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The End of the World As We Know It

UM gears up for Y2K with wide-ranging conference

The End is nigh, and for Julie Collett, business couldn't be better.

"It started out slowly last spring," says Collett, an employee of Sunelco, a Hamilton-based solar power equipment company, with a pronounced sigh. "Now it's all Y2K, Y2K, Y2K. It's all we hear about."

Collett refers, of course, to the much-feared Year 2000 computer bug, which many believe will cause worldwide digital failure as 1999 turns into the millennial year. That malfunction, brought on by the sudden appearance of two zeroes in computers' time-keeping systems, may then bring on various chaotic scenarios ranging from inconvenient waits at ATMs to the collapse of Western Civilization.

The sound of hands wringing over the so-called Y2K crisis nearly deafens the world, but with less than 350 days remaining until the binary reckoning, the fact is that no one really knows what will happen when the world's computers discover a new century. A sky-is-falling contingent prepares for a downright Biblical scene, while the Missoulian pithily wondered "Y2K Worry?" last week. On the middle ground stand those who believe in better-safe-than-sorry, and they're the ones that have doubled Sunelco's sales in the last year.

Standing in front of Missoula’s computer network central, network manager David Boring faces the task of preparing the city for Y2K.

"Most people are just interested in back-up equipment," says Collett. "Others are out in remote areas, so they're really concerned about maintaining power supply. We've still got a lot of equipment left-it's not like we're sold out or anything-but it's going to get even worse."

With Y2K worries spreading as Missoula settles into 1999, the University of Montana is now hosting a conference on the glitch through Friday, January 15. Experts who've worked to bring city, state and university computer systems into to Y2K compliance will describe their efforts; other topics range from community preparedness, to the malfunction's effects on small business and if, why and how folks should stock up on basic supplies.

Speakers include local Internet providers, in-the-trenches techies, bankers, business types and community activists. The conference's scope illustrates the breadth of concern over Y2K, which has many genuinely worried about the future.

"It is an awesome prospect, in that it affects the entire globe," says Scott Lockwood, who heads the state of Montana's multimillion-dollar effort to debug its systems. "It's not difficult to solve technically, but logistically, it's an immense problem, and if tomorrow were January 1, 2000, there are a lot of things that would not work."

Lockwood, scheduled for a conference address Thursday afternoon with Missoula's compliance specialist, David Boring, provides a voice of reason in the midst of the hysterical rhetoric. While both the religious right and the back-to-land left gear up for the fall of civilization, Lockwood remains guardedly hopeful that such a fate may yet be avoided.

"I'm not a particularly optimistic person in general, but I am optimistic about our ability to deal with this," Lockwood says. "If only because I see so many people working so hard. I see companies like General Motors spending tens of millions of dollars. I see the state of Montana spending millions of dollars, and all for repairs that will not particularly improve things in a lot of cases."

Lockwood says 95 percent of the state government's computer systems should be ready for the New Year some time this summer; 57 percent have already been repaired. Boring, who says the City of Missoula has spent about $100,000 a year since 1996 to fix the bug, likewise says muni computers should be ready for 2000. Nevertheless, some contingency plans are in place.

"There'll be manual backup plans so as long as people have pencil and paper, they'll be able to perform essential city functions," Boring says. He adds that emergency services like the police and fire departments have lined up alternative fuel sources in the event that petroleum delivery is disrupted.

Janet Sedgley, UM's compliance officer, says the school's major systems have been repaired so her focus now rests on the dozens of small offices scattered across campus. Like Lockwood, Sedgley sounds a note of cautious optimism over Y2K preparations, though she's less sanguine about the potential complications.

"There are all sorts of things that can happen," Sedgley says. "There may be some things that don't function on the first day of next year. I don't think everything will run smoothly by any means. ... Maybe we should all be a little more prepared."

A lot of people evidently feel that same urge to cover their bases in the event of computer-born catastrophe. Sunelco isn't the only area business to capitalize on Y2K worries; the Missoula Gold and Silver Exchange has seen many customers interested in acquiring a little metallic insurance against possible currency fluctuations.

"They've been buying gold and silver," says an Exchange employee who refused to give his name. "We've been seeing it for a few years. Now's no different than what's happened over anything else that doomsdayers are saying."

Not everyone pushing for preparedness counts himself a doomsdayer, though. To Mary Bento of the Missoula nonprofit Phoenix Rising, events like the UM conference provide a crucial opportunity to shore up community ties that could prove crucial come New Year's Day.

"It's mainly about what you can do as an individual, what people can do within their lifestyles to have some basic preparedness for any circumstance that might arise," says Bento, one of the organizing forces behind the conference. "We need to understand that we're living in a time of incredible changes that will require us to be more resilient. We need to be very focused on community."

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