/ 5-stars

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

GoodReads: 5 stars

I was looking at my highlights for Paul Graham's "Hackers and Painters" and it seems like I basically highlighted the entire book. It's that good. At its core, this is a book about how changes in technology (particularly computer tech) have changed economic and social realities... and the new breed of tech-savvy doers that these technological shifts have brought to the forefront of our society.

Graham begins at the beginning of the alpha-nerd's journey - middle school. He launches a withering salvo of criticism at the current educational system - a system which he fashions more of a prison than a temple of learning. He's a sharp critic of what he proclaims "the emptiness of school life" and he points out that "Misrule breeds rebellion" (in reference to troubled schools). Graham also contends that the total lack of real purpose in schools is the root of the crazy teenage drama that goes on in middle schools and high schools around the country.

He moves on to discussing the role of "makers" in society - from the eponymous hackers to painters. He makes a great observation - which is that while both of these professions involve creating things, painting has a far longer tradition of training and educating its practitioners. Graham notes that almost all great programmers are self-taught, but the lack of a good training regimen for programmers means that society misses out on a lot of potentially great hackers.

Graham touches on the often subversive, counter-authority, and contrarian culture of hackers - emphasizing how goddamn patriotic it is to be a hacker. He also goes on a bit of a (justified) rant against political correctness and moral fashions - noting that, "when people are bad at open mindedness, they don't know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. Remember, it's the nature of fashion to be invisible. It wouldn't work otherwise"

In the next section of the book, Graham discusses the nature of writing code itself, highlighting the design, complexity, and craftsmanship of software. The rest of the book is a rant on programming languages and a lot of love for the esoteric Lisp programming language. Probably not of general interest.

Overall though, this book really blew me away. Everything he says seems obvious in retrospect, but that's because he's a genius. The way he approaches this immense topic is totally unique among all the stuff I've read and Graham certainly has the credentials to back it up. Required reading for citizens of the 21st century.


Chapter 1. Why Nerds Are Unpopular

Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires. Unless they also happen to be good-looking, natural athletes, or siblings of popular kids, they’ll tend to become nerds. And that’s why smart people’s lives are worst between, say, the ages of eleven and seventeen. Life at that age revolves far more around popularity than before or after.

When the things you do have real effects, it’s no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that’s where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue. The other thing that’s different about the real world is that it’s much larger. In a large enough pool, even the smallest minorities can achieve a critical mass if they clump together. Out in the real world, nerds collect in certain places and form their own societies

Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so at the time.

What happened? We’re up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don’t start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

Misrule breeds rebellion; this is not a new idea.

And yet the authorities still for the most part act as if drugs were themselves the cause of the problem. The real problem is the emptiness of school life. We won’t see solutions till adults realize that. The adults who may realize it first are the ones who were themselves nerds in school.

Chapter 2. Hackers and Painters

What hackers and painters have in common is that they’re both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things.

While we’re on the subject of static typing, identifying with the makers will save us from another problem that afflicts the sciences: math envy. Everyone in the sciences secretly believes that mathematicians are smarter than they are. I think mathematicians also believe this.

If you want to make money at some point, remember this, because this is one of the reasons startups win. Big companies want to decrease the standard deviation of design outcomes because they want to avoid disasters. But when you damp oscillations, you lose the high points as well as the low. This is not a problem for big companies, because they don’t win by making great products. Big companies win by sucking less than other big companies.

When I say that the answer is for hackers to have day jobs, and work on beautiful software on the side, I’m not proposing this as a new idea. This is what open source hacking is all about. What I’m saying is that open source is probably the right model, because it has been independently confirmed by all the other makers.

Writers do this too. Benjamin Franklin learned to write by summarizing the points in the essays of Addison and Steele and then trying to reproduce them. Raymond Chandler did the same thing with detective stories.

Relentlessness wins because, in the aggregate, unseen details become visible.

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.

Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that looking at things from other people’s point of view is practically the secret of success.

Source code, too, should explain itself. If I could get people to remember just one quote about programming, it would be the one at the beginning of Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. Programs should be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.

Chapter 3. What You Can’t Say

I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.

When a politician says his opponent is mistaken, that’s a straightforward criticism, but when he attacks a statement as “divisive” or “racially insensitive” instead of arguing that it’s false, we should start paying attention.

The mechanism of their adoption seems much the same. The early adopters will be driven by ambition: self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd. As the fashion becomes established they’ll be joined by a second, much larger group, driven by fear. This second group adopt the fashion not because they want to stand out but because they are afraid of standing out.

Scientists go looking for trouble. This should be the m.o. of any scholar, but scientists seem much more willing to look under rocks. Why? It could be that the scientists are simply smarter; most physicists could, if necessary, make it through a PhD program in French literature, but few professors of French literature could make it through a PhD program in physics. Or it could be because it’s clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, and this makes scientists bolder.

Whatever the reason, there seems a clear correlation between intelligence and willingness to consider shocking ideas.

Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.

The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts. I think it’s better to follow the opposite policy. Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. Within my head I make a point of encouraging the most outrageous thoughts I can imagine. But, as in a secret society, nothing that happens within the building should be told to outsiders. The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club.

So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it’s also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know.

Zealots will try to draw you out, but you don’t have to answer them. If they try to force you to treat a question on their terms by asking “are you with us or against us?” you can always just answer “neither.” Better still, answer “I haven’t decided.” That’s what Larry Summers did when a group tried to put him in this position. Explaining himself later, he said “I don’t do litmus tests.” A lot of the questions people get hot about are actually quite complicated. There is no prize for getting the answer quickly.

But when people are bad at open mindedness, they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. Remember, it’s the nature of fashion to be invisible. It wouldn’t work otherwise.

Chapter 4. Good Bad Attitude

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of American-ness. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan. In those countries, people color inside the lines.

There is such a thing as American-ness. There’s nothing like living abroad to teach you that. And if you want to know whether something will nurture or squash this quality, it would be hard to find a better focus group than hackers, because they come closest of any group I know to embodying it.

When you read what the founding fathers had to say for themselves, they sound more like hackers. “The spirit of resistance to government,” Jefferson wrote, “is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be kept alive.” Imagine an American president saying that today. Like the remarks of an outspoken old grandmother, the sayings of the the founding fathers have embarrassed generations of their less confident successors. They remind us where we come from. They remind us that it is the people who break rules that are the source of America’s wealth and power.

Chapter 5. The Other Road Ahead

And so designing web-based software is like designing a city rather than a building: as well as buildings you need roads, street signs, utilities, police and fire departments, and plans for both growth and various kinds of disasters.

desktop computers won because startups wrote software for them.

There are only two things you have to know about business: build something users love, and make more than you spend.

Chapter 6. How to Make Wealth

If you wanted to get rich, how would you do it? I think your best bet would be to start or join a startup. That’s been a reliable way to get rich for hundreds of years. The word “startup” dates from the 1960s, but what happens in one is very similar to the venture-backed trading voyages of the Middle Ages. Startups usually involve technology, so much so that the phrase “high-tech startup” is almost redundant. A startup is a small company that takes on a hard technical problem. Lots of people get rich knowing nothing more than that.

If you want to create wealth, it will help to understand what it is. Wealth is not the same thing as money. Wealth is as old as human history. Far older, in fact; ants have wealth. Money is a comparatively recent invention. Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money.

But with the rise of industrialization there are fewer and fewer craftsmen. One of the biggest remaining groups is computer programmers.

A more direct way to put it would be: you need to start doing something people want. You don’t need to join a company to do that.

If you want to go faster, it’s a problem to have your work tangled together with a large number of other people’s. In a large group, your performance is not separately measurable — and the rest of the group slows you down.

I think every one who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. Everyone I can think of does: CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes. A good hint to the presence of leverage is the possibility of failure.

Making wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally wealth had a bad reputation. Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world’s history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns.

Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization. A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace.

Understanding this may help to answer an important question: why Europe grew so powerful. Was it something about the geography of Europe? Was it that Europeans are somehow racially superior? Was it their religion? The answer (or at least the proximate cause) may be that the Europeans rode on the crest of a powerful new idea: allowing those who made a lot of money to keep it.

In that respect the Cold War teaches the same lesson as World War II and, for that matter, most wars in recent history. Don’t let a ruling class of warriors and politicians squash the entrepreneurs. The same recipe that makes individuals rich makes countries powerful. Let the nerds keep their lunch money, and you rule the world.

Chapter 7. Mind the Gap

In the United States, the CEO of a large public company makes about 100 times as much as the average person. Basketball players make about 128 times as much, and baseball players 72 times as much. Editorials quote this kind of statistic with horror. But I have no trouble imagining that one person could be 100 times as productive as another. In ancient Rome the price of slaves varied by a factor of 50 depending on their skills.

People like baseball more than poetry, so baseball players make more than poets. To say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things.

But it was not till the Industrial Revolution that wealth creation definitively replaced corruption as the best way to get rich. In England, at least, corruption only became unfashionable (and in fact only started to be called “corruption”) when there started to be other, faster ways to get rich.

Technology had made it possible to create wealth faster than you could steal it. The prototypical rich man of the nineteenth century was not a courtier but an industrialist.

Will technology increase the gap between rich and poor? It will certainly increase the gap between the productive and the unproductive. That’s the whole point of technology. With a tractor an energetic farmer could plow six times as much land in a day as he could with a team of horses. But only if he mastered a new kind of farming.

Technology should increase the gap in income, but it seems to decrease other gaps. A hundred years ago, the rich led a different kind of life from ordinary people. They lived in houses full of servants, wore elaborately uncomfortable clothes, and travelled about in carriages drawn by teams of horses which themselves required their own houses and servants. Now, thanks to technology, the rich live more like the average person.

Brand is the residue left as the substantive differences between rich and poor evaporate.

Will people create wealth if they can’t get paid for it? Only if it’s fun. People will write operating systems for free. But they won’t install them, or take support calls, or train customers to use them. And at least 90% of the work that even the highest tech companies do is of this second, unedifying kind.

It’s absolute poverty you want to avoid, not relative poverty. If, as the evidence so far implies, you have to have one or the other in your society, take relative poverty. You need rich people in your society not so much because in spending their money they create jobs, but because of what they have to do to get rich. I’m not talking about the trickle-down effect here. I’m not saying that if you let Henry Ford get rich, he’ll hire you as a waiter at his next party. I’m saying that he’ll make you a tractor to replace your horse.

Chapter 9. Taste for Makers

Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true.

GOOD DESIGN IS SIMPLE. You hear this from math to painting. In math it means that a shorter proof tends to be a better one. Where axioms are concerned, especially, less is more.

I think it’s because humor is related to strength. To have a sense of humor is to be strong: to keep one’s sense of humor is to shrug off misfortunes, and to lose one’s sense of humor is to be wounded by them. And so the mark — or at least the prerogative — of strength is not to take oneself too seriously. The confident will often, like swallows, seem to be making fun of the whole process slightly, as Hitchcock does in his films or Bruegel in his paintings (or Shakespeare, for that matter).

Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems.

Chapter 11. The Hundred-Year Language

Languages evolve slowly because they’re not really technologies. Languages are notation. A program is a formal description of the problem you want a computer to solve for you. So the rate of evolution in programming languages is more like the rate of evolution in mathematical notation than, say, transportation or communications. Mathematical notation does evolve, but not with the giant leaps you see in technology.

Chapter 13. Revenge of the Nerds

So the short explanation of why this 1950s language is not obsolete is that it was not technology but math, and math doesn’t get stale.

If you really want to understand Lisp, or just expand your programming horizons, I would learn more about macros.

Chapter 15. Design and Research

Morale is key in design. I’m surprised people don’t talk more about it. One of my first drawing teachers told me: if you’re bored when you’re drawing something, the drawing will look boring.

Max Nova

Max Nova

I love books! My reading theme for 2018 is "Crime and Punishment." I'm also the founder of www.SilviaTerra.com.

Read More