August 2006 Archives

Its IT!

Catching up on last week's APODs, I see this image captioned as a "smoke angel". Bollocks. It's clearly a vision of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

Speaking of which, what should we call this LEGO masterpiece? IT's church? Temple? Spaghetti Warehouse?

Seriously, though -- I got no response to this post. I'll be taking off tomorrow (Wednesday) to hang at the State Fair with one of my roomies. If anyone wants to play hookie and join in, let me know.

September Announcements


Next month, school will be back in session, and I'll be teaching again. Good times.

New York, beware: from Sept. 22 (my birthday!) to the 26th, I will be operating out of Brooklyn. We (well, those of you in the New York region) should have a weekend get-together in that time-frame. My sister wants to know what Broadway musical I'd like to see. Someone will need to teach my Friday lab that week.

On all points just mentioned, I am open to input. Discuss.


In the short term, I expect that posting here will remain a sporadic exercise, since I'm engaged in a number of competing activities at the moment. Besides the obvious research and stuff, that is. A couple of projects haven't quite even gone public, which means they aren't yet a source of interesting and engaging stories that I can tell.

This weekend I'm camping out in southwest Minnesota on one of our UITP weekend trips, which ought to be interesting. Might be unfortunately cloudy tonight, but tomorrow looks great. What with the dark skies and recent interest in outer planets, I'm going to try and spot Neptune. Uranus at least should be easy.

I've got a pile of reading to catch up on, too, almost none of which will relate to cosmology. Zombies, for one.

Finally: State Fair! The more the merrier, mostly because the more ways you split stuff, the more things you can try. Of the fried-on-a-stick variety, mostly. So locals, we should pick a date.

To Borg or Not to Borg?


Okay, I need some reader input. I'm watching this auction and I've gotta say, I'm seriously tempted. I always get a kick out of repurposing quirky obsolete technology, and the Borg aspect is just icing on the cake here. But seriously -- lacking an answer to this question helped get Xybernaut into financial trouble -- what do you use it for? Ideas?

This page has the only good photos I've been able to find of someone wearing the thing. Just so we're clear: this is Locutus of Dork gear, at best.

Field Notes

I know the entire Blogosphere has already linked to this, but that's because the monkey is so right:

Maybe it's just, I cast my eyes back on the last century ...

FDR: Oh, I'm sorry, was wiping out our entire Pacific fleet supposed to intimidate us? We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and right now we're coming to kick your ass with brand new destroyers riveted by waitresses. How's that going to feel?

CHURCHILL: Yeah, you keep bombing us. We'll be in the pub, flipping you off. I'm slapping Rolls-Royce engines into untested flying coffins to knock you out of the skies, and then I'm sending angry Welshmen to burn your country from the Rhine to the Polish border.

US. NOW: BE AFRAID!! Oh God, the Brown Bad people could strike any moment! They could strike ... NOW!! AHHHH. Okay, how about .. NOW!! AAGAGAHAHAHHAG! Quick, do whatever we tell you, and believe whatever we tell you, or YOU WILL BE KILLED BY BROWN PEOPLE!! PUT DOWN THAT SIPPY CUP!!

... and I'm just a little tired of being on the wrong side of that historical arc.

We're now almost 18 hours into the ceacefire between Israel and Lebannon and Hizbullah, although heck if I know how it's supposed to hold:

He said Israeli forces — apparently about 30,000 soldiers now — would stay in Lebanon until an international force arrived.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said his militia would abide by the cease-fire blueprint, but said the guerrillas would keep battling Israeli troops while they remained in Lebanon, calling that “our natural right.?

From where I'm sitting, it'll take at least a few weeks to get an international force in place. In the meanwhile Israeli forces will dig in throughout south Lebannon, Hizbullah will revert to its original mandate to drive out occupying Israeli troops, and the guerilla war will proceed apace. But at least the cross-border shelling ought to quiet down for the time being.

Finally, last week when the British calmly arrested a cell of would-be airplane bombers and the Bush administration launched seamlessly into another round of Chicken Little, I speculated as to whether the timing had been orchestrated around the Connecticut primary or the Levant debacle. My officemate mocked me for the assumption that Bushco can actually control these sorts of things.

Of course, it is now emerging that that is exactly what happened. Man, these screw-ups used to at least be good at keeping secrets. Except that it sounds like the British authorities are severely pissed at the interference. Probably because of the ones that got away as a result.

The narrative, as best I can speculate from the developing threads, is that Cheney et al pressured the British to go ahead with the arrests last week (the timing suggests a connection to the primary, but that's purely circumstantial at this point). Scotland Yard et al nixed the suggestion on the grounds that the plot was far from consumation, so as to gather more evidence, identify additional conspirators, and generally bolster their case -- wise, considering that in the UK, as opposed to, say, here, the accused would eventually have to be proven guilty. However, one of the ringleaders was in Pakistan, and since Musharraf knows where his bread is buttered the Pakistani authorities were happy to pick him up early at the US's suggestion. Then the British had no choice to act, lest news of the arrest lead the rest of the cell to either scatter or try to carry out the plot early.

Since it is not generally illegal to sit around shooting the breeze with friends about how easy it would be to take down an airplane, the very real possibility exists that several of the conspirators will walk free for want of hard evidence that they'd actually done anything wrong. For instance, some reports say that Scotland Yard was waiting for at least one of them to buy tickets for their practice run, or to acquire bomb-making materials. This is in addition to the plotters already known to have escaped the dragnet, quite probably tipped off by the arrest in Pakistan. So one can imagine why the British might be annoyed, and thus be leaking about Republican interference to the press.

Weekend Update

This weekend, if the sky happens to be clear where you are, would be a good time to spend the evenings watching for Perseid meteors. The Moon is near full and thus rises not long after sunset, but you might be able to take advantage of that dark window to watch for Earth-grazers. Otherwise hope for fireballs -- SpaceWeather is reporting that a few have been spotted bright enough to show up on automated cameras, Moonshine and all.

This weekend I'll start posting photos from the vacation. I've spent the week racing about to make up for taking a couple of weeks off, and blogging, much less processing photos, hasn't quite bubbled up to the top of my list. Also, I've acquired a software project that'll be taking up a good deal of my copious spare time in the short term. More on that later, I should think.

One photo, 'cause otherwise that's all I've got for now.

A pine martin sizes us up on the way down a mountain. Actually it spent a while showing off before getting bored and wandering off. Clearly life under the National Park Service has at least taught the fauna that humans are unlikely to eat them. 2006:08:01 10:45:57

Mr. Flacklestein, Where Are You?


First of all, who in tarnation is this Mike Flacklestein character? Search for the name, you find thousands of results, all apparently similar blog comments asking about random addresses, all on the (as far as I can tell) nonexistent Commonwealth Street in Seattle. I don't appear to be the first to have noticed this, but I can't uncover any sensible explanation.

However, a few ideas come to mind, if you're as devious a fellow as myself.

When I saw the first one I assumed it was a real comment, but since I've never been to Seattle and didn't recognize the name I gave it no mind. The second one got my attention though, which led me to do some searches. Looks automated, then, given that generally only the number changes. Normally that would indicate comment spammers, of course -- miscreants who post links to their webpages in bulk, buried on old blog posts where only robots will find them, in the hopes of pushing up their ranking in the search results. This generally doesn't work, because these days most everyone uses the nofollow tag, which marks untrustworthy links such as those in blog comments for search engine spiders to ignore. But it doesn't cost the spammers much to try.

Except in the case of Mr. F here, there are no links. He has a Gmail address, and lists Google as his homepage. Somehow I doubt that Google has to resort to comment spam to improve its positioning in the search engine world. Search for Mike Flacklestein; all you'll find is these meaningless comments -- and, if a few days, probably this post. So what's up, if it isn't spam?

Maybe it's just a prank. Someone thought it'd be fun to spread a meaningless name across the globe. The two comments I have come from separate DSL accounts in Irvine, CA, judging by the IP addresses. But two is an awfully small sample, so I wouldn't draw any conclusions from that. I'd like to know where others originate. But there are potentially ways to exploit something like this to more interesting effect.

Observe: each Mr. F comment is identical, except for an apparently random five-digit address. That's log(99999)/log(2) = 16.6 bits of information per comment. The messages have long common segments, so they're easy to search for. Google reveals at least hundreds of these things, so that adds up to perhaps a few kilobytes of information, easily and anonymously retrieved with a web query that leaves no trace as to who posted the information nor who collected it. However, using this as a bulk data transfer wouldn't be very efficient. You'd have to be able to reassemble the message; uniquely identifying each of several hundred would take 9 to 10 bits of your 16.6, but that sill leaves a couple of kilobytes of compressed, encrypted data to play with.

How about posting the comments, then? Surely that would lead back to the sender, if a few blog operators got together and compared IP address logs? Not necessarily. Most comment spam, like email spam and more malicious activity, originates not from the well-hidden Spam-Cave but from widely dispered networks of desktop computers running unpatched versions of Windows on DSL lines and corporate networks. Bored teenagers can download tools that automatically scan the internet for such vulnerable machines, hack in and infect them in seconds, and thus render them a horde of zombie computers able to wake up at a moment's notice to do the bidding of the, well, highest bidder. Often without incriminating fingerprints that might lead back to said bored kid, and almost always without a whiff of a trace of the purchaser. Posting a few thousand strange blog comments from random computers across the country -- this is trivial. The right "script kiddie" would do that for free as an introductory offer.

Which led me to another notion. Some zombie networks have been built not by kids with scanners, but organically by self-propogating worms. (Remember those worms that occasionally shut down the Internet a few years back when an infection got out of hand? Now they've mostly been tamed, and put to work.) Trouble is, if you want to control such a thing, each computer has got to phone home somehow. Make them all call some master computer, you might as well light up a Bat Signal from your roof, 'cause that's getting shut down. More common is for each computer to pass messages back along the chain of infection to the source, but if the chain breaks large portions of the network can be lost. But what if a worm, upon arriving in a new host, instead connected to the internet behind the scenes. It would be easy to find a blog at random and leave a comment. At 16.6 bits per message, only two such comments would be needed by each worm to broadcast its 32-bit IP address, and thus reveal its position to whomever's pulling the strings.

In either case this would represent a form of Steganography, the trick of hiding information in plain sight. Not especially good steganography, of course, since after just a few hundred or thousand postings it's already readily apparent to someone like me. That doesn't especially matter if the included secrets are encrypted in some sensible fashion, though. Without the ability to read the message, discover its origin or destination, or even hinder its delivery appreciably (by deleting the comments on my own blog I could only destroy a fraction of a percent of the message, and any scheme like this would have to have built-in redunancy) there's little sense in which my knowledge of the existence of this channel of communications can credibly threaten its users' designs.

On the other hand, maybe it's all just an ARG about a sentient AI loose on the internet that's trying to make contact. It's not like that's ever been done before.

Site Checkup

| 1 Comment

First up, I checked my traffic stats for the first time in a while. Someone from a University of Wisconsin computer became my 15,000th visitor while I was away. That's surely more eyeballs than have ever seen work I've committed to paper, even if you figure that probably around a third of that figure is accounted for by you, the dozen or so regulars.

Second, glancing at the recent comments summary in the sidebar below and cross-referencing with the Sitemeter logs, I see that some doofus in Florida became my first troll at about the same time. I find such behavior a bit strange, given that even 15,000 visitors in just under two years still makes EGAD a pretty remote corner of cyberspace. More so since the comment in question is attached not to one of my conceivably irritating posts on politics or the Middle East, but to a nonsensical aside highlighting camels in my life. Definitely not a spam, though, as there's no hint of links or commercial keywords.

(It has occurred to me that several of the preceeding should be regarded as sentence fragments in standard English. All would be repaired were "It is" prefixed to each. Nettlers may assume that I am holding to the convention in numerous other languages whereby a tenseless and obvious existential verb may be implied. Hebrew doesn't even have such a verb!)

Third, I junked a few dozen spam comments that had built up while I was offline. Sigh.

Remaining in Motion II

Hey, look! I'm back online!

Nothing of substance to say today, simply because I am taking valuable moments out of packing and running off to the airport to type this. But I'll be back in Minneapolis within the day, much refreshed by my fortnight away.

I intend to resume using this blog in a productive way, so watch for that. Also, I have a bajillion vacation pictures, many of which I think are worth posting here. So with that, it's time to dive back in.

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

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