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santa cruz geeks in the press

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by Harley Hahn & Wendy Murdock

Geeks R Us

When Harley was an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo, Canada, there was a social phenomenon that we are sure you have experienced. People would create and join cliques, and then do something special in order to announce to the world that they belonged to this or that particular collection of people. And, almost universally, such statements were announced via the medium of customized T-shirts.

Way back in the olden days - when "computer" meant something the size of a small nuclear power plant, and extra memory cost $1 per byte - Harley was studying math and computer science, and the groups that surrounded him were esoteric clusters of math and computer science students, the forerunners of what, today, you might call geeks.

Thus, if you were to hang around the cafeteria in the math building at the University of Waterloo, circa 1975, you would notice gaggles of geek-like people, many of whom were wearing T-shirts proclaiming their social achievements. Look this way and you would encounter a tall, skinny, near-sighted fellow, strolling past the juice machine, carrying a box full of computer cards under his arm: a fellow whose societal cachet was distinctly enhanced by an extra-large T-shirt that proclaimed him to be a member of the Math Society. Look that way, and you would notice a quartet of highly-rational but sartorially-challenged operations research students, whose T-shirts announced to the world that they volunteered their spare time at Radio Waterloo (the campus radio station).

The tradition of dressing to impress is, of course, universal. We imagine that millions of years ago, it would have been possible for an observer within the primordial soup to notice that the better bacteria would affect to wear extra proteins within their phospholipid membrane, in order to achieve that certain je ne sais quoi that did so much to distinguish one primitive cell from his brother.

Indeed, throughout human history, it is the rule, rather than the exception, that people will dress to leave no doubt as to which group they belong. Here, you will notice the middle-aged insurance salesman, discretely wearing his Masonic pin over his gray and blue-striped tie; there you will observe the young Beau Brummel who, no doubt with the best of intentions, sports a set of extra wide dark blue trousers, a pair of red high-topped running shoes with untied laces, a white and green pin-striped shirt with the sleeves ripped off, two gold earrings in his left ear, and a four-inch wide velvet tie, with a picture of a hula dancer, that lights up in the dark and says "Philadelphia is a Fun City."

Yes, the custom of announcing one's characteristics by one's clothing is an old one. It's just that, for some reason, geeks like to do it with T-shirts.


A couple of years ago, Harley attended a Usenix conference: the place where the geeks of the Unix world gather to cavort and discuss such topics as "Filesystem Daemons as Unifying Mechanism for Network Information Access."

In the lobby of the conference hall, there was a small stand, at which you could purchase Usenix-oriented memorabilia. In particular, for the insignificant sum of $10, you could buy a light-blue T-shirt with a picture of a cute devil-like halfling. Below this engaging fellow, was the cunning slogan "4.3 BSD System Daemon". (This "daemon," by the way, was drawn by John Lasseter in 1989 and is the de facto mascot of the Berkeley Unix operating system.)

Of course, it was the work of a moment for Harley to purchase one of these souvenirs and, to this day it hangs proudly in his closet, in between his "Tintin and The Blue Lotus" T-shirt and the "Assembler: Inside and Out" commemorative sweatshirt.

What was most interesting about the daemon T-shirt, though, was that there was a special, exclusive edition, the exact same shirt differing in one small detail - there were no words underneath the daemon. And this slightly different T-shirt was available only to a select group of geeks: the ones who had taken an active part in developing the 4.3 BSD operating system. Thus, amid the general intellectual brouhaha of a technical Unix conference, the old T-shirt wheeze was still being used to distinguish one set of hacker-oriented geeks from another.

To a casual observer, it might seem as if geekiness and T-shirts are somehow linked intractably, and that nothing less than powerful machinery would suffice to separate a geek from his customized T-shirt. All very true for Real Life, but what about the Net? On the Internet, no one can see what you are wearing. You might be hacking away all night in your "I Brake For Floating-Point Bugs" T-shirt with the "Friends Don't Let Friends Use Windows" button, and for all the good it will do you, you might as well be wearing your Beans' purple and green polo pajamas.

Clearly, what is needed is a way for a geek-like person to express his individual tastes and talents in a manner that is accessible to his Net neighbors everywhere. But, still, we must retain some exclusivity. Although everyone may see a person's announcement of individuality, the geek of today requires that his personal statement be, not only intellectually stimulating, but completely understandable in all its nuances to only those select few whose skills and tastes are evolved enough to "get it."

And thus was born... The Geek Code.


The Geek Code is a compact way for someone to summarize his or her fundamental characteristics within a few lines. For example, here is is the Geek Code for Harley:

GCS/M/MD/TW d? H s !g(+) p !au a+ w+
v+++ C++ US+++$ P+ L 3 E-- N+ K++ W--
M- V- -po+ Y+ t !5 j- R- G? !tv b+++
D B- e++++ u++ h+ f- r+ n++ y++
The nice thing about the Geek Code is that it is so compact that you can easily append your personal summary to your signature, at the bottom of all your e-mail and Usenet postings. True, the code is obtuse, but signatures are supposed to be short and a more lengthy code would take up too much room.

However, before we get into the code itself, let's take a moment to explore the fundamental questions: "What is a geek?" and "Is a geek the same as a nerd?"

For most of this century, the word "geek" was used to describe a certain type of carnival performer. A geek was a wild man whose act usually included biting off the head of a live chicken or snake. In this sense, the work "geek" was derived from the Low

German word "geck", which meant a fool or simpleton. Shakespeare, in the play Twelfth Night mentions, "The most notorious gecke and gull..." (Shakespeare, as you know, was a fairly decent writer, but he did have a lot of trouble with spelling.)

Sometime in the 1980s, the term "geek" came to reflect a new meaning: a person who spends a lot of his or her time using a computer for social interaction. As a general rule, geeks are social outcasts with respect to mainstream culture. However, within their own culture (which is surprisingly well developed), a particular geek may have oodles of friends, many of which are online companions. When geeks gather in person, they have their own argot: for example, where more mainstream human beings would go out to eat, a group of geeks will go for a "food run".

The nice thing about geeks is that, starting life as social outcasts, they are as accepting a group of people as you will find online (except perhaps, the neo-Pagan/bisexual/Earth Mothers). The world of Geeks comprise all sorts of people: trekkies, IRC fanatics, MUDers, science fiction fans, Usenet junkies, amateur radio operators, and so on. About the only thing that you need to possess to enter the geek community is a connection to the Net and the wherewithal to use it competently. Geeks gather in a variety of places, on and off the Net. For example, there is a strong Geek community in Santa Cruz, California, many of whom live together in "Geek Houses". Perhaps it is best summed up by the riddle, "When does a Geek father cry?". The answer being, "When his son creates his first home page." This is not to imply that all geeks are male. Indeed, there are an enormous number of women geeks; it's just that, as with other aspects of the Net, there are more male geeks than females. No doubt Nature, in her infinite wisdom, is trying to tell us something.


By now, you are probably wondering if geeks are the same as nerds. The answer is no. Traditionally, a nerd is someone with no social skills who is obsessed with a particular technology. Although, we tend to think of nerds as being computer monomaniacs, they actually come in various flavors. Perhaps the best definition of a nerd is someone who, at least in spirit, is usually found wearing a plaid shirt, taped glasses, and a pocket protector.

Although this is not a strict definition of a nerd, the important thing to appreciate is that, compared to nerds, geeks are more social and have at least a rudimentary sense of style. True, there are nerds who are geeks, and we could go into all the types and sub-types. Such an exposition is, unfortunately, well beyond the scope of this article.

Still, as the Net becomes an ever-increasing part of normal life, the line between geeks and nerds draws ever more blurry. For example, although we associate long bouts of intellectual effort (especially programming) with nerds, the word "geek" is often used as a verb with a similar meaning, albeit with more social overtones. For example, say that you are at a party and, in the course of a conversation, someone finds it necessary to digress momentarily upon a highly-technical point. He might preface his remarks by saying, "Excuse me, but I need to geek out for a moment." (A nerd will probably not even be at the party in the first place.)

Suffice to say that those nerds who are also geeks generally use the Net as a screen to hide from interacting in person. Thus, there is little chance that you will encounter an actual nerd at a Real Life gathering, no matter how many geeks happen to be there.

If all this confuses you, perhaps the best way to think about it all is to realize that dogs are geeks and cats are nerds.


So, having explored the nuances of geeks and their characteristics, let us turn our attention to the Geek Code: the mysterious shorthand notation that geeks use to describe themselves to the world.

The Geek Code was originally developed by Robert Hayden, who then expanded it several times based upon numerous suggestions from the Net. The current version, as we go to press, is 2.1.

The code consists of a large number of items, each of which expresses one characteristic about the person in question. Version 2.1 contains 38 such items. To show you what it looks like, here are the Geek Codes for four well known celebrities: Harley Hahn, Wendy Murdock, Bill Gates, and the Queen of England:

Harley Hahn:

GCS/M/MD/TW d? H s !g(+) p !au a+ w+
v+++ C++ US+++$ P+ L 3 E-- N+ K++ W--
M- V- -po+ Y+ t !5 j- R- G? !tv b+++
D B- e++++ u++ h+ f- r+ n++ y++
Wendy Murdock:
GFA/TW -d+ H++ s-:- !g p3 au- a- w++@
v C++(+++) US P? L- 3- E- N+ K++>+++ !W
M+ !V po Y+ t+ !5 !j R+ G' !tv b++(+++)
!D B- e++ u++ h+ f++ r+ n+ x?
Bill Gates:
GB d++ H s-:- g+ p1+ au++++>+ a39 w+
v+ C++ U-- P- L-- 3- E- N- K- W++++$
M !V po++ Y- t !5 j++ R+++ G? tv- b+>+++
D B e u+ h++(--) f-- r+++ n- y+++>*
The Queen of England:
GG d++ H- s-: !g(+) p0 au++++(+) a69 w-
v++ C- U? P? !L !3 E? !N K- !W
M? !V po+$ Y t- !5 !j !R G? tv+ b
!D B? !e u+++ h-- f* r+++ n+ x++++(!)
In order to understand the Geek Code, all you need to know is what each of the items mean. The actual details are lengthy, so we will give you an overview and discuss a few examples. And in the resources section of this article, we will show you where to download the definitive explanation of the entire code.

If you want to follow the discussion using our four examples, take a look at the accompanying table in which we have shown the same descriptions with each item on a separate line. This allows you to isolate the individual elements, and makes it easy to compare one person's code to another.


To start, we will say that there is no programming or mathematics involved. For example, notice that the second item for the Queen of England is *d++*. This looks a lot like an expression from the C programming language, but it is not, so don't worry; the Geek Code is actually pretty easy to understand.

In its most basic form, each item stands for a single characteristic to which you append one or more *+* or *-* characters. The part that you append is called a "qualifier." For example, the letter *d* tells you something about how the person dresses. A qualifier of *+* indicates that the person dresses conservatively; a *-* shows that the person dresses casually. You can use multiple *+* or *-* characters to indicate a more extreme trait.

Take a look at our examples. Both Bill Gates and the Queen of England boast a dress description of *d++*. This means that they both dress extra conservatively. Another common qualifier is the *?* character. This means that the person is ignorant about the particular characteristic. For example, Harley has a dress description of *d?*. This shows you that Harley doesn't pay a lot of attention to what he wears.

Perhaps a better example is the *P* item. This one shows how the person feels about the Perl programming language. (If you don't know what Perl is, forget it for now, it's just an example.) If a geek happens to like Perl, he would use *P+*; if he likes Perl a lot, he would use *P++*; if he likes Perl more than life itself, he could use *P+++* or even *P++++*. Similarly, he could use *P-*, *P-*, or *P--*, to indicate various levels of antipathy towards Perl. And, if the person did not even know what Perl is, he would use *P?*.

So, in its simplest case, an item in the Geek Code can be qualified by one or more *+* or *-* characters, to show a type of behavior or how the geek feels about something.

To these guidelines, we will add the *!* qualifier. This comes before the actual letter, and indicates either that something does not exist in your portion of the world, or that you do not know where it is. For example, if the geek's computer system does not even have Perl, he would use *!P*.

The tricky thing is that sometimes *!* , and not the *?* character, is used to mean that you are ignorant about something. For example, the *L* character tells about a geek's attitude towards Linux (a Unix clone). As you might guess, *L+* means the geek likes Linux, *L++* means he likes Linux even more, *L-* means that he does not like Linux, and so on. However, if he does not know what Linux is, he would use *!L*.

Now you might ask, why does the code use *!L* and not *L?* which would seem to make more sense? The answer is, the Geek Code is not yet perfect and it does have a few inconsistencies. However, if you are a real geek, such minor details should not bother you.


Once you get used to it, the Geek Code is easy to understand. However, at the beginning, it can be confusing and, by now, you might be asking yourself, how can you understand the code (or even construct a code for yourself) without getting lost?

The answer is that you don't really have to memorize a lot of rules. All you need to do is download the Geek Code documentation. It walks you through each part of the code, and shows you what each possible value means. It's actually pretty easy. In fact, there are only two rules that you need to memorize.

First, it is customary to place the various items in the code in the same order that they appear in the official description. (Take a look at our examples.)

Second, as with Unix and certain programming languages, you must be careful to use upper- and lowercase exactly. For example, as we have seen, you use the *d* character to tell people about how you dress. The *D* item, however, is completely different: it describes how you feel about the PC Game "DOOM."

To give a complete description of the Geek Code, along with everything you need to understand every item, would take a lot of time. Instead, let's take a quick tour through the code, using our examples from time to time. Once you finish the tour, you can download the official description and figure out the details for yourself.

As with all Geek-like systems, don't feel that you have to understand everything all at once. Work with the parts that you do understand and, in time, it will all make sense.


The Geek Code Consists of six parts. First, there is a single item proclaiming to the world that you are, indeed, a geek, and showing what type of geek you are. This item consists of a *G* character, followed by one or more abbreviations. If you use more than one abbreviation, you separate them with slash characters.

In our examples, we use seven different abbreviations (although there are a lot more). The abbreviations are: *CS* (computer science), *M* (mathematics), *MD* (medicine), *TW* (technical writing), *FA* (fine arts), *B* (business), *G* (government).

In particular, we have:

Harley: *GCS/M/MD/TW*

Wendy: *GFA/TW*

Bill Gates: *GB*

The Queen: *GG*

Thus we see that Harley (who has degrees in mathematics, computer science, and who went to medical school), is a geek of computer science, mathematics, medicine, and technical writing.

Wendy (who has a degree in fine arts) is a geek of fine arts and technical writing.

And finally, Bill Gates is a geek of business while the Queen of England is a geek of government.

After the initial geek proclamation, the rest of the code consists of a large number of items, organized into five main categories.

The first category is appearance. The items are as follows:

Section I: Appearance
 Dress: *d*
 Hair: *H*
 Height and Physical Shape: *s*
 Glasses: *g*
 Pens: *p*
 Automobile: *au*
 Age: *a*
 Weirdness: *w*
 Verbage: *v*
These items give you a good general idea of what someone looks like, their general place in life, and how they act. For example, in our example, we see that Bill Gates wears glasses [*g+*], while Wendy does not [*!g*]. We also see that, generally speaking, Harley and the Queen do not wear glasses [!g(+)*], although they do so for reading.

The next category shows you how the person uses computers, and how he or she relates to them.

Section II: Computers
 Computers: *C*
 Unix: *U*
 Perl: *P*
 Linux: *L*
 386bsd: *3*
 Emacs: *E*
 Usenet News: *N*
 Kibo: *K*
 Windows: *W*
 Macintosh: *M*
 VMS: *V*
In our example, Harley [*C++*], Wendy [*C++(+++)*], and Bill Gates [*C++*] are highly involved with computers. The Queen, as you might expect, wouldn't know a computer if it was served to her on a silver platter with a watercress dressing [*C-*]. (The extra notation within Wendy's description means that sometimes she is *C++* and other times she is *C+++*.)

The other computer items have to do with specific operating systems, tools and phenomena. As you can see, Bill Gates loves Windows [*W++++$*] and has a marked antipathy towards Unix [*U--*]. Compare this to Harley, who holds completely opposite views: *W--* and *US+++$*. (Notice, also, that Bill Gates has never been able to write an article judged good enough for Boardwatch Magazine.)

By the way, a *$* character at the end of a computer item means that the person uses this system to earn his living (which, among geeks, is considered to be pretty cool). If a person does use Unix, the letter after the *U* indicates what type of Unix he uses. In our example, the letter *S* refers to Sun OS.

The third section has to do with the geek's political views. In general, geeks are able to rise well above politics, which may be why this section is so short.

Section III: Politics
 Politics: *po*
 Cypherpunks: *Y*
The *po* items describes a general political orientation. The *Y* item shows the geek's views with respect to electronic privacy, especially on the Net. (A cypherpunk is someone who strongly believes that information privacy is an important civil liberty that must be preserved as the Net evolves.)

In our example you can see that both Harley and Wendy [*Y+*] believe that information privacy is important. Bill Gates, as we all know, has different plans for our future [*Y-*]. And the Queen [*Y*], as you would imagine, has better things to worry about.

The next category describes what types of geek-oriented entertainment the person enjoys. Here are the items:

Section IV: Entertainment
 Star Trek: *t*
 Babylon 5: *5*
 Jeopardy: *j*
 Role Playing: *R*
 Magic: The Gathering: *G*
 Television: *tv*
 Books: *b*
 DOOM: *D*
 Barney the Dinosaur: *B*
The entertainment items are carefully selected to let you know everything that you need to know about how a particular geek likes to amuse himself. Some of the pastimes - such as Star Trek - are so widely embraced as to be cliche. Others - such as Magic: The Gathering - are esoteric enough that you may not even have heard of them unless you are a well-connected zealous geek.

To choose just one entertainment item from our example, we can see that neither Wendy nor the Queen have ever seen Jeopardy [*!j*] and that, although Harley has seen the show, he does not think much of it [*j-*]. Bill Gates, however, not only watches the show, he annoys others by shouting out the answers before the contestants have time to respond [*j++*].

The final section of the Geek Code concerns itself with the lifestyle of the geek. In this section we find information about the Geek's education, interests and relationships. The specific items are as follows:

Section V: Lifestyle
  Education: *e*
  Music: *u*
  Housing: *h*
  Friends: *f*
  Relationships: *r*
  Nutrition: *n*
  Sex: *x* or *y*
This section of the code can tell you a lot about the geek in question, provided that he or she has been honest. Still, most geeks are better adjusted than the population at large in that they do not feel a desire to hide their deficiencies. Indeed, within the Geek community, what would be looked upon as shortcomings by an outsider, are often perceived as being desirable attributes.

For example, even though Bill Gates is married [*h--*], he lives in the largest, most expensive geek house in the history of mankind [*h++*]. Thus, we can describe his housing situation as *h++(--)*.

The Queen of England, conversely, enjoys a much different lifestyle. True, she also lives in a large, expensive house filled with overpriced items of dubious taste. However, the Queen is married with children, which makes her *h--*. Moreover, her immediate environment reflects the epitome of non-geekiness that we have come to expect from the English upper class (as opposed to, say, the American upper class). For instance, we imagine that you could search Buckingham Palace in vain for an Ethernet drop or even a modular phone jack.

Bill Gate's house is much different. In all our visits. we have never had much of a problem finding an unused workstation from which to check our email. In fact, the only significant geek-oriented disadvantage to the Gates house is that it is so large, you have to start a food run about 15 minutes before you get hungry.

Still, it is nice to know that, whether you are the Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft or simply the head of state of an obscure European island, you can announce your geek-like attributes to the world by a simple three- or four-line code within your Internet signature. Although it may be way cool to walk around dressed in a garment that says "Hug Me, I'm a Billionaire", in these modern days of instant information and ubiquitous Net access, people demand more meaningful details, and a simple T-shirt just doesn't cut it anymore.


The best way to get an up-to-date, official description of the Geek Code is by fingering the fellow who invented the code:

Robert Hayden. The command to use is:

finger hayden@vax1.mankato.msus.edu

If you use the web, you can retrieve the Geek Code by pointing your browser at:


Alternatively, you can use your gopher to get the Geek Code from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The command is:

gopher gopher.eff.org

Once you connect, make the following choices

Net Info Net_culture geek.code

If you feel like exploring some of the great geek places on the net, start with the geek community in Santa Cruz, California. To tune in on the Santa Cruz geek social scene, use your web browser to connect to:


To meet the inhabitants of some of Santa Cruz's most colorful geek houses, connect to:


If you would like to read a short essay, defining the modern geek and showing how he or she is different from a nerd, take a look at:


This definitive description of What is a geek? (at least a West Coast geek), was written by Craig Jackson, who lives in a Santa Cruz geek house named the "Marshmallow Peanut Circus."

So far, we have talked only about the Geek Code. However, there are other such classification schemes in use on the Net. (The Geek Code, in fact, was a replacement for other earlier codes.) However, when it comes to social codes, there is a lot of work being done in the gay community. For gay men, there are the Bear Code, the Twink Code, the Pearce Code and the Smurf Code. For gay women, there are the Muffdiva Code and the Womyns Grrl Code.

(In gay slang, a "bear" is a big, hairy man. A "twink" is a cute, young male thing: the name comes from "twinkie": someone who is "golden, cream-filled and ready to be eaten." The Pearce Code is named after its inventor, Tim Pearce. A "smurf" is someone who is irreverent, silly and cute. The Smurf Code is a satire of the other codes.)

The most convenient way to find all these codes in one place is to use your gopher. The command is:

gopher gopher.casti.com

Once you connect, make the following choices:

Queer Resources
Queer Resources Directory Mother Archive
Computer Information for Queers sig-codes

Finally, the technical paper that we mentioned in the text - "Filesystem Daemons as Unifying Mechanism for Network Information Access" - really exists. It was written by Steve Summit, a consultant in Seattle, Washington, and presented in January 1994 at the Usenix Winter Conference in San Francisco. If you would like to find out more about the paper, or anything else in the online library index of Usenix publications, use your browser to connect to: http://www.usenix.org

(Follow the publications link.)

If you get serious about cruising through Usenix publications, you may want to do so by e-mail or ftp. You can get instructions by sending a message to: info@usenix.org

The subject can be whatever you want, but within the message, type the single line:

send index publications

You will receive the appropriate information by return mail.

Editor: Jack Rickard - Volume IX: Issue 2 - ISSN:1054-2760 - February 1995
Copyright 1995 Jack Rickard - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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