Book Glue, Cuckoo’s Eggs and the Pleasures of Re-Reading

I just re-read Clifford Stoll’s 1989 book, Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, a chronicle of his self-reflections as he tracks who is breaking into the computer systems at his research lab.  A well-worn copy awaited me on my university library shelves.  Was my own paperback lent to someone long ago or perhaps passed on to a used book sale or taken by one of my kids?

Anyhow, Cuckoo’s Egg, so titled to refer to the cuckoo’s habit of “brood parasitism” – laying her eggs in another cuckoo’s nest, is written in non-technical language.  It is one of the first popular books about the intricacies of Internet communications.  While the technology is so old now (when did you last think about or even know of Tymnet?), it was surprisingly enjoyable and thought provoking.  Yes, Stoll could have used a good editor (the first time reading of one of his bicycle dashes from home to the lab was charming but the endless detail of the tracing of the hacker gets a bit boring) but even so re-reading his book reminded me of serious matters about this big, new thing, the Internet. Back in the ’80’s, he knew that hacking could endanger this extraordinary communications network that 21st century life relies on.

His determination to get the attention of government and security officials in the U.S. and later in Germany drives his story.  Stoll, a post-doc astronomer working in California at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, realized that hackers, taking advantage of known security holes, could enter non-classified systems at military and research sites as super users. He is indignant that the hacker, one or more young (probably) people somewhere, had no regard for the larger good.  He worried that research, perhaps even medical work to relieve human suffering, could be compromised by such “harmless” hacking. His human response to that threat is why he never gives up tracking the hackers.  That response, too, is why the book, all the buzz at a librarian conference I attended years ago and cited many times according to ISI and Google Scholar, still says something important to us. The book has ‘glue,’ connecting our lives now to what was happening in the early decades of the Internet.  And sadly now news feeds are littered with reports of hacker attacks on computing and phone systems from Apple to Chase to Fox News to British royalty.

It is ethical and moral questions Stoll asks that ‘glue’ the book, carries it forward from 1989 to 2011.  Books with that kind of staying power can be found in our public and academic libraries with well-worn covers and full of date due stamps.  In my university library such tattered and loved books are so damaged by use that we need to retire copies and buy fresh ones with a strong backs.  (No e-book of Cuckoo’s Egg available as yet but one can “look inside” the 2005 paperback at a major online bookseller.  A pirated? copy is at a peer-to-peer site called Mystery of Knowledge but in my book such copies hurt authors and are usually poor facsimiles.)   These well-worn copies represent, too, a network of people who have all read the same book, really strong ‘glue.’   Did you read Cuckoo’s Egg back in the ‘80’s or more recently?   What can we do to raise young people who understand and value the common good and who use their programming skills to hack in productive ways ?

About the links in this post:

I love to link.  I know, I know.  Hypertext only fuels our collective attention deficit!  Remember you need to click only if you are interested in the linked content.  Any links I add to Research Salad will be to freely accessible content but at times may only be an abstract of the full content perhaps available in print or available to library or individual subscribers.  Now, if only the open access movement was further along…But that’s for another post.

– JJ


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