Clifford Stoll: TEDtalk and The Cuckoo’s Egg

I recently found this clip of Clifford Stoll at TEDTalk.

I’d never seen him live, so had no idea what it would be like. His continuously exploring curious mind was refreshing to me, and served as a wake up call to me to not get stuck in my ways. Further, the way he brought practical everyday logic to early education was something I found personally moving. His approach of explaining complicated things to kids when they’re curious and eager to learn, and before they start to believe “its supposed to be hard”, really resonated with me. The experiment he put together for his 8th grade class to calculate the speed of sound was straightfoward, understandable and quick. His attitude reminded me of the people, both in and out of school, who had the most influence during my education, and I found myself thanking them yet again for their inspiration. His closing quote from the bell inscription really resonated with me (no pun intended).

Watching this inspired me to dust off my old 2nd edition copy of his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg”, and reread that.

Its now of course an old story from the late ’80s about Clifford, when he was a university undergrad student in Berkeley tracking down a bug in some auditing software. He eventually discovers that the auditing errors are because of unauthorized breaches in the university computers – being used as a conduit to attack classified military research computers. As he untangles the giant ball of interwoven strands of the problem, he just wrote everything down like it was a personal journal, interweaving details of home cooked meals with his new girlfriend, emails and hone calls with sysadmins at the targetted systems, invented hacks to detect when intruders returned to their computer systems, even his own self-questioning of his hippie anti-establishment roots as he cycled across campus to meet with the NSA suits who took interest once evidence of KGB involvement started to emerge.

I found it a fascinating readable story, just like as if a close friend was telling me about some strange thing that happened that day at work… made only slightly more surreal when you keep in mind that its all true.

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