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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Glitches Occur Daily Without Millennium Bug

NEW YORK -- In the first few days of next year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are likely to discover that they cannot get cash from a teller machine. Others will suddenly lose power or be greeted with silence when they pick up their telephones.

There will be neighborhood pharmacies asking customers to pay in full for medicines because insurers' computers do not recognize their names. And thousands of business and home computers are likely to be penetrated by vandals or thieves.

Year 2000 computer problems? Although many people who encounter such technology potholes will naturally assume so, they may well be wrong.

"If we watched the world tomorrow as closely as we will watch Jan. 1, we'd see a whole set of things not working," said John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.

To gain perspective on potential year 2000 problems f and perhaps head off sensationalized media coverage and panic f Koskinen and industry representatives have been trying to pin down just how messy normal life can be. On Monday, the President's Council made its first attempt to publicize failure rates for vital activities in a wide range of basic industries and government services.

The report bounced around the landscape from irritations f up to 10 percent of the 907 million automated teller transactions each year fail on their first attempt, usually because of customer errors f to safety concerns f telephone network glitches disrupt 911 service somewhere about once a week. It also touched on transportation accidents and energy reliability: For example, nearly every year since 1994, tens of thousands of Americans or Canadians have lost power in late December or early January, including 1.5 million during last year's ice storm in the Northeast.

Some are skeptical that such data will alter anyone's suspicions or behavior when problems arise as the millennium arrives. "There will be very little they can say to counteract the belief that it's a Y2K problem," said Lisa Aspinwall, a University of Maryland psychology professor who is studying public perceptions about Y2K.

But Koskinen expects the baselines to provide an important benefit even if they have little effect on public perceptions: They may help to identify serious year 2000 problems more quickly.

For instance, utility grids may experience glitches that are handled well enough by backup systems to keep the power on. The benchmarks could point to a high incidence of malfunctions that drastically increases the risks of blackouts several weeks down the road, particularly in developing countries.

"We don't want to focus on the first things that go wrong if it looks like things that could develop later are more important," Koskinen said.

The potential value of failure data was reinforced Monday when the Y2K International Cooperation Center, an information clearinghouse established in Washington by the United Nations, issued a global preparedness overview.

It concluded that although computer risks remained relatively high in some countries in lagging sectors like health care, "most critical infrastructures will function about as well as they normally do in the first days of the new year." But the report suggested that a closer look might reveal accumulating errors in some power systems or other crucial areas that could lead to deteriorating service or worse if left unaddressed.

For some industries, lack of enthusiasm for benchmarking is as big a problem as lack of data. "No one in the health care industry wants to come out and say we normally have a lot of problems with insurance coverage at the beginning of the year because so many people are switching plans, but everyone in the industry knows it," one leading industry consultant who declined to be named said.

Still, many large companies are privately putting extra effort this year into tracking not just failure rates but any deviation from what they consider normal activity. DuPont, for instance, began in September to get reports every other week from truckers, railroads and even Rhine River barge operators in Germany on how much of their equipment is available.

DuPont is looking for any early indications f so far, there are none f of disruptions that could affect the arrival of supplies or its ability to ship out products.

While many companies will be relying on failure benchmarks for some guidance as to the seriousness of their problems next month, most of them will not be nearly as defined as DuPont's. "Most people will have experts who know what's normal in their command posts, but 90 percent will be doing their assessments based on gut feeling," said William Ulrich, a year 2000 consultant based in Soquel, California.

And that may be the best thing for companies that have not drilled like DuPont on how to use failure benchmarks, not to mention the government and consumers. "Too much information is just as bad as not enough,'' said Ann Coffou, a year 2000 expert with the Giga Group, a technology consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.