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Small fortune?

Technology | Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating atoms and molecules, is coming out of the lab and into the real world

Issue: "Yasser Arafat: In memoriam," Nov. 20, 2004

Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating atoms and molecules, is coming out of the lab and into the real world, souping up everyday products from digital cameras and hard drives to sunscreens and socks.

Americans have just gotten used to thinking of microtechnology, which we usually think of as "small" but which actually means "millionth." Now we have to get our minds around nanotechnology, which shrinks things on down to nano, or "billionth." At that almost unimaginable scale, scientists are able to perform manipulations that result in materials that are stronger and lighter than anything previously possible.

The field has produced an amazing amount of speculation, as some futurists talk of tiny brain-implanted computers, medical robots that fight cancer, and cell phones embedded in clothes. Today's advances provide more modest conveniences, such as self-cleaning windshields, stain-resistant trousers, and super-strong textile fibers.

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Right now, the field is in a research boom. The Bush administration last year earmarked $3.7 billion for nanotech research over four years. Big corporations, including DuPont, General Electric, IBM, Motorola, and Sony, spend billions more to improve everything from cosmetics to computer components.

The increased R&D interest has helped spur Wall Street's interest in companies that work in nanotechnology. As with internet startups a decade ago, many have bold dreams but small revenues. Nanotech could take decades to reach its potential.

E-criminals

Jeremy Jaynes and Jessica DeGroot made high-tech history on Nov. 3 by being convicted in America's first felony prosecution of internet spammers. Prosecutors called them snake oil salesmen who e-mailed numerous sales pitches touting a "penny stock picker," "internet history erasers," and something called a "FedEx refund processor."

Virginia Assistant Attorney General Russell McGuire said that on one day in July 2003, Mr. Jaynes sent or attempted to send 7.7 million e-mail messages to America Online users, using fake names to evade spam filters.

For the "processor" alone, Mr. Jaynes received 10,000 orders for $39.95 in a single month. He was accused of reaping $24 million peddling worthless products-and a jury recommended a sentence of nine years in prison. (They suggested a $7,500 fine for Ms. DeGroot, his sister.)

Mr. Jaynes's attorney, David Oblon, called the prison sentence excessive. He wants the conviction overturned and the sentence tossed out, arguing that Virginia's anti-spam statute is unconstitutional.

Mr. Jaynes and Ms. DeGroot will be formally sentenced in February. Their case is a big test for Virginia's law, considered one of the nation's toughest anti-spam measures. It lets prosecutors seek both prison time and the assets earned from spamming.

Bits & Megabytes

• Eight eBay sellers must pay nearly $90,000 in restitution and fines after admitting they bid up their own auctions to inflate the prices. The cases included paintings, cars, and sports memorabilia-and some buyers were overcharged thousands of dollars. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said more than 120 people will receive refunds, but his office made no estimate of the extent of phony bidding.

• Microsoft settled one antitrust battle with rival Novell on Nov. 8 and quickly saw another one begin. The software giant agreed to a $536 million deal that resolved allegations over its actions toward Novell's Netware operating system. The competitor then announced plans to sue Microsoft, alleging illegal acts during the mid-1990s when Microsoft Office passed WordPerfect in popularity.

• A former University of Texas student faces charges that he broke into the school's computers last year and grabbed Social Security numbers and other personal information from more than 37,000 students and employees. Christopher Phillips claims he used no hacking tools, had no criminal intent, and never meant to harm anyone. The university spent $167,000 responding to the security breach.

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