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A Viral Infection

Tony is a creep.  A slimy grotty conniving creep.  He's also a thief.  He's advertising my accounting package (the accounting package to end all accounting packages) in newspapers, computer journals, even on TV.

Okay, it's my own damn fool fault.  I did work for him.  And I did get bored developing the five millionth general ledger program to grind down on this over-accountanted world.

I'm not saying that what I did was world shattering.  That came later.  This was just an accountant's dream.  What I came up with was something called a Scenario-based accounting package.  One where you can say "what if I took over BHP tomorrow", and then add to that "and what if the Australia dollar dropped to 30c the day after" and so on.  If that scenario is no good, another can be tried.  And a "jigsaw" facility allows the combination of bits from different scenarios into a coherent whole.  It has a complete expert system to follow all the trends and supply defaults in areas that are seen as peripheral to the problem at hand (e.g. the price of fish in Taiwan), a graphical interface that gives every pretty picture possible, and a glossy prospectus facility that will pass muster in the best of company. 

I called the package The Corporate Raider.

Clarissa (my tax accountant) took to it like monopoly.  She managed to take over the corporate world three times while we were testing.  I went broke fifteen times.  But then, I didn't have to be the user.  If I'd interpreted that glint in the accountants' eyes correctly, I wasn't just going to live up on the Great Barrier Reef.  I'd be able to buy it outright from the Queensland government.

Where I screwed up was testing it at work.  I was in there one Sunday night when the power failed, and I couldn't delete it off the hard disk before I left.   In the morning, I got in at the crack of dawn, but Tony was there before me, sitting in the glass-sided cubicle that is laughingly called my office, playing with my machine.

It confirmed what I'd suspected.  The little bastard never asked for progress reports, but always knew what was going on.  I wonder how long his rounds took him every morning.

He looked up, totally unembarassed, an uncharacteristically pleasant smile on this round, pink face.  "This is very interesting," he said.

He'd found the package, of course.  Homed straight in because it was a new file, probably.

"It's pretty mickey mouse," I said.  "It's just a sort of a joke."

"Half a megabyte of code," he said.  "That's a pretty elaborate joke."

"Depends how original you want to be," I said.  "This one's padded out with mother-in-law jokes."

He stood up to let me sit down.  I hoped I'd put him off the track, but he was carrying two floppy disks as he went back to his plywood-enclosed lair in the corner.  He didn't come out all day, and when he went home at five, he locked the door.

A week later, he fired me.

He had good reason, of course.  The five millionth general ledger program crashed disastrously in front of his client, deleting every file in sight, and so lost Tony his potential place in the Guiness Book of Records.  I don't see why he was so upset.  He would have only lasted a year, to be replaced by the developer of the six millionth general ledger program.  But at least it gave me time to sit down and work on my masterpiece, even if it did have to involve moving in with Clarissa so that I could use her computer.

Then I saw the ads.

I phoned up Tony and abused him.  "It's mine," he said, and wouldn't budge.  "You were working for me.  It was done in my time on one of my machines."

"I did it in my own time, on my own machine."

"You don't own a machine."

"I borrowed one."

"Then why was it on your machine at work?"

"That was the final test.  I just wanted a go on a bigger machine."

"Prove it."

I raided the fridge for a beer and parked myself by the window, staring gloomily out over the clothes lines and the rubbish bins, working out what I'd like to do to Tony.  By the time Clarissa got home, the stack of green cans was knee high, the High Court case was complete, and Tony, sentenced to death for Software Piracy on the High Seas, was stretched out on a bed of giant chips (prongs up) being forced inexorably downwards by a double-decker microchannel bus until he was pierced through and through.

"There's nothing you can do," Clarissa said.  "He's got you on ice."

"There must be something.  It's my idea."

"Prove it."

"You can testify."

"Not without admitting to a weakness for computer games."  She paused.  "Maybe you can negotiate with him for further development."

I grinned, a little ruefully.  "Not after this afternoon, I can't.  He wouldn't even ask me to fix a bug."

Clarissa frowned, the skin wrinkling around her tax accountant's eyes.  "That's a thought," she said.  "Bugs."

"It's bug free."

"Viruses.  They get through everything.  We'll put him out of business."

"It's been done.  He's got virus detectors right through the place."

She grinned.  "He won't find this one."

So that's how a free evaluation copy of Jobcost landed across Tony's desk.  Tony's a sucker for free software, particularly when it's accompanied by a letter offering further goodies if he fills in an evaluation report at the end of the month.  And Jobcost fills a big hole in Tony's office systems.  He'd been costing everything (and he gets ten to twenty jobs a week) on a series of spreadsheets.  Finding and collating data about a given job over weeks or months, so you can send out invoices, is a nightmare.  The disk sits whirring all day, but there just isn't enough time to make a cup of coffee between keystrokes. 

So guess what Jobcost does, including, of course, reading and reformatting all those blasted spreadsheets.

It's the perfect package for the job, except that it's slightly infected.

The virus isn't one of those horrible viruses that wipes your disks or displays silly messages on the screen all day.  It's more of a Salesman Virus: it tells you what you want to hear.  That's why it's undetectable.  It lies to Virus Detector programs, because they're designed to reassure the user that there aren't any viruses around.  It can't be found by any testing technique, because when you're testing, you want the program to run properly, so it lets it.  This causes one problem that I can't work out how to solve.  It would let through the correct scores in a Test Match (whether Rugby or Cricket) even if Australia is getting thumped, because it thinks that you're just testing. 

In Jobcost, it works brilliantly.  It gives your customer a nice cheap quote (by properly authenticated facsimile), but tells you that they've accepted a nice high one.  And of course it keeps track of all the encryption passwords and edits any potentially embarassing faxes that come back from the customer.

And like all viruses, it duplicates itself like mad.

"Thank God for electronic mail," sighed Clarissa as we watched the TV news story of Tony being frogmarched from the office by big men in raincoats and hats.

The announcer droned on.  "In less than two years of operation, Antonio Spoleto (39), has embezzled over nine million dollars from thousands of unsuspecting clients."  A policeman flashed on to the screen.  "Spoleto was careless.  The evidence is overwhelming."  The camera cut to another building, where a queue of men and women in striped business suits and carrying black attache cases filed out under armed guard.  "Charges of negligence have also been laid against the Spoleto Systems' auditors, O'Rourke Calabresi."

It had taken less than three months.

It wasn't for another couple of months before I began to get worried.

I was at the tenth official launching of the ICBM Personal Clone 5000.   I'd only gone for the grog and the nibblies (us free-lancers have got to eat), because I'd seen the machine nine times before and still couldn't work out the difference between it and either the 2750 or the 969, except that they'd changed the keyboard yet again.  And, as usual, in pride of place, there was The Corporate Raider.  I walked over to the machine.  I've got this rule.  If I see it, I delete it.  So I deleted it.

Then I went out to the Mens' to make room for more grog.

When I came back, it was back on the screen.

I deleted it again, and this time it stayed deleted - at least until I left.

We watched the Treasurer's microbudget (the February statement that precedes the May minibudget) on television.  Prepared by the "best accounting and forecasting techniques that modern technology can provide" it was expected to be savage.  Not just belt-tightening, but real Calcutta slum stuff.  "If you can't make it, then starve."  A budget in the best tradition of a caring party with a social conscience.

It wasn't.  Massive tax cuts, massive increases in social welfare, a stronger dollar for travellers and a weaker dollar for farmers, and even a subsidy for free-lance software developers, all combining to give a predicted trade surplus in the gigabuck range, left us warm about the economic prospects for the country.  Yet the commentators, minutes later, were praising the microbudget for its restraint, while the opposition found thirty nine elementary arithmetic errors.

I looked at Clarissa.

Clarissa looked at me.

"So that's what happens when you cross a scenario-based accounting package with a salesman," she said.  "You get a politician"

She frowned.  "We need an antibody.  An ethics virus."

I grinned, fixedly.  "Why bother," I said, "provided we're happy." 

I jerked a thumb towards the computer.  "It won't remind us if we're not."


Copyright D.W. Walker, 1990

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