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CPSR Newsletter - Vol. 17, No. 1
CPSR Newsletter

Winter 1999
Vol. 17, No. 1


Marsha Woodbury
Y2K: The Broad View

CPSR-Y2K Working Group Web Pages

Arthur C. Clarke
The Century Syndrome, from The Ghost from the Grand Banks

Anthony Ralston
Y2K and Social Responsibility

Peter Neumann
A Perspective on Y2K

Gary Chapman
Now For Another Daunting Y2K Task: Educating America's Masses

Lenny Siegel
OOPs 2000: The Y2K Bug and the Threat of Catastrophic Chemical Releases

Norman Kurland
How Y2K Will Impact the New York Times

Y2K and Nuclear Weapons

  • Letters Seeking Help on Nuclear Weapons Issues from
    Michael Kraig
    Alan Phillips

  • Four Prominent Scientists on Nuclear Weapons Concerns:
    Khursch Ahmed
    David Parnas
    Barbara Simons
    Terry Winograd

  • Gary Chapman
    A Moral Project for the 21st Century: Stop Creating Better Weapons


    Y2K Humor from the Internet and Beyond

    Cartoon (may crash older browsers)

    CPSR News:

    Aki Namioka
    A Letter from CPSR's President

    Netiva Caftori
    Chapter News

    Return to the Index.

  • Now for Another Daunting Y2K Task: Educating America's Masses
    by Gary Chapman

    From the March 1 edition of Gary's column "Digital Nation" in the Los Angeles Times. Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.

    Last week, details of a new U.S. Senate report on the year 2000 software bug leaked to the media revealed serious concerns about the readiness of several national economic sectors, including health care, oil, education, farming, food processing, and construction, among others.

    A number of government agencies are woefully behind too, including the Departments of Defense and Energy and the Federal Aviation Administration.

    The new report, one of the most comprehensive reviews of the Y2K bug to date, is expected to be formally released Tuesday, March 8, at a news conference in Washington called by the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

    By now, most experts, even the optimists, agree that many computer systems vulnerable to the software date flaw will not be fixed by January 1. And the draft copy of the Senate report says that "The interdependent nature of technology systems makes the severity of possible disruptions difficult to predict."

    We've gone through three distinct phases of the year 2000 problem so far. The first involved simply alerting people responsible for computer systems to the nature of the bug. Next came a phase in which many companies and other institutions remain, that of fixing software by rewriting code or replacing programs and chips. And now many managers are in a third phase, that of contingency planning, sometimes called "business continuity planning," which attempts to forecast possible disruptions and prepare for them.

    But now it's time for a fourth phase, one we're only beginning to see unfold: public education and preparedness.

    Most of the people who have been responsible for and knowledgeable about the Y2K bug have been so busy fixing computers that they haven't had time to think about how to educate the public, but they're beginning to regard doing so as the most important task for the time we have left, which is now a mere 305 days. It's a daunting task, unprecedented in its scope and significance: educating each and every citizen of the United States about a relatively arcane technical problem that many citizens still do not understand or even know about.

    Many communities throughout the country are planning public education efforts, such as town hall meetings, media campaigns, public service announcements, brochures, and the engagement of churches, community organizations, schools, and private businesses. Useful material has been developed to support such activities, especially the Y2K Citizens' Action Guide, a small booklet published by the Utne Reader in Minnesota, available in bookstores and on the Web.

    The challenge of public education about Y2K is especially severe in a city the size and diversity of Los Angeles.

    Frank Martinez is executive director of the city's Year 2000 Project, a program of the city's Information Technology Agency, and his team has been thinking about how to get the word out.

    The City Council recently approved $100,000 to hire a professional public relations firm to craft a multimedia campaign to educate the public about Y2K in Los Angeles. Martinez said his agency has received three proposals and expects to hire a PR firm this month.

    "We're hoping for a multimedia campaign with public service announcements, material in libraries, police stations, social service agencies, and so on," Martinez says. His agency is sending people out to community meetings and homeowners' associations that request public speakers on how to prepare for Y2K. Because of limited personnel, Martinez and his staff are trying to get community organizations to hold joint meetings.

    The city has a toll-free telephone number with Y2K information (888-356-4661), as well as a Web page with some useful tips about preparedness.

    "Our main message," Martinez says, "is that the kind of preparation we are recommending is the kind of preparation that should be done on a regular basis if you live in Southern California."

    He means that people in the region should observe the same kind of preparation as for an earthquake or other natural disaster. That includes storing food, water, emergency supplies, prescription drugs, and cash for up to a week. Cash reserves should be accumulated over the entire year, rather than in November and December, he said.

    "In addition, specific to Y2K, we are recommending that people have good and accurate financial records, bank statements, credit card records, insurance policies, etcetera, in hard-copy form and stored in a safe place," Martinez said, adding that people should get in the habit of keeping their gas tanks filled.

    Any concerns about specific devices, he added, should be addressed to the manufacturer.

    "We continue to believe that any disruptions will be relatively minor and of short duration, and we think we can respond quickly," Martinez said.

    However, Los Angeles needs to prepare for worst-case scenarios, he noted, so all city agencies will be involved in an emergency-preparedness exercise the last weekend in May.

    Public officials responsible for the Y2K problem are faced with several competing and vexing difficulties. They are typically charged with fixing the Y2K bug in public-sector computers at the same time that they're supposed to be educating people about how to prepare, and both tasks are full-time jobs.

    They need to strike a balance between alerting people and not fostering unnecessary and dangerous panic. They have to negotiate with some people who have alarmist agendas, and they have to reach out to communities with diverse ranges of literacy, language, familiarity with technology, and capabilities. Low-income neighborhoods have to be a priority, of course, because they're likely to be least prepared and least able to set aside supplies they might need in an emergency.

    Eric Utne, founder of the Utne Reader, sees a silver lining in this crisis. He says in his publication's booklet, "As we prepare for Y2K, something surprising and quite wonderful is going to happen. We're going to get to know our neighbors." This is one of those rare times, encountered usually only in war or after a natural disaster, in which the public-spiritedness of citizens will be tested, no matter what the effects of the computer bug turn out to be. Every citizen who cares about the quality of life in the nation should turn his or her attention to how to help avert a crisis and build common bonds of trust and preparedness. We have 305 days left to show how well we can work together.

    Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. His email address is

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