Clifford Stoll
September 3, 2007 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Cliff Stoll [Wiki] first became known [ram] as the astronomer who caught a spy/hacker. His book on this adventure, "The Cuckoo's Egg" [PDF] was featured on a 1990 Nova [1 2 3 4 5 6, YouTube, with most of the re-enactments performed by the real-life people.] Since the mid 90's he has been an outspoken critic of high-tech hype. 1996 C-Span presentation [GVid.] for "Silicon Snake Oil." 2004 audio interview [ram] for "High-Tech Heretic." Stoll has written Scientific American articles on the Curta calculator [PDF scans] and the slide rule. For several years, Stoll has also been making and selling hand-blown glass Klein bottles. (Calibrations available.) [Previously 1 2 3 4]
posted by McLir (33 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
The Stoll (St) is also a unit of energy. 1st is the amount of energy needed to run Cliff Stoll for one day.

Much like the Farad, this turns out to be an unwieldy unit to use on a regualar basis. Most humans require one to two microStoll to function for a day, and the truly lazy need but a few nanostoll to get through lunch.
posted by eriko at 1:00 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is why people who whine about single-link posts should be shot.
posted by bonaldi at 1:01 PM on September 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

"The Cuckoo's Egg" is a fun read.
posted by ericb at 1:04 PM on September 3, 2007

That Nova episode has all the production value of a jury duty instruction video. Interesting story, however.
posted by basicchannel at 1:20 PM on September 3, 2007

Let's put Cliff Stoll and Vernor Vinge in a jar and shake it.
posted by sidereal at 1:32 PM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

"The Cuckoo's Egg" is a fun read.

Definitely worth compensation to Stoll, by buying or borrowing from the library.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:43 PM on September 3, 2007

From the second link:
In this interview with Don Swaim Clifford Stoll talks about his novel The Cuckoo’s Egg, which is a novel about...

His novel? That's a novel observation. Lots of people think it really happened, like the stuff in the bible, only really.
posted by hexatron at 1:49 PM on September 3, 2007

I read The Cuckoo's Egg when I was in high school (I think) and came away with the impression that Stoll was/is a buffoon.
posted by mrnutty at 1:50 PM on September 3, 2007

I read the Cuckoo's Egg and came away with the impression that Stoll was/is an unknown regeneration of Doctor Who trapped on Earth.
posted by JDC8 at 1:54 PM on September 3, 2007

I have one of his zero-volume bottles. They're cool.
posted by psyche7 at 2:03 PM on September 3, 2007

I found the Cuckoo's Egg in a box of discarded books, and read it. I liked it so much I bought a couple of his klein bottles, so he did get some compensation from me, even though I hadn't bought his book. The klein bottles are awesome.
posted by wildilocks at 2:38 PM on September 3, 2007

I've never read the Cuckoo's Egg but I met Stoll before he published it. He worked down the hall from me at the CfA. Always seemed like a freaky guy. I thought he was an IT guy rather than a resident astronomer...
posted by vacapinta at 2:41 PM on September 3, 2007

I read The Cuckoo's Egg in high school and learned the word bailiwick. Clifford uses that word a lot and I had never heard it before then and remember looking it up. I thought it was a strange word. bailiwick...bailiwick...bailiwick...

Never used it since, though. Until now.
posted by Arch_Stanton at 3:07 PM on September 3, 2007

"The Cuckoo's Egg" is the nail-biting story of the brave guy who protected useless data from inept hackers who weren't in much danger of doing anything particularly devious.

My favorite part is when he's about to do something that might be ethically questionable and wonder to his girlfriend if he should. She says she thinks it'd be okay, and that settles that.
posted by Legomancer at 3:07 PM on September 3, 2007 [5 favorites]

Legomancer: I think you nailed my reaction exactly.
posted by mrnutty at 3:18 PM on September 3, 2007

I read a condensed version of the book in Reader's Digest. I enjoyed it at the time, but felt betrayed once he authored silicon snake oil.
posted by The Confessor at 3:40 PM on September 3, 2007

I really want one of those Curta calculators now. (I saw one selling on eBay for almost $700. Ouch.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:56 PM on September 3, 2007

I read Silicon Snake Oil at the time that it came out, and it struck me as more of the same "This was all so much cooler before the great renaming" bah-humbuggery. Lots of 'back when we made the Internet, we went out and explored caves and learned to crochet and then we talked about terribly intelligent things' mutterings, without the psychological heft of other authors who tried to explore the actual impact of those early 'net environments on human interaction.
posted by verb at 3:58 PM on September 3, 2007

Legomancer: then they take a shower together.
posted by trondant at 4:01 PM on September 3, 2007

He's a really nice guy, and the comparison to Baker-era Dr. Who is quite apt.

He also welcomes visitors. I dropped by in August of 2003 during a trip to San Francisco. He had just gotten the giant Klein bottle back from the glassblower, and I got to handle it. (I also took the photo of Stoll and the bottle that appears here.)

I'd just finished reading Gibson's Pattern Recognition, in which Curta calculators play a part. I'd been intrigued by them, and had been able to look-not-touch at some at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

While talking with Stoll about Klein bottles, he suddenly exclaimed "Ooo! I've got this cool thing you have to see!" He ran out of the room and returned with...a Curta. Which I got to play with.

To the naysayers on Cuckoo's Egg, remember that the book was written in the late eighties, before this whole Internet thing had caught on. When we spoke about the book, he seemed a bit embarrassed by it.
posted by bitmage at 4:06 PM on September 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Although, in all fairness, the only $.75 discrepancy I'm likely to solve is "Who left their wallet at home and got change for a Coke out of the drawer?"
posted by trondant at 4:08 PM on September 3, 2007

Klein bottles have never really turned my crank much, since (a) they're basically just the Mobius strip kicked up a notch, and (b) the only way we can experience them is as a 3D immersion. And as is very obvious from the fact that they can contain liquid, the immersions are most definitely not "zero volume" (in 3D)!

So, I've always had a sort of "meh" response to them.

Besides, I think they're kind of ugly (that interpenetration is a horrible kludge in my view). I prefer the figure-8 immersion, esthetically, which also has the advantage of revealing the Klein bottle's Mobius strip heritage much more clearly.
posted by mondo dentro at 4:18 PM on September 3, 2007

Didn't he used to have short little 30s blips on ZDTV?
posted by SirOmega at 4:20 PM on September 3, 2007

Woah. I bought my mother an Acme Klein Bottle for her birthday a few years back. Never even noticed the connection between them and Stoll. That sound you hear is me smacking my forhead...
posted by sotonohito at 4:51 PM on September 3, 2007

Okay, this is creepy. Just this morning I was wondering whatever happened to Cliff Stoll.

I recorded the "Cuckoo's Egg" when it was broadcast on Nova. I still have the VHS tape and pull it out and watch it every 2-3 years. It's quite enjoyable.
posted by neuron at 7:01 PM on September 3, 2007

I didn't think the interesting part of "Cuckoo's Egg" was the actual computer stuff (which was, as someone has already pointed out, inept hackers doing pointless things), but the response of corporations like Mitre when Stoll contacted them with his information. Mitre - which is one of the companies responsible for computer security for things like, oh, the U.S. government, as I understand it - basically responded to him by saying "No no no, there can't be a problem with our computer security. We've *certified* our computer security, you see." It reminded me chillingly of Feynman's stories about how, when he was investigating NASA in the wake of the Challenger disaster, he met people telling him that the equipment they made had a "zero percent chance of failure". Why? Because they had declared it to be so ...
posted by kyrademon at 7:22 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should read Bruce Schneier's blog Kyrademon. It only takes about two weeks for you to see that, "No no no, there can't be a problem...." is a standard response.

After about a month you could put together a bingo card with standard responses to security issues. But don't bother because it has been done.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:21 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

That's why I love MeFi. Not only did I just buy one of Stoll's Klein bottles a few weeks ago, which sits on my bathroom windowsill, but I've got a minor obsession for the CURTA. (my wife figured out that it had only one surface after brushing her teeth while staring at it-- that's why I married her)

I read the Cuckoo's Egg waaay back when, before the NOVA, and loved it.

Stoll comes across poorly in the NOVA about him. A bit insufferable is how I remember it. But now I gotta give him a break. Apparently we have stuff in common. Who knew?

Is Cliff a mefite?

(cliff- if you're reading this, let's go out for a beer!)
posted by asavage at 11:42 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I saw him speak at a bookstore in Portland once. He talked about how a neighborhood dog had been hit by a car, so he created a radar gun from scratch. I kept waiting for him to say, "And then I recorded the average speeds of cars and took the data to city hall in order to increase enforcement or install a speedbump" but he just kinda went on from there. Fascinating, wacky, brilliant guy.
posted by craniac at 10:02 AM on September 4, 2007

I actually spent an afternoon at his house (about 10 years ago). It's almost like a museum of mechanical technology.

When I walked up the porch, I saw a very ornate doorbell. It had an etched metal plate emblazoned, "Edison Doorbell" and an explanation of how electricity is used to create a repetitive bell ring. In his living room, was a grand, old school TV console. I had to comment on what a great piece of furniture it is. Stoll explained that it was, in fact, furniture. It stopped working in 1966 and he has not watched TV since. I must say the TV fit the decor.

That afternoon he introduced me to a couple books by Edward Tufte (about whom I'd only read). I thanked him a few years later for hipping me to Tufte, who has been very influential on my professional life.

At one point in the conversation he asked, "What do think about the phrase, 'a picture is worth a thousand words'?"

I said, "That like saying an apple is worth a thousand oranges."

Without taking a beat, he said, "and an orange is worth a thousand apples if you have scurvy." He went on the explain how he had researched the origin of the phrase and discovered it was from an ad campaign. It was a phrase printed on signs for public transit that advertised for an advertising company.

I personally think Stoll is a very nice and quite brilliant person. And very fun to talk with.
posted by McLir at 1:58 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I saw him speak at a bookstore in Portland once. He talked about how a neighborhood dog had been hit by a car, so he created a radar gun from scratch. I kept waiting for him to say, "And then I recorded the average speeds of cars and took the data to city hall in order to increase enforcement or install a speedbump" but he just kinda went on from there. Fascinating, wacky, brilliant guy.

Until two weeks ago, I lived down the street from Cliff Stoll. (I moved, as far as I know he's still there.) The street in question is a commonly-used shortcut from the freeway to the south side of Berkeley. About fifteen years ago, Cliff did in fact create a radar gun from scratch to clock the cars that routinely hit 45 mph through this residential area. As I recall, it involved two soup cans held together with duct tape, but the results helped convince the city to install several speed bumps, which have been quite successful at calming traffic.

Now the neighborhood wants to put in more traffic controls to reduce the number of cars on the street. I disagree with this -- my position is, if you wanted a quiet street, you should have moved to Pleasanton -- but I always look[ed] forward to his presence at meetings of the neighborhood group concerned with traffic issues.
posted by harkin banks at 4:18 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Back when I was in college (mid to late 90's), and MSNBC was new, there was a program titled "The Site" hosted by Soledad O'Brien. It also had a live CGI marionette voiced by Leo Laporte.

Anyway, Stoll had some pre-recorded pieces (about 1-2 minutes long) that would air near the end of nearly every episode.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:34 PM on September 4, 2007

The book is great although it is more for geeks. If you prefer some more action, check out the German movie "23"


That movie is about the hackers, specifically Karl Koch (the hacker that was found death, burned, in the woods before the trials)

I don't think that there is a dubbed version in English language out there, may be one with english captions. The German language is not a problem for me, because I am German :)
posted by cumbrowski at 5:07 AM on September 22, 2007

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