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Tech Presents for Mutants and Cats on the Lighter Side of Cyberspace

Take a walk on the lighter side.

Oh sure, computers--whether for work or play--are serious business. Just try telling a fellow Mac-o-phile that you’re thinking of going PC.

So get the computer user in your life to loosen up this holiday season with a tech book from the humor section. Most of them will fit in a stocking, and they are all cheaper than even the slightest of Web design manuals.

Besides, what’s easier to wrap than a book?

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THE HAPPY MUTANT HANDBOOK: Mischievous Fun for Higher Primates edited by Mark Frauenfelder, Carla Sinclair and Gareth Branwyn (Riverhead Books, $15).

Yes, it sounds stupid. Get over it.

Aside from being the most utilitarian of the bunch (for troublemakers, anyway), it is hands-down the funniest and quirkiest. “Happy Mutant” highlights the best of virtual life--if it’s wired and it’s fun, it’s here: Web sites, newsgroups, shens (hipster for shenanigans), pranks, bios of cool people, mild hacking and sending anonymous e-mail. There’s even a chapter on Do-It-Yourself Radio & TV.

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It’s put together by the gang at bOING bOING, a GenXer-than-thou e-zine, and distinguishes among the “happy mutant,” normal person and “unhappy mutant.” A table at the beginning will let you know where you fall on the mutant scale--though if you’re reading this, you probably rank somewhere between “happy mutant” and normal at best. A true happy mutant would probably be reading an e-zine or making up his or her Christmas list at the Archie McPhee Web site.

Here’s some stuff that you absolutely must not miss: “Invasion of the Paper Smiles,” an article on Joey Skaggs, “Cacophony Society” the entire Toys and Cool Tools Chapter and “Are Fan Club Presidents Nuts?”

“Happy Mutant” is truly inspired. And looks great to boot. As a gift, though, it does leave something to be desired, because there’s no way you’re going to want to part with it.

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IN CYBERSPACE by Dave Barry (Fawcett Columbine, $11).

This one’s a gimme, isn’t it? It’s Dave Barry, so it’s, well . . . Dave Barry. You like his columns? You like his other books? Then you, or the giftee rather, will like this one. No surprises.

Especially if your giftee likes exclamation marks!!!! Because this one is full of them!!!! NOT TO MENTION LOTS OF CAPITALIZED SENTENCES!!! And don’t forget all the FOOTNOTE FUN435 !!!!

Barry, a self-proclaimed techie, takes you through the ins and outs of computers and the Internet in standard Barry fashion. There’s plenty of practical information, like his favorite Web sites and the easiest way to construct an anagram.

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“Cyberspace” ranges from amusing to outright funny. It’s impossible not to like Dave Barry, exclamation points notwithstanding.

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BYTE ME: Computing for the Terminally Frustrated by Robert P. Libbon (Boulevard Books, $11).

A Comedy Central parody of the oft-chided series of Dummies books, “Byte Me” “May not be your passport to fame, fortune and love in cyberspace . . . but at least we don’t call our readers names.”

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Although there’s an extended disclaimer at the beginning of the book warning readers not to take the information seriously, “Byte” has quite a lot of decent instruction.

A little more irreverent than your typical tech manual, it’s actually a great way to ease technophobes into the computer age. About the dangers of using a magnetized screwdriver when tinkering with your motherboard, for example, Libbon warns: “Remember that old children’s game Paper, Scissors, Hard Drive, Magnet? Magnet beats hard drive every time.”

Common themes include: Software licenses are annoying and technical support people are annoying (these are also common themes of Dave Barry’s book, by the way). And the bit about PC versus Mac users is really funny, primarily because it’s so dead-on.

But what won my heart were the pop-culture references, which more often than not can sink a book. “Lord of the Rings,” dream date Jared Leto, Right Said Fred. Right Said Fred, for pete’s sake.

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WEB SIGHTINGS: A Collection of Web Sites We’d Like to See by Art Bell, Vinnie Favale and David “Dr. Dave” Kolin (Pocket Books, $10).

This one is pretty hit and miss. The book is Comedy Central’s collection of fake Web sites: from “The Nonessential Government Employees’ Web Site” and “Disgruntled Postal Workers” to “Michael Bolton’s Bad Hair Club for Men” and “God’s Web Sites.”

About half the sites are a lot funnier than you would expect from a book this obvious, but some are so stupid the authors should be embarrassed to have their names on the cover.

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The books starts with a bang, namely “Welcome to Michael Jackson Collapse Home Page.” Among the features of the faux Web page: a real-time color meter, the history of phony collapses and get-well wishes (major credit cards accepted).

But it ends with a whimper, “Nostradamus Knows It All,” which features a counter of the number of people who will visit the site and a doomsday clock.

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THE COMPLETE GEEK: An Operating Manual by Johnny Deep (Broadway Books, $10).

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A perfectly good book ruined by my tight deadline. If I hadn’t had to read the whole thing at one time, it might have been a pleasurable experience. But I did and it wasn’t. About halfway through I developed an eye-piercing headache and simply couldn’t read anymore.

“Geek” is written from the point of view of Special Agent Zeke Geek, some little creature that the all-powerful Bill G. (guess who) wasted $3 million to invent. Zeke is taking a road trip on the information superhighway to discover the meaning of life. Zeke also keeps track of Bill G.'s electronic journal, and is happy to share it with us.

As far as geekdom goes, you get GeekSpeak, GeekChic, the Geek Hall of Fame and the GeeXFiles. There are also chapters on geek mating, geek work and geek social activity (or lack thereof). And you can check your GQ (geek quotient) by answering 10 simple questions.

Here’s a weird thing: The book is written in all caps. A definite no-no for cyberdwellers of all levels. The first rule of E-mail 101? Using all caps is rude and hard to read.

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Anyway, “Geek” is amusing and would make a perfectly decent gift. Just make sure to tell giftees to take their time reading it.

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EMAIL.THIS.BOOK by The Cartoon Bank (Knopf, $17; CD-ROM for Macintosh and Windows).

There’s not much to say about “email”; it’s a collection of tech-related cartoons from the likes of the New Yorker. So you pretty much know where this is going. Maybe they’re funnier in context.

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One is worth a giggle. There’s a cemetery, and one of the headstones has a guy’s name, relevant dates and e-mail address.

But that’s the best one. Sorry.

In all fairness, a cartoon buff would probably get a kick out of “email.” And the CD-ROM that comes with the book has all the cartoons in a variety of formats, so you can e-mail or print them, which is kind of cool.

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INTERNET FOR CATS: A Guide to How You and Your Cat Can Prowl the Information Highway Together by Judy Heim (No Starch Press, $8.95).

Sigh. What do these terms have in common: cattery, cat-a-comb and cat-a-log? They’re all not funny. Which makes sense, of course, because the book isn’t funny.

Ugh, and it’s written cat-to-cat.

It’s based, apparently, on a famous cartoon (it’s in “email.this.book”) in which two dogs are sitting at a computer and one says to the other, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

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There was a time when that the cartoon was really funny, and though even now it’s kind of dated, at least it’s short. Which puts it way ahead of “Cats.”

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Krissy Harris can be reached via e-mail at haringbat@mobsters.com


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