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Hackers & Painters

Big Ideas from the Computer Age

by Paul Graham

Hackers & Painters
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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 (c) 2005 Soundview Executive Book Summaries