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All right. It seems as though half of Houston is sick this week. If you’re sporting a cough, a sore throat, a runny nose or even a fever, you could be infected with acute viral rhinopharyngitis, aka the common cold. Viruses are often described as being “organisms on the edge of life”, as scientists have yet to reach a consensus on whether a virus is an actual life form or simply an organic structure that is able to interact with living things. While viruses have plagued mankind for all of human history, we’ve only been aware of them for a little over a hundred years.

In fact, our understanding of viruses has been driven predominately by technology. It wasn’t until 1931, with the invention of the electron microscope, that we were first able to peer into their world. And only in the last dew decades have we begun to decode how the interact with our very DNA, often rewriting our cell’s genetic code with bits of its own as a means to spread.

Scientists do know that viral replication has a definite life cycle:

The first stage, Attachment, is when the virus binds to the outside of the host cell. Penetration follows, then replication and release.

If this all sounds a little late-night-cable-tv to you, you need to get your mind out of the gutter. But, if this sounds a lot like a computer virus, then you’ve got your head right for the rest of BarretTime.

While computer viruses certainly aren’t living organisms, the writers of the nefarious ones can definitely be grouped into that “organisms on the edge of life” category. Most computer viruses share a similar life cycle to the biological variety. First, the virus must “attach” to your computer in some way: you can infect yourself by visiting infected hosts, like Not-Safe-For-Work sites and illegal movie and music sharing sites, or they can come looking for you, by way of scanning for vulnerable hosts from already infected machines.

The virus will then penetrate your system and begin the replication and release processes.

So, what do we have in the way of cures for the common cold? Not much. All we can currently do is deal with the symptoms and try to limit exposure to infected hosts. As for their computer counterparts, we have a much better arsenal at our collective disposal.

One way to deal with viruses is by never letting them come in contact with susceptable hosts. This is akin to becoming a bubble boy or girl, or, if you’re on a budget, using a SARS mask and some Saran wrap. While the corporate world has had virus filtering at the gateway for years, devices built for home use that employ deep-packet inspection have been hard to find. This isn’t necessarily the case anymore, as companies like Cisco have started to offer enterprise level features in their home gear. There are even a number of free packages available for installation on an old computer or small dedicated device. ZeroShell and MonoWall both stand out as examples of free routers that can deploy anti-virus support at the point where viruses would come normally come in from the Internet in the form of email attachments, vulnerability scanners and malicious web content.

You can also employ local firewalls, using either third party packages or the completely capable software firewalls that ship with Windows and Linux.

And…just as a healthy immune system is important to fighting off human disease, a healthy local Anti-Virus package is essential to identifying, quarantining and removing any wayward viruses that do find their way onto your desktop. While most Mac and Linux users are still experiencing their Summer of Love, the Windows camp knows the value of practicing Safe Hex. If you’re running a Microsoft operating system, you absolutely have to run a reputable Anti-Virus package and keep it up to date with the most current virus definitions. G-Data, Symantec Norton AV, Kaspersky, BitDefender, Panda, AVG and McAfee all arguably make the list, AVG by GriSoft being the free choice of the bunch.

The number of similarities between human viruses and computer viruses *are* plentiful, and as such, I’ll be available at the February Geek Gathering to discuss Jared Diamond’s book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and how it gives new plausibility to the scene in the movie Independence Day where Jeff Goldblum takes down an alien mothership with a computer virus delivered with an Apple laptop.

But for now, that’s it for your phage-one-one and that’s that for BarretTime.

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