Parables and folklore relating to retrocomputing

Triggered by @cjs’ post about The Story of Jack and Jay I thought that there are probably quite a few parables from back in the day which are worth sharing…

On Holy Wars and a Plea For Peace from 1980. C2 says: “This very influential and amusing classic paper introduced the terms LittleEndian and BigEndian and urged people to stop fighting holy wars over which byte ordering was superior. It is still a must-read for anyone who ever has a reason to care about byte ordering.”

The Paging Game from alt.folklore.computers in 1990, introducing The Thing King. More findings from that group collected here.

The Story of Mel from 1983, all about “optimal programming”, in favour when computers were more expensive than programmers.

Any more favourites to share?


Maybe more an analogy than a fable, the popular illustration of the basic workings of a computer by the example of a clerk and pigeonholes (which eventually translated into the most literal of implementations of the desktop metaphor). The earliest incarnation of the “fable of the clerk and the pigeonholes”, I know, is from the Univac I Manual of Operations (1954) [1], comprehensively depicted by two illustrations found on p.2 and p.6, respectively.


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Turing’s paper of 1936 also personifies the computer, for other reasons! But no pictures.

…we avoid introducing the “state of mind” by considering a more physical and definite counterpart of it. It is always possible for the computer to break off from his work, to go away and forget all about it, and later to come back and go on with it. If he does this he must leave a note of instructions (written in some standard form) explaining how the work is to be continued. This note is the counterpart of the “state of mind”. We will suppose that the computer works in such a desultory manner that he never does more than one step at a sitting. The note of instructions must enable him to carry out one step and write the next note. Thus the state of progress of the computation at any stage is completely determined by the note of instructions and the symbols on the tape.

Well, Turing may have been unconvential, which is easily acceptable and of no further notice. But this is no excuse for the use of such language as encountered in “state of mind” (no, putting it in quotation marks won’t help) right in the heyday of behaviorism and B.F. Skinner’s reign! :wink:

So I found another one, the Parable of Computer Residents about Digger, Comrade Command Com and Commander Norton (Monitor Magazine, Apr. 1992):

(However, while it may be retro, this may not be the best example.)

On the other hand, the use of the parable has some tradition in computer science, e.g., this parable given by Dijkstra (ca 1973) on trains, toilets and convenient distances to illustrate N^2 vs N/2 and the virtues of programmers:

Although at the time that this story took place, mankind was not blessed yet with automatic computers, our anonymous man who found this solution deserves to be called the world’s first competent programmer.

I have told the above story to different audiences. Programmers, as a rule, are delighted by it, and managers, invariably, get more and more annoyed as the story progresses; true mathematicians, however, fail to see the point.

By this, the parable becomes some of a parable of its own, thus introducing the recursive parable. (Well, it’s Dijkstra.)


While not exactly parables, the AI Koans in HAKMEM (MIT AI Lab memos) / the Jargon File may be considered a subtype.

A Selection of AI Koans:

See also,


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.

Again, this is a bit of a double-layered affair, since Minsky isn’t just hinting Sussman at a random configuration still being a configuration, but this is also Minsky, who initiated the end of the first boom of neural networks by providing the proof for their intrinsic XOR problem (which was [somewhat; personal musing] overcome by multi-layer networks eventually). While probably not intended by its original reading, as Minsky thoughtfully shut his eyes, there was no network and no preconception, and the (conceptual) room was empty, indeed.

P.S.: Sussman’s TicTac-Toe for the PDP-6 would have been displayed on a Type 340 scope, compare this thread, LIFE - 4 Gosper Glider Guns on PDP-7 Type 340 display

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