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Book Review

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

ISBN: 0596006624
Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc.
Pages: 271

If programming has its superstars, Paul Graham is certainly one of them. He created the first web-based application (Viaweb), got rich selling it and went on to develop the successful Bayseian filter technique for fighting spam. In parallel to creating a new Lisp dialect, he’s behind Y Combinator, a company that funds very early start-ups often run by very young people. His book Hackers & Painters touches all of these subjects and sets a remarkable example on successful out-of-the-box thinking that flows through the whole book.

The main value of this book is the ideas it spawns in the reader. The chapter “Beating the Averages” (the chapter tells the story of how by using Lisp, Viaweb outperformed their competitors) is my personal favorite. Yet there are plenty of other essays, where I don’t really agree with the author. One example is Graham’s trail and error approach to programming: “A prototype doesn’t have to be just a model; you can refine it into the finished product”. As if this isn’t enough to make software methodologists shiver, Graham concludes that “I think you should always do this when you can”. I still consider it a dangerous advice, but after I started to learn Common Lisp myself, I realize that what Graham’s recommendation lacks is simply a context. In a language that supports rapid prototyping and evolution like Common Lisp, the approach may work very well for the skilled programmer. However, in statically typed languages like C or C++ applying the same strategy on anything beyond small programs is unnecessarily expensive at best and a recipe for disaster in the average large organization.

I believe that Hackers & Painters will be appreciated primary by programmers. The subjects, however, go well beyond programming and touches on sociology and economical principles too.

I loved reading the book and value the ideas I got from reading it. However, as I believe that it is one of those love-or-hate books, I just cannot recommend it straight on. But what I do recommend is that you check out the online versions of the essays forming the chapters. Read a few of them; there are lots of pearls hidden. If you like them, buy this book.

Reviewed February 2006

©2005 Adam Petersen