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I have, in just the past year alone, won the British National Lottery twice, inherited enormous sums of money from relatives at least two forests removed from my own family tree, and, like many of you, been the fortunate recipient of the generosity of an African prince/government official who just needs a small downpayment in order to share with me the millions of dollars/Euros that await me.

That's the good news. The bad is that I'm apparently lacking as a lover, going to outlive my money and die lonely and cold, and don't know anything about what's going on with all the talking behind my back.

Twenty years ago I never would have known any of this. Today, I do, thanks to spam. Come to think of it, if I had shared with anyone 20 years ago that all my knowledge was due to SPAM there really would have been more people talking about me (and my mental capacity) behind my back.

If the Internet is the World of Information then spam is its seedy neighborhood. If the products and services offered by solutions providers to credit unions that are reported in Credit Union Journal and elsewhere are the cutting edge, spam remains the dull background.

Due to some e-mail related issues recently, I was forced to turn off my spam filter for a while. Management consultants sometimes refer to too much data as "drinking from the firehose." Turn off your spam filter sometime and you'll be drowning in a perpetual geyser of, well, consider some of these e-mail subject lines: "An idealist has died" (Then I'm thinking he didn't see that one coming); "Everyone will notice the difference in you" (no mention if that would be a positive or negative); "Lots to love-wholesale prices!" (Hey, what's better than lots of love? Not overpaying for it!); "Business Intuition-Learn How to Find Yours" (How, incidentally, does one "learn" intuition?); and "Top watches. Big sale. Hurry up" (How will I know if I'm hurrying if I don't have a watch?).

What you may not know is that the Internet did not "create" spam. It has been around for centuries. Before bulk snail mail, one account of the history of spam notes that in the late 19th century Western Union allowed telegraphic messages to be sent to multiple destinations. "The first recorded instance of mass unsolicited commercial telegram is from May 1864," the account reported.

Still, I'm willing to wager that Civil War-era telegraph messages never included any of these subject lines: "Make Every Meeting Count- with a Little Help from a Friend" (a message I nearly clicked on); "Do you know what chicks like?" (If I did, would I be editing Credit Union Journal?); "This is about the very fundamental survival of our species!" (I'm going to feel bad having deleted this if it turns out to be true), and "You can help consolidate Scotland's debt (That's odd, as I thought the Scots never spent any money).

And now for something completely different. That junk e-mail has come to be widely called "spam" has created an interesting dilemma for the folks at Hormel, the maker of the luncheon meat. It's pursued some litigation against companies manufacturing software with "Spam" in the name and seen the cases dismissed, winning only on its point that any references to its product be spelled "SPAM." It's generally believed that "SPAM," of all things, became "spam" as the result of a 1970 Monty Python Flying Circus sketch in which every item on the menu at a café includes SPAM in it, and a group of Viking patrons drown out all conversations with a song that repeats "SPAM, SPAM SPAM..." (If you want to see the sketch or the reasons why the British would find SPAM funny and relevant, you can find it, appropriately, online).

In the early days of the Internet when only geeks populated nascent bulletin boards, some would type in "SPAM" repeatedly to push others' postings off of the screen. Others would fill the screen with quotes from the Python sketch. Speaking of geeks, Wikipedia notes that rival fans of Star Trek and Star Wars would often try to spam the others' message boards (talk about two groups that could use love at wholesale prices).

I doubt even the genius of the Monty Python troupe could have envisioned some of the subject lines that appeared in spam e-mail I received. Consider: "Vegetable shoes" (for the true vegetarian); "We've got meds" (not unusual, but the sender was, and "Your pants are on fire and ice!" (I guess that's why they have two legs).

According to a one history of "spam," the earliest documented spam was sent in 1978 by Digital Equipment Corp. to 393 recipients. The first electronic chain letter made its dubious debut in 1988, and the first commercial spam was sent by two lawyers (and why not when you don't have to worry about lowering folks' perceptions of you) in 1994.

Thank goodness. Otherwise, I never would have received an offer that included just one long string of question marks, or a recent opportunity to buy a "Complete replica of the Philippines," or a favorite of mine, "An e-mail to you from C.S. Lewis." Mr. Lewis died in 1963, so the fact he's still sending e-mail is impressive. Fittingly, among Mr. Lewis' works was "The Screwtape Letters." He had no idea.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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