From TLD, Whole Number 22 (October 28, 1998)


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Tightrope to the 21st century


The company that pays me big bucks each month to go to diversity meetings and take surreal cab rides and experience many of the other traumas with which I regale the readers of this fine publication has recently undergone a massive conversion effort to make its computer system Year 2000 compliant.

For the benefit of any of you, O Best Beloved, who have been living in an isolation chamber for the past couple of years, the Y2K Problem alludes to the inability of older computer programs to read two-digit representations of the year that arrives after December 31, 1999. There is a virtual certainty that computers large and small (except, mirabile dictu, for Macs), in all their roles, will stop doing all the neat stuff that they currently do to make the world's commerce go round. That includes things like making the trains run (forget about on time; we're talking about at all), controlling the power grid, operating the fuel-injection mechanism in your car, and keeping the life-support systems functioning in the intensive-care unit of the county hospital. Granted, if we're lucky, the IRS and various other tentacles of the federal and local governments will also strangle and die just as agonizingly as Aunt Evangeline on her respirator down at the Home, but enjoying those governmental death throes won't be as much fun as it could be if we aren't able to record them for future chuckles because the VCR has suddenly turned into a paperweight.

All of this chaos will begin to be felt when computer systems start dealing with dates in the year 2000 and beyond. Depending on the system, and what it's programmed to do, that can start happening well before the actual witching hour. Already, credit card purchases made with cards bearing the expiration date of "00" are being rejected by banks. The U.S. government, which begins its fiscal year on October 1, may seize up at least in part in the fall of 1999.

As part of my company's Y2K conversion efforts, those of us who were actually designing and implementing our computer modifications did a lot of reading about worst-case scenarios. It's almost impossible to get an accurate picture of the problem's scope because nobody knows exactly what proportion of banks, public utilities, private industry, and other computer users worldwide have even begun to assess their situations, let alone how far along they are in their corrective actions; but no survey of any sort indicates that even 50 percent of them are 50 percent compliant or can be before the clock runs out.

As the astonishing and far-reaching scope of the situation has begun to surface in the media, there has developed an impressive cottage industry of doomsayers with handbooks and newsletters and survival kits (all bearing hefty price tags) explaining things their prospective customers can do to minimize the damage when the machines all stop. Shop around and you can find checklists updated from back when we were all furnishing our fallout shelters; purveyors of dried foods of all sorts; vendors of Arctic-rated sleeping bags; and tips on how to perform do-it-yourself medical procedures. Clearly, the vaunted bridge to the 21st century that the First Satyr and his tree-hugging VP were babbling on about during the last presidential race is not the sturdy feat of engineering we had hoped. A more compelling image is a sagging tightrope bearing a pyramid of wind-tossed Walendas trying to make it to the other side without a net.

The Dare household has begun a certain amount of preparation for a nasty few weeks of camping out in our ancestral living room. Having assessed the predictions of how big a disaster is brewing, we've decided it's pretty much anybody's guess. The expert prognostications range from the end of civilization as we know it to business as usual. Since civilization as we know it isn't all that great any more, there's a fairly small window of opportunity during which any self-help survival measures are worth applying. After more than a month or six weeks without electrical power, electronic commerce, telecommunications, or other amenities, the wolves will have made it through the front door and out the back, having picked our bones in the interim. The best we can do is buy enough time to reread On the Beach and Riddley Walker, or some other post-apocalyptic tome of choice.

Readers of this worthy publication have enough sense and forethought to compile their own Walenda Lists (my own term; I'm thinking of applying for a registered trademark) of things to stockpile in the basement as 1999 draws to a close: bottled water, chlorine bleach, kerosene lanterns, tinned foods, and so on. There is, however, one area of preparation that many people might overlook, and in the interest of public service, I hereby present it to you as a reminder. Gratis. Although the random thank offering of junk silver or small, sturdily sealed jars of Beluga caviar will not be spurned, if anyone cares to demonstrate appreciation for this brilliant insight.

One of the annoying developments in health care during the past few years has been the tightening regulation of prescription medications. My health insurance plan, which is actually one of the less Stalinist schemes, allows me to refill prescriptions in single-month allotments, no sooner than 24 days after the last refill. If my health-care provider (Newspeak for GP) tries to help out by writing a prescription for more than the standard 30 days' usage for whatever malady I suffer, the insurance company refuses to authorize my pharmacist to issue the excess amount. This entire rationing plan is controlled by a computer complex in Missouri, which refuses to release my pharmacist's reimbursements for services rendered if the services aren't rendered in accordance with the timetable. Another computer network carries my pharmacist's requests for stock from his shop to a central distribution warehouse. Another network dispatches the bulk pharmaceuticals from the factory to the distribution center. The failure of any of those networks, or others snuggled deeper into the supply chain infrastructure, on December 31, 1999, will have an inhibiting effect on my being able to refill my blood pressure medication on January 3, 2000, which in turn will have a negative effect on the stress levels that make the medication necessary in the first place.

Let us assume that no easing of the refill inhibitions is authorized in November or December, in order to avoid unseemly demand or otherwise let on that things will go to hell in a handcart come January. How can the cautious planner get his hands on 30 or 45 days' worth of prescription medication without resorting to mail-order houses in questionable Third World locales whose standards of chemical purity are iffy at best? Chez Dare, we've started getting our prescriptions refilled every 27 days, on the dot, for a new 30 days' worth of doses. The extra three days' allocation is then diverted into a stockpile which in 10 months' time will give us an extra month's medication. We're expecting to have about 45 days' worth of our nostrums of choice tucked away next to the crate of Spam by the time the lights go out on Dick Clark in Times Square.

If any of you faithful readers has a brilliant insight to add to our tool kit of survival skills, please communicate the same to N. Strakon c/o The Last Ditch, and they will be included in my next column. Any creative heirloom recipes featuring Spam will also be received with deep gratitude (and will place Mr. Dare in the sender's eternal debt).

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where there lingers a folk memory of the last time the centralizers and uniformizers inflicted a Year Zero — in 1865.

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