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April 28, 2004

The persistence of lunchmeat. Now here’s an interesting new comment on an Electrolite thread from last month:
Tastes differ. I can’t agree with you, sorry… Anyway I like your writing. I find it sad that people have sunk into such intellectual decay as to find fault with a difference of opinion.
Following the text of the comment is a URL for the homepage of an “air ambulance” company.

As you can see, the comment itself looks for all the world like a typical entry in an ongoing online argument, complete with familiar elements such as the Defensively Self-Justifying Tone and the Pissy Parting Shot. What’s interesting is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the discussion into which it was posted—nor has the poster ever been seen in Electrolite before.

What a surprise: the IP address from which the comment was posted turns out to be in Belarus.

All in all, a pretty artful piece of work. I wonder how many such comments this operation will manage to parachute into less suspiciously-minded weblogs. I wonder if as time goes on we’ll see even greater sophistication, as spammers devise ways to simulate entire typical online personalities, using elaborate algorithms designed to emulate not just random weblog trolls but entire ongoing interactive personae. All in pursuit of that ever-desirable bloggy Googlejuice.

Indeed, are we sure it isn’t already happening right now? I mean, I know I’m real, but where did all you zombies come from—? [10:39 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on The persistence of lunchmeat.:

mythago ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 10:49 AM:

I'm in awe; everything in that spam was spelled correctly.

John D. Owen ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:01 AM:

Now that has got to be a sign of things to come, more's the pity. Just think, if the ingenuity that went into designing the algorithm that generated that was put to legitimate use, the guys running the operation could rival Microsoft in a few years. What a waste of talent.

Steve ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:07 AM:

This one is much more well done then similar spams that have been showing up on Modulator.

I think you are pretty accurate in describing the evolutionary process that is taking place.

And, of course, you are real. Really, you are....

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:20 AM:

Sounds like it's time to alert the Turing Police.

Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:24 AM:

A Quick & Dirty path to Supertoys?

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:29 AM:

That thing would fit in, say, 50%+ of discussions without a problem. If the comment spammers figure out how to collect and use context as well . . .

rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:35 AM:

Anybody have a clue as to how an air ambulance company is helped by a better google ranking? I wouldn't think that a google ranking would be the way people pick their air ambulances, but maybe I'm naive . . .

Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:40 AM:

rea: why yes, as I lie bleeding near my wrecked car, I always pull out the laptop and cell phone, hook them up, and google for a suitable air ambulance. From Belarus.


Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:45 AM:

Well, if they do get to the point of simulating online personae - what's the problem? They won't really be comment spam any more, will they? And if the simulations are interesting and pleasant, or even witty, they might even be useful participants! And if they act like trolls, well, a troll is a troll, be it human or machine.

Honestly, what a biocentric view you're taking. One would think you were a raving simulaphobe.

Yes, I'm kidding. (We won't have comment spam that sophisticated for months yet.) Seriously, if we really can't tell by any means, is there really a difference? I've seen some pretty dorky posts by people who I'm almost sure were human...even if they are engaging in Googlomachy. If I put as my website link a site I want to promote, and otherwise comment sensibly and politely, am I any better than an AI doing the same thing? I don't know the answer, I just think it's an interesting question.

Eliza ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 11:58 AM:

Tell me more about turns out to be in Belarus.

BSD ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 12:04 PM:

Wonderful. NLP will be solved by spammers. Great. I'm not sure I want to persist in a post-singularity world where our never-organic bretheren were born from Make Money Fast.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 12:24 PM:

Is it any worse than being descended from pond scum?

Life is reproduction, and reproduction isn't always pretty.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 12:30 PM:

Sheer minimalism works too:

Could you be more specific?

Bub ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 12:34 PM:

You know, I hate to get all "P.C.," but zombie is such a horribly misused term. It should only refer to victims of Voudoun or Obeah rituals that use psychotropic drugs, isolation, and trauma to destoy an individual's will.

I prefer to be called a flesh-eating revenant.

Anyway, I like your writing...

Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 12:35 PM:

Rah! Rah! RAH!

Paul Robinson

Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 01:05 PM:

"Paul" claims that Paul is inaccurate, Chuck.

Robert S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 01:13 PM:

You make a good point. I've seen others focus on this subject before, but I think you've expressed it particularly well. I'll definitely have to check in here more often. You're bookmarked! :)

(Hah-hah - though the obnoxious flattery above could apply to any post, I do enjoy your blog and agree that comment spam is a nasty, ever increasing problem. I can't believe the shameful things folks will do just to improve their Google ranking! Oh and please do check out my blog. ;)

Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 01:42 PM:

Yeuggh. BSD's dystopian vision gives me that awful sinking feeling. Not only does this feel very nasty, and that you could get an entire novel out of it without difficulty, it's got that sense of 'not only could this future happen, but it could be just around the corner' (eg Gattaca).

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 01:51 PM:

I'm not as impressed by this as some people seem to be. It's kind of like ELIZA: in some ways, very impressive, but also misleading. Some people look at that spam and think "wow, next thing you know, the spam-bots will be holding real conversations!" But that spam wasn't the result of incredible feats of programming; the level of programming needed to insert it into lots of blogs is no more nor less than that needed to insert really poorly spelled unconvincing spam (though they did have to deal with the "preview-first" policy). It's just that the payload is very carefully crafted, by someone fluent and literate in English, so as to fit in smoothly in many contexts.

For that matter, we don't even know for sure that the spam comment was inserted by a bot, and not by hand. How many other instances of it have turned up? Given the evidence I've seen, Occam's razor suggests that it was manual spam.

As for the air ambulance company, I've heard that at least in the Swiss Alps there are helicopter rescue services to which hikers and skiers can subscribe, kind of like Auto Clubs for drivers in the US. There are also similar assistance and towing services for boaters here. Such a service would want to be found by as many searchers as possible, just as an Auto Club would want to be the first result for "roadside assistance"; they're interested in getting people signed up in advance, rather than during an emergency.

Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 02:30 PM:

Hadn't heard that, Ken. My bad.

Camilo ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 02:43 PM:

Despite what Jeremy says, in his very judicious and proper tone, I do insist and concur with Avram and others: this is evolution in the best sense:
spambots create garbled test, which we delete.
More spambots come, v1.2, that create slightly less garbled test and on-topic posts. We delete.
Spambots v3.4 attack with their witty and accurate vision of the blogosphere, having traversed it all, and are able to debate our points and make a coherent argument.
We are deleted.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 03:11 PM:

I'm afraid I'm already picturing this scene in the steel-plated Electrolite offices:

TNH: Sit down and relax, Lunchmeat.

LUNCHMEAT: I kinda get nervous when I take tests.

TNH: You're in a thread.

LUNCHMEAT: Which one?

TNH: It's a hypothetical thread. You're in a thread where a number of posters have expressed their thoughts on a subject.

LUNCHMEAT: You have a great Blog. I just wanted to let you know.

TNH: Maybe you followed a link in from another weblog. Maybe you've been secretly lurking for months. So you scroll down and see a comment that you want to respond to.

LUNCHMEAT: You people! You make these questions, Mz. TNH or they write them down for you?

TNH: The comment is displayed before you in its font and character coding, with an honest but subtle misprision of the thread's talking point. Other posters have wiggled their fingers in the hot sun in attempts to communicate their concern. They're rotating the thread off its belly. And now, your name appears with its gratuitous nonsequitor. You're not contributing!

LUNCHMEAT: Tastes differ. I canít agree with you, sorry. What do mean [grep 'laststring;' echo: ] "not contributing!"

TNH: That's all!

[Lunchmeat's IP address switches and forty more comment-spam bombs are launched; but MT Blacklist and MySQL send them to the bitbucket before any appear.]

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 03:17 PM:

Camilo, I wasn't saying that we aren't seeing evolution of comment spam; just that I haven't yet seen much evidence of anything approaching "artificial intelligence". Using, of course, the standard definition of AI: whatever we don't yet know how to implement.

Robert S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 03:21 PM:

Less like evolution, Camilo, which is blind, and more like the free market, which is studied and deliberate and shouldn't be allowed to trample all over the proletariat unchecked! Up with the people!

(OK, I got a little carried away.)

BSD ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 03:29 PM:

IDCs positing a sub-optimal creator aside, Pond Scum was not delicately crafted for malice.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 03:59 PM:

Since I went without MT-Blacklist for quite a while longer than you did, I saw a number of these; even some which were real comments with commercial URLs. If they fit into the discussion, what I did was remove the URL. (MT-Blacklist in despam mode cleaned these out later.)

Here's a nasty possibility: benign comments made under the name of some of your regular readers but with commerical URLs.

In the longrun, PGP may be a necessary component of blog comments. (There's already a plugin for that.)

bryan ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 04:10 PM:

Tastes differ. I'm sorry but you just don't agree with me... Anyway i like your skull. I just find it sad that people have sunk into such intellectual decay their brains are not sufficiently filling to keep a zombie fit to stumble.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 04:15 PM:

Skulls differ. I'm zombie but you just don't decay with me. I just find it sorry that people brains are not sufficiently tasty.

Speaking of decay.

Whopundit ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 05:46 PM:

I'm not really a zombie, but I'd love sweet Googlejuice for this chronology of Bush administration statements that winning in Iraq is winning, but losing in Iraq is also winning: http://whopundit.blogspot.com/2004_04_25_whopundit_archive.html#10831798476660158

Apologies for shamelessness. But who ever heard of an easily shamed zombie?

Chud ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 06:27 PM:

Brains? Odd you should be talking about tastes. Many of us like them just this way. But you're right, and I've been reading your blog for a long time. How true!

tost ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 06:54 PM:

Who are you people, and how did you get in my computer?

David ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 07:03 PM:

This is perhaps stating the obvious, but could the spammers be recycling real comments from a real website somewhere?

George ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 07:40 PM:

Oh come on! You've got to be kidding. That line of argument is such a miserable failure

Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2004, 07:44 PM:

I find myself wondering what would happen if a Vingean singularity ended up being an inteligent spam creation device.

Pearl ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2004, 12:34 AM:

No -- he didn't mean it that way.

Jesse ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2004, 09:53 AM:

I got that exact same comment left on my weblog about a month ago, with a link leading to an online gambling site. Since my weblog is, um, low-traffic, it seemed a little weird, so I deleted it. It's more artful than most of the comment spam I get, which accounts for about a quarter of my comments (and is still low-volume enough to trim out by hand).

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2004, 03:33 PM:

I see a lot of comments spam that either contains amusing aphorisms, or bland comments - like the one Patrick cites - designed to blend in with the conversation.

I just look at the URLs in the message. If the message does not relate to the previous conversations, and the URLs go to commercial sites, then the message gets zapped.

Here's what I can't figure out: sometimes I'll see a message which is a non-sequitir, completely out of context in the preceding conversation, but which contains no URL, just an e-mail address. What's up with that? Somebody's spam cannon misfiring?

Pondering Patrick's post, I thought of a comment by Vernor Vinge (or one of those guys), which is that much of the interesting action in AI gets overlooked. It's not that computers standing alone will develop intelligence (whatever "intelligence" is), but rather that computers will augment human intelligence.

We're already seeing that, with the wealth of information available on Google. Yesterday, I got into a discussion about the history of the American Civil War, a subject about which I don't know enough, and I Googled a few documents to study up. Twenty years ago I would have had to go to the nearest library - which is to say, I would not have looked that information up at all then, because I would not have been sufficiently motivated.

Of course, all of this is nothing new. It even pre-dates the invention of writing. The very first proto-human to tie a string around his finger to remember something was using technology to augment his intelligence. (Probably he was reminding himself to invent string.)

Still, computers and the Internet enable us to use technology to augment our intelligence in new and exciting ways.

Jeremy Leader is right. The technology behind this is not particularly impressive - it's probably just the same code that pumps out the clumsy, typo-ridden foreignglish that we see in most comments spam. It's just that whoever sent THIS spam took some time to write something more realistic-looking.

But the net result is the same: it's a machine that passes the Turing test. It appears to be human - at least it does if you're not paying close attention.

Ray ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2004, 11:42 PM:

I know this is hardly surprising, but I'm comfortable with my own control-freak approach of treating comments as letters-to-a-person-who-chooses-to-make-some-public.

But I don't get near as many comments as you guys, and editorial control is one reason why (there are dozens of others), and I wouldn't be able to handle as many comments as you guys, for that same reason (minus the dozens).

Jaquandor ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 12:10 AM:

I've just done a Google search on the phrase "people have sunk into such intellectual decay as to find" (because it's ten words), and lo and behold, it pops up in several other places, as part of the same sentence as here. Interesting.

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 03:02 AM:

I also checked out the google results--but what's odd, some of the others appear to be legit--they're on LotR sites. One URL is for another tolein site, one is a simple email, and the third is, indeed, that air amulance site (posted by "ambulance).

Can it be a virus? Or maybe it's one of those canned paragraphs like corporate letter-writers use...? (Ask me sometime about my temp job in AARP's correspondence dept...)

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 09:43 AM:

I am from Zombania, of course.


initiation secedes Uruguay oronoco
more things in heaven and earth than
spam noodle spam noodle spam noodle

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 08:13 PM:

Say, Robert L., would you tell us about your temp job in AARP's correspondence department?

m ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2004, 11:31 AM:

"I mean, I know Iím real..."

Are you quite certain? What are your criteria?

cyclopatra ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 03:27 AM:

Tastes differ, but All You Zombies is one of the greatest sci-fi shorts of all time.

Then again, at one point I did own a copy of every Heinlein book in the catalog (an apex my library is still trying to reachieve after 4 moves in 5 years), so maybe I'm biased.

Real Live Preacher ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 09:23 PM:

Man, that's scary. My computer is currently in control of some kind of sophisticated adware that even spybot is helpless over. I was looking at MY OWN BLOG and noticed that the word mortgage was hyperlinked to a mortgage company.

But only using IE. In netscape, no. This program hijacks Internet Explorer, then watches for words and alters the html to link to whatever it wants.

very sneaky. I got rid of it, but I have other sneaky programs in there that I can't stop. The beast is always on our trail. Every good thing can and will be turned into a money maker.

meta4 ::: (view all by) ::: May 13, 2004, 04:45 AM:

hey patrick,
psssst....does the size of your cerebrum make you shy?

love your lbog

icarus charleston merriweather