My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Sat, 20 Nov, 2004

An endless array of names and universes

(Note: This is an adaptation of an essay that I wrote last year, before I started ELECTRON BLUE. The spam situation is still the same as it was when I wrote it. I was inspired to re-write it by a news item.)

According to a recent news article, Bill Gates receives four MILLION e-mails every day and that there is a whole department at Microsoft set up just to handle the immensity of messages directed at him. The vast majority of this is spam, that is, unsolicited commercial e-mails, blasted into the Internet by the trillions every day.

I get spams too, but not as many as Bill. That's rather an understatement. I get about a hundred a day, which are caught in my ISP's righteous spam filter. No matter what they try, they can't get through this. Hail to Earthlink! I can open up the "repository" and look at what it caught, in fact I have to do this because occasionally it captures something which is legitimately addressed to me from a previously unknown sender.

What impresses me about the lineup of spams was that most of them are attributed to a person's name, cited in the "sender" field. Bogus of course, and paired with a bogus address, but still a personal name. This is adopted as a strategy to get through the filters, though since they were caught by my filter, it wasn't a very good strategy. Yet one after another, each spam mail has a person's name attached to it. I looked at a week's worth of spam (yes, I have too much time on my hands) and found hundreds and hundreds of these names. I was receiving drug ads and mortgage re-financing ads (the penis enlargement ads, so popular in 2003, seem to have passed out of fashion) from a whole crowd of people who were only names. A crowd of ghosts.

It is said that if you name something, then it has a kind of existence; it is made at least virtually real. Here on my screen was an endless roster of virtually real people: Mel Nolan. Timmy Clark. Rachael Fair. Theresa Schultz. Goldie Serrano. Debbie Cooper. Jed K. Burgos. Blair Harden. Kerry Cardenas. Anita Barone. Kitty Langston. Ruthie Yu. Irvin Flynn. Ellen Stephens. Dalton Avery. Tyrone Garces. Patricia Watkins. Michael Dominguez. Darin Sutherland….the list goes on and on and on. I collected more than three hundred names, all different. I have no idea how many other people received mail from these phantom names, but for me, every spam had a name, and none of them repeated. There were no repetitions of common names like "Smith" or "Jones" or "Martinez."

I started to wonder: who were these people? A kind of sociological curiosity arose in me, and I started taking notes. I noticed that the ethnic range of these names was rather limited. Apart from a couple of Chinese, Vietnamese, or Jewish names, almost all of the names were either "Anglo" or Latin, and even the Latin names often had an "Anglo" first name. There were also numerous names which seemed to fit the stereotype of an "African-American" or black-sounding name. There were not too many names that were clearly "European" such as German, Italian, or French names. And, more subtly, there seemed to be no "British" sounding names either, no one named Trevor or Nigel or, for that matter, Camilla.

The phone book of any American city is filled with a global variety of ethnicities and ethnic names. Plundering the phonebook to randomly generate names would not yield such an exclusive selection. Where did these names come from? They were contemporary names, not ones from the past with their Biblical and historical allusions. And they were American names, this earnest mixture of Anglo and Latin. Where were these people? Were they really real somewhere? They were not cute internet nicknames, they were given names. Were they plundered from mailing lists, hacked from office rosters of companies and firms or insurance listings or internet providers' memberships? I have heard that names and addresses of "real" people are commonly stripped and used as the origin of spams, in a scam known as a "joe job." Were all of these hundreds (thousands!) victimized this way? Was there really a Kirk Perry, a Frederic Beal, a Hugh Sandoval, a Stanley Godwin, an Arline Booth, a Carrie McIntyre, or a Jay Rodriguez, now cursing and frantically changing his or her e-mail address because his name and identity have been stolen in order to sell sex enhancement drugs?

As I often do, I had surrealistic thoughts. The spams, as thick as falling leaves in autumn, fill the virtual air, each with its own "realistic" sender name: Danielle Corcoran, Cassandra Pace, Coleman Lamb, William Fisher, Cathy Ann McNeil, Mariana Perez, Toby Bruce, Benjamin Bailey, Daniel Knowles, Jennifer Shore. Billions of spams, every day. One day's worth of spam has far exceeded the population of the entire Earth. Each day, astronomical numbers of virtual people are being named and thus, in a ghostly way, created. Do they have souls? Do they have lives, working in their offices somewhere in another dimension created by the unrelenting machinations of spam coders? Whole cities full of people, working tirelessly to send you and mortgage scams and prescription drugs, drugs, drugs, an endless supply of Viagra and amateur teen girl webcam pictures?

The answer was here, revealed by a bit of search engine revving. The Kleimo Random Name Generator can create as many virtual identities as you need. It uses data from the U.S. Census to combine names, as many as you want. It even regulates the "obscurity factor" of the names so you can get names from very ordinary John Smith-types to highly obscure ethnic or fantastic ones. And yet every name belongs to someone somewhere.

The creation of the trillions of names from lists is an example of a kind of math called combinatorics which I have not yet studied. Given any fixed number of first names and last names, combinatoric math can tell us just how many different ghost identities can be created from the lists.

Recently, a comic element has entered into the name generators, as spam-names have been created not from "realistic" names but from unusual words, seemingly picked at random, joined by a "middle initial." I've received spams from hilarious entities such as "Firmament V. Explosive," "Fiercely M. Rocketing," "Electroplate A. Obligingly," "Mailman L. Artistry," "Scapulae P. Yelping," "Instructor T. Bulbs," and other similar characters. "Primly R. Spree" and "Origin C. Fleshy" might appear in British bedroom farce, while "Psoriasis H. Lifeworks," "Tattled C. Senselessness," and "Outfitters M. Obnoxious" might come from down-home American satire. But beware of characters like "Dissolving P. Cynic," "Reproaching T. Aplenty," "Psycho I. Masculinity," or, for Gawd's sake, "Madwomen R. Imbalance." I would much prefer to receive my spam e-mail from "Exotically J. Budgeting," "Ebullient Anathema," or my favorite so far, "Cocktail A. Beatitude." And how is Mrs. Beatitude?

But most of the spams come from the "realistic" name generator. I have read speculations by imaginative physicists who posit that there are an infinite number of universes, parallel but unreachable from ours, and in at least some of them are Earths just like ours, with people just like us. In fact, somewhere out there, supposedly, is our exact duplicate. Is this particle shower of personalized junk e-mail really the whisper across the dimensions of other universes, filled with uncounted but named beings, whose only trace on our consciousness is a subject line with a name that sounds tantalizingly real: Clark Bernard, Robert Allen, Shawnda Ivan, Merrill Nichols, Averyl Sanders, Dwayne Negron, Nadia Duran, Janet Filson Davis, J.D. Martinsen, Florence Siegel, Margaret Madden…?

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