Network: Signal failure caused by the wrong type of spam

Spammers, in my experience, are a larcenous bunch, not content to be merely creepy

THINK FOR a moment about signal-to-noise ratio. Signal is the desirable, useful, interesting part, while noise is the scratchy, ear- splitting or otherwise objectionable piece.

Example: I'm sitting in a packed 757 somewhere over America's desert south-west, heading for Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. Children are screaming, flight attendants are banging trolleys, the plane is rocking through turbulence. A silly movie is adding to the cabin's chaos.

Suddenly, clear and rich, the voice of Aretha Franklin belts out the feminist anthem "Respect". For three minutes, the noise of the Boeing and its occupants recedes into the background. Aretha's "signal" cuts through a powerful lot of "noise".

We who were young when radio was one of the most popular and prevalent cultural media had direct experience with teasing signal out of noise, especially if we lived in the boondocks. Because, at night, when conditions were right, radio waves could be relied on to skip over the horizon, bringing audible wonders from far away Meccas which we could only dream about in our backwater burgs.

Young Chris Gulker would lay under the bedcovers in a small Pennsylvanian town, with a large, valve-powered radio pulled close to the side of the bed. The volume was turned to a whisper, in the hopes of bringing in Wolfman Jack from distant California without waking a parent in the dead of night.

Young Bob Marley would stand in the gathering dusk, crowded around one of the few and treasured radios in a Jamaican ghetto, while some expert hand tried to bring in far away New Orleans. Those Fifties radio stations were broadcasting the birth of Rock'n'Roll live from clubs and bars.

Imagine that scene: the signal would fade into the static, obscured by loud crackles from lightning somewhere over the Caribbean. Frustration and anticipation as the dial was rocked back and forth; then the signal would rise out of the background crackle, at first faintly, then louder. Suddenly, a syncopated, backbeat rhythm, a brash and frantic piano lead: Professor Longhair or, perhaps, Fats Domino, would cut the sultry Jamaican air.

Marley and his peers listened in as an epochal cultural revolution was taking place in Louisiana. They would go on to invent their own music form, Reggae, almost out of thin air. One wonders what might have happened if their ancient radios had never been able to raise the signal above the noise?

So signal, by and large, is good and noise is bad, to put a subjective spin on the topic. Which gets me to spam, which is what this column is really about.

Spam, of course, refers to unwanted electronic communications. Some would say that spam properly means "off-topic postings in Usenet news groups", but the term has come to cover unwanted e-mail as well.

Spammers bother to flood the Internet with their solicitations for toe- fungus remedy, printer toner cartridges, phone sex, cheesy software, cheap hardware, shaky investment offerings, baldness cures, get-rich-quick schemes, pornography, new-age religion, chain letters and a wealth of other dubious stuff, because they think they will get rich this way. They figure there must be a few suckers in every million or so people. If you troll enough millions, you may be able to get hundreds of thousands of suckers. Thus, this crowd relentlessly chew up massive amounts of Internet bandwidth.

Indeed, they are so rapacious (not to mention annoying) that most legitimate Internet businesses try to keep them off the air. There's also the issue that, unlike junk mailers, who have to pay to deliver their offers to your door, spammers make you and me pay the bill.

In places like the UK, where phone companies still adhere to the Cro- Magnon practice of charging by the minute or second, spam shows up on your phone bill. It also shows up in slower Web page loading and file downloads.

Since Internet service providers and online services get so many complaints about spam, they have to hire people to handle the complaints and track down the perpetrators, and this expense gets passed on to the customer, one way or another.

Since the Net is largely self- policed, ISPs do each other the favour of kicking spammers off their service as soon as they are alerted to them. Spammers, for their part, buy increasingly sophisticated software to cover their tracks, while ISPs share ever more sophisticated techniques for blocking them, in a kind of spam arms race. And spammers, in my experience, are a larcenous bunch, not content to be merely creepy. They routinely snatch services and expensive bandwidth from the unsuspecting with tricks like hijacking other people's mail servers, analogous to taking your car for a joy ride, and returning it with an empty tank. Even though you've got your car back, you're out of pocket for the use of the vehicle and the cost of the petrol.

So, these guys are about noise - they make the noise level go higher in a medium that is already pretty noisy, to judge by the popularity of search engines.

Pity the young genius somewhere who, unlike Bob Marley, misses the signal on the Net, clogged by spam. Aretha Franklin may be the greatest example of signal to noise in the universe, but unlike Aretha, these creeps have no Respect.

cg@gulker.com

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