Friday, October 30, 2009

The Joy of Spam

People complain about spam. There seems to be certain prevalent strains: Viagra-type drug ads, instant college degrees, penis enlargement. These make sense to me: wide cast fishing nets, hoping for someone who is anxious and stupid and perhaps is a college drop-out with a small floppy penis.

But spam filters keep evolving, and the spam evolves alongside. My spam box, these days, usually has broken English attempts to emulate personal messages. I almost wish I wasn’t indoctrinated against opening spam. I used to sometimes, when the subject line was bizarre enough.

For a while, I guess to avoid patterns that filters detect, spammers seemed to send emails with very random and nonsensical text. I loved them. They were so easily formatted into surreal poetry that jogged your head out of it’s linear thought patterns. I don’t know the purpose of these spams, maybe they had viruses, maybe my computer got the viruses, maybe it defeated them—I don’t really understand most of what my computer does autonomously.

Whatever they were, I don’t open any spam anymore. I’ve just gotten warier as I age. Luckily, I still get to enjoy subject lines. Today, this was a subject line in a spam: “there was a voice which sang about thy spring”. Now is that lovely or what? So much nicer to wake up to then the headlines. I searched it and it turns out to be from a 19th century poet, Wilfred Scawen Blunt. The poem was part of a mournful book called “The Love Sonnets of Proteus”, from 1880. I actually found the text of the entire book at Go figure.

I have no idea why spammers would strategise the use of really obscure poetry, or how they come across it. maybe there are bot programs programmed with the spirit of William Burroughs, scouring the internet for cut-ups. Who knows? It is a beautifully absurd mystery of the internet. It symbolizes an intellectual anarchy that tickles me, a disordering of the senses, as Rimbaud might have put it. Is anyone using his words to subversively market cock pumps? If so, wouldn’t he be tickled? I'll never know why some stranger quoted Wilfred Blunt to me, and that’s what makes it marvelous.

Here is the poem the line was poached from:

O WORLD, in very truth thou art too young;
When wilt thou learn to wear the garb of age?
World, with thy covering of yellow flowers,
Hast thou forgot what generations sprung
Out of thy loins and loved thee and are gone?
Hast thou no place in all their heritage
Where thou dost only weep, that I may come
Nor fear the mockery of thy yellow flowers?
O world, in very truth thou art too young.
The heroic wealth of passionate empires
Built thee fair cities for thy naked plains:
How hast thou set thy summer growth among
The broken stones which were their palaces!
Hast thou forgot the darkness where he lies
Who made thee beautiful, or have thy bees
Found out his grave to build their honeycombs?

O world, in very truth thou art too young:
They gave thee love who measured out thy skies,
And, when they found for thee another star,
Who made a festival and straightway hung
The jewel on thy neck. O merry world,
Hast thou forgot the glory of those eyes
Which first look'd love in thine? Thou hast not furl'd
One banner of thy bridal car for them.
O world, in very truth thou art too young.
There was a voice which sang about thy spring,
Till winter froze the sweetness of his lips,
And lo, the worms had hardly left his tongue
Before thy nightingales were come again.
O world, what courage hast thou thus to sing?
Say, has thy merriment no secret pain,
No sudden weariness that thou art young?


  1. It makes me imagine that there's some techie campus out there where the spam industry is refining itself, sort of a Bletchley Park or Manhattan Project or maybe a cold-war arms race analogy is better... armies of code writers and cognitive scientists working day and night to develop algorithms to circumvent spam filters. Well-thumbed copies of articles on Turing machines, how to write a program that will fool someone into thinking they are dealing with an actual human being through the interface... linguistic textbooks by Chomsky, learning the structures of language that allow you to program a random generator to produce complex compound sentences that make grammatical sense.

    I don't know how I feel about the idea that there are cognitive science geniuses with 180 IQ's devising ways to market Viagra knockoffs.

    Oh, wait, I do--it actually sums up the spirit of our time completely. I don't know if there's a word for that feeling--something so absurdly bad, and yet absolutely consistent with the logic of the global game currently being played, so you feel that you've seen the essence of your time summed up in one line that you thought was a joke...

  2. 2 points on "cognitive science geniuses with 180 IQ's devising ways to market Viagra knockoffs":

    1. In the same way that sunset sometimes looks beautiful through air pollution, having the smartest people do the most useless things is just one of the sublime tones in the apocalyptic orchestra.

    2. this image was actually cited as one of the factors leading to a nightmare future in the passably watchable film, "Idiocracy". I could write an entire column on how that movie struck me as more of a horror film than comedy. I won't though, because I find it kind of traumatic.