Archive for December 8th, 2008

The Search Engine Will See You Now

December 8th, 2008 | 1 Comment | Source: BBC, NY Times

The health-related Web search is so much a part of modern life, it’s become possible to identify flu outbreaks by observing zip-code specific search behavior on terms like muscle aches, fever and sore throat.

It’s all good so long as searchers know that the rank order of their results has no clinical meaning.

Which means it’s not all good because lots of folks believe the rank order reflects something about disease likelihood and incidence… as if the search engine were creating a differential diagnosis like Marcus Welby or something.

For example, a search on ‘causes of headache’ might generate a list topped by ‘brain tumor,’ but brain tumors are not a common cause of headache.

Caffeine withdrawal, too much alcohol, sinus conditions and the need for a good eye exam are way more common and less deadly, but for reasons from the commercial to the algorithmic, they don’t appear first.

Nevertheless, lots of people begin secondary searches on brain tumors which begets hours of tense preoccupation with scary irrelevancies and pretty soon they’re searching ways to get their affairs in order.

The word describing this phenomenon is ‘Cyberchondria,’ and Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz and Ryen White just released a study of the matter.

More than half the participants in their study said that search queries related to serious illnesses had interfered with their routine daily activities at least one time during the study, and search escalations regarding dire diagnoses sometimes continued for days, weeks or even months after the initial search.

You have been warned.



Spam, Spam, Spam, Email and Spam

December 8th, 2008 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

When they turned off the lights off at McColo a few weeks back, the worldwide volume of spam dropped 65% in an instant.

And that’s not all according to the Washington Post, because McColo was also home to one of the most successful email harvesting operations in the world.

Illegal spamming operations are as dependent on an ever-expanding list of email addresses as they are on botnets, the fleet of compromised personal computers that spew out the spam in the first place.

Spam distribution lists are assembled by special computer programs that scour web sites for email addresses. Criminals in charge of the programs sell the addresses to spammers who use them both as destinations for their offers and as a sham source for them.

That makes the spam appear like it comes from actual people.

Security experts estimate that every email address captured by a special program like the ones hosted on McColo servers will likely receive 2,000 junk emails per year.

“Consider what this means for a single law firm that publishes the email addresses for its 50 attorneys,” Security guru Matthew Prince told the Post. “After the firm’s site gets crawled by the bots at McColo, that means the firm can expect to receive at least 100,000 more pieces of spam than it would have otherwise.”

Even though spammers have hundreds of millions of email addresses on hand, new email addresses are the lifeblood of their business. That’s because the percentage of people who actually buy anything from a particular spam solicitation is vanishingly small.

For example, University of California scientists who studied a particularly large pharmaceutical spam operation estimated that only 1 out of 12 million spam emails led to a money transaction.

That was enough to support revenues in excess of $7,000 per day.



A Possible Cause of Aging

December 8th, 2008 | 1 Comment | Source: Cell, NY Times

Scientists know that resveratrol, a compound found in red wine improves health and longevity in laboratory mice. Now they’re beginning to figure out how.

David Sinclair and colleagues at Harvard have concluded that resveratrol activates sirtuin, a protein normally involved in gene expression and chromosomal repair.

Sinclair’s group had previously developed compounds that mimic the effects of resveratrol. One such compound was recently found to help mice stay thin despite consuming a high calorie, high fat diet, presumably by regulating gene expression.

Using these same compounds, Sinclair’s group has now demonstrated that sirtuin improves longevity in certain mouse cell cultures by suppressing transcription of proteins associated with aging. The group speculated in Cell last week that sirtuin may govern similar processes in intact mice (not just their cell cultures) and perhaps humans.

This research helps flesh out an exciting story about sirtuin. It looks like the protein performs 2 major functions. First, it assures that cells can access only the few genes they actually need to carry out their duties. This involves preventing access to 20,000 other genes that are in the DNA of every cell.

Sirtuin governs access to genes by wrapping around non-essential DNA, creating a protective shield.

Second, sirtuin repairs DNA when it breaks or gets damaged, as happens during normal aging or following radiation exposure, say from sunlight.

The problem is that when sirtuin gets involved in DNA repair, it loses effectiveness as a gene access manager. This leads to abnormal gene expression which somehow contributes to cell aging and cell death.

In a nutshell, we know that cell differentiation, aging and death are mediated by a common biochemical pathway in which sirtuin is a player, and we have compounds that activate sirtuin. This could get interesting.



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