The Laboratorium
October 2003

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Lorem Ipsum Dolor Spam

As spam filters get more sophisticated, spammers seem to be developing their own increasingly sophisticated tricks to fool the filters. Some subject lines simply won't get through, so you see things like "Subject: R.E.F.I.N.A.N.C.E. yr m#e#m#b#e#r qxaeria" in which the most spammish terms are obscured and some random gibberish inserted to mimic the appearance of legitimate email.

Now, of late, I've been seeing actual grammatical English text in place of the gibberish now and then. Thus:

We are now open Have you lost your sex appeal?

M28111 Image loading. Thank you for your time. The square will open

Xi oqlirqcwl awkklhh One day her husband went to a distant place to hunt with other men. There were left at his home with this woman only her father-in-law, her mother-in-law, and a girl who nursed the little child.

Which, of course, raises the question: where are they getting these passages for their spam-steganograph? Thanks to Google, now we know.

The bit above, for example, is from The Story of Tangalimlibo, which is apparently a Xhosa folktale. I hadn't realized that the Xhosa were so into cyber-hucksterism. But have a look at this next one:

that nothing can shake my confidence in you for a moment, Lordofthemuppets, Our US Pharmacy is Open to You! distrust of Owen; and to omit altogether a reference to the conduct which
We Now Have Xanax, Valium, Levitra, and Faster Acting Viagr@ SoftTabsrevived in a
modified form. [30] The only warfare Sun Tzu knows
From US Pharmacies, not Mexico or Pakistanthronged the amphitheatre, and watched
exultingly while man slew
with more fitness than to him who had given me life?
Discreet and Fast Next-Day Shipmentsphysiologists. He made also a careful and fairly accurate study
Prescriptions written by US Doctors
The oars, the mast, and the sail are in the canoe. I have even succeeded
Browse our Selection
though distributed into distinct and mutually independent States,

Leaving aside the obvious pharmaceutical pitches, the fragments in this one, in order, are from:

Let's hear it for the public domain, eh?

Speed Metal

Now that I've made it through Quicksilver, a review seems in order.

I liked it.

It's hard to call this book a novel. Even at 900+ pages, it's missing normal novel traits such as a recognizeable plot. It wasn't clear to me until I was on around page 700 that the "Baroque Cycle" (of which Quicksilver is the first third) is really just one William Vollman-length book, rather than three linked Neal Stephenson-length books.

Quicksilver opens in the early 1700s with a couple of scenes that set up what looks like the beginnings of a classic adventure story: our hero is called out of retirement for one last mission. There's a brief digression while he flashes back to the 1660s to set up his back-story . . . and then the digression eats the novel whole: there's nothing but flashback.

So okay, no plot. Reviewers have also been ripping Stephenson apart for anachronism, cartoonish violence, adolescent sexuality, and his frequent discursive asides on silver-making, the London Bridge, Cartesian dynamics, and so on.

Me, I more or less take these for granted. That what you get with a Stephenson book. You know you're going to get an earful on the mysteries of currency speculation; you know you're going to have to deal with a scene in which the plucky heroine is threatened with rape and does something plucky about it. Such is the price of admission.

For that price, you get plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, because Stephenson is a brilliant stylist. He knows how to throw a paragraph together so that the sentences pile on with sublime absurdity. I expected plenty of these moments; I wasn't disappointed.

But I also got something extra: for once in his career, Neal Stephenson has created a fully-rounded protagonist, a credible character with an appealing complexity. This from a man, mind you, who named the lead of one of his earlier novels "Hiro Protagonist."

Daniel Waterhouse, the figure at the center of Quicksilver is an indifferent Puritan during the flamboyant Restoration, an average scientist in the company of geniuses, a mid-level notable at a court of schemers and fops. He is a man caught up in intellectual, religious, and political currents far beyond his control, and something of a coward. But he has a pensive thoughtfulness that Stephenson develops wonderfully, and over the slow course of the novel, what at first seems like a dull passivity becomes a more subtle form of courage.

Quicksilver is, in its non-novelistic way, an attempt at tying together the various forms of turmoil that defined the 17th century, and using Waterhouse as a vantage point for this business succeeds quite handily. There are other, more picaresque, parts to the narrative, ones with more adventure and thrills, but I found them less memorable. It's Waterhouse's slow growth -- and the emphasis is on slow, in a book of this length -- that really works.

Dumb Pol Alert

My state senator franked us a letter crowing about his successful porking of state funding to repair a local bridge. The 60-year-old bridge has been closed since last year due to "critical" structural conditions, so I suppose fixing it is a good thing.

But, man, why did no one on your staff point out that it might be a bad idea to send out a picture of you standing next to a giant "Road Closed" sign?

Too Dumb to Drive

While stopped at a red light today, I glanced at the car to my left. The driver had her sun visor flipped down so she could preen in the little mirror attached. Then she flipped the visor back up, only she forgot to move her head out of the way, so the visor hit her in the forehead.

No kidding.

Hungry Lawyers

Gnutella can withstand a band of hungry lawyers. How many realtime search engines can claim that? Not Napster, that's for sure. Just to emphasize how revolutionary this is: hungry lawyers are probably more destructive than nuclear weapons.

-- Lior Jacob Strahilevitz

Cyberspace as Class

In many ways, then, the theory of a sovereign Cyberspace was a theory of class. The idea of Cyberspace as a sovereign bestowed a privilege on Cyberspace residents -- it allowed them to ignore laws, especially intellectual property laws, that the rest of society remained bound to follow. It falls into a category of efforts, familiar through history, to use a worthy sounding idea to preserve the special status of an established elite. It is in this need to exclude that we find where the true borders of Cyberspace were, and what they did. For years, it was the barriers created by technological knowledge that kept everyone but a small group from sharing in the opportunities of the Internet. UNIX was the Latin of the Internet. And so for a long time it was in a sense true that Cyberspace was a place, yet for all the wrong reasons. It was a place only because it was difficult to get to.

-- Tim Wu

Too Much Law School

The following came to me last night in a dream:

Assume the facts of Genesis, chapters 1-3. Does Adam have a claim against the snake? Against Eve? Would the answer change if consumption of forbidden fruit were judged by a negligence standard instead of strict liability? If you were Adam's lawyer, what additional facts would you want to know?

Now assume further that, in response to his expulsion from the Garden, Adam rises up against the snake and kills it. Discuss his criminal liability. What if he slew it immediately after eating of the fruit? If he slew it before eating? (Hint: the tree is a tree of "knowledge of good and evil.")