Hacker The New Hacker's Dictionary

Book review by Steve Jackson
This review was written for issue 10 of bOING-bOING Magazine.

Edited by Eric S. Raymond, with foreword and cartoons by Guy L. Steele Jr.
Published by MIT Press, Cambridge, MA and London; 1991.
431 numbered pages, 20 (or xx, as the case may be) with Roman numerals, and 9 at the back with nothing on them at all fnord.

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 verbed . . .

In describing hacker-style writing, he notes that "Dry humor, irony, puns, and a 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 – e.g., 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 AI 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.

Steve Jackson Games * Hacker