SPAM CAN be quite frustrating. But the origin of the word is a fascinating story

Everybody, at some point in their online lives, would have received an offer to lengthen one's organ by the convenient purchase of a drug that otherwise would require a doctor's prescription. If not that, surely an earnest-sounding scion of royal Nigerian lineage would have beseeched you to send him your bank account details for the purpose of transferring astronomical sums of money simply because the chap thought “you sound like a nice person to do business with”.

In short, even if you are vegetarian, you probably continue to get spam. The origin of the term goes back to 1937 when Hormel Foods Corporation sought to find a new name for their product Hormel Spiced Ham. They ran a contest of sorts and the winning entry (which incidentally won $ 100) was ‘Spam'. Once the Americans were done bombing Germany back to the stone age by the end of World War II, they started helping several European countries get back on their feet. And, as part of this, they shipped large amounts of SPAM to the U.K. where it pretty soon became the sort of quotidian fare that made men wonder if women's liberation was worth it. It was canned luncheon meat and didn't require too much preparation, and pretty much an entire generation of Britishers grew up with SPAM. (The company insists that it be spelt with all capital letters)

In the 1970s, the English comedy troupe Monty Python (again, made up of gentlemen who had had enough with SPAM's ubiquity) did a sketch set in a café where every item on the menu had SPAM. As the waiter recited the menu, a chorus of Viking patrons sing a song whose unimaginative lyrics essentially comprised the words ‘spam spam spam spam', hence, ‘spamming' the audience. By the 1980s, large meaningless blocks of text used in chatrooms began to be called spam.

So today when you receive an unsolicited offer for a zero-annual-fee credit card or a personal loan, I strongly recommend that you let the offending party know that his actions have a connection to World War II and the Vikings. It normally works for me. I rarely receive calls from them after I tell him that their bank is actually peddling a shoulder of pork and ham.

But how does one deal with spam? There are several tools today, but I'm more interested in the methods used. To understand that we must first focus our attention on English mathematician and Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes. This gentleman taught us how to calculate inverse probabilities, so one might wonder how that can help in not wasting time on spam. But the path from Bayes Theorem to spam prevention is a long and confusing one, so I am going to use a simpler metaphor to explain.

Think of how we learn a foreign language when we move to a new city. Every day, our brains listen to new snippets from the language, new rules of grammar and eventually we tend to get quite good at it. Similarly, modern spam prevention tools rely on humans training spam filters on how to detect spam. The more the number of people who do the training, the better the filters get. They learn the users' definition of useful information and keep spam out. So where does Bayes' Theorem come in? It helps continuously improve the filter's ability to calculate the probability that any incoming message is spam. The more the number of patterns humans teach the filter, the better it gets.

If you still have problems with spam, the solution is quite simple. Either you can learn Bayes' Theorem or start using an email service that deals with spam better. Such as Gmail.

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