Hacker koan

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A hacker koan is a funny short story about computer science. Hackers like the artificial intelligence (AI) group at MIT made the term. A book called the Jargon File has many koans called AI Koans. Most koans are not the same as kōans in Zen Buddhism, but both kinds of koans are short, mysterious, and have a hidden meaning.

Examples[change | change source]

Uncarved block[change | change source]

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.

Like Zen koans, this might have a real and correct answer. In the story, the room is not really empty when Minsky shuts his eyes, and the neural network might still have assumed something when it is randomly set up. The assumptions are random instead of from a human, but they still exist.

This story may be from a real story from Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (chapter 6):

So Sussman began working on a program. Not long after, this odd-looking bald guy came over. Sussman figured the guy was going to boot him out, but instead the man sat down, asking, "Hey, what are you doing?" Sussman talked over his program with the man, Marvin Minsky. At one point in the discussion, Sussman told Minsky that he was using a certain randomizing technique in his program because he didn't want the machine to have any preconceived notions. Minsky said, "Well, it has them, it's just that you don't know what they are." It was the most profound thing Gerry Sussman had ever heard. And Minsky continued, telling him that the world is built a certain way, and the most important thing we can do with the world is avoid randomness, and figure out ways by which things can be planned. Wisdom like this has its effect on seventeen-year-old freshmen, and from then on Sussman was hooked.

—Steven Levy, HACKERS: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Victory[change | change source]

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 story like this is in The Tao of Programming.[source?]

Enlightenment[change | change source]

Tom Knight might have written this. He helped make the Lisp machine at MIT:[source?]

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.

This means that a simple idea can be the right idea.

Emacs and Bolio[change | change source]

This koan is sometimes called an "ice cream koan". The word "koan" sounds like "cone" in the phrase "ice cream cone", so the name is a pun. There is another "ice cream koan" in The Dharma Bums. This koan talks about AI lab tools from before 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])

Books of koans[change | change source]

Eric S. Raymond put the first AI Koans in a book called Hacker's Jargon Dictionary. He says that Danny Hillis created them when he was a student at MIT.[2]

The Codeless Code is a different book about software engineers at big businesses instead of unix hackers.[3] The stories in it are like traditional Zen koans. Every character is made-up, and most are masters and monks in a place like the Far East. The stories talk about things like making software. The name comes from a book called The Gateless Gate.

Notes[change | change source]

  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.

Other websites[change | change source]