Strakon Lights Up

This is a special powful collum
I hope you would enjoy it.


This spring the high-tech enemies of civilization once again broke out on a rampage. (I mean the unofficial ones, of course — the official ones never cease rampaging.) Their weapon was the W32/KLEZ.H virus, known as Klez for short. Actually, Klez wasn't just a virus. The New York Times classified it as a "blended threat" that combined "elements of a virus, which infects machines, and a worm, which transports itself from machine to machine. It also tries to disable some antivirus programs." (John Schwartz, "A New Risk to Computers Worldwide," April 27)

According to Schwartz, Klez made its infected messages "hard for users to spot by changing its e-mail subject line, message, and name of the attachment at random, drawing from a database that includes, for example, such subject lines as 'Hello, honey,' and 'A very funny website.'"

Actually the only time I found the game tricky was when the sender-entity hijacked the e-address of someone I knew and showed it as a return address. The subject lines themselves, after I'd seen half a dozen, were easy to spot.

The first rule was, look for extreme blah-ness. One sender-entity who hijacked the name and e-address of a "deanna" kept asking "How are you," without even providing the nicety of a question mark. Another urged "Reloadme," even though, as is usually the case with those messages, there was nothing to reload. (That one dared to hijack Lew Rockwell as a sender!) Yet another was a slight variation on one of Schwartz's: "A special funny website." One advertised "A IE 6.0 patch," and another was just titled "Windows." Then of course there was the regularly appearing "Let's be friends," which in our degraded age sounded like nothing so much as a porno promo, though, as I say, of a distinctively blah sort. Still another referred to "A powful tool." That brings us to the second thing to look for, and brings us also to the topic of this column: geek illiteracy.

Now, apparently because I'm a Macker, none of the Klez-suspicious messages came across with the attachments that their subject-lines advertised. (In any case, Mackers were once again immune to infection.) For that matter, the message fields of most were altogether blank. But some did contain a couple of lines, including the e-mail from Mr. Powful Tool, which read:

This is a special powful tool
I hope you would enjoy it.

Mr. IE 6.0 Patch, for his part, wrote:

This is a IE 6.0 patch
I hope you would enjoy it.

And, though I don't mean to put too fine a point on this, Mr. Special Funny Website wrote:

Hello,This is a very funny website
I hope you would enjoy it.

There was a slight variation, courtesy of Mr. A Funny Website:

Hello,This is a funny website I wish you would enjoy it.
(I have left spacing and punctuation and all other kinds of errors intact.)

After I had collected a number of such messages, I observed to one of my co-conspirators that whoever wrote them could not be a native English-speaker. Leave aside for the moment the unidiomatic, not to say plainly wrong, use of the subjunctive and focus only on the misspelling: "powful"?! I'd read somewhere that over the past few years many especially evil and talented hackers had emerged in Pakistan and other cosmically unlikely venues. But my correspondent, name of Ronn Neff, replied, "Rather it suggests that [the originator] is a computer geek who went to public schools where they no longer teach grammar, which teaching might — were it accomplished — overcome the inherent geek deficiencies." Neff also noted: "'I hope you would' echoes a line in one of the other recent bad viruses (Nimda, I think)."

I'm sure he's right, and I'm embarrassed. Neff should not have had to remind me of something I'd already written about, in Dark Suits and Red Guards. In the section titled "The uses of illiteracy" (pp. 51-2), I mentioned the typically subliterate nature of computer geeks' writing, below the level of the glossiest magazines and manuals. I could also have written about the common inability of customer-service techs to understand simple English or follow simple logic as expressed in English. And now we have the Web — acres and acres of it — as further evidence. In my electronic travels I see site after site disfigured with illiterate error, as well as disorganized into chaos by means of immaculately written, completely effective, cutting-edge code. Much of the chaos, if I may press this point, is engendered by a seemingly random clutter of graphic elements, many of them animated: but then Image rules, as Word recedes.


Try to imagine the tremendous cultural deformation required in order to produce and sustain the coexistence, in one mind, of these two conditions: the native intelligence and technical skill necessary to create an ultra-sophisticated havoc-generating virus-worm; and the inability to write a simple sentence in one's cradle language with grammar and orthography sufficiently correct to avoid being taken for a foreigner by a fellow countryman. Mr. Klez's simple sentence wasn't just any sentence, either, buried in a block of text: it was a sentence crucial to his whole project; he would have wanted to craft it as well as possible in order to lure and deceive as many recipients as possible.

On the tactical level, virus-writers may occasionally prove inconvenient to the permanent regime. A recent attack on the Net's "backbone" computers demonstrated that risk sufficiently. But on the strategic level, the writer of the Klez virus — assuming he didn't recruit a second-grader to do his marketing — was not an inconvenience to the regime but rather a world-historical triumph of it. His performance, combining the height of brilliance and the depth of ignorance, proved just how far intellectual compartmentalization can be carried. The regime needs middle-class and "working-class" folk with the intellectual ability and resources to repair engines, fly airplanes, talk on TV, and keep computer systems humming. But at the same time it needs to keep them from turning those abilities and resources to subversive ends.

In the realm of computers — to make a long story short — it needs geeks who can understand binary code but not the Golden Rule.

October 30, 2002

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