Read an Excerpt
Picture this: It's Tuesday morning at the Andersons'. Everyone is still asleep. The lights are out, but the Andersons' electronic alarm system, a computerized, high-tech sentry, is standing guard. Although the system was not expensive, it is comprised of a sophisticated array of embedded computer chips that monitor every door and window in the house. (As you may know, embedded chip systems are computer chips that have the actual program "burned into" the hardware.) If the system detects a break-in, the alarm sounds, waits two minutes, and then automatically dials the local police station. The alarm has not gone off in over a year, which was the last time the Andersons had it tested.
At 6 AM the alarm clock goes off. Gary reaches over, turns off the alarm, and then reluctantly throws his feet over the side of the bed. His alarm clock is built into his digital clock radio. It is run by a computer--albeit a simple one--that allows it to keep the current time, and store the wake-up time and the presets for his favorite radio stations.
While Gary heads for the bathroom, Nancy turns on the light next to her bed. The electrical power for the Andersons' neighborhood is generated by a large hydroelectric power plant. The processes inside the power plant and the distribution system outside the power plant are monitored and maintained by mainframe computers and thousands of embedded chip systems. Transformers, using embedded chips to regulate voltage levels, raise the generated power to the high voltages that are used on the transmission lines. The electricity is sent from the plant to substations, where, once again, computer chips embedded in transformers step down thevoltage to the voltage on the subtransmission lines. A final set of transformers steps the voltage down even further, to the level used by consumers to power electronic devices. To protect all the elements of a power system from short circuits and overloads, and for normal switching operations, automated circuit breakers are used. These, too, use computer chips.
As Nancy wakes up the children, Gary gets in the shower. He's never given much thought to how the water is delivered to his home. All he knows is that, as he turns the shower knob, out comes the water. But this, too, is a convenience made possible by the use of a highly computerized system. The Andersons' water comes from a large river that flows through the center of the city. This water must be treated before it can be used. The entire treatment process is monitored by mainframe computers and controlled by embedded chip systems linked to those computers. The water moves through the aeration, filtration, and chemical treatment processes at the command of these automated systems.
From the shower, Gary heads to the kitchen to eat breakfast. The Andersons' food comes from farmers who use computers to control irrigation levels, from truckers who use computers to schedule and route shipments, and from grocers who use computers to monitor inventory levels and perform automatic re-orders. The modern food chain is completely dependent on computers.
Gary heads for the garage. As he turns the ignition of his late-model sedan, more than fifty microprocessors, embedded chip systems, and microcontrollers are activated. These computers regulate and monitor everything from the oil pressure to the temperature.
When Gary arrives at the office, he encounters even more computers:
- He plans his day's activities using a personal information manager, checks his corporate e-mail and his CompuServe account, and asks his secretary to hold his calls. He launches Microsoft PowerPoint and begins working on a proposal.
- He finishes it at 11:15. He has thirty minutes before lunch, so he returns phone calls--oblivious to the complex tapestry of computers, switches, and embedded chip systems that transfer his voice from one area of the country to another.
- He has lunch with the company's vice president of sales. Gary pays for lunch with his corporate Visa card. The card is read by a magnetic reader on the cash register. A modem transmits the account number to a bank for authorization. The computer at the bank looks up the account, verifies that he has credit available, and sends the restaurant's computer an authorization code. The whole process takes less than two minutes.
- Gary drives home to pack for a business trip. Turning into the driveway, he stops and collects the day's mail from the mailbox. Nothing but bills and a few pieces of junk mail. Gary doesn't stop to think about the computers--mostly mainframes--that collect the transactions for those bills, sorting them by customer, and then generating the necessary invoices. Nor does Gary stop to think that this simple system of invoices and payments is the lifeblood of our economy.
- He quickly packs, throws his things in the car, and drives to the airport--just a little too fast. He gets pulled over by a policeman for speeding. The officer uses his built-in computer system to run Gary's plates and driver's license through the state highway patrol's computer database. He wants to make sure that the driver has no outstanding warrants. Finding Gary clean, the policeman issues him a ticket and sends him on his way.
- Gary parks his car at the airport, taking a date-stamped parking ticket from the dispenser. He hurries through security (which is, of course, all computerized) and dashes onto the plane. After takeoff, the captain puts the plane on auto-pilot, content to let the on-board computers fly the 737 to its destination. These computers navigate by determining their exact location using the Global Positioning Satellite system maintained by the U.S. Navy.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Almost every aspect of our lives is regulated, controlled, monitored, enhanced, or made more convenient or efficient by computers. Whether they are large mainframe computers running in the sterile environment of a corporate Information Systems Department, a combination of client-server systems and personal computers, or embedded chip systems soldered into virtually every appliance and electronic device, computers run the show. And we are dependent upon them in ways that we have difficulty comprehending. What happens if some--or all!--of them crash?
I'm not sure where you are in your exposure to and evaluation of the Millennium Bug. You may be confident that someone else will solve the problem (as I was initially), skeptical about what you've heard reported in the media, or already convinced that it is a very big problem. Regardless, this book is written for you. My primary goal in writing this book is to lay the facts before you, help you understand how they will affect you, and then help you decide what you must do--personally.
The book is divided into three parts:
- Part I, "The Eleventh Hour," will give you an overview of the Year 2000 Computer Crisis. The focus is on the facts in general.
- Part II, "Against the Clock, " discusses the implications and impact of the Year 2000 Problem on various segments of our high-tech civilization. The focus is on the facts in particular.
- Part III, "The Day After, " is designed to help you prepare for life after the Year 2000 Computer Crisis. The focus is on what the facts mean and what you can do about them.
In short, I am convinced that the Y2K problem presents us with, potentially, the most significant, extensive, and disruptive crisis we have ever faced. I am not alone in my assessment, as you will see. But unlike every other crisis you and I have either experienced or read about, not only do we know about it before it strikes, but we can actually predict when it will begin, down to the precise second. The only question that remains is this: Will you and I be ready for it?