Thursday, December 30, 1999

true confessions (more or less) of a survivalist

If this is the last thing you ever read that I wrote, blame it on my brother Brian.

I say to blame it on him because we have a 29-year-old policy of passing the buck to each other, and so history and tradition support my decision to make him a scapegoat. Besides, Brian is a computer programmer and therefore, it stands to reason, the responsibility for the end of the world lies entirely on his shoulders.

I'm writing of course, about Y2K, that programming bug in human nature that will cause people to lose control and go into a full-scale panic at midnight New Year's Eve when some smart aleck -- that would be me -- turns off all the lights in the building just to see how people react.

I've always had a morbid fascination with Doomsday scenarios. There's something especially appealing about human civilization ending because of a stupid error like a programming shortcut that considers only the last two digits of the year.

Given the chance of global collapse from an extinction-level meteor hit, a virulent plague or Y2K, I would pick Y2K every day because of the delightful irony in being done in by our own stupidity.

It would be even more appropriate if the problem is fixed -- which it supposedly is -- but the world ends anyway because people overreact to the millennial rollover.

A colleague of mine recently told me about the water and food supplies he had stockpiled in his cellar-turned-bomb shelter, along with enough firepower to hold off an invasion.

"Ooh, can I come by and borrow some bullets if I run out?" I asked him.

My colleague looked straight at me, and deadpanned, "Yes. Stop by any time after New Year's, and I personally will give you an entire clip of bullets. I'll give you all the bullets you can take."

I've decided not to visit him on New Year's after all.

Somebody -- I forget who -- once observed that no society is ever more than 30 years from barbarism. Personally, I think this person was an optimist.

Given the comments I've heard and read from several people who really do think Armageddon is around the corner, I would give civilization 20 minutes before it starts to unravel on New Year's if the power fails for any reason, including a downed electric pole.

If I worked at Public Service Electric and Gas Co., I would have a field day on New Year's Day playing Tic Tac Toe on the power grid with my co-workers.

The real fun with Y2K is going to start when everyone realizes the world still exists. I figure it's going to work like this:

First, the goofballs who actually wanted the world to end either will try to make it end, or, more amusingly, will claim that it actually did end, but the government is covering it up to avoid a panic.

Secondly, experts in the computer industry will give those of us in the media something else to write about by drawing attention to the "Y2038" bug, which will cause all sorts of problems with computers in another 38 years.

(Honest, that's a real problem, though I still don't understand it after having it explained to me three times. Apparently the current thinking is that the problem will have been fixed by the time the Year 2038 arrives. Sound familiar?)

Thirdly, supermarkets and other businesses that have made a killing the last few months selling supplies to worry-prone shoppers are going to see their sales bottom out.

After weeks of record-breaking sales -- I myself spent $160 in two trips to the supermarket this past month, more than twice what I normally would spend -- they're suddenly going to be short on income.

The last bit of fallout will be more personal. After I spent all that money stockpiling food in case there was a run on the supermarket or a disruption in distribution, it dawned on me that I would have no way to cook if the gas goes out.

Hmm. Maybe if you don't see anything else with my byline you should start the investigation with my wife.

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