on October 2, 2004
The book is a interesting read but the title doesn't represent what the book is about. There is only a small chapter on painting and hacking, the rest is just essays on spam, startups & lisp. The book felt like a random collection of essays & opinions.
on July 9, 2004
Every so often a book comes along that blows the cobwebs out of some dark corner of my mind. "The Naked Ape", "Sperm Wars", "Guns, Germs, and Steel", and "The Mating Mind" for example;
each in its own way exhibiting our favorite species as a very different critter from the one we gawk at in the mirror.
I got a similar feeling reading the first third of "Hackers and Painters", reading about the prisons we call schools.and the nursuries we call suburbia.
The discussion of economics contains fewer original ideas, but explains clearly some things that every educated person needs to understand, but maybe nobody ever told you. The first half of the book will make fun reading for your active mind.
You have to be a hacker yourself to want to read the second half. At this point the purpose of the book is revealed - subtle ad copy for a new computer language called "arc". The first half are the apologia ( well, prologia ) justifying the audacity of saying out loud that for some purposes, lisp might be a better language than cobol, and forefending the dreaded charge of hate speech.
This is not, however, the endless Holy War between the acolytes of vi and emacs, which was once quashed with "editors, what editors, when I program I just type into the standard input of the compiler".
There's some tantalizing evidence that he's right.
I once got into a discussion with a very bright logician about the nature of mathematics. He was arguing that mathematics is the same thing as set theory, I was arguing that mathematics is the study of interesting axiomatic systems. In some sense it's a stupid argument - one of definitions. In another it's a tribal war over intellectual territory. But it's also possible that it goes to the nature of things in some intrinsic way. From the experience of the last nearly two decades, we can't settle that debate. I don't know if I was right or wrong, or even how meaningful the question was. But we do know now that mathematics is much more than set theory - the theory of topoi, which arose historically from algebraic topology, via category theory and algebraic geometry, subsumes set theory, and is by now clearly a more appropriate foundation for mathematics.
Now that we know that the typed lambda calculi of computational theory are precisely the same objects as the topoi of mathematical category theory, we have the curious coincidence tha t a central foundational notion of logic is identical to the central foundational notion of mathematics. When you get to the same rich ideas from multiple directions, particularly when the roads remember centuries of hard travel, it's time to sit up and pay attention.The last time this happened on that kind of scale, Descartes ushered in the scientific era.
It's probably not outrageous to suggest that a language which has the expressive power of this intellectual Rome could be more useful than one that does not - a suggestion made with intelligence, insight, and expensive anecdotal evidence.
Time for me to get serious about lisp
on July 4, 2004
This is an astonishingly good collection of essays. In lesser hands, any of the 15 essays here could have been a book by itself --- each packs more content than you can find in a typical one idea business book, or a typical one technology book for geeks. Yet his book is not dense or difficult: Graham's graceful style is a pleasure to read.
But what is it? Is it a business book, or a technical book? A bit of both actually, with a pinch of social criticism thrown in. There are essays on business --- particularly startups --- and essays on programming languages and how to combat spam, and one delightful one on the difficulty being a nerd in American public schools.
My favorite essay of the 15 --- and picking a favorite is itself a challenge --- is called "What you can't say". It is about heresy, not historical Middle Ages burned-at-the-stake heresy, but heresy today in 2004. And if you believe nothing is heretical today, that no idea today is so beyond the pale that it would provoke a purely emotional reaction to its very utterance, then read some of the other reviews. Graham's idea is not that all heresies are worth challenging publicly, or even that all heresies are wrong, but merely that there is value is being aware of what is heretical, so one can notice where the blind spots are.
on June 20, 2004
I have been reading Paul Graham's articles ever since he popped up on Slashdot a couple of years back. I was so excited to hear about the book, that I pre-ordered without waiting for the local edition that is 3-4x cheaper. I don't believe in objective reviews and ,strongly recommend this book to any above average nerd-types who have been suffering in silence in corporate software development environments. If you are deeply puzzled/frustrated with middle management, kool-aid languages/technology,etc., this book will provide you with deep insights into why things are the way they are.
The book is chockful of ideas and hints for getting out the nightmare, that a lot of dev groups are/have turned into. Start your own company , he says ! Why ? Because only in startups do measurability and leverage both ensure that you get what you are worth. In the typical corporate dev environment judging a person's worth or something more tangible like, contributions to specific projects is next to impossible for the typical IT manager. It doesn't matter how hard you work, since the average middle manager cannot measure your contribution. Forget leverage in large groups - you can do very little to alter the course of events in your dept. A few quotes from "How to make wealth" :
*'To get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things, measurement and leverage.You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you have to have leverage, in the sense that decisions you make have a big effect'
*'Smallness = Measurement'
* 'Technology = Leverage'
* 'Economically you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays well in technology, where you can earn a premium for working fast.'
This book is not crassly materialistic or anything of that sort - except for the chapters "How To make wealth", "Mind the Gap", and "Programming Languages explained" the other chapters are available on the author's website, and that covers a whole range of topics from LISP, the advantages of web based software, Design, etc.
The author does appear to paint with broad brush at times, but the book is overwhelmingly full of fresh insights ,and I think all the negative reviews are missing the wood for the trees.
on June 16, 2004
Paul Graham is an interesting character. He is both an outstanding hacker -- he created the software that became the foundation for Yahoo's shopping site and was an early advocate for Bayesian spam-filtering -- and an artistic painter. Mr. Graham sees no contradiction in all of this -- in fact he considers hacking and art to be nearly synonymous; hence, the title for this book (and an essay contained in the book).
*Hackers and Painters* is an anthology of some of Paul Graham's more provocative essays and lectures. The essays range from exploring the anthropology/sociology of hacking -- nerds (who as an earlier reviewer pointed out are unpopular) and the select of group of computer enthusiasts known as 'hackers.' The book also has his essays advocating the use of Lisp and Bayesian spam-filtering. The book also contains essays that can be considered social commentary (about academics, etc.).
I do NOT agree with all of what Paul Graham has to say. I do not think that Lisp is as useful a language as Paul Graham claims it to be. I don't appreciate his disparaging of concepts (and people) contrary to his own (e.g., bashing Perl, uncharitable remarks about computer scientists and mathematicians, etc.) Some of his social commentary seem ill informed or naive.
BUT -- in spite of all of that -- Paul Graham's essays are well worth reading. Where I do AGREE with him, I really appreciate his insights. I'm a big fan of his essay "Why nerds are unpopular" (contained in this book). With some reservations, I also admire his essays "Hackers and Painters" and essays on Bayesian spam-filtering.
Paul Graham is a great writer. If he wasn't so successful with programming in Lisp, he could have become just as successful with writing in the English language. Although his interest in writing is somewhat secondary to his many other interests, Paul Graham is extraordinary gifted in this arena as well. It's refreshing to see that -- contrary to stereotypes -- a hacker can be both a gifted artist and writer.
As for the complaint about Paul Graham's alleged disparaging of French lit PhDs. Frankly, I have heard many humanities types openly and crassly referring to scientist/engineering/technical types as idiots or worse, and vice versa. While I don't agree with chauvanism by left-brainers, make no mistake, right-brainers are also capable of narrow-minded snobbery as well. (BTW, what does comparing Paul Graham to some comedian have to do with anything? I prefer "unpopular nerds" like Paul to morons like the other reviewer from L.A.)
on June 7, 2004
This book with its series of essays reminds one of similar O'Reilly books like The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which contained essays about Open Source and Peer-to-Peer : Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies, a book containing essays about peer to peer networking. This time around, the subject of the essays is programming. The first essay about Nerds is dead on and reminds me of my junior high school days as one of the "uncool ones." The next one, "Hackers and Painters" comapres the two and shows how each are artists in their own right, a perspective I hadn't thought about before but one that makes sense, and one that other essays throughout the book refers to.
There are also essays about "ways to create your own wealth," and not from a standpoint of hot to get rich necessarily, but if that happens along the way, all the better. And related to that are Graham's thoughts on creating a succesful startup company, a "foolproof way" of getting rid of spam, what programming languages will be like in 100 years (and it makes one wonder if there will even be programming languages around then as we know them today), even a couple essays on how web based software could be the next "killer ap" and how Microsoft may get eclisped as the dominant company of today, just as they eclipsed IBM way back when.
Graham clearly offers some interesting ideas and comments in his essays, ones that you might not always agree with, but ones you have to at least consider and respect.
on May 29, 2004
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.
on June 20, 2004
Nerds will like the book, even if they feel defensive or irritated by Graham's comments that hit too close to home.
Hypersensitive types (pedants, "experts") should avoid the book -- Graham will gore your sacred cow, and the fact that such an insolent non-expert has cashed out with many millions will bother you. You'd best read something else.
If you are a programmer (who doesn't hack lisp), the book may really make you wonder. You may think that your favorite language is the best -- but do you really have enough experience to back it up?
Graham knows the languages you know. He chooses lisp. He and two other programmers built a $49 million company in 3 years. In the same time period, you didn't. In the "Fantasy Football" sense, you got whupped.
If this intrigues you, check out "On Lisp" (avail free online), by the same author, as it illustrates those things that a lisp master can do that you cannot.
on July 19, 2004
A friend of mine introduced me to this book and I am glad that he did. While I am not a programmer and, as a result, got lost a couple of times in the essays, "Beating the Averages" and "The Dream Language", I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
It clearly and crisply explains the art and science of programming and where it fits into a larger historical and social context. It also provides many thought-provoking insights for technical and non-technical folks alike.
You can see in Graham's writing style his passion for simple, succinct prose as well as code. It was a very pleasurable read.
on June 25, 2004
Paul Graham is a real genius who will only receive full recognition for his work very late, like the (now) famous people he talks of in his book. Rarely have I been enlightened on so many points, many of which are extremely subtle, in such a short time. I read rather a lot, but I have yet to come across an author who shares the fruit of his thinking so purely - I fully buy into the otherwise suspicious claim of pure curiosity as motivation.
Please keep writing, Paul!