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Notes & Briefs 

Stamping Out Spam, Euthanasia News, Books Online, etc.

The problem of spam has grown much worse in recent months. In mid-2003, about half of all e-mail was estimated to be spam; by April 2004, the spam estimate was over 80 percent. That increase, coupled with trends in the transmission of computer viruses, has made spam vastly more destructive and costly.

A recent report from the Pacific Research Institute suggests that spam might be beaten by following “the simple rules of the marketplace to fix what seems now to be an unmanageable problem.” One proposal described in the report involves e-stamps — short data strings that represent a monetary compensation for the burden of receiving messages. Each e-stamp would cost perhaps just a penny — a negligible amount for normal e-mailers, but an impossible sum for spammers who need to send out millions of messages to turn a profit. There are other technical solutions in the works, too, leading Microsoft founder Bill Gates to predict in March that spam “will get off the top-five list” of Internet problems “within the next two years.”

In April, America Online raffled off a Porsche it won in a court battle against a professional spammer. As one company executive put it, “AOL has always placed our members in the driver’s seat when it comes to spam fighting and now we are going to put one of our members in the driver’s seat of a spammer’s sports car.”

The march of progress: In February, a team of American and Russian nuclear scientists announced the discovery — or creation, to put it more precisely — of two new elements. The scientists produced, for about a second, a few atoms of the unnamed elements (numbers 113 and 115 on the periodic table).

In March, researchers announced that two more human chromosomes have been mapped, bringing to nine the number of chromosomes for which complete DNA sequences have been published. The British team working on chromosome 13 found 633 genes amidst its 96 million DNA base-pairs. The American team working on chromosome 19 found 1,461 genes in its 56 million DNA base pairs, making it the most gene-packed chromosome so far analyzed. Chromosome 13 was already known to hold certain genes related to breast cancer and schizophrenia; chromosome 19 was known to have connections to diabetes, migraines, and high cholesterol.

In recent months, researchers also announced the discovery of genes apparently related to brain development, autism, and an allergic reaction to diesel fumes. And two animals have had their genomes completely mapped: the honeybee and the brown rat. The rat is the third mammal to have its genome mapped, after humans and mice; genome maps for chimpanzees, cows, rhesus monkeys, and other mammals are on the way.

For a half-century, scientists have believed that female mammals are born with a set number of egg cells. But in March, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported evidence that mice continue to produce new eggs into adulthood. This finding doesn’t apply to humans — prominent fertility therapist Roger Gosden said he would be “astounded” if it did — but it is possible that the discovery will alter our understanding of female fertility, perhaps resulting in new reproductive technologies.

The music industry has greatly intensified its legal campaign against online piracy, filing a new round of lawsuits each month this year. The Recording Industry Association of America has brought copyright infringement suits against hundreds of anonymous file-sharers — 532 in January, 531 in February, 532 in March, and 477 in April, according to press reports. The financial rewards of the lawsuits aren’t great; several hundred suits have been settled for an average of $3,000, and no suit has yet gone to trial. The real payoff of the legal effort is in the apparent chilling effect it is having on music sharing. According to a recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, perhaps as many as 6 million Americans have quit downloading music because of the lawsuits.

New Zealand euthanasia activist Lesley Martin was sentenced in April to fifteen months in jail after having been convicted of the attempted murder of her mother in 1999. Assisted suicide has been illegal in New Zealand since 1961, although actual prosecutions are rare and penalties are generally lenient. The conviction and trial were sparked by the release of Martin’s 2002 book, To Die Like a Dog, in which she detailed the events leading up to her mother’s death.

From the same corner of the world, Australian euthanasia promoter Dr. Philip Nitschke — already known for inventing suicide machines, like his American counterpart Jack Kevorkian — is working on a suicide “biscuit.” “It would be an enormous reassurance to the elderly folk of Australia if they knew they had a pill or biscuit at home which they could take when the time was right,” Nitschke said.

In this country, Oregon’s Department of Human Services released in April its annual report describing the impact of the state’s legalization of physician-assisted suicide. In the six years since the Death with Dignity Act was enacted, 265 people have obtained the proper prescriptions to end their lives. Of those, 171 people have killed themselves using the lethal doses of medication (in most cases, pentobarbital) prescribed by their doctors. According to the report, the number of lethal prescriptions written under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has increased each year: 24 in 1998, 33 in 1999, 39 in 2000, 44 in 2001, 58 in 2002, and 67 in 2003. At present, Oregon is the only state with legal physician-assisted suicide, although several other states — including Alaska, California, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Hawaii — are considering such legislation.

Three prominent writers have been experimenting with new systems of publishing that combine the book and the Internet. Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford Law School professor, made the complete contents of his new book Free Culture freely available on the Internet. Lessig has described the book giveaway as an experiment to see “if we can find a way to both increase sales [of the print edition] and spread the book more broadly than it could ever have been spread otherwise.” The book’s text is protected by a Creative Commons copyright license, which means users — for the term “readers” seems wrong — are free to “redistribute, copy, or otherwise reuse/remix this book ... for non-commercial purposes.” Within weeks, users had converted the book into several other formats, including e-book and audio formats, and translated it into Polish.

Dan Gillmor, technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, is likewise making his new book, We the Media, available online for free. He, too, wants to “encourage experimentation” and hopes people will “use this book to expand the conversation in ways I hadn’t imagined.” But he took the Internet experimentation even further, by inviting readers of his website to help him research the book, and by posting drafts of chapters online for readers to review — a fitting model for a book about the grassroots revolution in journalism.

Finally, Neal Stephenson, the bestselling science fiction author, has created an unusual website to accompany his latest trilogy of novels. On this site, Stephenson and his readers have been engaged in a project to thoroughly annotate the books, creating a massively cross-referenced latter-day concordance that tracks and analyzes characters and plots, and explains historical events and places. “I don’t think that the Internet, as it currently exists, does a very good job of explaining things to people,” says Stephenson. “Generally this is not a problem with the explanations themselves.... The problem lies in how these explanations are organized.” The new website is thus “an experiment” that will hopefully “seed a body of knowledge” about much more than just the books on which it is based.

The U.S. government still has a lot of work to do to fix holes in its information security, according to numerous recent reports. In March, the General Accounting Office found that the Department of Agriculture has “significant, pervasive information security control weaknesses” that leave critical information “at increased risk of unauthorized disclosure, modification or loss, possibly without being detected.” The Interior Department has been warring with a federal judge for three years over the security of computer files related to funds for American Indians; in March, the judge ordered nine agencies in the department to completely disconnect from the Internet — forcing those employees to do without Web or e-mail access for weeks. And a recent report from the Office of Management and Budget found that while overall government information security has been improving, there are still many gaps, and there remains “a lack of understanding and therefore accountability” in this area.

Still, it’s possible to take information security too far. At the government’s behest, the Rand Corp. recently examined the government information that was taken offline after the September 11 terrorist attacks because of fears it would supply terrorists with too much information about the location of power plants, airports, military bases, and other possible targets. The researchers concluded that only four of the six hundred government websites and databases they examined ought to stay offline; the rest carry information largely available elsewhere.

Science has confirmed what many parents long suspected: There is a clear connection between TV and ADHD (Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder). A study published in the journal Pediatrics in April found that children exposed to television during “formative years of brain development” have an increased “subsequent risk of developing ADHD.” The study of 1,300 children showed that kids at ages 1 and 3 who watched just one hour of television every day were ten percent more likely to develop ADHD by age 7 than children who watched none. The damage grew as screen time increased: 1-year-olds who watched three or four hours of television each day had a 30 or 40 percent greater risk of ADHD than their TV-free peers. The researchers noted that other “deleterious consequences of excessive television viewing, including violent behavior and obesity” had already been studied.

The X Prize competition — the international race to put a privately-built vessel into space — has been renamed the Ansari X Prize competition, after a pair of Iranian immigrant entrepreneurs who made a multimillion-dollar donation to the foundation running the competition. Many observers believe the competition will be won this year.

The cybersecurity industry now has its own lobbying group, representing about a dozen companies — including some major producers of antivirus and encryption software. The Cyber Security Industry Alliance, founded in February, will support “emerging technology standards and specifications that will serve to enhance cybersecurity,” and will work with the Department of Homeland Security to “improve information-sharing between business and government on cyber-threats,” according to the group’s website. Although there are already several major software lobbying groups, the creation of one focusing specifically on cybersecurity indicates that the industry believes government involvement in cybersecurity is likely to increase.

In March, prosecutors in Salt Lake City charged Melissa Ann Rowland, a 28-year-old with a history of substance abuse problems, with capital murder for her refusal two months earlier to have a cesarean section. One of the twins Rowland was carrying died, and a recent decision by the state supreme court extended criminal homicide protections to unborn children (with an exception for abortions). Prosecutors eventually dropped the murder charge, and Rowland, who pled guilty to two counts of child endangerment related to the surviving twin, was sentenced to 18 months of probation. Rowland’s reasons for refusing the procedure are unclear.

Meanwhile, in April, a woman in rural Mexico performed a C-section on herself. The woman was hours away from the nearest hospital, so when she went into labor and couldn’t deliver the baby naturally, she fortified herself with three shots of hard liquor and performed the operation in three attempts with a kitchen knife. Mother and child both survived.

Of mice, men, and monkeys: In recent months, scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Boston successfully grafted human breast cells into mice in an effort to better understand breast cancer. Swiss researchers created mice with human immune systems, in hopes of investigating diseases and vaccines without endangering human subjects. And scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California put chunks of tissue from the testes of prepubescent monkeys under the back skin of mice; in less than a year, the mouse-backs were producing viable monkey sperm, even though the monkeys that provided the testis tissues were still sexually immature.

In March, it was revealed that cadavers donated to UCLA’s Willed Body Program were cut up and sold by lab employees to private research labs. Initial reports suggest that about 500 corpses were sold between 1998 and 2003, for a total of $704,600. The UCLA scandal dwarfed another cadaver controversy revealed around the same time: Seven bodies willed to Tulane University’s medical school were sold to the U.S. Army and blown up in tests of land-mine protection gear. Meanwhile, the German showman who puts preserved corpses on display as “art,” Gunther von Hagen, has reportedly been cleared of charges that he obtained some of his cadavers illegally.

China probably has “the most liberal environment for embryo research in the world,” according to Xiangzhong Yang, a researcher at the University of Connecticut. There is “relatively easy access to human material, including embryonic and fetal tissues” in China, and “most Chinese media report positively on achievements in transgenics, therapeutic cloning, and related embryo-based research,” Dr. Yang writes in the journal Nature. “Furthermore, the public shows little opposition to such studies.”

Zoologists at Oxford have come up with a new theory to explain how homing pigeons navigate. According to a ten-year study recently published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, the birds don’t rely on a directional instinct, an acute sense of smell, or an internal compass — they simply memorize and follow the roads they see beneath them.

Some secrets shouldn’t be taken to the grave — such as computer passwords needed to access bank accounts, e-mail, or hard drives. Families and employers often have to scramble to find personal and professional passwords after a death. If passwords for critical computer files or financial records are lost, the execution of wills and final requests can sometimes be delayed.

“It’s becoming a very common occurrence,” John E. Kuslich, a professional password cracker, told the Dallas Morning News. “I’ve had families of people who have committed suicide, for example, and they’ll call me and say all these files are encrypted and they want to get into them. In those cases, especially, people call back and are so thankful for what they were able to read. It’s really something else.”

A 16-year-old Japanese girl hacked into and altered the website of a music group after she had been badmouthed online, according to wire reports. Her case wouldn’t be unusual — except that just days earlier she had starred in an educational video, produced by Japan’s National Policy Agency, warning of the evils of Internet crime. Copies of the video are reportedly being recalled.

A recent arrangement between Verizon Wireless and the Vatican makes it possible for interested Verizon subscribers to receive daily messages from the Pope on their mobile phones for a fee of 30 cents per day. The Vatican won’t make any money off the deal, but hopes the new technology will bring the Pope’s message to tech-savvy youngsters. Other wireless companies are making similar plans.

The Editors of The New Atlantis, "Notes & Briefs," The New Atlantis, Number 5, Spring 2004, pp. 112-117.