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Inside NCR

Beware of ‘Simpsons’ fans, bets with bishops

When colleague Arthur Jones suggested several months ago that I should do something about cathedrals, I wasn’t sure whether I was for them -- new, expensive ones, that is -- or against them. Cardinal Roger Mahony, however, is great at the old PR -- not that I want to blame him for my own opinions. Yet, there is an area in which I don’t trust the cardinal -- but let me back up and tell it from the beginning.

I first interviewed Mahony in 1983, when he was bishop of Stockton, Calif. It was clear at the time that the L.A. archdiocese would soon be vacant. He poured scorn on the idea that he might be a front-runner. I bet him dinner that he would get it. He bet dinner he wouldn’t.

He never paid up.

This kind of thing teaches a journalist to be cautious. So, at the end of our interview about the cathedral, I kept the tape recorder running. I reminded him he owed me dinner, and he didn’t deny it. I gave him a chance to get off the hook. By upping the ante. If, when John Paul eventually goes to his reward, Mahony is not elected pope, we’ll be even. But if he is elected pope, we’d have that dinner at the Vatican.

“That gets me off the hook so fast,” Mahony said, “you can have dinner wherever you want in the Vatican, you name the place. We have a deal.”

In the light of previous experience, I decided to keep the tape. I’m thinking of stashing it in a safe deposit box. If you think this is NCR’s best chance, at long last, of prowling those legendary Vatican corridors, then you should pray: Mahony for pope.

By the time you read this, the numbers will probably have quintupled, but as of now the Melissa computer virus has infected approximately 100,000 workplace computers at 150 corporations around the world. Though relatively harmless in itself, the virus threatens to clog the flow of business and perhaps spawn more dangerous imitators.

The New York Times reported March 30 that the author is rumored to be a mysterious figure with the on-line moniker “VicodinES.” Authorities don’t seem to know much more about him, but if VicodinES is the creator of Melissa, John Allen of the NCR staff knows at least this much: He’s a fan of “The Simpsons.”

In fairness, this connection has been reported elsewhere, but Allen -- well-known for his command of Simpsons arcana -- came by the insight all on his own. NCR’s computer guru Lis Sunderland circulated a warning about Melissa that quoted some lines from inside the virus, including the words “Melissa written by Kwyjibo.” Allen immediately recognized this as an allusion to the very first episode of “The Simpsons,” the one titled “Bart the Genius,” number 7G01 on the series list. (He didn’t have to look that up, either.)

In it, Bart makes up a new word in order to win a family game of Scrabble -- “Kwyjibo,” which he defines as a “big, dumb, balding North American ape,” or words to that effect, in a derisive reference to Homer, his father. Bart then says: “Twenty-two points, plus triple-word score, plus 50 points for using all my letters. Game’s over. I’m outta here.” Those are the very words the Melissa virus will dump into an infected document if it happens to be open at the right time.

Allen would have reported this clue to the proper authorities, but some other “Simpsons” fanatic beat him to it. What all this says about Allen, the nature of the Simpsons’ following, America’s vulnerability to technological sneak attacks or any other topic must await further rumination. But one moral seems obvious: Think twice before crossing swords with a “Simpsons” fan, especially one with a modem.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999