Taking satiric aim at computers

As a satirist, Henry Beard finds the computer an easy target.

"If you have ever read a computer manual, you have my deepest sympathies," he says of the perplexing exercise.

Mr. Beard's specialty is writing humorous dictionaries. He has tackled dictionaries for recreational pursuits such as golf, fishing, and gardening, and most recently took aim at computerese with "Computing: A Hacker's Dictionary" (Workman Publishing).

Here are a few definitions:

*database: an organized collection of misinformation.

*hardware: any portion of a computer system that you can actually smack, thump, slam, punch, bash, whack, or clobber.

Beard, who once honed his funny bone at the Harvard Lampoon, says crafting pithy definitions is a time-honored process, dating at least to Samuel Johnson's classic 18th-century definition of patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Beard calls his stock in trade the intellectual equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle.

A satirist, he says, is always writing for an audience of one, but assumes if the humor works for him, it may work for others who share the same experiences.

"You put the note in the bottle and throw it in the water and hope for the best," he explains.

In the case of computers, he knew there were others of his generation who found computers "infuriating, incomprehensible, counterintuitive monsters."

Beard has used a computer for about a half-dozen years and views it as a wacky modern wonder. He sometimes thinks of computers as cars that can go a million miles an hour but stop operating every 11-1/2 minutes in the fast lane of the freeway.

In the process of trying to print out his "Computing" manuscript, Beard's machine crashed four times. "It doesn't like being made fun of," he concludes.

"The people who invented these things," he adds, "understand the digital world so fundamentally that they find it difficult and really annoying to have to explain it to us chimpanzees."

To stake out the computer-language landscape, Beard turned to serious dictionaries on the subject. He found about 10.

A lot of winnowing followed. The trick in the writing, he says, is to make it look effortless, regardless of how many revisions are necessary.

"You work like a dog, but try to wipe off the perspiration marks before the book gets out," Beard explains. "The readers think you walk down the road like Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde with these things dropping off the trees."

The computing industry has generated many new words at warp speed, but Beard believes it's becoming a mature industry in which many words are here to stay.

Definitions, however, will continue to evolve. And because they are a "moving target," he sees strong potential for updating "Computing" in the future.

The secret to turning the dictionary into a "blunt instrument," Beard says, is to substitute real-life associations with words for their "normal" definitions.

"That's plenty funny enough," he says.

To wit: delete - to remove an item located right next to whatever you wanted to get rid of.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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