Archive: Apr 2009


I know what you’re thinking when you see this photo: where can I get free samples of SPAM? Where is my priceless chunk of junk? Well look no further: I’m here to help.

I have to check the contents of my SPAM filter each and every day, because one time in 20, a legit message gets routed there by mistake. As a result, I get to read the subject lines of 50 or so emails, most of which are SPAM; some of them are so hilarious that I feel the need to memorialize them somehow. Here’s the catch of the day:

uplift your sweet couch experience : does this make it more likely that I’ll find change between the cushions? because if so, count me in!

Footjobs : this is probably a sly solicitation for nude toe modeling.

A Christian Sex Cure : only steely sociological discipline prevents me from clicking on this link; I would contact Max Weber in a seance just to hear what he could make of this one….

Sax can be endless! Im not kidding! : what about the rest of the brass section? what if the flugelhorns feel self-conscious? (P.S.: thanks to the sender of this email for noting that s/he is not kidding; because otherwise, I might have thought “no way can a saxophone be endless! this can only be a Dadaist provocation.”)

Do not worry about trifles , use new debilitant! : what is this “debilitant” of which they speak? I’m hoping it’s like the “neural neutralizer” from Men in Black, because I’ve got a lot of commercial jingles and songs from 1970s AOR floating around in my brain, and the lyrics to “Get Down Tonight” need to make way for things like the difference between Type I and Type II errors:


 …I’d even settle for Buck Rogers’ “disintegrator.”


Just to add to the joy, living in Europe means that I now get SPAM in four languages: English, German, French and Italian.  To my surprise, instead of showing cultural variations in the content of their wares, they all seem to be shilling the same things: sex, drugs and academic credentials. That last one kind of surprised me, because it would seem to appeal to a very different kind of customer–the academically insecure or ambitious?–than the ones for Viagra and various potions designed to increase (selectively) the size of our appendages.

Given the sociological evidence linking educational attainment to lifetime earnings, I suppose the diploma mill SPAM should be classified under “get rich quick” schemes, along with those helpful “stock tips” that were very common a few years ago.  “Stock tip” SPAM seems to have declined precipitously in the last year, at least in my inbox, perhaps because the global market crisis means that when it comes to the stock market, everyone just wants out.

The other notable absence is the 419 or Nigerian bank scam emails. You know the ones: they usually open with an elaborately formal greeting, like “Most Esteemed Sir,” and then continue in this stilted prose–as though the writer had learned English from reading the lesser novels of Charles Dickens–to solicit “urgent help” in stashing a few million dollars in return for a percentage of the funds. This might be because all the publicity that 419 scams have received in the past five or six years has made people less likely to fall for them; or perhaps the world has just run out of fools.

Okay, perhaps that latter speculation stretches the bounds of credulity, but it is an empirical question whether there is a finite audience for these sorts of scams. Recent research is suggestive in this regard: in 2008, computer scientists from UC-Berkeley and UC-San Diego sent out a bunch of  “fake SPAM” (how postmodern is that?) purporting to offer prescription drugs online; then they simply counted the number of responses they received.

“After 26 days, and almost 350 million e-mail messages, only 28 sales resulted,” wrote the researchers.

The response rate for this campaign was less than 0.00001%. This is far below the average of 2.15% reported by legitimate direct mail organisations.

“Taken together, these conversions would have resulted in revenues of $2,731.88—a bit over $100 a day for the measurement period,” said the researchers.

Another factor in the demise of the 419 scam is the rise of “web vigilantism,” in which groups like 419 Eater and Scam-O-Rama make sport of stringing scammers along, causing them to waste loads of time and money chasing false leads. The intention is to impose costs on the senders of these scam emails, because the main economic problem with SPAM to date has been that it costs senders virtually nothing. Since they have nothing to lose, even the meagre .00001% return estimated in the UC study would be a meaningful payoff. Particularly in countries where $100/day is a princely sum–countries such as Nigeria, where per capita GDP was US$1,128 in 2007/2008, according to estimates from the United Nations.

Still, if the UC study is correct, any downward pressure on the profits from the tiny proportion of responses that SPAM emails receive might be enough to change the cost-benefit ratio for the senders. The BBC News story concluded with the following sociologically intriguing observation:

Scaling this up to the full Storm network the researchers estimate that the controllers of the vast system are netting about $7,000 (£4,430) a day or more than $2m (£1.28m) per year.

While this was a good return, said the researchers, it did suggest that spammers were not making the vast sums of money that some people have predicted in the past.

They suggest that the tight costs might also open up new avenues of attack on spammers.

The researchers concluded: “The profit margin for spam may be meagre enough that spammers must be sensitive to the details of how their campaigns are run and are economically susceptible to new defences.”

Being “sensitive to the details” might include responding to the monitoring and sanctioning being conducted by web vigilantes. Read some of the stories on 419 Eater and Scam-O-Rama to see how scammers can spend days (and presumably significant sums of cash from their perspective) travelling to and fro in search of Western Union Moneygrams that have somehow been “misrouted” or money-toting messengers who never show for their appointments.

So it appears that there is some good news about SPAM: if profit margins are already razor-thin, as the UC study suggests, it may not be that hard to wipe them out entirely. On the more pessimistic side, I suspect that combatting SPAM in this way may just turn into a giant international game of Whac-a-Mole in which, as profits associated with certain genres of SPAM (like the 419, or online diplomas) asymptotically approach zero, those genres fade away, only to replaced by new ones.

Anyone want to guess what the next years hold for us in terms of SPAM come-ons? Human organs on the DL? Lots of money to be made there, but since eBay banned organ auctions in response to a fellow who tried to sell his kidney via their website, the transactions can’t happen via the legit online markets. So they stay underground, for now. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the market starts to bubble up into our SPAM filters. Think of this post when you get the first “are you the guy who can’t produce urea? hre’s new liver 4 u!” email. Til then, feel free to post your predictions, or your favorite SPAM subject lines, in the comments.


Here’s the magnum opus, hot off the presses! It’s about deception–among people competing for status and resources (including money!), as well as animals. It’s about culture and warfare, along with computing and public policy.

It’s the culmination of five years of work  in which I brought together 15 leading scholars in the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities, to compare and contrast their disciplines’ approaches to this topic. As we found, through two conferences I organized at the Santa Fe Institute (a think tank devoted to the study of complex systems and trans-disciplinary research problems), deception is not the same as lying, and it’s not always a bad thing.

After putting the workshops together, I edited the book we produced and wrote two of the chapters: the introduction, and an empirical piece on deception in financial markets (a topic that, unfortunately, just seems to get more relevant as time goes by). While I can’t post the financial markets chapter here, you can find the full text of the introduction, which sketches out each of the 15 chapters, here. The table of contents is also available online.

One of the leading contemporary economic sociologists, Professor David Stark of Columbia University, had this to say about the book:

Don’t be deceived by the deceptively simple title. These fascinating essays by biologists, psychologists, sociologists, poets, and computer scientists reveal the complexities of studying deception across historical epochs and types of interactions—from the micromechanisms of facial muscles to online communications, from photography to finance, from the false mating signals of the carnivorous firefly to the literary trickster Brer Rabbit, from deception in warfare to self-delusion. Insightful analysis, and delightful reading.

From Stewart Brand’s review:

 One of the most important forms of communication—deception—is one of the least studied, in part because it deliberately blurs itself to get its effect, in part because there are so many forms of deception they seem to defy coherent analysis. A useful approach to the problem, then, is with a collection of investigators, each with a different angle, each aware of the others’ contributions, each looking for signs of hidden structure. The result in this book, deliciously, is an introduction to the Science of Untruth.

If you’re like me, you’re really kicking yourself for missing out on a cut of the federal bailout money.

Through sleepess nights, I ask myself, “Self, why didn’t you run a Fortune 50 company into the ground? What has Rick Wagoner got that you haven’t got?” (Answer: about $20 million.) 

My admiration for the GM CEO, along with the employees of Goldman Sachs and AIG , all of whom are getting mad ducats in the bailout, is tempered by the realization that I am a slacker: when I could have been out hustling sub-prime mortgages, I was sitting in my office writing about the similarities between investment clubs and the kangaroo cults that Durkheim studied amongst Aboriginal Australians.

To quote from another Story of Wall Street, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

So now I have to bail myself out, with no help from Uncle Sam. Necessity being the mother of invention, I’ve hit on a few ideas I like to call “Plan i,” in which the i stands either for innovation or for imaginary number. It depends how well my plans work out.

But surely one of these strokes of genius will catapult me into champagne wishes and caviar dreams territory:


1) Get adopted by Madonna

Reliable sources say she’s heartbroken over the rejection of her bid to adopt a young girl from a Malawian orphanage. I can hook a sister up! I’m female, younger than Madge, and no judge can come between us. Problem solved!


2) Write romance novels.

The romance genre–known in the trade as “women’s fiction”–is the only area of publishing that’s growing! And practically the only corner of the industry that still accepts manuscripts over the transom from unknowns. According to a recent article in Publisher’s Weekly, profits were up over 11% at Harlequin–one of the oldest publishers of romance novels, now entering its 60th year in business–during 2008, when virtually every other part of the economy was hemmorhaging cash.



3) Get married.

For many American Protestants, Catholics, agnostics and atheists, weddings used to involve registering for gifts–stuff like bed linens and appliances to help the young couple set up their household. Now, understandably, it’s all about the Benjamins.

But how does one convey that one wants a chunk of bailout money, without being crass? You could invite the entire United States Congress to your wedding, but they get drunk and noisy and start filibustering the groomsmen during the ceremonial toasts. Emily Post is useless on this question, so I’m going with advice from the Wall Street Journal :


…And those are just my top three ideas. Lots more where those came from. Take fancy dog sweaters, for example–have you seen what those things cost? Redonkulus. I can knock one of those suckers out in an evening watching TV. Look out world, I’ve got my cable needles and Ima get my tycoon on!

What’s your Plan i?