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November 1999

About time

Alle Jahre wieder (all years again) — or, year after year — it’s the same routine. We make resolutions — in German — Vorsätze fassen, that are usually broken all to soon. This year’s Silvester (New Year’s Eve), however, if it lives up to advance publicity, promises to be different. Is there anyone who still hasn’t heard of Y2K? Planes falling out of skies! No electricity! Money instantly disappearing from bank accounts! “Ach du liebe Güte!” (oh you dear good) — “Oh my gosh!” in English — the exclamations of fright and disapproval are endless! They’ll no doubt continue between Christmas and New Year, a time the Germans refer to as “zwischen den Jahren” (between the years). It’s an idiom that, for this year at least, takes on a whole new meaning! It is now safe to say that, like 1999, many, if not most, of the world’s computer programmers and IT professionals are in a state Germans would refer to as, “am Ende sein” (to be at the end), which means, quite simply, exhausted. For a long time — seit Jahr und Tag (since year and day) — we’ve heard how computer experts are working like Superman “rund um die Uhr” (around-the-clock) to save the planet and enable it to go with the times on January 1. As the saying goes, time is money — Zeit ist Geld. And a lot of time and money has been spent in advance of this very significant date. Isn’t it ironic that while the world is poised to start a new millennium, the main concern is whether time will go backward, to the year 1900, instead of forward to 2000? If it does go in reverse, this would make the computer the closest thing we’ve seen to a time machine since H. G. Wells first championed the idea back in 1895! The few people still around who remember what it was like in 1900 would probably tell us, “das waren noch Zeiten!” (those were still times), or speak of glorious things from “der guten alten Zeiten” (the good old times) a way of saying it was much better then than it is today. In 1900, the world still had to wait three years for the Wright brothers’ powered airplane and eight years for the first Model “T” automobile, but it was 42 years before the creation of the first automatic computer. A technological pessimist would say the turn-of-the-century world “weiss noch nichts von seinem Glück” (still knows nothing of its luck), an ironic comment meaning the unpleasant news had yet to be received. But an optimist would argue that, thanks to the computer, “die fetten Jahre” (the fat years), or the good times, still lay ahead. As my grandmother used to say, “time heals all wounds” — die Zeit heilt alle Wunden, which means that Y2K bugs should also come to pass. Any PC users who make it to January 1 without the slightest problem can best be described by the light-hearted phrase “Glück muss der Mensch haben!” In other words, one must be a darn lucky dog, that, or a Mac owner! The expression “dem Glücklichen schlägt keine Stunde” (no hour strikes for the lucky) signifies someone who is lucky pays no attention to time. So, if you happen not to have been born under a lucky star — unter einem glücklichen Stern geboren sein — surround yourself on Silvester with German Glücksbringer (lucky charms), like pigs, four-leaf clovers and chimney sweeps. Then, make sure you “auf die Pauke hauen” (bang the drum) or, more amusingly, “die Sau raus lassen” (let the pig out) — in other words, have a blast! And at midnight, welcome the start of the 21st century by shouting, “Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!” (good slide into the New Year.) Afterwards, you can rush home to check on your computer. <<<

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