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Venture capitalist Donald Copeland was a true believer in the power of money. During the 1980's and early 90's, 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 1960's 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 lightening speed until the entire idea unfolded like a flower at dawn.
On January 1st, 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 storey 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 pass word and ogling dad's computerized pornography collection. Known as "Doc" long before earning a doctorate from Stanford at twenty-one, he was a complete 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 Two Thousand."
Copeland repeated the acronym like a mantra, "Y2K, Y2K."
Doc looked his boss up and down, sneering at his perfectly coifed hair, impeccable grooming, Saville Row suit and Italian wing tips.
"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."
"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 mid-winter 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?"
"It has a certain appeal," Doc said, stroking his beard. "But on the other hand we could let all these insane corporations die when their computers fail. That appeals as well."
"Be serious, Doc. What do you think of this as a business venture? Can we make money?"
"It's a winner, Donald. It's a license to print money."
"What do you need?" Copeland asked. "Just name it."
"Well, let's see. How about a big old IBM mainframe to play with, a few hundred applications and two or three engineers."
"I suppose you could buy me a bank, Donnie boy, but why bother?"
The following day they visited a warehouse in Queens and bought a fifteen year old IBM s/370 mainframe. Doc tore out a wall in the third floor on Nassau Street, reinforced the floor, hired a crane, installed the machine and named it Old Blue. He spent a month testing the software that came with it, and then called Copeland in for a demonstration.
"This is what the world is going to look like on the First of January in the year 2000," Doc announced to his audience of one. "What I'm about to show you is what will happen if things are simply left alone."
Old Blue had spent its working life performing accounting services for an insurance company. The computer wasn't that old, but like many firms the insurance company had upgraded its hardware while continuing to run the same old, flawed software. Doc booted up an accounting program based on actuarial tables, reset the time and date to one minute before midnight, January 31, 1999, and gave the program a simple problem to solve, a schedule of premium payments for twenty years. Lines of orderly green numbers scrolled across the screen for sixty seconds until the clock rolled over to midnight. The machine seemed to sputter and hiccup. Old Blue recognized the date "00" as 1900, not 2000, and assumed that numbers representing the near future belonged in the distant past. Simple arithmetical calculations were no longer simple. The machine tried to divide and multiply by negative numbers. Within seconds, Old Blue tried to calculate an infinite regression, and the numbers on the screen went haywire. The random access memory quickly overloaded and the accounting program crashed. The computer was dead.
"Voilà," said Doc, lighting a Camel.
At six-thirty every morning Copeland ate breakfast in the same Upper West Side delicatessen with three old friends he'd grown up with, a cop, a grocery store manager and a cardiologist. Copeland was excited, bubbling over with enthusiasm for his Y2K venture, and within a week his pals had banned Y2K as a subject of conversation.
"The phones aree gonna go down, the Internet will die, the military will be paralyzed, no one will get a welfare check, the IRS will be all screwed up, your microwave oven won't work but that won't matter because there'll be no electricity."
"Enough already," pleaded Jonathon Spillman, the grocery store manager. "For God's sake."
"You're obsessive-compulsive, Donnie," said Bill Packard, the doctor. "You should get your head shrunk."
"Fuck you, Bill. This is gonna make me rich."
"You're already rich," said Ed Garcia, the cop. "Maybe you don't remember that you got rich financing computer companies that created this problem. If it's as bad as you say, maybe you should fix it for free."
"I didn't create the millennium bug," Copeland protested. "I discovered it."
"Like a gold mine," added Spillman. "You sound like a claim jumper to me. Should we hang him, boys, or just run him out of town?"
As friends who'd known each other since childhood will do, they teased Copeland without mercy to demonstrate their wish for his success. Intelligent men, they took his predictions of doom and destruction with a healthy ration of salt, but each filed away his knowledge of the millennium bug and wondered how it might affect his life at the turn of the century.
Copeland had a hunch that Y2K would generate the biggest return of any of his ideas, so rather than create a new company with his customary financial partners, he established a wholly-owned subsidiary called Copeland Solutions and financed the software development himself.
He was patient. He understood the realities of software development, the endless trial and error and testing and out-of-the-blue insight that led to success. Doc occasionally locked himself in the computer lab, got crazy and burned a few million brain cells with amphetamines while thrashing away at his objective. Copeland left him alone, keeping busy with his other companies that made more than enough to support his Y2K project. Sometimes he didn't see Doc for weeks.
The '90's marched on. Copeland ate breakfast with his buddies every morning, took his wife Marie to dinner at the Four Seasons and his little boy Eddie to Yankee Stadium, but these were perfunctory activities that had nothing to do with his overweening passion for making money. He grew estranged from Marie and scarcely noticed as she drifted away. Eddie was raised by nannies. Copeland traded his Mercedes for a Cadillac and then the Caddy for a Porsche. Life got faster. He could speed across the East River, catch a glimpse of the skyline and be back in his office in minutes flat. It gave him an expensive thrill. For cheap thrills, he went to massage parlors in Chinatown and on autumn weekends visited a bookie in the fish market on Broadway at 83rd to lay a hundred bucks on the Jets.
Finally, two years after Copeland's epiphany on the bridge, Doc created a software package called "Copeland 2000" that targeted the millennium bug in old legacy systems used by banks. Dependent on mainframes like Old Blue running old applications, banks and other financial institutions with millions of lines of date-sensitive computer code were extremely vulnerable to the millennium bug. Copeland 2000 went to market in late 1993 and had few takers at first, credit unions and small savings and loan companies. Then, over the next two years, as other firms began offering Y2K software and sounding the alarm, more and more major companies began to realize that the millennium bug was serious. The big boys began to line up, and in 1995 Copeland Solutions scored its biggest coup: the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Chase had been among the first major banks to assess the Y2K problem and arrive at the correct conclusion. With 200 million lines of infected code spread among 1500 different computer systems running thousands of applications, Chase had to eliminate the millennium bug from its systems or go out of business. It was that simple. There was no choice. The result was a hundred sixty million dollar contract with Copeland Solutions.
Others banks around the world quickly followed Chase into Copeland's stable of clients. Money poured into the company, yet, having achieved success, Copeland discovered he wasn't satisfied. The high wore off within a few weeks and he found himself feeling flat and bored. He wanted a new, more difficult challenge. Without realizing it, he was a crime waiting to happen.
Despite his reputation as a bold and ruthless businessman, even his old breakfast pals believed he was honest. The truth, however, was that Copeland was primed to consider criminal activity as the next step in business. After all, the line between venture capitalism and white collar crime was fuzzy at best. All he needed was an opportunity, and one soon presented itself.
The Chase contract gave Copeland Solutions' programmers access to the bank's most sensitive data. Every account, record, and program had to be examined for millennium bug flaws and corrected. As this process began, it was only a matter of days before Doc started noticing discrepancies.
The bank was so big it didn't know how much money it had or where it was. The first interesting account Doc stumbled across dated from 1985. In that year a programmer working for the bank had managed to pull off what later was to become one of the most common forms of computer fraud in the banking business. Every time one of the bank's computers completed a foreign exchange transaction, it converted foreign currency to dollars and rounded off the number to the nearest mill. The anonymous programmer had written a tiny program that dumped each minuscule fraction of a mill into an account that didn't show up on regular records. As it happened, the programmer was hit by a truck and died the next year, but his program continued to function flawlessly without attracting the attention of any other Chase official. By 1995, when Doc got to the account, it held more than four million dollars the bank didn't know existed.
Doc mentioned the orphaned account to Copeland, recounting the tale as hacker's lore.
"If we left that account alone," Copeland mused, "how much would it be worth by the end of 1999?"
"Seven or eight million, and I'm sure I'll find more accounts like this."
"Adding up to how much, would you guess?
"No way to tell, but maybe as much as a hundred mil."
"That could be a lot of free money," Copeland observed.
"Hell of a joke to play on the bank," Doc said.
"If the world goes all to hell in January, 2000, it would be interesting to have that much cash when everyone else was going bankrupt."
"What are you suggesting, Donald?"
"Oh, you wicked man," Doc observed.
"Just an idea," Copeland said. "Think about it."
"The bank has auditors checking our work," Doc cautioned. "They're not idiots. Chase expects us to find these accounts and report them."
"You're smarter than they are, Doc."
"We're already filthy rich, Donnie. Chase and all these other banks are going to make us even richer."
"So what? You've been saying for years what the millennium bug will do. Disaster, utter disaster. The world is going to come apart at the seams, and something like this will give us a comfortable nest egg when others will have nothing."
"You're calling a hundred million dollars a nice little nest egg? Jesus."
"Well?" Copeland said. "You have a hacker's heart. You'll do it because you can."
"That's the problem, Donald. I have to do it. you can't."
"It'll be the biggest bank robbery in history," Copeland declared, "and the bank will never know it'd been robbed. With all the other disasters at the turn of the century, who's going to care?"
"Chase, for one."
"But they'll never know, Doc."
"You' re a greedhead, Donald."
"Yeah. Like the man said, greed is good."
"Are you serious?" Doc asked.
"Yes, I'm serious. I've never been more serious. What the hell, the bank doesn't even know it has this money. It's there for the taking."
"You're a scumbag," Doc stated with barely disguised contempt. "We're selling software like crazy. This company is worth hundreds of millions. And you want to...?"
"It'd be criminal not to do it if we can," Copeland said, grinning broadly. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime."
Copyright © 1998 by Mark Joseph. All rights reserved.
Posted January 20, 2000
Deadline Y2K, a book that barely made it to my hands before the New Year's was wonderful. Deadline Y2K is one of the finest books I have ever read relating to the potential y2k/end of the world theme, it doesn't have that feeling that the author was trying to rush to finish the book before y2k so that it can get to market. It's packed with action, contains lots of good references to real technical terms in the book (just perfect for techies!) and the outcome is even better! It has a great twist and I would recommend this book (in either paperback or hardcover editions) to everyone!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.