By late Tuesday, Jan. 27, experts estimated that 20 percent of the world's e-mail traffic was attributable to the virulent worm known as Mydoom, or Norvag -- the latest Internet scourge to send panicked corporate tech managers to the Symantec and McAfee Web sites for virus-protection updates. This monster virus is spam on steroids. Attached to a seemingly innocent e-mail, Mydoom copies itself to the computer of whoever happens to be curious enough to open its attached file, e-mails itself all over again, then awaits instructions -- perhaps, like SoBig and other previous worms, to use the invaded PC as a conduit for future spam. Computer-security experts say this is a battlefield-changing tactic in the spam war. "I'm really starting to believe that as much as 75 percent of spam is coming from our own machines," says Lawrence Baldwin, a computer-security expert who runs MyNetWatchman.com. That's right, most spam is actually being circulated by us through our innocent-looking home PCs.
"A lot of Microsoft software is so unsecure that spammers are now writing viruses that infect home computers and turn them into spam sources," says Laura Atkins, president of the Spamcon Foundation. "That's probably the biggest source of spam on the Net right now." The new marriage of computer viruses and spam is the most dangerous threat to the Internet in the coming year, contends MessageLabs, a leading anti-spam outfit based in Minneapolis.
The means by which spammers commandeer home PCs is complicated and continues to evolve, but essentially a piece of "malware," like Mydoom, is delivered to your machine, either by e-mail or more directly, which then enables the spammer to relay masses of spam through your living room and suck up your bandwidth, hiding behind your computer's unique Internet Protocol (IP) address. "You'll see [the same] e-mail coming from a hundred computers all at once all over the Internet," says Julian Haight, founder of Spamcop.net, which monitors Net traffic. Meanwhile, the unwitting computer owner might not notice anything besides a sluggish Internet connection. Joe Stewart, of computer security firm LURHQ, puts the number of PCs "hijacked for spam" at "probably well into the millions by now."
And what accounts for the ease with which wily spammers prey on PCs?
Of course, it's the many cracks in Windows software. "Unfortunately, Microsoft has had literally hundreds of security vulnerabilities in the last few years," says Baldwin. "If you haven't applied all your security patches and you put a Microsoft system directly onto the Internet," without a firewall, "you can be pretty much guaranteed it will be infected, probably in under five minutes."
Late last year, users of Microsoft's Hotmail service awoke to something they'd never experienced: no spam. Microsoft's free, Web-based e-mail service has long been an infamous hotbed of spam. Thanks to such spammer strategies as "dictionary attacks" -- in which the spammer sends out thousands of messages using random combinations of letters in front of the @hotmail.com address -- new Hotmail users could see spam landing in their inboxes even before they'd sent out their first message. People who used Hotmail only sparingly might still receive a couple dozen pieces of spam each day. But all that changed when Microsoft introduced SmartScreen Spam Filtering Technology. Some users have found that incoming spam, for the moment at least, has shrunk to near zero. "Anecdotally, Microsoft has been consistently hearing from customers and testers that SmartScreen tools are blocking upwards of 80 to 95 percent of their spam," according to the company.
Microsoft's filter employs methods similar to those of other anti-spam systems currently in use: The software scans incoming messages for keywords and other characteristics that the system "learns" are typical of spam and segregates them. Microsoft says its proprietary system is better than those of competitors because it "learns" from such a huge inventory of Hotmail spam and because it combines a bunch of spam-targeting technologies. (Personally, I've never had a single spam at my two-year-old Yahoo! account.)
The introduction of SmartScreen is recognition by the company of how serious an inconvenience spam has become, because with spam, as with so many other things, Microsoft has lagged behind competitors, allowing them to make the first moves before the company finally decided to weigh in with massive resources and a high-profile campaign (often prescribing, of course, a software upgrade). Where EarthLink and America Online started suing spammers in the late 1990s, says Atkins of the Spamcon Foundation, Microsoft only recently began going after them aggressively, filing several suits last summer and then, last fall, teaming up with New York's dogged attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, to sue a bunch of big guns.
Without doubt, the gloves are off and the microphones are on. Bill Gates used his closely watched annual address at the industry confab known as Comdex to declare war on spam and has recently written guest columns, such as "Why I Hate Spam" in The Wall Street Journal and "A Spam Free Future" in the The Washington Post.
Microsoft is trying to integrate anti-spam technology into its core products, adding the SmartScreen filter, for instance, to the 2003 version of Outlook, the widely used e-mail and calendar program that's part of Microsoft's Office suite. Of course, "innovations" aren't always welcomed when they come from a monopoly: After Microsoft announced it was integrating the spam filter into its own software, some in the industry fretted that the Redmond giant was going to put all the other companies that make spam filters out of business. Microsoft says its system is designed to work in tandem with third-party systems, not replace them.
But while Microsoft has been taking some strong, visible steps to prosecute spammers and shoot down spam before it soils the inboxes of its customers, it has been quieter and, some contend, less responsive on the issue that many spam watchers believe is now central to the problem: the role of virus-infected, Microsoft-run desktop computers as the primary conduit for spam.
Perhaps it's no surprise that the role of Microsoft software in the spam infrastructure has gone unmentioned in the spam speeches and guest columns by Gates. Typically, he promotes the federal CAN-SPAM legislation (now passed by Congress and signed by President Bush), lauds Microsoft's new filter technology, and advises e-mail users not to reply to spam or click on those unknown file attachments. But he has avoided mentioning the security flaws in his company's products and the spam epidemic in the same breath. Microsoft's voluminous Web site, while addressing both spam and computer infections at length, never links the two problems.
In a speech last spring, Microsoft exec Ryan Hamlin, who oversees the company's anti-spam group, acknowledged, "We feel like solving the inbound problem," diverting spam from customer inboxes, "is a much greater issue right now than solving the outbound problem" of preventing spam from being sent in the first place. The one could lead to the other, according to Gates, who, writing recently in The Washington Post, said, "Our goal is to develop filters that are so effective that spamming becomes increasingly futile and ultimately unprofitable." But spam experts aren't so sanguine. "Filtering is a losing proposition," argues Spamcon's Atkins. "We can never make filters faster than the spammers can come up with ways to best them."
Spam fighters acknowledge that as the dominant operating system, Microsoft Windows is a big, fat target for unrelenting adversaries. Says Atkins: "We can argue about whether Microsoft is responsible for the fact that its users have not kept their security up to date or installed a hardware firewall that costs $59 at CompUSA." (Indeed, Microsoft recently launched a "Protect Your PC" campaign directed at home users.) But, Atkins notes, "Shipping secure software would help."
"On the bright side," says Joe Stewart of LURHQ, "it looks like Microsoft is making an effort to solve some of the core problems that make Windows so easy to infect. It may, however, be already too late."
Stewart, it should be noted, was speaking before last week's Mydoom outbreak. Meaning "too late" is right now.
Cannabis research "has become a very active field," says pharmacology expert Leslie L. Iversen, who has written a book on the subject. At the University of Washington, for example, anesthesiology professor Dr. Ken Mackie oversees a six-person lab where the biochemical effects of the drug are studied. "There are maybe 50 groups in the country at work on this," he says.
However, before you decide to switch careers, you should know that the actual lab work involves mostly petri dish analysis of minute chemical reactions -- not dudes crashed out on sofas taking firsthand "field notes."
Still, Mackie says, "It's a very attractive field." Unlike most academics laboring in the obscurities of neuroscience, "You can go to parties and tell people what you do, and they're interested," he says. Mackie rarely has trouble locating undergrads to help staff his lab. And he says his clinical patients are always eager to volunteer when they learn his specialty. But, he jokes, "When they find out it involves donating a slice of their brain, they become much less interested."
Nearly 40 years ago, researchers figured out that a compound called THC was the element of cannabis primarily responsible for marijuana's pharmacological effects. THC is most concentrated in the plant's female flowering heads, or buds. But how exactly does THC work? Why does it produce munchies, red-eye, and that unique stoner mind-set known to researchers as "fatuous euphoria"?
Some of these puzzles have begun to be solved. For instance, THC causes a relaxation of the smooth muscles in the arteries, leading to "vasodilatation." This effect is most readily seen in the blood vessels of the eye, which is why workday dope smokers need Visine.
On the other hand, uncontrollable laughter remains largely a mystery. "This effect of the drug is hard to explain," writes Iversen in his book The Science of Marijuana (2000, Oxford University Press), "as we know so little about the brain mechanisms involved." Ordinary laughter is, from the biochemical/neurological point of view, still poorly understood, let alone stoned laughter.
Nonetheless, says Dr. Iversen in an interview, "We know a whole lot more about THC now than we did 10 years ago." The most important discovery was of a special receptor in cells for THC, a kind of ready-made biological slot for exactly what marijuana has to deliver. This finding established that the drug was not just "dissolving in the membranes of brain cells in a nonspecific sort of way," says Iversen. "There's a very specific receptor protein."
The places in the body with THC receptors seem to correspond with the drug's effects, though not always. "One of the key areas in the [brain's] frontal cortex has a high density of [such] receptors," says Iversen, "and that may have something to do with impairment in what brain scientists call 'executive' functions -- short-term memory, learning, the ability to take in information, plan ahead, make complicated future arrangements. That ties in reasonably well with actual experience," he adds dryly.
On the other hand, there are also THC receptors in the white blood cells of our immune system, which do not seem to have anything to do with the experience of intoxication and whose function is "largely obscure," Iversen says.
There are no THC receptors in the brain stem, which controls critical functions like respiration, according to Dr. Mackie. That's partly why you never hear of someone fatally OD'ing on pot. "THC is not wired to be as harmful," Mackie says.
So why does marijuana seem to have such different effects on different users? "THC may not bind as well in some people," says Mackie, "and some people may break it down more quickly than others. That's an area that hasn't been explored much."
As a result of these discoveries, "a lot of interesting things are coming out from which new medical approaches may emerge," says Iversen. One long-standing hope is that the beneficial effects of marijuana can be isolated from the high -- a separation that has so far proved impossible. That might help assuage Republican legislators, as well as make the drug more palatable to some patients. "These are not necessarily nice experiences," notes Iversen. "Inexperienced users can be frightened and anxious."
Dr. Mackie's current research is aimed at understanding how our bodies develop tolerance. He notes that people taking the drug regularly for medicinal purposes often have to smoke increasing amounts for the same benefit, thereby becoming more subject to its intoxicating side effects. "If we understand how tolerance develops, we can develop strategies to get around that," he says.
His research protocol does not involve administering a steadily graduated number of bong hits to journalist volunteers. Instead, he delivers minute quantities of THC to incubated frogs' eggs, then measures the electrical current flowing across the membranes of the cell.
Mackie gets his THC directly from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which has a program for supplying controlled substances to researchers. The stuff is free, says Mackie, "so that helps the research budget." But it can only be used for basic science in the lab, not in humans. In this country, "all testing of medical benefits is virtually impossible," he says. "It's much easier to do human experimentation in Europe. Most of the really interesting trials are done there."
Scientists do not imagine that the body's THC receptors are simply waiting for their owner to spark up a bowl; the proteins must have some other function. It was recently discovered that the body has its own cannabislike chemicals, analogous to THC, which occur naturally and attach to these same cell receptors.
"What THC is doing is impacting on -- or hijacking, if you like -- a natural system that's there physiologically for some reason that we don't really understand," says Iversen. Opiate drugs like heroin likewise have been found to mimic naturally occurring equivalents. "It's an exactly parallel story," says Iversen. "We start by studying a psychoactive plant-derived drug and discover a whole regulatory system in the brain that we didn't know existed."
The first known of these natural cannabislike compounds is called "anandamide," from the Sanskrit word "ananda," meaning bliss. In animal studies, Iversen says, anandamide "has essentially all of the pharmacological and behavioral actions of THC."
Researchers have shown that anandamide, like THC, seems to prevent the release of certain anxiety-producing chemicals in the brain. In general, Dr. Mackie says, the body's cannabislike compounds -- or "cannabinoids" -- "seem to have a function of keeping brain activity under control when there are a lot of neurons firing." Cannabinoids inhibit the chemical signals between nerve cells, slowing or suppressing certain kinds of transmission.
Other research is looking at ways to subvert this effect. For example, recent studies indicate that blocking the cannabinoid receptors in humans can cause the anti-munchies -- curbing people's appetites and helping them lose weight (a finding that, of course, has the big drug companies salivating). Dr. Mackie says these test subjects show "decreased intake of sugary, fattening foods."
The study perhaps points toward at least one ultimate purpose for the cannabinoid system: to gear us up for pleasurable sensations. As Mackie suggests: "Maybe they serve a role in general hedonic-type responses."
In other words, forget what Momma says; your endogenous cannabinoids want to party.
Mark D. Fefer writes for the Seattle Weekly.