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Cliff Stoll, the mad scientist who invented the art of hunting hackers (wired.com)
384 points by wglb 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 149 comments

At work, we give Cliff’s Klein bottles as the quarterly award for engineering excellence. When I ordered the first batch, I called the number on the Acme Klein bottles website to ask whether they could be engraved (the site states the CLIFF won’t engrave the bottles but I wanted clarification if ANYONE would engrave them). It rang and went to voicemail. I started leaving a message with my question when suddenly there was a lot of noise as the phone was picked up (apparently it was a real answering machine) by someone shouting “don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!”. It was Cliff. I was briefly star-struck, told him what an influence The Cuckoo’s Egg had on me when I was younger, and then received a 15-minute oral history of engraving methods and why none of them would work on his Klein bottles. An absolute highlight of my year, and I think they’ve been well received as engineering awards...even if we have to use a label-maker to add the recipient’s name :)

Did he say why laser engraving wouldn't work? I can see the curves causing some distortion but you should be able to compensate for that.

Edit: He answers the question in his FAQ

> The borosilicate glass laughs at laser beams

..which makes sense. Seems like sand blasting would be the best way.

In short - engraving borosilicate is difficult, because it does not expand very much when heated. So when hit by an infrared laser beam, the glass doesn't locally expand and spall off a tiny speck of glass .... instead, the glass locally melts. When the beam moves on to the next pixel, the first site either solidifies or sometimes dribbles away. Laser engraving of borosilicate just doesn't work well. And, because of the compound curves of the Klein bottle, you need a big depth of field as well as a rotary bottle holder. All laser engravers that I've played with have a very short (10mm or so) depth of field. Diamond engraving doesn't work well because of the curves. Sandblasting with a rubber mask works, but making the mask is a pain. So, after lots of attempts, I've given up on engraving these guys. Also: mistakes are expensive -- this is hand-blown glass.

(Everyone should make sure to note the name on the above comment)

Thanks for answering, and congratulations on your book's anniversary.

My job gives out copies of your book as a somewhat prestigious award to those who find and report security problems, and I'm very happy to have both received and read a copy.

I currently work in the laser engraving industry, and I can confirm everything you've said to be true. However, I wanted to let you know about some extremely cool technology that I had the opportunity to experiment with a year ago or so. Some companies have developed optics with adaptive focus that use liquid lenses to mark beyond a 10mm depth-of-field - see https://www.optotune.com/technology/focus-tunable-lenses for an example, and https://youtu.be/ss-tkXcClMk for a video of the system in action.

I still don't think it would work well for your purposes - borosilicate just doesn't mark well, and you'd need to start with an accurate 3D model of the object - but I hope you enjoy the video!

(And thanks for writing the book!)

This is basically exactly what you told me on the phone :) We also had a fun digression about sand-blasting tombstones. And of course, we covered the hand-engraving/dremel option.

So...label maker.

I've used my laser cutter to cut a mask for acid etching when the laser itself couldn't etch the material needed.

How thick is the rubber you use for sandblasting? Could it be laser cut to reduce the pain of making the mask? It sounds like you've exhausted all workable options but my curiosity is piqued.

Can't acid be used to etch glass?

Also, why not use glass that's easier to etch?

With quartz glass, it's going to be hydrofluoric acid and I invite you to read up about its toxicity and lethality (user stories like: splashed a few ml on a leg, did all the emergency procedures exactly right, got quick emergency care, leg amputated, died anyways).

HF is also used to wash cars by people wearing no protection, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5779585/

E.g. "As a case example, one worker (case 1) splashed his left leg while transferring a cleaning solution of HF and sulfuric acid between containers. He did not irrigate the area and continued to work for approximately 1.5 hours with soaked pants and shoe until he developed an uncomfortable burning sensation" ...

HF diluted to <1% is used to wash cars, and only idiots don't wear skin protection while doing that.

To reliably etch glass, you need concentrations of 10% or preferably more, at which point you really want a PVC apron, a face shield and a heavy-duty fume hood to work with it, to avoid the sort of exposure in [1].

[1] https://www.uvm.edu/cosmolab/safety_manuals/Fatality%20due%2...

"...Upon evaluation, the patient was reported to have a quarter-sized brown necrotic area on the anterior left ankle and burn to the anterior left lower leg. Emergency medical technicians irrigated the area with calcium gluconate and transported him to a burn unit, where he received a calcium gluconate injection. He sustained a small area of full-thickness skin loss requiring excision and debridement with a skin graft. The worker received outpatient burn therapy and returned to part-time work 6 weeks after the injury. A foot paresthesia developed, and the worker received a permanent partial disability payment."

I'm going with "things I won't work with", Alex.

S04E20 of ER had a patient die due to contact exposure to hydrofluroic acid, I had to look it up after reading this comment to make sure I got it right - don’t know why but it’s one of the most memorable to me.

Seriously, don’t mess around with this shit - even IF you notice exposure (hard, because you may not even notice until it’s too late) there’s a good chance it’s already a done deal.

I'm glad that I don't have to work with the stuff after reading up on emergency medical procedures. I once found a very long list of what to do by an expert MD and it's really not pretty.

I'm not an expert in either chemistry or medicine but what I gathered was:

The medical team needs to try and offset what the fluor is doing to the balance of ions in your body, to keep your cells alive. HF will diffuse within pretty much all of your tissues (including diffusing into bone like it was a sponge iirc) and a medical team will check your blood ion levels every five minutes or so while sticking you with CaCl (iirc) injections along the path the HF may diffuse through your body (if you're lucky enough to have hit an extremety like a hand). While the HF is diffusing, you will not feel anything. They cannot just pump you full of the proper ions to counteract the effects of the fluor and maybe bind it because that would kill you as well, they have to hit the right elevated concentration locally to offset what the fluor is doing.

Edit: I've read up on it again and some of the things I wrote aren't right and I misremembered, like HF exposure being painless. At first it may be so but once the calcium levels drop, exposure is connected to extreme, "deep" pain. Treatment guides stress to not admister aneasthetics because the pain is the best indicator for successful treatment. Also, Calcium Gluconate is recommended, not Calcium Chloride.

This [0] is a detailed source I found (PDF).

[0] (PDF) https://ehs.unc.edu/files/2015/09/hfaexposure.pdf

Hydrofluoric acid is also what they use to dispose of bodies in Breaking Bad, although they did exagerate the effectiveness.

Yeah. A digester tank would probably be more effective... essentially a "hot tank" like used to be used to clean engine blocks for rebuilding, except for dissolving organics.

They're used at a local University for disposing of cattle remains from the veterinary school... takes several hours, but then the waste liquid is diluted and sent down the drain.

Why not bury or cremate?

There is a "chemicals I won't work with" on HF

Technically "...won't touch" because he did/does work with HF.


> the only times I even use the solution forms of the reagent are on a very small scale and in weakened form

HF etching cream for glass is sold in Home Depot (really H2SO4 + NaF powder)

The only tricky part of working with it is getting clean edges with a stencil.

Could you combine laser engraving with a jet of air, to blow away the molten glass?

AFAIK basically all laser engraving/cutting is air assisted already. Turns out smoke is really good at getting in the way of lasers, and air is a really good way to get rid of it. That said I don't know if it'd be a firm enough blast of air to move any significant amount of molten glass.

Sand blasting would work, although less well than on other glass types. Acid etching would work, although the chemicals needed are dangerous and it's apparently quite a finicky process to get a good result - over etching results in a less visible etched pattern than optimal exposure to the acid.

To laser etch borosilicate you'd have to use an expensive laser, either an abnormally high powered IR laser or something higher frequency like a UV laser. It wouldn't be enough to just melt or heat stress bits off the surface, you'd have to micro structure (microscopic 3d carve) it to form something that would reflect light well, otherwise you wouldn't be able to see the etched pattern except in certain light.

On top of that the depth of field issues for a laser apply as well as the incident angle for the beam - you'd want something close to a surface normal angle to get a consistent, controllable result, so you'd have to use a 5 axis machining setup to make sure that happens. A 5 axis precision UV laser would probably cost more to run than the bottles are worth, despite their quality.

What I'd probably do if I had to label bottles like these with names is make a small soda glass plaque or tag with a mold and possibly some color tint for contrast, then etch it using an appropriate method (or maybe even mold the name in) and affix it to the bottle either by heating and slumping it into place or molding it to a matching curve and then using optical adhesive to affix it.

Or, just make a nice display box for it and put the name on a brass plaque on the front :)

A lot of people are trying to solve for etching and engraving here, but if I wanted to personalize a glass piece that already (kind of, in some world) looks like it belongs in a lab, I think I’d try an enamel paint process instead.

May have a nicer result than a label maker, depending on taste.

Sometime in high school (middle maybe?), I had to pick a non-fiction book to read for school, and picked Cuckoo's Egg by Stoll. I was already in to computers, but had no idea what was possible or where that interest in computers would or could go, and this booked changed my view for the better. I distinctly remember my teacher questioning it was non-fiction when reading the jacket, but sure enough, it was. It's an great memory and amazing book, well worth reading still.

Check out more recent interviews with him. Interesting guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k3mVnRlQLU

He's my neighbor. I went over to his house and received this exact experience. It's very practiced and pretty amazing.

Wow. I dont really want to spoil it for anyone, but you REALLY need to watch this video.

Flips work table, opens secret door and...

I also bought a copy of the Cuckoo's Egg when I was 12ish and devoured it. Then figured out enough about BBSes and the weird link some of them had to be able to send email to write him some fan-mail, to which he graciously replied. Thanks Cliff. Together with my father, you two set me on my career path.

Yeah I read the book in middle or high school in 1993 or so and really turned me on to learning UNIX.

You are one of many. He also heavily influenced my employment career aim in what I call 'para-academia', similar to Stoll's niche of being a quasi-academic/quasi-technologist. There are many satisfying jobs in that space.

That's very interesting to me--are you at liberty to share what you do?

I recently purchased a used copy to re-read. I also read it for the first time in freshman or sophomore year of high school. I haven’t started yet because I’m worried it won’t live up to the first time.

It’s in my top five for most exciting page turner.

Next time, buy a new copy, oh Salad of the Whale. My kids need help with their tuition.

Any thoughts on making an audiobook?

Hey Cliff, I found your Grateful Dead concert mentioned in the book: https://archive.org/details/gd86-06-21.sbd.brame.15406.sbeok...

(for clarification, yes, that's me commenting on that site back in 2013)

Just purchased a copy. I've heard a lot of good things about it.

Do it. I read it about once every year or two. It just keeps getting better, as you find new details you missed the last time.

Great book. I couldn't put it down. However, it was anti-climactic--just like real life I guess.

It's a great book! (and the cookie recipe is great too.)

I find this remarkable:

  This is the other ingredient to Stoll’s hacker-hunting obsession [...] a kind of low-burning moral outrage.
because I notice the same in a lot of other people worth listening to. In general you won't notice it until you spend some time with them. There is some internal moral compass influencing all decisions subtly, even in the knowledge most of the world doesn't care. Its different from SJWs etc in that its mostly silent, internal, invisible, doing instead of saying.

For an other example, here's what Neil Gaiman says about Terry Pratchett:

  There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld 

>Its different from SJWs etc in that its mostly silent, internal, invisible, doing instead of saying.

You lost me right there. At some point enough tinder on the lowest burn turns into fire. The end of the interview suggests much the same on the part of the subject.

Your comment is unreadable on mobile. Please do not use code formatting for plain text quotes.

I bought one of his Klein bottles and on top of being a great piece of work, he sent along with it fantastic pictures of him putting it in the box for shipping. Probably my favorite experience buying anything ever.

You bet, MusingSole ... customer service is easy when you run a zero volume business.

My wife just purchased a Klein mug for our mathematician son for Christmas without mentioning it to me.

I opened our email on Monday to see Cliff’s name and a truncated subject line. I then spent the next 20 minutes trying to figure out if a) I was looking at the wrong email account. B) wondering if it was some sort of phishing attempt c) had Cliff started or was working for a security company and he was trying to drum up business.

I finally clicked on the email and was surprised to find pictures of Cliff, a Kleinmug, a box with drawings on it, and his wife’s garden, the flowers were lovely.

I finally went back and read the text of the email to find out that my wife had ordered a Kleinmug.

Frankly it was the most excitement that I’ve had in a long time, getting an email from Cliff Stoll, very cool. I then needed to explain to my family what happened to me, and explain who Cliff was, and why it was important. I was an network admin during the Morris worm attack, and was on some email chains, and on some network news threads with Cliff, after the fact.

The box arrived, but we haven’t opened it yet to check and see if it’s OK, we are waiting for our son to go out. My wife and our daughters are really excited to see the Kleinmug now that they know the backstory, also I think the girls might want a Kleinbottle as well.

Thanks Cliff!!!

Just caught the “zero volume” joke, upon second reading.

Hah, I hadn't until your comment. That's a good joke.

You’re an inspiration, Cliff :)

The book is completely fascinating from multiple perspectives and I suggest anyone who wants to get a feel for the era read it. It's quite enjoyable, as well. The Internet, today, feels very metropolitan in some ways, but then this was something of a wild frontier.

Reading The Cuckoo's Egg gave me a frisson of recognition, as I was similarly torn between the abstract world of physics and the (comparatively) more concrete world of computing, as well as running into people mucking about where they had no business being during a time period when law enforcement had yet to develop a solid framework for responding to those sorts of issues.

I have considered contacting him purely for some hourglass work, or at least tips as to what to look for.

Back when I watched the original NOVA episode, I noticed they showed his UUCP email address. Since I had recorded it on VHS, I paused it so I could write it down. I emailed Cliff, apologetically, but thanking him for the story. I was quite surprised when he replied. Super nice guy, great story well told. It was probably a decade later that I read the book but somehow his narration in the NOVA episode is very personable and real, it just nails the story; and the interview with the actual hacker is great.

UUCP email? Ouch! Sends me back several decades...

At least anyone who watches the episode today can't use that as a hint to bug you like I did nearly 30 years ago. :-)

Me to I think I recall seeing Bang email addresses when various mailing list's where sneakily using the X.400 ADMD's as cost saving measure.

Made reading the 409 dump when trouble shooting a bit tricky

I've actually noticed a lot of people in the security field actually came from completely unrelated fields. I have a book on binary exploitation that was authored by someone who was originally a doctor. Some of my hacker friends also studied physics and what not and most became interested by mucking about instead of doing whatever it was they were supposed to be doing. I guess it naturally filters the people who have genuine curiosity and like digging around to understand somethung

This is something I've noticed all over the field of computer programming.

Hourglass work? Can you say more about what you mean by this phrase?

He does blown glass work, makes these amusing "Klein bottles." In my case, I am looking for a particular style of hourglass.

Okay, thanks. Was aware of the Klein bottles, but wasn't making the connection. Thought it might refer to some sort of intellectual practice.

His follow-up book "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" was also a great read [0]. It's a shame that collectively we couldn't heed some of his warnings about the hype we were being sold about the Internet. In many ways the future he hinted at turned out to be substantially worse than he predicted.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0385419945/ref=dbs_a_def_r...

+1 for a silicon Snake Oil.

There are many hucksters out to make money from overstretched school budgets by pandering to parents’ tech anxiety, and no money in sage warnings, and in our marketing-driven attention economy, that means the latter is ignored to the detriment of the common interest.

I am perpetually happy that Cliff Stoll figured out how to be his normal weird self in the world.

That unselfconsious joy about stuff is exceptionally wholesome.

Zooks! My normal-weird self. I gotta parse that...

It is seductively easy to become jaded and "too cool" to show how into something one might be. Kids are allowed to, but starting at about age 14, I've found that society tends to do its best to tamp this exuberance down.

The other trap is to figure that even if you're really into something you somehow have to be "serious" about it in a way that means you can't admit that you're having any fun -- or that you have to work on "serious problems".

You avoided the traps! You are an inspiration, as a direct result. The very best people I know all have this trait -- a very early mentor in my life, my graduate advisors...

So, thanks. :)

And thank you for your kind note, Protagonist of H. Funny you should mention it ... round 14 years old, I stopped watching TV. I was too busy building a ham radio set; I'd come home and dive into electronics. And, well, I've not watched television since then. I've missed an enormous amount of popular culture & goodness knows what else. On the other hand, it's a bit like being given a few hours every day to build stuff or figure out how things work. I guess this tends to make my 'normal' into 'weird'.

Cliff, it's neat to see your jumping in here. Thanks for sharing your time with us. I have enjoyed periodically re-reading _The Cuckoo's Egg_ since my sister gifted the book to me in the early '90s. I didn't know you were a ham though; may I ask what was/is your call sign? And are you still active in the hobby? Just curious & thanks again. 73

K7TA ... got the call when I was in grad school in Tucson Arizona. But I don't get on the air much ... a little bit of CW on the low bands, just to keep my fist in order.

Only a little CW on the low bands! I love it. I hope to learn the code in 2020. Thanks for sharing.

Check out FT8

I love FT8, but I think Cliff would probably find it a bit boring. It's too automated, it's basically computers talking to each other.

To an introvert like myself, it's cool. I love seeing how far I can get (with my 40m Z-dipole mounted in my single story attic -- i.e. too low, and hiding inside a building -- I've gone 5150 miles on 10 watts).

But it doesn't offer the challenges (and rewards) as CW, or even SSB phone.

My advisor was a HAM, too. He briefly made the news as a teenager after (more or less accidentally) contacting eastern europe on a particularly good night after installing a massive antenna on the roof of his parent's house.

I wasn't brought up with a TV, and don't own one now. I haven't done cool things with klein bottles, but i know a bunch about how bicycles work!

I've wondered about old planetary gear bikes ("Sturmei-Archer") ... it'd be cool to take one apart.

I have! they're weird in there. You can pick up a rear hub for short money on ebay -- refurbishing one is a good way to spend a week or so, and Saint Sheldon has all the details: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/sturmey-archer_3-spd.html

https://www.sheldonbrown.com/sturmey-archer/aw.html has teardown photos, to boot.

In my view, television is entertainment, and if you have more entertaining things to do, why bother?

Well, television can also be informative. Documentaries are a start, but how many of us were glued to the TV on Sept 11, 2001, attempting to glean truth from the rumors?

Not exactly an entertaining day on television.

Well put.

The Cuckoo’s Egg is a great read. For another great hacking story from the same era, see "An Evening with Berferd: In Which a Cracker is Lured, Endured, and Studied": http://www.cheswick.com/ches/papers/berferd.pdf

From the abstract: "On 7 January 1991 a cracker, believing he had discovered the famous sendmail DEBUG hole in our Internet gatewaymachine, attempted to obtain a copy of our passwordfile. I sent him one. For several months we led this cracker on a merry chase in order to trace his location and learn his techniques."

It's absolutely one of my favorite reads ever. In fact, I think it's about time to read it again.

I had the immense pleasure of seeing my childhood idol Cliff Stoll on stage at a conference organised by my company. They had invited Cliff as the keynote speaker. He brought honest-to-god slides and a projector, his talk ran over due to popular demand and he was a stark contrast to the otherwise "corporate" atmosphere.

What impressed me most about Cliff though was the level of interest he displayed in everything. In what our company did when talking to the execs before the talk and in everyone who came up to him after the talk. He stayed in the conference room to take photos with each of the dozens of fans lined up one by one. Eventually we were kicked out since the next event was about to start.

15-year-old me would never have dreamed of meeting my childhood idol, but when I finally met him it was like he just had finished writing the book and walked onto the stage. Thanks Cliff!

I can one up: I actually worked with the guy on a contract. The people we did the work for were kind of jerks, but Cliff was amazing. Old school mad scientist. Except he radiates a saint-like benevolence and good-heartedness which is all too rare these days. Like a cross between the professor on "back to the future," Yoda, and a Catholic saint.

LBNL should have given him a lab, a quarter million bucks for equipment he might find interesting and permanent access to the machine shops and library. The fact that they didn't is ... one of the reasons I no longer work there and why modern science and its culture is a trash fire.

The Cuckoo's Egg and Silicon Snake Oil were life changing for me. I was in middle school, snowed-in in upstate New York, on my computer most of the time. And the writing tips at the end of Silicon Snake Oil have stuck with me to this day.

Cuckoo's Egg is a great thriller. Silicon Snake Oil was ahead of its time. The thing I liked about both is that they showed me what a rich life could be like beyond computers. And what was this magical place called Berkeley?

Cuckoo's Egg is also something of an anecdote to 'imposter syndrome'. It showed how someone who was coming in to the field from the outside could trust their instincts and do something important. As others have said, a lot of us have come into this field from a wide variety of backgrounds. Stoll's books showed me how that can actually be an asset.

If you're into podcasts there is a biographical interview with Cliff Stoll here https://www.numberphile.com/podcast/cliff-stoll

Possibly the best single podcast episode ever. I cried.

Someday I want to be as excited about something as Cliff Stoll is about everything...

IMHO the key is removing empty media calories and replace them with load bearing subjects.

Might be naive of me not to understand what you meant, but could you elaborate on this?

Be upset when you're being simply entertained. If you see a commercial it's likely entertainment. Be upset when you see a commercial and do something else.

It's not an aesetic desire you're only tired of junk food for your brain. You're tired of being spoon fed predigested pablum. You're not happy with circular stories with characters that never change.

You're interested in yourself and being better. You're interested in your friends and loved ones and their journeys and lessons.

Stop watching TV or browsing the internet and, instead, make things (and read, and play).

How do I do this?

Step one might be "stop reading Hackernews so damn much".

I recommend Cal Newport's books, "Digital Minimalism" and "Deep Work"

Why call Cliff a "mad" scientist? He's a polymath possessing diverse skills, some of them esoteric (glassblowing), but there's no evidence that he's even eccentric, much less "mad". Sure he built a robot, but it doesn't even have weapons. Seriously, would you have called Feynmann, Heinlein or Minsky mad? There's this trope that if you are smart and do anything unusual you must also be "mad". Smarts, curiosity, and hard work are not an illness.

I think the "mad" in "mad scientist" makes it form a compound word - that doesn't suggest the person is clinically insane. To me, I hear "mad scientist" and I think:

- Very knowledgeable across a range of studies - Likes to build homebrew projects - Impressive work ethic and devotion to projects - Does it not for money or fame, but just because it's what they do

- Has crazy hair like Cliff Stoll or Albert Einstein in that one picture

For those who want to know more about the Klein Bottle and mathematical side of Cliff Stoll, check out the videos featuring him on this Numberphile playlist [1]

[1] https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLt5AfwLFPxWJeBhzCJ_JX...

This one is particularly good: every time you think he can't have more glass props, he pulls out another one.


I find Cliff's closing points extremely relatable.

> “I remember when the internet was innocent, when it crossed political boundaries without a care, when it was a sandbox for intellectually happy people,” Stoll had told me in our first phone call. “Boy, did that bubble burst.”

> He never imagined, 30 years ago, that the internet would become a medium for dark forces: disinformation, espionage, and war. “I look for the best in people. I want to live in a world where computing and technology are used for the good of humanity,” Stoll says. “And it breaks my heart.”

Idealism and 'the greater good' are locked in a perpetual battle with human factors, and human factors always seem to win. :(

Recently stumbled upon this RMS speech transcription[0] for the first time.

I find it quite relevant to your quoted passages and, I suppose, corroborative of your commentary.

Bit of a long read.

[0] https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/stallman-kth.html

Don't miss Cliffs "robotic crawl space warehouse". Take that Amazon.


I remember watching his TED talk 11 years ago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gj8IA6xOpSk and buying a couple Klein bottles afterwards. This brings back memories!

I first read this story somewhere, back in the early 90's. It is a great piece of hacker lore, and a lesson (IMO), to not ignore little "rounding errors", as they can often be indicative of bigger problems lurking beneath. That is not to say these issues always need to be fully addressed and resolved, just properly understood.

Too often, we're driven by getting the right answer. I care more about understanding -- figuring out what the answer means. As well as the difference between precision and accuracy.

A friend gave this book to me during my high school years - in 1995. Cliff's book fundamentally changed my perspective on computers, and at just the right time, is partially responsible for my career to this very day. It's been an interesting career for sure, so, thanks Cliff!

I met Cliff Stoll at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park, CA years ago when his book High-Tech Heretic came out (about computers in the classroom). We had a great discussion about something and he signed my book "I hear you John!".

And I have no idea what we discussed...

There’s a German movie, titled “23”, which tells the story from the point of view of the opposite side.


>He never imagined, 30 years ago, that the internet would become a medium for dark forces: disinformation, espionage, and war. “I look for the best in people. I want to live in a world where computing and technology are used for the good of humanity,” Stoll says. “And it breaks my heart.”

30 years ago the US phone network was losing about $6 billion / year to toll fraud, operator fraud, and cellphone fraud. Captain Crunch had been arrested in '72. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Draper

If you haven't read the book, get on it! it's a really easy read and really inspiring. Although it's sad how his obsessions cost him.

I remember finding Cliff Stoll's Klein bottle website a number of years ago when I was younger, but of course I didn't remember the name of the person behind it. The concept prompted a lot of interesting geometry-related thoughts. It was surprising to see this come back up while reading about cybersecurity and what sounds like a neat book!

Bought one of his bottles a few years ago. I have it right in front of me as a desk toy, next to a Theo Jansen strandbeest model. Every time I look at it I'm reminded of how delightful the whole experience was of obtaining it. I can only recommend everybody buying one of these.

I too bought one as a gift for a friend and mentioned in the comment form how much I'd enjoyed The Cuckoo's Egg. The reply was effusive, and the overall "purchase experience" still leaves me with a warm glow.

As part of the security awareness training I gave to each of the software engineers during onboarding. I challenged them to see how things have changed in the years since that happened. The answer is not very much. Except it is worse.

I have given away a couple of Klein bottles to collaborators I have really enjoyed working with, as a token of appreciation. He sends emails that show him packaging, and a bunch of eccentric paperwork accompanies the bottle, which are a delight. Visiting him at his lab is on my todo list (his website mentions "You're welcome to stop by for coffee & chat - please call ahead if you plan to visit."), I don't stay very far from his place! Maybe I will get a copy of his book signed too.

Nothing beats the Cool Awesome Nerd factor of buying a Klein bottle from him.


I have a Mobius scarf and Klein Bottle hat from him. Figured the shipping of a glass one to the UK would be a) expensive and b) likely to end up as glass dust given how godawful our local carriers are.

I got one shipped to Ireland and it arrived in one beautiful piece. Cliff also sent on a email documenting the process and I replied with an unboxing photo. It was worth ordering just for the lovely interaction.

Yet another site that doesn't load anything for me. Just a bunch of scripts and photo captions.

So what are these people doing to make their stuff so elusive?

They're using Javascript, first released in 1994.

Good one, there.

But seriously, I have no problem with over 90% of the sites I visit using this Firefox instance. But then there's wired.com and imgur.com, for example, which display just blank pages.

I have no clue what it is. I've made too many changes.

But I'm reasonably confident that it's something evil that they're doing, rather than something silly that I've done.

When I visit Google Play Music in Firefox the interface loads about 80% but all clicks result in an error message.

I'm fairly sure it comes down to the automatic tracking protection Firefox touts, but I can't seem to find how to turn it off for one specific site. Or better yet the specific requests that cause breakage on the specific site.

SPAs and client-side rendering, exacerbated by not using placeholders.

I can read it fine on emacs, using emacs-w3m, which does not understand javascript. So javascript is not required to read this article.

And here it works fine in Firefox + Noscript

However, the images are missing

The kleinbottle website is better

Huh. And yes, this works:

   $ w3m -dump https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-mad-scientist-who-wrote-the-book-on-how-to-hunt-hackers/ | less
So it's not Javascript.

I wonder what I've done to Firefox. Maybe I'll take some time to figure that out.

I knew Cliff first as my dad's old college buddy, so it's always a little wild when articles about him show up. He's an actual human being and a good person, so I hope the scrutiny and craziness of public attention doesn't give him too much trouble.

Amazing TIL: the famous Berkeley hacker hunter and the Klein bottle guy are just flipsides of the same Möbius strip.

Just have watched 'The KGB, The Computer, and Me' a few days ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTx9h3Sm29I

Came to the thread to post this. It's a hacker classic. There is also this German movie, telling the same story from the side of the hacker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsYD_lmK-KE

I remember seeing the 60 Minutes interview with Stoll and his girlfriend when his book came out.

Pretty crazy duo. I liked it.

> ... with Stoll and his girlfriend ...

Don't tell his wife!

She was still his girlfriend, back then. They were pretty “bohemian.”

I think she is now his ex-wife.

What a fantastic picture! I recognize Ramanujan, Euler, and Turing but I'm not sure who the others are.

I think I spy Emmy Noether and Joseph Fourier.

On the wall are some of my friends -- people who have taught me good things. From the left - Felix Hausdorff (Who did so much for topology, and who took his life before being deported to a concentration camp) Gosta Mittag-Leffler (complex analysis) Alvin Turing (Computability) /below, hidden somewhat/ Tesla on a blue Serbian banknote, Newton, Stefan (of Stefan-Boltzman fame), Feynman/ Sofia Kovalevskaya (PDE's) Cahit Arf (on the Turkish 10 lyre bill - topologist) Emmy Noether (Rings & Fields) HSM Coxeter (Canadian geometer ... I met him when I was in High School!) Euler (on the Swiss 10 Franc banknote) Srinivasa Ramanujan Felix Klein Fourier and I'm resting on a Friden STW calculator that I've rebuilt.

Coxeter did amazing stuff in higher-dimensional geometry.


I have one of his books about polytopes and find it hard to wrap my head around the details, despite a childhood interest in higher dimensions. The diagrams are terrific!

Oh - up top is Bernhard Riemann and August Mobius


I'm finding the "mad scientist" cliche more and more offensive each day.

Meh, I'd rather own it than waste time being offended by it. To me, this isn't a label worth getting offended about.

I once heard the 'mad scientist' cliche is mostly derived from the behaviour of Tesla while demonstrating to prospective funders. He did it because he needed the money so he had to produce a spectacular show.

I was loaned Cuckoo's Egg by my first CS professor back in 1989. Great book.

Watch the Nova episode, "The KGB, The Computer, and Me".

Awesome read. I love the Klein bottles!

With all due respect to Cliff Stoll, I'm perplexed by the "Don’t go screwing with information that belongs to innocent people!" bit.

Seriously, the article is talking about German hackers intruding military targets:

"the hacker’s intrusions to the Department of Defense’s MILNET systems, an Alabama army base, the White Sands Missile Range, Navy shipyards, Air Force bases, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, defense contractors, and the CIA"

"Stoll’s hacker-tracking work at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs inspired its sister institution, Lawrence Livermore National Labs"

This is where nukes are designed.

And after that "Don’t go screwing with information that belongs to innocent people!", "You have a responsibility to your colleagues like me to behave ethically", "low-burning outrage", "[the Internet] was a sandbox for intellectually happy people".

Innocent, ethical, intellectually happy people creating means to murder hundreds of million people and pesky hackers who have no right to be snooping around.

> pesky hackers

...working on behalf of the KGB, seeking military advantage for the totalitarian police state they served. Yes, let's be on their side instead.

"As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy."

I think Cliff was referring to "his" systems here, as a recovering system we get protective of our babies.

I remember joking that you had better hope that you got caught in order by: the local police; The Met; The service (MI5); internal security rather than me :-)

The systems Cliff Stoll was responsible for at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs were part of the Human Genome Project, not a weapons program.

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