I, for one, welcome our new ‘handwriting’ spambot overlords
September 24, 2014 7:22 AM   Subscribe

 
I'm sure the robots will improve, quickly obsoleting these tips.
posted by Foosnark at 7:27 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


I always assumed it was a robot because before signing their name it was 0101010101010s instead of XOXO.
posted by Kitteh at 7:34 AM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm currently in the midst of writing post-wedding thank you notes. Right now, this sounds absolutely lovely.
posted by themadthinker at 7:36 AM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]


I got one of these letters. It asked for donations of old peoples medicine for fuel. Odd charity.
posted by dr_dank at 7:38 AM on September 24, 2014 [15 favorites]


The time it takes to analyze the handwriting for this is longer than it takes to figure out it's a piece of junk mail. Still, I found this interesting. We've recently started to get this kind of surprisingly-deceptive fake handwritten junk mail, and I was curious about the process. Interestingly, one of the obvious giveaways for me is the envelopes they use, and the lack of return address. And when I do get a rare piece of actual snail mail from someone, as I did yesterday, there's a return address that they've scrawled barely legibly, because it's their own name and address and they didn't put any care into it. All the "handwritten" junk mail I've gotten so far has had no return address on the front of the envelope at all. I opened the first few out of curiosity, but now I fearlessly recycle them unopened.

It is very interesting, but not surprising, that marketers are the ones putting so much effort into this. At the same time, I'm a little surprised by the effort going into postal mail, because one thing that made me suspicious of even the very first pieces of this kind of mail I got was that practically nobody writes personal letters anymore; they send e-mails if they're dong that kind of thing. Personal mail is more likely to be a card or an invitation, in which case the envelope will be a different size.

More generally, almost nothing important comes through the mail anymore. So it's not just that they have to make it look like it's a person, but they have to overcome the way we've all been trained to assume that nearly everything in a business-sized envelope in our mailbox will be junk. Maybe that psychological stance isn't as widespread as I think it must be, but it certainly applies at our house, FWIW.
posted by not that girl at 7:39 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


If they can program a robot to write me junk mail then surely they can program it to use elaborately filigreed Spencerian script???
posted by theodolite at 7:40 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've noticed a definite improvement in robo-writing over the past few years. There's still far too little randomization to be mistaken for real-person hand-writing, but I'm also someone who looks closely at this kind of stuff. I'm sure it probably tricks a lot of my elders.

This stuff is even more effective when incorporated into a complete design package. For instance, I recently got a junk mail piece from DirecTV. From the outside, it looked exactly like a greeting card...The envelope was the right size for a card and was a berry color. The address was written by one of the best robo-writers I've seen. There was an actual US mail stamp on it. But, the nice finishing touch was that the return address was one of those pretty address stickers your grandma might use. I think this one had a little smiling sun on it.

But, since the return address was to no one I knew, I immediately was suspicious. Opening it, I discovered it was simply a come-on for DirecTV. They certainly get kudos from me, though, for a well-turned-out direct mail piece.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:41 AM on September 24, 2014 [8 favorites]


And where is the link to the DIY robot from a makerspace to do this?

I have a lot of government forms I want to fill out and it would be far more amusing to have a robot do it than me.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:43 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


In a similar vein, here is some advice on looking for autopen signatures.
posted by TedW at 7:47 AM on September 24, 2014


I have been corresponding with a robot for years. Our relationship has deepened to the point where Destructocon calls me "HU-man" instead of "puny HU-man." Destructocon's handwriting is lovely; I understand it uses the actual hand of its megalomaniac creator in the process.

It's a funny world.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:48 AM on September 24, 2014 [13 favorites]


The investment of time and technology into figuring out how to spam people in ever more deceptive ways just stresses me out so bad. I just want to scream SPAMMERS. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. SPAMMERS. STAAAAAAAAHHHHPPPPPP
posted by bleep at 7:51 AM on September 24, 2014 [7 favorites]


Well, Thorzdad has already gotten mail from whoever it is who overcame all the things I mentioned. Once again, I'm behind the curve.
posted by not that girl at 7:58 AM on September 24, 2014


My solution was to install a security mailbox. I haven't seen one of these robo-letters since.
posted by orme at 8:15 AM on September 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


tossing aside immediately all the letters addressed with pen-script (robot, robot, god, another one sent by a robot)

Hang on! You really might want to open that third one!
posted by RogerB at 8:20 AM on September 24, 2014 [16 favorites]


Hang on! You really might want to open that third one!

No, not really. It just says

SPAM FROM THE SPAM GOD
DIRECT MARKETING FROM THE DIRECT MARKETING GOD
WORSHIP ME! KILL YOURSELF!

over and over.

Khorne has kind of come down in the world.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:37 AM on September 24, 2014 [8 favorites]


Love the bit about neoliberalism turning teachers into manual spam robots.
posted by Joe Chip at 8:41 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


It seems like the robots should vary the arc degrees and stroke length by some small, random percentage every stroke to make the writing still tidy but imperfect. In fact, I'll bet that's so obvious that the answer is "Yeah, but if you do that, you have to do this other thing and then you have to account for X, so good luck with that."

Still, I bet I could get a patent.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:50 AM on September 24, 2014


I've been getting these and the dead giveaway for me is the placement of the stamp. If it's an actual stamp it's applied *perfectly* straight, not slightly off like all but the most fastidious humans would do.
posted by nathan_teske at 9:05 AM on September 24, 2014


These can all be fixed by modifying the software and/or hardware to model the randomness of a human writer. Variable pen pressure is probably the only part which will add expense (and, if hijacking eyeballs is as big an industry as they say it is, I'm sure they can soak it right up, and build in the finest mechanical actuators on the market). The rest is software: make the line-breaking algorithm slightly random, add a random offset when the pen is lifted off the paper, perhaps even throw in a few crossed-out mistakes here and there for versimilitude.

In fact, the flipside of AI research is Artificial Stupidity, which is a perfectly serious field of research (i.e., used for making game opponents realistically beatable). The spammer arms race will undoubtedly push the AS field even further.
posted by acb at 9:26 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]




this is probably the coolest thing I've seen today - really, really cool! I've known about autopen tech for a while, and I truly hope that this type of machine becomes readily available to consumers for the next time i have to mail out invitations for something.
posted by rebent at 9:37 AM on September 24, 2014


Effective and well-executed marketing is simultaneously terrifying and beautiful.
posted by truex at 9:49 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


This also reminds me of the efforts made by Oscar Meyer (et al) to mimic home-style cuts with advanced irregular slicing technology.
posted by truex at 9:57 AM on September 24, 2014


I got that same piece of DirecTV junk mail. Although, I think my return address sticker had like a little cottage on it. It was the first piece of junk mail I have opened in years and years. It didn't make me want to get DirecTV, though. So, wasted effort.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:35 AM on September 24, 2014


I've written things you people wouldn't believe.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:45 AM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]


how to tell when a robot has written you a letter

1. You get a paper letter in your mailbox.
posted by straight at 10:52 AM on September 24, 2014 [7 favorites]


Khorne has kind of come down in the world.

I first heard of these Chaos god-machine marketing differences in a conversation last week with Brian Khorliss and Daniel Nurglek, the cofounders of the startup BloodLetter. If you need to send out 200 personalized letters compelling your sales leads into occult servitude but haven’t got the time to curse them yourself  — and if your vestigial sense of genuine human interaction is, like mine, irreparably atrophied by late capitalism  — then BloodLetter will generate them for you, using teams of genuinely Chaos-based gods. (What sort of god enjoys direct-mail marketing? “Blood gods,” Khorliss replies. Apparently blood gods have insatiable lust for human misery, take enormous pride in the craft, and want to make some extra coin in their evenings and weekends while between Pentagon contracts.)
posted by RogerB at 11:05 AM on September 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


There's a dumpster conveniently situated between my mailbox and my condo. Every now and then a piece of junk mail makes it all the way to my front door which irks me so I've gotten much better at spotting them. I'm glad to know about that DirectTV ad.

When I do get junk mail I just sort of laugh at the sender. "Ha, ha, you think I have disposable income. That's so cute."
posted by dances with hamsters at 11:08 AM on September 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


Surely it would be easier to just have a person write the original copy, using a device that's designed to record pressure, location, etc, and just play that back? Or is it too much to ask that it be hand written for realsies even one time?
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:41 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sigh, another thing we miss out on in Canada. Our robots are too busy bumping into each other and apologizing, they have no time to write anyone letters.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:53 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


I just tried to replicate this "clear center", and unless I'm practically carving into the paper, I can't reproduce it.
Several ex-girlfriends would no doubt cite this as additional proof that I am an unfeeling machine.
posted by cardboard at 1:25 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


SEND THIS HUMAN THE COCKROACH LETTER
posted by dhartung at 1:28 PM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Why are we teaching our robots cursive? It takes time away from so many other subjects they could be learning!
posted by Hoopo at 1:40 PM on September 24, 2014 [5 favorites]


Why are robots writing letters anyway? Wouldn't having them send emails be cheaper and more in line with their skillset anyway? Or maybe they could take a middle route and make phone calls.
posted by TedW at 2:26 PM on September 24, 2014


For anyone curious here's one of those DirecTV letters mentioned.
posted by zinon at 2:44 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


> And where is the link to the DIY robot from a makerspace to do this?

To get this repeatable and not glacially slow, you need some quite nifty registration and repeatability, usually beyond hobby electromechanics. There's an ebay kit from China that builds a flatbed plotter using an Arduino, but it's surprisingly expensive. You can futz with old HP or Roland plotters if you can be bothered trying to get them to work (as I have). Off the shelf, you can buy a Silhouette Cameo cutter for about $300 which can take pens.

Then there's the small problem of getting vector fonts. Plotter fonts went out with Windows 3.1, and only truly dedicated folks will emulate 3.1 to get at the plottery goodness. I got most of the way through converting the old Hershey fonts to something more usable, and even got some splining code mostly working to smooth out the bumps.

The clear centre bit is all about the pen and pen angle. You get it with a ballpoint or roller ball. You shouldn't get it with a fountain pen or fibretip.
posted by scruss at 3:21 PM on September 24, 2014


I just finished reading S. and I was amazed that all the margin notes were actually hand written. Obviously reproduced for the book but handwritten at some point. But now, well... Now I just don't know what to believe.
posted by MaritaCov at 5:45 PM on September 24, 2014


MaritaCov, I also just read S. last month and i figured that the margin notes were printed with photo printing technology or something (they are made of very small dots). But, I do think that they were originally hand written! I think it'd take as much time to robo-write them onto the page, around and between each other, as to just write them the first time. Honestly whoever did that should get credit, as an artist at the very least.
posted by rebent at 8:30 PM on September 24, 2014


I've done this with the Cameo and the pen kit, and it comes out nice - you can use gel pens and write on fairly weird paper (like a white gel pen on dark paper) and with vector tracing and fonts, you could do your own handwriting as a font and get a decent approximation. I like spotting handwriting fonts, so a really good one would be to scan in and vectorise the original handwritten text, which isn't that big a deal any longer if you write neat cursive or print. Writing a brief note per card took about 5 minutes? Good for churning out invites if you have several hundred to do identically.

The reason this is being done is research that shows handwritten notes, even robot ones, get opened at a higher rate and come across as more friendly. I write handwritten notes to people for donations at work, but I have to use fairly high end stationary. It's definitely generational, and there's this weird inbetween where you can get robot-handwritten thank you notes created from an iphone app and mailed off for $2.99, that seem thoughtful but somehow fall into the uncanny-valley away from a genuine handwritten note.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:04 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's got nuthin' on Arthur Ganson's Faster!
posted by deadbilly at 1:29 AM on September 25, 2014



Then there's the small problem of getting vector fonts. Plotter fonts went out with Windows 3.1, and only truly dedicated folks will emulate 3.1 to get at the plottery goodness. I got most of the way through converting the old Hershey fonts to something more usable, and even got some splining code mostly working to smooth out the bumps.


I suspect that they're not fonts, but rather an algorithm to convert a stream of characters into a stream of pen strokes, with the letterforms being dependent on each other.
posted by acb at 2:38 AM on September 25, 2014


Yeah, acb, by fonts I meant pen strokes. That's what the Hershey fonts are; just pen stroke data. You could combine these vectors (well, in the cursive fonts) for letters into word strings with a library like Shapely, gently randomize the vectors, then output a splined version to the plotter.
posted by scruss at 7:14 AM on September 25, 2014


The "clear center" tell sounds plausible I guess, but I cannot see it at all in the examples. This piece is a nice companion to the Grandparent Scam article. It's a "service" economy, folks!
posted by batfish at 4:31 PM on September 25, 2014


ok so WRT the margins looking not-right as a sign of authenticity, I actually seem to recall that part of the education for a classical scribe was for them to be able to make good margins on the fly. I always thought that was so cool and try to have as good of margins as possible when I write!
posted by rebent at 7:03 AM on September 26, 2014


> And where is the link to the DIY robot from a makerspace to do this?

This is the nicest one I've seen on the web so far,
Live Plotter on Arduino and MakerBeams

I want one too!
posted by xtian at 6:06 PM on September 27, 2014


Thanks for the MakerBeam plotter link, xtian. It looks like it would shake itself loose very quickly, and registration won't be great. Call me spoiled, but those old HP plotters can find points within 0.1 mm every time.
posted by scruss at 9:10 AM on September 28, 2014


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