My email in-box is being inundated with messages related to the Year 2000 bug, also known by the misnomer "Millennium Bug" (the new millenium starts with 2001), or simply "Y2K" for short. I've received lots of requests for information on survival equipment and resources from people who are apparently totally freaked out, convinced that civilization as they know it will come to an end, or at least grind to a halt, when the clock rolls over to 12:01 AM on January 1, 2000. I've also received many requests from companies who want me to provide a link to their site selling services or products using Y2K to hype sales and even requests from some survival schools that I add Y2K preparation or survival to their descriptions, all in an effort to jump on the Y2K gravy train and take advantage of all this Y2K panic.
"Panic," now there's an apt description. One of the definitions in my Webster's defines "panic" as "a sudden unreasoning terror " Should you be concerned about possible problems that may arise due to theY2K bug? Sure you should. However, being concerned and prepared for some inconvenience is a long way from being panicked, convinced that the sky really is falling, and that you need to prepare for the breakdown of civilization. It just isn't, just can't possibly be, that bad.
So, why all the concern, why all the hype that is feeding peoples' fears and ignorance? Is it any surprise the bottom line is money? There are fortunes being made as a result of Y2K concerns, many of them quite legitimate. Y2K is a real problem and it will continue to suck up resources as companies and government agencies scramble to reduce or eliminate their and the public's exposure and as individuals spend time and money coping with the bug. However, as with most legitimate problems, there are also lots of individuals who see this as a unique moneymaking opportunity and who aren't the least bit hesitant to, shall we say, "overstate the problem" in order to stuff their wallets.
Moreover, we live in a society that only seems to respond to crisis. Bureaucrats, politicians, companies, and most individuals seem to only respond when things reach crisis proportions. The fact that the Y2K bug only became common knowledge and a household topic of conversation fairly recently, despite being a topic of concern among computer types for many years, only exacerbates this crisis mentality and adds to the sense of impending doom, feeding the panic. Anyone interested in profiting from this problem, legitimately or otherwise, is virtually forced to feed this crisis mentality if they are to prosper.
My good friend Wil Milan notes that it seems there's a certain segment of the population that is always looking for some reason to panic, some reason to be fearing the next possible doomsday. A little paranoia is a healthy thing, but like perfume, the idea is to smell it, not to swallow it.
There's also no headlines in "no problem," but on the other hand, serious problems demand big headlines and the media knows what grabs readers, listeners, and viewers, so they are happy to go along for the ride. Then there's all the groups who are more than happy to hitch their car to the Y2K train. Anyone with an agenda or desiring publicity or seeking some tactical advantage, from associations to corporations to government agencies to politicians to unions, and who can make it work for them, is going to jump into the Y2K fray trumpeting their agreement, contribution, or opposition to any of a multitude of concerns or solutions proposed. It's a public relations person's and politician's wet dream.
So, where does that leave us? It seems it leaves many convinced the end is near, despite little hard evidence from unbiased, disinterested sources to support that contention. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Y2K isn't a serious problem or that there won't be plenty of inconveniences, some of a fairly serious nature, as a result of it. All I'm saying is it isn't likely to be nearly as bad as all the doomsayers are predicting. Nor am I saying that you should ignore it and pretend that nothing will happen, burying your head in the sand. It only makes sense to be prepared for some disruptions that might possibly occur. However, being prepared does not mean buying a survival site out in the boondocks to escape the downfall of our civilization, or stockpiling six months worth of supplies, or investing in an armory large enough to support a small war. It does mean making sure you have up-to-date financial records, a reasonable supply of cash at hand, making sure your larder is fully stocked, and the fuel and oil tanks are full. The sorts of things that any prudent person would likely do in order to be prepared in any case for whatever nature or some other man-made catastrophe might bring.
The fact remains that while we have grown dependent upon computers and microchips, we also managed for centuries without them. Virtually all essential systems have some sort of manual back-up system in place, because even the most enthusiastic computerized system designer of critical systems realizes that stuff happens and computers fail and that there needs to be a way to work around that.
I have a friend who sits in front of a room sized computerized status and routing board which switches power to ensure service for one of the major power companies in the Southwest U.S. He runs it all from a keyboard and a trackball. I asked him what would happen if it all stopped working. He smiled, shrugged and pulled out their five inch thick crisis manual, opened it to the appropriate page and showed how they would operate using portable radios and having technicians and linemen reading dials and moving switches at locations all over their service area. Something of a pain in the butt, for sure, but not something for which they aren't prepared. What are the chances they'll need to revert to such emergency procedures? Slim, he thinks.
They've already tested many of the most essential systems, the rest are on schedule to be tested and fixed if necessary, though he admits they are years behind the power curve on those. He's a lot more concerned with dealing with the major storm that was brewing the evening we spoke, which will fell power lines and possibly blow up equipment and the like, possibly cutting power to thousands of residences for a few hours, than any possible Y2K problem.
Many of the doomsday scenarios that have been postulated assume that some manner of domino effect will occur, a situation where a single malfunction will cause more malfunctions in something of a chain reaction. While that will undoubtedly occur in some cases, in most it will not because someone will step in to stop it or the computerized process will simply lock-up, preventing further action. That isn't to say there won't be plenty of unexpected surprises, because there will be, but nothing a little resourcefulness won't be able to overcome in relatively short order. I find it very depressing that the those who believe these doomsayers don't have much faith in humanity's well documented ability to cope with difficulties, disasters, and seemingly impossible situations through intelligence, cooperation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.
They also ignore the economic incentives for both permanent and temporary solutions that address these Y2K problems. I get a real kick out of those who suggest that the food supply will dry up because shippers are dependent upon computers to get their products to your local market. Sure, all these guys are simply going to shut down if their shipping software goes belly-up... Give me a break! These people didn't become successful in business by rolling over when some minor difficulty arises and they are not even going to consider giving up if some glitch arises that they haven't already planned for. If they did that, they'd go broke, and you can bet your life that they don't plan to allow that to happen. The food will get to where it needs to be, even if they have to resort to pencils, paper, and carrier pigeons to operate the business.
Companies would not only lose business if they didn't deliver, but they could also be sued for losses caused to others. That's a lot of incentive to not let it happen. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have plenty of financial impetus to develop solutions. Every week brings new programs designed to either root out and fix hidden Y2K problems, or that provide work-arounds so that programs continue to function in spite of internal Y2K glitches.
Such innovative solutions will proliferate in the next year. The free market ensures that big problems inspire big solutions.
So, when all is said and done, what does Y2K mean to you? For most of us it will mean that we will be inconvenienced at least a little by minor, and occasionally perhaps, major annoyances. Some will last a very short time, others, non-essential ones, may linger longer. Our jobs may become more stressful, depending upon how well our company, industry, and related business have prepared for Y2K. It will mean that many of us will have to spend money to replace older computer hardware or software, or to purchase software designed to ameliorate the effects of the bug.
Many little things we expect to work, won't, or all the functions may no longer work. If it's an electronic device that has a date function and it's more than a few years old, likely the embedded processor will not be Y2K compliant and it may not function as desired. So, you may find yourself replacing VCRs and clocks and similar products.
Note, however, that you can generally make these products function perfectly well and postpone any problems if you simply trick the embedded processor into thinking that the the year 2000 has not yet arrived. Simply set the year to 1972 -- that year is identical to year 2000 as far as dates coinciding with days of the week, throughout the entire leap year. (This solution also works with most computers and depending upon how you use your computer, this may be an acceptable short-term alternative to spending money for a new computer or software.)
Y2K related failures may come as a big surprise on occasion, but life will go on and solutions will be found, either by replacement or fixes, or sometimes we may just discover we don't really need it anymore.
What do you need to do to prepare for Y2K? Well, some prudent measures are in order, but nothing that you can't take care of yourself. If you're reading this it means you've got a computer and unless it's been purchased since about 1997, you should probably run a check to see whether it is going to have any Y2K problems. There are any number of Web sites that offer instructions on how to do this, but one that provides some simple utilities to check your computer with is the ZDNet / PC Magazine Virtual Labs Year 2000 Compliance Web site .
As with the computer, you'll want to see if your software is Y2K compliant. Most individual software companies' Web sites now include Y2K compliance information, but it isn't always easy to find. Another source to check is the EDS Vendor 2000 database which contains up-to-date compliance information on many programs, both commercial and others. Note that even some fairly current software may have some minor, non-serious, non-terminal problems related to Y2K. Most software vendors are providing patches or upgrades to address these minor glitches. A source for Y2K compliance information in general is Y2Kbase.com, the Y2K Compliance Database.
If you discover you've got Y2K computer related problems, you'll have to decide whether to upgrade or use some manner of software patch to work around the problem. Either way, there's no reason to be caught by surprise, there is plenty of time to solve the problem. Still, don't procrastinate, take care of it now!
Dealing with your own computer is the easy part, you have complete control over that. What about dealing with possible Y2K problems others may have that could affect you. The solutions to those problems don't really involve much more in the way of precautions than what a normally cautious and well prepared individual would take.
Be sure you have paper copies of all your bank and investment records, mortgages, loans, etc. In the unlikely case the bank computer has a problem, you want to have proof of what you've got, paid, owe, etc. Keep no less than three years of records. If you haven't, start immediately. Anyone who's had an unfortunate experience with a bank computer already has learned the painful lesson that you need this stuff anyway to protect yourself even in normal circumstances.
It never hurts to have some cash around. How much? It depends upon your circumstances and what you have available, but a week or two worth of normal expenses, including those you pay for by credit card, would be sensible. Bear in mind that criminals aren't always as dumb as we'd like to think and they are bound to figure out that lots of people have withdrawn substantial amounts of money from the bank in preparation for Y2K, so take reasonable precautions.
One concern is that even though banks are likely to be one of the industries best prepared for Y2K, enough irresponsible journalism combined with general ignorance and fear and lack of faith in the integrity of business could cause a run on the banks. That would certainly cause problems of a much more serious nature. Not really a Y2K problem, but a human nature problem. However, if that did happen, the government would likely step in, shut everything down, and wait a few days until people came to their senses. So, the reasonable person would not wait until the last minute to withdraw their cash reserve.
The telephone network is another area of concern to many because of the system's dependence on computers and embedded processors in switches. Actually, imagine how peaceful life would be without those damn interruptions at dinner time? The major telecommunications companies say they have the problem in hand. Any phone problems are likely to be localized, not national in scope. In any case, there's not a lot you can do except to have a cellular phone charged up and ready to go for emergency use. Virtually all cellular systems are Y2K compliant.
Someone who is prepared always keeps their cars and oil tanks fairly full, just in case. Y2K is no different; make sure all such things are full, well before the first of the year. If you are truly concerned about the effects of a short-term power outage, get yourself a portable generator. Live in a frigid part of the world? Make sure you have a safe heating alternative available with enough fuel to see you through at least a few days or a week. These are things you should probably have anyway. Fresh batteries for your flashlights and radio? Why wouldn't you have those already?
Persons with health problems that are critically dependent upon a constant flow of power would do well to take extra precautions, including having access to self-generated power. Again, anyone with an ounce of common sense who was in such circumstances should already have considered that possibility and be adequately covered. Even in the normal course of events power outages occur.
Food, water, and similar supplies are always a consideration when preparing for the possibility of any manner of disruption, natural or man-made. The Equipped To Survive Earthquake & Disaster Preparedness Kits lists contain all you'd need to be prepared for nearly anything. For those less inclined towards that level of preparation, just be sure your larder is stocked with a week (or two) of food that can be easily prepared only with the resources you may find available if the power goes out. It may be the perfect excuse to fire up the barbecue in January for a New Year's Day celebration. These can range from specially prepared survival foods, to military MREs, to plain old canned and dehydrated/freeze dried foods and even many fruits and vegetables that will keep adequately for weeks without any special storage. Water can be purchased in 2.5 and 5 gallon containers, and if not used can be consumed later, as can the perishable food. See the ETS Retail Resources page for sources for disaster preparedness supplies [Use the "Find" command (Ctrl-F) and search for disaster].
If you have family or friends that might be especially vulnerable, maybe you ought to consider inviting them over for the New Year's holiday. Or, conversely, maybe you ought to consider visiting someone in better circumstances than yourself if you are especially vulnerable yourself. Someone living in a rural single family home has far different concerns and self-help capability than someone who lives in a 30 story high-rise apartment in the middle of a large city.
From my point of view, if Y2K concerns prompt more individuals to think seriously about preparations for a natural or man-made disaster, then that's all for the best. Too many people never give it a thought, denying any personal responsibility and expecting someone else to take care of them. If Y2K causes them to wake up and become better prepared, we'll all be better off.
Don't believe all the Y2K hype you hear and read, look at it critically and with due skepticism. Ask questions, look for agendas, never accept media reports at face value. Don't forget that we humans rarely let even major, devastating, and unexpected disasters get us down for long; Y2K will likely be little more than a ripple in our history. So, take prudent measures to be prepared, don't be surprised by the inconveniences that occur, and don't worry too much--the sky is not falling!
-- Doug Ritter
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Published: December, 1998
Revision: 06 March 11, 1999
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