Copyright ©1999 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz
Part 1: How it happened, what Y2K affects, embedded systems
Part 2: Your money, your electricity, your telephones, your television
Part 3: A block of cheese, Vermont independence, elsewhere
Part 4: So you own a computer, what you can do, what next
Now it's 1999 and you've got less than a year to deal with the Year 2000 problem, Y2K. If you don't think it affects you, you're wrong.
Are you stocking up? If fact, some Vermonters are, because they're worried about infrastructure failures. They may be right. With so many links in the supply chain of goods and services, which ones will break? With computer control in every aspect of manufacturing and delivery, which failures will matter?
The supply of goods has changed, as any visit to the Grand Union or up the hill to Shaw's will show. Prices have vanished from products, and computerized barcode scanners ring up the sale -- it doesn't even ring; it beeps. It isn't your Grandpa's general store anymore!
Here's an example. Golden Cheese Company of California is hi-tech. Computers control the feed balance and milk the cows. A small staff stands by as their huge processing plant produces, packages, and ships over 300,000 pounds of cheese every day. From cheese recipes through quality control through vat cleaning through shipping labels to pallet building, everything is monitored with computer sensors and its status flashed on banks of display screens. Even safety interlocks are computerized. Grocery chain stores order electronically to refill their inventory, and receive advance electronic notices of shipment the moment their cheese is on the dock. Packages are tracked via truck-top radios right to the store, scanned into the store's computer system, and scanned again as shelves are filled. When the block of cheese is scanned at checkout, the item is deducted from inventory and automatically reordered. Golden Cheese finally gets paid. It's all part of electronic data transfer (EDT) and its latest hi-tech component, scan-based trading.
This kind of food distribution depends on reliable feed supply, fuel delivery, power, and operating software. There are no more hand-operated machines, handwritten orders, hand boxing, or handwritten receipts. One glitch and it all stops -- as anyone who's waited in a Shaw's checkout line has learned.
Watching this intertwined technological web has engendered considerable nervousness. It makes sense. If a block of cheese might not arrive, then what about utilities, or spare parts, or manufacturing supplies? The problem will be felt first in the cities, where the infrastructure is fragile and interdependent. But Vermont and its rural cousins can't relax in isolationist splendor.
There's a category of rumor called the Urban Legend. You've probably heard some of them: the gang-initiation rite where they drive with lights out, and kill the occupants of the first car who flashes helpfully at them; the disgruntled activists who leave AIDS-infected syringes on seats in dark movie theaters; and the one that even Pierre Salinger believed, government photos showing TWA Flight 800 being downed by a missile.
Urban Legends spread quickly on the Internet, including a new one called 'Rural Remediation'. As the Y2K panic hits, this Urban Legend goes, towns under 10,000 population nationwide will be put under martial law, their inhabitants sent to camps, and their fuel and food supplies confiscated and trucked by military convoy to the cities.
Rural Remediation may be a myth, but failure in the cities will certainly affect us. Vermont's strong tradition of independence has isolated it from many worldwide problems, but Y2K is insidious. It might affect the power grid and fuel supplies -- things we're used to coping with -- but it might also interfere with delivery of food or furnace repair parts during those deep winter months, as unscanned crates sit idle or gasoline becomes scarce.
And don't forget that those diesel generators orders are backed up six months.
Others haven't forgotten. Locally, several residents are looking for alternatives. A Roxbury family is already planning to stock up on canned goods, and the matriarch is out walking their property in search of sufficient hydro power. She says, "I definitely believe that something is going to happen, and I want to put in a complete hydroelectric system before then." She describes a film documentary in which knowledgeable computer 'geeks' were among the prime movers in building survivalist bunkers. Her family is taking a cue from the insiders -- if the geeks are worried, so is she, big time.
Let's move up the scale of concern, from the unexpected to the horrific.
We don't have much of an elevator problem in Vermont, but for our relatives who work or live in high-rise buildings, Y2K can be a headache. Elevators are often tied into building management systems. When those systems fail, then elevators, air conditioning, and heating systems all stop working. One expert says, "It renders a high-rise uninhabitable".
Chemical companies are worried about power failures at the century rollover. Rohm and Haas, a Philadelphia-based chemical manufacturer, just announced that it will shut its plants in December because computers controlling storage temperatures may have lingering Y2K problems. On the other hand, Oxychem is keeping its workers on the job -- to protect them from civil disorders, they claim.
Environmentalists are girding for large-scale disasters. Outside the developed world, older computers are everywhere. While the North America, Europe, and Australia work energetically to solve Y2K dilemmas, other parts of the world are still running machines for whom January 1, 2000, spells meltdown -- perhaps literally. Even if environmental disaster is averted, many of these machines are connected to networks, with the likelihood of data slowdown, lost email, network congestion, and delayed goods and services and emergency help worldwide. In such a scenario, Green Mountain Power's ham radio backup makes sense.
On the other hand, if you're fretting about nuclear weapons going off, take a small comfort in the fact that every nuclear nation launches its missiles only by hand. Any missiles that rain down will be deliberate.
For the average Vermonter, the message of Y2K is to be prepared as you would for an extra hard winter -- canned food, candles, batteries, bottled water, a higher wood pile, and a supply of cash.
Next week: The series concludes with resources for computer owners.