These were among the questions batted around at a Feb. 23 conference held here for journalists on the dynamics of the millennium bug. The answers from speakers were sobering. Experts raised doubts about whether the media is getting -- and thus giving -- accurate information on the state of Y2K preparations.
Edward Yourdon, a software engineering consultant and author of the best- selling 'Time Bomb 2000,' said reporters need to be more skeptical in reporting on the Y2K claims made by private industry and government officials.
'When a company says it is making progress, you should ask: 'How do you measure progress? Money spent? Do you have independent verification of progress?' advised Yourdon, chairman and co-founder of The Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass.
According to Yourdon, a red flag should go up in the journalist's mind if a company says it began working on the Y2K bug as late as 1998, claiming the problem is now under control. Yourdon explained that a business would not be able to tell if the problem is under control until testing is done, and testing only occurs at the last stage of correcting the Y2K problem.
'The single most important reason that software projects finish late is that they start late,' Yourdon added, citing data culled from software industry research.
More than 70 journalists and editors from around the country were listening intently, including representatives from national media outlets such as CBS's 60 Minutes, CNN and the NBC Nightly News as well as regional newspapers in Ohio, Maine and California.
Experts were in agreement at the conference that the nation's preparedness for the computer bug is a real concern -- and not the product of hype or paranoia.
They explained that the computer chips that are not fixed to correctly reflect the date 2000 could trigger all sorts of disruptions -- from modest problems such as minor power outages to serious, potentially life-threatening dilemmas, such as shortages of life-saving medicines or building elevators that might strand passengers for unknown lengths of time.
Yourdon advised the room full of reporters to become more sophisticated and careful in their line of questioning to industry and government spokespeople, whom, they said, often downplay the problem to avoid lawsuits and curb public panic.
Walter A. Effross, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., cited legal and competitive concerns on the part of industry.
'Businesses want information to know who's ready but they don't want to give information about their own companies,' said Effross, chairman of the American Bar Association's Subcommittee on Electronic Commerce.
Companies have a duty to disclose when there is a risk to public safety, but at the same time by disclosing, they risk the possibility of being sued for negligence, he said.
The conference, partially funded by the Hewlett-Packard Foundation, was co-sponsored by the Freedom Forum of Arlington, Va., an independent foundation dedicated to journalistic standards and freedom of speech issues, and the Foundation for American Communications. The Los Angeles-based foundation (ed: soon to move to Pasadena) is a nonprofit institution that works to improve public understanding of issues through a more informed news media and holds educational programs on science and technology in association with the California Institute of Technology.
The experts said that a wealth of stories could be drawn from the smaller towns and communities where the impact from the computer bug is likely to be greater, because so many localities are not making adequate preparations.
'Local jurisdictions don't realize that they must start analyzing their police, fire emergency response systems. They haven't looked at it or only a narrow piece of it and don't have contingency plans,' said Victor Porlier, who heads the New York-based Center for Civic Renewal, Inc., which advises nonprofit organizations, and is considered an authority on state and local government Y2K preparations.
'There are 85,000 political jurisdictions, 3,000 counties, and half of them haven't begun to deal with this,' Porlier noted. He said that while Washington State -- home to Boeing Company and Microsoft Corporation - is probably more prepared than other states, the government has nonetheless taken extra precautions by arranging for 3,000 National Guard units to be placed on the streets in case any blackouts occur. The units would presumably keep order in the event of looting.
In many cases, the federal government is doing a better job of preparing for Y2K than are local communities, Porlier added.
At one point, the discussion prompted a science reporter from ABC Discovery News to ask if the upcoming tests by the electric power industry would help determine if utilities have a problem with Y2K.
No, the industry tests 'won't prove anything,' replied Rick Cowles, an expert on management in the electric utility markets and president of CyberServices, America, a consulting firm in Penns Grove, N.J.
Cowles, a founding member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility's Y2K Working Group, expressed the opinion that the first of the two upcoming tests has more to do with public relations than with technology. He said the test seemed primarily aimed at building a perception that utility companies are adequately managing the Y2K problem.
The April 9 drill is being conducted by the North American Electric Reliability Council, which will test communications systems at public utilities throughout the United States, Cowles related. He referred reporters to an Internet discussion group with many opinions about the upcoming utilities drill (http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and- a.tcl?topic=Electric%20Utilities%20and%20Y2K).
At NERC, Gene Gorzelnic, Director of Communications, refuted Cowles' criticism: 'It [the test] wasn't designed with the idea of improving public perception of Y2K readiness. If that happens, that's fine and dandy. It's a technical simulation, what do you do if you don't have certain telecommunications capabilities.'
Software expert Yourdon noted that he had solar panels installed at his home in New Mexico and an extra power generator to ensure he and his family would have electricity come Dec. 31, 1999.
When a journalist asked Cowles, the utilities expert, if he was making personal plans to provide his own power, he would not respond. 'That's not important to know,' he said.
Another journalist asked skeptically: All computer systems have bugs -- what makes this different?
All computers do have bugs, said Robert Alloway, director of the National Leadership Task Force on Y2K, who was hired by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) to analyze national government policy related to information technology.
Microsoft has released software packages with thousands of bugs, said Alloway, citing one example, but the difference is that Microsoft's bugs wouldn't cause infrastructures to possibly shut down. Alloway explained that the worry isn't with one 'bug' but with layers of bugs triggered.
'It's a threshold issue. How many systems will fail at the same time? Can a company sustain a crash every two and a half hours?'
All of the speakers underscored the technological interconnectedness between private companies, governments, and nations, due to reliance on computer chips.
If one part isn't ready, it could cause what they described as a 'ripple' effect on our basic services and our economic and financial markets.
For example, if contracts for goods aren't received because of telecommunications glitches, then the goods that were ordered would not be shipped to their destinations.
Dennis Grabow, founder and chief executive officer of The Millennium Investment Corporation in Chicago,said China and Japan are far behind the United States in preparation. 'Twenty percent of our economy is based on foreign trade,' said Grabow, an authority on the global financial implications of the Y2K bug.
His forecast was gloomy with a silver lining for a few shrewd companies. He predicted a major economic slowdown on the scale of the mid-1970s recession. But he said those U.S. companies, like Citicorp, that are prepared, will have a major competitive advantage.
Robert Alloway, Director, National Leadership Task Force on Y2K, Alexandria, Va., e-mail: email@example.com. Rick Cowles, president, CyberServices, America, Penns Grove, N.J., 609-299-4634; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Walter Effross, associate professor, Washington College of Law, Amerian University, Washington, D.C. , 202-274-4210; fax: 202-274-4130; e-mail: email@example.com. Dennis Grabow, founder and CEO, The Millennium Investment Corporation, Chicago, Ill., 312-595-6461; fax: 312-922-8593; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Victor Porlier, Center for Civic Renewal, Delmar, N.Y., 518-872-9290; e-mail: email@example.com. Edward Yourdon, chairman, Cutter Consortium, Arlington, Mass., 888-814-7605; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Foundation for American Communications, Pasadena, Calif., 626-584-0010; web site: www.facsnet.org. Gene Gorzelnic, director of communications, North American Electric Reliability Counsel, 609-452-8060.
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