Devlin's Angle

Good Times

Welcome to the new MAA on-line information service, and to my own particular corner-though the "corner" metaphor does not transfer well from the paper page to the scrolling screen. In fact, the vocabulary we use is just one of a number of things that have to change as we move to ever greater use of electronic media in our daily business.

If you are reading these words, then you have already taken the plunge and made at least the first tentative steps into the strange new world of the World Wide Web. And it really is a different world, with different rules, different advantages, and different dangers.

I was reminded of the fact that we are all new to the world of electronic communications when the following electronic mail message arrived on my computer recently. The source of the message was a long established and highly regarded mathematics society in England. How would you respond if the same thing happened to you?


The FCC reports a computer virus that is being sent across the Internet. If you receive an e-mail message with the subject line "Good Times", DO NOT read the message, DELETE it immediately. If you get anything like this, DON'T DOWNLOAD THE FILE! It has a virus that rewrites your hard drive, obliterating anything on it.

What makes this virus so terrifying, says the FCC, is the fact that no program needs to be exchanged for a new computer to be infected. It can be spread through the existing e-mail systems of the Internet. Once a computer is infected, one of several things can happen. If the computer contains a hard drive, that will most likely be destroyed. If the program is not stopped, the computer's processor will be placed in an n'th-complexity infinite binary loop-which can severely damage the processor if left running that way too long. Unfortunately, most novice computer users will not realize what is happening until it is far too late.
Luckily, there is one sure means of detecting what is now known as the "Good Times" virus. It always travels to new computers the same way in a text e-mail message with the subject line reading simply "Good Times".

Avoiding infection is easy once the file has been received-not reading it. The act of loading the file into the mail server's ASCII buffer causes the "Good Times" mainline program to initialize and execute. The program is highly intelligent-it will send copies of itself to everyone whose e- mail address is contained in a received-mail file or a sent-mail file, if it can find one. It will then proceed to trash the computer it is running on.

If you receive a file with the subject line "Good Times", delete it immediately! Do not read it!


Pretty scary, huh? It scared me the first time I received it. That was about two years ago. Since then, I seem to have received the same message maybe half a dozen times, each time from a different source, sometimes from one individual, sometimes from an organization, as this last time. The actual text varies from message to message, but the gist is the same on each occasion.

It is an indication of the speed at which the Internet is growing that, as indicated by the latest distribution of the "Good Times" message, there are still plenty of folk on the net who are receiving this warning for the first time, and occasionally passing it on.

It's time for some facts.

By most people's definition, a virus is something that causes you harm, discomfort, or inconvenience, and which is capable of spreading through a community. For generations, human beings have had to suffer the consequences of viruses spread from person to person by touch and by air. Then came the AIDS virus, the world's first major virus spread around the world by jet aircraft, as infected individuals unknowingly spread the virus from continent to continent. After AIDS, it was clear that in an age of world travel on a large and growing scale, geography was no longer a defense against the spread of a virus.

At about the same time that the world was becoming aware of AIDS, the growth of computer technology also gave rise to a new kind of virus, the computer virus. Spread at first by "touch", namely the passing of computer disks from person to person, and then later by "jet aircraft", the growing interconnections of computers around the world by the Internet, these new kinds of virus did not cause sickness or death in people, they infected computers. The more benign ones simply made a nuisance of themselves; the more virulent forms were able to destroy all the data stored in any computer they found there way into.

Computer users soon learned to fear these new electronic viruses as much as they did their biological cousins.

Enter the "Good Times" virus. Make no mistake about it, there is a virus here, and it has spread like wildfire. To date, the only known defense to this virus- information-has failed to stem its spread.

Fortunately, the virus does no major harm. It certainly does not destroy all the data on your hard drive. It is very much in the class of "minor nuisance" viruses, a bit like a minor cold. It spreads through humans. It depends for its continued life on human good will and a desire to help each other. In the virus's favor is the fact that there is a lot of that good will about. People around the world receive a message warning them about this dangerous piece of software that is "somewhere out there" and, what do they do? They pass on that warning to everyone they know. Voila! The virus has spread further.

There is, you see, no data-destroying "Good Times" virus out there. The warning message is itself the virus. Its spread does not require any sophisticated software. It utilizes human beings in order to replicate and spread. And that makes it the closest thing yet in the computer world to a regular, human-infecting, biological virus

Where did this particular electronic-human virus originate? No one knows. At least, the originator has yet to declare his or her hand. It is, without doubt, a clever idea, and one that is at most an annoyance. At least, I don't think it is more dangerous than that. But to be on the safe side, take my advice. Whenever you check your email or log on to an electronic bulletin board, if you see a message or article titled "Good Times", don't read it.

-Keith Devlin

Keith Devlin is the editor of FOCUS, the news magazine of the MAA. He is the Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, and the author of Mathematics: The Science of Patterns, published by W. H. Freeman in 1994.