Abstract art and the Final Ultimate Solution to the Spam Problem

I think I finally thought of something relevant to cybersecurity and my last post on why we should study art. This may be a stretch, but read on and tell me what you think.

Every once in a while, a newbie to the world of fighting spam comes into one of the discussion lists or conferences where I regularly participate, enters the conversation and proposes a new method for ending spam for good. Whether it is a variant on making senders pay for email, to requiring some form of challenge/response filtering, to blocking email from all unknown senders, I've seen it all. Typically, the proposal comes from someone who is relatively new to the industry. They haven't seen all the previously applied solutions that haven't worked and so without the benefit of experience, they lack the ability to see the short comings of their solution.

It is usually at this point that one of the more experienced members of the list sarcastically posts a link to https://craphound.com/spamsolutions.txt, a list of solutions to spam that tongue-in-cheek (but not really) explain why something won't work:


Your post advocates a

( ) technical ( ) legislative ( ) market-based ( ) vigilante

approach to fighting spam. Your idea will not work. Here is why it won't work. (One or more of the following may apply to your particular idea, and it may have other flaws which used to vary from state to state before a bad federal law was passed.)

( ) Spammers can easily use it to harvest email addresses
( ) Mailing lists and other legitimate email uses would be affected
( ) No one will be able to find the guy or collect the money

Specifically, your plan fails to account for

( ) Laws expressly prohibiting it
( ) Lack of centrally controlling authority for email
( ) Open relays in foreign countries
and the following philosophical objections may also apply:

( ) Ideas similar to yours are easy to come up with, yet none have ever
been shown practical
( ) Any scheme based on opt-out is unacceptable
( ) SMTP headers should not be the subject of legislation


I do feel some sympathy for the antispam newbie for what is basically a flame directed at them, but at the same, sometimes newbies have a lot of power in their respective organizations and end up implementing something that reduces spam while greatly reducing the usability of email. Email is great because it interoperates outside of a walled garden, that's the part we want to keep. Most new solutions to spam decrease usability or something-else-or-other, as shown by that list.

Yet never forget - while most people reading this blog are not newbies to fighting spam, at one point all of us were. All of us non-newbies suffer from a problem called the curse of knowledge. It makes it difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of another, we can't see it from their point of view. While they don't know what they don't know, we can't remember what's it like to not know.

So let me give you an example of what it's like to not know: Abstract art.

If you don't know what I mean, here's a couple of examples. The first one is by the American artist Jackson Pollock painting around the middle of the 20th century:

A painting by 20th century American artist Jackson Pollock

Now, if you're anything like me a few weeks ago, you'd probably look at the first painting and say to yourself "What's that supposed to be? Is it some sort of those 'magic eye' and we're supposed to find the hidden message? It looks like a bunch of random splatters of paint on the canvas. How is that art?"

This one, White on White, is by Kazimir Malevich, a Russian artist who completed it in 1918:

White on white, by Kazimir Malevich

Once again, if you're anything like me - without any background in art history - you would say "Well, I guess it's a couple of white rectangles with one at an angle. So what? I don't see the aesthetic appeal in it. I mean, it looks okay. But nothing special. I much prefer things that look like actual things."

If you said anything like that to either of the two pictures, that's exactly what I would have thought. As I said in my other post, I used to not understand abstract art, and I thought it was stupid. Now, I still don't quite understand it, but I no longer think it's stupid.

Why do I think that?

Because now that I have studied art, I realize that art doesn't exist in a vacuum, it's relative to the period of time that came before it - at least in European art. Successive periods in art are defined by what came before it, and as a counter-reaction to what came before, and what's going on in society at the time.

So let's go back to medieval art. Below is a picture that was common in the middle ages. Back in the day, nearly all art was produced because a wealthy patron wanted it. Most medieval art was two-dimensional on a flat surface, like below, and at least in western Europe it usually told passages from the bible because in those times, religion played a major role in people's lives and most people were illiterate. Art was a tool for learning for people who couldn't read.

You can see in the below that the picture is not "realistic" compared to what comes later (i.e., later in this post).

The Renaissance is where we see a revolution in the way scenes are depicted (the Renaissance is a term that refers to the rediscovery of classical times, that is, Greece and Rome). I don't have time to go into it (mostly because even I don't know all the techniques) but you'll see how everything now exists in three dimensions.

In Raphael's The School of Athens, notice how the scene is depicted as more realistic. Figures in the foreground are interpreted as being closer to the viewer while people in the background are interpreted as being further away:

The School of Athens, by Raphael

Even though we take it for granted, the big shift you're seeing is one of perspective. Renaissance artists would use a 'vanishing point' off in the distance and then draw people along it, moving them up or down to create depth. For example, look at my little stick figure diagram below. Which characters are closes to the audience? Which ones are further away? The pixels are the same distance away from your eyes but you can "clearly" see that the ones that are bigger are closer while the ones that are smaller are further away. Furthermore, from what angle are you, the viewer, supposed to see the picture from? You're not center on, but looking at it while you are standing on the right with your eyes looking to the left:


To see what a shift this is, just go and do a simple web search for medieval art and then for Renaissance art. This perspective shift that I talk about above for medieval art (composed during that time, not after) is either missing or minimized.

The next major art movement is Baroque Art, and it is a counter-reaction to the Reformation. It is characterized by much more emotion in the picture (from its human subjects depicted in it), as well as movement. Baroque art has other characteristics, but I don't have time to get into them.

The below image shows the story of Daniel in the lion's den (from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament). Look at the raw emotion on Daniel's face, he is clearly (?) in fear, or awe, or something or other. Whatever it is, he doesn't have a straight face.

Another characteristic of Baroque art is its lack of clearly-defined lines. Take a look at the background behind Daniel and among the lions. There are shadows everywhere and it tends to blur together the rocks, and even the lions in the back are less clearly defined. You don't see that so much during the Renaissance. The term Baroque comes from a translation of a Portuguese term meaning 'misshapen pearl', and it wasn't a term of endearment. But gradually people came to accept it.

Skipping ahead many decades and a couple of smaller movements and we get to the Age of Enlightenment, and the Neoclassical Era. This is the time period where we find many of the great writers that the founders of the United States borrowed heavily from - John Locke (natural rights), Baron de Montesque (separation of powers), the need for a strong government (Thomas Hobbes). The Age of Enlightenment and the Neoclassical period was ushered in by the scientific revolution and a callback to the rational times of Greece and Rome, after the Renaissance did it the first time. But the neoclassical era's art was focused on science and rationality.

The Oath of Horatti by Jacques-Louis David is one of the most famous paintings in neoclassical art. It's a throw-back to Roman times and the general spirit of the times is rational thought. This is the period of time where writers we associate with the Age of Reason - Voltaire, Beccudia (prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment) - were most active; the American Constitution borrows heavily from this period. The art also reflects this. This is also the period where the Industrial Revolution really took off in full force in Europe. England was first, and later on followed by France, Italy, and Germany (though not necessarily in that order).

We in the west like to pride ourselves on how we use Reason, but the Age of Reason came to and end with a very strong counter-movement called the Romantic period. Romanticism is still popular today and we can see it everywhere, especially in art. The Romantics rebelled against the stale lack of taste characterized by the Industrial Revolution. Think about the movie Star Wars - the Empire is cold, mechanical, and emotionless and they are the Industrial side. Meanwhile, the rebel alliance is driven by ideals and they represent the Romantic side.

Romantic art tends to minimize its human subjects and greatly play up ideals, emotion, and nature. The Industrial Revolution (and neoclassical era that accompanied it) tended to create new technology but degrade the countryside. Consequently, the Romantics sought to idealize nature.

The Sea of Fog is one of the Romantic period's more well-known paintings. It shows a person in the middle of the picture gazing out, but the person is not the focal point of the picture. Instead, he is gazing out to the true focal point - raw, untamed nature.

Sea of Fog, by Caspar Friedrich

This is a recurring theme in Romantic art, but it was a pretty big movement and nature was not the only characteristic of that time period. I'd say maybe 1/3 of the time period contained nature. It was a lot but by no means everything. Above all, Romanticism idealized emotion over reason. For all the progress the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment made, it was rejected strongly by the artists and society eventually followed.


I go through all of these art history movements (more quickly than they deserve) to show you how art has evolved. Each movement is a reaction to its preceding movement, and they reflect what's going on in society at the time as well. Art makes much more sense, or at least is more fun to appreciate, when you understand the context in which it was created.

And one big thing that happened in the middle of the 19th century was the invention of photography. This was a turning point in art history. Whereas before artists used to create paintings that were realistic, after photography came along, artists knew that they could no longer compete with photographs. Realistic paintings were out, and using color to convey emotion was in. Artists decided to use color and created new art styles to convey the emotion of contemporary society, or of themselves.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Even today, our artists use color to depict emotion:

Leaving the present and coming back to the 19th century, two big movements in using color to depict emotion were Impressionism (which depicted an 'impression' of the actual image):

... and Post-Impressionism (I don't yet really know what the difference is, but I do know that Vincent Van Gogh was part of this era).

You still know what's there in the picture, but the artist has moved away from a realistic view of the world and is instead using color and painting technique to depict something else about the picture. "If you want realism, take a photograph" says the artist.

20th century art movements continue this move away from realistic depictions of the subjects. Expressionism, Dada, and Cubism are all parts of this counter-movement that was itself a reaction to technology. The White-on-White painting above was painted during World War 1, a time of massive social upheaval. Russia was getting clobbered during the War, and then they experienced the Bolshevik Revolution. In response, the artist painted the picture of two white boxes. They are not the same shade of white, they are off white. They also don't have clearly defined edges but instead are fuzzy edges (my term). The picture is not necessarily supposed to be something, but instead could be the artist's reflection on the disjointedness and instability of Russian society during that time.

I think.

That's the problem with abstract art, I don't know if I'm reading into it something that's not there or if I am getting it right. But maybe that's the point?

* * * *  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Okay, so what does this have to do with FUSSP?

Now that you've made it to the end of this post, you've seen a lot of different movements in art and how it has evolved. It used to be realistic but now it isn't. And it isn't realistic on purpose and now you know why it isn't, and it actually make sense... from a certain point of view. So rather than thinking about abstract art as some weird thing that crazy artists do, you know the history behind it. Or at least what led up to it.

But just think about this crash course - when you started reading this post you (probably) had no idea of what abstract art was all about. It's not your fault, you just didn't know any better. Think about the state you were at that time - you didn't know what you didn't know. You were completely unaware why those paintings were the way they were and you felt perfectly justified in holding the opinions that you formerly had.

That feeling is the feeling newbies have when they first learn about spam and then the propose the FUSSP. You may not be able to empathize with them because of the curse of knowledge, but just think about what art history buffs thought about you when you dismissively said "Abstract art makes no sense." But armed with some understanding, you can now look at things with a different perspective. Newbies can as well, it will just take longer because there is so much to learn when it comes with cybersecurity.

And now that you've been enlightened, you can't go back.

Comments (2)

  1. Brandon says:

    I’m no longer a newbie, have a better understanding, and still haven’t lost a zeal for spam mitigation. I’m just not sure where to go next.

    You got me to this point, so now what do we do? 🙂

    Great posts. I appreciate the dedication.

    Best wishes,

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