Chomsky and Schwarzenegger and me, and nutspam

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With the coming of email, a vital resource that once had a real cost became essentially free for everyone. Once it used to cost at least a few pennies to send a communication through the mail, but now it is free. And one of the awful results is a new kind of deviant linguistic behavior in our culture: the mass-mailing of unsolicited loony outpourings. It needs a name; I suggest calling it nutspam.

I have been receiving nutspam from several clearly deranged and annoying citizens. Probably none of them are doing anything that's against any law anywhere. They might even be protected by the First Amendment. One guy, in particular (a total stranger to me), seems to be ramping up. He sends out wild political (and occasionally personal) discontented ravings several times a day, from many different and frequently changing free email addresses he has set up. It's just ordinary email to valid email addresses that he has found on websites, and he isn't selling anything. But it's not just a few addresses that he mails to.

This guy is mailing his daily screeds to the American Civil Liberties Union; former Senator Al Gore; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; the city council and city manager of Santa Cruz, California; the entire staff of the School of Engineering and numerous other faculty members at the University of California, Santa Cruz, plus its student newspaper; most of the reporters and editors on the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News; Professor Noam Chomsky and several other MIT faculty members; several faculty members at the University of Chicago; the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in Washington; the University of Phoenix; the fiction editor at The New Yorker; CNN Headline News; the Associated Press; the Berlitz company in Japan; the Baseball Hall of Fame; the House Judiciary Committee; the letters pages of the New York Post, the New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine, and the San Jose Mercury News; the acquisitions editors of the University of Chicago Press, Macmillan, W. W. Norton, Random House, and numerous smaller publishing houses; the Brazilian, Nigerian, Peruvian, and Russian embassies; the Gmail administration team's "no-reply" address; the "report abuse" address for Yahoo!; and hundreds of others, including all of his own different addresses (talking to himself) — nearly 500 addressees in all, visible in the "To:" field and thus available for capture and further spamming (so far, mercifully, no one has started replying to the entire list).

What does the nutspammer mail about? Oh, that President Ahmedinejad and everyone appointed by G. W. Bush should step down and the US constitution must be reformed and new countries must be created and cartels and inequality must be eliminated and the decline of the minimum wage is bad and so is the financial crisis and he has failed to get certain jobs that he applied for and all university regents and administrators and sports team owners and Supreme Court justices should be terminated and their property reappropriated by the people and all universities should be run by ecology students and there should be redistribution of wealth and cessation of wastefulness… all in a babbling, wandering stream of unpunctuated urgent staccato clauses without initial capitals. It changes a little from day to day, but the general flavor is something like a liberal version of the Unabomber without the letter bombs.

Hardly any of the hundreds of people who get these daily (sometimes multiple) missives can prevent them being delivered. (Hardly any of us run good mail filtering programs that we know how to maintain and tweak: we aren't all administrators of our own mail delivery domains, and anyway it's not as if the configuring and command language of procmail were a piece of cake.)

All we can do is hope for this guy to get well again, or else (more sadly) have an accident that somehow tragically breaks all of his fingers. Anything to put him out of the email business. Until that day, we unlucky recipients — Chomsky and Schwarzenegger and the rest of us — have to peck away at our email inboxes, recognizing his latest aliases and deleting his latest foaming-at-the-mouth nutspams. In a way, I'd like to get to this guy and punish him — at least cut the keyboard cable on his computer or something. But in another way I guess he has been punished enough: he apparently has no job, and his only occupation is sending out nutspam. I do wish he'd stop; but on balance I guess I'd rather be me deleting it than be him sending it.


  1. R said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    If you've sold your soul to Gmail, it should be a relatively easy task to make a filter that automatically deletes emails sent to, say, you and Chomsky and the Yahoo! report abuse addresses. That doesn't really get at the heart of the problem, but it might keep it off your radar for a while.

    [Unfortunately the most annoying offenders are using my university email address, where all my administrative work has to be done, and it does not give me the kind of filtering that is possible with Gmail (it is the Gmail account that gets, and should get, most of the very welcome email from Language Log readers such as yourself). —GKP]

  2. Dierk said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    I wonder if he knows his e-mails do not support explosions.

  3. groki said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    as a term, "nutspam" has a whiff of pr0n for me.

    how about "e-tic"?

    in any case, the guy seems to suffer from something "unvoluntary" according to "Definitions and Classification of TIC Disorders":

    Tics occur as an involuntary movement or as a response to an urge to perform the movement, which transiently relieves the sensation. The label of "unvoluntary" movement is used to fit this latter situation, ie, the movement is a response to relieve an unpleasant sensation. These "unvoluntary" movements are commonly perceived by the patient as voluntary(7) and, therefore, are often, but not always, partially or fully temporarily suppressible. […] But when tics are suppressed, an inner tension of discomfort tends to build up, which is relieved only by an increased burst of tics.

  4. Amy Stoller said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    Would like to point out that internet access is not free for most of us. So while sending and receiving email may be inexpensive, it does have a cost. Quite apart from the fact that time is worth something, too.

    [Quite right. My point is that the nutspammer does not pay extra for each address mailed to, which was the case in the days of stamps and envelopes. —GKP]

  5. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    And you can use the rules or block list feature(s) of whichever email program you use to stop email from particular addresses. If your benefactor has several address, you need to block them all–a one-time operation–to be free of the scourge.

    [Please, Mr Fnorter, I am not a babe in arms about these matters. I know about filtering. But (a) the university address that several nutspammers have obtained to reach me does not allow the fully customized spam filtering I would need, and (b) in two of the most egregious cases of nutspamming that I have been suffering, the culprit has been starting up entirely new addresses week by week, using various disguises to make the mail look different from previous nutspam. It is quite difficult, on any system, to block personally delivered plain-text messages sent from a newly created email account with a randomly chosen login name. —GKP]

  6. greg said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    R got it right. Gmail and other services often allow you to set filters based on not just sender's address, but also recipient's addresses. So you can set up a filter that trashes emails sent to the unity of you, The Governator and The Chomskinator. Or whatever other unity of recipients which would not normally receive legitimate mail together.

  7. Robert T McQuaid said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    A closely related abuse is communication from people on the right side, but in such excessive volume that it has to be ignored.

  8. Picky said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    Well, yeah, you're right, and thank goodness the bloke's not mailing me, the looney. But (get your philosophy hat on) what's the difference between nutspammer and nutblogger – morally, perhaps?

    [Surely you jest? I am happy for anyone in the world to put their ravings onto a blog that they maintain. I don't have to visit their blog. And if you mean commenters on other people's blogs, again, I can just not spend time reading through the relevant comments sections. Email is utterly different. I am trying to do my day job here: promotions and hirings and leave approvals and school governance and committee work and curriculum design and external reviews and a thousand other things. Working through the mail queue takes half the day as it is. Having to eyeball the queue and spot the day's nutspammers and delete their contributions before I get down to the real work is just one more chore dumped on me, and I have only finite time in the day to do all this. —GKP]

  9. Chris said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    "Former Senator Al Gore"! He did have another high-profile job at one point.

    [I identified him by the job that was worth more than a bucket of warm piss. —GKP]

  10. Colin said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    Amy Stoller:
    I think you might have forgotten that public libraries exist within walking distance of a lot of places.

  11. Spectre-7 said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    I have to agree about the pornographic sound of nutspam. As a replacement, I'd like to suggest lunaspam.

  12. Yuval said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    What, "former President-elect Al Gore"?

  13. Sybil said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    I get this sort of thing, but it's a person who seems to think it is terribly edgy to suggest that space might not be infinite, He keeps changing email addresses, as you say. But he always signs the same name. I guess it's a "he", although this being the internet, who knows?

    Anyway, the missives are much shorter and more readable than what you say you're getting, so I do sometimes check them out in my spam folder for amusement value. Although how I got on this person's radar, I can't imagine. (Come to think of it, do I even know it's a person?)

  14. fog said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    Former Vice President Al Gore.

  15. janes'_kid said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    The candidates running for elected office in the US have my USPS address and my phone number and they send me nutty printed stuff and have robots leaving voice messages all the time.

    My filtered email is the only safe place where I can communicate with individuals.

  16. peterv said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    Clearly, he's emailing all of you at once because together you comprise the collective leadership of the New World Order or the Illuminati or somesuch secret governing cabal. Although, to be honest, I was pretty sure that the Queen of England was also part of that group, and he seems to have left her off the list – unless she's moonlighting as faculty member of the Engineering School at UC, Santa Cruz.

  17. nate zuckerman said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    This is no problem for me. I love all the mail, spam or otherwise. I am fairly lonely since I retired and my wife left me and my kids seem mostly out of touch with me. I look forward to having messages each day.

  18. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    In actuality, being a US senator is more prestigious than being a US vice president. I'm sure he prefers the honorary title "Senator" to "Mr Vice President."

  19. Joe Fineman said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

    Astonishingly, I have been spared almost all of this. (Perhaps Verizon is doing the filtering for me? If so, hurray for Verizon!) I do get an occasional offer to participate in the transfer of large sums of imaginary money, but it's a minute fraction of my incoming mail.

    I even cherish a wonderful piece of spam I received several years ago. It purported to be an intercepted email from the prophet Elijah to a member of the Israeli cabinet, offering advice on foreign policy. And it came from China!

  20. Kester Taylor said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    I have been fortunate enough to never receive anything quite so batty, though I have over the few years been exposed many a chain email right-wing rant misattributed to Some Famous Liberal from my mother and/or her fundy friends.

  21. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 1:08 am

    Many well-run email systems have a machine-learning system which can be taught to classify the nutty email as spam. (The email system I run has that property, as does the one run by other people for my place of employment.) I don't get "nutspam" as it were, but at the office I certainly do treat "adminispam" the same way. (Adminispam being those extremely urgent missives sent out from Mahogany Row about the search committee for the new Assistant Dean for Search Committees and suchlike.) I use Bill Yerazunis's (sp?) CRM-114 Discriminator and the accompanying demo script called "mailreaver.crm", which has the lowest error rate of anything I've seen. (And frankly, the false positives are rarely anything I care about missing anyway.)

    I run a Web site dedicated to broadcasting history; my equivalent to "nutspam" in that context appears to be flacks bearing press releases who are under the mistaken impression that I will assign one of my nonexistent reporters to give them some undeserved "free media". Well, that and the "could you tell me the name of the song you played last Wednesday at 10:27 AM?"

  22. fs said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    R and greg are correct – if you are using gmail or some other sufficiently advanced mail system, you can block emails sent to particular combinations of recipients. Unfortunately this is easily circumvented by moving your recipient list from the "To:" field to the "BCC:" field. Let's hope your, uh, admirer is not smart enough to do this…

  23. Eric said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 2:59 am

    I thought the Unabomber was the liberal version of the Unabomber.

  24. Rolig said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 3:58 am

    @ Mr. Fnortner: Although senators may seem to have a more prestigious job than vice presidents, in fact they do not. Among other things, the U.S. vice president is presides over the Senate and has the privilege of casting the tie-breaking vote in that august body. Al Gore is properly referred to by his higher-ranking title, as (former) (U.S.) Vice President Al Gore. (By the way, whatever happened to the hyphen in "vice-president"? These days, and perhaps even more so in the previous administration, one might easily assume that "vice president" means "the one who presides over vice".)

  25. maidhc said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 4:55 am

    If you're of the royal line, you have the hereditary ability to cure the King's Evil. Hence you will constantly be accosted by mendicants demanding your healing touch.

    It's a compliment, in a way

    Maybe you could work it up into a demand that you be continually carried about in a sedan chair so that your sacred feet never come in contact with the polluted earth.

    You would cut a fine figure being carried along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, throwing out rose petals to the joggers, bikers and skateboarders.

  26. John Walden said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 5:20 am

    Those emails that offer aphrodisiacs and ways to enlarge a part of my anatomy. It's uncanny how they know just who to send them to. Unless my wife has been blabbing again.

  27. J. Goard said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 6:41 am


    Well, he does principally frame his manifesto ("Industrial Society and its Future") as a warning against "leftism", which "is in the long run inconsistent with wild nature, with human freedom and with the elimination of modern technology." (par. 214)


    The way you describe your guy's spam is not at all like the Unabomber's writing. The latter contains a lot of crap, of course, but it is thoughtfully constructed and well-punctuated. Content and presentation are, sadly, separable; not all such ideas wear their crazy on their sleeve.

    [I agree: while the grim-jawed protest about the way the world is going links them, the difference is that the Unabomber was a well-educated man who wrote careful prose. (Tellingly, he had a copy of Strunk and White in his cabin! There is actually an article by Catherine Prendergast, "The fighting style: Reading the Unabomber's Strunk and White" [behind a pay wall, regrettably] analyzing what he made of it and what his fondness for it says about his authoritarian personality. ) —GKP]

  28. Tim Silverman said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 7:11 am

    A few years ago I got a couple of spams detailing someone's nutty ideas on cosmology and physics, at which my spontaneous exclamation was, "Good grief! Crackpot spam!"

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 7:21 am

    You need a Bayesian filter on your email account. Spam assassin and Spam Bayes should both do the trick. If you email me the details of what email client you are using I can either advise you, or get more knowledgeable people to, on what is the best set up.

  30. John said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    Your solution lies in battering your IT department until they get the message and implement effective filters. It is actually part of their job description! If you don't swing the weight, the enlist the Dean to carry your cudgel. The wasting of your time on dealing with the nuisance is time not spent on your own, professional duties, no?

    There are, however, plenty of ways for IT to screen for key words, the appearance of any of which should route the spam to trash. Unless your anticipating e-mail from, say, the Baseball Hall of Fame (hopes to spring!), that alone would be a pretty good indicator of unwanted messages.

    You have to have a bit of faith in your IT departments IQ on this, however. Some get overly agressive–as did mine at State Dept.–and block the wrong words.

    A step you might take individually is to replace your publicly posted e-mail address with something not quite so machine readable. Again, there're plenty of free plug-ins for blogs, for instance, that will mask your actual address.

  31. Erin said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    Dr. Pullum, you may have already considered the following approach, but I'll mention it since I haven't seen it yet in the comments. I use Gmail's forwarding service to fetch mails from my university account. That allows me to use Gmail as a sort of shadow version of my university account. I can even send mail as "erin @ university" rather than "erin @ gmail" from that Gmail account. More importantly, it gives me access to Gmail's filtering service since I can't easily adjust my university account's spam filter. The drawback is that I must remember occasionally to go to the university email and delete the email that's sitting around, marked as "read," in my inbox. But at least I don't have to deal with nutspam on a regular basis. Of course, this may be impractical for your particular situation, and you may have already thought of using the mail-fetching service, but I've found it helpful for the sake of filtering. Unfortunately, this doesn't do anything about the nutspammer himself.

  32. Rick S said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    Another possible solution: Create a free email account on the service of your choice, then send the crackpot a notice from that address, informing him that your email address has changed. Bonus points: Tell him the university is becoming suspicious and you set up this account just for him so you could be sure of not missing a single one of his important ideas.

  33. Jon B said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    This deviant linguistic behavior isn't entirely new. When I was a student attorney at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, we would receive faxed screeds fairly regularly, and screeds by U.S. mail several times a year. The content was much the same as you describe, and the TO: or CC: lines often included various CEOs, the Secretary General of the UN, and occasionally high-profile professors. The best ones would be posted in our break room. The wonders of technology may have reduced the barriers to (a) sending fresh nutspam more often, and (b) identifying targets for the nutspam. But nuts invented spam long ago; the internet is merely assistive technology.

  34. et said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    You can use Thunderbird to consolidate and filter your email.

  35. Freddy said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    In the (apparently unlikely) event that this will help, here is a help page for filtering and such using procmail:

    I see you are not a "Babe in the woods", and I'm not even certain there is just one program called procmail, but I moved by sympathy to make the gesture…

  36. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    I was going to suggest what Erin suggested. Though I suppose it sounds like you have a system where it's useful to have separate in-boxes. I guess you can do that by setting up a new secret gmail account that just deals with university account e-mail.

  37. Arthur Spooner said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    Oh, so that explains it. Schwarzenegger is too busy reading emails from spam whack jobs to understand the bills he's signing into law. That must be how all those anti-prop 19 laws got passed:

    Way to go governator….

  38. SteveT said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    Most ISPs don't like spammers. If you trace the email and alert the ISP, then it's possible their account will be banned:

  39. Sybil said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    #J. Goard (actually @ GKP's response)

    OMFG. Mathematicians have gotten sufficiently used to accounting for the Unibomber, and now, this. Strunk & White? How will we live this down?

  40. W. Kiernan said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    There was a dude posting handwritten letters kinda like this on the front door of my office fifteen or so years ago. I was all "ooh Henry Darger!"

  41. James said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    A dopily obvious question that everybody else here has surely considered and rejected: Mr. Pullum, have you replied to the guy asking to be removed from his mailing list?

  42. Matthew Scouten said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    Might it be possible to have your University Email forwarded to your Gmail account?

  43. Colin said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    Ditto Erin and Kenny and Matthew. It works like a charm, especially given gmail's ability to change the address from which the email appears to be sent. The University will be none the wiser.

    The drawback of having everything go through one acct is the mingling of familial, commercial, professional, etc. communications, but OTOH I'm less likely to leave stuff unanswered.

  44. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    At least the spammer doesn't have your fax number. The newspaper where I work receives junk faxes, and every once in a while a person upset about a legal situation will send multi-page faxes explaining how he or she has been unjustly treated. The fax spam is always many pages long — never succinct. It sounds like it has that in common with your nutspammer.

    The faxes will go on for weeks or months, then stop, then someone new will begin to complain being mistreated and try to interest the press. Generally the prose isn't logical, even when it is presenting a legal argument.

    The faxes and your e-mails seem to come from people who can't navigate some aspect of the real world, feel victimized by the people who are enforcing the rules, believe that other people will see the injustice of the situation, and believe that telling their story will create pressure to make the perceived injustice go away.

    The belief that making something public will cast light on injustice seems to be a core belief with these spammers. It's a belief I share, but the problem with casting light on a particular situation is that justice isn't always clear when the person asking for justice can't deal with day-to-day realities of the legal system, such as having to submit documents to the court in a particular format.

    My situation isn't as bad as yours sounds. But wading through press releases is a constant task with my e-mail.

  45. Catherine Prendergast said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    Voila: No paywall.

    [(myl) .pdf here.]

  46. James Wimberley said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    What´s an antonym to spam? (The authentic message from the Nobel Prize committee, say, or the one telling you about your new granddaughter.) Ambrosimail? Wreathscreed?

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