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John Kelly's Washington

Inspired by Spam

By John Kelly
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page C12

When life hands you spam, make spamade. At least that's what Brian Mac Ian thinks.

My column last week about e-mail spam and the creative ways spammers try to suck you into reading it prompted the Washington actor to tell me about a Web page he's been working on for the past year or so.

_____By John Kelly_____
Putting Words in FDR's Mouth (The Washington Post, Sep 14, 2004)
Answer Man: The Height of Rush Hour (The Washington Post, Sep 13, 2004)
A Moving Tale for Our Times (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2004)
Hey, Cable Guy, Feel the Love (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2004)
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_____Live Discussions_____
John Kelly's Washington Live (Live Online, Sep 3, 2004)
John Kelly's Washington Live (Live Online, Aug 27, 2004)
John Kelly's Washington Live (Live Online, Aug 20, 2004)

Brian always has been interested in words -- the look of them, the sound of them, the way they go together.

"I kept noticing I came across these funky, weird word combinations at the bottom of the e-mails, like some sort of spy code or secret message for James Bond," Brian said.

You know what he means, those lists of random words that appear in a subject heading or the body of a message: "adenoma plop abysmal allusive upstair flatus debugged bourgeoisie hat maroon rollback retaliate berate echinoderm hoodlum."

The words reminded Brian of James Joyce's famously impenetrable "Finnegans Wake."

"You can see Joycean elements in these things," he said, "all these words thrown together that don't make any sense."

Brian started saving the stream-of-consciousness language -- along with the odd names that cropped up in the sender field, monikers such as Cedric Flatworm and Hobart C. Electroplated -- and posted them at www.freewebs/spamade.

"I think it might be a literary inspiration for some people," said Brian, who attended the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, a Buddhist-oriented college in Boulder, Colo., and the kind of place, apparently, where collecting random snippets of e-mails isn't seen as that out of the ordinary.

"It just seems odd," Brian said of the cryptic spam. "I like odd things."

So do the people at Spamradio.com, a British Web site that takes spam messages, feeds them through a text-to-speech program, then sets the results atop a funky techno music track that you can listen to on your computer. The result is vaguely hypnotic, as if Stephen Hawking and Moby had joined forces to tell you you'd won the Costa Rican lottery.

Incidentally, those random words are an attempt on the part of spammers to defeat various anti-spam filters.

Maiden Voyage

I stuck it to UPS a few weeks ago for demanding that customers supply their mother's maiden name when trying to ship a package. I needn't have gone that far afield. Several readers pointed out that The Washington Post -- a well-respected newspaper whose name adorns the upper left-hand corner of my paychecks -- also asks for that information when you enroll in a program called Post Rewards.

The program is open to home delivery subscribers. When you sign up, you get a card that entitles you to 25 percent off your bill at about 60 area restaurants. Irwin Marks of Annapolis said he tried to join but balked when the woman on the phone asked for his you-know-what.

Said Irwin, who left home at an early age: "I told her pointedly that while alive my mother had nothing to do with my life, and now, after her death, I would not permit her to have a say in it."

Joanne Frazier, a consultant who works with the newspaper on Post Rewards, said the program is administered by financial services company IGT. They're the ones who require the mother's maiden name. As with UPS, it's a way of making sure you're who you say you are when you have questions about your account.

"We've tried asking for passwords or secret words and people just forget them," Joanne said. "They really need to have something that's familiar with people."

Joanne said people who are really bugged by the question can provide a different sort of password.

In the end, Irwin gave another name: his mother-in-law's. She turns 94 in a month.

There Was an Old Man From Dunn Loring . . .

Have you sent in your entry in the Inaugural John Kelly's Washington Metro Poetry Contest? Richard A. White has. He sent in this interlocking set of limericks:

The region's buses and trains

Are experiencing growing pains.

The rail cars are packed

That sure is a fact.

So how can the system make gains?

There is a proposal to fix it.

Hopefully lawmakers won't nix it.

Please fund "Metro Matters"

Or risk a system in tatters.

Whatever you do, don't deep-six it!

We'll buy more rail cars and buses,

So there's enough room and nobody fusses.

Running eight-car trains,

Is surely a gain.

Capital funding results in all pluses.

If the poem strikes you as a tad, oh, boosterish, that might be because Dick White is general manager/chief executive of the Metro system. He is hoping, I suppose, that the members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments are regular readers of this column.

I told Dick he wasn't eligible for a prize. But you are. Send your Metro-inspired poetry -- no longer than 16 lines, please -- to kellyj@washpost.com. Put "Metro Poem" in the subject field. Or mail it to John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. The deadline is Monday.

I will pick one winner and provide the capital funding for lunch at an expensive restaurant.


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