“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Spam: "Why Can't You Just..."

Along with computer viruses, spam (however defined) is becoming a significant barrier to actually getting things done with these computer things. Almost everyone would love it if there was an easy solution to the problems spam causes: either a technical solution or a non-technical (legal or social) one would do.

I don’t believe there is a single simple solution to the spam problem, but that’s a topic for another day. However, there are plenty of people who know enough about spam to want it out of their inbox, but not enough to know why this is a (very) hard problem. When someone says “Why can’t you just…”, following up with a superficially attractive but ultimately doomed scheme, it’s probably not because they are stupid but more likely because this is a complex field that they don’t fully understand, even if they use e-mail dozens of times every day. This is as true for most “technical” users as for the often reviled politicians looking for solutions in this area: I’ve seen the “why can’t you just charge a penny for every email; most people won’t care but spammers will be bankrupted” suggestion more than once in a technical forum, although anyone who knows how e-mail actually works would spill their beer laughing over the idea.

This kind of “why can’t you just” issue has a lot in common with other hard technical problems. At the extreme, if you’ve ever had to explain to someone why perpetual motion, squaring the circle or compressing random data are (provably) impossible, you’ll know that it can be quite hard to put across the idea that it isn’t only a particular scheme that won’t work, but that there are whole classes of approach which are known to be fruitless, no matter how much you try various possibilities at a detailed level.

Although it’s mainly a humorous dig at the more wild-eyed and technically inept authors of Final Ultimate Solutions to the Spam Problem (FUSSPs), the list in “You Might Be An Anti-Spam Kook If…” makes some serious points as well, particularly at the level of pointing out that certain classes of solution won’t work, mostly because of the scale and anarchic nature of the Internet along with the profound difficulty facing any scheme that attempts to impose order. Also, every list item is phrased in such a way as to make you think about why the statement given deserves to be labelled as “kooky”. So, it’s both funny and educational.

[2018-02-15: linked via the Wayback Machine; the live site is unstable.]

Here are just a couple of examples I particularly liked. You Might Be An Anti-Spam Kook If…

  • despite having invented the FUSSP, you not only don’t know the difference between the SMTP envelope and SMTP headers but doubt there is such a thing as the SMTP envelope because email doesn’t involve paper
  • all you need to do to get the FUSSP implemented and deployed is to publish an RFC or get a law passed
  • the FUSSP won’t be effective until it has been deployed at more than 60% of SMTP servers and that’s not a problem

So, the next time someone says “Why Can’t You Just…”, or for that matter the next time you find yourself inventing the FUSSP, it might be worth referring to “You Might Be An Anti-Spam Kook If…”.

Thanks to Boing Boing for the original link.