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Spam Glorious Spam!


Spam, Glorious Spam!

by Kenneth Lyen

I hate spam. At boarding school it was served at nearly every other evening meal, such that it became irritatingly familiar. And as you all know, familiarity breeds contempt. Why do I hate spam? Maybe it’s the taste which is bland, or perhaps it’s the texture which is featureless. I used to spice it up by blanketing it with ketchup, HP, Worcester, or chilli sauce. It was no use. I hate it but I ate it (apologies to Victor Borge)!

Nowadays spam refers less to SPiced hAM, and more to junk e-mail ... and I still hate spam. It mocks, it insults. No, I do not have a problem with the sturdiness of my thing, no I'm not so hard up that I need a blind date, no I am not balding, no I do not wish to enter your lucrative business venture in Nigeria, and yes I have legitimately acquired university degrees thank you very much.

Spammers are devilishly clever, if not downright wicked. Somehow they guess that my name is part of my e-mail address, so they paste that address onto their mail making it seem personal. They pretend that they are answering a query of mine, which of course I never sent. They masquerade as my banker, suggesting that there is a problem with my account. They pose as confirmation of an order which I never made on the internet. And worst of all, they simulate as returned e-mail that I never sent.

The nasty thing about spam is that they might harbor a virus or worm. I got caught once. It was absolutely stupid of me. I opened one of those .pif files, and let in a worm. That really piffed me off! It happened in the old days when I did not update my virus definitions regularly. It caused havoc with my computer and I lost some data. But it taught me a lesson, and nowadays I update my virus definitions obsessionally.

"How do I stop spam?" I asked my IT savvy colleague. "Should I write to them, asking to be removed from their mailing list? "No," he said vehemently, "Don't do that because you only serve to confirm that your e-mail address is active, and they can sell your address to others." The only way to stop spam is to change your e-mail address.

So how did it all begin? According to Brad Templeton, who has researched extensively on the history of spam, the first example occurred in 1978 when the computer company DEC sent out an advertisement on Arpanet, the early name given to the internet.

The next significant development occured in 1993 when Richard Depew created a programme for moderating a newsgroup that unfortunately had a bug in it. This was a USENET posting robot meant to control posts through anon servers.

Joel Furr continues the story in his posting to a newsgroup: "Transformed by programming ineptitude into a monster of Frankenstein proportions, it broke loose on the night of March 31, 1993 and proceeded to spam news.admin.policy with something on the order of 200 messages in which it attempted, and failed, to cancel its own messages. This produced a recursive chain of messages."

Note that this is probably the first instance of the use of the word "spam" referring to unsolicited messages. Some might argue that Richard Depew’s flood of messages is not a true spam, as it was accidental. Be that as it may, it nevertheless gave birth to the new meaning.

Thus the honor of coining the term "spam", referring to unsolicited e-mail, should go to Joel Furr. Drum roll!!!

Are there any redeeming features to spam? I am not defending spam. But I did find one use for it. I received an e-mail invitation to a concert that I did not want to attend. Not wishing to offend my friend by an outright refusal, I just ignored his mail. But my friend was persistent, and he telephoned me asking if I received his e-mail. I lied: "Sorry, I must have overlooked it ... maybe it was buried in a mountain of junk e-mail."

At the time this excuse seemed quite credible. Unfortunately it didn't work, because my friend then invited me directly on the phone. Drats! 

My mailbox is not filtered, and the ratio of junk to legitimate e-mail is around 20 to1. This means that I have to sift through 20 unsolicited mail just to find one genuine letter. I receive about 40 spam mail per day.

In the old days I would mark the spam and delete them individually. Nowadays, I find it much faster to do the opposite, and press the "select all" button, and uncheck the legitimate mail one by one so that they will not be deleted.

Spam is one of life’s irritations. You learn to live with it. On the positive side, it has, I think, reduced the amount of junk snail mail and junk fax that I receive.

Finally, yes, there are a few perverse reasons why I don’t entirely hate it. It tells me that my computer and my e-mail are working. "I'm spammed, therefore I am (Me spamme ergo sum)." 

And spam seems to say something on those days I feel unloved when nobody’s written to me, best expressed by Telly Savalas: "Somebody loves you, baby!"

Post script: After leaving school, I scrupulously avoided spam (and steak and kidney pie, rhubarb crumble, and toad in the hole). But recently I was at a Singapore hawker center that served spam. Not having eaten it for a very long while, I decided to give it a second chance. And hey, it wasn't half bad. It brought back fond memories of my schooldays!