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My spam has had weird, cryptic blocks of nonsense text at the top, before the spiels on erectile dysfunction

Dear Urban Decoder: Lately, my spam has had weird, cryptic blocks of nonsense text at the top (stuff like “Story it not and try the toga in cryotron”), before the spiels on erectile dysfunction. Why the gibberish?—Sanjay Chanda, Bickford Park

Given the dyslexic quality of spam prose, one might assume it’s the product of non-English-speaking scam artists. In fact, most is American in origin, and the odd syntax is intentional. Current anti-spam software employs a mathematical formula known as Bayesian filtering to separate spam e-mail from real e-mail by searching for spammy terms like Viagra. Spammers try to trick the software in two ways: first, by spelling Viagra “V!@gr@”; second, by tossing chunks of wacky, randomly generated prose into their e-mails. Scientists have recently realized that spam filters also have a host of non-spam applications. Last year, a group of neuroscientists published a groundbreaking paper hypothesizing that our brains use a similar type of comparison filtering to categorize incoming information. It’s hard to believe, but Internet peddlers of porn, penis enlargers and fake mortgages may one day be credited with helping unlock our mind’s deepest mysteries.

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