Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

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Overview

"The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, inwhich you can shoot anyone you wish with your ideas, if you're willing to risk the consequences. " —from Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, by Paul Graham

We are living in the computer age, in a world increasingly designed and engineered by computer programmers and software designers, by people who call themselves hackers. Who are these people, what motivates them, and why should you care?

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Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

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Overview

"The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, inwhich you can shoot anyone you wish with your ideas, if you're willing to risk the consequences. " —from Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, by Paul Graham

We are living in the computer age, in a world increasingly designed and engineered by computer programmers and software designers, by people who call themselves hackers. Who are these people, what motivates them, and why should you care?

Consider these facts: Everything around us is turning into computers. Your typewriter is gone, replaced by a computer. Your phone has turned into a computer. So has your camera. Soon your TV will. Your car was not only designed on computers, but has more processing power in it than a room-sized mainframe did in 1970. Letters, encyclopedias, newspapers, and even your local store are being replaced by the Internet.

Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, by Paul Graham, explains this world and the motivations of the people who occupy it. In clear, thoughtful prose that draws on illuminating historical examples, Graham takes readers on an unflinching exploration into what he calls "an intellectual Wild West."

The ideas discussed in this book will have a powerful and lasting impact on how we think, how we work, how we develop technology, and how we live. Topics include the importance of beauty in software design, how to make wealth, heresy and free speech, the programming language renaissance, the open-source movement, digital design, Internet startups, and more.

And here's a taste of what you'll find in Hackers & Painters:

"In most fields the great work is done early on. The paintings made between 1430 and 1500 are still unsurpassed. Shakespeare appeared just as professional theater was being born, and pushed the medium so far that every playwright since has had to live in his shadow. Albrecht Durer did the same thing with engraving, and Jane Austen with the novel.

Over and over we see the same pattern. A new medium appears, and people are so excited about it that they explore most of its possibilities in the first couple generations. Hacking seems to be in this phase now.

Painting was not, in Leonardo's time, as cool as his work helped make it. How cool hacking turns out to be will depend on what we can do with this new medium."

Andy Hertzfeld, co-creator of the Macintosh computer, says about Hackers & Painters: "Paul Graham is a hacker, painter and a terrific writer. His lucid, humorous prose is brimming with contrarian insight and practical wisdom on writing great code at the intersection of art, science and commerce."

Paul Graham, designer of the new Arc language, was the creator of Yahoo Store, the first web-based application. In addition to his PhD in Computer Science from Harvard, Graham also studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
The programmer worldview has spread through the broader culture, touching millions of people in ways they don’t begin to realize. In Hackers and Painters, Paul Graham looks at that worldview straight on: a worldview of people who make new things, and want to make them as great as possible.

Along the way, Graham muses about everything from the reasons pro basketball players aren’t overpaid to the reasons teenage nerds are so unpopular (it’s a full-time job being popular, and they’re otherwise occupied). There are trenchant observations on how good design happens; on the value of searching out heretical ideas; on what programming languages might look like in 100 years. You won’t agree with everything, but you’ll be challenged and fascinated throughout. Even the footnotes are worth reading. Bill Camarda

Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2003 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks for Dummies, Second Edition.

Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Big Ideas From the Computer Age
As more and more aspects of our lives - typewriters, phones, cameras, cars, etc. - become computerized, the need to understand the world of computer programmers becomes more and more apparent. In Hackers & Painters, computer science expert and painter Paul Graham examines the world of computer programmers and what motivates them to create the most important technical breakthroughs. While discussing the many issues that have accompanied the computer's rise to prominence in our lives, Graham attempts to answer many of the questions that have emerged along the way.

For starters, Graham explains that the word "hacker" has more than one definition. Although many might think of a hacker as a malicious malcontent who breaks into computers, the hackers who Graham refers to throughout Hackers & Painters are the good computer programmers who make all the magic of computers happen at the touch of a finger.

Graham's first chapter, "Why Nerds Are Unpopular," attempts to explain why smart children are at the bottom of the food chain in high school, and describes the dilemmas facing them when they are too young and unorganized to put their gifts into action. While contemplating the terms "character" and "integrity," Graham follows his own progress from nerd to computer scientist to painter. He explains that painters and computer hackers have much in common, including the desire to make good things.

Masterpieces and Software
When comparing the development of great software to the creation of a painted masterpiece, Graham points to Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra de' Benci. He explains that da Vinci's painting is not great simply because of the beautiful form of the woman in the foreground, but is arresting because of the immense attention to background and foreground details that produces a complete and stunning work. Graham writes, "Great software, likewise, requires a fanatical devotion to beauty. If you look inside good software, you find that parts no one is ever supposed to see are beautiful too."

Ambition and Routine
When discussing the intricacies of hacking and the management of it, he explains that the ups and downs of inspiration must be taken into account. "In both painting and hacking there are some tasks that are terrifyingly ambitious, and others that are comfortingly routine. It's a good idea to save some easy tasks for moments when you could otherwise stall."

Graham, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard and has studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design as well as the Accademia in Florence, Italy, points out that the similarities between hackers and painters are endless. For example, he writes, "Like painting, most software is intended for a human audience. And so hackers, like painters, must have empathy to do really great work. You have to be able to see things from the user's point of view."

Hackers & Painters can be seen as a compilation of essays, each held within a single chapter, that explore the concepts of creativity and computer programming as seen through the eyes of an imaginative thinker who has strong and personal ideas on all the subjects he attacks. Along the way, he describes how spam can be destroyed, the role of "taste" in the creative process, how programming languages work, what type of programming language will exist in 100 years, and how his Viaweb startup created the first Web-based application. Although each chapter can be digested alone without the others, together they form a well-rounded view of the many worlds that are taking place beneath the surface of our language, our computers, and our culture.

Why We Like This Book
Hackers & Painters goes beyond personal memoir and business handbook, landing at a more unique place where personal and business experiences combine, providing the perfect canvas on which to paint clear directions for those managing hackers, and the hackers themselves. Full of positive advice and leadership tips, Graham offers his readers a road map to the computerized future. Copyright © 2005 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780596006624
  • Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/28/2004
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Graham , designer of the new Arc language, was the creator of Yahoo Store, the first web-based application. His technique for spam filtering inspired most current filters. He has a PhD in Computer Science from Harvard and studied painting at RISD and the Accademia in Florence.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments;
Image Credits;
Note to readers;
Preface;
Chapter 1: Why Nerds Are Unpopular;
Chapter 2: Hackers and Painters;
Chapter 3: What You Can't Say;
3.1 The Conformist Test;
3.2 Trouble;
3.3 Heresy;
3.4 Time and Space;
3.5 Prigs;
3.6 Mechanism;
3.7 Why;
3.8 Pensieri Stretti;
3.9 Viso Sciolto?;
3.10 Always Be Questioning;
Chapter 4: Good Bad Attitude;
Chapter 5: The Other Road Ahead;
5.1 The Next Thing?;
5.2 The Win for Users;
5.3 City of Code;
5.4 Releases;
5.5 Bugs;
5.6 Support;
5.7 Morale;
5.8 Brooks in Reverse;
5.9 Watching Users;
5.10 Money;
5.11 Customers;
5.12 Son of Server;
5.13 Microsoft;
5.14 Startups but More So;
5.15 Just Good Enough;
5.16 Why Not?;
Chapter 6: How to Make Wealth;
6.1 The Proposition;
6.2 Millions, not Billions;
6.3 Money Is Not Wealth;
6.4 The Pie Fallacy;
6.5 Craftsmen;
6.6 What a Job Is;
6.7 Working Harder;
6.8 Measurement and Leverage;
6.9 Smallness = Measurement;
6.10 Technology = Leverage;
6.11 The Catch(es);
6.12 Get Users;
6.13 Wealth and Power;
Chapter 7: Mind the Gap;
7.1 The Daddy Model of Wealth;
7.2 Stealing It;
7.3 The Lever of Technology;
7.4 Alternative to an Axiom;
Chapter 8: A Plan for Spam;
Chapter 9: Taste for Makers;
Chapter 10: Programming Languages Explained;
10.1 Machine Language;
10.2 High-Level Languages;
10.3 Open Source;
10.4 Language Wars;
10.5 Abstractness;
10.6 Seat Belts or Handcuffs?;
10.7 OO;
10.8 Renaissance;
Chapter 11: The Hundred-Year Language;
Chapter 12: Beating the Averages;
12.1 The Secret Weapon;
12.2 The Blub Paradox;
12.3 Aikido for Startups;
Chapter 13: Revenge of the Nerds;
13.1 Catching Up with Math;
13.2 What Made Lisp Different;
13.3 Where Languages Matter;
13.4 Centripetal Forces;
13.5 The Cost of Being Average;
13.6 A Recipe;
13.7 Appendix: Power;
Chapter 14: The Dream Language;
14.1 The Mechanics of Popularity;
14.2 External Factors;
14.3 Succinctness;
14.4 Hackability;
14.5 Throwaway Programs;
14.6 Libraries;
14.7 Efficiency;
14.8 Time;
14.9 Redesign;
14.10 The Dream Language;
Chapter 15: Design and Research;
Notes;
Chapter 1;
Chapter 2;
Chapter 3;
Chapter 4;
Chapter 5;
Chapter 6;
Chapter 7;
Chapter 8;
Chapter 9;
Chapter 10;
Chapter 11;
Chapter 12;
Chapter 13;
Chapter 14;
Glossary;

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2006

    From the mind of a master

    If you've never heard of Paul Graham, this book provides an excellent introduction. Paul is a hacker (in the original sense of the word), a technology innovator and a philosopher for the computer age. This book of essays runs the gamut from 'why nerds are unpopular' to fixing the spam problem to what makes a 'dream language'. As Paul says in the intro, each chapter is independent of the others and you can skip around as you like. You'll get the general feel for Paul's ideas in all of the essays and some overlap is evident. I read the book straight through and enjoyed every chapter. Paul is a master of the Lisp language and describes how some modern languages are heading in the direction of Lisp. To solve really tough problems in a less powerful language, you tend to end up writing a Lisp interpreter in that language. He also describes why everyone isn't using Lisp for every program they write. If you are a hacker or hacker wannabe, this book offers excellent insight into the mind of a master. If you are a 'pointy-haired' manager, you'll get a better understanding of how truly talented programmers think. If you are involved in a startup company, this book describes several topics that might help give you a competitive edge. Most of all, this is a really fun book that will earn a permanent space on your bookshelf.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2004

    Read it carefully

    Graham presents 15 essays revolving around computer programming. From his own background, he extols the virtues of breaking out on your own and forming a startup. If you are very capable as a programmer and you can find a few others (<10) of similar ability, and you then tackle a hard problem that afflicts many, great success might be yours. He cautions that of course, most startups fail. Some of his suggestions are intriguing and have been said by others. Like when he suggests doing hard problems, because these act as a barrier to entry to your competitors. He also suggest using Lisp as a development language, claiming that it gives you a productivity edge over someone coding in a different, less capable language. But he also says that large support libraries are also important. Well, in many applications, this latter factor may outweight using Lisp. For example, a Java programmer would not relish giving up her Swing graphics or the Collection classes, or have to recode these in Lisp if she can't find the equivalent functionality in an existing Lisp library. Likewise, a C++ programmer doesn't want to abandon the Standard Template Library. His chapter on using Bayesians against spam is outdated from the moment this book was published. Since Bayesians started getting deployed by mail servers, spammers have responded by poisoning the Bayesians. They put words or entire sentences that have innocuous content. In fact, content that is likely to occur in non-spam messages. This has been happening since late 2003. (Just yesterday, 28 May 2004, the Wall St Journal carried an article describing the phenomenon.) The broadening causes two things. Firstly, it increases the chances that a spam passes through the Bayesian and into your inbox. Secondly, and worse, it increases the chances that a non-spam gets misdiagnosed by the Bayesian as spam. If it then gets put into your spam mail directory, you may never see it. Overall, this book has some good ideas. But be cautious and don't accept everything in it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2013

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