Paul Graham: Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age book critique


Paul Graham: Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age


I finished reading Dave Sim's Collected Letters 2004 before reading Paul Graham's Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age. Dave Sim, while not exploring a lot of topics, explores his topics with a great deal of depth. His arguments are tight. I say this because Paul Graham's writing is not so tight. He opens his essays to contradiction and questions because he doesn't back up his own statements, and is loose with the definitions of words he uses.

I got roped into the book with his chapter on wealth. His chapters on startups and web-based programming seem inspiring. But I didn't find the rest of the book as engaging.


I have a problem with Paul Graham's usage of "you." He never clarifies who this "you" is. Does he mean me personally? Does he mean a figurative person with questionable abilities? Does he mean himself? Does he mean the average reader or the average person in the population?

If he means me personally, he's wrong.

If he means a figurative person of questionable abilities, then it belabors his point -- revealing that he's fabricating generalizations to suit his argument.

If he means himself, then he should have said so even if the colloquialisms is to use "you" instead of "I."

If he means a statistically average reader or average person, he needs to back it up with numbers.

Paul Graham is trying to make a point about big ideas and can't afford to be imprecise. Introducing such imprecision brings any and all of his statements to question and weakens all the points he's trying to make. In the meantime, I assume he means "I" when he writes "you" given that that would be the most legitimate interpretation in an intellectual essay.


Paul Graham mentions fashion many times, and he seems to have a different idea of what it is and what its effects are each time he uses it.

On page 34, he says fashion is invisible. In chapter one, he says kids dress to look good to other kids. Though, on page 44, he says you can see convention in dress. On page 48, he says it's the nature of fashion to be invisible. On page 132, he says relativism is fashionable. On page 133, he says fashions change with time. On page 138, he says symmetry is unfashionable. On page 38, he says social questions are fashion.

How am I to resolve these usages of the word "fashion?" Do I take them to mean the same thing? Do I take them to mean different things in context? What are those different things: clothing, societal trends, personal preferences? I can't make an intellectual argument if I don't know what the author is getting at in the first place and what other concepts he's trying to connect them to.


The whole chapter about high school is a mystery to me. I'm 37 years old and I don't think about high school at all. I admit that it was a socially unhappy time, but I wouldn't think to analyze why it was unhappy. Is this therapeutic to the author? Is this book aimed at high school kids? Am I missing the big ideas in this chapter?

On page 3, Paul Graham says that high school kids want to be popular. I say, I wanted to be left alone so I could get my work done in peace.


On page 26, Paul Graham writes: "Scientists don't learn science by doing it, but by doing labs and problem sets." Unless "it" refers to something besides "science," and unless the labs and problem sets are for another subject, he completely contradicts himself.

Also, he talks about "hacking" and "programming" as though they're the same thing. I think there's a difference between the two. Hacking is the chipping away at a programming problem on the computer until it's solved. Programming is typing a solution. Programs work the first time. Hacks are experiments. I'll give him credit that there may be some hacking on a problem set involved before programming an entire project. I think it's bad a bad habit to hack in place of programming.

Paul Graham advocates hacking as a life-style choice, but I advocate getting it right the first time. By "it," I mean whatever you present to the public. Perhaps he implies that hacking is done in private and only the solution is presented to the public, but he never says so.

On page 33, Paul Graham implies that hacking will seem cool in posterity like painting. First of all, I dislike when he makes predictions like this. He doesn't know what will happen in the future any more than the rest of us. He doesn't have a basis for this prediction except for his own opinion that painting is cool and hacking is like painting.

In chapter 10, Paul Graham noticeably confuses "you" for "I" because the chapter is meant for non-programmers. Unless he's forcing insight down the reader's brain cavity by saying things like "...if you wanted to tell a computer to do something 10 times using actual machine instructions, you'd have to say something like...", and "Open source gives you a lot more control." Maybe I'm belaboring the point, but the "you" he's referring to is not a programmer and may never become one, so it would be better to use a third person an attribute these wants and needs to him.

His simple explanation of high level language in Chapter 10 doesn't refer back to itself. For example, Paul Graham says that high-level language becomes "object code", but he started the chapter explaining "machine language." As a programmer, I know this is the same thing. But this chapter is meant for non-programmers who'll get lost in the flood of inside jargon. Not a serviceable chapter.

I'm not sure what big ideas are actually presented in Chapter 10, nor what target demographic would find anything in chapter 10 as a big idea. Programmers would find the chapter elementary. Non-programmers would find nothing in there that would affect their lives if they were to know it. Budding programmers would be better of finding a tutorial in the specific language of their choice.


On page 37, Paul Graham advises that one should pay attention to labels of disagreement because it reveals a fear of truth in the opposing statement. This is an excellent point. A simple label tries to suppress a truth that goes against policy and self-interest.

On page 39, Paul Graham declares that the shocked side is likely mistaken. I can think of a lot of shocking things, and I find it hard to believe that I'm mistaken to be shocked about them rather than accept them: atheism, pedophilia, suicide bombings, stoning adulterers, hard-core pornography, unprovoked invasions.

On page 41-42, Paul Graham makes the point that taboos are created by the powerful yet nervous -- powerful enough to enforce them, but weak enough to need them. I don't follow this at all. A taboo is a prohibition and has nothing to do with need. Of course, one has to be powerful to *enforce* a taboo. But how can one be powerful and weak at the same time? Why is needing a taboo a sign a weakness? He seems to have a point that enforcement of taboos is a power struggle. A point that seems to be diluted with the additional suppositions.

On page 43, Paul Graham admits to want to avoid believing things that will be deemed ridiculous. This reveals a weak character in the face of his comments in chapters 1, 3 and 9, among other chapters, where he pointed out that contrary thinking is good.

On page 43, Paul Graham takes on an elitist view on science over other fields of study -- "scientists are simply smarter." It's an I-could-do-it-if-I-wanted-to attitude that belies that he couldn't do it so he doesn't want to. Without backing up this point, he takes it as a given to further more points about conventional thinking.

On page 45, Paul Graham says that if one argues with idiots, one becomes an idiot. As an aside, Dave Sim thinks everyone else is wrong, so what does that make him?

On page 46, Paul Graham advocates being evasive in controversial discussions in which people disagree with him. I don't know how to address that. It's ok to think differently, as long as you don't talk about it? Talk differently only with people who agree with you? His point about free speech breaks down if he doesn't allow himself to talk about his ideas.

On page 48, Paul Graham makes a point that calling a statement false is more damning than attacking the character of the person making the statement. Otherwise, one allows that the statement is true but contradictory to policy.

On page 51, I find it amusing that he approves of disobedient hackers annoying those in authority, then finds fake eccentricities that hackers adopt annoying himself. Annoying is good, unless they annoy him? Though he concludes that disobedient hackers in general a net win.

On page 53, I find Paul Graham's comment naive. "Why are programmers so violently opposed to [intellectual property] laws? If I were a legislator, I'd be interested in this mystery -- for the same reason that, if I were a farmer and suddenly heard a lot of squawking coming from my hen house one night, I'd want to go out and investigate. Hackers are not stupid, and unanimity is very rare in this world. So if they're all squawking, perhaps there is something amiss." Let me point out that it's the big media companies that are the squawking hens. After all, they're the ones laying the eggs. It's the hackers who are the unwanted predators in the hen house as far as the farmer legislator is concerned.


On page 54, Paul Graham says that civil liberties make countries rich. He really needs a graph to show the correlation. That is, assuming he used actual data and isn't just making a hypothesis and using it as a foundation for further conclusions.

On page 55, Paul Graham is thinking highly of himself again equating hacker-ness with American-ness: "people who broke the rules are source of America's wealth and power." Surely he's not saying that all people who break rules become wealthy and powerful. Also, I don't believe he's saying that America's wealthy and powerful all broke rules. Such a statement begs the question, "which rules should I be breaking to become wealthy and powerful?" But Paul Graham doesn't follow up on that statement. Not unless he means that it's all about hacking and painting.

On page 226 (chapter 5, footnote 1), Paul Graham makes the comment that "...every technophile would buy one." That's pure speculation that surely needs supporting data.

On page 227 (chapter 5, footnote 6), Paul Graham tantalizes the reader that there were two worst things about his software, then fails to say what they were. I don't know what the point of the footnote in that respect.

On page 76, Paul Graham makes the point that big companies pay extra for the cost of selling expensive things to them. "If the Defense Department pays a thousand dollars for toilet seats, it's partly because it costs a lot to sell toilet seats for a thousand dollars." This is an excellent point. I extrapolate that the overhead of running an expensive company makes their product expensive, even if that overhead is mostly marketing.

On page 228 (chapter 5, footnote 15), Paul Graham asked why adding new features to HTML had to stop. My opinion is that HTML was growing haphazardly, with formatting information mixed in with content. XHTML solves this problem by separating formatting information from the data presented. Of course, Paul Graham advocates hacking over programming, so he doesn't see the kludging of HTML to do more and more things as a problem.

Page 84 strikes me as nothing more than rah-rah pep talk advocating start-ups. My friend and colleague, Karl, pointed out that Paul Graham is a venture capitalist and offers contests on his website for budding start-ups to receive funding. So, I'm offended to have paid for a book that is partially intended as marketing for his efforts.

On page 116, Paul Graham says that the only point of buying an expensive car is to advertise that you can. This stands out personally because my friend, Paul, bought a BMW. He bought it for its fine German engineering, which argued against my belief that he was buying it for the prestige. He even felt offended when people assumed he was wealthier than they (and asked for hand-outs) because he drove a BMW. He ended up trading the car in for a Japanese mini-van because he kept taking the BMW in for repairs. I, on the other hand, bought a Mazda 6 for nearly $10,000 less and, except for the automatic transmission and less head-room, have all the qualities he was looking for, without all the repair headaches.

On page 117, Paul Graham says that idleness is lonely and demoralizing. It's just a comment that stands out for me.

On page 117, Paul Graham imagines "if Lenin walked around the offices of a company like Yahoo or Intel or Cisco, he'd think communism had won. Everyone would be wearing the same clothes, have the same kind of office (or rather, cubicle) with the same furnishings, and address one another by their first names instead of honorifics. Everything would seem exactly as he'd predicted, until he looked at their bank accounts. Ooops." Well, no. Lenin would compare the wealth at those companies to the poor of your typical resident in New Orleans. The disparity between the well-to-do and the poor would offend Lenin. Paul Graham is in his ivory tower if he thinks the wealthy and the poor can be compared within a corporate building, but even then he's disregarding the food clerks, the janitors, the groundskeepers and so on. You won't see them in cubicles wearing the same clothes addressing the CEO by his first name.

On page 118, Paul Graham postulates that variation in income is a sign of a healthy society. I agree with his argument, though I think he's neglecting the social ills that come from having people starting out at the bottom with no means of escaping the bottom. Everyone needs a subsistence income to start out with. I would postulate that starting income corresponds to one's wealth for the rest of his life.

Though the chapter on wealth roped me into the book, a friend of mine mocked me when I read him portions of the chapter. He said that this was the concept of commodities that he learned in grade school.


Let's see if I got this straight: taste = beauty = good design = elegant design = simple = timeless = solving the right problem = suggestive = slightly funny = hard = good pain = looks easy = redesign = strange = true = strategic = daring. Also, beauty has symmetry (recursion and repetition), resembles nature, can copy, happens in chunks, comes with practice and is not a substitute for thought. (To come up with this list, not only am I recounting the section headings, but some additional tidbits inside those sections. This should tell you as it did me how Paul Graham hacked together this book.)

If you're suspicious about any of these relations, then I'm with you. Paul Graham doesn't seem to explain some of these relations without introducing new relations without explanation. For example, he explains that good design is hard, but there is good pain and bad pain. And, "a difficult problem could be good for a designer, but a fickle client or unreliable materials would not be." So, there's good hard and bad hard, and only the good hard is good design. What?!?!

I have to admit, I don't know what the definition of "is" is that Paul Graham is working under. I keep thinking it means equality, though there are times I suspect he means to say "contains the property of." (Now that I look it up on, the sixth definition for one entry for "is" is "to belong; befall: Peace be unto you. Woe is me.") I hope a scholarly work would be precise.

Paul Graham devotes a whole chapter to good design, yet his book places foot notes at the end of the book, rather than the bottom of the page where they're referenced. I say that's bad design. So, one of two things must be true. 1) Good design is relative (my idea vs. his idea) which argues against the case he makes. 2) Good design isn't important which argues against the case he makes.

On page 134, Paul Graham tries to generalize a point, but I don't see it. He equates beauty with good design. He quotes that mathematicians call good work "beautiful." Then he says that good design is suggestive, but gives differing views of that suggestion in discussing painting vs. mathematics. He disparages programming in relation to architecture, but gives an example of suggestive programming. He's all over the place with this point.

On page 137, Paul Graham says "wild animals are beautiful because they have hard lives." So, pets are ugly because they have easy lives? Wild animals in captivity are ugly because they have easy lives? What analogy am I supposed to draw from this? It's at the end of a paragraph that says nothing about wild animals, but talks about "form follows function." Maybe form and/or function is good design, but are wild animals designed? (Considering that none of the text indicates that he's a God-fearing man, I don't think he's referring to the belief of "intelligent design" over "evolution.") I don't get it.

On page 137, Paul Graham matter-of-factly says that kids give up drawing at age ten, then postulates why this is so. However, I don't buy that because I didn't give up drawing at age ten. Maybe he meant that, of kids who give up at age ten, they do so because they decide to draw like grownups. However, I don't buy that either. Personally, I'd believe that they decide that other things are more important to pursue. This is an example of more things Paul Graham says off-the-cuff without backing them up with any sort of details. He leaves the work on my shoulders to prove him right or wrong, and for that I had the privilege of paying $23 and spending a couple days reading?

On page 138, Paul Graham talks about good design using symmetry. However, he doesn't seem to be talking about mathematical symmetry, and doesn't clarify what it is he's talking about with his examples. He says there's two kinds of symmetry: repetition and recursion, but focuses on recursion. Is repetition good design, then? Or, is recursion merely, as he says, a repetition in sub-elements? Why then does he use two terms if he means the same thing? Mayhaps redundancy is good design -- or did I just repeat myself? :-)

On page 139, Paul Graham tells the reader that, even though good design resembles nature, technology hasn't caught up so that air craft resemble birds. Am I clear on that? Current air craft are badly designed because they don't resemble nature?!?! Let me quote him in case I took him out of context. "Imitating nature also works in engineering. Boats have long had spines and ribs like an animal's ribcage. In other cases we may have to wait for better technology. Early aircraft designers were mistaken to design aircraft that looked like birds, because they didn't have materials or power sources light enough, or control systems sophisticated enough, for machines that flew like birds. But I could imagine little unmanned reconnaissance planes flying like birds in fifty years." He's lost a lot of credibility with this comment. I was willing to humor many of his relations, but I think he's missing an important one: good design works as required.

On page 140, Paul Graham generalizes about artists, I'm thinking he's recounting his own experiences and presenting them as generalizations. I disagree with him when he generalizes that "when people first start drawing, for example, they're often reluctant to redo parts that aren't right." Is he referring to those pre-ten year-olds who haven't given up yet, or to adults who start studying art professionally, or to his own experience when he studied art in Europe? I personally don't recall being reluctant to redo parts of my drawing when I meant to create a realistic image, but I remember being reluctant when I intended to make only one draft of an image.

On page 141, Paul Graham says mistakes are natural. Earlier, he said that good design resembles nature. So... good design resembles mistakes?!?! Honestly, doesn't he even try to clarify what it is he's getting at? Am I not supposed to consider each paragraph in relation to the whole book? Things like this make me wonder if he's just making stuff up as he goes -- hacking this book together without debugging it.

On page 141, Paul Graham states: "A novice imitates without knowing it; next he tries consciously to be original; finally, he decides it's more important to be right than to be original." Am I to take this as a rule for becoming a good designer, or an observation of the unconscious stages of becoming a good designer? He says, in the next paragraph, "unknowing imitation is almost a recipe for bad design." So, I assume it's an observation. Is it a generalization or a self-analysis? I don't recall unknowingly imitating other artists, but that may just prove his point. But, I'm sure I was trying to imitate my favorite artists, and not trying to come up with my own style. So, the comment sounds like a personal admission.

On page 143, Paul Graham rattles off a bunch of names of fifteenth century Florence artists, then, to make a point, asks the reader to rattle off fifteenth century Milanese artists. You can't? Aha, he says, point made. However, I couldn't rattle off his list of fifteenth century Florence artists either! I must've missed that day in life when it was part of life's lesson. Here he's revealing his specialized knowledge, or lack thereof, to make a point that "good design happens in chunks," but his example isn't compelling at all. The rest of this section falls apart as well because of circular reasoning: he assumes things would be true if they were true, but things would've not be true because they're not. For example, "There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren't, and the reason is that to make a Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450." Well, you need his DNA and good cloning technology to get anything close to a literal Leonardo. You need a rich and famous sponsor to get the level of acclaim Leonardo has -- not to mention that you'd have to be dead a long time while your reputation remains intact. You need to actually go where artists are if you want to meet a figurative Leonardo. There are so many things I have to accept to believe his point, that his point is lost on me. Maybe conditions have to be ripe for good design to happen, but he hasn't made the case for it in this section. Leonardo -- yep. fifteenth century -- yep. Florence -- yep. What was was what needed to be to make it have happened. So what was Paul Graham's point? That good design happens only when it can happen. Not a big thought. Not at all helpful to read about it either.

Following up on the above paragraph, his conclusion contains the statement: "'s nearly impossible to do good work yourself if you're too far removed from one of these centers." This for the section labeled, "good design happens in chunks"? Chunks or centers? Did he just introduce a new concept, or is "center" a synonym of "chunk"? I don't get it, though I assume, by the context of the section, he meant that good design happens at the right place at the right time.

One conclusion in his good design chapter, Paul Graham states: "Great work usually seems to happen because someone sees something and thinks, I could do better than that. Giotto saw traditional Byzantine Madonnas painted according to a formula that had satisfied everyone for centuries, and to him they looked wooden and unnatural. Copernicus was so troubled by a hack that all his contemporaries could tolerate that he felt there must be a better solution." Two things contradict Paul Graham's points in this paragraph. 1) Copernicus was compelled to fix the "hack" of his predecessors. Isn't this whole book an advocacy of hacking? If hacking is so good, why does it need to be fixed? 2) contemporaries had to make something better than their predecessors. Does that mean that the predecessors had no sense of good design? This lack of good design could last for centuries before someone replaced it with good design? I think Paul Graham reveals that good design *is* relative, which contradicts his opening statements to this chapter. That, or that there's no way to figure out if something is a good design until it has proven the test of time -- centuries of time by his accord.


Paul Graham's chapter, "A Plan for Spam," can be summed up as: use Bayesian filters which categorizes specific word patterns as spam.

This is already implemented in the Thunderbird mail reader, as well as all the spam filters out there.

When I went to Google to look up "Bayesian filters", Paul Graham's blog was the first hit. Interestingly, his web page is more detailed than the chapter and contains a link to a newer article. His article, Better Bayesian Filters, contains the opening paragraph: "The first discovery I'd like to present here is an algorithm for lazy evaluation of research papers. Just write whatever you want and don't cite any previous work, and indignant readers will send you references to all the papers you should have cited. I discovered this algorithm after `A Plan for Spam' was on Slashdot." It's an admission to sloppy writing.

Even in his online article, he contradicts his previous definition that spam is "unsolicited automated email," saying "Two of the false positives were newsletters from companies I've bought things from. I never asked to receive them, so arguably they were spams, but I count them as false positives because I hadn't been deleting them as spams before." Is Paul Graham arguing with himself about the definition of spam? His points are not compelling if he contradicts himself.


After reading Chapter 10, I decided to give up. I was taken aback by the poor thinking that went into the book. Hypotheses presented as facts. Statements declared as facts without backing data. Supporting thoughts built on on unstable foundations. Words that are misused. Words and ideas that are introduced with no reason for their introduction.

Consider that I got a good value from Dave Sim's book (for which I paid $30) which delved deeply into feminism, God, and story-telling. I would expect something close to that value from Paul Graham's book (for which I paid $23) which delves into high school life, programming, free speech, wealth and beauty (but not fashion.) Dave Sim's book is 10"x7.5" with 10 point font and 3/4 inch margins and 597 pages. Paul Graham's book is 8.5"x5.25" with with 10 point font and 3/4 inch margins and 258 pages. Paul Graham's book is not worth the less than 5/6th value of Dave Sim's book considering volume or number of words.

Perhaps it's my fault to take this book as seriously as I am. After all, I'm looking to this book for truths rather than the rah-rah book that it is. It is a book with big ideas and it's up to the reader to validate the truth of all these ideas with raw data and supporting research of his own. Paul Graham certainly doesn't, given that there are so few bibliographical references given for his many foundational statements.

In all honesty, Paul Graham's big ideas can be summed up with his table of contents. The rest of the text can be safely thought of as irrelevant fluff. As a service, here's the table of contents. If you'd like to sift through the rest of the dreck with the hopes of finding a gold nugget or two, at least you've been forewarned.

  1. Why Nerds Are Unpopular: Their minds are not on the game.
  2. Hackers and Painters: Hackers are makers, like painters or architects or writers.
  3. What You Can't Say: How to think heretical thoughts and what to do with them.
  4. Good Bad Attitude: Like Americans, hackers win by breaking rules.
  5. The Other Road Ahead: Web-based software offers the biggest opportunity since the arrival of the microcomputer.
  6. How to Make Wealth: The best way to get rich is to create wealth. An startups are the best way to do that.
  7. Mind the Gap: Could "unequal income distribution" be less of a problem than we think?
  8. A Plan for Spam: Till recently most experts thought spam filtering wouldn't work. This proposal changed their minds.
  9. Taste for Makers: How do you make great things?
  10. Programming Languages Explained: What a Programming Language is and why they are a hot topic now.
  11. The Hundred-Year Language: How will we program in a hundred years? Why not start now?
  12. Beating the Averages: For web-based applications you can use whatever language you want. So can your competitors.
  13. Revenge of the Nerds: In technology, "industry best practice" is a recipe for losing.
  14. The Dream Language: A good programming language is one that lets hackers have their way with it.
  15. Design and Research: Research has to be original. Design has to be good.

Paul Graham: Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

Contents by Vitas Povilaitis
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