When Millennium Bug bites, soothe yourself with a song

January 03, 1999|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder/Tribune

I found myself thinking about the Millennium Bug a couple of weeks ago while listening to Perry Como sing ``Do You Hear What I Hear?'' to me on the telephone.

Ordinarily there is nothing I'd rather do than listen to Perry croon a Christmas carol over a speaker that has the acoustical fidelity of a wet kazoo. But in this case, I had been hoping to get through to a customer-service representative of a large corporation that had just sent me, out of the blue, a letter informing me that my homeowner's insurance was being canceled. This letter caused me to experience one of those chilling homeowner moments, like when you see water coming from an electrical socket, or you realize that you have built your new kitchen addition directly over your septic tank, or you call home and the baby sitter says that the fire chief wants to talk to you, or the termite inspector shines his flashlight under your house and screams like the shower woman in ``Psycho.''

So I really, really wanted to talk to a live human customer-service representative, or even a reasonably intelligent customer-service dog. But I was getting nowhere with the automated telephone answering system, which was designed by the late Pol Pot. No matter what numbers I pressed on my touch-tone phone - and I tried them all - I always ended up with a very nice recorded woman saying: ``Please hold while your call is transferred to a Customer Service representative.'' Then there would be some clicks, and I'd get ready to give my insurance policy number, and, there, on the line, would be: Perry Como. Perry would croon a few verses of ``Do You Hear What I Hear?''; then I'd hear some more clicks; then I'd hear: a dial tone. Time to start over!

I went through this entire procedure five times. I began to wonder if maybe, as a result of a career slump, Perry Como actually was the Customer Service representative, and he was singing Christmas carols to himself in his little cubicle to pass the time while he waited for me to explain my problem. But of course the actual explanation is that the telephone answering system at this corporation, like everything else in the world, is controlled by computers. And while we must recognize that computers are wonderful machines that have improved our lives in countless ways, we must also, by the same token, recognize that they are the spawn of an evil demon.

This is why I'm worried about this Millennium Bug. By now, of course, you've heard about this problem: It's a glitch in computer software that, when transmitted via the bite of a mosquito, can cause severe chills and death.

No, sorry, that's malaria. The Millennium Bug is a glitch that makes it impossible for computers to understand what century it is. You can explain it to them until you're blue in the face, but they'll just look at you with the same blank, uncomprehending expression that appeared on Vice President Quayle whenever somebody asked him a tricky question, like what his opinion was.

The cause of the Millennium Bug dates back to the 1960s, when computer programmers decided to represent certain types of data in shorthand. Thus 1967 became just ``67''; Missouri became just ``Mo.''; a broiled chicken sandwich with fries and a medium soft drink became just ``The No. 4 Combo''; and Charles A. Frecklewanker Jr. became just ``Chuck.'' The programmers did this because, in the 1960s, computer memory was very expensive. Also, back then everybody except Bill Clinton was on drugs. Many of these programmers didn't know what century it was.

Until recently, the Millennium Bug was not a problem. But now, with the year 2000 looming just ahead, we are facing a disaster, according to computer experts who have been studying the situation Picture this situation: At 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, you step into a crowded, computer-controlled elevator in a modern high-rise building. At the stroke of midnight, you and your co-passengers are suspended in an elevator shaft 50 floors up - and suddenly, the elevator doesn't know whether the year is 1900 or 2000! You can imagine what might happen!

Nothing, that's what. Elevators don't need to know what year it is. But a co-passenger who has been drinking cheap champagne could throw up on your shoes.

This is just one of the possibilities we need to prepare for. Another one is that there might be a nuclear war, which - not to alarm anybody - would probably have a serious impact on the bowl games. Also, many experts are warning that our national communications network could be disrupted, making it impossible, for a while anyway, to reach anybody by telephone. So my advice is: Be prepared. Get yourself a Perry Como record now.

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