Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Ukrainian

[Media prompt] Why American farmers are hacking their tractors with Ukrainian firmware. 
The Ukrainian

It was raining, Dale Mann had eight hundred acres left to plant, and his John Deere, purchased new last summer, sat like a diseased vegan’s turd in sludge. So let me get this straight, he said into his phone, the temperature in the tractor cab converging with winter outside, you sell me a piece of equipment with firmware that nobody but you can touch, and now you can’t get a man out here to get it running again for three days? He turned off his phone and sat in the dark for a minute or two, gripping the steering wheel hard, his head lowered and looking at half dried clumps of mud on the floor. Putting on his coat, he climbed down to the ground, shut the door, and started walking back to the gate. They’d had the best rainfall for the start of crop planting in years, and as he trudged towards his truck, his boots heavy with wet dirt, he cursed every diagnostic program and data link driver in Kansas.


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Anatoly Antonov wasn’t much to look at, and because he kept to himself and was no bother to his neighbours, he didn’t attract undue attention. Everybody in Ashby said he was Russian, but that wasn’t true; he was Ukrainian. Not that it mattered. In the Kansas southwest, who could tell the difference? Anatoly lived out of town, about five miles or so, in the old Carson place, the farmland sold off to neighbours who didn’t want or need the house. When they thought about him, which wasn’t often, folks sometimes said he must be lonely out there on his five acres. But Anatoly wasn’t lonely, he was alone. And he liked it that way.

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Dale had never paid attention to talk of tractor hacking, but he clicked on the link Tuf White sent him and did exactly as he was told, which was to buy a twenty-five dollar dummy diagnostic part, for which he received in return a code to join a secret forum. As he scrolled through threads advising farmers with vegan turds like his own, he felt his spirits lift. It was all there, license key generators, speed-limit modifiers, reverse-engineered connector cables; the whole shebang. Hey, honey, he called out, looks like there’s a guy in Ashby who can solve this. Dale’s wife came into the office from the kitchen, wiping flour from her hands on a tea towel. That’s great, she said, putting her arms around his neck; about time we had some luck.  

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Anatoly drove out with Dale to the stranded tractor, put his laptop on the hood of his truck, and stood silently while he navigated a hacked version of the John Deere Service Advisor. It was an overcast day, but the rain had stopped, and a dry wind blew across the prairie. Well, there’s your problem, he said, pointing at the screen; it’s easy enough to fix, except those goddamn log leapers’ll charge you one thirty an hour to drive out here to plug in a cable so you can. He went to the back of his truck and rummaged around for a part. Dale squatted and dug his fingers into the dirt. Should have had this crop in by now, he said, rubbing a clump of soil between his hands. I’ll have it running in an hour, said Anatoly. And he did. I transferred another five hundred to you, said Dale, speaking up so Anatoly could hear him over clatter of the engine, for that other … service. Anatoly nodded and got back into truck. It’s fully funded now, he said, and drove off. Dale climbed up into the cab, hoping he wasn’t throwing money away.

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With the crop in and rains forecast all week, Dale sat down for dinner feeling confident for the first time in years about the farm. His wife turned on the news. A report just in from Moline, Illinois, said the news anchor, his hand cupping an earpiece. Sam Allen, the CEO of John Deere, has been found dead in his car. The police say there are no suspicious circumstances, and are treating it as suicide. Dale smiled. It wasn't often you found a man as good as his word these days. 

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