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 with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Computers
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.


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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· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Tumor suppressor: I'm no hero; I'm just doing my job.
“Tumor suppressor: I’m no hero; I’m just doing my job.”

Fighting evil isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

First of all, it’s hard. Evil is basically everywhere outside of Walt Disney World, so there’s always another battle on hand. Also, evil is fiendishly creative. Just when you think you have it in check, it’ll pop up behind you, tenting its fingers and snarling, “Excellent.”

But the worst part about fighting evil is that you’ll never be recognized for anything else. That must get old for heroes. Sure, Captain America gets medals for thwarting villains — but maybe he writes poetry, too. Nobody talks about that. What if Superman is a great baker? Or Wonder Woman is a two-handicap golfer? Who would even know?

That’s how it is for so-called tumor suppressor genes. These are genes that have perfectly useful functions in normal cells, merrily toiling along, getting their jobs done. But nobody cares about those jobs — outside geneticists, who nose around everything a cell does. Instead, most people focus on one thing:

If these genes are knocked out of a cell — silenced by mutation or deletion or runaway genetic regulation — then the cell may turn cancerous. With tumor suppressors around, no cancer. Without them — watch out.

The thing is, these genes don’t exist to prevent cancer, exactly; the very name “tumor suppressor” is misleading. In their mild-mannered day jobs, these genes get translated into proteins, and those proteins mostly control whether the cell they live in should grow or not. If it’s not time yet, don’t grow. If the cell is damaged, don’t grow. If it’s badly damaged, try and fix it. And if it can’t be fixed, smash it to bits and storm off in a huff of cytoplasm.

(So basically, tumor suppressors are like eight year old children building a Lego set. “Evil fighters”, my ass.)

The “smash it to bits” part is kind of important. If certain tumor suppressors are working properly — but the rest of the cell isn’t, the bum — they can trigger a process called programmed cell death, also known as apoptosis. This is pretty much what it sounds like — slapping a proverbial “KILL ME!” sign on the wall of the cell, and letting the body rip it limb from limb.

Gruesome, maybe — but better than having a mutated cell grow out of control, and eventually form a tumor. Any good horror movie will tell you: better to off yourself in an emergency than to join the mutant zombie horde. All that shambling around is exhausting, and who wants brain stuck between their teeth?

Anyway, tumor suppressors are very important genes; they’re just not named especially well. Fighting evil — or tumors — gets so much attention that the real everyday jobs these genes naturally do barely gets recognized. Instead, they’re known for a function they serve almost by default.

It’s like labeling a butt plug a “poop suppressor”; technically true, but not really what the thing is actually used for. Which, as any Parisian can tell you, is a giant Christmas tree.

I bet that thing would suppress the shit out of some tumors. Ho ho ho.

Image sources: CISN (crash into cancer!), Government Executive (Burns, tenting), Sparkles and Crumbs (sweet-tooth Superman), HugeLOL (apoptosis, post mortem), BoingBoing (Parisian Christmas tree art, aka “O Pluggenbaum”)

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