Adventures in topology: The Cuckoo’s Egg and meeting Cliff Stoll

I recently finished up reading “The Cuckoo’s Egg” by Cliff Stoll. It was a fascinating story that details some of the first examples of computer hacking and computer forensics.

This post isn’t a review of his book, however! It’s more to document some adventures that resulted after reading it.

First, a quick summary:

In 1986, Cliff Stoll was  an astronomer working at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory when he was tasked to look into a $0.75 discrepancy in compute time billed to physicists and other scientists who remotely connected to their machines.

What resulted was a year long wild-goose chase that ended up in the arrest of a KGB operative in Germany who remotely connected to university computers in the United States in order to gain access to military networks through ARPANET (precursor to the Internet of today).

Cliff wrote a book about his experience that went on to become a best seller. For fans of esoteric computer history, this was one of the first documented examples of hacking and marked the beginning of computer forensics. This book was published 35 years ago and deals with (now) antiquated technology that the young ones around here know nothing about — but oh wow, did I thoroughly enjoy this!

Anyway! That’s not why I’m here. I’m here, because I keep seeing his name pop up in various places (more recently Hacker News). A post mentioned his TED talk in 2008. It’s a hoot — and pretty inspiring, too!

One person mentioned that he makes Klein Bottles (an interesting manifold that ends up being a container with zero volume, as it only has a single surface) out of his home in… North Oakland. Oh, he also enjoys visitors.

Oh, really?!

The Klein Bottles are a really interesting object and have been a fun talking point with friends. I ended up purchasing a Klein Bottle from Cliff and asked if I could pick it up, since I live nearby. He happily obliged.

I ended up bringing our oldest kiddo and we had an absolute blast. He spent an hour with us, showing some of the artistic stuff he’s been working on (mathematical quilts!), showing off various gadgets he’s made (a fun device that draws images on his shipping boxes using Sharpies — an automated personal touch), and letting my kiddo drive the remote controlled robot he built that runs under his crawl space (!).

Just an absolutely memorable time. Thanks so much, Cliff!

TIL: The coastline paradox and Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

“Uh, what?” you say.

A few weeks ago, I read a post on Hacker News about something called “the coastline paradox.” Despite my geology background, I hadn’t heard of this before.

The measured length of the coastline depends on the method used to measure it and the degree of cartographic generalization. Since a landmass has features at all scales, from hundreds of kilometers in size to tiny fractions of a millimeter and below, there is no obvious size of the smallest feature that should be taken into consideration when measuring, and hence no single well-defined perimeter to the landmass.

Essentially, the smaller unit of measurement you use to try and measure something with a fractal pattern, the longer it becomes.

So, I’m currently reading a book called “Reading the Rocks” by Marcia Bjornerud and there is an entire section devoted to the coastline paradox, which I just learned about.

Mandelbrot’s point was simple: If you use a very long stick to measure a coastline, you will capture the broadest arcs but miss the fjords, firths, and coves, and you will conclude that the coastline is not terribly long. As you use shorter and shorter rulers, however, the coast actually stretches. Mandelbrot named such stretchy features fractals…


This brings up the second TIL: What is the phenomenon called when you hear something for the first time and then suddenly start seeing or hearing it everywhere?

It’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency illusion:

The frequency illusion (also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon) is a cognitive bias in which a person notices a specific concept, word, or product more frequently after recently becoming aware of it.

Well, here’s to seeing more coastline paradoxes.

Book Review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes captured my attention from start to finish. Going into it, I was fascinated by the idea of understanding the convergence of minds that led to the creation of one of history’s most powerful and controversial weapons. And of course, the recent buzz about the Oppenheimer movie contributed to this interest as well.

Rhodes doesn’t just delve into the technicalities of the bomb’s construction, which, on its own, would have been captivating. He masterfully presents the lives, backgrounds, and motivations of the characters involved.

A large part of the first third or so of the book digs into nuclear chemistry and the intense research going on to figure out these chain reactions. It was just absolutely fascinating.

What I found particularly interesting were the insights into the parallel efforts in Japan and Germany. It provided a unique view of the global race that was underway, further elevating the stakes and suspense of the story.

Throughout the book, there was this compelling juxtaposition: the brilliance of the minds at work against the backdrop of the impending devastation their creation would bring. It’s a testament to Rhodes’s storytelling that he managed to weave these narratives seamlessly.

“The Making of the Atomic Bomb” was a stellar read, and it easily gets a 5 out of 5 from me. For anyone curious about the people and the drama behind the science, this is a must-read.

Book Review: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

At first glance, this book seems to be a biography of Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and one of the pioneers of CRISPR research.

While there is some focus on her upbringing and the things that may have driven her to become a fantastic scientist, the book is really about the wide range of characters who helped discover CRISPR DNA sequences and their potential applications in modern medicine.

I’ve heard CRISPR and CRISPR-based technology mentioned in various things I’ve read and how it is something that could potentially revolutionize medicine. But that’s really all I know about it.

This book digs into how Jennifer and her team of researchers discovered the CRISPR process — essentially duplicating the way that bacteria has fought off viruses for eons — and how it could ultimately be used for various therapies, treatments and even diagnoses.

The book briefly mentions its use in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for COVID-19 as well as some of the more controversial and ethically questionable uses — editing the genes of a fetus, for example, to choose certain traits (which will then be passed down to its own children).

This was an enjoyable and informative read and it covered all sorts of things from the science of CRISPR, legal issues related to patents, and the use cases for CRISPR based technologies today.

The final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour

STS-134 NASA Tweetup

STS-134 NASA Tweetup and the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour

On April 28th and April 29th, 2011, I was fortunate enough to participate in the NASA Tweetup for STS-134. It was to be the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the second to last mission in the Space Shuttle program. I traveled to the Space Coast from San Francisco and spent three fantastic days with fellow Twitter users and enthusiastic space geeks at Kennedy Space Center. Things didn’t always go as planned (you’ll see), but it was an experience that I’ll cherish and never forget. Godspeed, Endeavour.

Continue reading “The final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour”

Practicing my Space Shuttle landing skills

I figured since I’m heading to Cape Canaveral and all, I should start brushing up on my shuttle landing skills. You never know if a crew member suddenly comes down with an illness and they’ll need to replace them with someone from the NASA Tweetup. Yeah… sure. 😉

You can check out the above space shuttle simulator on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod by downloading F-SIM Space Shuttle from the App Store.

Solar death ray

This is pretty fantastic! Eric Jacqmain built a “solar death ray” using 5,800 mirrors glued to a satellite dish.

The R5800 is my latest and greatest solar creation. Made from an ordinary fiberglass satellite dish, it is covered in about 5800 3/8″ (~1cm) mirror tiles. When properly aligned, it can generate a spot the size of a dime with an intensity of 5000 suns! This amount of power is more than enough to melt steel, vaporize aluminum, boil concrete, turn dirt into lava, and obliterate any organic material in an instant. It stands at 5’9″ and is 42″ across.

Seeing kids and young adults do science experiments and create things like this gives me hope for our future!

[via @papermodelplane on Twitter]

Earthquakes in 2010 – A final update

Back in March of 2010, I wrote a post looking at the frequency of earthquakes occurring around the world and examined whether or not there were more earthquakes occuring than normal. Specifically, I chose to look at earthquakes between M6.0 and M6.9, as they are sufficiently large enough to be detected by seismometers around the world and they seem to be well documented in recent history.

So, what were the final numbers for 2010? Using the global earthquake search tool on the USGS website, we can see that there were 151 M6.0 – M6.9 earthquakes detected last year.

FILE CREATED: Mon Jan 3 19:59:37 2011
Global Search Earthquakes = 151
Catalog Used: PDE
Date Range: 2010/01/01 to 2010/12/31
Magnitude Range: 6.0 – 6.9
Data Selection: Historical & Preliminary Data

According to recent USGS data, an average of ~134 earthquakes happen in this range every year. Yes, we had 151, but does that mean it’s time to freak out?


It falls well within what we would expect. In fact, there were more earthquakes within this magnitude range in 2007 (178) and 2008 (178)! What? Crazy!

A few more data points:
M7.0 – M7.9 eq’s in 2010: 21 (avg: ~17)
M8.0 – M8.9 eq’s in 2010: 1 (avg: ~1)

Here’s a handy table from the USGS [via]:


So, to sum things up, the world is not ending, despite what crazy folks say, earthquakes are not increasing, and there’s probably a number of other things more important to worry about.

Cheers and happy new year!

Get to know a geologist

The annual American Geophysical Union conference is in town this week and I’ve been fielding a bunch of questions about the strange creatures (known as earth scientists) that are inhabiting downtown San Francisco.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but Uncyclopedia nails the description of a geologist.

Geologists are ‘scientists’ with unnatural obsessions with beer and rocks. Often too intelligent to do monotonous sciences like biology, chemistry, or physics, geologists devote their time to mud-worrying, volcano poking, fault finding, bouldering, dust-collecting, and high-risk colouring. One of the main difficulties in communicating with geologists is their belief that a million years is a short amount of time and their heads are harder than rocks. Consequently, such abstract concepts as “Tuesday Morning” and Lunchtime are completely beyond their comprehension.

The section on alcohol consumption is pretty amusing (and somewhat apt) as well.

If you ever encounter a geologist who is sober after 6pm, this person is an imposter: possibly an alien; probably a geophysicist or engineer, marine geographer or hydrologist etc. Alcoholism is an acceptable, even socially beneficial, disease for an active geologist.

The whole article is a fun read though, especially if you are or know any geologists.

First evidence of other universes?

This stuff is so trippy to think about.

Now Stephen Feeney at University College London and a few pals say they’ve found tentative evidence of this bruising in the form of circular patterns in cosmic microwave background. In fact, they’ve found four bruises, implying that our universe must have smashed into other bubbles at least four times in the past.

Again, this is an extraordinary result: the first evidence of universes beyond our own.

So, what to make of these discoveries. First, these effects could easily be a trick of the eye. As Feeney and co acknowledge: “it is rather easy to fifind all sorts of statistically unlikely properties in a large dataset like the CMB.” That’s for sure!


[Via Kottke]

The most boring day in history?

April 11, 1954

April 11, 1954 was the most uneventful and boring day of the 20th century. Every day something of significance occurs, but nothing remarkable had happened on the said day in 1954, according to experts who inserted over 300 million important events of the century into a computer search programme to calculate.

This is kind of amazing. I’d love to see this parsed based on specific dates — for example, what was the most boring day (according to this algorithm) during my life? I’m sure there are a few dates in high school or college that come to mind.

[Via Daily Dish]

Pluto isn’t special

NPR’s science and culture blog has an interesting post up about why Pluto isn’t a planet and we should get over it. It’s something that I’ve been arguing about for a long time.

There are an estimated 70,000 KPOs (Kuiper Belt Objects) out there larger than 100 meters. More importantly, at least 3 KPOs are large enough for gravity to work its symmetric magic and pull rock and ice into a sphere. These are the newest class of solar system’s inhabitants the Dwarf Planets: Huamea, Makemake and, yes, Pluto.

With the discovery of the KPOs and, in particular, the KPO Dwarf Planets, Pluto lost any claim to being special. It was just one cinder-block in a field of cinder-blocks left over from building our solar system. It wasn’t even the biggest cinder block. In 2005 the dwarf planet Eris was found orbiting the Sun at distances beyond the Kuiper Belt in yet another new region of the solar system that astronomers call the Scattered Disk.

Face it, Pluto isn’t special.

[via Daily Dish]

Hate mail from third graders

Hah! Apparently, the American Museum of Natural History gets a lot of unhappy letters from children, unhappy that Pluto is no longer considered a planet.


As my friend Chris Town pointed out, Eris is actually larger than Pluto. If people are adamant that Pluto is a planet, they should be fighting even more for Eris to be included.

Interestingly enough, the IAU has had a definition for what should be considered a planet that has been used since 2006:

The definition of “planet” set in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) states that in the Solar System a planet is a celestial body that:

1. is in orbit around the Sun,
2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and
3. has “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit.

[Via Kottke]

That number is hella ridiculous


Oh man, a physics student at UC Davis has proposed that the number 1027 carry the prefix of “hella-“. As in a hellawatt, a hellagram, or a hellameter.

From the Urban Dictionary:


Originated from the streets of San Francisco in the Hunters Point neighborhood. It is commonly used in place of “really” or “very” when describing something.

The Fillmore is hella better than the Mission.

It’s amusing, but as someone who’s always found this distinctly Northern Californian word annoying, I can’t help but shake my head.

Regardless, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you can join the group on Facebook.

(Via Cosmic Variance.)