Long as spam = / scam, I can find a way to appreciate it

'DO YOU remember when spam was a novelty? Now, it\'s such an entrenched, multi-tentacled problem that author Cory Doctorow has a "why your spam solution won\'t work" checklist — 'http://www.craphound.com/''

spamsolutions.txt — listing technical, political and economic problems that keep spamming profitable. But until the spam nuisance abates, we can enjoy the view into our collective


Spam subject lines can be very straightforward. You want sex and money and weight loss, right? Sometimes I see "Lose four inches in one week!" right next to "Add four inches naturally!" One subject line cast a pretty wide net: "Daily Free Things."

But they branch off as the spammer tries to outmaneuver you. The Spammer, a collective entity, tries your every defense in hundreds of simultaneous games of chess. Do you think that your private parts currently satisfy everyone concerned? "She Says It's Fine But She Is Lying!" "Don't Wait Till She Leaves You!" These subject lines are non sequiturs, but since they got the "probably spam" flag in my e-mail program, they must advertise patches and pills.

One subject line in this tradition: "Your Neighbors Will Be Amazed!" I hope not!

Those that falsely call for my pity and compassion irk me. As a customer support rep, I've had to open HELP and ASSISTANCE URGENTLY NEEDED messages

even though they are all from "Miriam Abacha" and it's really somebody in Nigeria who wants to scam me. On the upside, I know far more about recent African politics than I did before I had e-mail.

I'm a victim of spam filters, too. I've had customers accidentally mark my e-mails as spam because my name "sounds like a spam name." And occasionally I'm at work and see an e-mail from (some @hotmail.com address), where a customer's cussing over his problem with his caps lock key on. I have to fish that message from the spam swamp. And honestly, some spam is more interesting than that sort of "legitimate" mail.

I've added books to my wish list based on interesting sentences that spammers stole and pasted in to fool spam filters. I've received spam that includes passages from L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, Mark Twain's essay "The Awful German Language" and a thoughtful New York Times essay on mistakes in hospitals. In January, I got about a hundred junk e-mails with two sentences each from "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." (You can always tell Rowling because of the proper nouns — Hogwarts, Quidditch, Snape.)

Some spam tries to fake you out with an innocent-seeming subject line. "You left your umbrella." "The server is down." The highminded ones tempt me: "Post-Communist Eastern Europe." "Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter.'" But the spam filter knows better than I, and into the trash they go.

How long until spam is completely indiscernible from legitimate e-mail? An artificial intelligence sends you a legitimate e-mail, responds to your response plausibly and, only after two or three cycles of replies, makes the pitch. Next step — androids who blend in among us solely to influence our purchasing habits!

And I wonder about the spam arms race. We have spammers fighting programmers, Internet service providers and the law. The excellent book "Spam Kings" by Brian McWilliams illustrates the creepy, Nazi-influenced rise of spammer Davis Wolfgang Hawke. Could there be a mastermind plotting to drive the state of e-mail somewhere it has never been? A triple agent, working only for himself?

But my spy-movie scheming goes away whenever I see a hilarious subject line. Example:

"I didnt say it would be easy. I only said ...


One title avoided mentioning Viagra (a word spam filters look for) by calling it Man-Agra. My masculinity has never felt so vulnerable. In a related misspelling, I got spam entitled "manxiety."

"Be 18th again" — yes, the spelling bee regionals still haunt me. Seriously, this only works if you know that spammers run parts of their e-mails through randomizers so that collective spam filters don't see thousands of the exact same message. Some recipients got "Be 3rd again" or "Be 276th again," I'm guessing.

"Make better burning desires" makes me wonder whether my current burning desires are inadequate.

I can't make any sense out of this one: "Where we can accurately share a shower with our avocado pit." No amount of thesaurus-riffling turns this into something desirable.

Desirable — that's the key. Spam's just a new form of creepy, inept advertising that tries to inflame desire. And I catch myself, in my writing, using the same techniques to draw readers in, to keep them interested after the headline. Hint at sex. Promise instant pleasure. Ask a question and watch them click in the hope of a novel answer.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.