The Y2K Saga: A Cautionary Tale

Ten O'clock, New Year's eve, 1999. The biggest party opportunity in the last 50 generations, and here I am all alone, sitting at the end of an expensive sushi bar on El Camino Real in Palo Alto. My only consolation is that the guy next to me seemed to be worse off. After asking him to pass the soy sauce, I felt I had to commiserate, so I said "having a bad day, eh?".

"Bad day?" he replied "In two hours we're all going to have had our last bad day. The world will end, I'm the only one on this planet in this millennium or the next seven with a chance to do anything about it, and now its too late."

"Excuse me," I replied, turning back to the wall and my kaibashira, "I've got an appointment on the planet Earth." And that's when I felt the room change. Maybe it was the overly-enthusiastic "Hai!" from the chefs, the slight decrease in ambient noise, or the turning of heads towards the door. I was not surprised when I saw Ilsa walk confidently towards the bar wearing a long white gown that fit her the way a fresh dusting of snow fits the Alps, only more majestic. She sat down on the other side of Mr. End-of-the-world. Ilsa. Of all the 22-bit sushi joints in all the towns in all the peninsula, she walks into mine. It had almost clicked with me and her five years ago. It had been brief; just six days filled with secret rendezvous, long conversations, furtive exchanges of notes, and waiting by the cell phone to hear from her again. In the end she jilted me for some yahoo named Jerry. Rejected my offer to be VP of engineering at what I thought would be a hot company in enterprise integration services to go work for some spin-off from Stanford. And now here she was, looking like a million bucks, and holding options worth ten times that.

"Ilsa!" I said, "It's been a long time. I hear you've been doing great." Her faint smile revealed she remembered me, I thought, and perhaps not altogether distastefully.

"Hi! Who's your friend?" was not the reply I was looking for.

"Oh. Ilsa, this is, ah ..." "Russell Nostradamus" he interjected, or at least that's what it sounded like. It was loud in the bar, and I didn't quite catch the last name. I think it had a "k" in there somewhere and it might have ended in "r". I was not looking forward to dragging him into the conversation, so I was thrilled when he said "You two look like you've got some catching up to do; why don't I switch seats out of the way". If only he hadn't gone on to say "Not that it matters much, with the world ending in two hours and all."

"Ooh, a doomsday prophet! How fascinating. Tell me all about it." Ilsa prodded.

"You'd never believe it." Russell sighed.

"Almost certainly not," Ilsa admitted, "but I am interested in how such theories work, and I won't mock you. Promise." Oh brother, I thought, here's where we get a long boring and incomprehensible saga starting with "It all started ..."

"It all started in the year 10000" Russell began. "Or I guess you could say it started in 7510, when time travel was invented. But the chronosynclastic physicists quickly realized that time travel was dangerous, after some incidents with the first pioneers, and safeguards were placed over the continuum so that no physical objects could be transported in time, although you could still observe past electromagnetic emissions."

Any pioneers we would know?" Ilsa asked?

"Well, in your era the first would have been Zager & Evans" Russell said, "and then there were the unfortunate incidents with Cheez Whiz and the Macerena."

"Ah" Ilsa nodded, "I can see why you had to shut it down."

"The safeguards worked fine until a six year old hacker took advantage of the Y10K bug" Russell continued.

"Wait a minute; eight thousand years to prepare and you still had a Y10K bug?" Ilsa asked.

Russell shrugged. "Well, it is an extra digit. That's what the programmers said. Anyway, this six year old was rather sophisticated. She found a bug in the continuum safeguards that allowed for an opening at midnight on December 31 9999, and sent herself back 8000 years to a bunker in Russia, where she programmed a nuclear missile to launch. Wanted to see some fireworks for the millennium. Unfortunately, NATO defenses noticed the launch, and even though it was targeted to the middle of the ocean, there was some confusion and a bit of a problem involving a buffer overflow, a bad pointer offset, a confusing dialog box, and a private who hit 'retry' when he should have hit 'abort'. The end result was a bilateral launch of over 1500 missiles. Before impact the six year old hurriedly returned to 10000 and admitted to her parents 'My sister did it'. Now according to the Drexler-Vonnegut time propagation theory, the impact hasn't occurred yet, because it hasn't been observed in the conformal frame of reference. We've got an hour and forty-five minutes to go, and then it all ends."

"Where do you fit in?" Ilsa asked. I ordered a hikari-mono.

"I was an intern at the Time Travel Institute, and I was on duty that night."

"You were the one who couldn't get a date for New Year's" Ilsa surmised. Russell ignored her remark.

"The hole in the continuum safeguards were closing fast, and we knew we only had one chance to send someone back and try to set things right. After a quick discussion I was sent back to 1973 to do the job."

"Why 1973?" Ilsa wanted to know. "Why not 1999 to stop the launch?"

Its impossible to send two time travelers to the same destination. They cause interference. So I couldn't go to the bunker. We considered trying to stop the launch from someplace else in Russia, but, well, nobody spoke Russian. Unicode is the universal language in 10000, and many people know ancient English, but Russian just never was popular.

"Why not?" Was Ilsa really interested in this drivel? I had a kazunoko.

"Well, I said we can observe EM emissions, but not visit. A lot of ancient scholarship is done by looking at TV shows, and the Russian ones are just too dull. English is popular, though. Do you remember the one where Lucy does the Vitametavegamin commercial? Anyway, we decided the whole thing could be averted if NATO just had a more reliable computer system, so I was sent to see that they develop one.

"I still don't see what's so crucial about 1973." Ilsa continued.

"At that time, Bill Gates was hanging around the computer science lab at Harvard, learning how to program. He's said that he learned a lot by reading old listings he found in the garbage cans. But he still came out with BASIC, and then DOS, and then Windows, and you know the rest. We came up with a plan, but it was risky. We calculated the opening in the continuum would only hold up for 118 minutes before the safeguards kicked back in. And we were limited locationally as well. The transfer point had to be at the airport, and I had to get from there to Kendall Square, run up to Guy Steele's office and fish some listings of his Scheme compiler out of his wastebasket, hop over to Corbato's and grab some ITS listings, and take them over to the right garbage can at Harvard. I made it in good time, even threw in some Multics listings, and I confirmed that Gates was checking out the garbage can as I left for the airport. I hopped the red line, transferred at Park Street, ..."

"What?" Ilsa and I said together. "Everyone knows it's faster to change at Downtown Crossing." I had spent some time in Boston, and Ilsa has a double major in Aeronautics and Computer Science from MIT, I remembered. I never forget a resume.

"It doesn't say that on the map" Russell offered weakly. "Anyway, as you can guess, I was late, and the continuum closed. Forever. I was marooned in realtime."

"That's the name of a novel." I accused.

"Who do you think gave Vernor the idea?" he replied.

"And what do you mean the transfer point was at the airport? Do you just take the United shuttle to the future?" Ilsa said skeptically.

"It just worked out that the closest chrono-vortex point was at the airport. When the safeguards are down you can go anywhere and anywhen you want. But with them starting to come back, we had limitations. And we needed to place a full scale time machine at the center of a chrono-vortex point. We put the machine there, but I never got a chance to use it before the continuum closed. I think it's still there.

"There's a time machine at Logan now?" I asked, getting into it.

"Yeah. Bunch of metal wires, motors, and pulleys with balls bouncing around, all encased in glass. The balls are just there for show so they won't cart it away, but the rest is a time machine." Russell explained. "Anyway, I missed the opening, but I knew that I had accomplished my mission. I had delivered examples of good, clean, safe, abstract programming style to Gates. But the funny thing was, it didn't work. Gates actually liked the listings quite a bit and was impressed by the simplicity of Scheme and ITS and the safety of Multics. He considered dumping BASIC in favor of Scheme, but he just wasn't confident that he could fit it in 4K. He told Paul Allen he'd do it if computers ever grew to 8K, but something came up and he decided to wait for 16K, and then it just slipped out of his mind. Same with all the rest. He had good intentions, but he was always hustling to fit the next product in the space allowed and finish on time. I soon saw that my garbage can mission was a total failure. Still, the best chronosynclastic scholars of the 100th century had said this would work, so I wanted to give the MIT approach one more chance. I started a company to commercialize their software and hardware, figuring I had a good chance of toppling Microsoft when people saw the quality."

I saw Ilsa's eyes roll. "You thought quality would be the determining factor that would allow a bunch of academics to beat a ruthless businessperson?"

"Hey, I was desperate."

"Still," Ilsa said with growing interest, "You said you actually started a company? Raised the capital and all?"

"I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't make it back in time, so I took the liberty of bringing something back in time with me: a list of all the 20th century superbowl winners. I understood you folks were quite interested in such things. That knowledge allowed me to raise sufficient capital to run the business. I didn't have to worry about making money, just about putting out sufficient quality to stop the missile accident."

"That explains a lot." I nodded. "But what went wrong?"

"I don't know. In '94 Dallas beat Buffalo."

"Duh!" Ilsa exclaimed. I didn't know she followed football.

"Our records from 10000 said Buffalo would win. When they didn't, it was a sign that something had happened to the continuum -- it was starting to break down, to change. It also meant I lost my, ahem, refinancing opportunity, and soon after the company went under."

"What would cause a breakdown in the continuum?" Ilsa wanted to know.

"Either it could mean that the destruction of the world in 2000 was becoming a statistical certainty, and my records and everything else from the future were collapsing, or it could mean that somebody else from 10000 had made it through the safeguards, and was starting to interfere with this timeline. But I don't know how they could make it through, and I don't know how they could hope to defeat Microsoft once they got here. I know I've tried everything I could think of.

"Let's see-a new OS starting around 1994. Maybe it was Linus Torvalds" Ilsa suggested.

"What!" Russell exclaimed. It was the first time I had seen him get excited. "'Linux Torvalds' is the name, in Unicode, of the best-selling toilet cleaner in 10000. So someone has made it through, and they're trying to send me a message by assuming that alias."

Now Ilsa was really looking at him funny. I could tell exactly what she was thinking: all right, this time-travel story is a little far-fetched, but not having heard of Linus Torvalds before? Puh-leese!

"Well, it was a nice try" she said "but too late. Linux is making some gains, but it hasn't yet taken over the critical machines. We're still vulnerable to the bug. But maybe we can still do something" Ilsa slipped a Sony 505 from her bag and flipped on the ricochet. She entered something called meta-mud. "It's a collection of multi-user-domains around the world. I'll select a subset of hangouts for known crackers in Russia and Chechnya, and see if I can get some info on cracks in their systems." She explained. I could see that she had arranged a set of bots to start conversations in eight different MUDS at the same time, all driven off the single set of commands she gives. Good thing we could do these in parallel, because we didn't have much time left, according to Russell. Pretty soon information was scrolling off the screen faster than she could read and reply.

"Ever since I helped Boris set up the deal with Sun, they love me over there, so I'm getting a lot of replies." she said.

I did a little scratch work on my Pilot and beamed her a URL.

"Insert this as a proxy server." I suggested. "I've configured it to act as a relevance feedback filter. It should let you concentrate on just the interesting stuff." She did, and pretty soon she announced "I've got it. Nobody knows a way to stop a launch. But I'm downloading a program that two sources say can change the target for certain Russian missiles; let's hope it's the right kind.

"What good will that do?" Russell asked "It will still be seen by NATO and trigger a response."

"Remember that time an alert was signaled because NATO thought the rising moon was a missile?" I suggested. "Was that real or apocryphal?" Ilsa sent a query via her bots. "My sources vote for real by 4 to 2. Not much to go on, but let's see ..." She clicked on a bookmark for an astronomy site. "The moon tonight is in the wrong place. There's no way I can retarget the missile and make it look like the moon."

"Where was the moon in 1900?" I suggested. They both gave me a pathetic look. "You got a better idea?"

Ilsa got some data from the astronomy site, opened up MATLAB to do some spherical geometry, pasted together a few lines of Perl (I was looking over her shoulder and fixed two lines; maybe Kent Beck was right about extreme programming) and sent off the commands that, according to her Chechen informant, would cause a missile launched from the Russian bunker to fly to a position where the NATO defenses would see it as the moon, if a Y2K bug made the NATO computers think the moon was where it was 100 years ago. The crowd in the bar began the countdown to midnight. Ilsa's bots reported that the Chechen informant said that his radar picked up a launch, that it looks like it had been retargeted to Ilsa's coordinates, that there were no retaliatory launches, and that it was in any case not carrying any nuclear warheads. Ilsa and I high-fived and embraced, awkwardly, avoiding Russell's nori-tama.

"I don't get it." Russell said. "I spent twenty years trying to build a high-quality software system to prevent bugs, and you solve the problem in an hour sitting in a bar, by taking advantage of a huge breach in Russian security systems, a Y2K bug in the radar, and another bug that confuses missiles and moons."

"Welcome to the year 2000, Russell" said Ilsa, as the crowd's countdown reached zero, and she leaned over to give me a kiss. I don't know if the whole saga was real or a product of the imagination, but I was happy to return the kiss. When we looked up, Russell was gone.


Peter Norvig