Below is a copy of media coverage from last Sunday's Parade (a magazine insert in Sunday newspapers with a circulation of 130,000,000). Marilyn vos Savant is their most prized author, receiving more mail than anyone else. And she says that the majority of it is about Y2K. I imagine that mail is filled with concerned, frantic, crazy voices -- from "what can I do to save myself and my family?!" to TEOTWAWKI. At any rate, I think it is time we invite her to consider the value of community preparedness and other issues of importance to us, which she may not have been much exposed to in her mailbag. It is a challenge to do that, since she seems to be convinced that Y2K is no problem. Perhaps talking less about the facts of the matter (of which there are tons on every side) and more about ourselves, what we're trying to do, how we don't want to panic people either, but we are concerned that just in case there are serious problems it is wise to have prepared. As she says: "We mustn't mistake preparation and diligence for prediction!"
If a few hundred of us write good letters, one of them may just strike her in the right way. So if you're inspired....
PS: Her editor's email address is <email@example.com>. Maybe a cc to him would help things along.
ASK MARILYN By Marilyn vos Savant
My wife and I are concerned about the Y2K problem, the computer date-recognition snag that will occur beginning Jan. 1, 2000. What do you think will happen? Will we be without food, gas and utilities, as some say, or will we simply be inconvenienced? Please answer on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being a nuisance and 10 being a complete failure of our system. Should my wife and I have cash on hand? What about the bank and stock holdings? Anything else? -- Jerry C. Jones, Ellisville, Miss.
I believe that concern about the Y2K bug will be the first major Internet-driven scare of the global information age, aided by alarming media reports. Without talk in every household and the apocalyptic symbolism of the year being 2000 - the dawning of the new millennium - I think there would be no sense of panic at all. In other words, if the problematic year had been 1999 instead, the average person might not even have cared. But questions about the Y2K bug are now the most common ones in my mail. Although I already wrote about the situation a couple of years ago, it's time to look at it again. We know a lot more know.
[PHOTO: a young girl sleeping on three seats at a crowded airport. CAPTION: Some are predicting that the Y2K bug will wreak havoc on air-traffic computers and cause long delays at airports. PULLQUOTE: The media are reporting on preparations to deal with interruptions in food, water and power supplies - and mass panic. But the reports are misleading.]
I first researched the possible consequences of the Y2K bug because of newspaper editorials warning of a recession. I was interested in the expense involved, which began to look larger and larger the more I read. However, the reports are misleading. Companies routinely deal with major headaches, but they vary from business to business. So we notice those other problems less - because they're called by so many different names and because they don't happen to all companies at once. I believe that the computer problem is drawing much more attention because it has a name common to all business ("the Y2K bug") and because it's happening to many companies at the same time. This is making it appear more impressive than the problem itself would otherwise deserve.
Business problems can have human consequences. Strikes often cause financial hardship, and product failures occasionally cause injury. Even a routine shortage can be troublesome. For example, you might try to fill a prescription only to learn that your pharmacy is out of that particular drug. This is everyday life. One day last year, the main air- traffic radar systems at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport failed for seven hours. Even the backup system experienced "minor technical problems." Although the airport is one of the busiest in the world, planes continued to take off and land without incident. This also is life. Things are always happening.
[PULLQUOTE: Enough scared people can cause real trouble. In the case of Y2K, however, they may cause the opposite.]
Most of us already have been through plenty of computer- related system failures: a magazine subscription, a mail- order item that arrived in the wrong color or a credit-card charge that never appeared on our account. And it wasn't much more than inconvenient, although we've all had the experience of getting tangled in a mass of red tape now and then. I think that the early months of the year 2000 will just bring more of the same, with emphasis on the word "more." On that scale of 10, my current guess of the Y2K consequences ranks between 1 and 2: 1 for the majority of us, who may be inconvenienced at some point, and 2 for a minority whose circumstances make them vulnerable. For example, a check slow to arrive can be a serious concern. And surely there will be a major mishap somewhere. It's a big world. Even the weather makes news every day.
Yet the media are reporting about preparations for interruptions in food, water and power supplies, not to mention rioting and sheer panic in the streets. These reports are causing concern disproportionate to the threat involved. It is perfectly normal for governmental agencies to prepare for every conceivable calamity, even though the likelihood of such a calamity is practically nil. It is their duty. We mustn't mistake preparation and diligence for prediction!
Ordinarily, I am wary of frightened people: Enough of them can cause real trouble. But in the case of the Y2K bug, they may cause the opposite: a boon for business, at least in the short term. First, people will fill their cupboards for the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, and then they'll do it all over again for the Y2K New Year's weekend.
The stock market may gyrate, as fearful investors pull out their funds from perfectly good stocks while bargain-hunters snap them up. But I currently believe that, other than scaring half of us half to death, any serious consequences will be scattered and only temporary.
If you have any question or comment for Marilyn vos Savant, who is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records" Hall of Fame for "Highest IQ," send it to Ask Marilyn, Parade, 711 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017. or you can send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (please include name, city and state). Due to volume of mail, personal replies are not possible.