If you've read any of the User Friendly editions from O'Reilly, you don't need an introduction to Pitr, Greg, Stef, Miranda, the Dust Puppy, and the others. But if you haven't, welcome to the world of the hard-core geek, where humor--especially at one's own foibles--can be a survival skill. Since this is true of most work environments, chances are you won't have to know Unix or be able to log in as "root" in order to get the joke.
We recently stopped by Columbia Internet, "the friendliest, hardest-working, and most neurotic little Internet service provider in the world," for a quick interview with some of the cast from this hit online comic, User Friendly.Pitr is a system administrator. For some reason he always wears dark glasses and has adopted a guttural Eastern European accent. When a server needs to be rebooted, he's very fond of saying "Push the button." Pitr is the true iconoclast of the bunch, constantly experimenting with strong coffees and strange molds.
oreilly.com: Pitr, can you tell us your recipe for the perfect of cup of coffee?
Pitr: Time. Time and evaporation.
oreilly.com: Besides caffeine, what motivates you to write good code?
Pitr: Only reason to live is to write good code. What is wrong with you?
oreilly.com: What advice would you give to beginning programmers who long to have skills like yours?
Pitr: Continue to kneel before me and sayink "we are not worthy" many times. And bringink me coffee.A.J. is the creative guy for the company. He's uncomfortably crammed in that tiny crevasse between the techies and the marketing people. This means he's not disliked by anyone, but they all look at him funny from time to time. He loves most computer games, nifty art, and has a big brother relationship with the Dust Puppy.
oreilly.com: A.J., what's your vision of an ideal date with someone of the opposite sex?
A.J.: A what with a who?
oreilly.com: Does playing a lot of computer games help you with your design work?
A.J.: (Looks off camera) Will the Chief see this? OK. YES. YES IT DOES. MOST DEFINITELY. In fact, I couldn't do my job if I didn't play LOTS and LOTS of computer games.
Miranda is a trained systems technologist, an experienced Unix system administrator, and very, very female. Her technical abilities unnerve the other techs, but her obvious physical charms compel them to stare at her, except for Pitr, who is convinced she is evil. Although she has yet to reveal any character flaws, it is a commonly held belief in psychological circles that "perfect" people like her are deeply disturbed neurotics with sociopathic tendencies. Maybe that's why she smiles so much.
oreilly.com: Miranda, what's it like working in the mostly male-dominated world of computer geeks?
Miranda: It's tough, as could be expected. I think most of the time the root of the problem lies in not being listened to, so I....
oreilly.com: What would be your dream date?
Miranda: A date with something that not only has a Y chromosome, but has at least two neurons to rub together.
Sid is a self-described "lichen of the tech-forest floor," a long-lived, deeply experienced and acerbic observer of the geek gestalt. His history in computing involved vacuum tubes and later, punch cards. He carries with him an air of compassion mixed with disdain for the younger geeks around him, mostly because "older geeks know best." He wears a suit and tie, which are more often than not rumpled and hairy, since he can't see the need to change out of them until he notices things sticking to them.
oreilly.com: Sid, what's the one thing young hackers today are missing from the golden age of computing?
Sid: An appreciation for physical labor. These young punks don't have a clue what it was like having to use punch cards. We had to punch those holes uphill, in the snow, both ways.
oreilly.com: You were there in the beginning. Did you ever think the Internet would become such a huge part of our society?
Sid: In the begi-!!!! What the hell does THAT mean? You'd better not be implying I spawned from the primordial ooze.
Listen, no one could've predicted that the 'net would've become what it has today. For example, I was pretty sure it was going to remain restricted to the military and academia.
oreilly.com: What did you do when you saw the first commercial site?
Sid: I cut up my credit cards. It's better that way.
Mike works as a system administrator, and he is responsible for the smooth running of the network at the office. He's bright but prone to fits of anxiety. His worst nightmare is being locked in a room with a sweaty Windows 95 programmer, and no hacking weapons in sight. He loves hot curries, preferably ones with the same properties as Alien acid-for-blood.
oreilly.com: Mike, have you seen any good movies lately?
Mike: I saw a good "trailer." The Lord of the Rings, Part I. I can't wait for the movie, but I can't say I'm looking forward to the merchandising. Frodo action figures with a detachable finger that you have to bite off? Yuck.
oreilly.com: Is open source software un-American?
Mike: Only in the sense that we could...uh....wipe without toilet paper if toilet paper was un-American. Did that make sense?
oreilly.com: vi or Emacs?
Mike: Forget it. I nearly got lynched the last time I touched on that. Oh, what the hell. Notepad.
Greg is in charge of technical support at the company. In other words, he's the guy that customers turd all over when something goes wrong. He blows off steam by playing visceral games and doing Bad Things to the salespeople. He's not a bad sort, but his grip on his sanity hovers somewhere between weak and nonexistent.
oreilly.com: Greg, what's the most clueless question you've ever been asked on the Columbia Internet technical support line?
Greg: "Hi. How do I use tech support?"
oreilly.com: How do you handle the stress of working in technical support?
Greg: I unbottle all the stress in a monthly orgy of two-by-fouring porcelain busts of my favorite customers. It's kind of like primal scream therapy.
oreilly.com: My girlfriend just left me because I'm addicted to Usenet. Can you help me?
Greg: You just helped yourself. Be glad you got rid of the silly bint. Now you'll have more time to read newsgroups undisturbed.
Stef works as the corporate sales manager. He runs most of the marketing efforts within the firm and sells things before they exist. He can't understand the way techies think, so doesn't get very far with them. He sucks at Quake. Although he admires the power of Microsoft's marketing muscle, he has a real problem with Microsoft salesmen, probably because they make much more money than he does.
oreilly.com: Stef, what's it like working with a bunch of geeks who don't appreciate the importance of marketing?
Stef: Remember the last time you had a hemorrhoidal flare-up? Same experience.
oreilly.com: I heard you actually won a Quake match the other day. What happened?
Stef: You're pushing your luck, pal.
The Dust Puppy was born inside of a network server, a result of the combination of dust, lint, and quantum events. He is very innocent, with no real grasp of reality, but he's pretty cute and people love him, except for Stef, who thinks the Dust Puppy is just really weird. Although the Dust Puppy isn't very worldly, he plays a great game of Quake. No one knows where he got the feet.
oreilly.com: This one's for Dust Puppy. You walk in the footsteps of many notable, fuzzy comic-strip mascots. Who do you get more inspiration from: Snoopy, Garfield, or Bill the Cat?
Dust Puppy: May I first ask why you compared me to three mascots that eat hair?
J.D. "Illiad" Frazer is the creator of "User Friendly," the comic strip, as well as all of the madness that exists within that universe. He is an avid science fiction and technology fan, although he notes the two can occasionally be mutually exclusive. When not cartooning, participating in the UFie community or gaming, he writes, reads, and plays with his dog Raine, cats Champ and Pixie, and ferrets Dudley and Pandemonium. He wants to be a Sith Lord when he grows up, mainly because they get all the really cool light sabers. Check out his User Friendly Web site. In addition to The Root of All Evil, O'Reilly has published two other comic strip books by Illiad: User Friendly and Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell.
O'Reilly & Associates recently released (August 2001) The Root of All Evil.