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eContact! 11.3 — Logiciels audio « open source » / Open Source for Audio Application (September 2009) [Return to issue…]

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Open Source Travel Guide [wiki]: Language


AFAIK, the hardest challenge in Nerd country from a newcomer’s POV is communication. IIRC, the TLA- and FLEA-ridden net parlance and the staccato IRC tone that come naturally to seasoned netizens are considered hard-to-grok by many newbies, and IMHO, their confusion is quite understandable. OTOH, it seems to work well for the natives, so it might be useful to adapt in order to reap the full benefit from the FLOSS community, even if it seems a PITA. FYI: TANSTAAFL.


What the Hell is a TLA?


Well, if you ask this question on a nerd forum, the likely answer will be “The short version of a FLEA.” You will find that your irritation will be a source of general merriment.


In order to properly interface with the open source community, it will be helpful to keep in mind that puns and other witticisms are very popular, as are self-refential jokes to the Nth degree, or mathematical absurdities (such as specifiying speed in attoparsecs per microfortnight, which, exemplifying the utter harmony of the universe, is almost exactly the same as inches per second).


Outside of joking, verbosity is generally frowned upon. That’s part of the reason for the abundance of cryptic program names and abbreviations. Don’t let that put you off — you will get used to it faster than you can say “Damn, I’ll never get used to that!” I mean, why would you call something a “graphical JACK control interface based on the Qt toolkit” when you can save many a keystroke by calling it qjackctl ? No, FCOL, don’t try to pronounce it. No need to, in a universe of text-based communication. Indeed, one of the funniest aspects of summits and conferences where the nerds meet is to hear people pronounce terms out loud you’d never have thought of even attempting to pronounce before. Consequently, there is hardly ever a consensus on how to pronounce anything.


To relieve the pent-up suspense, a TLA is a three-letter acronym. Hence, it’s perfectly valid to do the Gertrude on it, and it will even be a meaningful sentence: a TLA is a TLA is a TLA.


TLAs are all too common in today’s marketing-oriented alphabet soup. However, their supply is ultimately limited (to 26³, or 17,576, as any true nerd will be happy to point out, without being asked). Consequently, there is an ever-increasing need for FLEAs, or four-letter extended acronyms. Naturally, using a TLA to denote the concept of a FLEA would be an abomination, so the “extended” had to be squeezed in somewhere, for that extra buzzword value.


There are even recursive acronyms. JACK, for instance, stands for the "JACK Audio Connection Kit".


Oddities like these abound in the free software world. In the old days of text-mode screens and console interfaces, a very important tool was the paging utility. It would take some data and only display one screenful of it, so that you could read it before it scrolled by. Then it would wait for a key press before presenting the next page, indicated by the output “--more--” at the bottom of the page. Naturally, this pager program was called “more”.


By and by, people demanded a little more luxury from their pager, such as the ability to scroll backwards to re-read stuff (not possible before) or a quick search function. So an improved pager was implemented. Its name? “less”!


Yeah, well, less is more.


Many modern-day Linux users won’t even know that there was a day when the standard pager was called “more”.


Not every oddity is funny or meaningful, though. Why is the command to unmount file systems called umount ? Why is the UNIX system call to create a file called creat() ? Why is the daemon that takes care of automating janitorial tasks called cron ? Well, nobody knows. Sometimes, the answer is just “It’s too late to fix that now.”


The Jargon File


Now, if you ever get stranded in Nerd country with your hovercraft full of eels, there is no need for despair: going back well into the 70s, the The Jargon File (currently maintained by Eric S. Raymond) is a very useful resource to aid in day-to-day communication and explains many of the personal and professional idiosyncracies of the movement. Specifically, it can help you decipher the silly lead-in to this article (although be forewarned that the content does not necessarily warrant that extra effort). These days, most frequently used terms and abbreviations (and a sizable number of really arcane ones) have also made their way into Wikipedia.



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