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The Mystery of Glenn Seaborg's Missing Plutonium: Solved

Cliff Stoll Glenn Seaborg - a great man (85 comments)

I was honored to know Glenn Seaborg while working at Lawrence Berkeley Labs in the 1980's. By then, Manhattan Project was long behind him, as was his Nobel prize, the Atomic Energy Commission work, and his chancellorship of the University of California. Yet he was still a kind and supportive scientist who was deeply interested in any research - whether in physics, astronomy, chemistry, or biology. He recognized the need to teach music and art alongside science and math, and would visit local high schools to encourage students.

I once met him at the Lawrence Hall of Science, walking around the old cyclotron. When I asked him about it, he said that he'd been wondering how the field magnets had been mounted (it was perhaps 40 years after the Manhattan Project). After a short chat he invited a few 12 year old kids over, and told stories about using the beast to create new elements. Amazing guy.

about three weeks ago

The Great IT Hiring He-Said / She-Said

Cliff Stoll Fresh out of college with 20 years experience (574 comments)

Can't resist tooting my own horn. These are from my Klein bottle website:

    TOPOLOGY CONSULTANT Part-time design of low-dimensional manifolds in glass, wool, plastic, titanium, niobium, pentium, and unobtanium. Ideal candidate is fresh out of college with 20 years experience in applied topology; and can solve Poincare's, Heawood's, and Hodge's conjectures. Pay & benefits are epsilon above unemployment. Compensation package includes trillions in worthless stock options.

    GLASSBLOWER Construct borosilicate manifolds using lampwork. Handy with glass lathe, oxy-hydrogen torch, and bandaids. Must know the usual cuss words to describe breaks & cracks. Experienced in minor burn treatment. Special bonus if you know the difference between inside and outside.

    MANIFOLD OPERATOR. Curvaceous, conformal Riemannian vector field desires normalized Ricci tensor with nice eigenvalues. Will relocate within proper metric space. No polymorphic permutations, please.

    From http://www.kleinbottle.com/job...

about 3 months ago

Slashdot Asks: How Prepared Are You For an Earthquake?

Cliff Stoll Re:Moderately well prepared - Oakland, California (191 comments)

Hi gang,

        Thanks for the reports of stale gasoline - I'm convinced. Tonight I'll head out & recycle my old gas. The problem isn't getting things together; it's keeping it all up to date & ready. Your comments hit me in the right place: be prepared.

        I'm associated with a ham radio emergency group; the rule is that the station's equipment must be immediately ready for action. In an emergency, you don't have the luxury of stringing a cable, or figuring out which power supply can work with which rig. If the transceivers aren't wired up, tested, and set to go, they might as well be underwater. Same's true for on-the-air skills. You gotta check into the 2-meter net at least every month, or you'll get rusty and screw up when things get hot.

      And so it is with earthquake readiness. It's not enough to put away a survival stash and let it molder. Gotta keep things fresh - gotta keep my skills sharp.

Best wishes,
        ps to ksmithderm ... sure, I've got Klein bottle hats (and Mobius scarves). They're on m'website.

about 5 months ago

Slashdot Asks: How Prepared Are You For an Earthquake?

Cliff Stoll Moderately well prepared - Oakland, California (191 comments)

Background: I live on North Oakland, next to Berkeley, in the Rockridge section. Urban, detached 2 bedroom house about 100 years old.

We bolted down our house, fully reinforced the stemwalls, and installed shearwalls. For our little 2-bedroom bungalow in Oakland, this set us back around $20,000. Earthquake insurance seemed outrageous (around $2,500/year, with very limited benefits). Along with the earthquake retrofit, we set aside a few cases of food & twenty 5-gallon jugs of water. A 2Kw Honda generator. Radio, flashlights, FRS walkie-talkies, etc. Small amount of medical stuff.

Yes, I have onsite and offsite backups (that's easy); the real problem would be connectivity after a quake. There's probably a hundred telephone poles between my house and the central office.

Some challenges: Keeping food & water fresh is a problem - cans get rusty as water condenses on cold surfaces. Some camping food goes bad. MRI rations taste, well, horrible. We should replace water & food annually, and generally forget to. (We discovered diapers in our earthquake stash, left over from when our college kids were infants)

    Storing gasoline for the generator is a problem. I'm told that gasoline gets stale after a few months (is this true, or an urban legend?). It's a pain to lug a 3 gallon gas can around, and it's not something I want under my house. (I store it in a shed, where it's out of sight & out of mind - so I rarely refresh it. Is there a small, 5 or 10 gallon under-ground gasoline storage tank?). I should start and exercise the generator every month; it's more like every two years or so. Our experience in the 1989 quake was that gas stations can't pump after an earthquake (no power).

  Our neighborhood's quake group (the Oakland - Rockridge Shakers) meets every summer, and the earthquake drills have been quite useful - we've had several fun practice sessions, where we hunt for human dummies hidden around the neighborhood, search for downed wires, and practice using walkie-talkies. Afterwards, it's a block party, and we compare notes while sharing lunch.

    My home business, Acme Klein Bottles, lost two glass Klein bottles in last night's quake. Both fell off a shelf and shattered on the floor. Good lesson: keep my glassware stored down low, with holders to prevent boxes from shifting. Since most of my glass Klein bottles are stored under our house; a major local temblor that destroyed the house would also wipe out the business.

about 5 months ago

Satellite Swarm Spots North Pole Drift

Cliff Stoll Important work - gives handle on earth's dynamo (80 comments)

This is important work, which compliments terrestial geomagnetic measurements and space based observations.

The earth's magnetic field results from a planetary dynamo. Magnetic field lines get frozen into the electrically conductive fluid core. Then, differential motions in the fluid causes the magnetic field to get twisted up -- it's no longer is the simple dipole (like those bar magnets that you played with as a kid). Instead, the earth's magnetic field develops high order moments (sorta like bumps and dips). These shapes evolve as the conductive core moves. Eventually, the magnetic field gets so tangled up, that it unravels. At that time, the earth's field reverses. These magnetic field reversals show up in the geologic record ... every 10,000 to 100,000 years, there's a flipover.

Measurements like the ESA Swarm satellite give us a handle on the evoloution of the Earth's magnetic field, as well as showing how that field interacts with the magnetic and particle environment of the solar wind.

(disclaimer - most of what I just posted is from a terrific graduate class that I took at the Lunar & Planetary Labs way back in 1979, and when I worked with Charles Sonett, who studied the solar wind. Likely, much of this is way out of date!)

about 7 months ago

Whom Must You Trust?

Cliff Stoll Re:Well, yes, I was there... (120 comments)


I saw a short section of the German version of that Nova show ... apparently I speak fluent German in the that version!

Mit den besten Wünschen,

about 8 months ago

Whom Must You Trust?

Cliff Stoll Re:Well, yes, I was there... (120 comments)

And my thanks back to you, oh Anonymous Coward: The 15 cents in royalties from your purchase of m'book is now helping my kids attend college. Uh, it'll last about 1.3 minutes.

You say that you're managing firewalls - all sorts of possibilities! I had the honor of working with Van Jacobson at LBL when he first researched TCP/IP traffic jams and compression. I was amazed at how much could be done by looking at traffic and thinking about the interaction of traffic, buffers, routers, and network congestion. Wonderful stuff - what looks like a boring problem may be an opportunity for research.

With that in mind, here's my encouragement to you: Go and sharpen your tcpdump & wireshark tools. Figure out what's really happening to those packets. Who knows what you'll uncover?

about 8 months ago

Whom Must You Trust?

Cliff Stoll Re:IF you are the REAL Cliff Stoll? (120 comments)

(blush). Thanks!

Now it's your turn: Go forth and make our networked community friendlier, stronger, more trustworthy, and more useful.

Best wishes,

PS: Of course, you raise a fascinating, self-referential question. How can you tell if this posting is from the real Cliff Stoll? I know it's me - and it's easy to prove in person, but difficult online. For the best proof, well, stop by for coffee. Way more fun than posting online.

about 8 months ago

Whom Must You Trust?

Cliff Stoll Well, yes, I was there... (120 comments)

It's been a quarter century since I chased down those hackers. Hard to think back that far: 2400 baud modems were rarities, BSD Unix was uncommon, and almost nobody had a pocket pager. As an astronomy postdoc (not a grad student), I ran a few Unix boxes at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. When the accounting system crashed, my reaction was curiosity: How come this isn't working? It's an attitude you get from physics -- when you don't understand something, it's a chance to do research. And oh, where it led...

Today, of course, everything's changed: Almost nobody has a pocket pager, 2400 baud modems are a rarity, and Berkeley Unix is, uh, uncommon. What started out as a weirdness hiding in our etc/passwd file has become a multi-billion dollar business. So many stories to tell ...

I've since tiptoed away from computer security; I now make Klein bottles and work alongside some amazing programmers at Newfield Wireless in Berkeley. Much fun debugging code and occasionally uncorking stories from when Unix was young.

Warm cheers to m'slashdot friends,

about 8 months ago

Billion Year Storage Media

Cliff Stoll Well thought out dissertation! (204 comments)

Excellent thesis and a most delightful dedication!

    A few salient points from this thesis, for the Slashdot crowd:
    - Accumulation: knowing what to keep and what to toss
    - Distribution: where/how to keep copies
    - Digital stewardship: maintaining objects isn't enough ... you must properly catalog things
    - Long term access means more than just saving bits ... they must be properly rendered

Convolved on this are problems with copyright, fair use, payment for archives, orphaned collections...

Then there's the cost of creating and maintaining a long term digital repository.
Librarians have done a terrific job with our printed archives. Who will become our digital librarians?

about a year ago

TSA Reminds You Not To Travel With Hand Grenades

Cliff Stoll Corn Grenade in 1989 (378 comments)

Some 25 years ago, I was on booktour for Cuckoo's Egg. I visited Iowa City and spoke at Prairie Lights bookstore -- delightful people and a wonderful place! A haven for writers, readers, and hackers.

After my talk, I passed along a Klein bottle to an Iowa computer hacker who was fooling with unix. In turn, he gave me a Corn Grenade . I tossed it in my backpack, headed for my next stop, and next evening went to Ames Municipal Airport.

This was in pre-TSA days, but there was certainly airport security: the security guy at the Ames airport discovered the corn grenade in my carry on. Happily, he recognized what it was - a cool, brass, art sculpture which was completely inert. By that time into booktour, I was pretty inert. We chatted for a few minutes, and I took the commuter plane to Chicago.

I'd forgotten about my 3 pound brass friend when the plane landed at O'Hare. But the Chicago X-ray scanner found it, and all sorts of alarms went off. Natch, I was taken aside, given the third degree. Seems that corn grenades aren't recognized in the distant lands of northern Illinois. I had to explain all about corn grenades (and my book, and klein bottles...) Missed my flight, slept overnight in O'Hare, and wound up shipping the heavy lil' guy by UPS ground. Today, that brass ear of corn smiles at me from across my dining room, reminding me when I got hacked by a computer jock in Iowa City...

about a year ago

With an Eye Toward Disaster, NYC Debuts Solar Charging Stations

Cliff Stoll What's wrong with this: Solar power. Hurricane. (115 comments)

Solar powered chargers in the aftermath of a hurricane?
It'll be days after a hurricane before there's a clear day.
Solar panels work poorly on cloudy days ... those on my roof generate about 5 to 30 percent compared to full sunlight.

about a year and a half ago

India To Send World's Last Telegram

Cliff Stoll What's the meaning of the 2nd "T" in AT&T ? (205 comments)

My first job was delivering telegrams (by bicycle) in downtown Buffalo during the 1960's.
My Western Union office had its hours posted on the door: "We Never Close". The building's been torn down, so, in a sense, the message turned out to be true.

Question: what'll happen to the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation?

Here in Berkeley, one of the main drags is Telegraph Avenue and a cell-phone store is named "Telegraph Wireless"

about a year and a half ago

Ask Slashdot: How Important Is Advanced Math In a CS Degree?

Cliff Stoll Beauty of Math; Beauty of Computer Science (656 comments)

I work in computing; a meter away is a mathematician.

He knows real math: group theory, complex analysis, Lie algebras, topology, and, yes, differential equations. To him, math isn't about numbers ... it's about rigor, elegance, and beauty.

No surprise that his code is rigorous, elegant, and beautiful. When he showed me how to use Cheetah to build templates in Python, he explained things with an clarity and parsimony. In his world, clumsy coding is as bad as a clunky math; a clear mathematical proof is as fascinating as a tightly written function.

This man is the go-to guy for the 100 person business. Soft spoken and never argumentative, his advice and opinions carry weight. I'm honored to work alongside him; not a week goes by that I don't learn from him.

about a year and a half ago

Bennett's Whimsi-Geek Gift Guide For 2012

Cliff Stoll Klein Bottles? Sure! (57 comments)

Yes, I am sending out Klein bottles, in plenty of time for Christmas. And, yes, my website also carries copies of my book.


more than 2 years ago

Why Your Dad's 30-Year-Old Stereo Sounds Better Than Yours

Cliff Stoll My Dad's 30 year old radio glowed in the dark (674 comments)

Sure - I remember my Dad's 30 year old radio, a Philco model 60 from 1936. Those thirty years were the the golden age of radio I caught just the tail end in the late1950's.

His cathedral radio glowed in the dark, thanks to 5 vacuum tubes and an incandescent dial lamp. Took a minute to warm up (boot?) thanks to the 6 volt filaments and sagging line voltage (the thing drew 60 watts just idling). Superhetrodyne tuning of the AM broadcast band gave it a response from perhaps 50 to 2000 Hz, give or take 10 db. Stereo? Naw it didn't even have FM (though you could tune in shortwave broadcasts from Moscow)

Fidelity? Well, the Lone Ranger theme came boomed in just fine, as did Jack Benny, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Nothing like staying up late to tune the latest releases from WKBW, CKLW, or WABCs Cousin Brucie. Or joining the Night People to catch Jean Shepherd on WOR after midnight.

I've heard plenty of music since then, on vinyl, cassette, 8-track, CD's and mp3 -- great stuff! But I miss the excitement of stalking the elusive Rock and Roll station...

more than 3 years ago

Early UNIX Contributor Robert Morris Dead at 78

Cliff Stoll Re:Stoll's "Cuckoo's Egg" has some great anecdotes (90 comments)

Yes, I met and worked with Robert T. Morris in the late 1980's.

During 1986 and 1987, I had tracked a computer intruder from our systems in Berkeley California, through a complex trail, into Hannover, Germany. Using a honeypot, we were able to show the involvement of the E. German Stassi and a rather mysterious Bulgarian connection. I testified at the intruders' trial in Germany.

As the investigation wound up, I visited the National Computer Security Center (a part of the NSA), and met Robert T. Morris. Of course, I'd known him from his Unix/Bell Labs days. With a cigarette in his hand, we talked extensively about password security and the need to go beyond simple encryption of the Unix etc/passwd file. (At this time, salts & rainbow files were in the experimental stage). He was convinced that encryption was needed for many more processes than just logging into a system.

Later, Bob Morris encouraged me to write up my experiences in a paper, "Stalking the Wily Hacker", which was published in the April 1988 CACM.

Robert T. Morris was one of the computer pioneers who foresaw the troubles of unsecured computers and networks. He recognized that it wasn't possible to simply isolate a computer from the network -- that a computer's power was multiplied when connected to others. And his work in applying cryptographic protection to data foreshadowed much of today's efforts in computer security.

All of us owe Robert T. Morris a debt: our systems and networks work better and more securely because of his work.

May he rest in peace.


more than 3 years ago

Sputnik Moment Or No, Science Fairs Are Lagging

Cliff Stoll Don't grumble, Volunteer ! (414 comments)

Two mornings each week, I volunteer to teach physics to local 12 & 13 year old kids.

They're homeschooled kids; we meet at one of their homes for 4 hours a week. I'm teaching the science class that I wish I'd received when I was in 8th grade.

3 months of Newtonian physics, then a month on wave mechanics (made a glass wave tank!), we're now finishing thermodynamics and will soon start E&M. Heavy on experiments: bicycle wheel gyroscope, conservation of momentum when throwing a football while standing on a skateboard, entropy & heat of crystallization using Sodium Acetate. We use the physics apparatus that I've collected over the years ... some professional equipment and a lot of homebrew demos. An oscilloscope that cost $25 at a yardsale.

This past Tuesday, we measured the distance to the sun by comparing the warmth of sunlight on the kids hands to the warmth from a 100 watt incandescent lamp. By adjusting the distance from hand to lamp, they found the distance from the light where it was "just about as warm as sunlight". Then they looked up the solar luminosity and used the inverse square law to deteremine the astronomical unit. Got it to with 30 percent of the canonical value. (of course, Slashdot people will see the circular reasoning here, but letting the kids figure that out is part of the fun).

No tests - it's immediately apparent when someone doesn't get something, and when to take a different approach. Occasional homework (always an experiment: for instance, determine the vertical distance (in meters) from the sidewalk outside your house to your bed. Knowing your mass in Kg and the gravitational constant, find the amount of work it takes to walk into your house and go to bed. Notice that there's no "right" answer to this question, and it's unlikely that two kids will get the same answer)

Parents often bring muffins & goodies; the kids are curious, enthusiastic, and motivated. Best part: I take home a broad smile ... it's the high point of my week.

A friend of mine - a PhD chemical engineer - volunteers at the San Francisco Exploratorium. Another friend works as a docent at a nearby bird sanctuary.

All of us are busy, yet each of has something to contribute. Mix your interests with enthusiasm, toss in some creativity, then get out there and volunteer. You'll never know how much fun it'll be!

-Cliff on a sunny Saturday morning in Oakland, California

more than 3 years ago

Science Luminary Martin Gardner Dead at 95

Cliff Stoll Wonderful man in person (96 comments)

After he saw one of my first Klein Bottles, Martin Gardner encouraged me to make them for recreational mathematics enthusiasts. "Even if the Klein Bottles don't work out, you'll have fun meeting these folks"

And so began my zero-volume business.

In high school, I followed his instructions to make hexaflexagons and fooled with Knights tours on chess boards. Much later, I was honored to correspond and meet him.

In person, he was just as curious, creative, and encouraging as you would expect from his writing.

Along with others here, I will miss Martin Gardner - his Scientific American articles, his wide ranging books, and his warm support. He leaves a wide wake behind him.


more than 4 years ago



Big Brother Blinded - Smog blocks Survelliance Cameras

Cliff Stoll Cliff Stoll writes  |  about a year ago

Cliff Stoll (242915) writes "Perils of dystopia: To the Chinese central government, the smog that blankets the country is not just a health hazard, it's a threat to national security.

Last month visibility in Harbin dropped to below three metres because of heavy smog. On days like these, no surveillance camera can see through the thick layers of particles, say scientists and engineers.

Existing technology, such as infrared imaging, can help cameras see through fog or smoke at a certain level, but the smog in some Chinese cities is a different story. The particles are so many and so solid, they block light almost as effectively as a brick wall."

Link to Original Source

Container ship breaks in two, sinks

Cliff Stoll Cliff Stoll writes  |  about a year and a half ago

Cliff Stoll (242915) writes "Along with 7000 containers, ship MOL Comfort broke in half in high seas in the Indian Ocean. The aft section floated for a week, then sank on June 27th. The forward section was towed most of the way to port, but burned and sank on July 10th. This post-panamax ship was 316 meters long and only 5 years old. With a typical value of $40,000 per container, this amounts to a quarter billion dollar loss. The cause is unknown, but may be structural or perhaps due to overfilled containers that are declared as underweight. Of course, the software used to calculate ship stability relies upon these incorrect physical parameters."

Cell Phone SIM cards lead to terrorists' trail

Cliff Stoll Cliff Stoll writes  |  more than 6 years ago

Cliff Stoll writes "The Times of India reports that cell phone SIM cards used by the terrorists in Mumbai were purchased in Kolkata (Calcutta), using fraudulent papers. The papers belonged to the dead uncle of a 26 year old man living in Kolkata; he is suspected of being a collaborator of the terrorists. The paper states that this highlights "the continued vulnerabilities in the system which have repeatedly been exploited by the terrorists and their collaborators to obtain cell phone connections. "We've booked them for cheating and forgery as they produced fake documents to get the SIMs. We've also slapped conspiracy charges against them for they had an ulterior motive. The arrests will throw light on the Mumbai terror module," Kolkata police's Jawed Shamim said."
Link to Original Source


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