You Are Not Expected To Understand This


© Arun Thomas / Image: The New Stack

 *You are not expected
 *to understand this.

Glenn laughed out loud in spite of the enormity of the problem facing him.

“You are not expected to understand this.” It was probably the single most famous code comment in the history of UNIX and maybe the history of all Operating System programming. It first appeared in the Sixth Edition of the UNIX OS in 1975 and preceded the explanation of how context switching was performed.

The phrase has become so popular that it has appeared on everything from adult sized t-shirts to baby onesies.

The code comment disappeared in 1979 when context switching was rewritten for UNIX v7, but it lives on in the collective consciousness of nerdness.

The comment would have been a lot more funny if he understood the code that had been constantly streaming through his console for the past month. It reminded him of the scene in the movie “The Matrix” when Cypher was looking at the Matrix in code.

The code for the Matrix was too complex to be processed through an interpreter so you had to monitor it raw.

Too complex.

Glenn Murphy worked the graveyard shift at IBM performing maintenance on their mainframe systems. For the last 28 days, someone had been sending a signal into the mainframes’ network serving up this code.

He showed it to his boss, to her boss, to the top engineers in the company, and no one had a clue.

They cut off the link to the internet, but the transmission persisted. They thought about shutting down the mainframes, but powering down even one of them for any significant period of time would jeopardize mission critical processes.

So Glenn spent from midnight to 8 a.m. Monday through Friday watching the code. Occasionally, the code comment would appear. It was the only thing he understood.

 *You are not expected
 *to understand this.

UNIX co-creator Dennis Ritchie’s “comment about the comment” stated:

“It’s often quoted as a slur on the quantity or quality of the comments in the Bell Labs research releases of Unix. Not an unfair observation in general, I fear, but in this case unjustified… we tried to explain what was going on. ‘You are not expected to understand this’ was intended as a remark in the spirit of ‘This won’t be on the exam,’ rather than as an impudent challenge.”

The comment was intended to communicate “This won’t be on the exam” rather than a challenge to the reader’s intelligence or a dare to unravel the mystery.

“You are not expected to understand this.”

Out of frustration, Glenn opened a separate shell and typed, “Not expected to understand what, asshole?”

Of all the considered options, no one thought about sending a message back up the link. Glenn pressed “Enter” and then immediately regretted calling the transmitter an “asshole”. This was clearly brilliant code, but why was it being funneled through these systems and by who?

The cursor blinked at Glenn for a full five minutes and then, like the famous “Knock, knock Neo” scene, a message came back.

“Why the universe, of course.”

Glenn sat stunned and then laughed again. What? Someone had the complete code for the universe? Hah!

“Who is this?”

“Why the universe, of course.” The reply was much quicker this time.

The universe.

“Oh shit, we’ve been going about this all wrong.”

Glenn picked up his cell and looked up a number. “Hello, Security? This is Glenn Murphy down in mainframes. I need the emergency contact number for Carla Thomas.”

He paused listening.

“Yes, that Carla Thomas. Yes, this is an emergency.”

Glenn knew they wouldn’t be able to get anyone of consequence here to look at the code until at least tomorrow, but he’d need the clout of IBM’s CIO in order to gather the top cosmologists in the world down into his basement domain to decipher the programming language that describes all of existence…the universe.

He wondered if Stephen Hawking himself would come.

I recently read an article at “The New Stack” called ‘You are Not Expected to Understand This’: An Explainer on Unix’s Most Notorious Code Comment, which is what inspired this short piece of fiction.

I’m not a programmer and I only sort of understand certain portions of the article, but the comment and the film “The Matrix” (1999) collided in my mind. After all, this isn’t the first time someone has asked the question are we living in a simulation?

Oh, the dialogue of Glenn calling Security is directly lifted from the film “The Martian” (2015).


One thought on “You Are Not Expected To Understand This

  1. Well that was fun, for a few reasons. One of which is that I’m a fan, too, of The Matrix. Another is that it was in 1980 that I first had any interaction with code (and programming). (I’m not a programmer either.) I wasn’t in on the UNIX joke from version 6-7 (or however I should say that). [And the programmers I know aren’t into UNIX. Except maybe one of them, whom I see maybe every five years, on average, and don’t talk to much one-on-one.] That’s not all the reasons. [There’s also a guy from somewhere who shows up blogging as a “we” and so forth.]

    Liked by 1 person

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