MiSTings and More

Been there. Done that.

Nightmare Alley

You can find all sorts of useful and entertaining information at your local public library.


The robots work best on a full-size monitor. But if you’ve got the screen space and bandwidth, here they are.

Seek and you Shall Find

A. I’ve Got Just the Page You’re Looking For

  1. Be this assignment completyd in hast. (/ebooks/paston/)

    Answer key for significant details for Richard Calle to Margery Paston Spring–Summer 1469

    Ever since I put the Paston letters online, it’s been easy to tell when the academic year starts. Apparently the Done Thing is to assign homework by email, or post the assignment online. Then all the student has to do is select, copy and paste the whole question—verbatim—into the search engine of their choice.

    On the one hand these queries are annoying, because the Paston Letters are fairly large HTML files. On the other hand, the searchers get exactly what they deserve, since the search leads them only to . . . the actual text of the letters, which is what they were supposed to read in the first place.

    Sometimes the search even leads them to the present page, which is still more gratifying.

    Write a brief dialogue between Margaret Paston and her husband. Use at least three instances of direct address.

    Dialogue? In person? Face to face? Then how are you supposed to work in the “be thys deliveryd in hast” gag?

    answer recall: what occurred at the paston family estate of hellesdon in october 1465?

    On second thought, why bother to recall it when the Internet will just give you the answer? This goes double when you are careless with your cut-and-paste, reducing the query to “what occurred at the paston family estate”. Well, heck, what didn’t occur at the Paston family estate?

    At this point, however, I do need to take a moment off from sneering at students and have a look at the instructors instead. Word to the wise: Giving word-for-word identical assignments year after year is generally considered a hallmark of a mediocre teacher.

    The Paston letters are excellent examples of which of the following?
    how does margaret paston feel about the dukes action and how does she expect the tenants to feel

    Initially I thought this was a single question, because at least one student pasted the whole package into the search box back-to-back. In fact, the punctuation and capitalization led me to assume the student had typed the question with their own fingers. But a string of near-identical queries tells me there’s some higher layer of copying and pasting.

    I’m still waiting to learn what “the following” are, and which particular action of which particular duke offended Margaret. Maybe some future paste-in will shed light.

    In one of the Paston letters there is a discussion of certain issues at hand in the lives of the Paston family. Which of the following statements best explains how this might be significant for us today?

    There are times when I am sorely tempted to institute a redirect. If the search-engine query contains more than six words, one of which is “Paston”, then send the asker instead to a page headed Get Lost which would say something along the lines of The wording of your search strongly suggests that you are a godforsaken imbecile. If you’re that averse to getting an education, why don’t you just buy a mail-order diploma and save everyone some trouble?

    I do, however, wonder about that “one of the Paston letters” phrase. Only one? Which one, in particular, caught the professor’s attention?

  2. When the eels desert a sinking hovercraft, it’s all over. (/hovercraft/hovercraft.html)

    How to make yourself like an eel with the ability to escape from anything anyone ever tries to do to you.

    Are you asking me or telling me?

    and the hovercraft will never be that full of eels again
    what do you mean by my hovercraft is filled with eels
    How many eels will fill up my hovercraft

    Do I win something if my guess is closest?

    May your hovercraft ever be full of eels

    Aye, and begorrah to you too.

    how to catch and control an eel

    If you are thinking of a collar and leash I can tell you right now it won’t work.

  3. I would rather eat glass than deal with these questions. (/hovercraft/eat_glass.html)

    verbs you can do to glass
    verbs you can do with glass
    which is the verb that goes with glass

    Well, “eat” of course.

    why not to eat glass

    Y’know, back before they had the Internet, there was this thing called common sense . . .

    is it true that can eat glass

    Well, for a given definition of “can”.

    I really want to eat glass

    Don’t let me stop you.

    got hurt is a transitive verb or intransitive?

    Hm, good question. I kinda think it can go either way, depending on whether there’s an agent. Now let’s sit back and see if someone asks whether “hurt yourself” is passive, reflexive or intransitive.

    people that eat glass why don’t they die how do they prepare

    Do I look like Julia Child?

    how do people survive eating glass
    how can people eat glass and live?
    eat glass what happens
    what happens after you eat glass
    i want to eat glass but will it hurt?


  4. How many weeks of school does the asker has? (/ebooks/ninelives/NineLives.html)

    how many lives does a cat has?
    how many lives has got domestic cat
    how many lifes got a cat
    how do you know how much life's a cat's got left?

    Visitors from the UK seem to be especially troubled by the “how many lives” query.

    Splitters of hairs may object that I do not, in fact, have this page. This is true; I ended up taking it down. But there’s no harm in preserving the search strings for posterity.

  5. And finally . . . (/silence/questions.html)

    americans aren't stupid questions

    Query: Does someone out there maintain that Americans are stupid questions?

B. When the Tail Wags the Search

  1. Long (5-7 words) . . .

    how do i pronounce uqaq?

    Send me a sound clip and I’ll tell you.

    Q.: Why would someone need or want to pronounce “uqaq”? A.: Because you can’t get far in Inuktitut without it. The literal meaning is “tongue”, and it’s got all the secondary meanings you would expect.

    Now, if you really meant “How do you pronounce uqaq (ᐅᖃᖅ)?” the answer is: with extreme reluctance.

    what does obscure font mean??

    It means you need to stop futzing around on the Internet and go buy a dictionary.

    whow to love the ferst time

    Whow, what a question. I will tentatively suggest that if you paid a little more attention to your spelling, you might not have ended up in the Paston letters.

    what microsoft font looks like euphemia?

    That would be . . . uhmm . . . Euphemia?

    what happens when font substitution occur

    How much time have you got?

    mac keyboard suddenly switched to greek

    Well, switch it back. I can’t do it for you.

    tell me original swagrat with pic

    Hang on. I know I’ve got the answer to that somewhere.

    RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} \.(in|pk)/
    RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} \b(q\w*|text)(=|%3D)([%\w]*)swag(\+|%2[0B])*rat
    RewriteRule swagrat\.html /paintings/singrats/swagrat_marriage.html[R=301,L]

    (Just kidding. Since the chances of someone arriving at this page via a query that did not contain some form of the word “swagrat” are vanishingly remote, I dropped the second Condition long ago.)

    By the way, it’s spelled suhagraat.

    how to tape up your friend

    This seems to be a recurring fad. Every now and then, the Duct Tape Is Your Friend page is hit with a spurt of variations on this question.

    does judge judy know the law

    Sure—for a given definition of “law”.

    what is unavailavility [sic] of basic commodities

    You’re in India. You’re asking me?

    random words that no one ever says

    You mean like “dictionary”?

    do we have worms in the nastril [sic]

    I thought I had a page that detailed the differences between humans and caribou, but I guess I’ve misplaced it. No, wait, I’m thinking of the one where I say an Inuk hunter can tell the difference between a caribou and a geophysicist. No help there.

    what fonts were on computers in 1999

    Ooh, I love questions like this. If you’d given some really useful information—like what platform you’re talking about, and whether you mean specifically the built-in system fonts—you might even get an answer. Not from me, though. I can’t remember that far back.

    always pillage before you burn adventure game

    Good heavens, what a memory. Slogan of APBB, the Adventurers’ Protective and Benevolent Brotherhood. You want the /games/ directory of our sister site.

    color by number game Mac registration code

    You betcha. Want me to pay your car insurance too?

  2. Longer (8-10 words) . . .

    morphophonemic derivation for the words meaning “to dig,”

    I don’t believe there is such a thing.

    lion statant guardant tail coward over back gules

    This is all one lion we’re talking about? “Coward” in heraldic animals is reguardant with the tail between the legs.

    why do eels have difficulty with inflected endings

    Y’know, I can kind of see where this question would lead people to my site. But if the answer involves one of those obscure conundrums told only in college linguistics departments, I am going to be awfully disappointed.

    if it aint broke dont fix it red green
    i have fonts others don t how can they read
    i type and see what the font would look like
    how did fonts get on computers in the first place
    why some font installed but certain word cant show
    unicode problem while typing malayalam fonts in windows xp
    i need four letter after ceterain pattern in regular expresision

    I do believe I have the answer to every single one of those questions—although not necessarily on the page the search engine sent you to.

    what is difference between civil, criminal and judge judy case

    Answer: Two of the three are constrained by laws in effect in the relevant jurisdiction. The third is constrained by . . . uhm . . .

    When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

  3. Still longer (over 10 words) . . .

    Hamany times does a letter A apere from one to hundret

    Something tells me this originated with an extra-credit homework assignment. The problem with not being able to spell—and, more to the point, not understanding what a search-engine snippet is for—is that you are all too likely to be sent to some randomly selected Paston letter. And, if your question involves spelling in any way whatsoever, this is not where you want to be.

    In any case, assuming the question is “In the English words for the numbers one through one hundred, how many times does the letter ‘a’ appear?” I believe the answer is zero.

    what kind of font should i use to make it look greek

    “A Greek one” is the answer that comes to mind.

    But seriously: This is about your Greek restaurant’s sidewalk sign, isn’t it? You’re planning to render all A’s as Δ, confusing the heck out of anyone who actually knows Greek. Same principle as making things look Russian by replacing all the R’s with Я and, of course, selecting a wonton font for your Chinese restaurant’s signage.

    what should i do if my keyboard inputs a different letter from what i typed

    Chase away the cat.

    the first use of your computer what does Keyboard layout mean?
    joomla if a person dosent have fon installed what does it revert

    Oddly enough, I may know where to find that out.

    what was that game on the old mac computers that you were a bug

    Search me. But let me know if you find out. It sounds fun.

    how did the three blind mice run after the farmer's wife if they were blind

    Y’know, that’s a darn good question.

  4. Off the map (over 15 words)

    I think I cannot find ’fonts’ on this machine ... anyone know where they are supposed to be?

    Did you look under the couch cushions?

    yuri walked p poodles and b bull dogs.  write an algebraic  expression to represent how [sic] dogs were walked

    And you thought the “do my homework for me” searches were limited to questions involving the Paston letters. In fairness, I don’t think this one involves an actual human visit. Behind-the-scenes details suggest that the search engine was spot-checking its algorithm to see how close the match is between query and response. (Since the requested page was a 19th-century comic novel, the answer is: Not very.) But, hey, waste enough of the seeker’s time sending them to unhelpful pages, and they may decide it’s faster just to do the bloomin’ assignment. Particularly if the answer is simply p + b; if so, it has now taken more time to type the question than it would have taken to solve the problem.

    If, on the other hand, the query is not a typo for “how many dogs”, but is really asking how or in what manner the dogs were walked . . . I’m inclined to think we have moved out of the realm of algebra.


    If you’re trying to run Windows XP with Mac hardware, writing Arabic may be the least of your problems.

    what does it mean when someone says i thought you found the whole tool shed not just the screwdriver

    I have no idea—and, sadly, neither did the creator of “Coming Home”, which is where the search engine sent the asker. Some supple­mentary investi­gation of my own leaves me no wiser, though it does send me to pages about the sonic screwdriver and making jewelry from a dead piano. Those alone made the question worth asking.

    a picture of a Terrier sitting in a chair with his paws out and head bowed with a prayer under the picture

    This wouldn’t be one of those poker-playing dogs, would it? I guess the terrier lost the hand.

    is it considered burglary when you break into a family home afer [sic] you have moved out and locks have been changed

    Hmm . . .

    Wait, let me think . . .

    On the whole, weighing one thing and another, I think I would have to say: YES. But don’t take my word for it; tell it to the judge.

    is my man gay if there is no sex between us for 2 years and he would rathere be in boys company than mine even thow wee have been togetherevfor 19 years

    So many possible answers, so little time . . .

    One thing I can say for sure, though: The answer will not be found in volume III of the Paston Letters, no matter how fervently uk.search.yahoo.com may believe otherwise. Or rather, uk.search.yahoo.com/mobile, because somebody typed that whole query on a cell phone. I expect that explains why the spelling falls apart toward the end.

    Dear lady, I do wish I could help you.

    “The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower—suitable for every occasion. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.”

    I can always tell when someone has an oldies film festival, because there’s a flurry of visits to Referential Rats. Incidentally, the em dash and the curly quotes are in the original query.

    what page number in the book little women does it mention the quote “Having no ornaments fine enough for this important occasion,” Alcott writes, “Amy looped her fleecy skirts with rosy clusters of azalea, and framed the white shoulders in delicate green vines.”

    This is an odd one. Did the instructor herself copy-and-paste the question from some third source, leading to the seeming redundancy of “mention the quote” and “Alcott writes”?

    The reference to “page number” implies that students are supposed to be working from some specific edition—a common requirement when a whole class is assigned the same book or play—but why on earth would they be expected to know where to find the text of this particular passage? Surely Amy gets dressed up more than once in the course of Little Women; this is hardly a pivotal scene.

    A further oddity is that, although the query involves a major search engine, a popular browser and an established ISP, the request seems to have come from a robot, not a human. Is this a computer-science assignment masquerading as something else?

    melissa's baby goes missing. melissa finds that an alligator has taken the child. melissa asks the alligator to give the child back. the alligator tells her that he will return the child if she answers a question correctly, but he will eat the child if she answers incorrectly. his question is thus: will i eat your baby? melissa replies, "yes." what will the alligator do?

    I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure you will not find the answer in Alonzo and Melissa, since alligators are conspi­cuous by their absence from the book. It’s probably got something to do with their similarly conspi­cuous absence from 19th-century Connecticut.

  5. And the winner is . . .

    There had been a great deal of moving about in the warehouse during the day, running of trucks, and rolling of casks. Brisk, the liveliest of my brothers, had sat watching in a hole from noon until dusk, and now hurried through our little passage into the shed, where we were all nestling behind some old canvas. He brought us news of a coming feast.
    ‘A ship has arrived from India,’ said he, ‘and we’ll have a glance at the cargo. They’ve been busy stowing it away next door. There’s rice–’
    The brotherhood of rats whisked their tails for joy.
    There was a universal squeak of approbation.
    ‘That’s nothing but a blue dye obtained from a plant,’ observed Furry, an old, blind rat, who in his days had travelled far, and seen much of the world, and had reflected upon what he had viewed far more than is common with a rat. Indeed, he passed amongst us for a philosopher, and I had learned not a little from his experience; for he delighted in talking over his travels, and, but for a little testiness of temper, would have been a very agreeable companion. He very frequently joined our party; indeed, his infirmities obliged him to do so, as he could not have lived without assistance.

    All right, come clean. You’re already on the page, aren’t you? Just one quibble: mine’s got em dashes and double quotes, while you’re using en dashes and single quotes. Either way, the text is in the public domain.

    As with The Nine Lives of a Cat, I’ve since taken down this particular page. But the query was too good to discard.

Here Be Dragons

For those who have wondered why I refer to domain-name squatters as dragons when everyone else is content to call them trolls:

The reference is to Calvert Watkins, “How to Kill a Dragon in Indo-European”. Or possibly How to Kill a Dragon in Indo-European, since the original article was later expanded into a book. The version I read was published in the early ’90’s in a Festschrift for . . . uh . . . some guy I’ve never heard of. Some German. ’Nuff said.

Watkins’s thesis is that the role of Indo-European dragons—Chinese dragons are different—is to interfere with the smooth operation of society by taking valuables out of circulation. Think, on one side, of Smaug basking on his bed of treasure. Then think, on the other side, of those passages in the Iliad where valuable gifts are lovingly described even if it means taking time out from your depictions of mayhem and bloodshed to do so. Or consider the Sanskrit verse form known bluntly as the दानस्तुति or dānastuti (“praise of the gift”). No valuables means no ritual gift-exchange; no gifts means no greasing the wheels of society.

What’s in it for the dragon? Nothing that anyone has yet been able to discover.

But What About . . .


I, Robot



Where, you ask, are the pandas? Whither the penguins? And weren’t you saying something about hummingbirds?

Oh, they’re still around. But I like the robots best.