The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll

April 26th, 2011 by Brian Leave a reply »

Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and expect someone else to raise their young. In The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll, astronomer-turned-sysadmin Stoll discovers 75 cents worth of computer time on a spreadsheet unaccounted for in the user logs. Someone logged in, but there’s an error. Like any good scientist, Stoll picks apart the computer code and sees that it’s working just fine. As he digs deeper, he realizes that a hacker has been in Berkeley Astronomy Labs.

Stoll’s conflict between freedom and order, between his college radical roots and his admin duties, is what creates the character development and makes Stoll a relatable narrator. This is a true story of a computer crime case that happened in 1986. Stoll published the book in 1990 and has many details from his logbooks included in the story.

I can remember being online for the first time in 1994. I had a teacher who ran a bulletin board service and I dialed in my 2400 baud modem to connect directly to his computer. The Cuckoo’s Egg is great for tech nostalgia. Usually I want a tech book that is extremely current, but sometimes it is important to see our roots. The epilogue is my favorite part as Stoll recalls a new threat: a worm embedding and spreading across the Arpanet, the Internet’s grandpa.

This, kids, is a floppy disk. This particular one holds tech-deadly source code.

Even if you’re not a total computer fanatic, there are parts to enjoy about the book. I do feel, though, that having a decent knowledge of computing greatly enhances the suspense when you’re able to appreciate the nontraditional techniques the astronomer uses to capture a hacker who has ties to a high-powered government agency.


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