You Really Don’t Know Nerds

Nerds StereotypeFor the last couple of months, the most popular article on Frankly Curious is, This Is Not a Math Joke. I assume it is being passed around on reddit or something. I really have no idea if people like it because they agree with it or because they find it amusing that people like me exist. It is about a “math” joke that appeared on an episode of The Simpsons. And I claimed that it was not a math joke but a joke for non-nerds to laugh at what they think of as the kind of thing nerds think of as funny.

I’m more idiosyncratic than most nerds. And I’m definitely not a “science nerd.” But I’ve spent most of my life in and around science, so I can pass. And when I came upon the following bit of computer code, I was amused:

int i;main(){for(;i["]<i;++i){--i;}"];read('-'-'-',i+++"hell\
o, world!\n",'/'/'/'));}read(j,i,p){write(j/p+p,i---j,i/i);}

A Computer Science Joke

Now a true computer science nerd would probably be able to explain all of this little bit of C code. But I can’t. I do, however, understand it enough to find it hilarious. For example, it pretends to increment through i and do nothing but decrement i. That is very funny. But it’s even more funny that it doesn’t actually do that. To even start to explain what I think it does would require knowledge that 99 percent of my readers don’t have. And it would take a long time to explain.

This was one of the winners of the first (1984) International Obfuscated C Code Contest. And part of the problem with this bit of code is probably found in the README about that year’s contest, “Restrictions against machine dependent code were not in the rules in 1984.” You see, one of the great things about C is that it is basically just a micro-step above assembly language. And compilers do allow you to take a normal variable and use it as a pointer to the memory address of that value. Hence, i["]<i;++i){--i;}"]. And where exactly "]<i;++i){--i;}" would point relative to the original memory address would indeed be machine dependent. (I told you that you wouldn’t understand.)

What Nerds Are Really Like

The thing is, when I was in graduate school, people were crazy about the Obfuscated C Code Contest. It’s similar to the way that grammar geeks love the sentence, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. This is what nerds do. Actually, this is what nerds are. Popular conceptions of nerds are based largely on what children who were into science acted like. It’s equivalent to assuming boiler techs must all punch women they like in the shoulder, because that’s what they did when they were six years old.

It’s this idea that has always made me hate films and plays about mathematicians: where’s the math?! Because, you know, for mathematicians, it really is all about the math. That’s not to say that they don’t have regular lives too. But the math is the reason anyone wrote a script. These things are like a film about Jacques Cousteau where he’s never on a boat.

All I’m asking is that society give nerds their due. I suppose that The Simpsons can be forgiven, because that particular “math” joke involved kids. But let’s be very honest: “i 8 sum pi” is what society thinks of us. And I hate society for it.