Your Weekly Reader

Friday, September 10, 2004

The Passion of the SPAM

Anyone who has been on the Internet for more than, say, five minutes is familiar with the wonders of spam. Unbidden, it comes to you, offering a world of free TVs, instant cash, and sexual activities that would make Larry Flynt blanch. I have one email address which is dedicated to nothing but spam. Whenever I need to provide an eddress at a site that I imagine is bound to loose the floodgates of junk mail, I use this Yahoo address. There's a lot I hate about Yahoo, but since they now provide 100mb of storage, and don't count your Bulk Mail (i.e. crap) against your limit, their webmail service is perfect for this use.

Now that all my junk mail - 40 or more messages a day - is gathered in one place, I've become somewhat fascinated by it. The obvious question is, "Who is falling for this crap?" As P.T. Barnum told us, there's a sucker born every minute (or maybe it was a competitor, David Hannum, or perhaps yet another con man of the era, "Paper Collar" Joe Bessimer), and as W.C. Fields elaborated, "Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump." The theory is that if you send out enough messages, and even a tiny fraction of your marks bite, you'll turn a profit. And if someone's offering you free money or sexy singles in your area or even NFL pilsner glasses, the desire to bite may seem insurmountable.

Unless you've already seen the exact same message 50 times!

My interest is not in the economic theory behind spam, but in its ebb and flow. New messages appear as old messages drift away, perhaps simply on hiatus, perhaps gone for good. Sure, there are the classics: "Increase the size and girth of your penis;" "Young Teen Virgins;" "Find your Dream Date today." There are the electronic versions of direct mail offers from music clubs and credit card companies. There are the scams from "CitiBank" that ask you to confirm your password and PIN. There's anything labeled "SEXUALLY EXPLICIT," as if you wouldn't notice the message were it not in ALL CAPS. But new pitches arise daily. For example, Christy Cream (no relation to the pastry) is apparently the new porn star du jour, as I've seen her name appearing frequently in my spam. I've been getting a lot of offers for "free" wine lately. Is this a result of my online activities or just a new marketer in the mix? It's hard to tell. Viagra has dropped way down, no pun intended. With very little effort, it seems I could be swimming in free iPods, laptops and flat screen TVs, not to mention all the barbecue and ice cream I can eat.

And the big one, Christian Debt Relief.

For the past two to three months, my mailbox has been awash in offers to eliminate my bills the Christian way. Some of these money changers, such as the Christian Debt Advisor and the Christian Lending Network, turn up in my box anywhere from once a week to every day. Some, such as Christian Debt Removers, appear not under their own name but such pseudonyms as Spectacular Planet and WideOpenDream. But they're all selling the same thing: freedom from want, with a Gospel swing.

What makes Christian financial advisors different from their heathen counterparts? For one, their advertising. When you click on a message from Christian Debt Advisor, for example, there's an image of a man in field with his arms outstretched, in a pose that could imply financial freedom or Christ on the cross. They underscore their motto - "Debt management services based on Christian values" - with a quote from Matthew 6:12 (the Lord's Prayer): "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." This is not Catholic debt management, or the quote would be, "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Perhaps that's reserved for Christian legal advice. In a telling moment, the link you click to be removed from the list begins, "TailWaggingOffer," implying that these Christians are not so removed from other spam artists as they might wish us to believe.

When you click on the ad - in a journey that includes (their marketing mask) and - you are taken to the sign in page for You can tell you are among Christians by 1) the color scheme of Virgin Mary blue and white, 2) the three robin's egg blue crosses in the upper left corner, 3) the line drawing in the upper right corner of two figures, one kneeling and one standing, possibly Jesus and Mary or maybe Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and 4) the smiling young Christian family of Mommy, Daddy, Baby and Two Dogs. Hey, if you're so far in debt, you might want to cut back on the pets. You can't get any information about Christian debt relief unless you provide your contact information, including email address and home phone number, and have a minimum of $5000 unsecured debt. At this site, proselytizing comes at a price.

Several of these organizations represent the same business. Christian Lending Network (Christian Lenders - Christian Principles), Christian One Low Bill (Eliminate financial payments the Christian way) and Christian Debt Removers (Remove your bills the Christian way) all link to and all list an operating address of 11787 Bayou Lane, Boca Raton, Florida. CLN quotes from Psalms (112:5 "God will come to him who is generous and lends freely"), CDR from Proverbs (22:7 "the borrower is a slave to the lender") and Romans (13:8 "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another"). No one cites my favorite Proverb (26:27), which has more to do with Wile E. Coyote than debt relief: "He who digs a pit will fall into it, / And he who rolls a stone, it will come back on him." The pit certainly applies. COLB offers to "eliminate one of Satan's best weapons ... your debt." Christian One Low Bill does the best job of bringing Christ into Christian debt relief. Their site is decidedly low-tech, but it prominently features a stained glass Jesus, the C in Christian wears a halo raked at a jaunty angle, and in addition to the Satan line they promise to help you "Travel a path to better choices," "Lead a simpler, happier life" and "Destroy temptations due to your current debt situation." How can you say no?

Unlike Christian Debt Advisor, Christian One Low Bill and Christian Debt Removers offer some information up front, in their (identical) About Us, FAQ and Facts About Debt pages. These pages are the standard boilerplate you'd read on any debt relief site, with some exceptions in Facts About Debt. Here you'll learn that "A majority of churches in the US are struggling financially because their members are struggling financially." Thus, at last, the rationale behind Christian debt consolidation! God, we are told, knows what you need, and will provide the things you need but can't afford. Unfortunately, this does not include that new TiVo. Visitors are told to "make all financial decisions based on the principles of God's Word, not the 'wisdom' of the world." For many, I suspect this would lead to commitments to poverty and charity they're not quite ready to undertake.

The Christian Lending Network is not about debt consolidation, but home loans, from 2nd mortgages and refinancing to home equity loans. They require a minimum purchase of $200,000, proposing a closer link between God and mammon than I think either would appreciate. Their biggest competitor is, which takes the extra step of invoking both God and Country, with a crucifix on an American flag. CMU's debt relief arm (these two services always seem to go arm in arm) is Christian Debt Helpers, which adds a Bible to the mix of cross and flag. None of these sites offer much information before you make a commitment, and while CLN seems to offer a free quote on their home page, they require all your contact information before you can proceed.

There's no reason why organizations and businesses that identify themselves as Christian owned and operated should not offer debt consolidation and other forms of loans. I'm not sure exactly how I ended up on their lists, outside of the fact that they are marketing their products as aggressively as your average smut peddler. And after looking through their site, I'm still not sure which Christian principles apply to debt reduction. We can be pretty certain, under these circumstances, that "Christian" means "Evangelical," and we all know that that arm of the faith is particularly good at amassing wealth. So it's fairly natural that they should decide to go into this sort of work.

I'm just not sure it's God's work.


Once I'm finished refinancing my mortgage and consolidating my debt, it's time to kick back and relax. And where better than the Christian Café? (All Christian. All Single.) This "premiere Christian singles site" tells us that "250,000 Christian Singles Can't be wrong." Wait a minute! Didn't that line refer to Brigitte Bardot? And before that, some burlesque star? I can't place the reference, but the copywriter for the Christian Café doesn't even know there is a reference. Unless this is an example of Evangelical Christianity's well known sense of irony. Uh, no. The Christian Café is like any other dating site, except that in addition to posting your photo and profile, you can also post a prayer. Whatever humps your camel. Their main competitor, which is also sending me emails, is a site called Where Christians Meet, with the "t" presented as a cross. Of course. This site requires not only a minimum age of 25, but a minimum income of $25,000. In case you want to consolidate your debt or refinance your home as your relationship progresses, I suppose.


Most of the Christian spam is sent out under names which relate to the product: Christian Dating, Church Love, Where Christians Meet. Christian Bill Removers, Christian Debt Advisor, Christian Lending Network. Such is not the case, of course, with standard spam. Some of the names are nonsense (, some could be anything (americanoffergroup), some are fake names (Craig Kerr, Haley Fritz). Recently, some spammers have taken to utilizing a name generator of which I am particularly fond. It is the Li'l Abner, or perhaps Pogo, name generator.

How this program works is that it takes multisyllabic English words, sometimes less-than-common ones, though not always, and separates them with an initial. Generally the names are both nouns, but adjectives have been known to make an appearance. Thus, you end up with such names as Industrial F. Noncombatant (that's Mister Industrial F. Noncombatant to you) or Clandestine L. Amoeba (a lovely girl). Every now and then, the million monkeys at the million typewriters come up with a truly inspired moniker, like Inversion C. Backup (a post-Apocalyptic preacher?) or Villainous D. Peace (the richest man in town). Some, such as McAdam C. Gambling and Catullus V. Camphor, I expect to see on the next season of Deadwood. And then there are those who stick in the mind while trying to find their final from, like Possum B. Codicil and Treads B. Oblivious.

God bless 'em all.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Republican National Convention, Day 4

It's the last night of the Republican National Convention, and the only surpise is that I haven't killed myself yet. I can't even make it through the 7 o'clock hour, choosing instead to watch an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, if only to see some people who are happy and nice. Even if I hadn't struggled through the Democratic Convention just a few weeks ago, this would be taking its toll on me. By now, the entire event is reduced to three interweaving components: militant speeches, sappy musical sequences, and interminable video segments. Who knew Dick Cheney would be the bright spot? Right now, Donnie McClurkin (who?) is performing some ersatz gospel number about standing backed by a row of cute little black kids. The GOPs have snatched up every unaccompanied black child in New York City and put them on TV. Then it's time for another RNC Video featuring George and Laura. George isn't showing up in person until the last minute - which was the case with Kerry last month as well - but his absence has been masked by literally hours of video. Following the video, it's pumped in music and more dead time until the next speaker shows up. The concern at the Democratic Convention was that the event might run behind schedule, because so many speakers ran long. At this event, easily 20% of the time consists of nothing happening. Which is nice, 'cause it gives me time to catch up on my typing, but annoying, because it emphasizes how much this is wasting my time.

Earlier tonight, Tommy Franks spoke. I missed most of it, because I was watching Queer Eye, but what I saw looked like much of what I've seen for the past three nights. With few exceptions, nearly all the speeches have focused on doom and gloom, war and terror. This is understandable, considering that this is W's claim to power, but a little of it goes a long way. By now it's so oppressive I can hardly take it. The Dems hauled out their share of Guns & Ammo, but most of that was limited to the final night. With the angry speeches (Zell Miller), the terror speeches (Giuliani), and the war speeches (almost everyone) on one hand, and the cheesy musical interludes and videos on the other, this Convention is like The Thin Red Line as produced by Lifetime television.

Of course, there are minorities aplenty. 17% of the delegates are minorities, compared to 39% of those at the Democratic Convention, and we've seen every single one. Every Latino or Hispanic has to give part of their speech in Spanish, not so much for the Spanish speakers at home, but so everyone can feel better about the "big tent" the GOPs keep talking about erecting.

Oh, and taxes. It wouldn't be a Republican Convention without taxes. There are three things I know from this convention: George Bush is a strong and resolute leader, John Kerry flip-flops, and Kerry will raise taxes. Granted, he probably won't raise taxes on most of the people in this hall, but that doesn't matter: it's all sound and fury, signifying nothing. I've actually heard more about John Kerry at this convention than I have about George Bush. In fact, according to the New York Times, that bastion of the liberal left, in the first three day of the Convention, John Kerry's name has been mentioned 39 times. In the Democratic Convention, George Bush was mentioned by name 5 times. Right or wrong, the Dems chose to stay "positive," and avoid direct attacks against the President. Here, attacks have been the special of the day. Kerry is a flip-flopper (the crowd has now taken to holding up flip flops as they chant "flip flop, flip flop'), Kerry will ask France for permission to go to war, Kerry hates the intelligence community. (Unlike Dick Cheney, who loves the intelligence community so much that he has set up his own intelligence analysts, who supported going to war with Iraq over the objections of the CIA.) Kerry, like all Democrats, is a tax-and-spend Democrat. Bush is a cut-taxes-and-spend Republican. I have a good idea of which is more fiscally responsible.

Have I mentioned the inappropriate "USA"s? This crowd breaks into chants of USA at the drop of hat. At times I want to tell them, "You're in the USA, you don't need to chant USA." Chanting is what this crowd does best. It's why Dick Cheney's 16 minute speech ran more than 30 minutes last night. God bless their enthusiasm, I suppose, but it's kinda creepy seeing all these conventioneers hopped up on nationalism. I want to up their Ritalin. Just a minute ago, some pop singer finished some poppy song, and the crowd burst into cheers of USA, USA, USA. I guess the song was about the USA.

Hey, George Pataki is lying right now. According to him, George Bush said he'd turn the economy around and create new jobs, and he did it. Well, he certainly turned the economy around, but the only new jobs he created are in India. Video segments have focused on the Healthy Forest Initiative, which increases their health by opening up previously protected forests to the logging industry. This initiative protects against forest fires, since trees that are cut down can't burn down. We've heard time and again about the success of the No Child Left Behind Act, without any mention of the fact that 1) the Act is fundamentally flawed to begin with, and 2) George gutted the funding for it before it even had a chance to go into effect. And on and on. Time and again, the point is made that President Bush is running on his record, and it's fortunate for him that so few people have been paying attention to his record.

George Pataki just came up with a new reason why we were right to go to war against Iraq: whether or not he had weapons of mass destruction, "Saddam was a walking, talking weapon of mass destruction. Other than that - and a few nice tips of his cap to the swing states that came to New York's aid in 2001 - the speech is mostly rote. In fact, his jabs at John Kerry, particularly those regarding "statements" he made at his Convention, sound like they're directly lifted from speeches I've already heard. These guys are worse about repeating themselves than the Dems, and that's saying something.

Oops, Pataki's speech ended early, so although he concluded by introducing "my friend, President George Bush," and the crowd followed his cue by chanting "four more years," it will be three more minutes before the Prez takes the stage.

Someone's introducing the George Bush video, and it sounds like something out of Song of the South. "How do you tell the story of a presidency? How do you tell the story of a man?" My, my. I expect to hear the strains of Zip-a-dee-do-dah. Oh, it's Fred (Dalton) Thompson, lately of the Senate and Law & Order. The video is, need I say, all 9-11. ("What do a bullhorn and a baseball have in common? What truths do they tell?") It ends with Bush throwing out the first pitch at the World Series, telling us all to get back in the game. Or something.

Then The Man himself takes the stage, and it's a smackdown between "Four More Years" and "USA." He doesn't take the stage so much as appear from behind two sliding light up flags, like a Las Vegas magician. For this night, the stage has been reconfigured to a theater in the round, so George is the center of all adulation. He is very pleased. Think pig. Think shit.

George is doing his best to look presidential tonight. It shouldn't be that difficult, since he is president, but in these events he tends to come across as an overgrown frat boy. Which, in truth, he is. He tries to keep his trademark smirk under control, but it's an uphill battle. Even when he praises Dick Cheney, he looks like he's lying through his teeth.

The speech is inspirational ("Americans have been given hills to climb and found the strength to climb them. Now, because we have made the hard journey, we can see the valley below."), and if this was my first view of George Bush, I might feel inspired. His first obvious lie comes with the line, "I'm a fortunate father of two spirited, intelligent and lovely young women," but I suppose a father's pride can be overlooked. He invokes the ghost of Ronald Reagan, and since the man is dead he cannot protest. He focuses on his domestic achievements - education reform, Medicare, tax relief - and when you consider the problems with No Child Left Behind and the fact that even Republican legislators have had problems with his health care reforms, you realize that this guy is all about war and tax cuts.

As he gets into the substantive portion of his speech, he talks up domestic policies first. He revives the trope of compassionate conservatism, and I've finally figured out what this means. It's talking like a Democrat and acting like a totalitarian ruler. He says, "To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy," which I suppose means conquering more countries with oil. He speaks against the tax code, which he notes is "filled with special interest loopholes." Yes, for big business. Or are you referring to those for faith based organizations? He speaks of increasing funding for our community colleges. This will be good news for the Chicago City Colleges, who last year saw their federal funding cut by one third. Of course, he comes out for medical liability reform. Considering that tort reform has been languishing in Washington for the past four years, one wonders if this issue would be so important if a trail attorney was not on the opposing ticket. And he brings up my favorite Republican refrain, "we will make sure that health decisions are made by doctors and patients, not by bureaucrats in Washington, DC." To my understanding, the bureaucrats who are most guilty of crippling proper health care are those at the insurance companies, who decide which patients should get which procedures and what those procedures are worth.

George speaks next of an ownership society. This phrase means something different for him than it does for me. To me, an ownership society is one which takes responsibility for its actions. One is which, say, the people feel vested in what the government does. For George, such a thought is anathema. To him, ownership means, well, owning things. Your own home, for one, a trend which began under the Clinton administration and is due primarily to Alan Greenspan keeping interest rates artificially low, but for which the Bush White House is happy to claim credit. Unlike the recession, which of course they inherited from the previous administration. He also wants people to "own their health care plans and have the confidence of owning a piece of their retirement."

I'm all in favor of health savings accounts, which allow you to put pre-tax earnings aside for medical expenses. But to even suggest they are an alternative to health insurance is sleight of hand at best. A health savings account is an insurance plan which is all copayment. The money you put in, plus any interest you earn, is the money you take out. A medical savings account is to health insurance what a trust fund is to life insurance. It's your own money which you dip into when you get sick, rather than when you die. If you don't have the money to invest to begin with, which is the case with most people who don't have health insurance, then you're SOL. One of the benefits which Bush trumpets is that you can take your account with you whenever you change jobs. Sure. Just like the money you put into your credit union remains yours when you leave your job. So now it's considered a benefit that your employer is not stealing your money?

Although he doesn't go into details, George also mentions his desire to privatize - okay, now it's down to partially privatizing - Social Security. The idea here is also attractive - workers are given some control over the funds the government would take for Social Security, allowing them to invest it at better rates than the Feds would. So you take your Social Security funds an invest them in a high growth corporation, let's say a big and aggressive energy company whose strength is demonstrated by its ties to the government. Oh no, you chose Enron! You sank my retirement plan! Hope your IRA is doing well, 'cause your Social Security money is gone.

After a few jabs at Kerry, Bush is off to Iraq. Before he goes, though, he tips his hat to welfare reform ("responsibility and character and family commitment"), pro-lifers ("we must make a place for the unborn child") and gay marriage ("protection of marriage against activist judges"). Bush - and his Party - are great at these catch-phrases. When speaking of unemployment, he talks about creating "American opportunity zones." God knows what those are, but they sound cool. He doesn't go into details, though, not mentioning that the official Republican Party platform chosen at the convention opposes not only gay marriage but civil unions, or explaining that "family commitment" means it would be more difficult for a single mother to receive welfare than one with a husband. Nor does he ask anyone at the Convention to specifically make a place in their home for the unwanted unborn children that would be a result of tightening abortion laws. He does, however, give me one more reason to vote for John Kerry. He accuses Kerry of "calling the Reagan presidency eight years of 'moral darkness'." Hey, me too!

The last half of the speech, nearly 30 minutes, is all terror, Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush does his best to crazy glue the two countries together. If you can't write this part of the speech yourself, you've spent the last few years in the proverbial "spider hole." While he's at it, he takes a poke at the pinkos over at the New York Times. I'm sure some people got into it. Come 10 o'clock, I switched over to The Daily Show. I mean, there's only so much a thinking man can take. Along with Jon Stewart's coverage of the convention ("The message from each speaker was the same: This is what happens to your hair when you won't let gay people touch it."), I got to see John McCain, who pretty much threw his hands up in despair over the whole affair.

I did manage to click back following the speech, to see fireworks. Not verbal fireworks, and God help us, not actual fireworks, but computer generated fireworks on the jumbotron behind George and Laura. Hooray for CGI patriotism! And balloons! And "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" (I kid you not) over the sound system. And then, in place of the fireworks, CGI confetti. Much easier to clean up. In the spirit of full disclosure, by the end of the night, real confetti was released.

So that's it for the commercial portion of our program. Needless to say, the liberal media praised the Republican Convention far and above the Democratic one, and fell all over themselves looking for superlatives to laud upon George Bush. For me, the star of the event was Dick Cheney, who gave the clearest and, while aggressive, least mean spirited speech of the event. Shocking. The populist speakers, Arnold and Rudy, were, for me, both washouts: Rudy went on forever with no visible organization, Arnold delivered a feel good speech that was 50% pap. Obviously the party regulars ate it up. The undecided voters actually increased to 9% during the Convention, so who knows where they're headed. If they feel like they hate both candidates, I can't completely blame them.