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The Column

This is Not a Virus
3/7/04

I recently spent a week at home with the flu. But the virus that really pisses me off is on my computer. Actually, it's not on my computer. It's on someone else's computer. It's just high tech enough to convince thousands of people that it's on mine.

As a public service, I am going to explain how these viruses work. Then I am going to hunt down the people that write viruses and string them up by the hair on their big toes.

Let's imagine a scenario. John, after spending hours of downloading internet porn, gets an email from a recognizable address. The email is cryptic or garbled or blank, and comes with an attachment with an extension of .scr, .pif, .eml, or .zip. And John, hoping it's more porn, downloads it anyway. John is an idiot. John is still smarter than most people who own computers.

John's computer, aside from being infected with numerous STDs, is now also infected with a worm virus. Worms typically send themselves out to everyone in an infected address book – from both John and other people in the address book. John is the only one with the virus. But because of how the virus replicates, it looks like other people have it, too. Which is convenient because as a people, humans are excellent at trying to blame someone.

When you're sick, what do you do? Look for the last person who was sniffling near you and blame them. And the following week when someone blames you for getting them sick, you get all pissed off and tell them it couldn't be your fault. That's the same selfish set of values that allows us to move someone else's laundry when they're 15 minutes late and then flip out when they do it to us.

This week, someone with a virus had both me and my old Yahoo mailing list in their address book. So what happened? A blank e-mail with a mysterious attachment was sent out from me to my old mailing list. Never mind that in four years, I've never once sent an attachment. Never mind that I have never sent my mailing list an e-mail on a Tuesday. Never mind that I haven't used that mailing list in three weeks. Several dozen people downloaded it anyway. And of course, they blamed me.

Some sent me warning e-mails. Some unsubscribed (from my old mailing list, so who cares?). And some got angry. VERY angry. I was flooded with e-mails asking me why I'd sent them a virus. Because I must have done that on purpose. Was I sitting around, upset that I had a burgeoning career as a columnist, and decided to do something about it? "I know how to destroy my career," I must have said, "I will maliciously spread a virus! Let me see, who do I want to hate me? Oh, screw that, I'll just send it to everyone!"

Let's say you opened the virus, thinking I'd decided to reuse my old mailing list on a Tuesday to send out my first attachment, attached to a blank email. So now you have a computer virus. It's still your fault. Think about it this way: if someone blows their nose near you, and then you open their tissue and rub it all over your face, can you really blame them when you wake up sneezing the next day?

Computer viruses have been around for many years and it's time we understand them. If you get an email that confuses you with an attachment that looks suspicious, delete it. You know why you don't? Because you're afraid you could be missing something. But if your friend or boss or porn site had something important to send, they'd re-send it.

And if you do miss the occasional e-mail, so what? For me, e-mails and females are very similar. If there were a 95% chance that opening something would give me a virus, I'd forget it and move on to the next piece.

If you do get a computer virus from someone, don't get angry at them. Though if it's a non-computer virus, you can string them up by the hair on their big toe. When you get that cryptic e-mail (and you will), cut the "sender" some slack. Soon enough, someone will be blaming you. And then you'll have to go back and explain the whole worm virus thing to them. Maybe you can show them this column as proof.

If you haven't already unsubscribed.

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