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Keeping up with Computerese


Given the extraordinary growth of - computer terminology, it is not enough these days to take pride in avoiding redundant expressions like RAM memory or DOS operating system; no longer a source of linguistic competence to realise that MIPS (Millions of Instructions Per Second ) is not the plural of USP. It is even old hat to have mastered the meaning of RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer microprocessor, that speedy microchip that simplified hardware and shifted many complex operations to the software, thereby earning the alternative name of Relegate Interesting Stuff to the Compiler.

That was just the prelude. Now MPPs (Massively Parallel Processors) are on the horizon. Those of us who absorbed, however imperfectly, three or four generations of computer terminology on the fast trip from Trash 80 (an affectionate name for the old Tandy TRS computer) to Teraflops must meet the challenge. We are going to have to learn to debate the relative merits of SIMD (Single-Instruction, Multiple-Data) and MIMD (Multiple-instruction, Multiple- Data ) machines. Then we'll know about MIMD MPPs.

We will have to learn about MPP topologies (the way the processors are interconnected, including "fat trees," in which processors are grouped into clusters, or even clusters of clusters, and "meshes," in which processors are usually attached in a two-dimensional grid. We will have to conquer the distinction between the "boudoir," with its coupled processor and memory, and the "dance hall," which has processors on one side and memories on the other.

We'll cope. Tera taxonomy, the classification of the massively parallel machines that will soon achieve processing rates of a trillion floating-point operations per second, is, after all, but the latest addition to a dictionary that shows no signs of slowing down. Subduing this lexicon is probably going to be a lifetime task, but given the exuberant nature of the language, it also promises to be a lively one.

Those beginning the job quickly find out that whatever new expression they are encountering will promptly hatch its own linguistic family. For instance, "fuzzy" -initially an adjective in fuzzy logic (the modelling of computer reasoning on the kind of imprecision found in human reasoning), fuzzy representation and fuzzy systems-soon appeared as a verb, "fuzzify," with its nominalisation of " fuzzification," leading to the negative form " defuzzify" (to convert to crisp values) and its noun, " defuzzification." The novice confronting this linguistic richness is soon parsing sentences such as "A conventional fuzzy system normalises and converts its inputs into fuzzy form, executes the rules relevant to the inputs and defuzzifies the resultant output fuzzy sets." And the novice dealing with " compress/decompress" soon discovers that the software that does the job uses two kinds of algorithms, one "lossless," the other "lossy," leading to mastery of the vivid phrase "lossy compression techniques."

Aspirants to the language must also cope with many of its terms in abbreviated forms, usually acronyms (initial letters or parts of the term spoken as a single word, RAM or initialisms (initial letters or parts of a term pronounced letter by letter, CPU). In line with the ruling ethos of computer terminology-liveliness-these categories are often merged, giving us Troff (Typeset RunOFF, pronounced "tee-roff"), say, or DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory, pronounced "dee-ram").

Capitalisation in these acronyms comes and goes. Most commonly seen are all capitals (DRAM, but many who find a string of capital letters unsightly, or even distracting, have opted instead to capitalise only the initial letters of longer acronyms. The difference of opinion has led to Fortran (a portmanteau word, from FORmula TRANslation) for some, FORTRAN for others. Inevitably, a linguistic area this rambunctious has given rise to three or even four versions of the same acronym-for instance, Teraflops, teraFLOPS, teraflops and teraFlops ( from tera, trillion, plus FLoating-point OPerations per Second).

The flexibility-some might even call it abandon-of computer terminology extends to its cheerful trashing of whatever outdated distinctions remained between nouns and verbs. Consider that classic verb "write," which in computer talk routinely transforms itself into a noun. As the Communications of the Association for computing Machinery (ACM) says, "Granularity is the property of memory writes on multiprocessor systems such that independent writes to adjacent aligned data produce consistent results." The fearless interchange of noun and verb frequently leads to what computational linguists call a garden-path sentence guaranteed to be parsed incorrectly on first reading -for example, " The second processor will observe the writes out of order." The popularity of back-to-back nouns in computer talk, with the first one or two nouns used as adjectives ( "write latency," "memory write request"), adds to the garden-path effect, because many of the attributive nouns are, of course, ex-verbs. A beginner in the terminology thus acquires patience along with an understanding of such phrases as write latency (it is the time between the memory write request and the storage of the data.

The quickest of looks in dictionaries of computer terms available in print and on-line provides convincing evidence that the terminology is irreverent, upbeat and, above all, changing. So far it seems to be satisfying its expansionist tendencies in the main either by coining words or by wreaking havoc on traditional definitions. It has, however, occasionally preserved the historical meaning of some of its terms, though not for long. "Virtual," for instance, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned," retained its earlier meaning (in "optics," "virtual focus," "virtual image") even when a few centuries later it became attached to "circuit," "memory" and "disk." Such restraint was probably too much, though, for a language this spirited-and somewhere between memory and disk, and certainly by reality, virtual began to derail into virtuality. Recently it landed on the cover of Time magazine for a story on "the dark edges of the computer age," a clear indication that it is time for a virtual replacement. When it arrives, that entertaining reference the Hacker's Dictionary is sure to chronicle it. If you are interested in looking up a new word on-line, do as experts in the computer science department advise us-grab it off the net.

ANNE EISENBERG, a professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, is the author of four books on scientific writing.

ISP Internet Service Provider
GUI Graphics User Interface
URL Universal Resource Locater
ISDN Integrated Services Digital Network
HTTP Hyper Text Transfer Protocol
FTP File Transfer Protocol
PABX Private Automatic Branch Exchange
CGI Common Gateway Interface
MIDI Musical Instrument Digital Interface
MIME stands for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions - which means that it's the way of sending files across the Internet as part of email. You can send any file across the Internet by email, but the file has to be 'encoded' - turned into a format that email can understand - and then 'decoded' back to the original file at the other end.

Digital Age 'May Make Hello Obsolete'

A NEW language has emerged through the use of email and text messaging which could render "hello" and "goodbye" obsolete within a generation, according to a report. People using new technologies to communicate are much more likely to start the conversation "hey" and sign it off "laters" than the more formal alternatives, says the study. Influences from around the world have contributed to a more "familiarised" language which the report has dubbed "globespeak". Jonathan Green, author of the study, said: "We have a situation where more people use electronic communication than old-fashioned letters. The way these technologies work often results in us talking faster and with more slang. "It wouldn't surprise me if, in 50 years, there was no longer a need for 'hello' and 'goodbye' in general or certainly in electronic communication," said Mr Green, a lexicographer and author of a dictionary of slang. The report was written for website which also commissioned a survey to discover examples of "globespeak". The most common alternative for "hello" when starting an informal email or text message was "hey", followed by "g'day", "hola", "howdy" and "yo", according to the survey of 2,000 people. When it comes to saying "goodbye", the most likely alternative is "laters", then "ciao", "au revoir", "hasta la vista" and "in a while". The survey also looked at how people writing to one another by electronic communication referred to a friend. "Mate" was the number one choice, followed by "love", "sweetheart", "buddy" and "pal". [AOL News]

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