November 1996 Sketchbook

Ned's Virus

Each morning he read the "New Virus" newsgroup on the internet. This newsgroup carried listings of new viruses, as well as rumors of new viruses, old viruses that people thought were new, and phone numbers for pornographic chat lines.

Each morning, there was always at least one new computer virus that had been discovered. And no matter how many new viruses were discovered, they all had the same effect: "IT WILL DESTROY YOUR HARD DISK." Always in capital letters. Always the destruction of your hard disk.

Ned found this a little dull. Also, it didn't make much sense. A "real" virus (the biological kind that gave you a sniffle and a headache) usually didn't wipe out its host. Even AIDS took a long time to kill a person, which gave the virus lots of time to hang around and spread.

And computer viruses were supposed to be like "real" viruses, Ned knew. Self-replicating life forms. So how come they all killed their hosts as quickly as possible? Usually with a lot of fanfare ("I am a virus. I am going to eat your hard disk."), so that there was no doubt in the user's mind what was going on.

Ned had worked in computer security for a number of years, and had ended up focusing on computer viruses. It was kind of by accident, really. He didn't really like the idea of little programs that ate hard drives. He did like the idea of programs that were like life-forms-programs reproducing, raising little baby programs until they grew up into full-blown applications-but so far, computer viruses weren't very cuddly, or cute, or even very smart.

Ned had often had these kinds of thoughts before. This morning, however, he followed some of these thoughts down a new track. Probably because, on this particular morning, there had been five new viruses in the New Virus newsgroup. And every single one of them would DESTROY YOUR HARD DISK.

Why couldn't one of these viruses do something different? That started him thinking about what they would do differently. Besides DESTROYING YOUR HARD DISK. Something that would be the computer equivalent of a head cold-not bad enough to go see a doctor, but it still made you miserable.

Ned knew more than enough to be able to write a virus program. He had, after all, spent the last couple of years becoming an expert on computer viruses. He had source code for many different types of viruses, all carefully catalogued.

But what would the virus do?

Ned thought about this for a while, and then it struck him. One of the things that really annoyed Ned was that there was far too much profanity in the world. It seemed like every time you turned on the TV, or read a book, or scanned messages on the internet, that they were full of four (and five) letter profanities.

It wasn't that Ned didn't believe in the usefulness of swear words. The right swear word at the right time did wonders for one's state of mind.

It was just that everyone was swearing, and the words were losing their meaning. What was the point in using a swear word that every four-year-old was yelling on the playground?

Ned set to work on his "Anti-profanity" virus. It was a fairly simple virus, actually. All it did was to look around on a computer's hard disk and memory, and whenever it found a particular profanity, it substituted another word with the same number of letters.

So, "when the soup hit the fan," or someone was "up to their ale in alligators" because of all the "motherfooders," all they could say was "Food You!"

Ned uploaded his virus to a number of different locations, and waited for it to spread.

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