Lawyers, guns, money?

Pundits and insiders reveal their personal preparations for Y2K disaster.


Janelle Brown
February 9, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

What are you doing to prepare for Y2K?

Expect to hear this question a lot over the next 327 days -- that is, if you haven't already. Millennium Bug paranoia is now officially running rampant throughout the mainstream media, as "60 Minutes" and Vanity Fair alike warn of potentially dire consequences (power grids down! stock market crashes! riots and looting!) if that nasty computer glitch isn't fixed immediately.

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The catch, of course, is that no one actually knows what to expect on Jan. 1, 2000. Various Y2K experts predict everything from total disaster to mere minor glitches. Still, survivalists and angst-ridden geeks have long been stocking up on beans, guns and gold. And now they're being joined by "experts" as diverse as Leonard Nimoy and the Utne Reader, which is distributing Y2K preparation guides complete with shopping lists and community-building advice.

How to gauge what's really in store? Rather than turn to the pundits for more general predictions, we decided to ask technology industry leaders, Internet insiders and journalist experts what their personal Y2K plans were. We already know that throngs of systems administrators will be spending New Year's Eve 1999 baby-sitting corporate networks and praying that nothing goes kablooey. We've heard all the press releases about corporate progress toward Y2K readiness. But what are people's plans -- if any -- for themselves, their homes, their finances and their families?

Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly & Associates

Am I preparing? Not particularly. However, if the religious right continues to get active about this issue, I will start to worry, because we may then end up having to defend ourselves from survivalist gangs who are creating a crisis because they fear it.

Really, the fact that churches are starting to run Y2K seminars is the thing that I find the scariest. As a technical problem, Y2K is a pain in the butt, and something that is soaking up a lot of MIS time and energy that could be spent on better things. But ultimately, it's not a lot more trouble than spring cleaning on a worldwide scale. Cleanup from our various environmental sins, or nuclear waste storage, are much bigger problems. And global warming gives me the willies every time I open the paper ... But Y2K has a name that invokes millennial fears, and has a nice ring for everyone to get worked up about.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

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I've heard that many people are hoarding cash and food just in case civilization collapses. My strategy is to hoard guns and ammo so I can take the cash and food from the people who didn't do a good job thinking through the "collapse of society" concept.

I don't expect much trouble from computer malfunctions. But I do think there will be so many nut-jobs trying to kill themselves that the air will be thick with stray bullets. And I suspect the residents of inner cities will take the opportunity to loot stores if the lights so much as flicker.

The biggest Y2K risk is that the impeachment hearings will be over and no famous people will have killed anyone lately. The media will be forced to blow the Y2K "threat" into huge proportions in order to attract viewers. That in turn will make the fake crisis a real one, which can only mean one thing: more media stories analyzing whether the media is doing the wrong thing.

I'm actually hoping a celebrity slays someone just so we can get better news programs in December.

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Denise Caruso, digital commerce/technology columnist for the New York Times

I am not particularly alarmed about it, but neither do I intend to be in midair or on a freeway -- or on any road where there are traffic signals or other vehicles, for that matter. I am going to be sure I have enough cash on hand to last a few days or so. I will stock up on water, canned food, candles and firewood. I'm going to have my financial papers in order for what might be a chaotic post-Y2K reconciliation process.

What do I think is going to happen? I have no bloody f'ing idea, but then again, neither do some of the smartest people in the world. So why take chances? Considering who else shares this feeling, and considering how long everybody's been yammering on about Y2K, it seems unnecessarily stupid not to be ready for something.

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Eric Raymond, free software/open source advocate

I'm putting food in the basement, installing a gas-powered generator, and I've got a shotgun.

The worst case I'm planning for starts with the banks and telephone system crashing. This could take out the food transport network and the power grid, resulting in a couple of weeks of rolling power outages and sporadic food riots near major cities. A serious economic depression lasting a year or more is a distinct possibility.

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I give this scenario 20 percent odds. The only good news is that the IRS will not survive.

Jonathan Weber, editor in chief of the Industry Standard

Nothing is going to happen. The Y2K millennialism is hilarious, or pathetic, or an interesting cultural study, but it hasn't a thing to do with anything that will actually happen to computer systems on 1/1/2000. Y2K is a software problem, one of many, many, many software problems that affect computers all the time. It's the job of the people who run big computer systems to fix these kinds of problems, and they're busily fixing them.

Think about it: Who has an interest in promoting the Y2K problem? Just about everyone. Computer consultants looking for fees, IS managers looking for bigger budgets, software and hardware companies looking to sell new stuff, executives looking for excuses to miss earnings, government officials looking for bigger budgets and excuses to overspend them anyway, religious leaders looking for Armageddon and, yes, journalists looking for stories. Who has an interest in downplaying the problem, especially at the risk of being wrong? Well, no one. So we're all one big happy conspiracy. People are gonna be sooo disappointed when the clock strikes and nothing happens.

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Gail Williams, executive director of The Well

I have been trained in earthquake disaster recovery through a neighborhood emergency training program called NERT, co-sponsored by the San Francisco Fire Department. I have the flashlights, canned food, camping equipment and first aid at the ready for quakes, anyway. I don't expect to use them, but stocking emergency supplies is a good practice anyway.

Earthquake prep is great for Y2K, since you get a giddy feeling that at least you won't have to be walking around with a crowbar to try to pry your neighbors out from building wreckage.

Larry Wall, creator of the programming language Perl

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It should be illegal to yell "Y2K" in a crowded economy.

That's an oversimplification of my views, of course. But I do believe that the first-order effects of software failure may well be outweighed by the second-order effects of panic: hoarding, hiding and a hideous waste of trees. Not to mention lawyers.

Certainly, Perl itself is not subject to the Y2K bug (though of course it's possible to write buggy code in any language). Because Perl is so good at rapid solutions, I like to think that, in the first two weeks of the year 2000, Perl will be the language of choice for cleaning up the Y2K messes left by other languages. Though doubtless I'm a bit prejudiced in the matter.

Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community"

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First of all I am talking to my neighbors -- because if we are cut off from services, our neighbors are the first line of support. And I live in an earthquake, flood and fire zone, so it never hurts.

I believe that there is a non-trivial chance that a major disruption of services could occur. Most likely is that there will be a series of pesky outages over a period of months.

Richard Brandt, editor in chief of Upside

I'm putting together a TV crew and a computer connected via satellite to the Internet. We're going to charter a plane with an elevator in it and take off from Australia as midnight approaches on Dec. 31, 1999, and fly west. We're going to try to stay in midnight time zones as long as possible as we fly across the world, riding up and down in the elevator, transmitting a running commentary of our experiences to a Web site. People will log onto our site from their bunkers, waiting to see how quickly disaster strikes us. Our Web site will run ads from companies that sell disaster recovery systems.

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Spencer Ante, Y2K reporter for TheStreet.com

I haven't started yet but I plan to stockpile some basic items like batteries, water, some cans of soup and other dry goods. And I also plan to take out an extra week's worth of cash, as well as collect a bunch of paper backups for all my financial assets and investments. I also might fine-tune my investment portfolio to include some more money in bonds as opposed to stocks.

Rob Malda, founder of the "news for nerds" site Slashdot.org

I'm not preparing much -- I've upgraded my systems to the latest versions of everything important, and I'll back everything up.

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I think this is mostly media hype. It's a nice apocalypse story for the newsies to freak people out about. I'm not really concerned about nukes or other craziness, and I'll have tapes of data if anything on my end goes awry. Presumably banks backup their data as well.

Some systems will blow up. Some data will get fried. Some shit will hit the fan. And on Jan. 2, we'll restore from backup tapes and fix things up. And a few weeks later, we'll laugh at how amazingly paranoid the world was.

Declan McCullagh, Y2K reporter for Wired News

A year ago, I was much more pessimistic about Y2K than I am now. I did begin to think of preparing for infrastructure disruptions and subscribed to Home Power magazine.

Fortunately, I eventually realized that serious disruptions were unlikely, and I never did waste my money on that generator and solar array. Companies have moved reasonably speedily to fix their problems -- they have a market incentive to do so -- and the embedded system problem has turned out not to be the show-stopper that some predicted it would be.

Right now I'm much more optimistic about Y2K. I'm not sure whether I'll be with my family on 1-1-00, or at one of the many tech-themed parties that are sprouting around the Washington area.

Edward Yourdon, author of "Time Bomb 2000"

I would prefer not to create any more publicity or attention for myself
by talking about my own plans (not that they're all that dramatic or
unusual).

As for my opinion on what's going to happen: I've grown more
pessimistic in the past six months, simply because there is now
overwhelming evidence that small companies, small towns and small
countries are making almost no effort. Even if the big companies,
big cities and advanced countries succeed in their Y2K remediation
efforts (which is far from obvious), the impact of non-compliance at
the bottom end of the food chain is likely to be pretty serious. I
believe that we will face a year of moderate-to-serious technological
disruptions, and a decade of economic depression.

Jaron Lanier, digital composer, visual programmer and virtual reality pioneer

I keep on getting asked about Y2K, which is a shame, because it's one of the less interesting things to worry about. What will happen is that there will be some problems and we'll muddle through. The worst off will be semi-industrialized developing countries like China and Brazil. I'm more worried about loony human beings suffering from PMS (pre-millennial syndrome) than malfunctioning computers -- so I'll avoid Times Square and other hot spots for that reason.

Y2K will teach us how in control we are of our computers -- and that's an important thing to know. Are they really beyond our control and turning into a new life form, or are they an engineered infrastructure, like the highway system, that depends on us for maintenance? It's salutary that Y2K is coming when it is -- imagine if this sort of test were only to arrive 50 years from now? Then we'd be in some trouble.


Paul Saffo, director of
Institute for the Future

I am not doing anything special to prepare. My advice to those who have
asked is to pursue
a strategy of "prudent avoidance." Be sensible, keep your head and resist
the alarmists, for they will cause more harm than the actual computer
glitches. A major disruption is unlikely in the extreme, but of course not
impossible. It would be foolhardy to load up on survival food
and run to the hills. It would be foolish to sell your tech stocks and buy
gold. But consider the possibility (however unlikely) of a major glitch
and plan accordingly. If you don't have to travel around Jan. 1,
don't.

In general, my advice is to do what I try to do every New Year's -- stay
home and read a good book (my preferred way of spending the New Year's in
general). People tend to act like fools on New Year's, but this year is
likely to be worse then usual. I worry more about drunk drivers, idiots
shooting off guns to celebrate the new year and religious crazies than I
do about misbehaving computers. A timely book to read is the pre-Victorian
classic by Charles MacKay, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness
of Crowds."


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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