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Last Updated: Monday, 1 December 2003, 10:57 GMT
Spammers turn to classic prose
Dot.life - Where tech meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Still from The Wizard of Oz, AP
Spammers are using the words of Oz author L Frank Baum
Poetry is probably not top of the list of things you expect to see in the spam and junk mail messages landing in your inbox everyday.

But lots of people are starting to find literary value hidden among the porn, penis patches, generic Viagra deals and mortgage offers.

Some have composed poems using the subject lines of the spam they receive; others are creating verse using the strings of strange words that are often found inside spam messages.

A lucky few have even found excerpts of novels buried in spam.

Text message

Blogger and journalist Clive Thompson found an excerpt from Chapter 20 of The Master Key by Wizard of Oz author L Frank Baum in a message that had as its subject line "the big unit" (no prizes for guessing what the rest of it was hawking).

This is happening because of the success of spam filters, the best of which can catch 99% of junk mail.


Quality ink up to 80% off.
Answers Now on the Distortion of Evidence;
Clean your colon.
Improve sense of well being.

Uncover what other's don't want you to know -
Check it out, man -
Success, guaranteed!

What is an MBA really worth?
Ask yourself - could your penis be bigger?
For Target guests,
Its safe, now.

These filters work by scanning the words in e-mail messages to identify which ones spammers prefer and which ones are favoured by your friends and colleagues.

For a while now spammers have tried to defeat these filters by breaking up offending words with full stops to produce subject lines like e.hance your attra.ctiveness.

Unfortunately for the spammer, this just makes spam even easier to spot.

Some spammers have taken to inserting decidedly non-spammy words in e-mail to try to convince the filters they are not junk mail.

As a result spam is starting to appear with phrases such as "bernadine rustle lappet" and "arboretum severe acerbity henri" inside them.

A few words are unlikely to make a lot of difference to the filters so some spammers load their junk mail with huge amounts of random words. One recent message had 780 words of nonsense in it.

By including random text the spammers hope to fool the filters into thinking that a human, not a spammer, wrote the message.

Cut-up class

But as Clive Thompson points out, automatically generating text that reads like it was written by a human hand is difficult. This is perhaps why some spammers are turning to out-of-copyright novels for their text. It is an ideal source of real writing.

It remains to be seen whether the filters are fooled by classic literature.

The inclusion of rare words and literary works has spurred some people to create poetry from the spam that lands in their inbox.

Blogger Kristin Thomas has composed a series of poems using only subject lines from spam.

Rock god David Bowie, AP
Bowie used random compositions to write songs
Grant Hutchinson specialises in three-line subject line spam poems but others, such as Paulette Adell who contributes to the Nonfamous blog, are happy to use words from inside the message too.

Of course finding art in random collisions of words is a craft with a long history.

Beat poets such as Bryon Gysin and William Burroughs were pioneers of the cut-up method in which they chopped up other texts and then arranged the words randomly to try and unleash its hidden creativity, says a spokesman for the Poetry Society.

Gysin used the cut-up method on Rimbaud's poems to create new works in his own words and many parts of Burroughs' novels were created using the cut-up method.

The method has reportedly also served pop maestro David Bowie well - the song Moonage Daydream was apparently created using this cut-up method.

"There is a certain amount of composition that goes into this method," said the spokesman, "it is not completely random."

Perhaps this will be one of the redeeming virtues of spam, that buried in the filth and lucre are some gems of ingenuity and creativity. But don't count on it.

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