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Learn Unix the Easy Way

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Undoubtedly many reviewers have heralded the epic and factual qualities of Cliff Stoll's book "The Cuckoo's Egg." Indeed, his account of how he first discovered and then dealt with an anonymous intruder in the computer system that he managed is a potent read, and I found it difficult to lay down the book to attend to everyday chores. By virtue of being the first extensively documented case, "The Cuckoo's Egg" has largely dispelled the doubts about whether or not such intrusions occur, what proportions they take, and what possible consequences they may lead to. On the side it has also effectively killed the Hollywood myth of computer break-ins being some kind of War Games scenario: a pair of well-scrubbed suburban teenagers guess a secret password to a super-duper military computer in a Pentagon basement (complete with an array of randomly-blinking lights), start a make-believe thermonuclear war, then succeed in tracking down the computer's elusive chief scientist just prior to the initial ICBM launch. This killing of a Technicolor[tm] myth should be considered Stoll's major achievement, literary and otherwise. And for that reason alone the book cannot be recommended highly enough, the best $5.95 US/ $6.95 CAN (paperback) investment one could ever make.

Another side to this book has hardly been mentioned because it feels so, well, mundane. I'm thinking of its value as a textbook for teaching the basics of computer networking, software, hardware, and everyware. This applies for both the computer-illiterati and those with more varied electronic experiences. Stoll manages to clearly explain the interdependencies of a computer's operating system and its managed programs, the very principles of computer security, and the basics of what it takes to maintain a complex, many-tentacled computer system. Indeed, over the years having read a great many books about computer-basics (not to mention 'hacking') I can think of no other that approaches "The Cuckoo's Egg" in terms of clarity of thought and presentation of complex knowledge. All this while retaining the tension of a good spy thriller. Remembering my first, very frustrating months of learning Unix on my own, I'm sure that I'd have it much easier had I'd been able to read the book prior to my initial login.

Intruder-hunter or no, Stoll excels in teaching. He explains the security aspects in an environment of 'multitasked processes in a computer' in terms of a house subdivided into many apartments, each of which does function and houses [sic!] people independently of one another, each of which can be opened by a superintendent's key. Steal the key and you're in, er, business. Steal a Unix super user's password and you're doubly in business, holding the system hostage whenever dark forces are in you, reading others' mail, peeping-tom-ing, wrecking havoc, wiping out the entire accumulated data contents with a single system-wide 'rm -r *' command. Such power at your unaccountable beck and call! The concept and consequences of multitasking (and multithreading [and multi-anything]) may be easy to explain in abstract terms to a bunch of future computer science students but it hardly is IOTTCO all on its own ("Intuitively Obvious To The Casual Observer", an acronym spewed out by the book's resident VMS guru to describe his system's command syntax superiority over Unix. Strange, Unix gurus find it seldom worth while to compare their systems with VMS. Tells a load, doesn't it?).

One could argue of course that reading about computers' operating systems doesn't exactly sound like entertainment for the casual, non-hacking bystander. Not enough sex-appeal or something. Only in this case it does, the story being incomplete without Stoll's account of his attempts to find a military or counter-espionage government body to pursue the investigation (then being accused by a housemate of "dealing with people without a sense of humor"), nutty conversations in SMERTCH-Russian in the shower ("Ees time for ze secret plan 35B." "Brilliant, Natasha! Zat will vork perfectly! Ah, darlink... vhat is secret plan 35B?"), and a cookie recipe (later termed "grotesquely unhealthy" in the BYTE magazine review of the book [all that sugar, no doubt]). Perhaps the most choice nugget of cloak-and-dagger humor comes on a visit to the CIA headquarters. Stoll discovers a battery of lovely "Top Secret" rubber stamps of various shapes, which he uses to make himself a nice memento-mori on an otherwise empty sheet of paper, then has it questioned and ultimately confiscated by a guard because "they take security seriously around there."

In short: read the book, don't wait for the movie. There aren't enough blinking lights on Stoll's computer for Hollywood to take notice. Then again, what do I know of movie making. Add a teenager or two and maybe it's 'hackertime-in-Hackerville' all over again.

[Editors' note: Hollywood it's not, but PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) recently aired a one hour version of "The Cuckoo's Egg" called "The KGB, The Computer and Me." PBS escaped the flashing lights and well-scrubbed teenagers by using no professional actors. Everyone in the TV show plays themselves and does so wonderfully, all of which adds to the effect of Cliff Stoll's excellent narration. The show was written and directed by Robin Bates, so ask your local PBS station to show it. We've watched it three times now, and we're sorry we couldn't find out any more specific details.]

References:

Clifford Stoll, "The Cuckoo's Egg/Tracing a spy through the maze of computer espionage", Pocket Books (nonfiction), 1990
Hugh Kenner, "Our man in Berkeley", Print Queue, a review of the book in BYTE, March 1990, pp. 360-362.
Don Libes and Sandy Ressler, "Life With Unix/ A Guide For Everyone", Prentice-Hall, 1989. Should be second on a reading list of anyone trying to learn Unix.
J. R. Hubbard, "A Gentle Introduction To The VAX System", TAB Books Inc., 1987. A concise and fairly straightforward teaching book of the VMS operating system.
"The KGB, The Computer and Me," written and directed by Robin Bates, Public Broadcasting Service, 1990.

 

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