It started out with DOS for Dummies - a modest volume whose title was based on the premise that the reader was an ignoramus who needed simple step-by-step instructions to navigate the notoriously cryptic Microsoft operating system.
Little did anyone know that the little book would spawn an industry of books for dummies. It's impossible to say how many there are - Amazon.com listed about 800 when I checked last night, including eBay for Dummies and Depression for Dummies.
Hard as it is to argue with this success, Chris Charuhas, a 39-year-old author, computer instructor and publisher from Frederick, believes there's a serious problem with virtually all of the technology-based books for dummies. He says they're too complicated and have too many words. The same goes for almost every other how-to computer title, he argues.
So Charuhas has founded a company that distributes simple computer books online. As in really simple.
Each page consists of a photo or screen shot and a line or two of how-to text. The books cover subjects ranging from the basics of the Windows and Mac operating systems to Web and database programming with PERL and MYSQL (which are not subjects for dummies of any stripe).
These volumes aren't beautiful, but they are understandable. And for the time being, a screen-readable version of each one is free for downloading at Charuhas' In Pictures site (inpics.net).
Higher resolution PDF versions, suitable for printing, are available for $3.95 each. So readers don't risk much if they decide to pay up.
Up front, I have to say that these books are a bit too simplistic for my tastes, as much as I appreciate brevity. But I can see their attraction, and Charuhas says he's put a lot of research into his instructional model over the years.
His preoccupation with basics began when he was working as a computer instructor and tried his hand at developing course materials - particularly those understandable to students with learning disabilities or limited English. Charuhas parlayed that interest into a research grant from the U.S. Department of Education that enabled him to refine his techniques with input from students and teachers.
"When the big conglomerates publish books that tell you how to do stuff, they use hundreds of thousands of words. More is better. As an author, if you give them 200 pages, they want 300 pages," he says. "What I found out in teaching is that 'more' is not better. If you have 200 pages, make it 100 pages. And show is always better than tell."
That pretty well describes what you'll find on inpics.net. You can find printed and online copies of similar books that Charuhas designed for classroom and corporate training at the firm's sister site, visibooks.com.
Just remember that none of these titles takes you very far into its subject. That's the price you pay for simplicity. But if you, a friend or family member need help understanding the software you're using, inpics.net is a good place to start.
New help site: Speaking of help, if you're buying a computer, digital camera or other gadget - or you're just looking for general consumer technology guidance - check out the new tech portal at Yahoo (tech.yahoo.com).
Like Cnet.com, one of the Web's most comprehensive tech sites, Yahoo Tech aims to be a friendly source of reasonably objective information, reviews (from professionals and consumers), advice columns and how-to articles.
My first impression: It's nowhere near as deep as Cnet.com (which has been around for 11 years), but it's making a good start. One distinguishing feature is an exclusive deal for reviews of tech products from Consumer Reports, whose reputation for objectivity is based on the fact that it accepts no advertising.
Techies disdained CR for years because it took so long to get a product through the magazine's review cycle that it was out of date by the time it appeared. But that has changed, and CR reviews of high-tech equipment have become far more timely and accurate. That's a good reason to stop by Yahoo Tech and poke around.
Department of Interference: A few weeks ago I reviewed a gadget that enables motorists to play their iPods through their FM car radios.
That brought comments from drivers who said similar gadgets used by some Sirius and XM satellite subscription radios are interfering with nearby cars' reception of National Public Radio and religious broadcasts.
And that turned out to be true. You can read the whole (and often amusing) story by Frank Roylance (baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/bal-t e.radio28apr28,1,7864588- .story).
Dumbest Dad's Day Gift of the Season (but I like it): Kids, if your parents are of a certain age, they'll remember LAVA Lamps - those silly, illuminated tubes from the 1960s that were filled with oily colored globs that floated around hypnotically while you stared at them and lit up ... well, that was another era.
Anyway, you can still buy real, honest-to-goodness LAVA lamps. I'm sure Dad (or Mom, if you can find one by May 14) would be embarrassed by a full-size model, but you can get a nice little 6-inch version that plugs into the USB port of your computer. That's right, a USB LAVA lamp desk accessory.
Don't worry, your data is safe. The lamp (full of colored glitter) uses the PC only for power. But it's fun to watch and, for 10 bucks, how wrong can you go?
They're available in silver, blue, pink and purple from ThinkGeek.com and other discriminating merchants.