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Don't Make Y2K The Scapegoat

Concerned that any technical failure in the earliest hours of Jan. 1 will be blamed on the Year 2000 computer problem, the White House is releasing figures showing how often some systems typically break down. It is not a pretty picture.

Lights go out. Computers crash. Flights are delayed, baggage is lost. ATMs run out of cash, cellular calls won't go through and cable TV is showing static.

In the increasingly complex world of technology, those disasters can occur individually all in a day's work whether or not that day is the upcoming New Year's.

The White House is releasing the information as a precaution, to avert public panic at the first sign of a disruption in electricity or another essential service that may coincide with the date rollover but was not caused by the computer glitch.

Some failures may take weeks of study before Y2K can be blamed or dismissed as the cause.

"Every day things go wrong, and nobody pays much attention to them, nobody thinks twice about it," said John Koskinen, President's Clinton's top Y2K adviser. "But any of those things that happen on January 1st will immediately be presumed to be the indication of a Y2K problem."

Even though the nation's electrical utilities are more than 99 percent reliable, winter storms can darken neighborhoods and entire regions. Koskinen puts odds at 50-50 a major ice storm or blizzard will strike America during that critical New Year's weekend.

In 1989, for example, a failed switch shut down electricity on New Year's Eve for 90,000 citizens in Maine.

"We have interruptions in the power grid all the time," said Sen. Robert Bennett, chairman of the Senate's Year 2000 Committee. "We have interruptions in the flow of oil around the world all the time. We have all kinds of accidents that take place in computer-land, and those that happen on January 1st, people will say were caused by Y2K."

Computers and their programming code are at the heart of the Year 2000 problem, when devices that aren't sufficiently tested or repaired could misinterpret the year "00" as 1900. That could corrupt important electronic records, miscalculate utility bills and interest rates or cause a variety of havoc with automated systems.

But software already is so enormously complex that computers sometimes fail. Microsoft Corp., whose Windows software runs most of the world's personal computers, fields roughly 29,000 phone calls daily from customers using more than 4,000 programs, who complain their PCs aren't working right.

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