This is a great book. You should buy it immediately unless you have absolutely no interest in computers, in which case you should get a life first and then buy the book.
If I had my way, I'd end the review here, having said everything really necessary, and let them use the space for a Kata Sutra cartoon. But if mere vigorous assertion fails to persuade you, read on.
This is a great book because it's about the people who invented computing, and are still inventing it. In the process of defining several hundred bits of hacker slang, it describes how people were in the early days of computing, and how they are now, and how they got the way they are. Any group defines itself by the jargon it creates, and Eric Raymond teaches us all we need to know about hackers simply by defining the things they've done to the English language.
This would no doubt have been great reading even if it had been written with a straight face. But the question didn't arise; Raymond's tongue is firmly in his cheek. E.g.: "Also, note that all nouns can be verbed. E.g.: 'All nouns can be verbed...'"
In describing hacker-style writing, he notes that "Dry humor, irony, puns, and mildly flippant attitude are highly valued - but an underlying seriousness and intelligence are essential." And that's the perfect description of the style he has achieved in this book.
Raymond does tend to editorialize a bit. More than a bit, actually; he doesn't miss a chance to condemn what he considers to be obnoxious programming practices, languages or machines. But most of these flames are dry and understated (for example, the cross-references, at the end of the OS/2 entry, to 'vaporware,' 'monstrosity,' 'cretinous,' and 'second-system effect').
The book ends with a collection of hacker folklore, including the blank-verse epic "The story of Mel, A Real Programmer," the Al Koans, and a "Portrait of J. Random Hacker"- a wonderfully accurate pseudo-demographic description of the people who make up the hacker culture. Is The New Hacker's Dictionary perfect? Not quite. The next edition should lose the cartoons; they're sophomoric, and embarrassingly out of place beside the dry and sophisticated humor of the text. Worse, some of their pointers are broken - that is, the number sequence that is supposed to lead from one cartoon to the next, for those who want to read them in chronological order, has a couple of errors.
But where else will you find, for instance, that one attoparsec per microfortnight is approximately equal to one inch per second? Or an example of the canonical use of 'canonical?' Or a definition like "A cuspy but bogus raving story about N random broken people?"
Now do you believe me? This is a great book. You should buy it immediately.
The New Hacker's Dictionary
edited by Eric S. Raymond
55 Hayward Street
Cambridge, MA 02142
1991, 431 pp, $10.95
graphic: Neuromancer Graphic Novel
Here is the TEXT POPUP for The New Hacker's Dictionary:
An electronic version of this book is available throughout cyberspace as the Jargon File. Look for it in your favorite virtual library.
Intelligent. Scruffy. Intense. Abstracted. Surprisingly for a sedentary profession, more hackers will run to skinny than fat; tho both extremes are more common than elsewhere. Tans are rare.
from "A Portrait of J. Random Hacker"