L. Neil Smith's
Number 53, August 15, 1999
"Cletus Berserker"

Why Two Kay?

by L. Neil Smith

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

           Sometimes these things are damned painful to write. Sometimes it takes weeks or even months to get them written. This one is going to be especially tough because I have to tell some of my most valued colleagues -- and closest friends -- that they're not behaving quite rationally.
           Everyone's familiar by now with the absolutely John Wyndhamish notion that, because, in a misguided attempt to save space, computers 35 years ago were programmed to read the year as two digits instead of four, at the turn of the coming millennium they and their immediate successors won't know what date it is. They'll assume it's 1900 and the systems they control -- water, power, the internet, your mortgage, or your new car's fuel injection -- will fail, maybe catastrophically, bringing about the demise of civilization as we like to think we know it.
           The technical aspects of this phenomenon are, to say the least, debatable. (I never really understood why a computer should assume it's 1900. Why not 2100? Why not 3000? Why not -- just think of it, now -- 2000?) Nearly everybody admits that nobody knows for sure what's going to happen on January 1, 2000. Nearly everybody is eager to guess. As usual in our culture, ask a different "expert" and get a different opinion. I'm not any sort of expert in this field, so I've had to rely on others to inform me. How I chose them is, I think, significant.
           The first thing I noticed was that, although this is allegedly a problem of mainframe computers using obsolete programming languages like Cobol and Fortran, those most hysterical about it are desktop, C++, Java people. I found a few mainframe guys to talk to, and since another frequent assertion is that the corporations are all lying about the degree of their preparedness for Virtual Armageddon, I made sure those I consulted with were independents, and preferably surly curmudgeons with nothing to gain or lose by giving me their genuine opinion.
           Most of them agreed that the Y2K crisis, as it's called by its fans, is the greatest catastrophe to befall the planet (to paraphrase SF and horror author F. Paul Wilson) since Ginger left the Spice Girls. Recently I learned that the Navy had tested all its shipboard computers simultaneously, rolled them all over into January 1, 2000 at the same time, and -- gasp! -- nothing happened. What a disaster -- for the Y2K lobby -- and one they understandably made no effort to publicize.
           They also tell me there are no real difficulties left that haven't been addressed -- often as long as 10 years ago -- sidestepped, or put in the "we can live with it" column (this includes rolling a machine's internal clock back to 1970, giving everybody another 30 years to deal with the problem). As one correspondent reminded me (my father did quality control in a famous industrial plant for 20 years, and my family's closest friend does the same thing now) any factory is a daily rolling disaster, presenting a hundred unexpected glitches that must be handled or patched around while the suits stand screaming at you.
           So what's different about Y2K?
           The most obvious thing is that it's an unprecedented profit-making opportunity for programmers, consultants, and software and equipment manufacturers. (Likewise, it's a golden opportunity for corporations, bureaucrats, and academics to shove their old junk out on the loading dock and get new toys.) People in those industries will remember the present years as the equivalent of the California Gold Rush. And if you're one of them, spare me the sob stories about how desperately and arduously you're working. Save it for the idiot you've got paying you overtime.
           (Don't bother sending hate-mail; the system I use for it isn't Y2K compliant.)
           Y2K also seems to represent the very last gasp of the good old dried-beans-in-the-basement disaster lobby. (Whatever became of Howard Ruff?) None of the galaxy-shattering calamities they all expected -- invasion from Mars, thermonuclear war, overpopulation, general economic collapse, a worldwide AIDs epidemic, etc., ever came true, and now they're stuck with thousands of half-gallon cans of wheat and those little hand-grinders that produce about a teaspoon of flour a week.
           One common preparation for the alleged Y2K disaster that many of my friends have made is moving out to the country. That's a dandy thing to do in and of itself -- I wish that I could afford it -- but the Weavers and the Davidians were out in the country, and see what good it did them. The fact is, it simply makes you an artillery target.
           Many well-intentioned and otherwise intelligent individuals seem to be working on a foolish expectation that a collapse of civilization will somehow bring them freedom. They're wrong. They think the IRS won't be able to count any more and will therefore lose interest in collecting your money. What's more likely is that they'll call out the National Guard and collect it at bayonet-point, door-to-door. And counting won't be a problem because what they'll be collecting is your car, your furniture, your house, your guns, your gold, and your daughter.
           Freedom (and please note that we're not talking about your rights, here, but the liberty to exercise them openly and without fear) is not present in the state of nature. Did you ever hear the words "nasty, brutish, and short? It's an artifact of high civilization. It took six or eight thousand years, for example, just to get rid of chattel slavery. Believe me, friends, the end of civilization means the end of freedom.
           It's the end of other things, too. I need civilization, just to get along from day to day. As a hypertensive diabetic who's had two heart attacks, I take six or seven different prescriptions, and I have no idea -- and no desire to find out -- how long or how miserably I could hang on without them. (One of the things I look forward to most in a libertarian regime is dealing with the prison personnel -- and the officials who jerk their leashes -- who use denial of prescription medicines as a form of almost invisible torture against politically unpopular prisoners.) Even if it weren't for that, I can think of plenty of strategies for getting rid of overly burdensome government that don't require doing without antibiotics, The X-Files, or toilet paper.
           A major contributor to the problem lies in viewing (and trying to treat) civilization as if it were a one-track railroad -- everything operating in series, rather than parallel -- instead of a complex and redundant network of highways. Some of us on the web (another complex and redundant network) understand its self-healing nature, and some even understand that the free market system works in exactly the same way. As my wife Cathy puts it, if your mortgage is unintentionally foreclosed on January 1, what will really happen is that you'll join the crowd and call a toll-free number the banks probably already have on-line.
           "But what if the phones are out, too?" I pretend to hear you ask. Then it'll be that much harder for the bank to foreclose on you, won't it? Apparently many libertarians and conservatives don't actually believe all that guff they've been handing out for centuries about the free market or the efficacy of the human mind. "This one time it's different", I hear them whine, making the same crapulent (thank you, Mr. Burns) excuse liberals always use. Apparently they believe that on Jan. 1, 2000, the Law of Marginal Utility will cease to operate or the human mind will fall into a Singularity even Vernor Vinge failed to foresee.
           Another contributor to the problem is the True Believer syndrome. Whenever any straitjacket case out there, however flagrant, predicts a disaster unparalleled in history, the Y2K hysterics believe him and spread his blatherings far and wide. On the other hand, when anyone in a position to actually know something about the subject says that Y2K is no big deal, they ridicule him for "whitewashing" and "covering up". The real clue to what's going on may be the revival tent fervor with which these claims of worldwide disaster are usually made and the counter-arguments rejected. For a churchless generation, Y2K seems to serve some horrible atavistic yearning for pitchforks, boiling oil, and brimstone. It operates as a substitute for (or an example of, depending on the specific individual) religious millennialism, or the kind of disminded rapture that swept elements of the culture 100 years ago.
           The cybernetic survivalist's last refuge and final answer, when you've beaten him down on every other front, is "embedded chips". You get the feeling, when all their evil and stupid trade barrier schemes collapsed back in the '80s, that Intel dumped billions of obsolete 286 chips into our coffee pots, toasters, lawn mowers, and Jacuzzis, and now, because their little clocks and calendars keep ticking, we'll all be shopping around desperately for cast iron cookery, woodstoves and those high-backed galvanized bathtubs once the nines roll over into zeros.
           As it turns out, these embedded chips are what factory managers will be adroitly routing around or smashing with a sledgehammer. But many of their functions aren't time dependent at all. As one of my friends puts it, they may know the time and date but they don't give a damn.
           There are, however, certain Y2K-associated dangers that are quite real. Foremost is the awful amount of time, energy, and intellectual focus it's drained from the freedom movement, the distraction it's engendered from issues of real importance. The hideous irony is that libertarians, who, for all practical purposes, rule the internet, are in the forefront of spreading panic and providing all the excuse government -- no, make that Bill Clinton -- needs to work every sort of mischief: declaring martial law; silencing the internet; seizing bank accounts; rounding up dissenters (that's you and me, comrade); confiscating weapons; and postponing or canceling the 2000 general election.
           And we libertarians -- no, some libertarians -- made it all possible.
           Now it's up to us to undo the damage, and accomplishing that has little or nothing to with IBM mainframes, Cobol, Fortran, desktop PCs, C++, Java, or even those cute, fuzzy little MacInwhatevers that are the cybernetic equivalent of all those user-friendly plastic Glock autopistols.
           Admittedly I don't know all that much about computer software or hardware, but I do know something about history and human nature. (In my novels I predicted the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the internet as we now know it, talking chimps and other simians, and the digital watch.)
           Remember that the real danger of Y2K is Bill Clinton and his brutal, savage, baby-killing ilk. Spread the word that there is no constitutional basis -- and never was, Lincoln be damned -- for martial law. The very declaration of it voids the authority that made it.
           Our job -- the job of libertarians everywhere -- is to make it as clear as possible that what awaits anyone who tries to take political advantage of this Orson Wellsian panic is a Nuremburgian trial where they'll find themselves in an Eichmannian glass box, on trial for their lives.
           We'll hardly even notice the Y2K crisis if we successfully manage to keep the government out of it, and let the chips fail where they may.

Any attempt to pass or enforce an unconstitutional law -- especially any law that violates the first ten amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights -- is a crime punishable by ten years in prison and a ten thousand dollar fine for each offense (Title 18 U.S.C, Sections 241 and 242). If you'd like to see that law enforced, go to http://www.smith2004.org and make your wishes known.

[This being the sole contradictory evidence to a whole series of otherwise rabid anti-gun statements found at that URL. -- ed.]

Time Magazine Online
Results date: 8/9/99
Gun Control

1. Should the U.S. have stricter gun control laws?

        Yes       28.94%
        No        78.17%
        Not sure  08.87%

2. How would you rate the effectiveness of the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban in preventing the illegal use and distribution of guns?

        Very effective        11.99%
        Somewhat effective    12.84%
        Somewhat ineffective  08.13%
        Not at all effective  65.68%
        Don't know            02.13%

Total Votes Cast: 118,983

Source: http://cgi.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/articles/0,3266,28831,00.html

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