Book Report: I Claudius

Someone asked for the origin of the name of the Canary Islands, with the caveat that it was a trick question. So everyone present wracked their brains. I asked, "Were they named after dogs?" and they were. Four years of high school Latin... occasionally it pays off. The legacy of Rome lives on in placenames and miniseriesses. Uhm, miniseriess? Miniseries'. Uhm, anyhow.

Before there was Rome, the bloody miniseries set in the time of the Roman Empire was I Claudius. I haven't seen either miniseries, but now I've read I Claudius. It was a guilty pleasure, a soap opera in a time of tyranny. Paranoid emperors, poisoning, betrayal, popular uprisings, gladiatorial games, stolen standards, government for by the horses by the horses, troop movements, perversions, unequal taxation... this book had a lot of fun stuff going on.

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Links: Some Photos

I think I should point out some things about some photos.

Photo, by Steven Pitsenbarger, of Jack o' Lanterns (2006)

This deserves an explanation. I did not take this photo of Jack o' Lanterns. Steven Pitsenbarger took this photo. I did not carve those pumpkins. I carved one of those pumpkins. Sometimes I am sloppy about attributions, and I didn't attribute this photo the first time I posted it. That's too bad because a bunch of people like that photo, and have been using it as the background of their MySpace profiles and other things.

Photo, by Catherine Rondeau, of me

This deserves an explanation. This is a photo, yes, of me, and yes, I'm kneeling next to a toilet, and, yes, I am wearing a flotation vest and look as if I'm contemplating something unpleasant. I wish to make clear that I did not dive into the toilet after this photo was taken. Nor have I ever dived into a toilet, really. (Except, perhaps, in the figurative sense. "When it came time to do chores, Larry dove into the toilet with zeal and a scrubber brush.") Catherine Rondeau took this photo, and it is important that you understand the context. We were on a boat. Thus, the flotation vest. I was explaining how to work the bizarre nautical toilets. (They're bizarre? You need to pump them! If you do it wrong, you could sink the boat! Really! Or get really icky liquid on you! They require explanation! Really!) I mean, I don't want you to think I was contemplating doing something really nasty, or that I had lost a best or something.

Finally, if you are familiar with Bernd and Hilla Becher's "Typology" photographs, you might, as I did, find these photos amusing. I did not take these photos. According to the interpretive text, some weirdos in Rotterdam took the photos.

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Milestone: 10 Million Hits (including 26000 strange ones)

Wow, it's the site's ten-millionth hit. In decimal notation, that is a very round number. Let's take a look at the log record of that hit: - - [23/Oct/2007:08:33:47 -0400] "GET /frivolity/LuxiSerif-Bold_pfa_u_tm.png HTTP/1.1" 503 413 "-" "MSNPTC/1.0"

This is probably a 'bot, a crawler, a program that automatically reads web pages without human intervention following web links to find other web pages to download. I couldn't figure that out just from this record, but looking at the many many records that precede it, I see that the same, uhm, entity is downloading a lot of files without taking much time to read them. The internet address is, which is at Beijing Telecom--so perhaps this is a Chinese user using Beijing Telecom as an ISP? My site returned a status code 503 which, roughly speaking, means "You're asking me for stuff too quickly. Please slow down." As I look at previous requests that this bot made, I see that it did not check for the existence of a robots.txt file which suggests it was either written by an ignoramus or else it is illegitimate or both. As I keep looking at previous requests, I also notice that the bot tries to read several nonexistent files--so I guess it probably was coded by someone incompetent. Hey, now that I look more closely I notice that /frivolity/LuxiSerif-Bold_pfa_u_tm.png, the file that this ten-millionth hit asked for--that file doesn't exist. If the 'bot had asked for /frivolity/tav/LuxiSerif-Bold_pfa_u_tm.png then it would have been onto something.

This crude bot is not the strangest phenomenon to hit the web site recently. I never would have noticed that little bot if it hadn't been responsible for the site's 10000000th hit.

The strangest thing recently has been the 26 thousand visits to the Book Report: Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading page. To compare, that page has had more hits in the few weeks of its existence than, say, my Japanese Ska page has had in the past few years. Hundreds of hits a day. It's not people using browsers. People-controlled browsers report refering pages. People-controlled browsers download the pictures that go with a page. These "visitors" haven't reported a referer, haven't downloaded graphics. They come from a wide variety of IP addresses. If the requests came 1000 times per second instead of 1000 times per day, I'd think they were a distributed denial-of-service attack. If I displayed advertising, I'd think they were trying to corrupt my advertising statistics. Oh, and some of them garble the file name in strange ways like the middle request here: - - [27/Sep/2007:21:31:47 -0400] "GET /new/2007/08/book-report-leave-me-alone-im-reading.html HTTP/1.1" 200 7953 "-" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; SV1; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)" - - [27/Sep/2007:21:32:03 -0400] "GET /new/2007/08/book-report-leave-me-alone%0D%0A1bd5%0D%0A-im-reading.html HTTP/1.1" 404 1123 "-" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; SV1; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)" - - [27/Sep/2007:21:33:03 -0400] "GET /new/2007/08/book-report-leave-me-alone-im-reading.html HTTP/1.1" 200 7953 "-" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; SV1; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)"

Could someone be trying to crack a web server by putting gobbledegook into the requested address and hoping to choke the web server program and trick it into... writing that gobbledegook into memory somewhere where it might get executed? It seems like there are other easier ways to crack into systems, ways more likely to succeed. I have no idea what the story is behind these 26000 hits. If you know or if you have an amusing theory, please drop me a line.

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Puzzles are Everywhere, Maybe Even mental_floss

I work at an internet search company. I think that the awesome part about internet search is that you don't have to remember stuff anymore. If you might need to know the capital of California in the future, don't bother trying to memorize that kind of stuff. You should devote those neurons to something more useful... like maybe IMSpeak decoding. Just look up the capital of California when you need to know it.

Surprisingly, there are many people at work who cache facts in their heads. These people know the capital of California--they know it really well. And lots of other stuff. The deepest lake in South America. The 19th century American poet known for wearing a straw hat. Which European monarch witnessed the greatest loss of population to his/her country during the course of his/her reign. These people, they like trivia.

mental_floss is a magazine for people like this. It's also a website, a line of books, ... The magazine's founders, Mangesh and Will, came to my place of employment to talk to give an Authors talk. I'd heard about mental_floss... was it from Ken Jenning's Brainiac? Or maybe from his blog? Or maybe via osmosis from hanging out with so many puzzlers and geeks? I dunno. Anyhow, I attended their talk.

They talked about how they founded the magazine while they were in school. They talked about how popular it is now, their success with the trivia books. More background blah blah blah. They asked some trivia questions. Look, if you're a trivia fan you probably want to check out the magazine. If you're not, but if you're a regular reader of this blog, then there was still something...

After the talk, I went up to the front where Mangesh and Will were chatting with a few folks. Tom introduced Wei-Hwa to them, pointing out that Wei-Hwa. was an international puzzle champion and everything. Will perked up at that, and asked him if Wei-Hwa wrote puzzles. Because they were thinking that mental_floss could have a puzzle feature. And you might be thinking "Oh, probably they just want more trivia quizzes", but when Wei-Hwa said that he had just made a bunch of Sudoku puzzles for the upcoming championship, Will didn't blink but said that he and Mangesh would love to hear about puzzles for the magazine. So anyhow, that's another place to send your puzzle ideas if you'd like to make them visible to a wide audience.

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Puzzle Hunts are everywhere, even Golden Gate Park

I am back from a 2.5 week trip to the greater Seattle area. I volunteered at the MS Puzzlehunt, which was pretty cool. I guess I'll write something about Seattle soon. But life is still busy. Last night, it was going to see Black Moth Super Rainbow at the Fillmore, a band about which I knew nothing, but was pretty good anyhow. Tonight, I go to see Frank Black or Black Francis or whatever he's calling himself; I hear tell that the stuff he's done recently is "different", so again I don't know what I'm getting myself into.

Meanwhile, if you haven't already, you can read about a Shinteki playtest that got out of hand. And/or go read some puzzlehunt recaps.

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Book Report: Glasshouse

It's fun to walk up next to Rich Bragg when he least expects it, especially if you're dressed up in glow sticks to look like a character from the movie "Tron". You remember "Tron", that movie where the characters were all programs inside a computer. Well, some of those programs were human beings that had been scanned in. Sort of like an early version of that movie "The Matrix". Or like the movie "Glasshouse".

This novel is like the movie "The Matrix": it's a lot of fun, but if you think too hard about the premise, you think Hey wait, why did the bad guys need humans for this? Try not to focus so much on the plot. Instead, think about a world in which it's possible to upload your memories, to "back yourself up". What changes would that have on society? How would it change the way people think about immortality? Especially when viruses came along? Discuss.

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Book Report: Botany of Desire

This book by Michael Polan was fun. It's about four domesticated plants, talking about how some plants survive not by being tenacious but rather delicious. Or maybe beautiful or nutritious or intoxicating. Something that encourages humans to cultivate the species. I enjoyed reading the book, but I didn't retain much. I wish I hadn't retained quite so much as I did, actually. At work, conversation turned to, as it sometimes does, the facilities necessary for a major marijuana "grow operation". (So difficult to distinguish from a computer data center--a large inside area, sealed environment, huge power consumption...) Thanks to this book, I was able to point out that you don't necessarily want to run the grow lights 24 hours a day--after a certain point in the growth cycle, you only want to run the lights just 12 hours a day. After I said that, everyone looked at me strangely, as if they were trying to figure out whether I had some home gardening hobby that I hadn't let on about. (I don't!)

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