Google, meet Babel Bombs

Don’t like google’s new privacy policy? I propose a new art form: the Babel Bomb, a list of unrelated (but esthetically pleasing) search terms guaranteed to baffle the algorithms.

By now, most of you who don’t live in caves have probably heard of Google’s new privacy policy. The policy’s professed purpose is to “provide better services to all of [Google’s] users.” This means, according to my Corporate-English dictionary, to make gobs of money by placing on our screens ads that closely track our searches, our gmail, our Google Music selections, and so on.

For now, it seems, we can opt out of having Google track our search history by changing the “Web History Controls” on our google accounts.  (Hayley Tsukayama of the Washington Post gives a short tutorial as to how, here. It’s purposely a bit fiddly, but doable.)  But I don’t trust that opt-out to stay active forever, and in any case using it wouldn’t prevent google from mining information from our email, our music choices, etc.

Quixotic though it may be, I propose a different method: regular purgatives. I propose that those who don’t like the new policy make a habit of every so often typing into their search bars, one by one, a series of terms unrelated to one’s actual interests and to one another. The idea is not to avoid Google’s algorithm but to confuse it.

Doing this will take a couple of minutes, and nobody will do it unless it’s fun. I therefore humbly propose a new art form: the Babel Bomb. The idea is to post on the web a series of terms that are unrelated but have a vague conceptual or verbal continuity about them that’s esthetically pleasing–or else, in an alternative, deconstructivist mode, have a deliberately jarring or contradictory quality that’s funny or stimulating. If Babel Bombs catch on, people can look for them on the web and get some fun out of detonating them. I got the idea from google bombs, of course, but also from Spy magazine’s “Spy list” of people who had nothing in common except that they were somehow indicative of the Zeitgeist (or not), as well as from my time fact-checking the Harper’s Index.

Below is one example, in a mix of the modernist and deconstructivist modes (tending towards the former). I’m sure others can do better. Feel free, in comments, to try.

Schizophrenia, Ron Paul, Corinthians, Ricardo Montalban, islands, John Donne, Dun & Bradstreet, Jenna Jameson, “Irish whisky,” clover, crimson, vampires, platelets, dishes, weddings, divorces, Kardashian, Nagorno-Karabakh, puppies, Hello Kitty, sticker shock, Baumol, Dettol, Geritol, grandfather clause, Santa Claus, elves, shelves, brackets, crackers, donuts, Homer Simpson, Samson, baggage, strawberry, shortcake, clambakes, beaches, Sneetches.

Update: Apparently this doesn’t work (see the comment by Rachel) and other things work better, at least for search engine privacy (see the comment by Katja), though none of us has a solution for gmail I don’t think. File this under “malign intellectual mutation,” I guess. Still: doesn’t anyone actually like my list? 😉

Dear Good Sir,…

Do-gooders won’t be lured by a free trip to check out a time-share in Boca, so how about a conference in Cincinnati?

The basic 419 (“Nigerian”) scam hasn’t evolved much in recent years (except that they now tend to come from Côte d’Ivoire or Guinea, as if that’s somehow less suspicious). But a couple of subtler, cleverer scams have emerged, targeting do-gooders. The “jobs in international development” email announces positions with NGOs in Laos or Haiti, with a reasonable list of qualifications sought. And if you’ll just provide them with your bank account information, they’ll set up the wire transfer for paying your salary, so it’s all set to go once you’re hired…

Of course, the English is clumsy and stilted, and it comes from a Hotmail account, and twenty other lights are blinking SCAM, even if you buy the premise of the come-on. There’s now an even-more-elaborate set-up, which is no-less-obviously bogus than the others, but which cloaks the kernel of the fraud in layers of almost-legitimate detail. It’s an invitation to attend a conference, on NGO development or suchlike, hosted by a foundation, with all expenses paid—you just have to send a $200 registration fee to get the ball rolling. The best-executed one I’ve seen has a website for the corporate foundation, with a message from the founder, mission statement, activities, board of directors, etc., and a photo gallery of past conferences. All the text and photos are lifted wholesale from other sites: photographs of happy conference-goers from a travel-agents-association convention; information about the company from a Midwestern trucking-and-logistics operation; and description of malaria-fighting programs from the WHO.

Never mind the typos and curious turns of phrase (and a Penchant for Spurious Capitalization that would make Glen Greenwald envious). The website is hosted in Grenada, and the conference registration is to be sent by Western Union to an agent in Togo. What could be wrong with that? They have a board of directors and a mission statement.

From today’s email

This morning’s email included no fewer than eight copies of the following missive. Under the circumstances, I am posting it without my usual scrupulous inquiry into the sender’s willingness to have it published.

Permit me to solicit your assistance on this transaction with you. My name is Hans Berger citizen of Germany, I am a staff of Deutsche bank in germany.

As one of the auditors of the bank, I happen to find out that there is an unclaimed fund of 19.4M. in one of our customer account for more than ten years and our banking law stipulates that any unclaimed fund for more than 12 years will go into the bank revenue as an unclaimed fund.

I and my colleagues have made our own personal inquiries about the depositor and the next of kin but sadly,the depositor and his entire family died in a plane crash in the year 1999.

We solicit that you stand as the next of kin so that the money will be transfered to your account or any other account you may provide for us.

We propose that the money be shared as follows 30% for you, 60% for my colleagues and I while 10% will be for any expences we may incure.

I awaits your urgent reply while believing you do understan

the confidential nature of this transaction.

Best Regards,


Note:pls for the confidentiality of this transaction foward your reply to the below email address.

I made another exception by answering the solicitation. My reply follows:

Dear Mr. Berger:

Thank you for your note. The proposition seems a generous one.

However, you should be aware that as a German citizen you are ineligible to execute this particular scam, which is part of the national patrimony of the Nigerian people. Consequently, I must decline to be your victim in this instance.

Best of luck with finding an alterantive way to extract money from the terminally greedy and stupid.

Very truly yours,