Issue #29, End of year 1998

From the Barricades of a Too-busy Life

December 19, 1998 (as I begin)

Dear Everyone:

A great relief, to me, getting this issue up, and ready to go . . . even if only a portion of it will actually get in the mail before '99 begins. It has had several starts, going back as far as October -- very different now, of course, from what it would have been then. What I intended then will just have to wait another chance for the telling. This one is about most of what has intervened.

Happily, the year's last week, or the larger part of it, still remains for my ritual solitude and end-of-year summary. I have a file of these, now, that goes back 30 years (though a bit spotty for the first few). Close-to-the-happening reflections that will oneday contribute to some real autobiography. If I ever get around to it.

Maybe as a wan joke, but perhaps as the most effective commentary I can make, on the nature of my life at this moment along its strange course, I'm going to let this week-before-Christmas opening return to the briefly misleading day, exactly a week earlier, when I finally sat down to write this long delayed issue. Here is what I led off with, on...

December 12, 1998

I cannot believe it. Something like an actual stretch of free time on my hands! Somewhat illusory, to be sure, for the coming week still has a few calendar entries, and God help me if I ever had to locate a piece of writing on this desk, or welcome a guest into this sordidly overburdened den of mine -- but the real pressure is off, as of last night. And I have sworn not to let anything of urgency, or even remotely resembling responsibility, crowd me for the remaining few weeks of this year.

Well, Saturday to Saturday, here's what became of those sworn good intentions . . .

On Monday morning, Bob Royer, the brother of a former Seattle mayor, came by for an hour-long interview -- yes, welcomed into this sordidly overburdened den of mine -- on how I see the Seattle Housing Authority. A survey commissioned by SHA, in the dawning realization that they are not loved by the community they serve.

On Tuesday, a phone call from a reporter on one of the city's two big dailies, looking for detail and background on why the City Council had stiffened, and rejected the Mayor's nominee for the new but still vacant tenant seat on the SHA Board of Commissioners. He'd gotten my name as a reference point from Peter Steinbrueck, chair of the Council's Housing Committee. Steinbrueck had done a 180° turn from the go-along stance he took when he went head-on with several of us in an hour-long TV panel discussion, hardly a week before.

On Thursday, the article came out, quoting me along with several others, including the forsaken nominee, who opined that it was "just politics," and I immediately sat down to email a Letter to the Editor, pointing out that a lot more than "just politics" was involved, including the Mayor's betrayal of the clear purpose of the newly legislated Board seat.

Late that afternoon, I received a phone call from Velma Veloria, the State Representative who had sponsored the legislative bill, asking me to outline for her the three worst problems we have with SHA, and our suggestions for resolving them. She needed it for a meeting, next day, with the Assistant Mayor in charge of housing. I was up until 3 a.m., putting it together for a fax transmission.

In between all these things, but a little more on the scheduled side, was a get-together with the in-house group I have started here, for Y2K preparedness (along with a flyer/newsletter to announce same), and a seasonal party with my old writers group, for which I baked a nut loaf and read them my 'two-hour special' -- a Y2K piece that had taken me just that long to write (a few weeks prior), and gained me a $100 'kill fee' -- which is the kiss-off when something they asked you to write cannot be used.

Needless to say, anything on the order of free time had gone the way of all the weeks preceding. But it's a typical December disappointment, I suspect. If I were to riffle back through the winter editions of this journalistic indulgence, and those that went before, I think I'd find consistent references to the haunting notion of mine that this season is for quiet ease and recoupment. Maybe not always ease, given usual weather conditions, but certainly not agitation. Yet, year after year, the disabuse sets in (or is it, rather, the abuse?). It comes right along with the holiday rush and the ever-increasing haste of our lives.

I wanted to talk about that "ever-increasing haste," and the rather unusual poignancy of it, in this moment of winter crossing into the final year of the century and millennium. For there are elements of extreme irony in the circumstance that the very technology we pay homage to, for the way it eases our time-burden, has brought us, at long last, to a situation with not enough time left to untangle the mess we've made, with it, in handling our very measure of time! But I'd better, instead, fill you in on how the year has taken me into the unseemly winter blitz that I've been detailing.

I'll only give you the outline, because I don't want to bog this issue down with it. You'll perhaps recall, from an August issue, that we were able to get the City Council involved in the battle to save this senior housing program, with some fair semblance of its charter intact. One of the several fronts on which that battle was being fought was the newly achieved legislation for a second tenant seat on the Board of Commissioners, which was supposed to have been filled by mayoral appointment in June. And I was a failed candidate for that seat, as I made last-minute note of in that August issue. Not unhappily, I shall once more emphasize.

Meanwhile, another front was about to open. The Housing Authority was initiating an intensive series of tenant/management hearings and discussions, with a view toward finally completing the policy changes that we had interrupted almost three years ago. This time, however, they had enough sense to fully involve the tenants, at every step of the way.

Whether it was a real involvement or a careful staging, we had no way of knowing. But a set of circumstances that neither we nor they could foresee actually did give us some of the playing time, and we used it to good advantage.

Virginia, the founder and energizer of the organized tenant group, had decided for health reasons to leave town. With hardly a hope of replacing her (for no one of equal commitment had ever turned up), we managed to entice two relative newcomers to share the load -- and discovered that one of them had a top echelon managerial background! It was Joe Montana time! . . . but only long enough to see the playing field become somewhat more level, before Nancy (our new leader) came down with a raging intestinal cancer. She had succeeded, in those few weeks, at changing the entire dynamic of interaction between the two sides, along with gaining acknowledgement from the Housing Board that program costs had been given nowhere near the scrutiny that program revenues had received.

So it was a job only partially done, but -- together with concessions they were probably already prepared to make -- we had some gains to show for it. We had some losses, too, however, that will upscale the economic level of the residency if allowed to stand, though the Board of Commissioners has piously sworn that it should be no greater than absolutely necessary.

All of it, plus the third -- if somewhat smaller -- front, of some questionable manipulation to finance the renovation of this particular building that I live in, was enough to keep Peter Steinbrueck, of the City Counsel, pretty solidly in our corner, so that when it came down to the nub, of standing up to the Mayor, he was right there for us.

It has given me some name recognition and access to Seattle's lowest level of power, and a bit of comfort in the use of it, so that when I recently tried to find out how alert the city was to the Y2K threat, I didn't feel I was going beyond my depth. But here, too, you need a bit of backgrounding.

You'll recall, I'm sure, my fairly thorough explication of the Y2K problem, mailed out early in October. I didn't receive an exorbitant response to it, though many of you registered thanks, appreciation . . . even enjoyment(?). Some did, however, reflect my own thinking on the community aspect, while there were also concerned questions on how best to deal with the problem. But I didn't sense any great deal of alarm out there -- alarm as in "Good God, I'd better do something while there's time!"

Admittedly, effective paths of action are rather hard to define. But how about a 'thought experiment' that might illuminate the terrain? Consider the proposition that you could know (as a reasonable probability) that a sizable portion of the nation's workforce would be going out on strike in exactly a year from now, disrupting all sorts of services, and that no credible assurance could be had, that the strike would soon be resolved.

I know that's hard to even imagine, but I'll give you a framework for the experiment that at least has some appeal: Suppose it were to come about as an endplay in the ultimate political gridlock, where Senate Republicans, after a year-long tug of war, gradually garner enough conviction votes to actually 'fire' the President, and the Democrats, seeing this clearly down the road and knowing there is absolutely nothing they can do to prevent it, make the do-or-die, disaster be damned, threat: if the Repubs go through with it, every offended Democrat in the country is going to walk off his/her job at the stroke of January 1st, 2000, and not return until the ruling is rescinded.

So there, my friends, you have the imaginary "certainty" that -- whether you're a Repub or Dem -- you're headed for troubled times and will have to take precautions for yourself . . . probably others you care about, maybe your whole neighborhood. At the very least, some sort of discussion in that neighborhood had better start happening, so that ideas can be brought to bear, and resources organized.

If you aren't pretty quickly thinking along these lines, I'd say that you must be expecting someone else to do it for you, or off in some cloudland . . . which is usually called Denial. I don't know how much more clearly it can be said.

Okay, so you're trying to tell me this Y2K thing is no such certainty. Not as to its dimensions, anyway. Well, if you can show me a single business or government unit that operates a) without computer systems, and b) without systems that link to other (external) compu-ter systems, I'll start giving you points. There will be damn few of them, and all small.

All the others have had a lot of costly work on their hands, trying to remediate their systems, or -- as it's usually put -- bring them into compliance with the new circumstances. So let me offer some recent facts pertaining to the status of remediation and the size of the job that remains to be done . . .

1. An October report from the federal Office of Management and Budget, looking only at mission-critical systems, reports its findings in three tiers of effectiveness. The top tier averages 76% completion, led by the Social Security Administration (which has been working on it since 1989); the middle tier (including Treasury, HUD and Agriculture) is 42% complete on average; and the lowest tier (Health and Human Services, Defense, Education, Transportation, and State), is only 24% complete on average, with DHHS (handling Medicare) specifically rated as 7% complete.

At the time of that OMB report, John Koskinen, our national Y2K 'czar' (who has no computer background, himself) had targeted the end of this year for a 90% completion average. The date has since been moved forward to the end of March '99.

2. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has required of all public corporations a quarterly disclosure of Y2K compliance status. As of the start of 1998 (and remember: SSA has been at it for 9 years), 19% had completed their assessment and were into the remediation work; 39% were still doing assessment; 12% were about to get started on assessment; and 30% made no mention whatever of Y2K status.

In making projections as to the quarter that would see "substantial completion" of their remediation work, here is what the Fortune500 group, among those public corporations, have since announced:

3. As to small businesses (under 200 employees), a Gallup study early this year revealed that 80% were aware of the Y2K issue, 23% considered it "somewhat serious," 6% felt it was "very serious," 50% planned on taking no action on it.

4. As to state government, an October meeting of Chief Information Officers brought out the following data:

5. Data on local government, which is a primary community concern, is very spotty, but there is this, from an October USA Today article . . .

Two more points should be brought into the picture before the foregoing facts can be properly contexted: Except for the mention of federal/state data transfer requirements, all the above stats concern in-house systems. Computer data, however, is routinely and extensively passed from one organization to another, introducing two additional elements of systems viability: both ends of the data transfer must be compliant, and they must be compliant in a format that matches. Unfortunately, no standard has been universally adopted, and it happens that there are at least six different methods of data remediation, with no two of them mutually compatible.

And lastly, all of the above has to do with data processing systems. It does not get into the volatile area of embedded microchips, a minefield of its own, as to expectable surprises. Hospitals, satellites, mechanical processing, factory machinery, airports, automated electronics of every sort, traffic control equipment, gas pumps, even recent model automobiles (since '95), represent a vast array of future uncertainties, not entirely knowable until their moment of truth arrives.

If you're still not especially concerned, you might consider the further fact that Canada has a martial law fall-back contingency in place, and something of the same sort was unintendedly revealed in Britain, recently. It's hardly believable that the U.S. has no such plan on the boards, but it would never be acknowledged, here, in advance . . . our society is not that open. Sure, these are only outside contingencies, but not beyond possibility. They convey, and actually represent, a greater degree of uncertainty and official precaution than the government's glowing assurances would have us believe.

But it's so much easier to continue thinking of it as:

Is that truly your last barrier of resistance? Because I'm going to take it apart, brick by brick, starting with a brief report of my Y2K dealings with the Seattle City Council, and finishing with some very clear advice on what WE CAN DO about it.

Trading on the familiarity I've established, in the housing action, with at least a couple members of the Council, I forwarded by email, to the entire nine of them, a community-focused Web article, along with a short note expressing my concern about community preparedness. I got back a single brief note, telling me how much is being spent on the revision of data systems . . . but not a word on community preparedness.

I followed it up, then, with another article about Boston's community efforts, thinking that a comparable city's approach might get them to see the point, and I sent a separate email to Nick Licata, one of my Council favorites, pointing out how the earlier response had completely missed it. This brought a frazzled reply: "Quite honestly, I'm swamped. I can't deal with this problem because of lack of time and knowledge..." and he went on to recommend that I contact Councilwoman "Tina P.," who is responsible for dealing with Y2K.

Fine. I turned my attention to Tina P., who reportedly has a Microsoft background. After a few of my nightly forwardings, a response arrived with what seemed a gush of indulgent concern: "...what would you like us to consider doing ... this might be a very timely discussion to have with the Citizen's Technology and Telecom Advisory Board ... it would be helpful if you have a summary of what you'd like us to consider. Please let me know..."

Having just given a 3-minute presentation to the Housing Authority Board, on the topic, it seemed perfectly right to forward it to Tina P. And since she had obligingly (though I now think, unintendedly) listed all the folks on the Advisory Board, to whom she had copied her message to me, I emailed copies to them, also. It may have been a bad move, considered pushy, for I waited and waited but heard nothing more from her.

After a month had passed, I figured it was time to put Tina P. back on my forwarding list, so she could peruse some of the nightly material I was sending out. The first batch went through, but then she put some kind of filter-block on her email box, and I could get through no longer. Tina P. had shut me out.

Two strikes down, and one more to go. Directly after the TV panel hour with my other favorite Councilman, Peter Steinbrueck, I put my Y2K concerns to him. He was Denial personified: "Somehow, that issue just doesn't grab me ... What is there we could do about it, anyway ... Look, we got along without computer systems up to 30 or 40 years ago, and if need be we can do it again."

Delightful innocence! We got along without automobiles, telephones and radio up to a hundred years ago . . . we got along without washing machines and refrigerators up to fifty years ago . . . C'mon, Peter, you're living in a deluded reality if you think we can step right back into it, without incredible displacement and hardship.

Well, the issue grabs me! And all the more so because of that conversation. When I can see that a city of a half-million, upwards, may credibly be paralyzed in a year, and the City Council feels no great amount of concern about it, I know we've got some preparedness work to do! Community, at one level or another, has been at the core of my life for the past thirty years, and this is where I put all of that background to use. It may even be precisely what it was grounding me for.

So brew yourself a cup of tea, and we'll look at what has to, and can, be done . . .

Forget all that bushwa about arming yourself and heading for the hills. That is an absolutely nowhere solution, doomed to cut you off from the very resources you'll need: other people -- their comfort, ideas, and energy. This is strictly a community matter.

Community means networking . . . getting together with others, and talking about it. And community, in this instance, has to mean the people you live with/near/among. If there already exists such a community for you, fine -- start working with it. If it doesn't exist, then you have to start putting it together. Everyone lives in a potential community setting. You discover its full potential by calling a meeting.

Not everyone will come, and that's okay. You'll get a few, and it's all you need for a start. It's not difficult to find resources for the first meeting. Utne Reader has just come out with an excellent little community-centered handbook, 120 pages for $4.95. Once you see it, you'll want to order it in bulk: 50 copies or more at $1 each, plus shipping. (These are proffered for fund-raising resale, but that of course is up to you). There is also a profusion of resources on the Web, and I will close this with a number of URL addresses. If you haven't your own computer, I'm sure you can connect with someone who does.

After whatever initial and get-acquainted talk is necessary, orient your group toward an action plan. Most group confusion and failure results from the lack of specific and positive directions to pursue. That plan should include, at the very least: goals, organization, individual or committee assignments, and a specific follow-up (next meeting) provision.

Exactly what the plan and assignments are to consist of is up to the group; but here are a few recommendations, using the term, neighborhood, to mean whatever size community you are dealing with: a building, a block, or larger . . .

1. Postering or leafleting the neighborhood with details about the group and its purpose.

2. Getting coverage in the local and neighborhood media.

3. Checking out larger meeting space.

4. Organizing a preparedness storage center, for stocking up on: emergency supplies, warm clothing/blankets, food, water, non-electrical heating equipment, emergency tools... etc. (The rationale for this is that many in the neighborhood will not have prepared, and may have to be taken care of by the rest).

5. Resource survey of the neighborhood: special tools or equipment, information sources (medical or country survival handbooks, etc.), critical skills that could be on call for emergency use (medical, ham radio or CB, repair trades, and just plain manpower).

6. Emergency provision for power failure, including centralized and sheltered group cooking facilities (non-electric, of course); possibly staffing a central canteen.

7. Provision for collective transport, in case of public transit failure and/or gasoline unavailability.

8. Provision for a grapevine system, in case normal communication channels and/or media should fail.

9. Survey of neighborhood shelter space for any potentially homeless (remember, this will strike in the dead of winter).

10. Efforts to link, constructively, with any businesses in the area.

11. Liaison with similar nearby community groups.

12. Whatever linkage can be established with city emergency functions.

13. Considering/exploring the possibilities for providing auxiliary assistance to local emergency facilities (traffic control, street surveillance, neighborhood condition reportage & liaison...).

14. Certifying the extent of any special planning by local emergency facilities, especially those nearby (partly to let them know that residents are alert and concerned).

15. Conducting "Y2K orientations" for those who will come late to the awareness.

At bottom, you know, this is nothing more pretentious or foolhardy than utilizing a damn good basis for bringing community process back into our lives, after it has pretty effectively been dismantled by the social forces (consumerism, TV, me-ism, upward striving, population mobility, a nouveau workaholism, etc.) that have taken us down the path of fragmentation and its inevitable by-product: helplessness.

For God's sake, grab this opportunity, and Be Thankful for it!


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