So we're not facing The End of Civilization as We Know it. Y2K is likely to ring itself in without a massive disaster. Airplanes will not fall from the sky. Elvis will not reappear.
But Y2K could still be a pain in the neck. Despite the hundreds of billions we've spent collectively on the problem, when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, there will still be computers that see the new year abbreviated as "00" and think it's 1900. Or worse, they won't know what to think at all, and they'll just quit.
So, while there's no cause for panic, there's cause for prudence. And you still have time to prepare. It doesn't take much to make your home Y2K-ready, and most of the things you'll need are items you'll eventually use anyway. The best way to prepare is to consider what could go wrong and what you'll need to deal with it.
The most obvious potential problem is power. Utility companies are dependent on computers -- not just on mainframes that run power plants, allocate electricity and send your bill, but also on millions of embedded microchips that control their equipment down to the substation level.
BGE and other utilities have spent billions to fix faulty programs and equipment. Virtually all have told the government they're ready for Y2K. But the nation's interlocking power grids are incredibly complex, and nobody's perfect. Moreover, no one knows what consumers and businesses will do to the power supply over the New Year's weekend as they turn equipment off and on again.
As a result, expect some localized power outages -- which probably won't take long to fix -- along with surges and brownouts that could damage delicate electronic equipment such as computers. This could go on for a couple of days as businesses that shut down over the weekend to avoid Y2K problems start again on Monday morning.
So, do the same thing you'd do in case of a blizzard, ice storm or hurricane. Have plenty of flashlights and batteries available, along with a battery-powered radio or TV. If you rely strictly on cordless telephones at home, remember that their rechargeable batteries and base units require power -- so buy or borrow a standard phone that gets its power from the phone line.
Unless you live in the sunny South, no power usually means no heat, too, even if you have a gas furnace. Once again, this isn't likely to last long, but if you have small children or sick people at home, make arrangements with a friend or relative in another part of town who can give you a place to stay for a night or two if necessary.
Even if you've made your home computer Y2K-ready, back up your important data to floppy disks -- your reports, spreadsheets, novel, tax returns and financial records. Then turn off the PC on Friday night and forget about it for a day or so. There are a lot better ways to spend the New Year than staring at a screen. If you absolutely have to use a PC on New Year's Eve, make sure it's hooked up to a good surge suppressor or, better yet, a battery backup.
Another serious concern is drinking water. If your house is served by a well, a power failure could cut off your pump, which could mean no water. In areas served by municipal water systems, Y2K failures in pumping stations or filtration plants could reduce pressure or cut off water altogether. It can take days to restore drinkable water throughout a system. Once again, these failures aren't likely, but it doesn't take much effort to be prepared.
I'd lay in 10 or 20 gallons of bottled water (more if you have kids). That's enough for drinking and brushing your teeth for a couple of days. You can always use it later if there's no problem. Residents of areas with frequent storms already know another trick -- clean your bathtub and fill it up ahead of time. If there's a problem, use the water to flush the toilets. If there's no disaster, just pull the plug.
While no one expects food shortages, stock up on a few items that don't need refrigeration and can be eaten cold if necessary. I'm not talking about dehydrated survivalist food packs, just stuff like canned franks and beans, spaghetti, SPAM or whatever. I know, yuck! But if the power goes, you'll have something to eat at home besides moldering New Year's pizza and Twinkies.
If you've put away the grill for the season, make sure you can get to it easily (and that you have charcoal or propane). Even if it's cold outside, you can heat food or cook on the barbecue. But don't ever use a grill inside -- it's the surest way to get carbon monoxide poisoning.
Now to money. The people you do business with every day desperately want to keep doing business, so chances are good they've solved their Y2K problems. But if they run into unexpected glitches, your credit card may not be worth its weight in plastic.
While the banking industry swears ATMs will work, you don't want to stand in line to use one. So, get enough cash in advance to handle routine purchases for a week. The Federal Reserve expects this, and the government has printed plenty of money in anticipation.
Other possibilities: If you rely on prescription drugs, make sure you have enough on hand to last a week or two. Likewise, put enough gas in your car to get you around town for a couple of days. If the stoplights go on the blink, you could spend a lot of time in stalled traffic, and the computerized gas pumps at some filling stations could be affected by Y2K glitches.
Finally, the most important Y2K preparation of all: Our esteemed wine critic, Mike Dresser, recommends the Veuve-Cliquot Yellow Label ($35-$40) or, for those with vintage tastes and budgets, the 1990 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (about $125).
They're allegedly Y2K-compatible, but it wouldn't hurt to buy an extra bottle and test it beforehand to make sure.