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Spam holiday

Technology | A sudden drop in spam has internet security experts puzzled

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

Merry Christmas to your email inbox: On Christmas Eve, the world's largest spamming operation-believed to be operated by Russians and dubbed the "Rustock botnet"-suddenly stopped sending spam, and two other botnets went quiet thereafter: "Lethic" on Dec. 28 and "Xarvester" on Dec. 31. Rustock alone had sent nearly half the world's spam, so the dip was remarkable: from 70 billion messages per day before Christmas to 30 billion. (Global spam traffic peaked in August at 200 billion messages per day-92.2 percent of all email.)

The reason for the botnets' sudden disappearance is a mystery. A spam ring called SpamIt, which paid spammers to promote things like online pharmacies, shut down in late September after an investigation by Russian authorities, so perhaps the botnets ran out of business. Russian officials also recently arrested two spammers, so perhaps other spammers are scared. But don't celebrate your inbox's liberation quite yet: Some speculate that the lull is simply the calm before the storm-the botnet operators might just be taking a vacation-and many internet security experts think the spammers will be back.

Creative discipline

Nobody becomes a writer by reading stacks of books on how to write, buying the coolest pens and notebooks, or talking about writing. There's only one way to become a writer: Start writing. And technology can help. On 750words.com, users are encouraged to write 750 words each day-roughly three pages. As the user types, the site tracks the word count, and when the writer reaches 750 words, a check mark appears on his "scorecard." Users can track records over the course of a month or "eternity," see how their statistics compare against others, or join a daily writing challenge. In contrast to a blog, all writings are private.

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For chronic procrastinators distracted by the internet, Freedom (available for PC and Mac at macfreedom.com) can help. Users input the number of interruption-free minutes desired-between 15 minutes and eight hours. The program will shut down the computer's internet connection until time is up, making it impossible to access email, Facebook, and everything else on the web. The only way to regain access is to reboot the computer, but Freedom's developers won't go that far. Freedom is free to try five times, then $10 to register.

Mobile forecasts

It's no fun to get caught without an umbrella in a downpour or snow boots in a blizzard. If you routinely forget to check the forecast, try signing up to have Weather.com automatically send daily weather forecasts to your phone via text message (see weather.com/mobile). Each day's alert contains the 36-hour forecast. The site can also send a forecast to your phone when you text your zip code or city and two-letter state abbreviation, and depending on your phone, you may be able to access severe weather warnings, traffic alerts, and more via mobile internet.

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