The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll

As I write this, I am listening to my Scott Joplin CD and in some ways I think that Cliff Stoll would find it fitting as this music fits his style of writing (i.e. lively and funny). This book is the story about how Stoll, an astronomer, foiled KGB backed computer hackers. Yes, this story is about computers and security, but don’t turn me off just yet; hang in there and let me tell you about it, before you make up your mind.

Now, if you are still with me, you probably want to know why I think that you should read a book about computer security. We’ll get to that in a minute. Right now, I want to tell you about the plot.

The story opens in 1986 to find Stoll on his first day as a system administrator for the UNIX mainframe housed at Keck Observatory. In an attempt to occupy him on his first day, his co-workers assigned him to find out why there was a $0.75 error in the system’s billing logs. The result: a search for an international hacker that Stoll, a moderately left wing hippie wannabe, spent the next year of his life trying to track down. For someone, who thought that the government was evil and that socialism was a good thing, there were some major hurdles coming his way. When theory met reality, Stoll discovered that he wasn’t so keen on socialistic sharing of information. As things snowballed, Stoll discovered to his surprise (and the disgust of his girlfriend and buddies) that he was talking with the CIA, NSA, FBI, Air Force OSI (Office of Special Investigations) and DOE. By the end of the chase, Stoll was giving reports and lectures to men and women from each of those departments as well as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Stoll had many moments of crisis when he realized that there were good people in these “bad” organizations that served the well fare of our nation – normal people with families, friends and passions not just trench coats and sniper rifles.

Knowing that most people aren’t interested in topics like this, I wouldn’t bother to even mention this book but for two reasons. First, the principles that Stoll tries to teach the reader regarding computer security are even more important today than they were way back in the dark ages of the internet. (I remember those days; I feel old.)

Secondly, this book is genuinely funny and interesting. If you enjoy movies about criminal investigations, you will probably enjoy this. Stoll writes from a mixed first and third person point of view. Actually, this works quite well for him as it makes you feel as if you are his friend. Picture your best friend telling you a story about his vacation. This method of storytelling is exactly how Stoll writes. Even if you are bored with computers generally and find them confusing, I am fairly certain that you will find this book an easy and enjoyable read. (I mean, really, who puts their chocolate chip cookie recipe in the foot notes?)

Just one warning; Cliff Stoll is not a Christian. He has no problems dropping in swear words if it is an accurate representation of the facts. There aren’t too many of these, but there are some (the worst in the first chapter). I would rate this title as a PG-13. Stoll also lives with his girlfriend and another female roommate. Their morals are not acceptable, but Stoll doesn’t spend much time detailing these.

So what are your thoughts? Is this a title that would interest you? Why or why not?

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2 thoughts on “The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll

  1. I love books like this; the nitty gritty details of historical events is where the real whys of history come to light. And I must ask, how are the intricacies of computers any more a hindrence to the tale in the hands of a good scholarly author writing about hacking than the political system in England regarding William Wilberforce or the details of German architecture aiding the Jews in escaping the holocaust? Its all a matter of sufficient explanation to the uneducated reader, regarding those details which must advance thier knowledge of the event.

    Appreciate the warning about content, but that sounds like a really fun book despite the flaws. Have you read “The Irish Game”? Same genre, different historical crime. Any book covering a criminal investigation probably has the same complaint: the author has to tell you what the criminal did to make them seem bad (and the what police did, so they seem human), but generally the histrical crime writer notes those only as a side bar kind of detail, and focuses on the chase. Have you found that to be the case, generally, or have just been blessed so far?

  2. I have never heard of the “Irish Game.” What type of crime does it involve? I love investigations – been watching Columbo for the first time. 🙂 He’s a cool investigator….

    One of my favorite books in high school was a cheap sci-fi pocket title from the late fifties or sixties. (I wish I could remember the name – arrg.) Anyway, the point of the story was that the first expedition to the moon discovered a human (5000 years old) on the moon. He looked just like modern man but was as old as the “pre-historic man.” While I don’t buy into evolutionary interpretation of science, what caught my attention was how the book was written. There wasn’t any action, it was all a lively description of the analysis of the items the “ancient man” had with him and analysis of several archaeological sites on several other planets. The author was trying to explain the loss of the missing link, but anyway, it was the investigation that was fun – a presentation of scientists handling their work to solve an archaeological puzzle.

    You commented on the German treatment of Jews. I did read (and review) “Hitler’s Scientists” and the author discussed how the Germans used science against the Jews. It seems, that Germany majored on healthy living (Hitler was a vegetarian and tee-totaler). They used the analogy of being healthy physically to being healthy nationally. Then the government and scientists promoted “science” that demonstrated that non-Germans were not pure and therefore contaminated the national body. Of course, the author also points out that many Germans were opposed to the results, but were to patriotic and/or afraid to stand up making them complicit in the tragedies that followed.

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