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Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

Paul Graham · 1 HN points · 16 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age" by Paul Graham.
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Amazon Summary
"The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, in which you can shoot anyone you wish with your ideas, if you're willing to risk the consequences. " --from Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, by Paul Graham We are living in the computer age, in a world increasingly designed and engineered by computer programmers and software designers, by people who call themselves hackers. Who are these people, what motivates them, and why should you care? Consider these facts: Everything around us is turning into computers. Your typewriter is gone, replaced by a computer. Your phone has turned into a computer. So has your camera. Soon your TV will. Your car was not only designed on computers, but has more processing power in it than a room-sized mainframe did in 1970. Letters, encyclopedias, newspapers, and even your local store are being replaced by the Internet. Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, by Paul Graham, explains this world and the motivations of the people who occupy it. In clear, thoughtful prose that draws on illuminating historical examples, Graham takes readers on an unflinching exploration into what he calls "an intellectual Wild West." The ideas discussed in this book will have a powerful and lasting impact on how we think, how we work, how we develop technology, and how we live. Topics include the importance of beauty in software design, how to make wealth, heresy and free speech, the programming language renaissance, the open-source movement, digital design, internet startups, and more.
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  • Ranked #17 this year (2023) · view

Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
Oct 23, 2022 · dctoedt on Write Like You Talk (2015)
> How much of PG's blog is based on setting up strawmen and using them to bash on the liberal arts?

It'd be surprising if PG wanted to bash the liberal arts, given his longstanding interest in fine arts, specifically painting; see, e.g., his Hackers and Painters book. (He studied painting at RISD and in Florence.)

Liberal arts != fine arts
What is the proper way to achieve that kind of skill?

I don't know that there's any one specific "proper" way, and as the old saying goes "many roads lead to Rome." But I do think the spirit of this old saw applies:

A fellow goes to New York to attend a concert, but gets lost. He spots another fellow who’s carrying a violin case. “Sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The musician smiles and says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Are there any must read topics/subjects?

I think many people approach this from different directions, but you can pretty much always figure that it helps to get "close to the hardware" and understand things from first principles as much as possible, and then build your knowledge up from that base. So if you start from literally understanding how you make a logic gate from a transistor, and then up to how AND,OR,NAND,NOR,NOT etc. gates are used to implement digital logic, and up through some basics of how a CPU executes code, yadda yadda, you're probably on a good path. Then from the code level, understanding assembly language for at least one architecture and having at least some notion of how the assembly mnemonics map to the CPU ISA and what's going on at the hardware level. What are registers and how are they used, how is data shuffled around between different parts of memory, etc. From there you can build up to understanding different parts of the computing "stack" - the operating system kernel, standard library, memory models, etc.

All of that said, I don't claim that the above is the way, just a way. I'm sure there are people who use the title "hacker" who didn't do any of that. Again - "many roads".

The other thing I'll throw out there is that math comes into play at some levels depending on exactly where your interests take you. It can't hurt to pick up some basic number theory, boolean algebra, computability theory, etc. Some of the kinds of things that come up in the book Hackers Delight[1] could be of interest.

Another thought - if you haven't read Steven Levy's book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution[2] give that a read. It's not a super technical book, being more about the "spirit" or essence of what "hacking" and "hackerdom" are. But I would say that might be as valuable as the technical stuff in many ways.

Also, reading the various pg essays[3] and/or Paul's book Hackers and Painters[4] probably can't hurt either.

Beyond that, there's a whole laundry list of books and resources one might mention as seminal or defining works of "hackerdom". Things like the TCP/IP Illustrated books by Stephens, The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie, The Cathedral and the Bazaar by esr, the Internetworking with TCP/IP books by Comer, Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment by Stephens, a lot of early LISP material by McCarthy and others, a lot of the "AI Series" papers from MIT's CSAIL lab, etc., etc. And that's not close to a comprehensive list, if such a thing could be said to exist. Just some examples of the kinds of things people who associate with hackerdom tend to get into.

Last thought - I would cite "curiosity" as the most important defining trait for becoming a "hacker". If you're never satisfied with your current level of knowledge, always want to probe and dig deeper, and understand more and more and more and more of how things work and why things are the way they are, then in my book you're pretty much a hacker. I'd say try to cultivate that insatiable desire to learn and just dive in and don't worry too much about the "proper" road.





I'm surprised no one in this thread has mentioned Hacker & Painters:

This is the book that really got me into programing. I'd tried programming before, and had even studied a C++ textbook and written some simple programs. But it really hadn't clicked. Graham's points about the fundamental expressiveness of different programming languages really blew my mind. This started a chain of "learn language X and try to build Y" for different values of X and Y.

Part of what I realized is how much I had been hampered by how difficult C++ is to pick up (especially with the IDEs of the early 2000s, which would give you an "empty" project with a couple hundred lines of code in it). When I realized that to write a Perl script, all I needed to do was open Notepad and start from an empty file, it was just so unbelievably liberating. That and also, obviously, just how much easier dynamic languages are to work with in general. Of course I eventually came back to C++, but that was the spark which kicked off a journey that lead to me flying through CS in college and eventually ending up in a PhD program.

Edit: Fixed link. Note also that the essays are available online for free, though you have to reverse engineer the reading order from the table of contents.

Paul Graham's essays aren't just "kind of" a book, they are a book. (A very good one BTW)

Of course, the original comparison between coders and artists was made by Paul Graham in Hackers and Painters:

And then there was this:

Thanks for that, good find. Pretty eye opening.
Sorry if I'm going too far on a tangent here, but has anyone bought his book Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age [0]?

It has been on my wishlist for quite a while now. The reviews are quite positive.


Jan 20, 2014 · 1 points, 1 comments · submitted by justinzollars
Loved this book.
She might find inspiration in Paul Graham's "Hackers and Painters"

Apr 21, 2012 · dpkendal on This Is 2016 Not 2012
"The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, in which you can shoot anyone you wish with your ideas, if you're willing to risk the consequences."

I'm not much of a butt-licker, but Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age from PG is a classic.
+1 for Cryptonomicon. It isn't the easiest book to get through, but it's very worthwhile.

Another couple of possibilities might be:

The Soul of a New Machine - Tracy Kidder

The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage - Clifford Stoll

Hackers & Painters - Paul Graham (yes, that Paul Graham)

That's for the kindle version, but the paperback edition is $11 [1].


So you save a whole dollar and 51 cents. Big deal. I'd just as soon order it from Amazon, who in general has much better prices than direct from O'Reilly.
I would rather order it from anyone but Amazon, who has been started removing "offensive" books from the Kindle store left and right.
Two blog posts from affected authors:

This first one was on HN:


Interesting links, thanks.
Direct link to the book, skipping the tweet

Or at for $12.23

I posted the tweet because it contains the discount code.
FYI the kindle edition is always $9.99 and available at the Amazon link above.
yeah, that's what I was thinking too. I already have a Kindle, and it makes more sense for me to do long form reading on my Kindle.
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