Syncopated Systems
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Common Threads: Media, Science, Technology, and Other Magic

May 2020: The COVID-19 Chronicles

Remember the Y2K Problem?

In the first few weeks of the global COVID-19 pandemic, by March 2020, many Americans were stockpiling supplies. Many were panic-buying and hoarding toilet paper.

As many might recall, in the years leading up to 2000, there was widespread concern over the extent to which modern societies rely upon computers and the potential for disasters due to naive assumptions of software developers about how to encode and display dates. Although this is now widely known as the Year 2000 problem (Y2K), other years that have real or anticipated date encoding problems include 1975, 1999, 2010, 2038, and years divisible by 100 that are not leap years, such as 2100.

As a result, some retailers in 1999 had expected that many people would adopt survivalist attitudes and prepare (gaining the name “preppers”) for some degree of social collapse by stocking up on supplies including large quantities of toilet paper. (Apparently a precident had been set in 1973 when a wise crack on the Tonight Show from my near namesake Johnny Carson caused a shortage on toilet paper that lasted for months.)

Around 1999, I sometimes joked (and occasionally still do) that toilet paper could become the currency of the new millennium.

When panic buying didn’t happen in 1999, some retailers found themselves offering discounts to clear their overstock. I took the opportunity to stock up cheaply and had built a supply that lasted for quite a long time.

Now twenty years later, the market for toilet paper has come full circle.

Next article in this series: A Brief History of Toilet Paper

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