The Happy Hacker

reviewed by Bob Bruen

by Carolyn Meinel. American Eagle Publications 1998. 260 pages. Index. $29.95.

The subtitle of this book is: A Guide to (Mostly) Harmless Computer Hacking, a goal which is met. Very little of what is in the book will turn you into someone breaking into banks. What I liked most about the book is the sense that the old definition of hacking around with computers can found all the way through. Trying out this or that, learning what something means, playing around with features of computers that are not so obvious. Happy Hacker turns out to be quite a good introduction to exploring computers and networks for just about anyone. There are lots of tidbits to try out on your Win95 box. The explanation of port scanning is one of the best I have I seen. Besides a lighthearted approach the description is clear and the examples are meaningful.

Ms. Meinel places copious warnings about getting in trouble with your boss, the law and other hackers throughout the book. Just as often she provides hints of fun things to try that will not hurt anyone, but are useful. For example if you wondered why that annoying $MS background page shows up even after you deleted the file, well a second copy is contained in another startup file, so instead of deleting it, replace it using her instructions. This type of hack hurts no one, but is satisfying.

Forging email, one of the oldest hacks, is explained along with the well known email spam problem and what you can do about it. She traces out some spam mail to its source as it passes through forgeries by explaining mail headers. This is useful education for folks starting out in the world of the Internet. Professionals may see some of this as obvious, but most people do not, making this a worthwhile purchase if you want to learn a few steps beyond the basics without risking jail.

Since the author writes well, the book reads quickly and easily, but I would like to have seen more pages. There are four basic sections, the first eight chapters cover Win95. The second section has seven chapters dealing with Unix and networking. The four chapters in section three are about mail and the last three chapters provide an interesting history of hacking, hacking humor and meeting hackers.

The book is priced right and I enjoyed it. As long as your expectations are on target, it is a worthwhile purchase as a good introductory text. I expect most readers would have at least one new trick. You will not find stack smashing or crypto, but you will see how to bypass Win95 passwords as well as see how email is forged.