Monthly Archives: March 2014

Spam Poetry Appreciation

Screen_Shot_2014-03-24_at_10_34_07_AMOne of the minor inconveniences of managing a blog is comment spam management. If you don’t quarantine incoming comments and review them before making them “live”, you blog will very quickly disappear under a tsunami of bizarre unrelated pitches for unsavory products. It’s mostly an annoying chore. But there is one aspect of this that I find fascinating—fun even.

Behind the scenes the would-be spammers and the white hat enemies of spam are waging a technological and linguistic war for dominance. The good guys use what are called Bayesian Filters to distinguish spam from email of value. This approach goes beyond the simpler approach of comparing email to known lists of “spam” words (such as “Viagra”, or even “enhancement”) and rejecting messages that use those words. Instead it analyzes the linguistic characteristics of a body (corpus, if you want to be all fancy and Latin about it) of messages that you indicate are real email and another that you identify as known spam. It then learns to distinguish the two based on the characteristics of your unique email. If, for example, you are a scientist that is studying Viagra your Bayesian filter will need to work overtime to distinguish the good from the bad, but if you train it well that should be possible.

Anyway, here is where the fun begins for someone who enjoys the outer fringes of  language and meaning. Spammers know all about Bayesian filters and they also know that the best shot they have at defeating them is to create random, machine-generated language that looks very much like real communication. One of the last courses I took when finishing up my BA in 1995 was Tan Lin’s Language Poetry course at UVa. This type of writing downplays what we usually think of as the essential desire of a poet to express him- or herself and instead focuses on language as language, the mechanisms of constructing it, and the reader’s participation in bringing meaning out of it.

Over the years I’ve noticed that spammer’s attempts to defeat Bayesian filters occasionally sidle right up to language poetry. A particularly enjoyable example showed up this morning and I decided to share it with you …

Come about to be crocheted vests.
These cozy vest’s bodily fluid
so that you preserve your chocolate
if you necessity to draw near
an achievement bill of fare,
you can buy or be jewelry.

Pauperization  accepts minor moment single.
So, ratify up for your way prize.
Retributory because
a mate of faddy—your odor
with component embellishments.

If you would be someone salaried
a wash soprano for an endeavor
somebody with the boundary friendship.

This is easier to effort this off;
nonetheless, you can lay aside
your approximately monetary system.
Lone example coupons
about that region of skillfulness
and what it does.

I have to wonder what spammers would think if they knew they were entertaining me in this way. I mean, really, you can ponder a thought like “you can buy or be jewelry” for hours!

Lots of Posters for Little Singers

Winter Concert 2004About a decade ago my sister-in-law, Virginia Hill, was hired as the choral music director at the upper elementary school in our shared hometown. Virginia had abundant skills as a vocalist and musician, but she had no previous teaching experience. I remember being just a little bit worried about how this would all go. It turned out to be a rocky year with over-sized classes and a fair number of high energy kids who were not accustomed to the focus and concentration required for choral singing. I wasn’t sure Virginia was going to make it to her first concert with this rambunctious bunch, but she did.

And as that first concert approached, she asked me to design her a poster and concert program to help generate interest. It was nice opportunity to contribute something to her daring new venture, so I said yes. The result was the Winter Concert Poster above. Simple, but effective.

That poster was printed on a color laser printer and the program was photocopied. In 2004, those were the only reproduction technologies that made sense on a limited budget. Today, through the magic of digital color printing, we can economically print these materials in full-color despite the small quantities (thank you T&N Printing).

To make a long story short, we are now looking back over ten years of posters and programs for two concerts each year. It’s been fun, but more importantly, it has felt great to support Virginia’s efforts as well as arts education in the public schools.

A lot of positive energy has grown up around this project …

  • Parents and friends are much more interested in what Virginia’s students are doing. The concerts have become very well attended.
  • The young singers themselves have grown more enthusiastic about their efforts. I see many of them claim a souvenir program right after they perform. I even suggested that Ginny use the poster as a central part of their motivation. If they attend all the rehearsals and perform at the concert, they get the honor of signing a special copy of the poster that hangs in the rehearsal space to honor their participation.
  • Virginia has become a very confident teacher who now builds a group of 60-90 fifth- and sixth-grade students into a talented chorus each year. She has been so  successful with the Upper Elementary School group that this year she was asked to begin teaching the Middle School chorus as well.

Here is a sampling of the posters we’ve designed for the chorus over the last ten years …