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Authors: Mark Joseph

Deadline Y2K

BOOK: Deadline Y2K
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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Epigraph

Part One: 1991-1999

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Part Two: December 31, 1999

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Part Three: January 1, 2000

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Author Note

Also by Mark Joseph

Copyright

 

For my friend,

Nick Ellison

 

Stand still you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease and midnight never come.

Christopher Marlowe,
Dr. Faustus,
1588

PART ONE

1991-1999

1

Venture capitalist Donald Copeland was a true believer in the power of money. During the 1980s and early '90s, his firm had financed and nurtured high-tech companies the way agribusiness husbanded livestock. Commerce was his daily bread and the global economy his steady diet.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in August of 1991 ended the Cold War, leaving capitalism to reign unchecked, a boon to Copeland's home town, New York, the undisputed center of the global economy. In New York everything was a commodity, including people, and anyone with a vision and the mental toughness to pursue it was especially valuable. Copeland drew his toughness from the granite underpinnings of the city, his bastion against the uncertain world beyond the rivers; his vision—he didn't know where his vision came from, but he never questioned it. He merely opened his eyes and saw ways to make money.

From time to time he drove to Brooklyn to admire Manhattan from across the East River. The sight of New York always inspired him, revealing ever greater possibilities of wealth and power. New York was in constant flux, the view never the same. Noticing the changes and staying one step ahead of the rate of change was the path to real riches. In the late 20th Century, change meant micro-technology.

When Copeland gazed at New York, he saw a vast network of wire and microprocessors that formed an invisible web among the high-rises. The infrastructure of the city had been completely rebuilt, automated and computerized during his lifetime. By 1991 computers ran everything from the subways to the red beacons atop the skyscrapers. Two million people and at least as many computers occupied Manhattan, and the thread that connected the machines to the people was spun of pure gold. New York was an ocean of money that people wanted to spend on computers, and Copeland excelled at finding ways to make the financial tide flow his way. His company, Copeland Investments, had managed the financing of companies that earned millions supplying database management, systems, CD jukeboxes, business software, LED displays, code compilers, electronic games, routers and switches for telecommunications, and programmable logic processors for automated control systems. Technology in and of itself meant nothing to Donald Copeland who lusted only after the thrill of the deal. Signing papers that concluded a transaction for millions was like sticking his finger into an electric socket. It charged his batteries.

One afternoon in the summer of 1991, as he was returning to Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge, soaking in the city, the radio babbling traffic and stock reports, a talk show host announced, “Next up, a report from the American Academy of Sciences that predicts that in eight and a half years, on January 1st, 2000, all our computers are gonna die. You heard me right, folks. Computers are going to malfunction on that date because of a nasty little programming glitch the academy has labeled the ‘millennium bug.'”

Copeland took his eyes off the snarled traffic and stared at the radio dial. Twelve speakers in the Mercedes enhanced the spoken word with unnatural robustness, and the phrase “millennium bug” hung inside the computer-controlled interior like a trapped insect.

“The millennium bug is deceptively simple,” the host continued. “Most computer programs store dates with only the last two digits of the year rather than four digits. In the year 2000, computers running those programs will read ‘00' as 1900, and that's all she wrote, folks. Error! Error! Error! Crash!

“In the 1960s programmers started writing dates with two digits in order to save memory, and it became the convention. All programmers did it, and are still doing it, and none of these guys believed their programs would still be operating at the end of the century.

“They were wrong, folks. Those old programs are everywhere, and programmers are still spreading the millennium bug like wildfire. This killer computer flaw has wormed into our lives, residing patiently inside the control mechanisms of power plants, telephone systems, air and rail traffic control systems, accounting and billing programs, electronic fund transfer systems, and satellite control systems. And if that isn't enough, the bug has been burned into hundreds of millions of embedded computer chips in cars, airplanes, elevators, appliances, machine tools, and personal computers. When the year 2000 arrives, these computers are going to become confused and malfunction. We're looking at zero hour, people, the end of civilization as we know it.

“Folks, I gotta ask. Are all our computers gonna die? And if they do, then what happens? Will airplanes fall out of the sky? Do you believe it, or is it nonsense?” the host demanded of his radio audience. “Call and tell me what you think.”

Only a few techno-freaks called the talk show that day, and half said the millennium bug was no big deal and easily fixed. Besides, 2000 was a long way off, and long-term planning in America meant thinking about next week. No one in radioland seemed to be paying attention except Donald Copeland who experienced a vision that appeared to him like a giant equation written in fire across the skyline of Manhattan.

He could see the future. He knew exactly what was going to happen, when it would happen, and most importantly, how to profit from his prescience. The idea of a simple programming flaw bringing the entire world to its knees was so devastating that it rocked him like an earthquake. His mind leaped from one logical step to the next at lightning speed until the entire idea unfolded like a flower at dawn.

On January 1, 2000, chaos and disaster would sweep over the land, and only those organizations that had discovered and corrected their problems prior to that date would survive. Knowing who would survive, and perhaps deciding who would survive and who would fail, would be an unassailable business advantage.

Copeland had the means and the will to pursue his vision. The means included Michael “Doc” Downs, Ph.D., a young computer engineer from California who ran Copeland Investments' department of research and development.

Copeland sped to his office, an old three-story red brick building on Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan, only a few steps from Wall Street. Bursting with his vision, he skipped the elevator, ran up to Doc's third-floor office, and knocked on the door.

He heard banging and clanging from inside. “Doc!” he shouted. “Doc, I gotta talk to you right now!”

More knocking, more banging, and then from inside a shouted, “Come in!”

Excited, Copeland ran into Doc's workspace, a computer junkyard with spidery integrated circuits, CPUs and monitors scattered around like rubbish. As Copeland stepped in, Doc clobbered a balky monitor with the butt of a heavy screwdriver. The screen popped on and the engineer grinned. “When all else fails,” he declared, “I resort to the big bang theory of component repair. Hit the son of a bitch and see what happens.”

A big, bearded lumberjack of a man, twenty-three-year-old Doc smoked two packs of Camels and three joints of primo marijuana per day, lived on pizza and coffee, and wore flannel shirts, blue jeans, engineer's boots and a hunting cap with pull-down ear flaps. With an IQ running on afterburners, Doc had become a hacker at the age of eight by stealing his father's password and ogling Dad's computerized pornography collection. Known as “Doc” long before earning a doctorate from Stanford at twenty-one, he was a compleat computer geek. For the last two years he'd worked for Copeland and had become his captive wizard, turning Copeland's ideas into practical, profitable products.

“The millennium bug,” Copeland said. “I just heard about it.”

“You're a little slow on the uptake there, boss,” Doc said, tossing the screwdriver aside. “We call it Y2K. That's geek jargon for Year 2000.”

Copeland repeated the acronym like a mantra, “Y2K, Y2K.”

Doc looked his boss up and down, sneering at his perfectly coifed hair, impeccable grooming, Savile Row suit and Italian wingtips.

“You have that look in your eye, Donald. You smell money.”

“The best smell there is,” Copeland said. “What do you know about this bug?”

“Plenty. Every programmer worth his salt knows about it.”

“Educate me.”

“It's going to be a catastrophe,” Doc said, sitting down, leaning back and resting his boots on the workbench. “People won't understand it and aren't going to believe it.”

“That's what this guy on the radio said. He scared the hell out of me.”

“Well, that's good,” Doc drawled, lighting a cigarette. “Just for starters, take Russia, for example. A few Russian nuclear reactors will probably melt down causing massive power failures that leave millions without heat in midwinter and nothing to eat but radiation. Then things will get really interesting.” Eyes twinkling, he smiled and added, “It's going to cause the kind of mischief that makes a hacker's heart go pitty-pat.”

“So what can we do about it?”

“For the Russians, nothing. But for the rest of us, well—” he paused “—it depends.”

Doc patiently explained that to a programmer the millennium bug was a trivial problem to correct once the flawed computer code was located. However, the bug was replicated endlessly in date-sensitive programs, and finding each instance in systems with millions of lines of code and thousands of applications was a problem of massive proportions. Furthermore, old computer programs were often improperly documented and written in older computer languages such as COBOL and FORTRAN, making the flaws even more difficult to find. Most younger programmers never learned those languages.

“Can you devise a solution?” Copeland asked.

“Sure, but I'd have to specialize. Every application is different.”

“Who has the most old applications?”

“Banks,” Doc replied instantly.

“No shit,” Copeland said, pleased with Doc's answer. “Do the banks know that?”

“They should, but they probably don't. I mean, programmers who work for banks know, they've known for a long time, but who listens to programmers? CEO types never turn on a computer, and they sure as shit don't know anything about their mainframes or their antique COBOL programs.”

“How much would a fix be worth?” Copeland asked.

Doc grinned. “That's what this is all about, isn't it?”

“How much, Doc?”

“A fortune. Hundreds of billions, maybe more. Incomprehensible numbers.”

“You like the idea?” Copeland asked.

“Do you mean, do I like the idea of writing programs to kill the bug?”

BOOK: Deadline Y2K
2.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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