Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

Paul Graham has delivered final proof that he is a marvelous essayist with his volume of fairly diverse writings, Hackers & Painters. I first came across his writing with his article, “A Plan For Spam,” on using Bayesian filtering to block spam and found it a well written and informative technical article. I next came across him some time later when he wrote an essay on his web site entitled “Hackers & Painters,” and once again it was well written, informative and (more importantly for an essayist) thought provoking. I was excited to hear he had published a volume of writing and pleased with the copy I received.

Literature has a long history of the essayist; since those famous theses on the church door at Wittenberg a well written and thought provoking essay on a topic has provided power and focus for important discussions. Graham has either learnt or discovered the important points in writing a good essay; brevity, quality writing and thought.

In this volume Graham covers a range of topics, though all are, understandably, centered on computers. Why nerds are unpopular at school, and what this demonstrates about our eduction system; why program in Lisp; the importance of “startups”, programming languages and web development are all touched on. At the same time he covers topics less techno-centric such as heretical thinking and speech. wealth creation and unequal income distribution.

I found myself disagreeing with him often while reading the book, though every time I did I found his argument compelling. I agree with Andy Hertzfeld, quoted on the back cover of the book, “He may even make you want to start programming in Lisp.” Graham is politically more conservative and right wing than me, he is also a fervent supporter of Lisp, while I’m a C and Perl advocate. It is telling that at no time did I find myself railing at his views, rather I was reading his arguments and giving them meme space. A good sign of a writer that does not indulge in unnecessary or extreme polemic.

Graham also tends to concentrate on a single point in each essay, allowing for both good coverage and a brief essay. Where he covers a larger context, such as high school education in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular” that opens the book, he seems to focus on just one or two good points of discussion.

The title essay is the second in the collection and provides an interesting look at hacking and some lessons we can learn by analogy to the work and life of Rennaissance painters, particularly in how it is done and how it can be funded. The third, “What You Can’t Say” is social commentary on heretical thinking. Four, “Good Bad Attitude” is on the benefits of breaking rules, both in life and hacking. Five, “The Other Road Ahead”, is an excellent look at web based software and why it offers benefits to both user and developer with Graham examining some lessons he learnt while building ViaWeb. Six, “How To Make Wealth”, is a look at becoming wealthy and how a ‘startup’ might be the best way to do it. The seventh, “Mind The Gap”, is an argument that we should not worry so much about ‘unequal wealth distribution’ and why it might actually be a good thing. From this list, and a look at the table of contents (available as a PDF on the O’Reilly page for the book), you can see that Graham covers a wide spectrum while never straying from topics he knows.

If I was forced to identify a weakness in this book it may well be that Graham does not evince doubt or uncertainty in his arguments, on a few occasions he may admit to a narrow view or knowledge but doubt or uncertainty don’t seem to enter his field of vision while he writes. This coupled with a single viewpoint makes the book less than all-encompassing in discussion. However, I must admit that it is almost impossible to be anything more with a single author and Graham may well be more honest than others who pick and choose the alternatives they present.

Most of the essays are available at Graham’s website, but frankly I am a fan of dead trees and appreciated that this book could be read on the bus or in bed. If you would prefer something you can read on the bus then a PDF of the second chapter, “Hackers & Painters” is available from the O’Reilly page.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to think about a number of topics important to the culture of our tiny corner of the world, computers and the net, while not ignoring the rest.

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