A Byte by Any Other Name

Copyright 1993 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.

This piece has been rejected by seven places (I think that may be a record for me!). After re-reading it, I don't blame them. It's sort of funny if you know enough about computers, but if you know enough about computers, it's strangely surrealistic.

You can tell this was written by a Technical Writer (me) who was frustrated dealing with programmers. I would like to point out that I wrote this before the Newton came out, although I don't think Apple got the name from this piece.

Lots of people come up to me and ask about computers. "Robert," they say, "What the heck is wrong with my computer?" Ha ha. No, only people who already have computers ask that. The ones that don't have computers usually ask, "What can I, an average Joe Six-Pack kind of person, do to become part of the fast-paced exciting world of data processing?"

Well, for starters, you need to understand the "jargon" of computers. Jargon has a long tradition among the sciences as a way to a) communicate quickly and accurately, while b) leaving everybody else in the dark.

So the key to really "geeking out" is to understand the jargon of computers.

A "bit" is a little tiny eensy weensy light switch. When you turn a bit on, however, no lights come on, which is probably why you're still in the dark. Because these teeny tiny light switches don't turn on any lights, computer manufacturers get them very cheaply, so they can include lots and lots of bits in each computer they make.

Keeping track of all those bits, however, gets tedious, so computer folks make little communes for the bits, where the bits frolic around naked. Because the hippies had already used the word "commune," it was decided to call these little communes "bytes."

(By now, you should be getting the message that computer people are obsessed with food. There's bits and bytes and even nibbles. And we haven't even mentioned "menus" and "Apple" computers. In ten years, the hot new computer will be the "Twinkie" running the "Fig Newton" operating system.)

If you gather up all these bytes and group them together—they fall apart! That's because you need something to glue them together. This something is called a "disk," and a disk is like a Woodstock festival for bytes. They all get together and turn on and off. Sometimes a byte will get too turned on, "crash" for a while and then leave the commune to take up a more productive life wearing a tie and working in a cash register.

So you slap together a disk, add some fans, attach a TV set (only without the dial, and two to three times more expensive than a regular TV set, and you can't even watch Gilligan's Island on it), and presto — you have a computer!

Now all you need is some "software." Software is the product of many hours of careful typing on the part of "programmers" who spend years eating Twinkies and drinking Jolt cola. In between times, they carefully write "programs," which are elaborate ways of making you think that you are doing something useful. They are lulling you into a false sense of security so that the moment you turn your back on them, they can throw away all your information and respond "File Not Found."

After these programs are perfected to the point that the "title screen" appears (the title screen tells you which program is about to lose your data), they are put in a great big box so that you think you're actually getting something for your money and sold for hundreds of dollars.

When the "user" (this is what people in the computer world call you — a "user") opens this package, she finds two things: a cheap disk containing a hideously expensive program (or alternatively, a hideously expensive disk containing a really cheap program), and a "manual," or doorstop.

The manual is frequently written by people who haven't even used the program. In fact, your really good manual writers only need to know the name of the program to write a manual. ("You need a manual for TeleSysComm Organizer? Should have it for you by next week Friday.") This helps avoid a lot of confusion if the programmers change the title screen.

Then you drink a fifth (or two) of whiskey before you do anything else. This is called "getting the user loaded" so that when you "load the program" you won't notice that you just purchased a very nice-looking title screen and not much else. Then you can practice "booting" the computer (the current indoor record is 25 feet, and is held by Sam Doskowitch of North Bend, Idaho).

You are now well on your way to mastering the intricate, complex, high-paying, insane world of computers. All you have to do now is practice drinking Jolt cola and eating Twinkies and you'll be an "experienced user" in no time!

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Copyright 1993 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.