Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: A review of “Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age”

This book -- a collection of 16 essays on computers and the people who program them -- is a delight. I opened to the title essay and found more quotable quotes than I have space for in this review. For example, “Hackers need to understand the theory of computation about as much as painters need to understand paint chemistry.”

The title essay makes the connection between hackers and painters. Both, the author says, are concerned with making things that people will find beautiful. Painters want to create a beautiful work of art; hackers want to create a beautiful piece of software.

Just as painters often take day jobs to support their art, so too must hackers take day jobs with companies writing less-than-beautiful software to make enough money to write the software they really want to write. Great software, author Graham adds, “requires a fanatical devotion to beauty.”

The author started Viaweb, one of the first companies to develop software that allowed mere mortals to set up online stores. He sold this software to Yahoo! and it now powers Yahoo! Stores. That being the case, he has a few things to say about start-ups.

In “Beating the Averages,” Graham reveals that he and his partner, Robert Morris, developed the software in Lisp, his “secret weapon” and one of the biggest factors in their success. Using Lisp, the two were able to implement features in a much shorter time than any of their competitors.

His logic for using Lisp is impeccable. It may not be the most popular language, but it’s certainly one of the most powerful. And if you’re in a start-up situation, why wouldn’t you want to use the most powerful language available?

Graham has some good advice for evaluating the competition, too. To evaluate his competitors, he read the job descriptions in their help wanted ads. “The more of an IT flavor the job descriptions had,” he says, “the less dangerous the company was.” If the ads called for C++ or Java experience, he breathed a sigh of relief, but would get a little frightened if the firm was looking for Python or Perl programmers.

There’s lots more good stuff in this book, including thoughts on nerds, spam and tasteful design. And like all good books, it may, in the end, raise more questions than it answers.

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age by Paul Graham. O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol, Calif., 2004.

About the Author

Dan Romanchik is an engineering manager turned writer and Web developer. His current passion is amateur radio. You can read his amateur radio blog at



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