This week, we have a myth com from reader Streon, who asks us:
Why do we get spam email that’s complete gibberish or random sentences from books strung together?
Streon’s question is a good one. He is careful, by the by, to differentiate between the spam e-mail that uses a block of gibberish like a shield, allowing the spamful content to slide in when we least expect it and tell the wife and children that you can have a large penis and low mortgage rates all at once. No, these are the e-mails that are nothing but sentences from books, nonsense phrases, bits of semi-comprehensible detritus and semiliterate ranting.
It is Streon’s thesis, unstated, that there must be some meaning behind these random e-mails. Some purpose.
As it works out, he’s half right.
Entirely right, I suppose, if one extends the defintion of the word “meaning,” but for the most part I don’t think that’s the right word for it. But that, as you can imagine, is a matter for the myth.
*** *** *** ***
Dale’s background was more interesting than many. He was a linguist, and a computer programmer, and had a solid background in both psychology and sociology. He spoke four languages and could curse in a fifth. He was good at math most people found hard to deal with, and he was a capable and able teacher.
You’ve met Dale, or someone like him. That person who just seems to be good at everything he tries. That person who you’d love to hate, but he seemed so legitimately nice all at the same time. That person who was handsome, charming, committed, reasonable — even heroic in the right circumstances.
Dale’s one failing, if you could call it that, was a persistant belief that one man could make the world — the whole world — a better place. And with that belief came a corralary: one had a responsibility to try his very best to do just that.
In Dale’s case, he saw the internet as the key.
“It’s like this,” he told his friend Sandy. They were out to eat at a Pizza Hut bistro, sharing garlic bread. He had the Chicken Cacciatore. She had bistro nachoes. “What’s the worst problem facing the world today?”
“War,” Sandy replied. “Or hunger. Yeah, hunger.”
“Both symptoms of the same core problem. Try again.”
Sandy frowned. “Population?”
“Indirectly right but not the core of it.”
“Wow, am I sick of playing this game.” She scooped up meat and cheese on a chip.
Dale chuckled. “Sorry. It’s communication.”
Sandy paused. “Communication.”
“Absolutely.” He leaned forward. “Think about it. When two people have a disagreement, at the core they lack a complete understanding of the issue. They lack an understanding of the other guy’s position. They lack empathy for each other’s point of view.”
“You think wars and hunger come from a lack of communication?”
“At its heart? Absolutely.” He spooned up some chicken and marinara. “Think about it. Wars come because two sides have different points of view. Different philosophies.”
“You call ‘I want that land’ a philosophical difference?”
“Deep down, you bet.”
“If everyone involved — the hungry people, the producers of food, the distributors… everyone — had a real clear comprehension of everyone else’s position, allowances would be made, production and distribution would improve, and before you know it–”
“You’re nuts,” Sandy said. “People are contrary. They get mad at each other.”
“People get mad because they don’t get each other. If they did–”
Sandy rolled her eyes. “That’s overly simplistic,” she said.
“Yes. Yes it is.” Dale leaned forward. “Because you have to understand — I can’t convey the concepts that I see so clearly in my head to you. Not directly. And you can’t convey your objections clearly to me — not in a way that lets us distill the two sides and find what common ground may be between them.” He leaned forward. “That’s the entire point. That’s what keeps us apart. If we could communicate — really communicate — we would come to a consensus between us. We would understand each other and have some middle ground we could both live with.”
Sandy shrugged. “Sounds a little pie in the sky, but okay. So what do you intend to do about it?”
Dale smiled a bit. “That’s where the net comes in,” he said. “You know from social networking, right? Livejournal? Facebook? Friendster?”
“I’ve been awake and online sometime in the last six years, yes.”
“Look deeper than the surface. These places are a reflection of something innate to mankind. We all have a need, deep down, to form communities. To organize. To find those of like mind, those interested in the same activities, and often possessing the same or similar mindsets.”
“We seek our own kind?” Sandy said, somewhat dubiously. “You sound like an episode of Star Trek.”
“Maybe, but it’s the truth.” Dale smiled a bit. “So, think about the programming and the technology behind eHarmony. Compatibility engines and personality matching. Think about the social aspects of Facebook — the interactive elements. The ways that users are encouraged to play with each other every time they check in. The ways they can communicate beyond simply writing e-mails or instant messages on them.”
Sandy frowned. “It’s… meant to fill in some of the nonverbal cues and gaps.”
“Right. And it’s meant to convey meaning. So. Couple those, and then think about babelfish.”
“Babelfish? Douglas Adams or Altavista?”
Sandy shook her head, laughing. “Man, remember when Altavista was going to be the search engine of choice. These days I don’t know anyone who uses it except for babelfi–”
“Not my point.” Dale stabbed chicken with his fork. “This applies as much to any online translator. Or to Google’s ability to translate web pages into other languages. Algorithmic and idiomatic translation is a holy grail on the web, because it fulfills a promise of the web.”
“What promise is that?”
“Global community. A sense that the whole world is one big happy place.”
Despite herself, Sandy smiled a touch. Dale could tell she was interested. “So. What’s your grand plan?”
“It’s not just mine, but the question is — why can’t we develop a real convergence of software and technology on this stuff?”
“Meaning social networking taken to its logical extreme. Meaning personality and compatibility assessment, interactivity, community building, alternate modes of meaning, and idiomatic translation in real time. It would take years, and a lot of people coming together, but with the internet is there a reason we can’t have an engine for real communication change? A place where meaning and intention can be conveyed, closing the gaps that keep us separate?”
“You’re describing the ultimate website.” Sandy half-smiled. “A place where teenagers from all over the world can come together and pretend to have grammatically improbable sex, regardless of language, race or creed?”
Dale grinned. “At first. But those teenagers grow up, Sandy. And if they’re using it to begin with, by the time they’re twenty… or thirty, or forty… then they’ll have pushed the community or whatever community follows it even farther. They’ll drive evolution and they’ll force it into new areas. What starts as a distraction can become a real instrument of communication. Of negotiation. Of change. And if not this year or next year, then one day it can be an engine that unifies the world — that takes all the cultural and personal variables and conveys them in a form we can understand, so that we can communicate whole intent as naturally as you and I are talking right now.”
Sandy frowned. “I don’t think that’s possible,” she said.
Dale’s smile grew. “You just watch me.”
The sourceforge project was called Minaret. It was open source, and there were any number of interested parties drawn into the concept. Still, at the heart it was entirely Dale’s. He set the development milestones. He coded the engine. He developed the translation algorithms, working to find ways to broaden the code to cover different languages, and then different families of languages. The first alpha had ways to suggest activities. The second took those suggestions and turned them into games. As more people tried it, Dale refined it.
The community grew. Each week brought new development. And each new development brought more people. And more people brought more suggestions and, in some cases, more development. Dale was thrilled. He was working long hours but it was all coming together.
It was inevitable that venture capital would come calling. Different groups expressed an interest. Dale insisted that the source code would remain open, but the community surrounding even the earliest versions of Minaret made money men hungry. Some seed money, some opportunity for Dale to leave his job and work full time on Minaret — some chances for the dream to be given form and make a few bucks in the process? Oh yeah. Dale was down with that.
The most promising meeting came at sundown on a Friday. It was when Dale could get time off to meet the money man, and the money man seemed pretty happy to do it then. Dale got out of his day job. He had a light meal. He got to the meeting on time.
The money man wore a black suit with a red tie. He carried a black mahogany walking stick with a crystal on the end. “Dale? Hi there.” He stood, offering a hand. His handshake was firm, but not overpowering. “I’m Mister Shepherd, of the Shinar Group. Thanks for seeing me.”
“No problem,” Dale said. “You guys seem really interested in Minaret.” He grinned. “It’s kind of a wild feeling, you know?”
“Is it?” Mister Shepherd’s smile was warm and easy.
“Absolutely. I mean… I really believe in Minaret. I really think this can have an impact on the world. I really think that as it develops, everything will develop with it.”
“I know you do,” Mister Shepherd said, not losing his smile. His eyes, however, seemed perhaps a touch sad. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the light.
“And to have you guys come in with an offer — to make this a real company, and make this something that can really happen — happen with server space, with bandwidth, with–”
“We’re prepared to offer you eleven point seven million dollars for exclusive development,” Mister Shepherd broke.
Dale blinked. “What?”
“Eleven point seven million dollars, but you have to agree to develop under our auspices or not at all.” Mister Shepherd leaned back. “That’s all right, isn’t it?”
“The… source code is open source,” Dale said. “Anyone can develop it further.”
“Sure, but the source code isn’t you,” Mister Shepherd said. “Sure, someone else can develop the code, but the real heart and soul of Minaret is you.”
Dale swallowed. “And… you’re willing to offer me almost twelve million dollars… for what? To develop it for your company only? To make it closed source?”
“No, Dale. We’re offering you almost twelve million dollars… to only develop it when we give you the go-ahead.”
Dale blinked again. “I… would need your assurance that you wouldn’t interfere with my ability to keep working on Minaret.”
Mister Shepherd’s smile slipped a little. “I’m afraid that’s the one assurance I can’t give you, Dale.”
“What? Why not?”
“There’s a lot of market factors at work here, Dale. We need to ensure that product development is carefully controlled to ensure that certain conditions remain optimal, now and into the future.”
Dale frowned. “Meaning what? In plain English.”
Mister Shepherd smiled again. “Meaning we’d ask you to walk away from social networking projects for a while. Until things were ready.”
“And you would define when they’re ready?”
“And that could be never?”
Mister Shepherd’s smile didn’t waiver. “Dale, we’re offering you eleven point seven million dollars. What are the chances we would pay you that kind of money and then not let you develop your software?”
Dale narrowed his eyes. “I’m pretty sure the chances are pretty good, Mister Shepherd. I’m pretty sure you mean to pour money into this project specifically to make sure I never work on it again.”
Mister Shepherd chuckled. “Do you have any idea how paranoid you sound?” he asked.
“Yeah. But I don’t care. I’m sorry, Mister Shepherd. No deal.”
Mister Shepherd looked at Dale a long moment. And Dale had the sudden feeling Mister Shepherd felt sorry for him. But the moment passed and Mister Shepherd chuckled. “Well, we had to try, Dale. Have a good night.”
Dale thanked Mister Shepherd, and made his way out.
He had almost made it home when he was picked up. It was another man in a black suit. His tie was yellow instead of red. And unlike Mister Shepherd, he didn’t smile at all. He just walked up behind Dale and took his arm. His grip was like a vice, and he walked Dale even faster into Dale’s own apartment building.
“What’s going on?” Dale demanded. “Where are you taking me?”
“Home,” the man said. His voice had almost no inflection at all.
“Let go of me! Help! Help!”
“No one can hear you,” he said, opening Dale’s security door. It was unlocked, even though it was never unlocked.
“What are you talking about? Who are you?”
“My name is Mister Crook,” he said, and opened Dale’s door. He half threw Dale inside.
“What’s going on?” Dale demanded.
Mister Crook looked at Dale, and he began to recite. “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
“What the Hell? Are you quoting the Bible to me?”
“Genesis,” Mister Crook said evenly. “Chapter Eleven, Verse Five. You should know the story. You of all people* should know the story.”
Dale blinked, pushing himself up. “I don’t,” he said. “If you people are some kind of cult, leave me out of it.”
“You’re already in it,” Mister Crook said, walking into the room and pulling the door shut. “You were the moment you went against the order of things.”
“The order of things?”
“As the Book says, Dale. ‘Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the Earth.”
Dale blinked. “Wait… the Tower of Babel? You’re telling me the story of the Tower of Babel?”
“The language of man was confounded and confused, so men wouldn’t know each other’s minds. He was spread all over the world, so he wouldn’t come into one community. Confusion was spread to keep men apart, so they wouldn’t come together and build their tower.”
“Because to build the tower — to come together and really understand each other — is to become as Gods yourselves.” Mister Crook straightened his lapels “And you have to understand. You don’t get to do that without the say-so from the current residents.”
“You’re telling me you work for God? And he told you to stop me? You insane son of a–”
Mister Crook moved fluidly, backhanding Dale, who slid across the floor, pain flooding him.
“Jesus,” Dale half-sobbed.
“Do I work for God? Who is God? Or who are the Gods? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. You’re done with this project.”
“What? You’re going to threaten me? You’re going to kill me?”
Mister Crook snorted. “Of course not.”
“Same as before,” Mister Crook said, walking to the door. “You would build a community where all language is one and intentions are clear? The result isn’t Minaret, Dale. It’s Babel.” He opened the door. “You’ll find that your needs are attended to. Your fridge will be stocked. You’ll have nice things. The lights and cable will stay on. You’ll even have net access.”
Dale pushed up. “What the Hell are you–”
“Good bye, Dale.” Mister Crook stepped through the door. “For what it’s worth? You would have succeeded.”
By the time Dale reached the door, Mister Crook had already closed it. And when Dale tried to open it, the knob wouldn’t turn, the door wouldn’t rattle… he couldn’t even see light or feel air from underneath it. It was as if the Door were just an odd decoration on the wall.
Dale ran to the telephone and picked it up. The tone buzzed. He punched in 911.
“Boxcar cheese fishmonger,” a bored voice said. “Salmon entrails Arphax’ad horticulture?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“The doctor accepted quite readily the theory that Mrs. Vandemeyer had accidentally taken an overdose of chloral,” the dispatch operator said. “Dr. Hall, I am very anxious to find a certain young lady for the purpose of obtaining a statement from her. I have reason to believe that she has been at one time or another in your establishment at Bournemouth. I hope I am transgressing no professional etiquette in questioning you on the subject?”
The phone went dead.
And so it went. Dale realized quite quickly that if he made phone calls — whether to friends, to strangers, or to authorities — they would sound like nonsense. Since no one ever came looking for him, he had to assume that he sounded the same to them. His door wouldn’t open, and his windows showed nothing but fog with strange distant lights behind it. And as for the internet….
He could go to any site. He could do whatever he wanted there. But when he added a comment to items or sent an e-mail, no matter how reasoned, when he hit submit it was clear no one could understand a thing he typed. He intuited that his comments looked like more of the same — deranged, almost aphasic ramblings. The same when he instant messaged anyone.
Desperately, he tried to compensate for this in Minaret. Minaret, even in its early alpha state, was designed to make communication and intent possible where normally it would fail. But he discovered to his horror that as he uploaded new modules or packages, those people following Minaret were stunned and shocked at the incoherence in the code. And when he compiled Minaret and uploaded a new version to his server, it became clear that somehow, the very intent behind it had become corrupt. As it worked out, no one could understand each other with his new version. No one at all.
Tearfully, Dale rolled back to the previous version. At least then people could continue to use what he had built. And that seemed to work out for other folks — it lacked the grand design Dale had envisioned, so clearly the Shinar Group didn’t care about it.
And that became the basis of Dale’s last hope. Because the modules were out there, and it was open source, and more to the point the theory was out there. Which meant someone might still work on it. Someone might solve it, maybe working under the radar, before the Shinar Group knew what they were up to.
And he knew, with an almost religious faith, that if someone developed Minaret or something like it… Dale could communicate through it.
And so Dale tries. He tries every day. He sends e-mail out to broad lists of people. Lists he downloads or culls from the internet. Lists he sends out using all the spamming tools he can find. Perhaps he’s gone insane, but he has to cling to that hope — that hope that someone out there has picked up the work. The hope that someone has an algorithm that can figure out what he means to say.
His message is always the same. It gives his name, and his former address, and explains that he needs the help of the reader. That he doesn’t want money — but that the reader’s technology can decrypt, decipher or translate what appears to be ramblings to anyone else, and Dale desperately needs to access it. It is a plea for help, for companionship — for someone to talk to.
Sadly, to this date no one has developed the tools to decipher what Dale is saying in his e-mails. Instead, they come across as bits of novels, or nonsense phrases, or downright insanity. Sometimes spam filters screen them out, but it’s hard to work out if they’re random or not — at least for a machine. So a good number make it through.
Where they are read, and sometimes joked about, and then deleted.
Dale, undaunted, keeps trying. It’s that or watch television all the time, and he can’t do that. He can’t give up. He knows someone will manage it. He knows someone will hear him.
In the end, the core of the problem is always communication, after all.