. Think about storing water. Your water supply may be inoperable or contaminated."

"Electricity may be out indefinitely. Those who live in the cold climates may want to explore an extended winter vacation, Dec. '99 to May 2000, in Florida. Arrange for this now. Later will be too late."

"Figure out how to secure your personal safety. Guns, mace, etc., may be unavailable soon. Buy lots of toilet paper, paper plates, etc., and perhaps batteries, oil lamps, oil, and stuff to barter: food seeds, 22 ammo, etc. A short wave radio could come in handy if communications are cut off."

Folks, I swear to you, I am not making this up! Skip also predicted that the symptoms of Y2K devastation would surface long before January 1. He predicted a massive stock market crash in the spring of 1999 as businesses realized how unprepared they are:

"Get out of stocks and mutual funds in early '99. There will probably be a huge downturn, perhaps like '29."

Skippy, does the number 11,000 mean anything to you?

Sometime between high school and now, the poor boy just done gone wacko.

The Straight Scoop

Suppose, under the worst scenario I can imagine, your ATM does not work at the dawn of 2000. Because January 1, 2000 falls on a Saturday, you might actually have to go without money for two days. Can you handle that? And on Monday, January 3, you might actually have to walk into a bank and fill out a withdrawal slip or write a check, and heaven forbid, talk to a teller in person! But do you actually think for a half a second that the bank will turn you away because they cannot get their vault open? Are you nuts? And if they can't, don't you think that half a dozen other banks will be eager to loan you $200 on the spot - no questions asked - just to get you to switch to their "Y2K-compliant" bank? Have you learned nothing from the free market system? If there is money to be made, the business people will find a way, the nerds be damned! That is the simple beauty of the free market system.

Several weeks ago, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd actually suggested that people might want to stock up on food and water, just in case. He should be ashamed of himself! Oh, he and his colleagues would like nothing better than a national crisis... requiring of course, a national solution, courtesy of the benevolent federal government. Oh, if there is chance to shine in the spotlight and gain some bennies, the politicians will mow down the nerds like a gnat on the windshield. The year 2000 is an election year, after all.

Al Gore to the Rescue

Do you think for one minute that 435 politicians facing re-election in 2000 will allow social security checks to be delayed for more than a day or two? I guarantee you that if the checks do not arrive by the fifth of January, Al Gore will be trudging through the snow in New Hampshire handing out hundred dollar bills to everyone in sight! (OK, maybe it'll be Chinese Yen; but he'll be there, feeling your pain.) After all, there is "no controlling legal authority" to prevent him from doing this.

When it comes to alarming the public, the politicians and Skip Gray are not alone. If they have not already done so, look for your local television news to run a series of special reports: "Y2K - could you be caught with your chips down?" and "Y2K - Is it coming to get you?" Balderdash!!

There is even a hardcover book called "The Millennium Bug"; recently I glanced through the first 50 pages. They are so full of glaring errors, if the author weren't serious, it would be downright laughable. He writes that the DOS (non-Windows) operating system is not Y2K compliant. Nonsense! Absolute nonsense. Then he says that Windows 95 and Windows 97 are Y2K compliant. The only problem with that is that there is no such thing as Windows 97!! These errors make the rest of the book of questionable value, and therefore absolutely worthless, unless your primary objective is to make a buck by exploiting peoples' fears.

Friends, Franklin Roosevelt nailed it over half a century ago: "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself."

Meanwhile, the nerds are not waiting for the government to kick them out of the spotlight. The eighties did teach them something. A couple years ago they began billing themselves as "Y2K consultants." Rather than charging an outlandish $95 and hour to write dippy program code, they are now selling themselves at $350 an hour as specialized and critical consultants... to go in and fix up the little mess they themselves created 30 years ago. Such a deal!

And business and government are readily paying the price... a price, which, as always, you will ultimately pay. But with the economy booming, we don't notice it and we don't care. So the nerds win another round, at our expense. (But if it matters to you, they're still not getting any sex.)

I don't mean to suggest that there will not be problems - real or imagined - come January 1. But there have always been problems. Remember when you called the telephone company back in the seventies to complain about that $2.50 long distance charge, and they told you, "I'm sorry, I can't help you now; our computer is down"? Well, look for every incident of incompetence in the world to be blamed on Y2K. It is a ready punching-bag with no constituency and no ability to fight back. Before this is over, Bill Clinton will be blaming Y2K for the mess in Kosovo, for crying out loud! People will be using Y2K as a scapegoat for whatever goes wrong well into the next millennium. But no Skip, life as we know it will not come to an end on January 1, 2000. In the big techno-mosaic of life, most of us will hardly notice a thing. Trust me on this one.

Step 12

Step 12 of my recovery program is a little prayer. It goes something like this:

"Grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change": January 1, 2000 will be here, and people will continue to fear it.

"Courage to change those things I can": Buy a new battery for the TV remote control, shut up and get over it.

"And wisdom to know the difference": I'm still working on this one. To be honest, I am already a little concerned about the Y10K problem.

After the storm: The Y2K Denouement

"Y2K For Dummies" is part of Baby Boomer HeadQuarters, the spot on the net for true baby boomers... or baby boomers at heart. We're having a great time with it, and we'd like you to join us. Click here to visit our home page.


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