The Cuckoo’s Egg, A 1980s Technology Time Capsule

The Cuckoo's Egg Cover
The Cover of The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll

Yesterday, I finished reading The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll. I came across it back in June near the bottom of a stack of still-to-be-read books. I think a friend dropped it off years ago but I can’t be sure. Neither my husband nor I remember buying it. Anyway, after scanning the cover, I thought I’d give it a 100-page try and either drop it in the recycle bin or stay with it to the end. Fortunately, I truly enjoyed the read and haven’t wheeled the book out to the curb, but I still might.

It’s not that the book is unworthy, it’s just extremely dated. Published in 1989, the cover claims that it landed on the New York Times bestseller list for “more than four months”. The Cuckoo’s Egg tells the true story of the author’s tenacious hunt to track down the identity of an invasive computer hacker. The year was 1987. Cliff Stoll, was working in a Berkeley astronomy lab, splitting his time between astronomy research and maintaining the department’s Unix server.

Before becoming an avid francophile, I led another life as a software development professional and entrepreneur. In 1987, I was working at Bell Labs where we used both VMS and UNIX operating systems on a daily basis. Holes in these two computing environments are discussed throughout the book, which often felt like a trip down memory lane. The writing is clear and relatively expressive but it’s obviously the product of a science and computer geek. This autobiographical aspect of the story reminded me of many men I know (I’m married to one) who I wrongly or rightly place in the geek category.

Unfortunately, I suspect that the book today won’t hold most people’s interest. On the upside, The Cuckoo’s Egg is a fun reminder of just how primitive computer operating systems and the Internet were in the mid-1980s. In addition, it’s interesting to witness Stoll’s personal transformation from a left-wing, anti-establishment, freethinker to a security sleuth with high regard for the FBI, CIA, and NSA.

On the downside, Stoll kept a meticulous log of all of his hacker-tracing efforts that span close to a year. He presents many, many dead-ends throughout the book. This helps the reader understand Stoll’s tenacity and frustration but even details that I appreciated are apt to become tiring for non-techies. I think a good editor could produce a more engaging second edition that conveys the story in half as many pages.

All in all, I’m glad I read The Cuckoo’s Egg but I don’t know many people to whom I’d recommend it.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

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