the cuckoo’s egg by cliff stoll

Several years ago, Cliff Stoll’s amazing, true-life account of espionage and system administration in the 1980s was recommended to me.

Mr Stoll started his professional life in astronomy, but, due to budget cuts at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, he moved into systems administration.

Interspersed through the book are both political commentaries (he was after all at Berkeley), and helpful hints for even non-techies. For example, the chocolate chip cookie recipe or the helpful note that you should NEVER use a microwave to dry-out your wet sneakers. Ever. It is just Bad News™.

The title, “The Cuckoo’s Egg”, is a  reference to how the cuckoo bird goes about raising her young: she doesn’t hatch her own eggs, but rather lays them in other birds’ nests, and lets them do all the work for her. (Sounds like another bird of Dr Seuss fame, but that will have to wait for another day.)

From start to finish, Cliff’s tale of spotting an accounting error (apparently in the Bad Old Days™, departments were billed based on how much computer time they used – a singularly silly approach to computing looked-at from the mindset of a person living and working in 2011), to tracking this phantom user who utilized exploits in common applications, to finding out that he not only wasn’t at Berkeley, he wasn’t from the west coast, nor, ultimately, even from this country, is a grand tour of  both computing history and old-fashioned detective work.

Along with Without Remorse, The Cuckoo’s Egg is a novel I have reread a couple times. It has also been on my standard list of books all techies should read for more than a decade. Even though the story happened a quarter century ago, it is still a thrilling read (ok, so the bit about dial-up access seems outlandishly dated, but that’s OK, too).

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Entertainment value: 5/5
  • Historicity: 5/5
  • Overall: 4/5