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How Two Pakistani Brothers Created the First PC Virus

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Before vigilante hackers like Anonymous tamed the Internet, two brothers started their own fight against software piracy. Their weapon: the first PC virus.

In 1986, students at the University of Delaware began experiencing strange symptoms: temporary memory loss, a lethargic drive, and fits of rage. This wasn’t just any old flu—it was the world’s first personal computer virus. Known as Brain, the bug destroyed memory, slowed the hard drive, and hid a short copyright message in the boot sector, introducing the world to two soon-to-be hacker celebrities.

At the time, coders Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi were just 17 and 24, respectively, running a computer store in Lahore, Pakistan. When they discovered that customers were circulating illegal copies of software they’d written, the brothers decided to retaliate. Brain was their attempt to scare pirates straight, but, as the creators tell it, the virus was never intended to be malicious. In a 2011 interview with F-Secure, a Finnish anti-virus company, the brothers called the bug a “friendly virus,” one that “was not made to destroy any data.” Why else would they have stamped the virus code with their names, their phone numbers, and the address of their shop?

“The idea was that only if the program was illegally copied would the virus load,” Amjad said in a Pakistani TV interview a few years ago. The Alvis also had an ingenious method for keeping track of how far the virus had spread. “[We] had a ‘counter’ in the program, which could keep track of all copies made and when they were made.”

Outbreak

The brothers claim they never knew that Brain would grow into a monster beyond their control. But a 1988 TIME magazine article reveals a more complicated truth: As concerned as they were with piracy of their own software, that didn’t stop them from making and selling bootleg copies of other expensive programs, such as Lotus 1-2-3. In fact, the ethics of their computer vigilantism are a little murky. Computer software isn’t copyright protected in Pakistan, Basit has argued in interviews, so therefore it’s not piracy for people to trade bootleg disks.

Under that rationale, the brothers sold clean bootleg copies to Pakistanis—and virus-infected versions to American students and backpackers. When Americans flew home and attempted to copy the programs, they ended up infecting every floppy disc subsequently inserted into their computers, even discs that had nothing to do with the original program.

Shortly after the University of Delaware outbreak, Brain began popping up at other universities, and then at newspapers. The New York Times reported that a “rogue computer program” had hit the Providence Journal-Bulletin, though the “damage was limited to one reporter losing several months of work contained on a floppy disk.”

While there was never any legal action, the media response was explosive. Basit and Amjad began receiving calls from all over the world. They were as surprised as anyone that their little experiment had traveled so far. After all, unlike today’s computer viruses, which spread at lightning speed, Brain had to transmit itself the old-fashioned way—through human carriers toting around 5.25-inch floppy discs.

But the binary genie was out of the bottle. Today, there are more than a million viruses vying to infect your computer; it’s estimated that half of all PCs are or have been infected. Consumers shell out more than $4 billion per year for software to fight these digital dragons.

As for the brothers, the virus hasn’t been bad for business. Their company, Brain Net, is now the largest Internet service provider in Pakistan. While they maintain that they never meant to hurt anyone, they have nevertheless embraced Brain as a device that exposed the global nature of piracy. “The virus could not have spread unless people were copying the software illegally,” Amjad said during his Pakistani TV interview.

The brothers, who told reporters that they stopped selling contaminated software sometime in 1987, are still based at the same address in Lahore—the one stamped into Brain’s code.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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