Book Report: Hackers & Painters by Paul Grahm

I'm home all by myself this weekend (the missus took the baby to CA to visit family for a few days) so I am at long last catching up on some reading. Today's book is

Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age


Paul Graham

. It is a selection of Paul Graham's essays collected into a single volume, most notably Hackers & Painters. Paul Graham is the co-founder of Viaweb, an early software as a service provider that was later sold to Yahoo in 1998. He then co-founded the Y-combinator startup incubator. He blogs and speaks regularly on topics of startups, hacking, and creative collaboration. Though the book was first published in 2004 it has aged pretty well because Paul mostly focuses on timeless topics: Why are hackers the way they are?. Startups are a great way to create wealth. Musings on programming languages. His chapter on web based software: The Other Road Ahead is not only still relevant, but more relevant than ever before. Software as a Service is now the order of the day. While he missed the concept of shipping software as a packaged mobile app instead of just websites, he got the core concepts of always available, always updated software right on. Over all I like the book. The musings about what makes a good programming language towards the end are especially good, though you may come to the conclusion that all languages eventually grow to become inferior dialects of Lisp. My biggest beef isn't so much with the book but with Paul Graham's tone. Sometimes he steps beyond merely authoritative to become overbearing and down right arrogant. Especially in the name sake chapter on Hackers and Painters one gets the impression that Paul can be quite a know-it-all dick when he wants to be. He puts his kind of person, the hacker, on a pedestal: equating the best hackers with the great painters of the Renaissance. Uber-men who are experts in many fields and outperform the work of 30 mediocre employees. This attitude of superiority pervades the book and can become a turn off for the reader. But the thing is: throughout the book he's completely right. In virtually every essay he digs into the topic and divines the underlying truth, even when we might not which to acknowledge it. He even has a chapter on that topic:

What You Can't Say

. I suspect his peculiar narrative tone simply reflects how Paul is in real life. I have to respect people who write how they speak. I always strive for honesty in my writing as well. Would I ever want to work with Mr Graham in his startup incubator? I don't know. I haven't met him. He may be a right jolly fellow in person. In any case, I enjoyed reading the book and will read his further essays on his


, just always knowing to adjust the tone to my personal liking. I have only two real complaints with

Hackers & Painters

. First, the chapter on catching spam seems very out of place with the rest of the book. Not that I didn't like it, just it was more technical rather than discussing more universal topics. Second, he has several chapters which discuss the programming language of the future, or one that might last 100 years. He dives into the problems that must be solved but never proposes any real solutions. I'm not asking for a full BNF but a few examples of what such a dynamic concise super-language would look like might be handy. But then. I suspect it would just be

full of parenthesis

. One final item: read the notes section at the end. More than just the footnotes for the book, the provide more entertaining tidbits to ponder and entice further trips to Wikipedia.

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Posted November 6th, 2011

Tagged: bookreview