Hacker Koan

codeless code

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 [koh-ahns]; most of these are recorded in an appendix to the Jargon File (a glossary of computer programmer slang). 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.

One notable example, titled ‘Uncarved block,’ describes an exchange between professor Marvin Minsky and student Jerry Sussman: ‘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.’

Similar 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 based on a real incident. American technology journalist Steven Levy wrote of the event in his 1984 book ‘Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution’: ‘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.’

Some koans of a less serious nature, for example ‘Victory’: ‘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.

‘Enlightment’ is a koan attributed to Tom Knight, one of the primary developers of the Lisp machine at MIT (the first commercial single-user workstation): ‘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.’

‘Master Foo’ illustrates equivalency: ‘It is recorded that once, when Master Foo was iterating along a beach, he came upon two of his disciples arguing by a computer processor. ‘It is subtracting positive 1,’ declared the first. ‘No; it is adding negative 1,’ asserted the other. Master Foo answered them thus: ‘Not incrementing, not decrementing — Equalizing!’ whereupon both were enlightened.’ This is a variation on a Zen koan, ‘Not The Wind, Not The Flag’: ‘Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, ‘The flag is moving.’ The other replied, ‘The wind is moving.’ Huineng overheard this. He said, ‘Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.’ The koan is intended to demonstrate the realization that in naming an object one may cloud one’s understanding of the true nature of mind by falling into externalization and believing that the true nature of the flag, the wind, and the mind are different. Huineng always taught the One Vehicle Buddhism of One Mind which teaches that wisdom (Sanskrit: prajna) comes from the Essence of Mind and not from an exterior source.

The ‘Ice Cream Koan,’ is referenced in Jack Keroac’s 1958 novel ‘The Dharma Bums’ and refers to AI Lab tools that predate the GNU project (a free UNIX alternative). It retells a remark by open source software pioneer Richard Stallan:  ‘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.) The koan has been suggested to represent the arbitrariness of identifiers in computer code—the names of variables do not affect the function of the code.

Open source advocate 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, entitled the ‘Rootless Root’ (a reference to the Zen koan collection ‘The Gateless Gate’). Raymond notes that Danny Hillis invented the AI koan while a student at MIT. 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.’ It features purely fictional characters (mostly masters and monks) in a quasi-Far-Eastern setting. The stories explore topics related to modern software development.

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