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How Two Pakistani Brothers Created the First PC Virus

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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Stop Your Snoring and Track Your Sleep With a Wi-Fi Smart Pillow
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REM-Fit

Everyone could use a better night's rest. The CDC says that only 66 percent of American adults get as much sleep as they should, so if you're spending plenty of time in bed but mostly tossing and turning (or trying to block out your partner's snores), it may be time to smarten up your sleep accessories. As TechCrunch reports, the ZEEQ Smart Pillow improves your sleeping schedule in a multitude of ways, whether you're looking to quiet your snores or need a soothing lullaby to rock you to sleep.

After a successful Kickstarter in 2016, the product is now on sale and ready to get you snoozing. If you're a snorer, the pillow has a microphone designed to listen to the sound of your snores and softly vibrate so that you shift positions to a quieter pose. Accelerometers in the pillow let the sleep tracker know how much you're moving around at night, allowing it to record your sleep stages. Then, you can hook the pillow up to your Amazon Echo or Google Home so that you can have your favorite smart assistant read out the pillow's analysis of your sleep quality and snoring levels the next morning.

The pillow is also equipped with eight different wireless speakers that turn it into an extra-personal musical experience. You can listen to soothing music while you fall asleep, either connecting the pillow to your Spotify or Apple Music account on your phone via Bluetooth or using the built-in relaxation programs. You can even use it to listen to podcasts without disturbing your partner. You can set a timer to turn the music off after a certain period so you don't wake up in the middle of the night still listening to Serial.

And when it's time to wake up, the pillow will analyze your movements to wake you during your lightest sleep stage, again keeping the noise of an alarm from disturbing your partner.

The downside? Suddenly your pillow is just another device with a battery that needs to charge. And forget about using it in a place without Wi-Fi.

The ZEEQ Smart Pillow currently costs $200.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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Forget Horns: Some Trains in Japan Bark Like Dogs to Scare Away Deer
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In Japan, growing deer populations are causing friction on the railways. The number of deer hit by trains each year is increasing, so the Railway Technical Research Institute has come up with a novel idea for curbing the problem, according to the BBC. Researchers there are using the sound of barking dogs to scare deer away from danger zones when trains are approaching, preventing train damage, delays, and of course, deer carnage.

It’s not your standard horn. In pilot tests, Japanese researchers have attached speakers that blare out a combination of sounds designed specifically to ward off deer. First, the recording captures the animals’ attention by playing a snorting sound that deer use as an “alarm call” to warn others of danger. Then, the sound of howling dogs drives the deer away from the tracks so the train can pass.

Before this initiative, the problem of deer congregating on train tracks seemed intractable. Despite the best efforts of railways, the animals aren’t deterred by ropes, barriers, flashing lights, or even lion feces meant to repel them. Kintetsu Railway has had some success with ultrasonic waves along its Osaka line, but many rail companies are still struggling to deal with the issue. Deer flock to railroad tracks for the iron filings that pile up on the rails, using the iron as a dietary supplement. (They have also been known to lick chain link fences.)

The new deer-deterring soundtrack is particularly useful because it's relatively low-tech and would be cheap to implement. Unlike the ultrasonic plan, it doesn’t have to be set up in a particular place or require a lot of new equipment. Played through a speaker on the train, it goes wherever the train goes, and can be deployed whenever necessary. One speaker on each train could do the job for a whole railway line.

The researchers found that the recordings they designed could reduce the number of deer sightings near the train tracks by as much as 45 percent during winter nights, which typically see the highest collision rates. According to the BBC, the noises will only be used in unpopulated areas, reducing the possibility that people living near the train tracks will have to endure the sounds of dogs howling every night for the rest of their lives.

Deer aren't the only animals that Japanese railways have sought to protect against the dangers of railroad tracks. In 2015, the Suma Aqualife Park and the West Japan Railway Company teamed up to create tunnels that could serve as safer rail crossings for the turtles that kept getting hit by trains.

[h/t BBC]

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