06 Apr

Clifford Stoll on … everything

I was sick last week, and I`m a strong believer that comedy helps the healing so I did a search for `Funny` Ted Talks.  After all, if there are great ideas being conveyed at TED, why not very funny ideas? 

I came across MANY TED talks that were labelled funny and all of them have their own merits.  However, it was through this exercise I stumbled across a Ted Talk that was NOT labelled funny by TED, but is instead listed as funny by comments and its linking.  (Note: I was searching via YouTube at the time)

Official Ted Link is here:

Length: 17 minutes, 54 seconds

It only takes a few minutes to realize that Clifford Stall is brilliant.  He is a brilliant mind for certain.  However, it only takes a few SECONDS to realize that Clifford is extremely eccentric. 

Eccentric, or possibly on the verge of being quite insane.  Not in a harmful way mind you, but in the manner of someone who exists within his own universe of observation. 

I can go into great detail of how I’ve encountered the psychotic brain in the business world.  It’s often said that this ‘serial killer’ brain actually ‘fits’ and flourishes in business, and perhaps it does.  However in science, I can easily see how a mind like this, that is so excited and enthusiastic, to be a huge benefit to finding discovery. 

Regardless of whatever opinion one might have of his behavior, I did find this talk to be extremely educational.  For one, he speaks with memorable phrases and shares anecdotes like they deserve to be shared.  Secondly, he makes an assumption that isn’t done enough (in my opinion) at TED Talks.  He starts with the assumption that the audience is educated, and that he doesn’t need to ‘dumb down’ his language or methods.

Clifford leaps all over the place, but in an amazing and excited manner that is very entertaining.  The fact he doesn’t even bother talking about his incredibly interesting past is actually really humbling.  I could make arguments that he spends effort on ‘showing his smarts’ or proving to the audience that he has an ‘expertise’ but this could easily be him trying to raise his own confidence while speaking with audience.

The reason why it is humbling to me, is that he could easily have focused on simply speaking about himself and in particular, what his actions were that made him ‘noteworthy’ to speak at TED.  He isn’t a speaker that is trying to sell a point of view that supports his company or is from a completed thesis.  I’d imagine having a typical conversation with him on the street would very much be like this talk.

That or quite possibly, he’d ignore me because he’s busy thinking about something else. 

I think the vain part of my ego simply wants to sympathize.  While in school, I was considered extremely ‘weird’, almost to the point that there were more than one person who probably would have questioned my own ability to adapt for integration with society.  Of course, in my case it wasn’t because I was too smart, I think I was just weird.  (And when it comes to being called weird, that still happens every once in a while today.)

Because he jumps across a dozen different subjects, there’s a dozen different spots where there’s a chance to learn something.  There’s almost too many to count as he is so specific about dates, names, the scientific nomenclature of tools/formulas and what equipment he uses.  (Watching this video, for instance, taught me how to use a slideruler.  Something I’ve heard about before, but never have once seen in use.  Multiplication via measuring didn’t make much sense at first until you notice that’s a logarithmic function). 

This is such an entertaining talk that I can see myself watching this again and again in the future.

One Sentence Summary

“How to find tranquility in confusion.”

Mr Stoll repeats a common philosophy or subtlety that might be accidental, but whether it is about mobius strips, university riots, or the loud noisy oscilloscope, there is something beautiful and beneficial that can be redeemed from the chaos.

The mobius strip is a bit of a mental conundrum as its very existence is puzzling on its own.  And yet from that he can create a rather pretty piece of art in the klein bottle.  The oscilloscope despite its natural distractions can be used to find a truth like the speed of sound.  A university riot, or in his circumstance, escaping a threatening authority leads to a rather thoughtful and most of all hopeful, inscription.

I do not know if Mr. Stoll was the originator of the phrasing, but I really liked the summary.  ‘The first time someone does something its science.  The second time it’s engineering and the third time its a technician.”

This stood out to me doubly so at the first watching of this video because only a couple moments before he describes himself as a technician working.  He then leads the statement and finishes with how he considers himself a scientist and that he wants to move on to new things.  In a way, this could be an explanation to the audience of why he is no longer a technician.

What caught me off guard

Clifford Stoll.

Seriously speaking, this guy looks like a cross between Data from Star Trek and Doc Brown from Back to the Future, he bounces around like the Nutty Professor and talks like a child that has just recently discovered sugar mixed with caffeine.  This is NOT what I would expect a TED Talk speaker to be like or to behave.

It does bring about a few questions on why he acts in the way that he does.  He mentions working with children, is this an adaptation from that?  Is he modelling from a brilliant mind that he knew growing up when he was a child?  Or is there a physical or mental mannerism that is present in him that is taking up the headspace that dictates whether to use the Super Ego or Id?  In other words, does he simply not know how to behave because to do so would be less interesting?


Wow.. So many questions.  There are actually too many questions that this blog cannot contain them.  I want to know if that experiment is legit.  For instance, if he measured using inches he couldn’t have used the same mathematics?  For that matter, what is the Wade equation?  (I might be misnaming it)  Or the dozen other equations he whispered to himself.  Is Clifford Stoll still around today?  His personality almost makes me question IF he is still working or has he moved on to other projects?

And for the first time, I don’t want the answers.  Maybe its because its late and I’m completely exhausted.  However when it comes to THIS talk, it almost feels like Clifford Stoll is also expressing another truth.  Answers will come. 

He stayed in physics because a man who was specializing in music said so.  University riots lead him to a church bell.  Handing over a Klein bottle gave him a drink he never tried before.  (I will also agree that Vitamin Water is terrible.  Seriously, why do they make that stuff.) 

Effectively, in examining one thing the discovery for another completely not related thing occurs.  I think over the course of the week I should read up on some more physics, and through that I’ll probably end up learning more about art.

So that its been discussed, what can we do about it?

I can tell you exactly what I was going to do tonight. 

I wanted to write about this TED talk tonight located here on Youtube:

Peter McGraw talking about – What Makes Things Funny

I searched Ted’s website for this talk for hours tonight, but could not find it.  For whatever reason, it is not listed.  I found a very awesome spreadsheet that lists links to all Ted talks on its site: but it still didn’t list it.

I learned about an App for ‘making’ Ted Talks (which was a comedic talk etc etc) and that led me to finding an actual TED talk app. 

And through all this chaos, I could not find what I was looking for so I opted to do this talk instead.

For me, the Talk presented here is not random in any way, it is the tranquility I found after being stuck with chaos.

– Updated every Thursday


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Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


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