Hacker koan

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Out of hacker culture, and especially the artificial intelligence community at MIT, there have sprung a number of humorous short stories about computer science dubbed hacker koans; most of these are recorded in an appendix to the Jargon File, where they are called AI Koans. Most do not fit the usual pattern of koans, but they do tend to follow the form of being short, enigmatic, and often revealing an epiphany.


Uncarved block[edit]

In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
"What are you doing?", asked Minsky.
"I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe", Sussman replied.
"Why is the net wired randomly?", asked Minsky.
"I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play", Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.
"Why do you close your eyes?" Sussman asked his teacher.
"So that the room will be empty."
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

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 student was playing a handheld video game during a class.
The teacher called on the student and asked him what he was doing.
The student replied that he was trying to master the game.
The teacher said, "There exists a state in which you will not attempt to master the game, and the game will not attempt to master you."
The student asked, "What is this state?"
The teacher said, "Give me your video game, and I will show you."
The student gave him the game, and the teacher threw it to the ground, breaking it into pieces. The student was enlightened.

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]

A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.
Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: "You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong."
Knight turned the machine off and on.
The machine worked.

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:

A cocky novice once said to Stallman: “I can guess why the editor is called Emacs, but why is the justifier called Bolio?” Stallman replied forcefully: “Names are but names, ‘Emack & Bolio's’ is the name of a popular ice cream shop in Boston-town. Neither of these men had anything to do with the software.”
His question answered, yet unanswered, the novice turned to go, but Stallman called to him: “Neither Emack nor Bolio had anything to do with the ice cream shop, either.” (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. 

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