A few years ago I made a fool of myself by writing all kinds of purple prose about a Columbus Day virus that was supposed to pop up and destroy the hard disks of thousands of computers around the world.
As it turned out, something like 17 cases of Columbus Day virus mayhem were actually confirmed, which was undoubtedly less than the number of PC's trashed that day by klutzes who stumbled into their desks and knocked their computers onto the floor.
For that reason, I resolved not to join the hysteria over the so-called Michelangelo virus, which was triggered on Friday, the great artist's birthday.
Also, I was suspicious because most of the hype about Michelangelo came from folks who sell anti-virus software, sort of like the hype about crime that comes from people who sell burglar alarms.
Still, I've never seen anything quite like the fear that gripped the PC world and the national media -- with or without my help -- during the week or so before Michelangelo's due date. It was enough to make me wish I'd bought stock in the anti-virus companies.
On Thursday morning, I got no less than 20 calls and queries from folks at work who were worried that their computers would go up in smoke the next day. Since many stores had already sold out of anti-virus programs by that time, the best I could do was put them onto some free software or tell them to keep their machines turned off for 24 hours.
The real problem is that most users have no idea what makes their PCs tick and what can make them stop ticking. If you rely on an automobile, you don't have to be Mr. Goodwrench to check the oil and water every week or so, keep the tires inflated and see a mechanic if you hear strange noises or feel the brake pedal hit the floor whenever you slide up to a stop sign.
If nothing else, the Michelangelo panic may force people to learn a little bit about their computers -- enough to keep them running properly, persuade them to back up important files and practice the computing equivalent of safe sex.
The work of malicious practical jokers, viruses are small programs that invade the operating system of your computer and stay hidden until it's time to strike. According to Info World, a bible of the PC industry, more than 1,000 different viruses have been identified, although only 100 or show up in any numbers.
Viruses do two things. First, they reproduce themselves on non-infected disks, which is why they're called viruses. Second, after they've reproduced a set number of times, or when a certain date arrives, they pop up and start making your life miserable. Benign viruses may just display a "Gotcha" message on your screen. The vicious ones will eat up your memory, sabotage programs files, or worse yet, reformat your hard disk and destroy everything on it.
How likely is your computer to be the target of a virus? It depends on how much contact you have with the outside computing world. Viruses are generally spread through infected disks or programs. If you bought your PC a few years ago and haven't used it for anything but writing letters with the copy of WordPerfect you bought at the store, you're not likely to have a virus.
But if you've used a program disk that someone else gave you, or downloaded files from a bulletin board, or if your PC is attached to a network, you may have been exposed.
Although new virus strains are appearing all the time, and the really clever ones are hard to find, you can take some simple steps to minimize your risk.
* Don't use a disk or program if you don't know where it came from.
Although a few viruses have been known to slip through their security nets, software publishers, on-line information services, and large companies who distribute shareware programs for a few dollars a disk take great pains to make sure their programs are clean.
But if a friend walks up with a disk and offers you a great new program, just say no. You don't know where that disk has been. At the very least, before you run the software, use the computing equivalent of a condom -- a virus checking program.
This doesn't mean you can't swap data disks (word processing, spreadsheet or database files). Data files are rarely infected because your computer doesn't count on them for instructions. But if a disk contains a program that you're going to run, take precautions.
* Invest in a virus checking program.
I hate to give this advice, partly because of all the Michelangelo hype and partly because it's an admission that the little utopia of program and information exchange that many early computer enthusiasts envisioned has been poisoned.
But if you exchange disks frequently or operate on a network that isn't protected by an alert information systems department, a virus checker may be an unfortunate necessity today.
There are a dozen good virus checkers on the market today. Not all of them will find every virus, but most of them will detect the common strains and eradicate them.