Translator's Notes on the Individual Hexagrams

One of the biggest pitfalls of translation is that you are not just exchanging the words of one language with the words of another, you have to translate an entire culture and way of understanding the world with another. Frequently, this "foreign" culture is not only strange and paradoxical to us, but it may be altogether unknown to modern westeners. This long buried worldview must sometimes be recreated from scratch before a meaningful translation can be made. This is nowhere more the case than when handling texts of a spiritual or philosophical nature. While all humans share the same physical plane, more or less, our understanding of the "other world" is infinitely varied.

The Q-Ching and the life of the programmer/priests of the Oracular Temple are a classic example of this kind of cultural gulf. We found, as translators, that it was often necessary to footnote many of the more obscure ideas, rituals and practices of this priesthood in order to bring meaning to the words we were reading. While not part of the Q-Ching text itself, these notes are an indispensable aid to understanding of this otherwise curiously incomprehensible document.

A secondary benefit of this approach is an appreciation of the richness and beauty of another people, even if it is just a faint glimse. And as you get to know how an ancient gentleman such as Lao Tse Kaud looks at his world, you may gain a new friend.

Hx. 1, Returning

According to legend, LTK traveled for many years, learning the art of divination and other secret computing knowledge from the most learned sages in all of China. When he returned to the emperor's court, he found an amazing work backlog on his desk. He also learned he had been made head programmer in the oracle department and was expected to advise the emperor on a regular basis. This was the first hexagram he threw and the interpretation is rather telling of his state of mind at the time. Many scholars have puzzled over the glaring omission of the moving line texts in this hexagram and the next. In fact, some of the commentators of later versions of the Q-Ching attempted to supply texts for the "missing lines", with lesser or greater degrees of success. While this lack supplies a certain poignancy to the hexagram, it is still a mystery why LTK never "finished" the text. The only clue is the acronym "RSN" ("real soon now") written in the margins of this hexagram. It is suspected that when he threw this figure, it had no moving lines. Perhaps he intended to go back later and supply them, but was so swamped by the pressures of his new position that he never did so.

Hx. 2, Testing

This little hexagram discusses the infinitely varied problems that surround the testing of code. It seems inevitable that even the simplest fix or the grandest design somehow fails miserably when first run on the machine. This figure is noted for its trigram imagery relating to parts of the computer itself. It also, mysteriously, contains text for only two of the moving lines. It is presumed that these were the only moving lines when LTK first threw the hexagram; since documentation always gets ignored in the testing phase, he probably never got around to updating the text.

Hx. 3, Golden Code

This hexagram is probably the most auspicious in the entire Q-Ching and reveals the great regard, even awe, that the Wise Ones held for their ultimate goal, the Golden Code. One of the unique features of the moving line texts is the clearcut description of the Six Software Development Steps that underlies much of the symbolism of the Q-Ching. The moving lines also remind the young programmer how easy it is to fall short of the goal if the Six Steps are not followed. Once one understands how to "implement the Tao", however, it becomes almost second nature to produce code that is beautiful to behold.

Hx. 4, IBT

"IBT" is an acronym standing for a ritual known as "Intensive Beer Therapy". This ancient ritual has been practiced since time immemorial, but was first described by the author Tai Won Yuan. From what can be gathered from the old texts, the purpose was to help programmers overcome the stresses of their job at the end of the week by "drinking beer until you find Friday at the bottom of the pitcher". Many of the references in the moving lines are rather obscure; it seems likely that the lower lines were actually written during one or more of these rituals.

Hx. 5, Process Guide

A process guide is a book (usually very thick and uninspiring) that describes the Six Software Development Steps in excruciating detail for all programmers to follow. Unfortunately, these kinds of manuals are always written by managers, not the programmers themselves, so they completely miss the spirit of the search for Golden Code. What should be a spiritual experience in the art of programming is reduced to a nightmare of endless documents and committee meetings. Following the process also insures all deadlines will be missed.

Hx. 6, Consultant

The "sages" (or in modern parlance, the "gurus") of the software world are the senior programmers that have been around for years and seemingly know everything. This does not make them "Wise Ones" (as this hexagram implies), however, since they are often "idea men" that no longer seek the Golden Code. They are full of opinions, and their blessings must be sought for any design, but often as not, they can be as dead wrong as the youngest programmer. The only difference is their mistakes are infinitely more costly to fix up.

Hx. 7, The Elders

We've taken some liberties in the translation of this hexagram to make the titles and job descriptions of the mythical corporation correspond more closely with modern usage. The most interesting feature of this text is the very clear description of the power relationships that existed in the emperor's court. The pecking order resembles that of the modern software shop, with managers lording over the programmers and reaping all the benefits. Some things are eternal.

Hx. 8, Line Conflict

This hexagram describes one of the more perverse aspects of the Tao of Code. It happens with uncanny regularity that code that has worked servicably for many years suddenly starts malfunctioning on a regular basis. As problem reports pour in, it is highly likely that two programmers will find themselves working on the same problem, without knowledge of the other. Further, their fixes are undoubtedly incompatible. The attempt to integrate both of these changes inevitably causes trouble -- the infamous "line conflict". Experience with the oracle over many centuries reveals a second perverse quality attending this hexagram. It usually happens that when this figure appears, there are at least two moving lines present and their interpretations are always contradictory. (Rumors that this hexagram was originally numbered #7, the same as "The Elders", has not been substantiated by any original parchments.)

Hx. 9, Infinite Loop

Although modern computer students are aware of the idea of "infinite loops" within programs, they seem largely oblivious to the larger ramifications of the concept. It seems that not only programs can go into loops, entire organizations can, as well. Given the usual power structure within a software house and a slavish devotion to the Six Steps, such an organization can be tied in knots for months without any useful work coming out. With all these pitfalls at every level of the workplace, it's a miracle that anything gets done, sometimes. The reference in line 2 to "the ten thousand bells" is obscure, but seems related to the modern phrase "bells and whistles" that refer to needless complications of a design.

Hx. 10, Bad Fix

When a programming error is found, a manager usually brings the bug to the programmer's attention and demands a "quick fix" to the problem. Unfortunately, quick fixes are often bad fixes, since they create as many problems as they solve. The Wise Ones knew to take their time when patching a bug, double-checking all their work, since nothing is more embarassing (and apt to bring on a managerial reprimand) than a fix that doesn't. The search for Golden Code is hazardous and often leads to tragic results.

Hx. 11, Re-Org

One of the constants of bureaucratic life is the "re-org", a rearrangement of managers and positions to attempt to make the organization more efficient. It rarely works out as planned. After everyone is shuffled about and the department is thoroughly disrupted, the work to be done stubbornly remains. In practice, this hexagram almost always displays moving lines when it appears in divination. In fact, it is considered an evil omen if no moving lines appear. This seems to mirror, at some level, the movement of people within the organization.

Hx. 12, Speaking Out

The original Chinese character for this hexagram, "Lu Wi", literally means "speaks truth without grace". The figure shows a middle manager sitting on top of a low-level programmer; the trigrams of lightning and thunder also point to the great commotion unleashed by this confrontation. The central character of this situation, no longer a fool but not yet a Wise One, is still an object of great admiration (at least by the programmers). His only crime is that he plainly sees the emperor has no clothes and says so.

Hx. 13, Paper Work

The bane of every programmer is the paper work that attends his coding. Lured into the job by the promise of practicing his art 8 hours a day, he finds instead most of this time is spent writing dry technical reports and filling out endless forms. While this gives managers a measure of control over the work being performed (and fills up 8 hours a day), the irony is that much less work is accomplished in the end. In extreme cases, the paper work is so excessive that no useful work gets done at all. Apparently, the emperor's court was no exception.

Hx. 14, Fighting Fires

There comes a time at the end of every project or just before a major release when all the "loose ends" must be cleaned up. This involves correcting a seemingly endless supply of bugs that have been inadvertently introduced along the way. Driven from one error report to the next in an essentially random manner, a state of panic develops known as "fire fighting mode". Despite the chaotic nature of this time, this is often the most creative and productive time of the project, since normal procedures are tossed out the window. This leaves the programmer free to do the thing he most wants to do in the first place: write code. The results of fire fighting seldom resemble the original design, but at least the program works (sort of).

Hx. 15, Burn Out

One of the worst problems of keeping up a high pressure working pace for months or years on end against impossible deadlines is that eventually the stress catches up to you. At some point (usually in the fire fighting part of the project, or shortly after release), the will to work simply fades and the urge to kick back or go on vacation takes over. This part of the project is most frustrating for the managers involved, since this is when they are under the most pressure to get the project finished, and the programmers are least inclined to give that "one final push". The most creative act they are capable of is deciding how many lottery tickets to buy ("so I can get out of here!").

Hx. 16, Self-Reflexive

This hexagram, so different in character from all the preceding ones, has long been a mystery to scholars. Opinions about it range from it was a kind of Zen koan to train young initiates in divination, to LTK was playing a perverse hoax on everyone. Undoubtedly, there's a little of both these explanations hidden in this cryptic figure. This hexagram, considered so central to the training of a young programmer, is dealt with in more detail in a separate article, A Treatise on Hexagram 16, Self-Reflexive.

Hx. 17, Meetings

Nothing distinguishes managers from programmers better than their attitudes towards meetings. For the managers, a meeting is a good way to stay in touch with his people, take the pulse of the projects under his control, and pass on "useful information" of a bureaucratic nature. For the programmers, a meeting is an exercise in triviality and wasting time that could be better spent in pursuit of the Golden Code. Perhaps this reflects their underlying views of organization in general, where managers prefer to "pigeonhole" everything they can, while the Wise One simply follows the Tao wherever it leads him. The best meeting is one that never occurs; the next best takes place in the aisle and lasts only 2 minutes.

Hx. 18, Insurrection

Judging from the content of the next few hexagrams, it seems that some kind of "labor dispute" must have arisen in the emperor's palace. From time to time, the burden of rules and processes reaches intolerable proportions and a grassroots rebellion results. Although such reform movements produce an exciting atmosphere, the Wise One remembers where the real power in an organization lies. Eventually, all the complaints are forgotten and the status quo stages a deadening return (see Hx. 20, Blowing Off). This exercise in organizational convulsions appears necessary to release pent up frustrations and "blow off steam" periodically, but rarely results in any lasting change.

Hx. 19, Quality

Just as the programmers pursue the Golden Code ("the sons follow the Father"), managers actively seek an elusive something they call "Quality" ("and the daughters cling to the Mother"). This hexagram, the total antithesis of Hx. 3, Golden Code, draws attention to the profound tensions between these two ideals. The interplay of Golden Code and Quality drives the software development cycle through endless complications and back alleys; it is also the source of conflicts between programmers and managers, the dynamo of all the intrigues in the emperor's court. That Quality is represented by the darkest of all hexagrams (consisting of all Yin lines) reveals the low regard programmers had for this ideal. The notion that "conforming" to an endless set of rules and procedures can effortlessly produce Golden Code, even at the hands of the lowliest programmer, seems ludicrous to an "Implementer of the Tao". While it is possible for moving lines to change Quality into Golden Code (if all 6 lines change simultaneously), it is such a rare occurence* that the Wise One would never count on it. Why else would Quality be symbolized by a "double bit bucket"?

(* About 1 chance in 84,000,000!)

Hx. 20, Blowing Off

The end result of any insurrection is a "blowing off" by management. After all the memos and heated words have been hurled, and the programmers have expressed their frustrations, it is the manager's role in the ritual to soothe hurt feelings and return everything to the status quo. Complaints are acknowledged ("I hear you!"), rephrased into meaningless terms, and ultimately ignored. It is no coincidence that this hexagram is literally Hx. 18, Insurrection, stood on its head. Normally, the programmers become very sullen and quiet after being blown off, and all is superficially peaceful until frustrations begin again. Then the ritual repeats itself once more, an endless dance of Yin and Yang.

Hx. 21, Moving On

Occasionally, a programmer in the court "reaches escape velocity" and makes a graceful exit from the palace. Whether leaving for a life of blissful retirement or making a career change, this is always a time of celebration and joy for the programmers. Notice that breaking loose is rarely a spur of the moment decision. The programmer often follows a long and tortured process of dreaming and planning for a better life, since leaving the court is a perilous act of casting off old (but stifling) securities. While not as noble as finding the Tao, seeking a better life also has great rewards of its own, hence the judgment "no blame".

Hx. 22, Gazing at the Sky

The search for the Golden Code takes on a mystical air at times that is hard to fathom. In particular, the emperor's ministers, being of a far more pragmatic bent, could hardly be expected to comprehend these flights of imagination. Time spent "staring into space" and crafting the Tao of a program in his imagination is the most important part of coding to a Wise One. This reverie, unfortunately, looks like goofing off and wasting time to the minister passing by in the hall, who only measures "useful work" by the amount of paper produced and effort expended. Imagination must be balanced with "looking busy" if managerial wrath is to be avoided. The tension between these extreme positions is obviously full of pitfalls, but the potential "payback" to the programmer is worth it all.

Hx. 23, Fooled Again

One of the constants of bureaucratic life is the vain belief that all problems can be made to disappear by a simple change of management in the organization. Old managers leave in disgrace, while new managers take their place. The change is usually heralded by memos gushing with praise for the "new, vital leadership" (or whatever) that is being put in place. After all the hoopla settles down, the office is still saddled with the same old problems and no new solutions. In fact, it's usually the immediate supervisors, not middle management, that are most instrumental in avoiding big messes. It's amazing to an outsider how often this charade can be repeated before the underlings "wise up" and catch onto the ruse. Young programmers are frequently sucked into this ruse; only the wise veterans of many shakeups can see through the thin tissue of rhetoric. This hexagram is similar to Hx. 11, Re-Org in nature, but is nowhere as gloomy. The outcome here, given the right decisions, is considerably brighter. With changes in the second or fifth lines, many copies of the trigram Ch'ien (Heaven) are produced, a very good omen. Movement in the first line produces Hx. 16, Self-Reflexive, a sign that discernment and reflection will have a very positive effect. The wise programmer understands however that "mass enlightenment" is an unlikely outcome and that the final results are out of his hands. He watches the endless dance of yin and yang about him with great amusement and then gets back to coding.

Hx. 24, Hello World

It's difficult for the Golden Code to manifest itself in a bureaucracy where requirements are set by ministers intent on profit. Of course the Golden Code must be simple, beautiful, and truthful in form. But it must be simple, beautiful, and truthful in its function too. If the code's purpose is ugly or selfish, how can Golden Code emerge? It will hide from ugly requirements like an old turtle at the bottom of a pond.

The most simple, beautiful, and truthful program is widely known to programmers of all eras and all programming languages as "Hello World". Seek there for the Golden Code. This fragmentary poem, written in a Commentary on the Q Ching centuries later, was recently uncovered at the Old Beijing Palace Dig: What would Golden Code declare / If it could speak to Men through Air? / Or greet us like a Scroll uncurled? / Hello World! / Hello World! / Hello World!...