How Many Ways Can You Spell V1@gra?

Posted on June 27, 2007 

How Many Ways Can You Spell V1@gra?

The spam we see today is shaped in many ways by our own efforts to combat it. The process is often likened to an arms race, with threats met by countermeasures, which then bring countercountermeasures, and so on. I prefer an immunological metaphor, where the contest is between a host organism and pathogens or parasites, and where both sides have to adapt and evolve in order to survive. In the case of bacteria and viruses, the vast majority never make it, but nature is profligate and can afford such high attrition; likewise spammers find it worth their while to send a million e-mails for a handful of responses.

Some organisms have “hard-wired” resistance to infection; they produce molecules—natural antibiotics—that inhibit the growth of certain bacteria. The mammalian immune system works differently; we are not born with specific defenses against Salmonella or measles. Instead, a random shuffling mechanism generates a vast array of defensive molecules, which have the potential to attack virtually anything they might encounter in the environment. Before going into action, however, the system must learn to distinguish friend from foe. This strategy has a cost: Because learning is a slow process, you may well get sick the first time you are exposed to an infectious agent. But the alternative of relying on a predetermined list of potential threats would be even more perilous, since any novel pathogen would meet no resistance at all.

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