Monday, November 26, 2012

Spam Scams

In this holiday season, it’s time to consider some of the qualities of spam—not SPAM(R), that gelatinous pork product that I earnestly hope did not find its way to your Thanksgiving table—but the unwanted email variety. 

Expert spammers have devised many ways of trying to outwit spam detectors designed to intercept spam and consign it to a cyberdungeon.  Marketing expert Herschel Gordon suggests a number of ploys, most important of which is avoiding a giveaway word like “free” in the subject line. Instead, he says, try “no charge” or “it’s on us.”
Other words that may trigger spam filters and that should be avoided in the subject line are complimentary, sale, discount, loan, fun, buy, own, approved, saving, win—and, of course—those old email standbys, Viagra and Cialis—which is why they show up so often as V#%G@A and C#+L*S.
Another method to fool the filters is to generate random text to accompany the ad copy, so that no two messages are exactly alike, even though millions may be sent. At first, these random sentences seem like pure gibberish, but occasionally they rise to the level of poetry, albeit with a Dada-ist tinge.  Try reciting the actual examples printed below, which are from a recent spam letter, reproduced verbatim, but rearranged as free verse. 
Oh, by the way--full disclosure: one stanza below is not spam gibberish but an excerpt from a well-known twentieth-century poem.  Can you spot the real poetry amidst the fake?
A narrative renders a pardon,
A pot thinks!
An electronic bump humbles through worship,
The coal smells any token,
The country colors over the degenerate frown,
The cube dips the obstructed race.
Another troop jokes?
Should the constraining guide bend the incident?
Does the army laugh?
The sickening addict rots near an operator.

Another ownership sauces the sermon,

A translator butters the chance,
The influential arcade chooses the radical temperature,
Around the spit gossips a believable sun.
When will the crossing material consent above the undergraduate?
The zero adjective progresses.
The god decays inside the authentic sophisticate,
The holder attends within our snobbery.

The marriage turns!
Our mountain stills the geology,
The ancient bicycles above the spotted ditch.
The heaven chalks?
The tribe talks?
The silver mirrors catch the bright stones and flare,
Dawn, to our waking, drifts in the green cool light;
Dew-haze blurs, in the grass, pale ankles moving.
Beat, beat, whirr, thud, in the soft turf under the apple trees,
Choros nympharum, goat-foot, with the pale foot alternate;
Crescent of blue-shot waters, green-gold in the shallows,
A black cock crows in the sea-foam.
Below the dictator decides an abysmal highway,
Before the pun boils an asserted convict.
How will the gulf wet a slogan?
The abandoned mark sugars an independence,
The wrecked sophisticate despairs against the risen biography,
The baking stereotype bays,
The uncle truncates a cable,

The sect coughs beside the geographical shadow.

Why won't the radical revolt?
The jaded Bard of Buffalo Bayou is unimpressed by these poems—both the faux and the real—having effortlessly written tons of equally incomprehensible gobbledygook himself.  To wit:

           Whenever I feel a little bit bibberish,
            I drink some wine and write some gibberish.
            That’s why you’ll find a Babel of nonsense
            On the pages of my table of contents.
            But I am not a stellar spammer,
            Or one well-versed in mellerdrammer.
            When I write, I jot tomfoolery—
            Just dribbles of my dot-com droolery.
Oh, yes, in case you’re interested: the seven lines beginning “The silver mirrors catch the bright stones and flare” are from Ezra Pound’s Canto IV. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Don’t Bogart Me

In a post-election op-ed column in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote: “Last time, Obama lifted up the base with his message of hope and change; this time the base lifted up Obama, with the hope he will change….They want Barry to stop bogarting the change.”

That last phrase—“bogarting the change”—struck me as not only infelicitous, but also unintelligible.  What on earth did she mean by “bogarting”? It must be a typographical error, I thought.  Wrong again!

Unbeknownst to me, bogart is a verb that has been in use since the 1960s, and it means to “use or consume more than one’s share.” Its origin is a bit complicated.

In many of his films, the actor Humphrey Bogart was pictured smoking a cigarette, which he kept constantly dangling from his mouth, without removing it, even while talking.  In the marijuana culture of the 1960s, it was considered bad form to keep a joint in one’s mouth rather than taking a quick hit and then passing it around.  From the image of Bogie’s soggy ciggie, hogging a joint became known as “bogarting.”  This usage was reinforced by a 1968 song, “Don’t Bogart Me,” recorded by the Fraternity of Man, which was used in the 1969 film Easy Rider.  Part of the lyric goes:
            “Don’t bogart that joint, my friend,
            Pass it over to me.” 

Bogie is not the only movie star whose name has become an eponym, referring to actions or items. Others include:

* John Wayne, whose name is a verb meaning to “act with great force and little deliberation, in a consciously heroic manner,” e.g., ”He John Wayned the door” (i.e. he kicked it in).

* Shirley Temple, a non-alcoholic drink made with ginger ale, orange juice, grenadine, and a maraschino cherry, at one time commonly served to little girls when their parents were having cocktails.

* Roy Rogers, a similar non-alcoholic drink typically for little boys, in which cola replaces ginger ale.

* Mae West, an inflatable life jacket (from its resemblance to the star’s buxomness).

* Marilyn Monroe, after whom (for similar reasons to the Mae West jacket) small, highly rounded sediment mounds in certain tidal flats are named “monroes.”

* Tom Cruise, a verb that can mean either to “become overly excited” (from an episode on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show in which Cruise jumped on a couch to express his love for Katie Holmes) or to “pretend to know more about a subject than one actually does.”

Speaking of folks who pretend to know more than they do, we can’t overlook the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is at the head of that class.  Here is his latest pretension:

            Young Tim’s a timid little eponym,
            Who always fears someone will step on him.
            His brother, Tom, is just a homonym—
            The two of them intone a common hymn
            And pray that Tom becomes a synonym,
            So there’d be nothing folks could pin on him.
            And Tim? He prays to be a toponym,
            And then, he thinks, there’d be no stoppin’ him.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Perfect Hominy

In his spoofy song “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie,” the spiffy Tom Lehrer sings:

            Yes, for paradise the Southland is my nominee.
            Jes' give me a ham hock and a grit of hominy.

Hominy is not a food you’re likely to find on the menu at tonier establishments, or even just plain tony ones. And if you think about how it’s made, you might not even want to eat it, delicious as it is.  Hominy is kernels of corn that have been soaked in a caustic solution, such as lye—yes, lye!—to soften them, and then washed to remove their hulls. 

Hominy originated among American Indians sometime before the seventeenth century. Webster’s Second International Dictionary cites its origin as the Virginia Algonquin word rockahamen, meaning “parched corn ground small.” The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it comes from a “much-corrupted” version of the American Indian word Appunmineash, which also means “parched corn.”

In 1629, Captain John Smith wrote of the Virginia colony: “Their servants commonly feed on Milke Homini, which is bruized Indian corn pounded, and boiled thicke, and milke for the sauce.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been boiled thick more times than he can remember—but that’s another story.  This one is bad enough:

            Okra, tomatoes, and mashed sweet potatoes,
            Served with a side of salt pork,
            Turnips and greens, and ham hock and beans—
            You won’t find all that in New York.

            Fresh peaches with pits, pigs turning on spits,
            These are the foods that I flaunt.
            You say that you want some hominy grits—
            Well, hominy do you want?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Red State Blues

Tuesday—yikes, that’s tomorrow!—is Election Day.  That evening, TV viewers will be anxiously watching maps of the United States brightly colored red and blue. As everyone will know, red will indicate the states carried by Republicans and blue the states going Democratic. Given the historical association of red with liberal causes and blue with more conservative parties, one might think the map-makers are color-blind.
The etymologies of the words red and blue are of little help in sorting out today’s symbolism.  Red is derived from the Sanskrit rudhirá, which means “blood.”  From this meaning, the color red came to be associated with violence, revolution, lust, anger, fire, guilt, sex, sin, love, courage, and sacrifice.

Blue traveled a circuitous etymological path, from proto-Indo-European bhel (“light-colored, yellow, burnt”), Old Norse bla (“livid, or black-and-blue”), Old French blo (“pale, discolored, gray”), North Icelandic blamaur (“swarthy black”), Middle High German bla (“yellow’), and Germanic blau (originally, “black”).  Apparently blue could denote any color you wanted, as long as it wasn’t red. Even today some languages have no word to distinguish blue from green.

The symbolic meaning of blue has varied as widely as its etymology. It has been associated with happiness, optimism, peace, serenity, and loyalty.  Goethe thought blue was cold, gloomy, and melancholy (as opposed to red’s gravity, dignity, and grace). In politics blue somewhat arbitrarily came to stand for conservative opposition to both liberalism (red) and anarchy (black).
But why do red and blue mean what they do today in American politics?  Blame it on the election of 2000.

TV networks had first used colors on electronic election maps in 1976, when NBC pioneered with a map showing Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy Carter in red. In 1984, NBC News showed Ronald Reagan’s landslide of 44 states as a “sea of blue.”  Apparently not wanting to be thought a copycat, CBS used the opposite colors—red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. At ABC blue and yellow were the choices.

During this period the three major networks informally agreed on a uniform red-blue scheme that would alternate every four years, being assigned according to who were the incumbents (blue) and who were the challengers (red).

By 2000 all the broadcast and cable networks used this system, and it was the incumbent Democrats’ turn to be blue.  Because of the prolonged controversy over the election, coverage dragged on for weeks, and commentators began to refer to a state as “red” or “blue,” according to which party had carried it.  From that time on, the red-state, blue-state dichotomy became ingrained in American political dialogue.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is also ingrained—but it’s better not to ask in what.  Today, like most days, he has the blues.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            Surrounded by a crowd with wing-nut views,
            Politicians like Rick Perry,
            Who think their job’s hereditary,
            As long as they’re more right-wing than Ted Cruz.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            I’m in a land where folks believe Fox News,
            And the ghost of Molly Ivins
            Is the one thing that enlivens
            All the Democrats who know they’re bound to lose.

            When I’m resting in my arbor, Oh
            How I dream of old Ralph Yarborough,
            I’d bring back Barbara Jordan, if I only could.
            Ann Richards, Henry Gonzalez,
            They were really hot tamales—
            And right now even Lyndon Johnson’s looking good!

            O, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            A feeling that goes right down to my shoes,
            ‘Twould be a feat herculean
            If Texas turned cerulean,
            Yes, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues.