If what we read about the millennium is correct, humanity is about to be subjected to a technological humiliation more embarrassing than the sinking of a dozen Titanics. Fortunately, America's very best nerds are beavering away on a mission to save us from the kind of Armageddon only Hollywood would normally be able to dream up. The millennium bug, we are told, is only 19 months away from opening up a cavernous crater right in the middle of the information superhighway. It is the Unabomber's dream - and even his neighbours in the wilds of Montana must know by now that seconds after the champagne corks pop on midnight, December 31, 1999, the lights could literally go out on parties all over the world. Virtually every facet of modern life is threatened by the potential collapse of any machine and any service that requires a computer to run it. Because computers were never programmed to recognise '00' as the correct follow-on date from the year '99', it is already looking wiser to stay safely at home rather than venture out on what should by rights be the biggest party night of the century. We are being warned air traffic controls may go haywire, lifts could suddenly stop between floors, phone networks crash, bank machines fail to work, credit cards become unusable, stock markets freeze, and power stations grind to a halt; and although there will be nothing worth driving to, do not even try, since your common-or-garden car also contains a few dozen microchips that could render it immobile. In a worst case scenario, no one will be able to work, travel, go to school, shop, or enter hospital. If we are lucky, the electricity supply might remain, so we can watch TV - assuming there are any programmes being broadcast. All in all, that other Armageddon scenario - the upcoming movie about a comet smashing into the Earth - almost seems preferable. Even though warnings have been gathering pace for around two years now, there are few signs that the public is paying much attention. And although the canniest corporations have been trying to solve their internal computer problems for some time, the warnings are becoming more dire. America will probably be the best place to live in the first few weeks of 2000, since its officials and experts have taken the problem more seriously than most; the White House, Congress and other important centres of government have set up task forces to co-ordinate a national response, while there are few big companies which have not thrown millions of dollars of manpower at round-the-clock programming efforts to immunise themselves against the bug before it strikes. Even so, a Federal Reserve official warned last week that the cost to the American economy could be US$50 billion (HK$387 billion) - with the knock-on effects sending it into a recession. The CIA is certainly alert to a potential global crisis and has set up its own task force to analyse possible outcomes. Unfortunately, we might not be able to rely on the reassuring firepower of the United States military to keep the peace - since the Pentagon is judged to be one of the worst government departments in preparing its own computer networks for the year 2000. Here is the good news: we have a wonderful little acronym prepared to make it easier to describe our predicament. What once was 'millennium bug' or 'year 2000 problem' is now simply Y2K. But have you ever wondered where these terms come from? We never get to know, since, like so many of the technological phenomena they accompany, they seem to emerge from nowhere, out of the dark (and probably highly-classified) interiors of some laboratory, until they enter the mainstream little-by-little, starting with a paragraph or two in an obscure scientific journal and progressing all the way to the front cover of Time. Just like the Internet before it, and the personal computer before that, the Y2K bug has somehow entered mainstream society by a back door which no one can actually locate. Those of us lacking in advanced computer training - 99.99 per cent of humanity, that is - never even noticed these new technological happenings until they were there, with some form of commercial and practical value we could (just) understand. By the time most of us understood what the World Wide Web meant, it was already out of our control, shaped and prepared for mass consumption by people we will never meet. And we have no choice but to join in. Whatever you say about Microsoft, at least we know and can put a face to the man who brought us DOS and Windows - and if we do not like his quest for world domination, we can write to him in Redmond, Washington to say so. But what is especially irritating about Y2K is that the people to blame for this simple computer programming blunder are the same nameless, faceless computer geeks who brought us the computer revolution in the first place. Blinded by their own brilliance, they have created a monster where computers can beat the greatest-ever chess master and fly us to the moon, but not tell the time. Unless enough of the latest generation of geeks can be found to re-programme every mainframe computer in the world, the resulting confusion is almost certain to disrupt our everyday lives in a way we have not seen since the energy crisis of the 1970s.