Home » Clifford Stoll Talks at TED on The Call To Learn (Transcript)

Clifford Stoll Talks at TED on The Call To Learn (Transcript)


Clifford Stoll

“Astronomer Clifford Stoll helped to capture a notorious KGB hacker back in the infancy of the Internet. His agile mind continues to lead him down new paths — from education and techno-skepticism to the making of zero-volume bottles” – TED.com

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Clifford Stoll- The call to learn


I’m delighted to be here. I’m honored by the invitation, and thanks.

I would love to talk about stuff that I’m interested in, but unfortunately, I suspect that what I’m interested in won’t interest many other people.

First off, my badge says I’m an astronomer. I would love to talk about my astronomy, but I suspect that the number of people who are interested in radiative transfer in non-gray atmospheres and polarization of light in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere are the number of people who’d fit in a bus shelter. So I’m not going to talk about that.

It would be just as much fun to talk about some stuff that happened in 1986 and 1987, when a computer hacker was breaking into our systems over at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. And I caught the guys, and they turned out to be working for what was then the Soviet KGB, and stealing information and selling it. And I’d love to talk about that — and it’d be fun — but, 20 years later I find computer security, frankly, to be kind of boring. It’s tedious.

I’m — the first time you do something, it’s science. The second time, it’s engineering. A third time, it’s just being a technician. I’m a scientist. Once I do something, I do something else. So, I’m not going to talk about that.

Nor am I going to talk about what I think are obvious statements from my first book, Silicon Snake Oil or my second book, nor am I going to talk about why I believe computers don’t belong in schools. I feel that there is a massive and bizarre idea going around that we have to bring more computers into schools. My idea is no! No! Get them out of schools, and keep them out of schools. And I’d love to talk about this, but I think the argument is so obvious to anyone who’s hung around a fourth grade classroom that it doesn’t need much talking about — but I guess I may be very wrong about that, and everything else that I’ve said. So don’t go back and read my dissertation. It probably has lies in it as well.

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Having said that, I outlined my talk about five minutes ago. And if you look at it over here, the main thing I wrote on my thumb was the future. I’m supposed to talk about the future, yes? Oh, right. And my feeling is, asking me to talk about the future is bizarre, because I’ve got gray hair. And so, it’s kind of silly for me to talk about the future. In fact, I think that if you really want to know what the future is going to be, if you really want to know about the future, don’t ask a technologist, a scientist, a physicist. No! Don’t ask somebody who’s writing code.

No, if you want to know what society’s going to be like in 20 years, ask a kindergarten teacher. They know. In fact, don’t ask just any kindergarten teacher, ask an experienced one. They’re the ones who know what society is going to be like in another generation. I don’t.

Nor, I suspect, do many other people who are talking about what the future will bring. Certainly, all of us can imagine these cool new things that are going to be there. But to me, things aren’t the future. What I ask myself is, what is society going to be like, when the kids today are phenomenally good at text messaging and spend a huge amount of on-screen time, but have never gone bowling together?

Change is happening, and the change that is happening is not one that is in software. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about. I’d love to talk about it, it’d be fun, but I want to talk about what I’m doing now. What am I doing now? Oh — the other thing that I think I’d like to talk about is right over here. Right over here. Is that visible?

What I’d like to talk about is one-sided things. I would dearly love to talk about things that have one side. Because I love Mobius loops. I not only love Mobius loops, but I’m one of the very few people, if not the only person in the world, that makes Klein bottles. Right away, I hope that all of your eyes glaze over. This is a Klein bottle. For those of you in the audience who know, you roll your eyes and say, yup, I know all about it. It’s one sided. It’s a bottle whose inside is its outside. It has zero volume. And it’s non-orientable. It has wonderful properties. If you take two Mobius loops and sew their common edge together, you get one of these, and I make them out of glass. And I’d love to talk to you about this, but I don’t have much in the way of — things to say because –

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