Dear Ellen: It could’ve happened to anyone

I write letters to Ellen DeGeneres. No particular reason. Just because I can.

Dear Ellen,

Last August, I went back to school to begin a degree in computer science. My computer skills were limited to slapping the monitor and cussing at it in fictional languages. That was fun for a while but then I decided it was time to learn more. Through the course of the semester, I developed an interest in malware (computer viruses). Apparently there’s a job title out there known as Malware Analyst in which professionals with a computer science degree get paid to study computer viruses: how they work and what information they collect. This sounded like a fun job to me so I started to research how individuals could develop skills in this field.

According to the Internet, various websites recommend that people practice playing with actual viruses. Great! All I needed to do was get a computer virus. After sending the four-year-old off to school, I ran some errands at the local super center. I picked up a quart of oil, bananas, and diaper rash cream. Then I headed over to the electronics department in search of a computer virus I could purchase. The sales rep had the strangest look on his face when I inquired about where I would find a virus and if there was a coupon I could use with it. He was definitely disturbed by my question.

Problem 1

Where does someone who wants to play with a computer virus acquire it? The grocery store didn’t have any and when I called the gas station, the person on the other end of the phone hung up on me.

Just when I thought all hope was lost, I had an epiphany!  Angels sang! There was a halo around my head! I felt alive and excited that I solved this problem on my own. I knew exactly how to get a virus on my computer. The next day, I sent my laptop to school with my four year old. Nothing says “cold & flu” season like an elementary school. My throat aches and my nose runs every time I drive past the building.

That afternoon I greeted my son at the school bus stop – eager to see him and my infected computer. Much to my disappointment, the laptop came home with everything but a virus. It was covered with painted fingerprints; slimy, sticky goo all over the keyboard; and a note from his teacher asking me not to send anything battery operated and having a value of over $20 with my child for his show & tell time.  (Picky, picky.)

Problem 2

While scrubbing my computer clean, I realized I was going about this the wrong way. Before getting a computer virus, I needed a safe place to put it so my computer wouldn’t get destroyed.

Through reading about experiences from people who were lucky enough to get their hands on a virus to play with, I learned that before you acquire the virus you need a sandbox to put the virus in so that the rest of your computer is protected. This makes total sense….sort of….I wasn’t entirely sure what they meant by a “sandbox.”  Regardless, I decided my focus should be on preparing my computer for the virus. But how do I get sand into my computer?

Cue the angels singing! I put the laptop inside of the neighbor’s sandbox on an especially windy day. After a few hours, I recovered the laptop and turned it on. Everything seemed fine…the computer made a strange grinding noise but it worked. I looked through all of the folder-thingies on my computer, in search of something that said sandbox or had an image of a sandbox. There was nothing. Just the same old crap I always have on my computer: pictures of the kids, recipes I’ll never fix and a calendar with an alarm set to remind me that my anniversary is next month because whenever I’m pregnant, I forget my anniversary.

It occurred to me that maybe sand never made it into my computer. I picked it up and shook it a few times, hoping I’d hear sand rattling around inside. No luck. I couldn’t hear anything. It took a few YouTube videos to figure out how to take my laptop apart but eventually I was able to get a peek inside. Sure enough, my computer had a decent amount of sand particles inside of it. However, this clearly was not what was meant by a sandbox.

Figuring that this method wasn’t going to work, I grabbed the vacuum cleaner from the closet and used the extension to suck up the sand out of my computer. There were a few popping noises and a couple of sparks which I thought was weird, but other than that, I was able to get all of the sand sucked up.

It was a few hours later before I got around to turning the computer on.  My husband wanted dinner. The four year old wanted to take the toaster apart and my three year old wanted to tap dance on top of the kitchen table.

When I did eventually get around to turning the computer on, it wouldn’t work – a fact that was a complete mystery to me. I knew the battery was charged. It worked earlier that day. But for the life of me, I couldn’t get the computer to turn on. Resorting to old habits, I started smacking the computer and cursing at it. My husband heard the ruckus and asked what the problem was. As I explained, his face turned three shades of red and the vein in his forehead pulsated.

So….through our discussion – in which I was certain he was going to have a stroke – I learned two things. First, a sandbox (in the world of computers) isn’t necessarily software installed on the hard drive.  It can also be a sacrificial lamb – an entire computer dedicated to only holding computer viruses. Second, the popping sounds I heard while vacuuming the inside of my laptop was static electricity. Apparently static electricity is bad for a lot of things: fingertips, hair and electronic devices.

Well, Ellen, tomorrow is a new day and for my son – a show & tell day. Guess it’s time for me to get his back pack ready…..where did I put the hand mixer?


A. Marie



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