Bugged By the Millennium
Surely, the 22 people gathered in the back of the Denny's restaurant at LBJ Freeway and Midway Road on this Friday afternoon are kooks. They are there for the weekly lunch meeting of the Dallas Area Y2K Community Preparedness Group to discuss what to do when the world as we know it ends in 16 months. Today's topic is the advantages and disadvantages of various alternatives to electricity.
The group's organizers, four Dallas-area Christians, created the meetings to raise public awareness about the problems they believe will arise at midnight on New Year's Eve 1999, when computer-controlled devices around the globe are expected to begin failing because they aren't programmed to read dates in the new century properly. The problem is known as the Millennium Bug or Y2K, and it has some people scared out of their wits, anticipating global economic collapse after the computers that control everything from the nation's power grid to the world financial system fail.
Hence, the meetings at Denny's.
Ironically, word of the meeting, along with much of the information about the Millennium Bug, is spread over the Internet, where people like the Weatherman, who helps organize the Denny's gatherings, use computers to put out the word of society's pending computerized doom.
The Weatherman asked that the Dallas Observer not publish his real name, because he's been the subject of articles in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Chicago Tribune, and his co-workers are gossiping. They think the Weatherman and his lunch dates are a bunch of "end-time" doomsayers--guns-and-ammo types who are running for the hills because a simple computer problem has convinced them that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping toward them at 400 megahertz.
Listening to the discussion at Denny's, it's no wonder the Weatherman's co-workers are talking.
"The other problem with propane," says the group's guest speaker, "is you get a leak anywhere and, poof, it's gone."
Like most people at the meeting, the man won't say what his name is or where he lives, other than it's in a straw house two hours away in an area where there are few people. He has volunteered to speak here because he knows a lot about alternative fuels and the machines that burn them.
Propane is explosive, and so is gasoline, which is why he has converted to diesel. It's cheap, safer to store, and lasts longer. But no matter what fuel they go with, he warns, they need to plan appropriately.
"Depending on your view of the situation, the fuel you have at the time of the collapse might be all you have for five years," he says, adding that whatever you do, you shouldn't buy a propane tank. "Rent it," he says. "Pay a $250, two-year down payment, and in two years they're bankrupt. And give 'em your Visa number."
A giggle ripples through the crowd. Visa, they're certain, is one of the many companies that will greet the new millennium belly-up, felled by the Y2K bug.
Kelly, a real estate appraiser, shakes his head as he listens.
"They're concentrating too much on electricity. What? You turn the lights on so you can watch each other starve," he says, dabbing a spot of ketchup from the corner of his mouth. Food and water are what this group should be talking about, he says. And security.
Recently he and his wife, a retired teacher, bought land in the Kiamichi Mountains in Oklahoma, and they're planning to relocate there before the collapse. The couple is attracted to the remote location because its isolation provides security from other people, who they think will riot, loot, and shoot once the computer problem becomes a reality.
"You'll never find me," Kelly says. "We are going to build this entire house, and only one person will know, and that's the water-well person. If you're gonna try to get away from people, you need to keep it quiet."
Kelly doesn't think his relocation, which includes plans to stock up on extra food, water, and other supplies, is excessive: When you see a storm coming, he says, it only makes sense to seek shelter. Besides, he and his wife were hoping to live in a more remote area one day, and after they educated themselves about the Y2K problem, they decided to move sooner rather than later.
Kelly didn't make his decision based on some wild information he got from a group of remote survivalists, some of whom are seated in this room. He says he realized how big a problem Y2K is after he read an article by Edward Yardeni, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities, who predicts a 70 percent chance of global recession because of Y2K.
"Our whole society is computer-oriented, but people just take it for granted," Kelly says. "I got this idea that I'm being selfish [by running], but I don't want to be in the middle of chaos. What could you do in the middle of the L.A. riots? And there will be riots.
"I would equate America and our economy with the way people viewed the Titanic. People say, 'How could the economy go down?'" The question is a rhetorical platform from which Kelly and the other people in this room have already leapt.
"Maybe this Year 2000 is God's way of waking us up that maybe we have made an idol out of technology," Kelly says.
Well, it could be.
After all, who's to say that it's not? Fact is, no one knows for certain how far-reaching the effects of the Millennium Bug will be, and that's making it much harder these days to tell the kooks from the merely prudent.
Two things are certain about the year 2000 computer crisis.
One is that Y2K is a crisis, one that respected computer-industry analysts say will cost companies and government agencies between $300 billion and $600 billion just to avoid catastrophe 16 months from now.
The second certainty is that there is no chance that all computers and computer-controlled devices will be fixed on time.
That means there will be computer failures in Dallas, across Texas, all over the United States, and around the globe. The problem is that nobody knows how many failures there will be.
All anyone, even the experts, can do is guess.
And the primary place to play this guessing game is the Internet, that shining gem of the computer revolution. Search the 'net for information on Y2K, and you'll quickly find yourself standing in the middle of a giant electronic cocktail party, a weird mix of the reasonably worried and the out-and-out loonies.
Take, for instance, Gary North, the former Tyler, Texas, resident who gained fame in the 1980s for his books about "Reconstruction-ism." North contends that constitutional democracy has failed and that our system of justice should be replaced by a strict interpretation of the Bible, meaning that gays, adulterers, etc., should be strapped into electric chairs.
National newspapers, such as The Washington Post, were writing about North in the '80s, and now they're writing about him again, only this time it's because he has adopted the impending Y2K collapse as his new cause. So far this year, North has appeared in major daily newspapers from Chicago to Minneapolis to Arizona and beyond.
North has fellow travelers in the Dallas area. One is the Weatherman and his friends. Another is Karen Anderson, a Colleyville homemaker who has created a Web site that advises women on how they can prepare for Y2K and look fashionable at the same time.
There are also people like Bruce Hopkins, who lives in Mesquite with his wife, Phyllis, and is making a pile of money selling dehydrated and freeze-dried food across the country.
These people come from different backgrounds and possess various religious beliefs. But they all agree that, since nobody knows how bad the Y2K crisis will be, it only makes sense to spread the word and encourage people to prepare.
For some, that means moving to the country. To others, it's more prudent to stock up on food, water, generators, and other supplies, the most bizarre of which is "The Keeper," a reusable rubber cup that provides an alternative to tampons.
While some of them are making money selling "preparedness," to dismiss these people as ghoulish profiteers or "end-time" religious nuts and conspiracy theorists--which some of them are--doesn't do justice to the complexity of the Y2K debate.
Like Kelly at Denny's, most of these people didn't grow worried about Y2K after spending a weekend reading Bibles at some remote ranch in Montana. They're worried because they have turned to the most credible Y2K experts they can find, and what they learned wasn't reassuring.
One of the best-known computer experts in this debate is Ed Yourdon, a best-selling author of Time Bomb 2000, a 400-page book that attempts to explain how Y2K could affect people and suggests ways they should prepare.
In July, Yourdon captured international headlines when he announced that he was moving from New York to Taos, New Mexico, because he thinks the Big Apple will "resemble Beirut" within days of the new year.
Yourdon is not the only expert who is saying scary things.
Another is author and University of North Texas professor Leon Kappelman, the co-chair of a national group of Y2K computer programmers who are feverishly working to fix the problem.
"We're at war against all these broken pieces of technology. Literally, there are billions and billions of points of potential failure," Kappelman says. "The problem is, it's hard to get a handle on what the probabilities are. Everywhere [computer programmers] have looked, they've found problems. It doesn't mean every one of them is broken, but a lot of them are."
Kappelman knows that more and more people are packing their kids into urban assault vehicles and ditching the city, and he doesn't like it. But that's not necessarily because he thinks they're entirely wrong about Y2K.
"The people that are running for the hills are assuming high-probability, worst-case scenario, and they're responding to a lack of information," Kappelman says. "I would call them cowards because they're not staying to fight the war."
Would that be mankind's war against the billions and billions of little, byte-sized Frankensteins it created?
Dallas computer consultant Bill Wachel has already enlisted in the war.
In May 1996, Wachel created D/FW Prep 2000, an informal group that meets the third Friday of every month at the Wyatt's cafeteria on Forest Lane, not too far from Denny's.
The meetings are designed to raise awareness about Y2K by giving program managers from Dallas-area businesses and government agencies a forum in which they can share information about the problems they're finding as they scramble to make their computer systems "Y2K compliant."
The group's speakers have included representatives from Texas Instruments, American Airlines, the city of Dallas, GTE, and Texas Utilities. Company representatives who regularly attend the meetings hail from Frito-Lay, Mary Kay cosmetics, EDS, and Mobile Oil, to name a few.
"The good news is, compared to where we were three years ago, there's a tremendous amount of awareness," Wachel says. "I can remember when there were 100 people around the United States, myself included, and we were literally begging Fortune to write about this, and nothing happened."
The problem Wachel and others like him are battling stems from the way computers store dates. When computers were first made, programmers decided to save precious electronic storage space by lopping the first two digits off the year in dates. So August 27, 1998, for example, is stored as 08/27/98. The computers were told to assume that '98 means 1998.
As far as computers know, the year 2000 doesn't exist. So at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, computers that aren't Y2K compliant will see that the date is 01/01/00 and assume it is January 1, 1900.
It's a relatively simple problem to fix technically; the trouble is one of scale. Computer programs are made up of thousands of lines of computer code, and incorrect dates are scattered throughout those lines like seashells on a beach.
There are also dates hidden in the codes of "embedded chips," the tiny brains that control everything from elevators and traffic lights to factory robots.
In April, Fortune published an article featuring Ralph J. Szygenda, the chief information officer at General Motors, whose rare candid assessment of GM's Y2K situation illustrates the potential for disaster that the bug presents.
When Szygenda arrived at GM in late 1996, he said he was stunned that most of the company's factory managers assumed Y2K didn't affect them. So Szygenda hired 91 experts who, along with squads of GM technicians and programmers, inspected GM's 117 facilities in 35 countries. When they were done, even Szygenda was shocked.
"At each one of our factories there are catastrophic problems," Szygenda told Fortune. "Amazingly enough, machines on the factory floor are far more sensitive to incorrect dates than we ever anticipated. When we tested robotic devices for transition into the year 2000, for example, they just froze and stopped operating."
GM expects to spend up to $550 million to correct the problem, but even if they find every one of the millions of incorrect dates, the company could still see its manufacturing line halted in the new millennium. That's because 100,000 suppliers around the world deliver essential parts to GM on a "just-in-time" basis, meaning that the company's factories don't warehouse extra parts. If a supplier shuts down because of a computer glitch, GM employees and hundreds of suppliers could find themselves out of work, waiting on critical parts.
"That is the worst-case scenario," Szygenda says, "and yet it's a very real threat."
Of course, GM will eventually find a way to fix its assembly lines. The companies less likely to survive are the smaller suppliers. If many of those businesses go out of business, Wachel and others say, unemployment will likely rise, and a recession could set in.
Although all federally insured banks now appear to have their computer systems well on their way to being Y2K compliant, Wachel says there's a chance that the country could experience bank runs depending on how people react when, and if, many businesses fail.
"If there is a perception that [the economy] is going to fail, it could cause people to sell their stocks and create chaos," Wachel says. "If people perceive there's failure, it's probable that there will be failure."
And people are already concerned. Wachel says the important thing to remember is that it's still too early to panic.
"People ask me, 'Bill, are you going to sell all your investments?' I tell them, 'I don't know yet. I'll make the decision next summer.'"
In the meantime, Wachel says the best way for computer illiterates to understand what the Y2K problem means to them is to consider what's possible vs. what's probable. Take electricity. If there are mass power outages, electrically controlled gas pumps won't be able to pump gas into trucks. Those trucks won't be able to make deliveries to grocery stores. In several days, the grocery-store shelves will be empty, and people will begin to panic.
"It's possible for a lot of infrastructure to fail," Wachel says. "It is not probable."
That's because, in Dallas anyway, TU electric has spent some $16 million since early 1996 to fix the problem, and company officials are confident that they'll meet the deadline without an interruption in power, says company spokesman Eric Schmitt.
"Our testing is showing good results. Our overall plan is to have most work and some testing done by the end of this year," Schmitt says. "We want to have the majority of '99 for us to test and review our work."
And that's exactly where companies, large or small, should be, Wachel says. By the end of this year, all companies should have inventoried their computer systems, assessed the extent of their Y2K problems, and fixed or replaced their computers. That leaves an entire year for those companies to test the new systems for flaws.
Not surprisingly, Schmitt dismisses the doomsayers' concerns that the nation's power grid will fail somewhere and cause the lights to go out in Dallas.
"There are natural phenomena that have affected generating systems since the beginning of electric utilities. So there are systems in place to help us mitigate the consequences of those situations," Schmitt says. "There isn't anything in our testing that gives us concern, but we're not finished."
While the electric grid is unlikely to fail, Wachel points out that there are any number of areas that are likely to experience snags. Embedded chips in traffic lights, for instance.
While the city is replacing those chips as part of its $3 million Y2K project, it's possible that some traffic lights will go off. More likely is the chance that on Saturday, January 1, 2000, the chips will assume it's Monday, January 1, 1900, and cause the lights to change according to the patterns they are programmed to run during the week.
Elevators face a similar problem. In big office buildings, the elevators are programmed to behave differently at various times during the workweek. In the mornings, they usually hang out around the bottom of a building to carry people to their offices. At noon and at the end of the day, they float between the higher floors so they can bring people out of the building.
It's possible that on New Year's Day 2000, they could stop between two floors, trapping the unlucky stiff--probably a computer programmer--who has to work that day. But it's more likely that the elevators will think it's Monday and begin floating between floors even though there's nobody there to push their buttons.
"Will there be failures? Yes. I don't think that life as we know it will change," Wachel says. "I think there will be a lot of annoyances and minor inconveniences."
If the Y2K crisis is a war, then we need soldiers to fight the war. And just where are we going to find these soldiers? Kappelman suggests you look in the mirror.
"We don't head for the hills now. We don't say, 'Oh, the hell with it.' That's what people like Gary [North] want. He hopes the global economy collapses, and we go back to Calvinism," Kappelman says. "Well, fine, that's not the world I'm working for. We already tried Calvinism, and that's why people got on boats and sailed to a new world."
The first course of action that Kappelman, Wachel, and other Y2K consultants suggest you take is to stop and think about what you do every day.
When your alarm goes off in the morning, that's the first moment you interact with computers, because they affect the flow of electricity to your house. Computers are also in the coffee maker and the burglar alarm. They're in cars, and they're certainly at work, where you slave away to get a paper check, which you take to the bank to get money so you can buy food. Computers also control the flow of information on Wall Street, where your stockbroker is tinkering with your retirement money and the banks are investing your savings.
The second course of action, Kappelman says, is to begin calling every company you interact with, including the banks, the utilities, and especially local government officials. Those people are in charge of running the city, they spend your tax dollars, and they usually work best when their constituents get in their faces.
"Everyone has a role to play," Kappelman says. "I'm a little professor at a mid-sized college in North Texas, and over the course of several years, I've been able to have international impact on public policy just by being outspoken. Everyone can do that."
The problem with that plan is that when you call, it's very unlikely that you're going to get a candid answer, says Wachel.
"[People] should be checking with those agencies, but those agencies won't tell them they're not going to make it. No one is going to go on the record and say there's going to be a failure because of liability," Wachel says.
The $300 billion to $600 billion that is being spent to correct the Y2K problem could surpass $1 trillion thanks, in part, to Y2K-related lawsuits. Computer vendors and software publishers have already found themselves being sued over non-compliant products, according to Information Week.
A more subtle difficulty with Kappelman's plan of action is that when you really think about how much you use computers, you realize how detached you are from the things you need to survive. When is the last time you ate a tomato that you picked from your own garden? It's more likely that the last tomato you ate was loaded on a truck and shipped hundreds of miles to the neighborhood grocery store.
What if, for some seemingly unlikely Y2K reason, that grocery store is closed one day. Then another, and another, and soon there's no food left in the fridge?
Bruce Hopkins and his wife, Phyllis, have a suggestion.
The Hopkins' nondescript white house at the corner of Cascade Street and Crest Park Drive in Mesquite is a clearinghouse for thousands of people across the United States who are hastily preparing for survival in 2000.
With the exception of an immense satellite dish that's planted in the back yard, the run-down house looks like all the other run-down houses in this working-class neighborhood. The cement driveway cracks beneath the weight of several late-model sedans, their dented bumpers still bearing red, white, and blue stickers from Bob Dole's 1992 presidential campaign.
A clue to the Hopkins' rising popularity is a flier attached to the back of a red pickup truck. In bold letters, the flier admonishes passersby to STORE FOOD NOW!
Bruce and Phyllis Hopkins are the happy and increasingly prosperous purveyors of a booming 4-year-old enterprise they call Best Price Storable Foods. This fact is evident the moment Bruce Hopkins swings open his front door at 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday.
Forty-eight-ounce cans of dehydrated and freeze-dried food are everywhere. Strawberry-flavored apple slices, cabbage flakes, sweet peas, and mushroom slices bury a desk in the living room. More cans of green beans, diced carrots, potato flakes, and powdered butter fill up closets and flow into the hallway, where temporary shelves have been erected to create more space.
In a back office, a second desk is buried under a mound of paperwork consisting of dozens of order forms, which the couple's customers place by phone, mail, and fax 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"The voice-mail holds 30 calls, and we empty it a couple of times a day, maybe more. Sometimes the phone rings at three in the morning," Phyllis says. "Some days, all we get done is answering the phone."
Four years ago, the Hopkinses began selling storable food because Rush Limbaugh and his ilk had finally convinced them that the government lies, is the people's worst enemy, and will cause the country to go to hell.
"It was mainly from listening to conservative talk radio. I started getting nervous about the state of the country, and I realized I didn't know how to grow my own food," Hopkins says. "When I started, year 2000 wasn't even a consideration."
The Hopkinses used to think they had a good month if they saw $1,500 in sales, which they captured by placing advertisements in ultra-conservative papers such as The Washington Times and American Survival Guide.
But since January, their business has exploded because of concerns over food shortages caused by Y2K. Their clientele, mostly conservative Christians, are finding the Hopkinses on their Web site. Now the couple says they're on pace for recording a quarter million dollars in sales in August alone.
"Most of them say [they] want to order food because of the year 2000, " says Bruce, who earns a 10 percent commission on everything he sells. "When this [Y2K] run started, I figured we'll do about a half million in sales. The calls kept coming. Then I thought, a million. Now I think it'll be closer to four million."
"And," Phyllis adds, "mainstream America has not gotten involved yet."
The quarter million figure Bruce bandies about seems hard to believe, until the couple turns on the ringers to their phones. Within minutes, people from across the country begin calling to place orders, many of them happy to shell out the $3,000 the Hopkinses charge for a one-year supply of food that feeds a family of four.
UNT's Kappelman may be right in criticizing the Hopkins' customers, calling them cowards who are panicking because they are short on information about Y2K. But Penny, from Arizona, says she has considered the ideas of people like Kappelman, and Y2K has made her realize how computer-oriented our country has become. But instead of fighting to keep society the way it is, she would rather live the way society was when people lived off the land.
"When I first learned about Y2K, I studied the issue for six months on the Internet. By the end of my six months, everything was pointing to, 'Let's just get some food,'" says Penny, who is planning to move to a more rural place in Arizona. There, she says, she hopes to raise animals and grow her own food.
"I wanted to get out onto some acreage," Penny says. "I don't want to be dependent on city utilities, and I want to become self-sufficient. I wanted to do that anyway, but this [Y2K issue] really put a fire under my belt."
Bruce Hopkins says he never expected the business to become a full-time job when he started it four years ago as a way to supplement the $30,000 a year he made working at a Garland-based satellite-equipment manufacturing plant. Now he can't believe the friends in high places he's made.
Hopkins pulls out a faxed food order from the U.S. Department of Justice sent by a lawyer who works there. He dials the phone number on the fax and the man answers the phone. He sounds happy to hear from Bruce, who informs him there's a reporter in the house. He asks that his name not be used.
"Personally, I am preparing for the worst case," says the man.
Is this man, and other survivalists like him, just a little paranoid? The man dismisses the notion with a laugh. He knows that most people think his views qualify him as an extremist--especially his co-workers.
"Most of the people [here] don't believe it. They're sailing blindly along. They believe in the system," he says. "But we'll be mainstream soon enough. The crazies are starting to become mainstream."
Bruce Hopkins nods his head and cracks a joke. He's amused that his business has landed his name in a newspaper that isn't published by an ultra-conservative right winger. He expects that to happen more often in the next year.
"In two weeks," he tells the man on the phone, "we'll bring you Phil Donahue."
Karen Anderson hasn't made it onto Phil Donahue's show--and she isn't likely to, since he's not on TV anymore--but she has been a guest on the show of former Dallas pudgy turned fitness guru Susan Powter.
"Susan Powter doesn't think I'm an extremist," Anderson says.
On this Tuesday afternoon, Anderson and her husband, Steve, are seated at a table inside the Applebee's restaurant located a few minutes from their Colleyville home. Their two daughters, 15-year-old Kelly and 13-year-old Stephanie, sit across from them, delicately munching on a plate of mozzarella sticks. They occasionally touch their jaws, which are yellow and bruised.
"We got [wisdom] teeth pulled, seriously. I really did it because of Y2K," Anderson says, emitting a nervous laugh. "A lot of this stuff with year 2000 is we don't know. If you have to have elective surgery, do it before the equipment goes bad or before the rush. It's the pre-panic position."
Anderson is nervous because she's worried that people will read about her and conclude that she's a kook. In August, she spent a lot of time with a reporter from Reuters, and the only thing he published about her was something she said about guns. She was trying to tell the man that it isn't weird to prepare for Y2K because it could represent TEOTWAWKI, which is pronounced tee-OH-tawa-kee. It means, Anderson explains, "the end of the world as we know it."
The R.E.M. song comes to mind, and Kelly and Stephanie begin singing in unison: "It's the end of world as we know it. It's. The. End. Of the world as we know it. And I feel fiiiine." Anderson adopts a puzzled expression. "Is that a song?" she asks.
Moms. They never know what crap the kids are listening to these days.
The girls giggle and return their attention to the mozzarella sticks.
The Andersons left Washington, D.C., and moved to Colleyville in 1990, at which point Karen says she was planning to work on Gary North's publication called Remnant Review. By the time she got here, though, Anderson says, the deal fell through.
She originally thought her increasingly popular cyber advice column, called "Dear Karen," would appear as a supplement on North's Web site, but in June Anderson set up her own Web site. Since then, Anderson says, 1,056 people subscribe to Dear Karen, which is designed to advise women about how they can prepare for Y2K.
The idea of the Web site was born during a dinner the Andersons say they had with Gary North. At the time, it seemed to Karen that the Y2K debate was too technical for many women to understand.
"I said, Gary, these guys are going home to their wives saying, 'The world's going to end, let's sell the house,' and she's saying, 'What?' I said, Gary, you have to do something to help women understand," Anderson says. "Since then, I would say a lot of my e-mail is from women who say, 'I get it, and I'm scared, but my husband is sticking his head in the sand.'"
Anderson has discovered that the most efficient way to get women to understand the problems Y2K presents is by comparing the situation to a natural disaster, like a blizzard or a hurricane.
Another method Anderson uses is to talk about insurance.
"How many people say to themselves, 'Gosh, I'm really tired of paying on my house insurance. I don't think my house is going to burn down, so I'll stop paying my premiums,'" Anderson says. "Y2K is a risk that everybody is facing, but I try to position it so it's not overwhelming. That's what I'm trying to do--minimize panic."
For Anderson, the key to preparing is knowing how to shop. And the best way to shop is in increments: There's still a year and a half before TEOTWAWKI, and that means you can slowly build up a stockpile of food, water, and supplies without seeing a huge impact on your pocketbook.
Steve Anderson pipes in: "It's just good to be prepared. We have buckets of grain."
Karen clucks. "That makes us sound weird," she says, exchanging a private look with Steve. "I remember I thought it was weird when you bought them.
"I thought it was very weird," Karen says. "However, it is 21 going on 22 years later, and it's still good."
Karen says there is more to this Y2K thing than just making preparations for the palate. There's also a psychological and emotional side.
"We're gonna have to make adjustments, and we're not used to that. As Americans, there's always electricity. There's always clean water. If there's not, it gets fixed. We're spoiled. People don't realize how fragile we are," she says.
Even if all the electricity goes out and "changes my world," Anderson says, the Y2K collapse, if it happens, may not be all that bad for families who have grown distant from one another. There are sitcoms on TV and movies in VCRs. There are computer games and CDs, which are always spinning inside portable players plugged with headphones.
"How much time do families spend together? Not much," she says. "When there's a crisis, everybody reevaluates their priorities."
The message has taken hold even among the Andersons' teenage children.
"My older one, Kelly, she's supposed to graduate from high school in the year 2000. I knew she got the concept when she said to me, 'Mom, do you think I'll graduate?'" Anderson says.
The advice columnist pauses, dropping her head into the palm of her hands. It is a question she's thought about a lot lately.
"I said, I don't know."
It is hard to know what to think about Y2K.
The more you try to learn about Y2K, so you can finally rest assured that there's nothing to worry about, the more you realize that maybe there is something to think about. The problem is, whom do you believe?
There are all kinds of people like Gary North, the Weatherman, and Karen Anderson, who are surging through the wires of the Internet and into our homes and minds. And there are all sorts of people like Ed Yourdon, Edward Yardeni, and Leon Kappelman, who have similarly disturbing things to say. Their credible positions make their gloomy assessments of the situation much harder to ignore.
If you don't believe them, you can always look at the examples being set by an increasing number of computer programmers, the people who are being paid to fix the Y2K problem. The August issue of Wired magazine profiled several programmers who, after seeing the extent of the problem staring up at them from their computer screens, picked up their stakes and moved to the sticks, loads of dehydrated food and assault rifles in tow.
Perhaps you should turn your computer off and take a walk around the block. There's gotta be a computer programmer, a Y2K lawyer, or a business owner living in one of those houses that you've never been inside. It can't hurt to ask them what, if anything, they're doing to prepare for the year 2000 computer crisis. You never know--you just might be surprised by what they say.
Bob Thomas stabs at a house salad inside a TGIFriday's restaurant in North Dallas. He publishes a new, and what will probably be a short-lived, magazine called Year 2000 Journal. The glossy magazine is aimed at computer programmers, and it's filled with all sorts of technical articles that detail specific Y2K problems.
Thomas says he tries to keep the magazine focused on technical issues, but on occasion he'll throw in some wild statistic or horrifying quote just to scare his readers, hoping those who aren't taking the problem seriously will change their minds.
"If you have to motivate them by fear, let's do it. But if they're paralyzed with fear, they won't get anything done," Thomas says. "It's almost like a war-like mentality. You've got to be careful about what you say because you might cause a panic."
Thomas isn't scared. He is worried about the federal government because many of its agencies, most notably the IRS, are hopelessly behind and will never become Y2K compliant in time. But he isn't storing food or taking his money out of the bank.
On New Year's Eve 1999, Thomas says, he's going to sit back in his chair, flip on CNN, and watch as reports of Y2K failures from around the world begin pouring in and humanity stumbles and crashes into the next century. It's going to be quite a show.
Until then, he's going to continue to do his part in the war, publishing a magazine with the hopes of spreading awareness. And you should do your part too, he says, no matter how small or personal it may be.
"If we would have had a nation filled with cowards in 1941," he says, "we'd be speaking German right now."
At one o'clock, the attendees at the Denny's at LBJ and Midway begin to file out of the room. They have to get back to work, at least for the time being.
A tall, quiet woman with long brown hair and hazel eyes stays behind. She sat through the whole meeting and didn't say a word, but now she has a question for the guest speaker. She has decided to convert her house to solar power, a decision that will cost about $2,000. She wants to know what kind of panels to install.
The woman is dressed in a floral patterned skirt and a white T-shirt. She declines to give her name or discuss her plans at any length.
"My extended family already thinks I'm crazy," she says. She has already begun storing extra food and water. "You insure your car, don't you?" she says. "This food storage insures your stomach."
The guest speaker listens as she explains that she's concluded that the year 2000 computer crisis fits into her Christian beliefs.
"So you believe in the Rapture?" he asks. The question is one he is apparently used to asking.
The woman nods her head. "Oh yes," she says, pausing.
In that moment, a smile slips onto her face, and her eyes shimmer like topaz in the afternoon sunlight.
"I believe this is the beginning of the end-times."
Well, she could be right.
After all, who's to say she's not?
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