It Could Happen To You

Opinion by Simon Travaglia

ON SEPTEMBER 3, 1992, the computing world was rocked by the horror of a new computer-originated illness and the lives it claimed.

Eldred Squires, a 26-year-old operator/administrator at a major British chemical company, was the first victim. At approximately 9:03A.M., Squires logged into his personal account and sent some e-mail to a friend at a remote site. Logging out, he then logged in to the operator account to clean up some problematic print queues. Following this, he logged out and logged in to a test account to check that his print queues were accepting data from normal users. Finding that all was well, he logged out then logged in to the root account to create a new user name to receive held desk mail. Wanting to test this new user name, he logged out from root and proceeded to log in to his new account. Barely three letters into his 12-letter alphanumeric password, he slumped forward across his keyboard, dead.

The autopsy revealed that the victim's cerebral cortex suffered damage consistent with heating the brain to approximately 120 degrees Celcius, but the heat source was a mystery. Computer and workplace safety officers decided to recreate the circumstances leading up to the tragedy. Within five minutes, another victim lay sprawled dead across the keyboard, a fine patina of sweat on his brow.

Admitting defeat, the Safety Office called in an expert in computer-related deaths, Dr. Brian Anilpeeper. Moments after examining the logs and audits, Anilpeeper was able to correctly diagnose the cause of death--Multiple Username Disorder.

MUD, Anilpeeper explained, is a dangerous new side effect of the current computing mindset. People become encumbered with several user names until, ultimately, their brains fry. It's the computer analog to Multiple Personality Disorders.

"People are required to maintain several accounts for various purposes," he continued. "One for, say, an administration function; one for their own personal use; another for normal work; and perhaps yet another for financial and charging matters. Sooner or later, the combination of what is required of the user of these accounts will wreak its havoc on the brain, causing mass cerebral hysteria."

Later, in a harmless demonstration, Dr. Anilpeeper took a volunteer and assigned him five user names for different purposes. Victim No. 3 fell to the floor in a lifeless heap. "I lied about it being harmless," Anilpeeper said. "So sue me."

Months later, scientists are still no nearer to finding a solution, mainly because they're scared to log in to the research computers. Life goes on. Or, sometimes it doesn't.

In an effort to reduce the crippling side effects of MUD, the Computer Risk Committee has compiled this list of warning signs. Potential victims may:

Should one or more of these symptoms be present, STOP USING YOUR ACCOUNT NOW!

Log out, and walk away. The life you save...

Simon Travaglia lives in Waikato, New Zealand, and is the author of The Bastard Operator from Hell, found at DATAMATION's PlugIN home page.