Remembering Y2K: A “Survivor’s” Tale

Hard to believe just how fast ten or twelve years can pass.  Of course, they’ve been very useful years for many of us.

Those of you who weren’t really paying attention back in 1998, or there abouts, perhaps won’t recall the very real and significant concerns that were raised over the so-called “Y2K Glitch” or “millenium bug”.  In effect, these concerns reflected the inability of the world’s computing systems (both software and hardware) to accommodate the date change-over from the 1900’s to the 2000’s. 

Such a simple thing, really: the lack of foresight and planning that had, due to the great expense and difficulty of handling only two extra digits worth of data in the earliest days of computing, set up the world’s financial and energy distribution systems (to name but two) for massive failure.  

World-wide, spending related to fixing the Y2K “bug” was estimated to be in the range of $1.5 trillion in 1999 alone, the last year to deal with the problem.  Some post-Y2K accounting estimates indicate that perhaps $3.6 trillion was expended overall.  As Grandpa used to say, “back in my day, that was real money”. 

So critical were these efforts that the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB), the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had not only directed that all government organizations and listed companies publicly report the steps being taken to address the problem, but that all related costs be “expensed”, rather than capitalized.

Of course, these accounting requirements were intended to ensure some measure of transparency, to quell panic, to mitigate potential liability claims, and to ensure financial stability in the markets.   Most major companies and organizations took great pains to comply.  (See Cisco’s statement here.)  

And, despite all of that effort, what everyone really wanted to see in these public disclosures was, essentially, this:  If all else fails, what are your contingency plans? 

I’m taking the pains of recounting these stories to underscore the simple truth that nobody really knew what might happen.  Oh, sure, there were “doomsdayers” on one side of the debate and “pollyannas” on the other.  As it turned out, of course, the “pollyannas” were more-or-less right, allowing for the rather significant preventive efforts expended by every major government and corporation on the planet.

Personally, I’m inclined to put that “win” directly in the “dodged a bullet” category, a distinction that is rather meaningful.  Some will always walk away from such a near-miss and say, “why worry”.  Others will learn a very different lession, “next time we might not be so lucky”. 

You might guess which lesson I took away from that.  Of course, I had no real assurance how the Y2K drama might unfold.  As it happens, my wife and I did take what we believed to be reasonable precautions at the time, the first laying up of some minimum food stores and having some cash on hand. 

The important thing, however, is that it began what might be called a “learning process” that began with actually thinking about self-sufficiency and preparedness.  We were young enough (and poor enough) that there wasn’t a great deal that we could do at the time.  We lived in an apartment, for one thing.  And, there simply wasn’t a great deal of time to do all that much.

Again, the important thing is that we actually took those first steps on what has become a rather important journey.  It forced us to consider, in a “best case / worst case” sense, just how we wanted to be living:  how dependently,  how deliberately, how effectively.  In the end, it led us to a process of making choices that have enhanced our lives immensely.

So, OK, we’ve now had more than ten years to travel down that path.  We moved to the country, got a dog (or three), planted a few fruit trees and a garden, built a barn -sort of, fitted out a shop, learned to hunt, saved a bit more money, and made a life – one we might hope is a bit more satisfying and secure than the one we had in 1998.  The point, really, is that we didn’t dig a bunker in the woods and neither did we buy a condo in some high-rise in the city.   

It’s really, really hard to look back at Y2K from this possibly more perilous future and not be enormously grateful for that “wake up call”.  It’s why even kindergarden classes bother with “fire drills”.  It’s why we used to tell our children stories like “The Ant and the Grasshopper”.  There’s are important truths embedded in such fables. 

It’s my hope that, today, we’ll not be so full of our own (or mankind’s) self-importance to have forgotten just how easily we can lose whatever “treasures” we’ve been striving for and “storing up” here on this earth.  However hard we might have worked over this past decade, it would all be for naught if, at the same time, we ignored the biggest underlying truth:  We live at God’s mercy and (it might be hoped) in his service. 

But, there you go, that’s the real benefit of deciding to live more deliberately.  Happy trails.

Harry Tuttle     

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6 responses to “Remembering Y2K: A “Survivor’s” Tale

  1. Oh Harry, no. Really?
    Let’s look at what didn’t happen: no power outages, no air travel issues, no water outages, no waste treatment outages, no TV outages (and you know how important that is to me).
    To sum up: zero, zip, zilch, nada was impacted.
    If we “dodged a bullet” then why wasn’t something, somewhere impacted?

    We all know human nature. Some municipality, power station, tv station or whatever is manned by “grasshoppers”. If it was a real issue, we would have seen something somewhere because not everyone would take the steps needed.

    As I told a close friend in 1999, “Do you really think McDonald’s isn’t going to be selling hamburgers in January 2, 2000?” He loaded up on vienna sausages and saltines (at least that’s what I heard from a mutual friend in Tennessee).

    Take heart, 2012 is coming so you still have time to build a bunker and stock up on vienna sausage and saltines (or perhaps Ritz if they are more to your liking).

    • X:

      Well, that’s not entirely true. Actual, documentable Y2K-related failures began well in advance, including rejection of stock-codes with “use by” dates beyond 2000, same for credit card expiration dates. Other, more serious events occurred during actual pre-Y2K testing, including a 4 million gallon sewage spill in Van Nuys, CA. ( http://articles.latimes.com/1999/jun/19/local/me-48043)

      After the roll-over, there were hundreds (if not thousands) of mostly small glitches, from small annoyances, such as inoperable ATMs and improperly printed checks, to more potentially serious problems like the crashing of Pakistan’s stock market and “minor” problems reported at a number of nuclear power plants around the globe, along with military and communication satellites. Hardly, “zero, zip, zilch, nada”. (I’m glad your TV survived too.)

      My real point was that, after spending several trillion dollars world-wide, the worst (and mostly cumulative) effects were, in fact, averted. I’m sorry, but, it’s rather hard to argue they didn’t exist whatsoever.

      Tangentially, on the topic of “systemic failure”, we’ve had some education in recent years about such risks. For me, the most notable memory from this (only most recent) crisis came during Rep. Kanjorski’s questioning of Hank Paulson about the seriousness of the risks being addressed.

      From Kanjorski: “Can you…inform the American people what Meldown meant….whether questions of law and order were asked?….whether questions of the capacity to feed the American people were asked?…. something dire had to be stopped from happening…..what were the projections that could happen, to not only the American people, but the world…” and, then: “The one member I remember sitting at the panel described it that he said ‘the people who’ve talked about we would have gone back to the 16th Century were being optimistic.'”

      One of Paulson’s halting responses: “I try not to use hyperbole in explain (sic) something that is impossible to ever prove now that it never happened…” (Watch for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DcN-Yplva4&feature=player_embedded#!)

      Sounds quite a lot like the post-Y2K “problem”, as it looks “in the rearview mirror”. My concern, of course, is that “Chicken Little”, much like a broken clock, might occasionally be right, maybe even twice a day. That, and the fact that crisis management seems rather like SOP these days.

      The best insurance, in my opinion, is basic prudence. Don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose. If vienna sausages and saltines do that for you, well, best stock up, just in case.

      HT

      • Harry,

        As an ex-plant guy I read the article a bit differently. They turned off their power to test the back-up system (presumably to see “what if the power goes off 1/1/2000). What they proved is that they are government idiots whose back-up system didn’t work. A power failure at any time (unrelated to Y2K) would’ve had the same result.

        X

      • X:

        Sure, that makes sense. If you’re referring to Van Nuys specifically, I noticed that they’ve had subsequent spills, which sort of proves your point. We ought not ever be surprised by the incompetence of “government idiots”.

        My real point is that it’s hard to argue that “nothing would have happened” if all of those extraordinary steps hadn’t been taken, especially in light of the fact that “some stuff still did happen” even after all the extraordinary steps were taken.

        And, of course, the context here is whether or not the extraordinary steps being taken now will have any beneficial effect on the current risk environment. I think not, for a number of reasons. In contrast with Y2K, which was largely a technical issue with generally straightforward fixes of computer code, the current range of problems are more indefinite and abstruse.

        I would go so far as to even suggest that what we’re facing is a crisis of moral dimensions, insofar as both the causes and the proposed solutions reflect defects in the character of our society, our corporate culture, and our political leadership. Hard to put a team of programmers on this task.

        We’ve created a classic “frying pan and fire” dilemma for which there is simply no good, pain-free solution. In the absence of a moral concensus, and with the consequences so dire for so many, the likeliest course will only exacerbate the problem. In my opinion, lot’s of people are headed straight for the “superdome”, as it were, to duke it out over the leftover scaps of what we once had in abundance: personal liberty, economic opportunity, financial security, and a stable society.

        In effect, the potential consequences may be just a bit more dire than temporary malfunctioning of ATM machines or the power grid or whether cheetos (or Big Macs) will be on the shelf tomorrow morning. I’m not necessarily talking about a single cataclismic event like Y2K either; rather, more of an increasingly challenging, increasingly hostile, return to political, economic, and social barbarism. But, hey, that’s just my natural optimism shining through.

        Either way, I’ve never had reason to regret the sort of prudent, self-sufficient, planning that the Y2K threat initiated in my thought processes. It put me in a much better place than I might have otherwise chosen.

        HT

  2. I remember being almost dissapointed when nothing catastrophic happened on Y2K.

    • Well, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I had more time to get my life in order. Still feel that way.

      Of course, the closer I get to the end of the road, the less any of that matters. And, of course, life is what happens while we’re making plans, ha, ha.

      HT

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