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Issue: "Reagan: Providential president," Feb. 7, 2004

How to can spam

Bill Gates is promising a spam-free world by 2006. The Microsoft founder admitted in a talk last month to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that his prognostication ability is not perfect, but he predicted "a lot of progress this year" in fighting junk e-mail.

Engineers are considering a strategy that involves using puzzles to hinder unsolicited mail. To send a message, the marketer would have to solve a brainteaser that only humans can decipher. A mail system could also force the sender's computer to answer a complex math problem before releasing each message, thus eating up processor time and slowing down output (and making mass-mailings much more difficult).

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Another tactic would force spammers to pay for their spam. Internet users could charge money to send e-mail on a sliding scale: free to friends and family, a few cents from favorite stores, and more from unknown marketers. Bulk mailers would then fade away as their costs skyrocket.

Microsoft has yet to unveil a working model of either anti-spam system-and the proposed scheme will likely require major changes to protocols that have governed internet traffic for years. They may even require a new proprietary technology that today's e-mail user wouldn't recognize. But the changes will have to be thorough, as spammers are sure to search for ways to bypass the system.

Buyers unaware

AS ELECTRONIC GADGETS GROW MORE COMPLEX, they become more useful-but also harder to use. Designers increasingly face a daunting challenge: Create gadgets with innovative features that will still reach the sort of people who let their VCRs blink "12:00" for years.

A recent Yankee Group study points to the problem: Half of all consumers postpone purchases because they think the products would be too difficult to use. One-quarter thought they already owned a high-definition television, when only half that number owns a set with the new technology.

Yet manufacturers insist that ordinary people want more gadgetry. The Consumer Electronics Association predicted that industry revenues could grow by 4 percent this year to exceed $100 billion.

So designers are struggling to make the use of gadgetry more intuitive. They face obstacles such as product incompatibility and screen size. Cell phones, for example, get smaller as their features increase; a few tiny buttons must control hundreds of choices. Additions like games, text messaging, and custom ring tones may or may not matter to different people.

The electronics industry's desire for growth may force a change in tactics. Manufacturers spent the last decade adding features and new products, with ease of use falling behind. That will change as competition forces complex tasks to be simplified.

Bits & Megabytes

Hotels may soon make no-fee high-speed internet access as common as ice machines and wake-up calls. The Best Western chain plans to offer complimentary broadband in all 2,300 of its hotels starting Sept. 1-and Marriott plans a similar service at over 1,700 of its 2,600 locations by the end of the year.

Americans love to hate the cell phone; an MIT survey found that 30 percent of adults named it as the invention they hate most but can't live without using. The alarm clock and TV set finished closed behind-and respondents also mentioned the razor, microwave oven, computer, and answering machine as beloved annoyances.

Nintendo plans a new portable game machine that fits two screens in the palm of the user's hand. Players will be able to watch action from two different angles without disrupting play. The Japanese manufacturer plans to release the new machine, code-named Nintendo DS, as a successor to the Game Boy Advance by year's end.

Federal investigators shut down a phony FDIC website that conned visitors into revealing personal bank account information. Victims received threatening e-mails claiming that Homeland Security agents will visit them unless they click on a link. Both the FDIC and FBI are investigating the scam.

A New Jersey physician who wrote 100,000 online prescriptions agreed to cooperate with a House committee that wants to cross-examine him. Stephen Ancier claims he was a consultant for several internet pharmacies-and most of the prescriptions were for "lifestyle drugs" such as Viagra, the baldness medicine Propecia, and diet-control medications.

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