Hacker koan

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A hacker koan is a humorous short story about computer science. The term emerged from hacker culture, and especially the artificial intelligence community at MIT. An appendix to the Jargon File includes a collection titled AI Koans. Most do not fit the usual pattern of the kōans in Zen Buddhism, but they do tend to follow the form of being short, enigmatic, and often revealing an epiphany.


Uncarved block[edit]

Similarly to traditional Zen koans, this koan has a possible concrete and correct answer: just as the room is not really empty when Minsky shuts his eyes, neither is the neural network really free of preconceptions when it is randomly wired. The network still has preconceptions, they are simply random now, and from a random rather than a human source.

This particular koan seems to have been closely based on a real incident; the following text extract is from Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (chapter 6):


A very similar story exists in the The Tao of Programming.[citation needed]


This koan is attributed to Tom Knight, one of the primary developers of the Lisp machine at MIT:[citation needed]

Emacs and Bolio[edit]

This particular koan is sometimes punningly referred to as an "ice cream koan", though that term also refers to an ice cream koan in The Dharma Bums. This koan refers to AI Lab tools that predate the GNU project:

(The store is named after two homeless men.[1])


Eric S. Raymond compiled the original AI Koans into a collection as part of his work on the Hacker's Jargon Dictionary. Inspired by them, he has written several pastiches, in toto entitled the Rootless Root (a reference to the koan collection The Gateless Gate). Raymond notes that Danny Hillis invented the AI koan while a student at MIT.[2]

A different collection of fables, based on corporate software engineer culture instead of unix hacker culture, written in the style or spirit of Zen koans, is The Codeless Code.[3] It features purely fictional characters (mostly masters and monks) in a quasi-Far-Eastern setting. The stories explore topics related to modern software development. The name for this site is also a reference to The Gateless Gate.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Our Rock 'n Roll Roots". Emack & Bolio's. Retrieved 2012-02-25. 
  2. ^ Raymond, Eric S. (1996). The New Hacker's Dictionary (3rd ed.). MIT Press. p. 513. 
  3. ^ "The Codeless Code". Qi. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 

External links[edit]