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Darwin's brilliant strategy for disarming critics, David Foster Wallace on how to write a great opener, James Thurber illustrated, and more

Darwin's brilliant strategy for disarming critics, David Foster Wallace on how to write a great opener and the true measure of good writing, Nicole Krauss's beautiful letter to Van Gogh about transcending our self-destructive patterns, and more.
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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – why we fall and stay in love, Van Gogh on how inspired mistakes move us forward, Peanuts and the civil rights, Ursula K. Le Guin on libraries and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.

Thunder & Lightning: An Extraordinary Illustrated Celebration of the Weather and Its Role in the Human Experience

"Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer," E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: "I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly." Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.

That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin's inclination for "air baths." Although Redniss's selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake – these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.

Like Redniss's previous book – her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie – this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for "falling snow."

In telling the stories of the people, places, and phenomena in the book, Redniss traveled to some of the world's most remote regions and gathered first-hand impressions of Earth's most extreme climates. From witchcraft trials to fog legends to conversations with such diverse weather-wranglers as climate scientists, politicians, and endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, she examines the weather as a pervasive phenomenon that permeates every aspect of human culture.

As someone incurably enamored with clouds, I found Redniss's paintings in the chapter dedicated to clouds especially captivating.

Complement the magnificent Thunder & Lightning with the story of how an amateur astronomer classified the clouds and inspired Goethe, then revisit poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark's beautiful collaboration celebrating the skies.

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David Foster Wallace on Why You Should Use a Dictionary, How to Write a Great Opener, and the Measure of Good Writing

"Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand," Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker asserted in his indispensable guide to the art-science of beautiful writing, adding that writers who are "too lazy to crack open a dictionary" are "incurious about the logic and history of the English language" and doom themselves to having "a tin ear for its nuances of meaning and emphasis." But the most ardent case for using a dictionary came more than a decade earlier from none other than David Foster Wallace.

In late 1999, Wallace wrote a lengthy and laudatory profile of writer and dictionary-maker Bryan A. Garner. A correspondence ensued, which became a friendship, which sprouted a series of conversations about writing and language, eventually published as Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (public library) – an unparalleled record of the beloved writer's relationship with language and with himself, and the source of his ideas on writing, self-improvement, and how we become who we are.

At one point, the conversation turns to the underappreciated usefulness of usage dictionaries. Wallace tells Garner:

I urge my students to get a usage dictionary... To recognize that you need a usage dictionary, you have to be paying a level of attention to your own writing that very few people are doing... A usage dictionary is [like] a linguistic hard drive... For me the big trio is a big dictionary, a usage dictionary, a thesaurus – only because I cannot retain and move nimbly around in enough of the language not to need these extra sources.

As a teacher, about 90% of my job is getting the students to understand why they might need one.

True to his singular brand of intellectual irreverence, Wallace offers a delightfully unusual usage of the usage dictionary:

A usage dictionary is one of the great bathroom books of all time. Because it has the appeal of trivia, the entries are for the most part brief, and you end up within 48 hours – due to that weird psychological effect – actually drawing on exactly what you learned in some weird, coincidental way.

The conversation then turns to the structure of a winsome piece of writing:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel... It’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes... If one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

With an eye to the Aristotelian tenet that a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending, Wallace agrees with Garner that "the middle is the biggest puzzle" and considers the perplexity of the middle:

The middle should work... It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other – and also transitions between paragraphs.

[...]

An argumentative writer [should] spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument – and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here... Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

"Paper Typewriter" by Jennifer Collier from Art Made from Books

In how this larger purpose is conveyed, Wallace argues, lies the true measure of good writing:

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

[...]

The point where that amount – the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort – becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof.

[...]

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it – the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.

Complement the altogether wonderful Quack This Way with Wallace on the meaning of life, death and redemption, the perils of ambition, and the greatest definition of leadership, then revisit this growing library of great writers' advice on the craft.

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Adam Gopnik on Darwin's Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

"People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others," the great seventeenth-century French physicist, philosopher, and inventor Blaise Pascal wrote as he contemplated the art of changing minds. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) provided supreme practical proof of Pascal's insight as he forever changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth. And he did so with immense rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the intricate art of crippling potential criticism of one's ideas by taking charge of all conceivable counterarguments.

Darwin's singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of preempting criticism, is what New Yorker contributor and essayist extraordinaire Adam Gopnik explores in a portion of the altogether magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library) – a slim but in many ways enormous book, for it tackles some of the most abiding and unanswerable enormities of existence.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin's 1859 masterwork On the Origin of Species – a book "unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo" – built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity – and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.

With an eye to philosopher Daniel Dennett's four rules for arguing intelligently and criticizing with kindness, Gopnik considers the essential principle at the heart of Darwin's rhetorical brilliance, which illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand...” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.

Darwin's singular genius was the marriage of visionary ideas and supreme mastery of argument. But it was the latter, Gopnik argues, that lent Darwin's ideas their victorious competitive advantage in the natural selection propelling cultural evolution:

All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety – and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life. This is where we get it all wrong if we think that Wallace might have made evolution as well as Darwin; he could have written the words, but he could not have answered the objections. He might have offered a theory of natural selection, but he could never (as he knew) have written On the Origin of Species. For The Origin is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked, and of examples answering those still faceless opponents.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

But this clever rhetorical framework was both a stylistic strategy and a reflection of Darwin's lifelong battle with anxiety:

Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone – believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet... The tone reflects his real state. He was worried about the objections, he did spend long days worrying about eyes and wings and missing fossils, and he found a way to articulate both the anxiety and the answers to it. Darwin tells us himself that he forced on himself the habit, whenever he came across a fact that might be inconvenient for his thesis, of copying it down and paying attention to it, and that this, more than anything else, gave him his ability to anticipate critics and answer them.

[...]

In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.

Darwin not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moved beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument. He makes the negative case as urgent as the positive claims... What’s striking is that Darwin anticipates arguments against his theory that no one had yet made... It’s a really amazing piece of intellectual empathy, and of beating one’s opponents to the punch.

Gopnik's account of what set Darwin apart calls to mind a lecture Michael Faraday delivered five years before the publication of The Origin, in which the trailblazing scientist called for the mental discipline of contradicting one's own ideas – a hallmark of reason, of which Darwin's prose made a high art. Gopnik writes:

Although scientific theories imply their falsifications, they rarely list them. Darwin’s does.

[This] supplies an inner voice, a sound of rational anxiety, a recognition of fallibility and of seriousness that gives his great book an oddly unbullying tone despite being a thrusting, far from tentative or timid argument.

The habit of sympathetic summary, of reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately and even, if possible, with greater force than its own believers might be able to summon, remains since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee, of what we call seriousness. Darwin’s special virtue in this enterprise is that he had to summarize, sympathetically, views contrary to his own that did not yet exist except in his own imagination. His special shrewdness lay in making as large an emotional meal of the objections in advance as could be made; he preempted his critics by introjecting their criticisms. He saw what people might say, turned it into what they ought to say, and then answered.

Angels and Ages is an immeasurably stimulating read in its totality, exploring questions of time, loss, belief, reason, and other enduring perplexities of the human experience through the bifocal lens of two very different geniuses born within a few hours of each other on a chilly February day in 1809. Complement this particular portion with Amin Maalouf on how to disagree and Pascal on the art of persuasion, then revisit this graphic biography of Darwin and his disarming list of the pros and cons of marriage.

For more of Gopnik's own genius, treat yourself to his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which brought this miraculously rewarding book to my attention and which is by far one of the most insightful interviews ever conducted, on both sides:

The price of human consciousness is the knowledge of mortality.

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The Tiger Who Would Be King: James Thurber's Poignant 1927 Parable of the Destructive Hunger for Power, Reimagined in Stunning New Illustrations

"Power narrows the areas of man’s concern," John F. Kennedy asserted in one of the greatest speeches of all time, adding: "What counts is the way power is used – whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used – whether for aggrandizement or for liberation." A century earlier, Nietzsche admonished against the self-aggrandizement aspect of power as he contemplated the fine line between constructive and destructive rebellion. But no one has addressed the ego's blind lust for power with starker simplicity and more acuity of sentiment than beloved humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (December 8, 1894–November 2, 1961).

In 1927, the year his friend E.B. White helped him join the staff of the New Yorker for what would become a decades-long editorial relationship, young Thurber penned a short and piercing fable about a power-hungry tiger who sets out to become the king of beasts and ends up decimating the jungle into a subjectless dominion – a timeless text of penetrating timeliness amid our culture of mindless violence, too often punctuated by protest for protest's sake and destructive rather than constructive rebellion.

Nearly a century later, illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon brings the Thurber classic to breathtaking new life in the stunning picture-book The Tiger Who Would Be King (public library).

Yoon, creator of the immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse, enlists her mastery of early printmaking techniques in amplifying the dramatic vibrancy of the story, which she tells in only two colors layered over the hearty white paper to create a stunning interplay of light and shadow, stillness and brutality.

One morning the tiger woke up in the jungle and told his mate that he was king of beasts. "Leo, the lion, is king of beasts," she said. "We need a change," said the tiger. "The creatures are crying for change." The tigress listened but she could hear no crying, except that of her cubs.

So drunk does the tiger become on his obsession with omnipotence that he holds back no delusion:

"I'll be king of beasts by the time the moon rises," said the tiger. "It will be a yellow moon with black stripes, in my honor." "Oh, sure," said the tigress as she went to look after her young, one of whom, a male, very like his father, had got an imaginary thorn in his paw.

Undergirding the story is a subtle subversion of gender stereotypes – the kind perpetuated by Disney in the same era, painting women as irrationally emotional and men as governed by cool reason. Thurber, whose cartoons frequently depicted women in calm control, casts his tigress as the lucid counterpoint to the masculine energy of baseless ego-driven violence.

But despite his mate's refutations, the tiger makes his way to the lion's den, where the lioness announces the belligerent visitor to her mate.

"The king is here to see you," she said.

"What king?" he inquired, sleepily.

"The king of beasts," she said.

"I am the king of beasts," roared Leo, and he charged out of the den to defend his crown against the pretender.

A terrible brawl ensues and electrifies the jungle until sundown.

All the animals of the jungle joined in, some taking the side of the tiger and others the side of the lion. Every creature from the aardvark to the zebra took part in the struggle to overthrow the lion or to repulse the tiger, and some did not know which they were fighting for, and some fought for both, and some fought whoever was nearest, and some fought for the sake of fighting.

Thurber delivers his punchline, dark and delightful in its darkness:

When the moon rose, fevered and gibbous, it shone upon a jungle in which nothing stirred except a macaw and a cockatoo, screaming in horror.

All the beasts were dead except the tiger, and his days were numbered and his time was ticking away. He was monarch of all he surveyed, but it didn't seem to mean anything.

MORAL: You can't very well be king of beasts if there aren't any.

Complement the terrific The Tiger Who Would Be King with Louis I, King of the Sheep – a contemporary counterpart about how power changes us. Both picture-books come from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, maker of such consistently satisfying treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The Blue Whale, Little Boy Brown, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

For more of Thurber's riveting genius at the intersection of the comedic and the culturally insightful, see his playful 1929 collaboration with E.B. White on how to tell love from lust.

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Nicole Krauss's Beautiful Letter to Van Gogh on Fear, Bravery, and How to Break the Loop of Our Destructive Patterns

"Feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to order them and, in so doing, gain a sense of control over them," the great psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom wrote in his magnificent meditation on uncertainty and our search for meaning. But as our terror of losing control compels us to grasp for order and certainty, we all too often end up creating patterns that ultimately don't serve us, then repeat those patterns under the illusion of control. These patterns of belief – about who we are, about who others are, about how the world works – come to shape our behavior, which in turn shapes our reality, creating a loop that calls to mind physicist David Bohm's enduring wisdom: "Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true."

To keep repeating a baleful pattern without recognizing that we are caught in its loop is one of life's greatest tragedies; to recognize it but feel helpless in breaking it is one of our greatest trials; to transcend the fear of uncertainty, which undergirds all such patterns of belief and behavior, is a supreme triumph.

That triumphant transcendence of the pattern is what novelist Nicole Krauss explores in an exquisite response to Vincent van Gogh's 1884 letter to his brother about fear and risk-taking. Her piece is part of an exhibition by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in which twenty-three contemporary artists and writers respond to the letters of Van Gogh in paintings, sculptures, letters, poems, photographs, and videos.

Krauss writes:

Dear Vincent,

You write about fear: Fear of the blank canvas, but also, on a larger scale, of the “infinitely meaningless, discouraging blank side” that life itself always turns toward us, and which can only be countered when a person “steps in and does something,” when he “breaks” or “violates.”

It’s extraordinary that I should have been given your letter now, because it is exactly that act of breaking that has been on my mind this last year, and which I feel has everything to do with how I want to make art, and how I want to live.

It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed – rather absurdly, when one thinks about it – by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

And yet it is unquestionably within our power to break the loop; to “violate” what presents itself as our nature by choosing to think – and to see, and act – in a different way. It may require enormous effort and focus. And yet for the most part it isn’t laziness that stops us from breaking these loops, it’s fear. In a sense, one could say that fear is the otherwise irrelevant moon that we allow to govern the far larger nature of our minds.

And so before we can arrive at the act of breaking, we first have to confront our fear. The fear that the blank canvas and the blank side of life reflects back to us, which is so paralyzing, as you put it, and seems to tell us that we can’t do anything.” It’s an abstract fear, though it finds a way to take on endless shapes. Today it may be the fear of failure, but tomorrow it will be the fear of what others will think of us, and at a different time it will be fear of discovering that the worst things we suspect about ourselves are true. My lover says that the fear, which seems always to be there when one wakes up in the morning, and which he feels in the hollow between his ribs (above his stomach and below his heart) comes from the “other world,” a phrase that always brings tears to his eyes, and by which he means the awareness of our finitude, our lack of the infinite and eternal. I think he’s right, but I would also add to that that fear, being anticipatory, is always without knowledge. It is a mental calculation based on the future unknown. And yet the experience of fear is the experience of being in the grip of a sensation that seems to possess an unassailable conviction in itself. To be afraid that the plane will crash is, in a sense, to assume that the plane will crash. And yet even if we could scrape away the many forms our fear takes and get to the underlying source-our mortality, our division from the infinite – we would still discover that our fear is not based on actual knowledge, unlike the part of us that chooses to be free. Bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion. You implied as much in your letter: “However meaningless and vain, however dead life appears to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that,” you wrote. “He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, “violates.”

And so we find ourselves, once again, in front of the blank canvas. The blank canvas, which reflects both our fear and our opportunity to break it. In Jewish mysticism, the empty space – the Chalal Panui, in Hebrew – has tremendous importance, because it was the necessary pre-condition for God’s creation of the world. How did the Ein Sof – the being without end, as God is called in Kabbalah – create something finite within what is already infinite? And how can we explain the paradox of God’s simultaneous presence and absence in the world? And the answer to this, according to the Kabbalah, is that when it arose in God’s will to create the world, He first had to withdraw Himself, leaving a void. To create the world, God first had to create an empty space.

And so we might say: The first act of creation is not a mark, it is the nullification of the infinity that exists before the first mark. To make a mark is to remember that we are finite. It is to break, or violate, the illusion that we are nature that goes around in a loop forever. But it is also a confirmation of
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