Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at secondhandscience@gmail.com with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

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What I’ve Learned:

Zombie computer: beware the night of the living Dells.
“Zombie computer: beware the night of the living Dells.”

Zombies are kind of a big deal these days. If you’re a fan of TV or movies or video games, you’ve surely seen them — and like actual zombies, they’re still multiplying. It’s like somebody ran a zombie through a Dr. Seuss-ifier:

You’ve got fast ones and slow ones and now one with an ‘i’.
They crave brain, feel no pain and just want you to die.

There are zombies that walk and zombies that talk and zombies that grin like Fairuza Balk.
Some zombies dance and others fight plants and by now, one of them might be Jack Palance.

(Sorry. Too soon?)

The point is, zombies are everywhere in fiction — but they’re also everywhere in real life, in an insidious form you don’t often hear about. I’m talking about zombie computers, and there are millions upon millions of them just waiting to eat your… well, not brains, exactly. But probably your bandwidth. And these days, that’s just as bad.

A zombie computer — or just zombie, if you like — is a device that’s been taken over by a malicious user or bit of software, and now unquestionably does the bidding of its nefarious master. Once the machine is hacked into or infected with a virus or Trojan horse or computer worm, it can become a zombie without anyone around it ever knowing.

(Unlike zombie humans, zombie computers apparently don’t decompose, start to smell or shuffle down the street mumbling, “CPUUuuuuus, CPUUuuuUUUUSSss…” So they’re harder to identify.)

And while Dr. Frankenstein used his “zombie” to terrorize the townspeople or a voodoo priest might use a zombie army to, I don’t know, make a really big batch of jambalaya, maybe, controllers of zombie computers usually have much, much more sinister stuff in mind.

Like spam.

The puppet master of a bunch of zombie computers can coordinate them into something called a “botnet”, which is just a big gaggle of infected computers doing whatever they’re told. And some people tell them to send billions upon billions of junk emails to people all over the world.

Security experts estimate that roughly two-thirds of all email sent is “spam” of some kind, and much of that — up to eighty percent, according to one study — comes from zombie computers in botnets. It’s thought that a ten-thousand computer botnet — which is not particularly large; botnets have been seen with over one million zombie computers — can send up to fifty billion emails in a single week.

That’s “billion”, with a “b”. Kinda makes those zombie hordes on TV look like a couple of kindergarten kids, eh?

Of course, zombie computer masters can do worse than flood a few (billion) inboxes. Botnets can also be used to artificially generate hits on websites, to generate so many simultaneous hits that sites effectively shut down — known as a DDoS, or distributed denial of service attack, very nasty — identity theft, bank fraud, extortion, espionage and, of course, to recruit more victims. What good would a zombie computer be, if it didn’t reach out and bite a few uninfected innocents?

So enjoy the science fiction shows and films and games featuring “scary” zombies that can’t actually crawl out of the grave and get you. But be wary of that laptop or PC that you’re watching or playing on. That could be a real zombie, sitting in your very own living room. Maybe even on your lap.

EEEEEEEKKK!!

Image sources: Pocket Fives (zombie computer botnet), Design and Trend (i[cecream]Zombie), Socialite Life (Balk, batty), The Var Guy (botnets after your braaaaaaains…)

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What I’ve Learned:

Retrovirus: when it comes back, you don't really want to be there.
“Retrovirus: when it comes back, you don’t really want to be there.”

“Retro” is in right now.

Of course, retro is always in. In the ’70s, people pined for the ’50s. In the ’90s, they wanted the ’70s back. And now, it’s ’90s nostalgia. So is a “retrovirus” just a cold bug that dresses like Blossom and listens to Nirvana CDs?

No. For the love of everything holy in this world, it is not.

A retrovirus is instead a virus that uses a process called reverse transcription. Because retroviruses — like Blossom, but without the goofy hat — just had to be different.

Nearly every organism on the planet follows what biologists call the “central dogma”. That’s the rule that says genes coded in DNA get converted to RNA, and that RNA is then read to make proteins, which are the building blocks for cells, people, animals, plants, Joey Lawrence and the cotton inside grungy flannel shirts. Among other things.

That’s the way life works — DNA to RNA, in a process called transcription, and RNA to proteins, which is called translation. It’s a solid system, and everybody follows the same rules.

That includes most viruses, who are little more than a few scraps of DNA and maybe a protein shell to hold it all together. These viruses infect cells, get their DNA converted to RNA by the cell’s machinery, then to protein, package themselves up and look for the next cell to invade.

Nobody ever said viruses live fulfilling lives. They’re like an old retired couple with an RV, wandering aimlessly in search of early bird dinners and cheap campground fees. There’s no point, exactly, but it keeps them busy.

And in the virus’ case, it also keeps them causing flu, smallpox, herpes, warts and sometimes cancer. It’s not a perfect analogy. Old people aren’t quite as harmful as all of that. Mostly.

Retroviruses, though, refuse to play by the rules. A retrovirus doesn’t pack its DNA on road trips; it bundles up RNA instead. It also packs a special type of enzyme called reverse transcriptase. This protein flips the central dogma upside down, and can make DNA out of the retroviral RNA. This new DNA then worms itself into the host genome, where it gets converted to RNA and protein, as usual.

So retroviruses aren’t so much like the retired RV couple scoping out campsites. They’re more like a biker gang that invades your neighborhood, squats in your house and drinks from all your toilets. And not in the nice way.

Because they randomly insinuate themselves into chromosomes, retrovirus DNA can sometimes cause cancer by disrupting an important gene. And that’s on top of the diseases they cause to begin with, which include AIDS and related diseases, equine infectious anemia, avian wasting disease, encephalitis in sheep and goats, and several others.

Not all retroviral infections are harmful, though — or even active. Sometimes, a retrovirus inserts its DNA into a “silent” stretch of DNA and it’s never heard from or activated again. Like Ugly Kid Joe and Starter jackets. These “endogenous” retroviruses are so common, in fact, it’s thought their sequence makes up 5-8% of the human genome.

So when it comes to retroviruses, they’re much like “retro” trends: better left buried and forgotten than dug up, reawakened and unleashed on anyone or anything you care about. And if a retrovirus should get loose? Hide the Blossom hats and Nirvana CDs; you’re in for a rough ride.

Actual Science:
HHMI / BioInteractiveRetroviruses and viral diversity
The ScientistRepurposed retroviruses
Small Things ConsideredRetroviruses, the placenta and the genomic junk drawer
Virology BlogRetroviruses R us
QuantaKiller virus is invading koala DNA

Image sources: MedPageToday (HIV virion), StyleBlazer (big-hat Blossom), RantGizmo (RV retirees), Crudely-Drawn Filler Material (Hell’s Satans commode chugger)

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What I’ve Learned:

Viroid: the simplest is as the simplest does.
“Viroid: the simplest is as the simplest does.”

Everyone I know is trying to “simplify”, in any way they can. They’re downsizing their houses. Giving away old clothes. Cutting out cable. (But not Netflix, because come on, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, already.)

Pretty much anything short of donating their kids to science and moving into a zen garden, these people are doing in the name of simplicity. And you know what?

They’re amateurs.

Because how “simple” are you, really, when you’re still human? There are all sorts of complicated things going on inside us — and I’m not just talking about our Facebook relationships or the way we feel about Charlie Kaufman films.

Human bodies are all kinds of intricate. You’ve got circulatory systems and immune cells, respiratory tracts and reproductive organs — and that’s just the tip of the person-berg. “Simplify” all you like, but if you’re holding on to all that bodily baggage — with your fingers; don’t even get me started on fingers — then you’re not very simple at all.

And what’s more, if you think you need all of that — or any of it — to live in the world, grow up and pass on your genetic material, then you’re wrong. You can do all that with less. Much less. If you really want to simplify, take a cue from a viroid.

Viroids are about as small — and simple — as a reproducing bit of schmutz can get. Classified as “sub-viral pathogens”, viroids have almost none of the fiddly biological bits even most tiny organisms hold dear. Take amoebas, for instance; these microscopic little one-celled critters still have tiny tails to move around with, a way to take in nutrients and a nucleus for their genome. Ain’t no viroids got time for that.

Bacteria are even smaller than amoebas, but they at least have a cell membrane, and enzymes and stuff kept handy in pockets, for when they’re needed. Viroids got no enzymes, no pockets, and no cell to keep them in.

Viruses are tinier still, and are mostly just made up of a few genes on a strip of DNA. But at least — at least, for crissakes — they have the decency to cover up their genetic material with a membrane of some kind, and to code for a protein or two.

But viroids? Nuh uh. They’re nothing but naked RNA, single-stranded genetic material all folded in on itself. No membranes, no cell walls, no nothing. They don’t even code for proteins — they’re just themselves, the epitome of “simple”. Viroids are out there. And they’re lovin’ every minute of it.

Of course, living simple has some downsides. So far as we know, no viroids have Twitter accounts, for instance. Also, they can’t reproduce by themselves — we’ve all been there, amirite? — but need to infect a living cell to “borrow” its machinery to make more copies of its RNA. Most of those living cells are in plants; viroids have been identified that infect potatoes, eggplants, avocados and coconuts, among others.

Because they can’t reproduce by themselves — or in ugly-RNA-bumping pairs — viroids aren’t considered to be “alive”, exactly. But they may provide a hint as to how life ultimately began on the planet. Making copies of oneself — with help, and before one really has a “self” to speak of — isn’t much, perhaps. But it’s an important step on the way to truly living, and might have been critical to the formation of the very earliest life forms.

And today, viroids can still float around a farm field, dig into crops and pass along their genetic material to new generations. From what I’ve seen of the “simplify” crowd, most of those people would love the viroid lifestyle. Or near-lifestyle, as the case may be.

Of course, that “lifestyle” also involves running around naked, mooching other peoples’ equipment and using vegetables for sex.

I’m not saying that would deter any of the hippies pining for a life change. But suddenly, viroids don’t sound so “simple” to me.

Also, that Netflix queue of mine isn’t going to watch itself. I’ll pass.

Actual Science:
Virology BlogViroids, infectious agents that encode no proteins
Small Things ConsideredSmallest Things Considered
New York TimesA tiny emissary from the ancient past
Science Magazine / OriginsFast-mutating viroids hold clues to early life
Washington State UniversityHop stunt viroid research

Image sources: Nature Reviews (viroid structure), Neptune Society (kids with signs), QuickMeme (Kramer, LOVIN’ it!), The Snipe (sexy, sexy eggplant)

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