The Literature of Spam

The more I consider the huge volumes of spam that saturate the intertubes every day, and the ongoing battle between spammers and spam-fighters which drives the former to produce better algorithms for writing “realistic” human prose and the latter to produce better algorithms for identifying it, the more I believe we are approaching a literal manifestation of the old thousand-monkeys-at-a-thousand-typewriters concept. The difference is that spam-monkeys aren’t just punching random keys–they’re using sophisticated heuristics to write properly-constructed sentences and paragraphs that are at least grammatically meaningful. One of these days, simply by the law of probability, one of them really is going to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare, or something equally profound. The irony is that no one may ever read it because some super-advanced spam-filter somewhere will recognize it as spam an delete it. Hell, it may already have happened.

Can it be very long before we start receiving meaningful e-mails right out of the ether? Could spam be the basis of a whole new species of poetry or literature? A kind of oracle? The voice of the global brain? Are the snippets of prose and poems tacked onto the ends of those penny-stock scams and viagra ads the infantile babbling of a developing consciousness? It would be an irony worthy of Phillip Dick if it turned out to be advertising that ultimately drove our machines to learn to think and speak for themselves

My Starrior

I was digging through my toy chest the other day, looking for a spare TV remote, and I chanced upon a number of toys preserved from my childhood and, until that moment, forgotten. It was quite the trip down memory lane.

When I was around ten I loved Starriors, which were a line of plastic robot toys produced by Tomy, which, in retrospect, were remarkably prescient of Lego’s Bionicle. The franchise featured a somewhat-before-its-time storyline about a post-apocalyptic Earth in which two “races” of machines–“Destructors” and “Protectors”–vie for control of the planet. According to legend, both races were created by Man and left behind when he forsook the Earth’s surface, the Protectors to salvage, reconstruct, and protect the natural environment, and the Destructors to eliminate nasty mutants and aliens and other out-of-control beasties. In Man’s absence, the Destructors have taken over, enslaving the protectors and trying to blot out the memory of Man so they can rule without obligations. The Protectors keep the faith and do what they can to bring about the rebirth of Man, who is said to be concealed in hibernation in an ancient battle station. Most of the Starrior toys featured a tiny silver humanoid “pilot” figure apparently “riding” in the head which, in the story, was known as a “control chip.” These contained the essence of each Starrior–his or her robosoul, if you will. Supposedly the chips were shaped by Man in his image so that the Starriors would never forget their obligations to their Creator. Although the mini-comics that came with the toys were somewhat ambivalent on this point, if the control chips were scale replicas of human beings then the Starriors themselves were giant mecha by our standards.

In proper collect-them-all spirit, the packaging inserts listed all the available toys in the franchise, and I owned every one that was sold in the US, including the super-cool Armored Battle Station playset, for which I worked odd jobs to earn the necessary $20. The toys were not all released at once, with at least two “generations” appearing months apart and two particular toys, I recall vividly, never coming to market at all. These two were humanoid-type Starriors (known as “Wastors”) whose names were Flashfist and Bolar. Flashfist was a Protector and Bolar was a Destructor. They were listed and pictured in the packaging materials but never sold, a fact which frustrated me to no end. I even wrote a letter to Tomy asking when they would be released. I got some sort of canned response, as I recall.

One of the many cool things about the toys, in my opinion, was that the bits were interchangable. One could swap heads and arms and torsos and legs back and forth among the Wastors, and some of the other parts from the non-humanoid varieties. In truth there were few aesthetically satisfying combinations, however, as the colors from different toys tended to clash garishly and thus cause the hybrids to look exactly like what they were–bits and pieces of other toys stuck together. I experimented with lots of permutations before I discovered the red-and-black guy pictured below. I know I gave him a name, but I can’t now remember what it was. I do remember that I loved him intensely, and that I obsessed over him in a way that probably wasn’t healthy. I carried him around with me everywhere and would lose track of time staring at him from every angle, admiring the way all the bits fit together and complimented each other and considering myself pretty clever for having dreamed him up. He has the legs of Slaughter Steelgrave (the Destructor leader), the torso of Slice (a 2nd-gen Wastor with wind-up arm-weapon), and the arms and head of Saw-tooth (a 1st-gen Wastor with wind-up chest-weapon).

I remember quite clearly, when I was 11 or 12 years old, swearing to myself that when I grew old I would not put aside my toys and would continue to play with Starriors. They brought me so much happiness that I could not then bear the thought that I might ever part with them. In the end, of course, I did put them aside. They were dumped into a plastic barrel that lived in the attic of my parents’ house until I went off to college, and subsequently donated to charity when they moved out of that house. Only my little custom guy survived, and as an adult that seems right to me. Now, as a grown-up, I understand that the magic I experienced with these toys was not in the toys at all–it was in my head. And that’s why it’s right that the only one still with me is the one I made.

I Have Very Bad Posture

I realized while meditating this evening that I tend to hold my shoulders up and forward. The guided progressive relaxation I use includes the instructions that the hands should lay “alongside the body, with the palms open toward the ceiling.” This position has always felt uncomfortable to me; my natural inclination has been to lie with my palms down against the bed. This is the position that feels most “relaxed” for me. When I tried to do it as instructed, I felt my arms uncomfortably twisted in a way that became downright infuriating after 45 minutes of motionless contemplation.

Tonight, in something of a breakthrough, I realized why. Rolling my shoulders in tends to bias my arms toward the palms-down position. If I really relax and stretch the muscles in my chest and put my scapulae flat against the bed, it becomes quite natural and comfortable to lie with my palms open to the ceiling, to say nothing of how it improves my experience of my chest and upper back. I have a barrel chest which, at least as an adolescent, looked pretty strange with my spindly limbs and neck, and I imagine the habit of pulling my shoulders forward was an unconscious effort to minimize this. It’s a habit that might also date to my bodybuilding days, as pulling the shoulders back tends to flatten and minimize the pecs whereas pulling them forward tends to bulge and emphasize the pecs, which, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, is something I once wanted to do.

I should think about ways to correct my habit, which I believe is both a lifting and a rounding of my shoulders. My father once told me (and now I wonder if he had an ulterior motive at the time) that he had corrected his own shoulder-rounding problem by having someone affix a piece of surgical tape across his upper back between his shoulder blades when they were in the proper position. Then if he started to pull them forward he would feel resistance and tightening in the tape and would be reminded to leave them back.

If I had somebody around here to apply the tape, I might just try that.

God Bless Bob Solomon and His Memory

He was the greatest professor I have ever known, and I’ve known a lot of them. I’ve just now heard of his passing this January.

I remember a physics class once, and the Russian professor was describing his reaction to textbook merchants touting the features of their latest, umpteenth, feature-packed editions.

“If you really want to make it great,” he would say to them, “Make it cost five dollars.”

Well, Bob Solomon did just that. I don’t know how long he taught his existentialism class, but he compiled the little eponymous blue textbook for it, and it did cost $5, and it’s one of the best damn books I’ve ever owned. Those lectures have been immortalized by The Teaching Company, and are available for sale as CDs or tapes. I can’t recommend them enough.

I remember in a lecture about Kierkegaard, Dr. Solomon drew a tiny stick figure at the bottom of the board, and next to it, towering over it, an enormous circle that one first assumes is going to be a planet. Then he draws a pupil and an iris and the circle becomes a cyclopean eye, staring down at the little man like a bug beneath a microscope.

“This,” he said, “is how Kierkegaard saw his relationship with God.”

It still makes me laugh.

When we read Camus, he talked about the sense of hopelessness as a doctor might describe an interesting pathology. “Everything you do,” he said, “becomes pointless if you think about it long enough. Even teaching. Every teacher has had the experience of a pupil who returns years later brimming with gratitude, and after talking to them for awhile, of realizing that they have completely and utterly missed the point.”

I never got to know Bob as well as I should have. I had the best grade in a class of 60 when I took his course, and the way was open for me. But I was too intimidated and I failed to establish a relationship with him. I asked for a meeting with him to write me a letter of recommendation for law school. He agreed, and then stood me up. He must’ve thought I’d missed the point, too. And at that time maybe I had.

But I quit law school. I never should have gone in the first place. I like to think that if I’d gone back and talked to Dr. Solomon, before he died, he would have been proud of me for realizing on my own that the world has too many damn lawyers in it, already. I like to think that, in the end, I didn’t miss the point at all.

Goodbye, Bob.

The Lemon Mushroom

Several years ago my mother bought a potted lemon tree and kept it out on the back porch. One day, she was surprised to notice a ripe, yellow, new-fallen lemon lying in the dirt in the pot. There were some small lemons growing on the tree, but they were green and much smaller than the one that had fallen, and that night when I was over for dinner she mentioned it to me.

Curious, I went outside to investigate the prodigious lemon. I squatted down to examine it, then poked a finger at it, and only then did I realize that I was looking at the cap of a mushroom and not a real lemon. Regrettably, I did not have the presence of mind to take a picture. The resemblence was truly uncanny. The photo I’ve included here gives an idea, perhaps, of how this mushroom, which is lepiota lutea, could be mistaken for a lemon in terms of color and general shape, but the one I saw in the flowerpot that morning was much more convincing.

At the time, I was astounded, convinced this was a deliberate evolutionary strategy by the mushroom–growing at the bases of trees and mimicking fallen fruit in order to trick herbivores into eating them and thus spreading the spores in their stool. As it turns out, lepiota lutea is commonly known as the “yellow houseplant mushroom” because it commonly turns up in all kinds of potted plants, for some reason. So expert opinion is against my hypothesis which, as the old Time-Life Books commercial used to say, is “dismissed as coincidence.” But part of me still wants to believe.

The Counterjihad

Take all US troops out of Iraq and move them into Iran. The resulting power void in Iraq will leave the factions squabbling amongst themselves for control, and Iran will be too busy trying (and failing) to resist the US invasion to influence the process. Topple the Iranian government, destroy the infrastructure and all vestiges of WMD technology, administer free elections, and be done with it. At that point either bring the troops home or send them back to Iraq to knock over whatever maniac has seized power there in our absence, if he was not legitimately elected. Repeat the Iran-Iraq shuffle as necessary, until both nations get the point: We will not abide blind hatred and intolerance masquerading under the banner of religion, and especially not as a means of organizing a state.

If the Iraq debacle has proven anything, it’s that we’re really, really good at knocking over petty dictators and really lousy at installing democracies in their wake. So why not stick to what we do best? Knock ’em over and leave their nations to sort out their new governments for themselves. You can bet that whoever comes afterward will be, if not exactly grateful to, then at least respectful of US power.