Spam Alert

Spammers in Hell

In the vast electronic ecosystem that is the Internet, there exist dusky swamps from whence spring forth a host of unwelcome pests, from the niggling to the virulent. Without question, spam is among the more vexing and persistent of these pests. One can only hope—should there truly be a heaven and a hell—that there is a particularly unpleasant spot in the Underworld reserved for the purveyors of spam. (Perhaps they might have to spend eternity in a sweltering, foul-smelling room chained to a desk atop which rests a clunky PC with a dial-up connection, forced to read—in 9-point font size—one spam e-mail after another while simultaneously being castigated by Bill O’Reilly.) In any regard, the computer security company, Sophos, recently issued an interesting report that documents which nations are currently the worst offenders when it comes to sending spam. Once again, the United States wins the gold medal…

US takes title as top spam-relaying nation in Q2

Sophos has published a report on the top twelve spam-relaying countries over the second quarter of 2006.

Experts at SophosLabs scanned all spam messages received in the company’s global network of spam traps, and have revealed that for the first time in more than two years the U.S. has failed to make inroads into its spam-relaying problem. The U.S. remains stuck at the top of the chart and is the source of 23.2 percent of the world’s spam. Its closest rivals are China and South Korea, although both of these nations have managed to reduce their statistics since Q1 2006.

The vast majority of this spam is relayed by ‘zombies,’ also known as botnet computers, hijacked by Trojan horses, worms and viruses under the control of hackers.

The top twelve spam-relaying countries from April to June 2006 were: U.S. 23.2 percent; China (& Hong Kong) 20 percent; South Korea 7.5 percent; France 5.2 percent; Spain 4.8 percent; Poland 3.6 percent; Brazil 3.1 percent; Italy 3 percent; Germany 2.5 percent; U.K. 1.8 percent; Taiwan 1.7 percent; Japan 1.6 percent; and Others 22 percent.

Sophos noted that spam is even being relayed from The Vatican and Antarctica.

Since the introduction of the CAN-SPAM legislation in 2004, there has been a regular quarter-on-quarter drop in the proportion of spam coming from the U.S. — until now. “It is difficult to criticize the U.S. for failing to take action, given the number of arrests and the huge fines for guilty spammers. The likely reality is that these statistics will not drop unless U.S. home users take action to secure their computers and put a halt to the zombie PC problem,� says Brett Myroff, CEO of master Sophos distributor, NetXactics.

Even though Russia does not feature in the dirty dozen of spam-relaying countries, Sophos has uncovered evidence that Russian spammers may be controlling vast networks of zombie PCs. Sophos recently discovered a Russian spamming price list, which showed that US$500 would purchase e-mail distribution to eleven million Russian e-mail addresses. On top of this, companies could buy distribution to one million addresses in any country they wanted for just $50.

One key development in 2006 so far has been the increase in spam containing embedded images, which has risen sharply from 18.2 percent in January to 35.9 percent in June. By using images instead of text, messages are able to avoid detection by some anti-spam filters that rely on the analysis of textual spam content.

Sophos estimates that 15 percent of all spam e-mails are now pump-and-dump scams, compared to just 0.8 percent in January 2005. These scams are e-mail campaigns designed to boost the value of a company’s stock in order for spammers to make a quick profit. Many of these spam messages contain images rather than traditional text.

“It is always a concern to see so many pump-and-dump e-mails, particularly as the people acting on these e-mails are not skilled investors. They do not realize that purchasing the shares will not reap any rewards, and benefits only the spammers, while creating a financial roller coaster for the organization in question,� says Myroff.

Sophos recommends that computer users ensure that they keep their security software up-to-date, as well as using a properly configured firewall and installing the latest operating system security patches. Businesses must also look to implement a best practice policy regarding e-mail account usage.

Researching the Increase in Psychiatric Drugging of Kids

The trend toward increased use of antipsychotic medications on children is alarming, with a reported five-fold increase between 1993 and 2002. In an effort to learn more about this issue, I have been searching the internet for other sources on this topic. One of the few mainstream media sources to cover this topic has been USA Today, where writer Marilyn Elias recently did a series of articles on the topic:

A Rush to Overprescribe?

New Antipsychotics Carry Risks for Children

For Foster Kids, Oversight of Prescriptions is Scarce

Adult Antipsychotics Can Worsen Troubles

These articles contain a sidebar that offers some non-drugging options for helping children with behavior problems.

House Votes to Restrict Internet in Libraries and Schools

This is from The Center for Democracy and Technology via Free Press:

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would force schools and libraries to block chat and social networking sites as a condition of receiving federal E-rate funding.

This bill goes far beyond the already broad mandate that requires schools and libraries to filter out obscenity and “harmful-to-minors� content and would block access to many legal and valuable web sites and Internet tools. Because chat and social networking are woven into the fabric of Internet communication, a huge range of sites may be declared off limits in libraries and schools.

The bill appoints the Federal Communications Commission as the arbiter of what can and cannot be accessed in libraries around the country, meaning that for the first time, the federal government would be getting into the business of evaluating and screening wholly lawful Internet content.

While I’m all for filters to screen out the porn and gambling and other garbage from public internet sources, it does not seem fair or in the best interest of free speech and communication to restrict libraries and schools from social networking and chat and the many, many sites which have these features. When I go to the library, I see a lot of people typing away on blogs or in other social networking sites. A lot of these people appear to be teenagers who may not have internet access at home, or simply people without the money to afford internet access. These restrictions do indeed seem overly broad.

When People Matter More Than Profit

In these woeful times, when the globe is warming and hope for humankind is cooling, it is heartening to happen upon news that illustrates a greater good being served and what can be accomplished with enough compassion, perseverance, and creativity. The following [excerpted] article is by Stephanie Strom and may be found in today’s New York Times:

A Small Charity Takes the Reins in Fighting a Neglected Disease

PATNA, India — The drug that could have cured Munia Devi through a series of cheap injections was identified decades ago but then died in the research pipeline because there was no profit in it.

So Mrs. Devi lay limp in a hospital bed here recently, her spleen and liver bulging from under her rib cage as a bilious yellow liquid dripped into her thin arm. The treatment she was receiving can be toxic, and it costs $500. But it was her best hope to cure black fever, a disease known locally as kala azar, which kills an estimated half-million people worldwide each year, almost all of them poor like Mrs. Devi.

Soon, however, all that may change. A small charity based in San Francisco has conducted the medical trials needed to prove that the drug is safe and effective. Now it is on the verge of getting final approval from the Indian government. A course of treatment with the drug is expected to cost just $10, and experts say it could virtually eliminate the disease.

If approval is granted as expected this fall, it will be the first time a charity has succeeded in ushering a drug to market.

This novel way of helping people whose needs have not been met by for-profit pharmaceutical companies is gaining traction. Several partnerships are working to develop drugs to fight neglected diseases, underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders and other groups. Another nonprofit agency, the Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation, is searching for a means to prevent tuberculosis.

For its first project, the San Francisco charity, the Institute for OneWorld Health, focused on reclaiming the all but abandoned drug, paromomycin, which research found promising in the 1960’s.

That was the easy part. Its hurdles lay elsewhere. The Internal Revenue Service at first denied the charity nonprofit status, concerned that it looked too much like a for-profit enterprise. The World Health Organization, which controlled the drug, was reluctant to hand over the data needed for further development. And OneWorld Health had to set up clinical trials matching United States and European standards in one of the poorest parts of the world.

Nor was it obvious where the money would come from. The idea of a nonprofit drug company struck many as folly when Dr. Victoria Hale, a former Genentech executive and Food and Drug Administration official, founded OneWorld Health in 2001. So Dr. Hale and her husband started the project using their own money, though they have since won support from the Gates foundation, among others.

“My colleagues and mentors in the pharmaceuticals industry told me it was a wild idea, that it would never work out, that I was jeopardizing my reputation,� Dr. Hale said. “I started this organization knowing our first project had to be a winner or we wouldn’t survive.� [full text]

End Of An Error?

Bush to play football

When I first saw the headline in today’s Washington Post, I fell off my chair (which just goes to show that, in the search for knowledge and meaning, it is dangerous to drink and derive). I was astounded. Could it be true? Had the Saints really chosen to smile down upon us in such a glorious fashion? Could our long national nightmare finally be over? Had the last chapter of Incurious George and the Reign of Error been written? Would we no longer have to fear that Bush the Bumbler would inadvertently “insticate� a “nucular� war? Could we be so fortunate? But there was the headline, in black and white: “Bush Agrees to Six-Year Deal With the Saints, Will Report Today.� Who’d’ve thunk it?

The Iraq War: By The Numbers And On The Ground

Fantasies of war

According to the National Priorities Project, the cost to U.S. taxpayers for the war in Iraq is about to surpass $300 billion. The cost in American lives currently stands at 2574. Given the unrelenting violence, the Pentagon reportedly plans to increase the number of troops in Iraq to roughly 135,000. There is simply no end in sight. As to what it is like for the young men and women serving in this hostile foreign land, Joshua Partlow of the Washington Post offers a glimpse into their lives and experiences:

‘Waiting to Get Blown Up’

Army Staff Sgt. Jose Sixtos considered the simple question about morale for more than an hour. But not until his convoy of armored Humvees had finally rumbled back into the Baghdad military base, and the soldiers emptied the ammunition from their machine guns, and passed off the bomb-detecting robot to another patrol, did he turn around in his seat and give his answer.

“Think of what you hate most about your job. Then think of doing what you hate most for five straight hours, every single day, sometimes twice a day, in 120-degree heat,” he said. “Then ask how morale is.”

Frustrated? “You have no idea,” he said.

As President Bush plans to deploy more troops in Baghdad, U.S. soldiers who have been patrolling the capital for months describe a deadly and infuriating mission in which the enemy is elusive and success hard to find. Each day, convoys of Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles leave Forward Operating Base Falcon in southern Baghdad with the goal of stopping violence between warring Iraqi religious sects, training the Iraqi army and police to take over the duty, and reporting back on the availability of basic services for Iraqi civilians.

But some soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division — interviewed over four days on base and on patrols — say they have grown increasingly disillusioned about their ability to quell the violence and their reason for fighting. The battalion of more than 750 people arrived in Baghdad from Kuwait in March, and since then, six soldiers have been killed and 21 wounded.

“It sucks. Honestly, it just feels like we’re driving around waiting to get blown up. That’s the most honest answer I could give you,” said Spec. Tim Ivey, 28, of San Antonio, a muscular former backup fullback for Baylor University. “You lose a couple friends and it gets hard.”

“No one wants to be here, you know, no one is truly enthused about what we do,” said Sgt. Christopher Dugger, the squad leader. “We were excited, but then it just wears on you — there’s only so much you can take. Like me, personally, I want to fight in a war like World War II. I want to fight an enemy. And this, out here,” he said, motioning around the scorched sand-and-gravel base, the rows of Humvees and barracks, toward the trash-strewn streets of Baghdad outside, “there is no enemy, it’s a faceless enemy. He’s out there, but he’s hiding.”

“We’re trained as an Army to fight and destroy the enemy and then take over,” added Dugger, 26, of Reno, Nev. “But I don’t think we’re trained enough to push along a country, and that’s what we’re actually doing out here.” [full text]

Confessions of a Drug Lunch Slut

This is by Ninjanurse, aka Nancy Green, RN.

From The New York Times, Drug Makers Pay for Lunch As They Pitch. Well, stop the presses! This has been going on for years.

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I often pondered that as I dug into the Pad Thai and the cute little roll-up sandwiches that the pharmaceutical reps brought to various of my workplaces. Most health care workers spend their lunch breaks, (assuming they get one at all) eating the sad peanut butter sandwiches they brought from home, or the weird offerings from the vending machine company.

But if you have the right kind of job, you might get invited to the drug lunch.

The drug lunch is cool. A sales representative from a pharmaceutical company brings in some really good food from a local restaurant, and invites all the staff to partake. All you have to do is behave decently. In that, it rather resembles a gallery opening, where you can inhale a large quantity of wine and cheese as long as you pose as an art lover.

But there are other attractions for the health care professional. The drug reps are nice looking people with excellent social skills who really seem to believe in their product. They are pharmacists, or have some other science degree and give interesting power point presentations, while handing out nifty office supplies like sticky pads and pens. (Pens evaporate in the health care setting and must constantly be replaced.) These useful work tools keep the manufacturer’s name always close to your heart. Myself, I once coveted a coffee mug with the logo for ‘Haldol’. I didn’t steal it. Anyone know where I can get one?

Anyway, the presentations were a perk in themselves. Keeping in mind that this was the manufacturer putting their best foot forward with their latest drug, it was good to have an inservice on the lunch break. All health care professionals have to stay current with a torrent of new drugs hitting the market.

The problem is that the inservice is also a sales pitch. It’s not a neutral party offering unbiased continuing medical education to professionals. Unless your employer is a good one, you have to find that on your own. It doesn’t come to your workplace with a nice plateful of samosas and pasta salad, with those really good chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

Ah, the memories… anyway, I have to admit that there are several drugs I know better through drug lunches, tough luck to all the ones who never bought me a sandwich. But there is a bigger lure that the drug companies use.

You see them hanging out on the corner, with their baseball caps turned backwards and their baggy jeans, or driving around in Hummers with tinted windows so you can’t see their face, passing packages in dark alleys- they give you a taste, and you’re hooked. They…

Wait a minute, I need to get a grip. I just mean to say that with the high price of prescription drugs, the drug samples that the pharmaceutical reps supply are going to a lot of patients who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Most doctors set aside a good hunk of their closet space in their office to drug samples. Supposedly these samples let the patient try the medication for a few weeks or a month to see if it’s effective. Then they get it by prescription. In a less chaotic, a less F.U.B.A.R. healthcare system it would probably work that way.

As things stand, there are plenty of medications that are long since gone to generic that are still unaffordable to a good number of people. Thank the gods for the sample cabinet. If your patient has a bad infection that needs the latest antibiotic and they can barely manage the rent you may be able to provide a full course of therapy from the samples. But if your patient has a chronic disease, like hypertension, or depression, it gets complicated. The newest drug on the market might work great for them, but when the samples run out, then what? The doctor has to search and the patient has to adjust, to a substitute. It’s a hidden cost, the extra visits, the stress.

These costs fall on the patient, and the taxpayer, through Medicaid, Medicare, state programs like RIPAE, the large local hospitals. While a doctor can easily get samples of the newest drugs, it’s often impossible to get a break on an old reliable drug that has gone to generic. For someone on a very low income even the generics might be out of reach. Amazingly, being sick and having a low income often go together.

The world of free lunch, free samples, medical educational lectures that take place in fancy restaurants is the world of marketing. Marketing costs are added on to the price of the drug, of course, so I guess that sick people and taxpayers bought my lunch. Thanks.

I’m not anti-pharmacy. I’ve spent a lot of time persuading people to take their meds because there are real diseases that kill people when they are not treated. Every time I see someone struggling to walk after a stroke, or blind from diabetes, I wonder if that suffering could have been prevented. Often, with the right treatment it could, and that includes taking medication.

Health care isn’t cheap, it takes a large share of the gross national product of every developed nation. Americans spend a lot, but we get less for our money than other countries because we do it backwards. We don’t invest in preventing disease and promoting health. We let the pharmaceutical industry tailor the medicare drug benefit to their needs and wants, and end up with a patchwork system so confusing that even retired rocket scientists can’t figure it out.

We really need to provide health care to everyone. It won’t be cheap, but the state of Rhode Island already has a high rate of insured people, and good programs like RIte Care. We can be a national model. We can stop pretending there’s a free lunch and count up the real costs. The payoff will be a better future for all Rhode Islanders, especially the children, and we won’t have all that guilt giving us indigestion.