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What Y2K Really Means
by Thomas Myer

If you've been tracking the Y2K mythos as long as I have, you've probably noticed a real interesting "developing story" (as professional journalists put it). 

Around 1994, Y2K, or the dreaded Year 2000 Bug, having to do with our lack of foresight in chopping off the first two digits of dates entered into computer programs, was really only a discussion being held by geeks in freezing server rooms and in small-circulation computer  'zines. Fast forward four years and we have doomsayers spelling the end of the world as we know it, survivalists buying crates of powdered foods and stashing them deep in the hinterland, and of course, the religious cranks spouting about Y2K being yet another instrument of the apocalypse.

Hundreds of websites also sprung up, providing information on everything from buying firearms to how much diesel fuel can keep a generator running your fridge. Apparently, the first bit of advice is crucial as you would need a good stockpile of weapons to keep folks out of your fridge, which might be the only one running in the neighborhood.

At the beginning of this year, several announcements by the powers-that-be have tried to allay everyone's hysteria. The government came right out and said, first off, that the Social Security check-writing system was okay. Other big institutions, mostly corporate--okay, mostly banks--also said that everything was hunky-dory and that everyone's hard-earned money in bank accounts would be safe. So don't even think about making a run on the bank, okay?

The airlines have been pretty quick to say that things would be okay with the planes and airports, at least nationally. Too bad if you need to fly to say, East Timor or Madagascar. Major grocery chains claim that there will be plenty of food in stock, as they have cajoled their suppliers to become Y2K-compliant.

Fine, I say. But the one industry that has been pretty quiet about all this is the hotel industry. That's right. I have reason to suspect that they have fallen on their swords concerning this Y2K business. Since last November, I have taken half a dozen week-long trips between Austin and points elsewhere (any good Texan will tell you that places outside of Texas are not worth mentioning by name), each at a different hotel chain, and each with predictable results.

Here, let me paint you a picture of consumer annoyance at the hands of an insanely capricious bug:

I enter the hotel lobby and head for the front desk. I make eye contact with the young man behind the desk.

"Hello there. My name is Tom Myer, I have reservations for a week. Did I mention I'm exhausted from my six-hour flight and would love nothing more than to collapse on the bed and order room service?"

"Uh, sir, we don't seem to have you in our system."

"What do you mean? I made reservations two weeks ago. Here's my confirmation number."

"Yes, we've been having some difficulties with our systems. We'll get everything straightened out, Mr. Myer. Please have a seat in our lounge and we will page you."

At the lounge, I find two other unfortunate souls, bags piled next to their feet, more bags under their eyes, and a look of desperation hovering over them. I'll call them Jane and Bill.

Jane is a sales representative for a major software company. She's on the road three weeks out of the month, and never has the time or energy to spend the whopping bonuses she gets for continuously crushing her sales goals. She's been waiting for her page for three hours.

"I have a dinner meeting with a customer in an hour.  I'm still holding out for a room so I can at least take a shower. I'm about to run down to the Motel Six down by the freeway."

Bill is a freelance programmer in his twenties with an acute fear of flying. Lately he has been writing Java applications that port data stuck in old mainframes and makes them servable on a company's intranet. Like Jane, he is on the road most of each month doing on-site visits and consulting work. He has been waiting for his room for only an hour.

"It's Y2K," Bill mutters, after we share our tales of woe. "This hotel doesn't have compliant systems. Somewhere  in that back office, the hospitality manager has booked a three-day reunion of World War II B-26 bomber pilots sometime in July 2000, and the whole thing  rolled over and tossed its cookies. Taking the rest of the systems with it."

Within minutes, a fresh-faced redhead, whose name tag said "Terri" and "Manager" on it, came into the lounge with a clipboard and a pile of papers.

"I am so sorry that we have inconvenienced you in this way," Terri gushed. "It seems that our computers are down at the moment. I'm going to get you all checked in  manually, and then our staff will key in the information later, when the system is back online."

Twenty minutes later, I had a key and I was opening a door to what I hoped was a non-smoking room away from the pool, with a king-sized bed. Instead, I got a smoking room with double beds whose balcony overlooked the hot tub (currently full of ten laughing and cavorting college co-eds staying at the hotel for some bowl game). I threw my bags down on one of the beds and reached for the remote. Which refused to turn on the TV. I popped the battery cover off it--no batteries in it.

What was more annoying? The fact that there were no batteries, or the fact that I felt paralyzed because of their absence?

Cursing, I unpacked my laptop to dial in to work and check my e-mail. It has been my experience that everything waits to happen to you until you're on the road, so I always check my e-mail upon arrival. While the laptop booted up, I called the maintenance folks to get batteries for the TV remote.

They arrived quickly with my batteries, but left before I encountered my next problem: the modem could not place a call through the hotel's phone lines. It would negotiate a session with the company's dial-up server and then die at the last second.

I called the hotel's technical support line.

"Oh yes," the voice said. "We've been having some trouble with our lines. Some storm damage. We're running them through a digital switch until we can repair the damage. That could be messing with your carrier signal."

I forgot about checking e-mail. I decided to watch a movie on pay-per-view. In the mood for something Jim-Carreyish, I opted for The Truman Show, a movie that my friends had all recommended.

I ran through the series of menus to order it. To my disgust, the movie started at what appeared to be some point in the middle. I could tell--no opening credits or some such. I stopped the showing and called the hotel's technical support.

"Oh yes," the voice said. "The system is a little out of whack. I'm sending a man up there right now to give it a good smack. Wait about ten minutes and try to order it again."

"Can you please take the movie off my bill?"

"Oh, yes."

So in about ten minutes, I tried to order it again, with the same results. Back on the phone.

"I'm sending the man up again, and then he'll come to your room."

About five minutes later, a very tired woman showed up at my door. She wore a one piece blue outfit with an elastic band and wore her name ("Elaine") on a patch sewed over her left breast. Her bushel-basket of curly hair was tied back in a stiff pony tail, a look that accentuated her sleek, fierce face. She reeked of cigarette smoke and her fingernails were atrociously dirty.

I had the distinct impression that she had had a go at the video server with a monkey wrench and some WD-40.

"Okay, Mr. Myer, try to order the movie again," Elaine suggested, and I did.

Finally, it worked.

I got about halfway through the movie when the fire alarm went off. Soon, hundreds of guests and staff were milling about in the parking lot, wondering what the hell was going on. No smoke, no fire, so far no fire engines. But lots of football players and cheerleaders evicted from the pool.

I noticed Bill standing off to one side, puffing on a cigar and rolling a rum and coke around in a tumbler with his free hand.

"Y2K," he said to me.

"Death from a thousand paper cuts," I said back to him.

"Two thousand," he corrected.

Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Myer

Thomas Myer

Thomas Myer is a technical writer with Cisco Systems, Inc. He is a Contributing Editor with the SF Site and has been writing reviews and articles here since early 1997. He claims he divides his time between reading, writing, and doing research. More of Tom's opinions can be found in the SF Site Insite Archive.


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