Geek Speak for the Rest of Us - A Technology Glossary for Non-Technical People
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by Jeffrey Allen & Mark Rosch

If you still think that Spam is a pork product that comes in a can, or that phishing requires not just a hook, but also a rod and reel, or that pharming involves working the land and growing crops, then this glossary can help you understand the evening news, the morning paper, conversations around the water cooler, and cocktail party talk without having to go to one of those technical colleges that advertises on TV in the middle of the night.

Every industry has its own terms of art—words and phrases that define tools or situations unique to that industry. Outsiders often find themselves lost in this insider’s lingo. Lawyers have not inflicted terms like negligence per se and criminal conversation upon everyday conversation, but not every profession is as thoughtful with the use of its jargon. As computers and related technology became ubiquitous, all of us find ourselves involved in it. Techno-buzzwords have found their way into our daily lives, language, and conversation. Everyone from newspaper and magazine reporters to your next-door neighbor have started using techno-terms such as virus, worm, phishing, and pharming. The fact that much of Geek-Speak draws on words from standard English (or at least words that sound like standard English), makes it even more confusing. With that background, tongue partially in cheek, we give you this glossary of Geek-Speak to assist you in understanding the articles contained in this issue, your daily newspaper (whether you read it as hard copy or on your computer screen) and, of course, cocktail party conversations.

Applet. This is not a small fruit that grows on trees; neither is it a small fruit candy sold with Cotlets. It is, in fact, a short program, written in Java (no, we don’t mean that they read coffee grounds—see Java, below), often included in a web page. The web browser loads the program along with the web page and causes the user’s computer to do something, such as creating a scrolling text box, a slide show of various images, or a calendar/clock.

Bandwidth. Bandwidth does not relate to the space used by a marching band in formation; neither does it have anything to do with a musical score. In the computer world, bandwidth refers to the measurement of the amount of data that a computer network can transmit over a specified amount of time. We measure bandwidth in terms of bits per second.

Cat 5/Cat 6. These terms have no relationship to four-legged pets of the feline variety; neither do they relate to the number of lives used up by these animals. For those of you with an agricultural bent, they do not refer to tractor models or other farm implements. In Geek-Speak, Cat stands for category. Cat 5 refers to an unshielded, twisted-pair cable designed for high signal integrity and used for network wiring. Cat 5 has a rated Ethernet capability of 100 Mbit/s (megabits per second). Cat 6 contains four twisted copper wire pairs; it works in combination with Cat 5 cable but has more stringent specifications for crosstalk and system noise, making it suitable for higher speed transmissions. (See also Twisted Pairs, below).

Cookies. When Geeks talk about cookies, they generally do not mean oatmeal-raisin, sandwich, or chocolate chip treats. Internet cookies do not go into the cookie jar. In Geek-Speak, cookies hold small pieces of information that a website places on the visiting user’s local hard drive. Ostensibly, cookies function as a means to expedite your return visits to favorite sites or personalize the information received from a site. For example, uses a cookie to identify returning visitors by name and to recommend products for purchase based on their prior buying history with Amazon.

Most cookies include, at a minimum, the address of the site that placed them on your computer. Once the cookie resides in your computer, other websites can access it, identifying sites you’ve visited and perhaps even reading your passwords for those sites. Checking the "remember me when I return to this site" box can also cause a site to create a cookie that includes your username and password. Someone sitting at your computer who knows where to look can also access the cookies on your computer.

Essentially, cookies make use of user-specific information transmitted by the web server onto the user’s computer so that the information might be available for later access by itself or other servers. In most cases, not only does the storage of personal information into a cookie go unnoticed, so does access to it. Web servers automatically gain access to relevant cookies whenever the user establishes a connection to them, usually in the form of web requests.

Newer versions of browsers such as Communicator and Explorer can be configured to warn you before cookies are added to your computer, giving you the option to allow cookies to be placed on your computer or not. Once you enable this option, you may be surprised how many sites employ cookies, and how some sites employ multiple cookies.

Drilling Down. It’s not just for Texas oilmen any more. Drilling down is the process of moving from the top level topics of a web directory, down into more detailed sub-topics, and then, if necessary, down into more specific sub-sub-topics (e.g., Government > Law > Legal Research > Libraries) to locate the information you need.

Flash Drive. No matter how it sounds, this isn’t the kind of thing that you could get arrested for doing on a dare after a night of partying. A flash drive is a nifty little portable device that stores your computer files on a small chip. These handheld devices are smaller than a pen or your thumb, making them much more portable than bulkier alternatives such as floppy discs or CDs. Their physical size has also led to a number of other nicknames for the devices, including pen drive, thumb drive, and keychain drive. With prices starting under $20, you can find them readily available in sizes ranging from 16 MB (the equivalent of 2% of a CD-ROM disc or about 11 floppy discs) up to 2 GB (2.6 CD-ROMs or over 1,300 floppy discs). With larger capacities being announced on a regular basis, this is absolutely an exception to the claim that "size doesn’t matter"; clearly bigger is better. Flash drives have effectively replaced floppy disk drives and Zip disks as portable storage devices. Once you get used to carrying one of these around, however, you will feel naked without it. Many of the flash drive devices come with neck straps so that you can even wear them as a pendant.

Firewall. Firewalls have nothing to do building code requirements or construction sites. Firewalls in Geek-Speak mean the creation of an impediment that blocks invasion of your computer system by outside forces. It functions as a protection against electronic terrorism, if you will. Computers can have hardware or software firewalls (or both). Generally, a hardware firewall offers more protection, but it also requires a more stationary installation, such as your home or office desktop. Laptops used in travel or from a variety of locations should have software firewall protection.

Hubs, Switches, and Routers. While all three of these devices are parts of a computer network and perform some of the same functions, they are very different. Hubs connect multiple computers, accepting data from one device connected to it and distributing it to all of the other devices connected to it. Because a switch accepts data from one device connected to it and distributes it only to the device for which it is intended (e.g., a specific computer on the network), switches work more efficiently than hubs. Routers connect two computer networks (usually a local network like the one in your office to a wide area network like the Internet) and send data and instructions to the proper locations on those networks. A router accepts data from one source connected to it and distributes it only to the intended devices connected to it. Routers can also provide protection (firewall) from unauthorized outside connections (hacking) by limiting in-bound connections to your network.

Java. This is not your morning cup of coffee! In Geek-Speak, Java refers to a high-level, object-oriented programming language regularly used in connection with the development of websites.

Phishing. While this high-tech term sounds especially down-home, don’t think of it as a relaxing recreational activity (unless your hobby is identity theft and fraud). Phishing is the all-too-familiar practice of sending fraudulent e-mail disguised as messages from trusted institutions such as banks or online merchants. Recipients who take this bait are tricked into revealing important information about their online accounts. The message lures the recipients to a look-alike website that prompts them for their username, password, Social Security Number, etc., mimicking the trusted site’s actual log-in or other security measure. Phishermen (the senders of these fraudulent e-mails) then use the revealed information for fraudulent purchases, funds transfers, or larger-scale identity theft. If you’ve ever received an e-mail from a bank where you don’t have an account, insisting that some problem has occurred with your account, then someone has tried to catch your information through phishing.

Pharming. This has nothing to with plowing fields, harvesting crops, or raising chickens. Think of pharming as phishing on steroids. While a phisherman can reel in a few unsuspecting victims, a pharmer can harvest bushels of information with a little more tech savvy and a little less effort. Pharmers can hijack part of the system that routes traffic on the Internet, redirecting traffic from a legitimate websites to the crook’s own look-alike site to harvest the identifying information from unsuspecting customers—Social Security Numbers, passwords, etc. (For more on the technicalities of how this is done, see the article "Phishing, Pharming, and Other Scams" in the December 2005 issue of GPSolo magazine, volume 22, number 8.)

Podcast. Despite sounding like an orthopedic device for a vegetable, a podcast boils down to radio delivered via the Internet. Instead of listening to a live broadcast, however, you download audio files from the Internet to your computer to play back when it is convenient. Like other kinds of content available on the Internet, podcasts are relatively easy to create and cover a wide array of topics. Most podcasts are saved in the MP3 format, allowing maximum portability and flexibility in playing back those files.

In the legal arena, some lawyers have created podcasts for marketing and to educate clients and potential clients on a variety of topics. As listeners, legal professionals can use podcasts to get up-to-speed or keep up-to-date on numerous legal and non-legal topics, or even earn CLE credit. Even though podcasts have been around for more than a year, very few lawyers are currently taking advantage of them either as "broadcasters" or listeners.

Two ways to find podcasts are (1) to use an online directory of podcasts, such as or (with the latter, click on the podcast category), or (2) by simply using a search engine. For example, to find a podcast about using Google when conducting due diligence, we searched Google for the terms "podcast" and "due diligence," which resulted in just over 4,500 results. One of the results was a podcast at the blog, maintained by Chicago IP attorney Evan Brown, who posts a new podcast every other week on various recent opinions about Internet law, in addition to his regular text postings on the subject.

As with any information on the Internet, it is important to carefully review the source of a podcast before relying on the information you hear from one.

Pop-Ups. Sorry to disappoint the "foodies" again, but pop-ups do not refer to toaster pastries or frozen treats. In the wonderful world of the Internet, pop-ups mean those annoying windows that pop open while you are working online or browsing the Internet and then try to induce you to buy a product that you probably have little interest in acquiring.

Spam. In the computer world, spam has nothing to do with lunch or any other meal. Spam refers to unsolicited commercial e-mail messages that are trying to sell you something you probably don’t want or need. Think of it as electronic junk mail.

Spyware. Computer spyware has nothing to do with trench coats and Minox cameras. When geeks talk about spyware, they mean malicious software designed to surreptitiously take partial control of a computer’s operation. Although the term taken literally suggests software that secretly monitors the user (as some spyware certainly does), the term has assumed a broader meaning in common usage and includes software that subverts the computer’s operation for a third party’s benefit.

Unlike viruses and worms, spyware generally does not self-replicate. Commonly used spyware tactics advance the goal of commercial gain by delivery of unsolicited pop-up advertisements; theft of personal information (including financial information such as credit card numbers); monitoring of web-browsing activity for marketing purposes; or routing of HTTP requests to advertising sites. In some cases, spyware may be used to verify compliance with software End User License Agreement (sometimes called an EULA).

Trojan. Contrary to popular belief, a Trojan does not refer to citizens of the ancient city of Troy, students at USC, or a popular brand of prophylactics. Its closest analog, however, the Trojan Horse, does relate back to the Trojan War. That reference gives away its secret in Internet traffic. We use the term Trojan to refer to a specialized form of computer virus that enters via stealth or through another program and deposits and/or executes an often-destructive bit of computer code inside the infected computer. In computer parlance, one might suggest that the existence of Trojans could give rise to a new warning: "Beware of geeks bearing gifts."

Twisted Pairs. In the computer world, twisted pairs do not mean your in-laws, the kinky couple down the road, or the team of lawyers opposing you in court. Instead, it refers to the cabling systems used to wire telecommunications devices and computer networks. The established standards are numbered one through six, with bandwidth capabilities increasing as you move to the higher categories. Individual categories are usually referred to as Cat, followed by the standard number. For example, Cat 1 uses just one twisted pair of copper wires and moves data at the slowest of the standards; Cat 1 is used to connect regular analog phones, like the ones most of us have at home, and electric doorbells. The cabling used for your computer network (or to connect your computer to your DSL modem) most likely uses four twisted pairs of copper wire. (For more, see Cat 5/Cat 6, above).

Virus. A computer virus will not give you a cold, the flu, or any other communicable illnesses. It does, however have a similar effect on a computer that a live virus can have on a person.

We use the term virus to refer to a self-replicating program that spreads by inserting copies of itself into other executable codes or documents. A computer virus acts like a biological virus, spreading by inserting itself into living cells. We call the insertion of the virus into a program an infection, and the infected file the host.

The uninitiated will frequently use the term virus generically to refer to computer worms and other sorts of malware (malicious programs). This confusion can have serious consequences, as it may lead to a focus on preventing one type of malware over another, potentially leaving computers vulnerable to future damage.

Like the viruses that make us ill, computer viruses can have widely varying effects on your computer. Some may prove fairly benign, others simply annoying, some can destroy information on the computer. Some viruses act immediately, while others have a delayed impact (think of it as an incubation period), sometimes called a bomb. Virus time bombs activate on a particular date or time; logic bombs wait for the user of a computer to do something that sets off the bomb. The self-reproduction process of a computer virus often runs unchecked, ultimately overwhelming computer resources, causing infected computers to grind more and more slowly and making it more difficult for them to do the work you want done.

WhoIs. Very much like it sounds, a WhoIs search allows you to learn who is the registered owner of a website. There are hundreds of companies through which individuals can register a web address, and each of them maintains a separate WhoIs database of all those registrations. A number of websites offer the ability to search the databases of many of these registrars at once. Two of the more popular are Better WhoIs ( and WhoIs Source (

Wi-Fi and Wi-Max. While hi-fi stands for high fidelity, Wi-Fi stands for wireless fidelity. It refers to a set of wireless network connection rules that allow computers to wirelessly connect to a network and communicate with each other, or for individual computers to access the Internet. They were developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and are officially known by their workgroup number, 802.11, within that organization. The four distinct, commonly used standards are 802.11, which moves data at 2 Mbps (megabits per second); 802.11a (which moves data at 54 Mbps); 802.11b (which moves data at 11 Mbps ); and 802.11g (which moves data at 54 Mbps). A computer generally has to be within 30 to 100 feet of a Wi-Fi transmitter/receiver to connect to the wireless network.

As the name implies, Wi-Max is Wi-Fi to the "max." It offers cellular-phone-like, roaming, wireless network connections at 70 Mbps—nearly one-and-a-half times the bandwidth of the most common Wi-Fi connection. Wi-Max has a connection range of up to 31 miles. You may have seen recent news articles talking about citywide wireless coverage; if so, they’re talking about the implementation of Wi-Max in that city.

Wiki. This should not be confused with the "Wiki-Wiki shuttle" that will take you from terminal to terminal at the Honolulu Airport when you fly in for the Annual Meeting in August.

A wiki is an online document that any user can edit. Like a regular website, pages can link to one another or to other outside websites. Wikis are often used for compiling lists on a particular topic or creating dictionaries or encyclopedias. The Wikipedia (, a collaborative encyclopedia, may be the best known wiki.

Worm. A computer worm has no relationship to those wriggly little creatures that fisherman use for bait. Worms function in computers as self-replicating programs analogous to computer viruses. Whereas a computer virus attaches itself to another executable program, worms work as self-contained invaders and do not require attachment to another program for replication. Worm developers often design them to take advantage of the computer’s ability to transmit files.

Congratulations. Now you not only know the difference between WhoIs and Wi-Fi, but you also know the what-is and what-for.

Mark Rosch, vice president of Internet for Lawyers (, has spoken and written for numerous firms, bar associations, magazines, and websites about legal technology for law firms and also on how to use the Internet for research and marketing. He is co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Fact Finding on the Internet, available at, and The Cybersleuth's Guide to the Internet available at He can be reached at

Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. He also teaches business law in the graduate and undergraduate divisions of the Business School of the University of Phoenix. He can be reached at

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