Bugs: we hates them, yes we does, my Precious. Stomp, stomp, stomp, smash, smash, smash.
Yes, I know, we're all One with the Universe, Circle of Life, All Creatures Great and Small, yadda, yadda. I say insects have their place, and their place is elsewhere. It's been a wet summer around here, so we have a bumper crop of mosquitoes buzzing around. Now mosquitoes have always been a pain in the bum, itchy-whiny little sons of b****rs1, but in the last few years they've been carrying something called West Nile Virus which can cause a sometimes-fatal encephalitis. The virus arrived in the States in the late 1990s and has now invaded nearly every state and parts of Canada and Mexico. To avoid the virus, we lurk indoors at night, slather ourselves with insect repellent, and spray toxic chemicals all over the place (which are probably more dangerous than the pest they're meant to control, but when were we ever smart about that?).
To add insult to injury, the 'skeeters' are outdoing themselves in spreading plague and pestilence. Last year a West Nile virus surveillance project in Washington State identified a mosquito species not previously found in the western United States. This species, known as Ochlerotatus japonicus japonicus, is difficult to control because it deposits eggs in small containers such as tires, discarded bottles and cans, and other areas where water may collect. It feeds during the day rather than in the early morning or evening and is therefore harder to avoid.
To add injury to insult, the heavy rains we had around the first of the month have resulted in a larger-than-normal population of wood mosquitoes. The wood mosquito typically doesn't carry West Nile Virus but it's an aggressive pest that delivers a painful bite by 'stabbing' its victims. Yow.
Eat death, you six-legged, blood-sucking parasites! Smash, smash, smash.
Sorry, got a bit carried away there.
To control annoying insects I generally use something called 'Integrated Pest Management', which means you live with 'good' critters like bats and praying mantises and spiders that eat the 'bad' critters like mosquitoes and aphids and stuff. And this works pretty well. But thanks to all the rain and some out-of-control trees near the house, a group of carpenter ants has developed territorial ambitions and is trying to establish a colony in my house. This, of course, means war.
Specifically, it means chemical warfare. Ants have never accepted the notion that man rules the planet, and they certainly don't understand the concept of private property. Their only goal is to be fruitful and multiple and to fill every habitable niche with their skittery, leggy little selves.2 There doesn't seem to be any room for a negotiated settlement, so it's poisons all around.
Nasty, sneaky, tricksy antses. Stomp, stomp, stomp.
And speaking of nasty, tricksy bugs...
The recent onslaught of computer viruses and worms is beyond tedious.
Just a few short years ago the Mac users and Unix geeks smirked at the poor Windows users because all of the viruses were written to hit Windows machines. Just you wait, bucko, I'd tell 'em. And now that Linux is putting a noticeable dent in Microsoft's empire, virus and worm writers are brewing up nasties that target machines running other operating systems. Still, most of the malicious code goes after Windows. Microsoft uses the 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach to designing their operating system, which means holes and glitches galore.
Back in the dark ages (a few years ago), nearly all viruses were passed via e-mail attachments; you were pretty safe if you avoided opening the attachments. That's no longer the case. To be infected by last month's Blaster worm you only needed to be connected to the Internet - no action on your part was required. So watching out for dubious e-mail is no longer enough.
These bugs aren't just a nuisance. They're able to slow or shut down Web sites, resulting in significant financial losses for companies that do business on the Web, such as e-Bay and Amazon.com. They also cause downtime when a business's computer network is infected. And they have the potential to seriously disrupt communications and threaten people's health and safety. I've seen suggestions that Blaster may have played a part in the widespread power outage that hit North America and parts of Canada last month (although this has not been confirmed).
Our methods of fighting malicious code are mostly reactive. When a new virus or worm shows up, companies that sell anti-virus software analyse the code and design 'antidotes' to it. But some software developers are working on methods that are more proactive and use virus's vulnerabilities against them. One method is to lure viruses to something called a 'tarpit'. The tarpit acts as if it's about to answer the virus's knock on the door but never actually does so; the virus cools its heels waiting for a response and doesn't go off to infect other machines. Another approach is identifying unusual behaviour and blocking it. For example, most users don't send out thousands of e-mails per minute, but a virus does. Anti-virus software may permit only one e-mail to be sent per minute. These methods slow down a virus's spread and give people a chance to deploy other defenses.
But these proactive methods aren't available commercially yet. In the meantime, here are some tips to help you remain bug free.
Windows users, patch your operating system. Install auto-update, or check for critical updates regularly at a Windows Update web site. Do it promptly when Microsoft announces a new security flaw; once you hear about a virus spreading, it may already be too late. The current generation of viruses can spread fast. As an experiment, a friend who does computer support attached an unpatched PC to a network, and it was infected with the Blaster worm within two minutes. And if you don't run auto-update, be sure to go to the Windows Update site for the latest patches. Microsoft does not send out patches as e-mail attachments. The new SWEN or Gibe.F worm transmits itself as e-mail allegedly from Microsoft telling you to run the attached executable file3. Many people have fallen for the hoax. Which leads us to the following rule:
Be extremely leery of e-mail attachments, even if it appears to be from someone you know. If you weren't expecting anything, contact the person and ask if he or she had meant to send it to you. When in doubt, trash the attachment. If it's legitimate, your contact can send it again.
In general, if you didn't initiate the request, do NOT respond to the e-mail. Delete it unopened. This tip will also help you foil the spammers and identity thieves.
If you don't have anti-virus software, install it. If you do have it, update it frequently. Check for updates at least once a week - every day isn't overkill. There is shareware anti-virus software available, but I'd recommend purchasing one of the name-brand products. They have proven track records and they release updates promptly when a new virus is making the rounds. Their Web sites keep you informed about the latest bugs making the rounds and contain instructions for fixing your computer if you do get infected.
If your anti-virus software doesn't contain a firewall, buy and install firewall software. In the 'good old days' (about six months ago), folks with dial-up access to the Internet who weren't connected 'round the clock didn't need to worry so much about this, but those days are gone.
Consider avoiding Outlook or Outlook Express. They're wonderfully convenient, but they're also the target of every script kiddie4 on the planet. You may as well pin a sign to your shirt that says 'Kick Me'.
The virtual bugs are just like real-life cooties: the more we try to stamp them out, the more they try to invade. Knowledge and vigilance are key to keeping our homes on the Internet free of unwanted pests. For more information, check out The Edited Guide article on How to Avoid Computer Viruses and the BBC Web site devoted to Computer Viruses.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some antses to sort out. Stomp, stomp. stomp.