Chippewa Herald * February 1, 2004

Love the SPAM, hate the spammer

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

Could this be the end of the long, cruel winter of email inboxes overflowing with junk mail?

I saw this on the White House's web page a few weeks ago:

"On December 16, 2003, President Bush signed into law the 'Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003' ( CAN-SPAM Act), which establishes a framework of administrative, civil, and criminal tools to help America's consumers, businesses, and families combat unsolicited commercial e-mail, known as spam."

As someone who has had his email address plastered over countless web pages and newsgroup postings over the years, I get a LOT of spam. In late December, I was averaging over 800 junk emails EVERY DAY.

Fortunately, I use a couple different email filters -- "SpamAssassin" for the first line of defense in our corporate email server, and "procmail" for my own personal second line. These filters catch most of the spam emails and siphon them off to a file that I can glance over once in a while to make sure that something valid didn't get assassinated.

However, the evil spammers are getting trickier. In recent weeks, the number of junk mails getting through my filters has grown exponentially, so that I now have to wade through at least 200 spam messages per day in my main inbox. This is getting very annoying!

The best part of the new law, which will take effect in January, is that it requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to study the feasibility of using bounty hunters to track down spammers. The original proposal from Congress was to allow individuals who identify and help locate spammers to receive 20 percent of any fines collected. That plan has been shelved temporarily, until the FTC can study it further. I hope it works out; I love the profit motive in a free market!

Trivia question: Do you know how junk email came to be known as "spam"? I happen to have the answer, as I took my family on a special trip during spring break last year. No, we didn't go to the ocean or to Disneyworld, we went to...drum roll, please...the SPAM Museum, at Hormel's headquarters in Austin, Minnesota!

The SPAM Museum far exceeded our expectations. We thought it would be fun to stop in for a half hour because it's free and we were driving by on I-90 en route to my wife's hometown. But we ended up staying at least two hours, and to meet a deadline we practically had to pry ourselves away with a spatula before we got to see everything.

One of the many features of the museum is a television rerunning a Monty Python broadcast from the 1970s. In the program , a group of rowdy Vikings (Scandinavian warriors, not Packer archrivals) sang a chorus of "spam, spam, spam...", louder and louder, drowning out other conversation. This analogy was later used in coining "spam" to mean junk email, since it drowns out normal discourse on the Internet.

As an historical aside, I remember that the term "spam" was originally used in the late 1980s to describe advertising in Internet newsgroup articles, not in private email. It was taboo to post anything resembling solicitation in a public newsgroup; to do so by private email back then was unthinkable!

Back to the lunch meat -- I think it's great that, rather than trying to fight the use of their trademark to describe junk mail, Hormel plays it up. On their web site, they explain that their trademark "SPAM" is all uppercase, whereas the term used to describe junk mail is all lowercase: "spam." So as long as you stick to lowercase when talking about email, you're in the clear.

More trivia: how did the original SPAM get its name? It was at a company Christmas party in 1937. They had a contest to name their new canned ham product that was packed with spices, and a Hormel employee came up with a catchy-sounding abbreviation for "spiced ham" by taking the first two letters of the first word and the last two letters of the last word.

SPAM, the meat, has a reputation for being tacky or gaudy, and the museum does a good job of poking fun at it. However, many people who deride SPAM have never tried it! I do prefer the low-salt version, but nearly everyone I've offered it to, from new Boy Scouts to my father-in-law who had never eaten it in his 65 years, likes it when they try it.

And it's the ultimate convenience food, with a shelf life of several YEARS! You can always keep a can or two at the bottom of your backpack, just in case. There's nothing like the smell of sliced SPAM sizzling on a pan over an open campfire.

I am hoping that in the new year, we will be treated to the sound of email spammers sizzling underneath the weight of the new law.


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