Features

Technology

National

Issue: "House hunting," May 11, 2002

Mr. Smith goes to jail
David L. Smith unleashed one of the world's most obnoxious computer viruses-and now he's going to prison for it. The programmer received a 20-month sentence after causing some $80 million in damage. Mr. Smith, whose "Melissa" virus struck in March 1999, admitted he used a stolen AOL screen name and password to post the malignant software code to a sexually-oriented discussion group. "My curiosity got the better of me, as I soon began to write the 'Melissa Virus,'" Mr. Smith wrote in a letter to Judge Joseph Greenaway Jr. "I borrowed a lot of the code from other viruses that I found on the Internet." Melissa was hidden in e-mail and manipulated Microsoft's office software. Once the user opened the attached document, Melissa sent infected mail to the first 50 names in the user's Microsoft Outlook address book. The volume of messages it spawned slowed some systems to a crawl; among those affected was NATO headquarters in Brussels. Mr. Smith admitted his actions were "immoral," but denied that the virus did any real harm. Since the Melissa outbreak, many e-mail users have become leery of attached messages-and many experts warn people not to open them if they come from unknown people or the message looks suspicious. At $30k a day, Microsoft war still drags on
The nine states still fighting the landmark Microsoft federal antitrust settlement battle want stricter penalties enforced. They contend the settlement's terms are vague enough that the software giant will continue using its market power unfairly to injure competitors. The states' lawyer, Kevin Hodges, drew blood when he got Microsoft witness Stuart Madnick to admit vague terminology left the settlement open to interpretation. Referring to buzz phrases like "interoperability," the MIT computer scientist replied, "it is ambiguous in that regard." (Meanwhile, the case drags on like a snail. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that each day in court costs at least $30,000. "These recalcitrant states are gambling with taxpayer dollars," grumbled the group's president, Tom Schatz.) Company chairman Bill Gates took the stand last month to say that proposed penalties could be crippling. Mr. Gates testified that the states' "breadth of restrictions" would hurt the PC market and short-circuit innovation: "Microsoft [research and development] would at best go into a 10-year period of hibernation." Free-marketers have championed Microsoft's cause, but the company may be trying to win some sympathy from the left. After his court testimony, Mr. Gates showed up at a Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition conference in San Jose with Jesse Jackson discussing diversity in the high-tech industry. More terror-proof buildings?
Better engineering can help prevent another disaster like the World Trade Center collapse, according to a federal study. Researchers pointed out two design changes that might save lives in the future. First, fireproof material that sticks to steel beams and emergency stairwells; second, stronger stairwells and escape routes spaced farther apart. These changes would give building occupants more time to escape. But the study said the WTC towers had no serious structural problems. In fact, the complex exceeded building code requirements in some areas, according to experts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Researchers noted the "remarkable" phenomenon that the towers withstood the crashes long enough "that most building occupants were able to evacuate safely." Nonetheless, the report questioned whether engineering could completely protect buildings from fast-moving aircraft. What proved deadly was the fire fed by thousands of gallons of aviation fuel. It spilled across floors and down elevator shafts, setting ablaze furniture, computers, paper files, and the planes' cargo over multiple floors. Once the inferno softened the buildings' steel framework, the towers fell. These preliminary findings support what other experts already believed, though the study says final conclusions require more research.

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