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"Dabblers and Blowhards" - hackers are nothing like painters [2005] (idlewords.com)
95 points by mati on Jan 12, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments

Regardless it seems Graham drawing a synthesis between hackers and painters worked well as a generative metaphor to accomplish what he explained the books purpose was: "This book is an attempt to explain to the world at large what goes on in the world of computers."

In the end can your antithesis exercise as many readers' imaginations and share as much insight as his book has?

What I got from your blog post is that there are better books for one interested in the similarities between art and computer science and that is helpful information but I own a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach and it's certainly not a light read.

Maybe your right, "Hackers and Painters" doesn't belong in the same category as the other books you mentioned but then the authors of those books probably had different intentions for their material.

PG and idlewords had it out in the comment section here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=984475 PG definitely gets the best of the argument, IMO.

From Maciej:

As for 1, Aaron Swartz sent us both this quote the first time you and I had this argument, and I'm surprised you've forgotten it. It's from Graham Larkin, curator of the National Gallery of Canada, whom he asked to adjudicate your claim:

""By even the most conservative standards (which your buddy seem to be applying), you'd need to go at least a few decades further, into the High Renaissance. Julius II's didn't even start commissioning Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Raphael's Vatican Stanze (School of Athens &c) didn't start until 1508. These works don't exactly represent a decline, except by Preraphealite standards which would judge them as over-sophisitcated and lacking in primitive simplicity.

(That's IT: your friend's a Preraphaelite! Well history is not on his or her side; such Victorian predilections are a mere blip in the history of Western aesthetics.)

The generation after the giant Raphael (and the giant Durer in the North) is a much better candidate for cultural and artistic decline--a story complicated by Michaelangelo's inconvenient longevity. Historians have often pointed to the 1527 Sack of Rome as a downturn in artistic ferment, or at least in the unparalleled ascendancy of Italy. I would add that Western painting of around 1500 can scarcely be separated from the other visual arts, including the still-young (to the West) technology of print, brought to incredible levels of sophistication by Durer and others in precisely the post-1500 decades. One wonders whether your friend meant "1500" or "like, 1500.""

I don't know who got the better half of the argument but I'm unprepared to respond to the curator of the National Gallery of Canada, enjoined to resolve an Internet message board argument, by suggesting that Maciej simply wrote copy that made sense to people who know nothing about art.

Again: I have no idea who's right or wrong in this "debate", but I find it fascinating, and I found Maciej's "essay" a joy to read. It was stylish, it was fun, it got me to buy that Minnaert book for my wife which earned me huge relationship points, and now I can at least tell you who Hals is.

I hesitate to wade into this dispute again, but what this curator says doesn't contradict what I wrote. In fact, I agree with him. What I wrote in H&P was

"The paintings made between 1430 and 1500 are still unsurpassed."

I didn't say that nothing after was as good as the work of that period, just that nothing after was better.

I thought carefully about that sentence when I wrote it. If I'd meant to say that the fifteenth century represented a peak no one since had attained, I would have written that. I didn't because (a) it's probably not true, and (b) that wasn't the point I was trying to make. If you go back and read the part of the essay where I said this, the point I was making was that in some fields, some of the best work is done very early on; that instead of the slow buildup you might expect, people are so excited about the new possibilities that work in the field reaches "cruising altitude" almost immediately.

To refute what I actually wrote, someone would have to produce something made after 1500 that they were willing to claim was better than everything made between 1430 and 1500. Not just as good, but better. That's not what our curator is claiming, and I doubt you could find any art historian who would.

You've now tied yourself in the curious knot of claiming that there are some paintings created after 1500 that are exactly as good as the best works of the earlier era, but no better, and that that's what you meant to say all along.

What's particularly weird about this argument is that is would not affect your essay at all to concede that, say, the period called the 'Golden Age of Dutch Painting', or the Golden Age of Spanish Painting, or one of the several other periods that art historians (inconveniently for you) commonly refer to as Golden ages of painting produced better work that the somewhat fussy and stylized paintings of the Renaissance, and that you just got excited because you really like Leonardo.

But you seem unwilling to back down from any claim once you've made it in print, no matter how silly ("Cezanne couldn't draw!"), and so we get this peculiar kind of weaseling.

Western art, like Western music or mathematics, is a cumulative enterprise, but you've done the equivalent of claiming Pythagoras was the best mathematician ever, and as evidence pointing to the fact that no serious historian of mathematics has ever said in print that Pythagoras was a worse mathematician than Euler or Gauss, when it would not occur to anyone else to think in those terms.

Apart from the fact that this is just blatant argument from authority ("no art historian would disagree with me! Not even this one, who just disagreed!"), it also a disservice to your readers, who are taking it on faith that you know what you are talking about. As Aaron's correspondence demonstrates, when someone finally does corner an art historian, and bends the poor guy's mind into thinking of the history of Western painting in the same weird categories you do, he'll politely say that you're completely full of it.

Not being an expert in philosophy, or economic history, or the trade union movement, but being a longtime student of your writing style, I suspect the same thing would happen in those fields. I just happen to know art history, so when you write about that I can poke the holes myself.

You've been coasting on the fact that most of your readers are technical people who will take the analogies you strip-mine from the humanities at face value because of their respect for you as a clever guy. You can probably continue coasting on it for the remainder of your career.

But I think you'll find that a little more humility, intellectual honesty and the confidence to abandon the occasional overeager metaphor, rather than trying at all costs to defend it, would make you an even better writer than you think you are now. Maybe not a better writer than EB White, but possibly exactly as good.

You've now tied yourself in the curious knot of [...]

You keep saying things like this (here and in earlier threads) as if that must make them true. But you haven't shown anything of the kind.

"Unsurpassed" means ≧, not ﹥. You're critiquing as if PG wrote ﹥, which would have been a much stronger claim (indeed, one everyone agrees is silly). When PG says he chose the word "unsurpassed" precisely because it means ≧, you respond with accusations of disingenuousness. Exactly what part is he supposed to be lying about: what he wrote, or what the word means?

Your curator's quote (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=984644) doesn't fit what you claim either. It's clear that he's refuting ﹥, not ≧: he says that paintings after 1500 "don't represent a decline" (i.e. ﹥ is wrong), not that they do represent an improvement (which would be the negation of ≧).

Meanwhile you point to authority left and right while claiming that the other guy is doing it and make all kinds of personal attacks ("weenis"? really?) while accusing the other guy of arrogance. It makes the reader (this reader, at least) wonder what your problem is.

Incidentally, I appreciate most of what you write. It's smart and incisive, and when it's funny it's often damn funny. That's what makes this thread and its predecessor so weird.

Only as good using the usual large margins for error people use when judging art. E.g. I'm willing to say that Leonardo was better than Parmigianino. I'd think twice before saying he was better than Rembrandt. Or vice versa.

This isn't some idiosyncracy of mine. Most art historians make comparisons at about that level of precision.

I'm willing to concede the point on anything that (a) I actually wrote, and (b) that's been refuted. E.g. I pointed out what I actually wrote, and invited you to refute it here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=985662

Though you claim to be an expert in art history, mistakes on the scale of the one I quoted in the link above make me think you haven't studied it as thoroughly as I have. I'm not trying to be snarky by emphasizing your mistakes; there's just no other way for the "technical people" you mention to decide who to believe.

It's actually an interesting question which fields are cumulative, and to what degree, and why they differ. E.g. math is entirely so, which is why I'd be very reluctant to compare different mathematicians from different eras. Whereas progress in the "soft" sciences is less cumulative, and in the arts much less.

It's funny you talk about argument from authority. Perhaps you don't realize this, but the steady ad hominem undercurrent of your commentary doesn't make you seem very convincing. "I must be right because Graham isn't humble, intellectually honest, and confident." And, of course, "confidence to abandon the occasional overeager metaphor" is a sneaky way to assert that you've proved an overeager metaphor, which you haven't.

You seem to be criticizing pg for arguing from authority, but your (poorly toned, impolite) rant claims authority 1) by your claim to know about art history 2) the cornered art historian.

I've debated taking PG to task over this one:


But I figure I don't need the internet drama, and I already find amusing ways to exercise my philosophy degree.

"debated taking PG to task"?

Why don't you just say what you disagree with, no need to make internet drama or necessarily get pg to respond to you. I have studied quite a bit of philosophy and I like this essay a lot, so I would be interested in reading a good criticism (please, please do better than idlewords, it is clearly personal for him).

Well, the opening bits about confusion of language and what to call things are a bit... fuzzy :)

Yes, Wittgenstein focused a lot on language, but so did a lot of his contemporaries -- that's a large part of what positivism was all about. And the idea that coming up with correct and precise terms and categories as a first step goes at least all the way back to Aristotle in the Western tradition and Confucius in the Eastern. But pg doesn't mention any of this, he just name-drops Wittgenstein and gives you the impression that this is some sort of modern thing to do.

On the history of philosophy, I've got to mark pg down quite a lot for outright ignoring the pre-Socratics. Do we only have fragments of their work? Yes. Does that mean we get to write them off as "speculative cosmology"? Hell, no. Plato and Aristotle don't make sense unless you consider them in the context of the philosophers who came before them, primarily the Elean and Milesian schools. And I can't understand why someone who writes so much about entrepreneurship would willingly ignore Thales (unless it's to sweep under the rug the fact that Thales -- though he could and did apply his analytic and philosophical techniques to make money -- didn't seem to care much about practical results and in fact did more than a few things to spite and shame people who wanted such results).

I'm going to gloss over pg's interpretation of Aristotle and simply recommend that people actually read Aristotle, or at least well-prepared exegesis of Aristotle; that's a topic too large to tackle in a comment.

But talking about the next 1500 years' worth of philosophy just aping Plato and Aristotle without doing any critical thinking is, well, flat-out wrong. Aristotle was indeed highly regarded by later medieval thinkers -- after about the eleventh century AD or so -- but he was far from the only game in town until that point, and most of the regard for his work and Plato's wasn't due to slavish repetition of muddled thinking: medieval philosophers simply didn't have the kind of access to classical work that we enjoy today, and so they used what material they had.

From there, pg goes off into what looks like his own flight of unthinking hero-worship, but this one's centered on Wittgenstein. Yes, Wittgenstein's important, but he was far from the first person to discover "that most previous philosophy was a waste of time". One suspects that pg has never read, or has forgotten what he read in, Hume, who delivered the real kick in the pants about two centuries earlier (and quite a bit of Hume's most interesting work had been anticipated in antiquity -- the same antiquity which, pg tells us, was far too muddled and concerned with "big generalities" to produce useful or interesting work).

(aside: I think this, more than anything, is what bothers me about pg's summary of philosophy: you don't get to condense Western philosophy into a single essay without even mentioning Hume's name. He even goes so far as to attribute to Kant honors which -- and if you've read Kant you'll see even he felt this way -- rightly belong to Hume.)

Finally, pg ends up at a "proposal" which, so far as I can tell, is identical to the classical pragmatism of William James (whose name is also conspicuously absent from the essay). He rounds this up by reiterating the falsehood that everybody else was just aping Plato and Aristotle for a couple millennia (perhaps pg simply misunderstood a famous quote from Alfred North Whitehead, and took a literal interpretation).

So, basically, pg's spent a lot of time pouring out a "sea of words" riddled with historical inaccuracies and omissions, and used it all to advocate as new a philosophy which has been well-known for over a century. This is not something of which I can approve :)

Wow, thanks.

I don't think this essay was intended to be a complete review and a last word of all philosophy. I read it as explanation of the motivation pg has for his essays. And I like the goal of seeking the "most general useful truth".

Now, I'm not pursuing this goal because I think most philosophical questions should be restated as scientific questions. The problem of knowledge, epistemology, becomes mostly cognitive science. The problem of conduct, ethics, should be researched using simulated evolution models of game theory. And so on and so forth.

> But I figure I don't need the internet drama, and I already find amusing ways to exercise my philosophy degree.

"If you exist, would you like fries with that?"

I'm sorry... I couldn't resist though :-)

For what it's worth, I'd like to see your response. I've always felt uneasy about that essay.

I paint and I code, and this made me laugh:

* Computer programmers cause a machine to perform a sequence of transformations on electronically stored data.

* Painters apply colored goo to cloth using animal hairs tied to a stick.

It's funny, and maybe a little ironic, to look at this and see both a hacker's cynicism and a painter's habit of looking at things objectively.

I thought this was worth upvoting because I was stung by how the author views programming. It's worth remembering that "hacking" is typically ill-liked, even by some of those claiming to practice it.

Start with purpose. With the exception of art software projects (which I don't believe Graham has in mind here) all computer programs are designed to accomplish some kind of task.

I suppose this guy is a Java programmer?...

No one cares how pretty the code is if the program won't work.

...that or Perl.

Great paintings, for example, get you laid in a way that great computer programs never do.


PG could have alluded to the similarity between Math and hacking. The thing that I feel both share is that there is an underlying beauty to a well-crafted result. Truly beautiful results (like original self-printing program in Lisp) withstand the test of time, like a universal truth. Thus a program is not like an egg made by a chef, or even a Porsche made by an engineer.

The flip side is that there's no "way" to write a program. There actually isn't even really a notion of truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The only constraint I have as a programmer is to (1) not run out of memory and (2) not run out dough (which would force me to quit hacking and get a "real job"). There are some people who think that obfuscated C is art, and there's FP folks like me who would fire someone for writing anything in that godawful language (Which might be unfair. People should only be fired for writing Java on the job). I think this is pretty strong support in favor or programming as an art.

The other piece of evidence I cite is that the academic form of hacking is called Computer Science and we know what they say about anything that has the word "Science" in it...

Basically, the only premise of idleword's argument that holds up is that artists get laid and programmers don't. I will resist fighting fire with fire on this point.

But maybe PG should allude to poets or composers next time. Apparently some painters are real jerks.

There used to be two professions that we call programming today:

Systems Analysis

and (unsurprisingly)


Arguably the systems analysis bit was the more interesting of the two, it is the one that I would equate with architecture, and to some extent (but certainly not as much as some would) art.

The other part, the programming part is best equated to engineering and construction.

I find I go through exactly those two phases when making something new. The first part I love to do it's where all the interesting bits are, the problems get solved.

By the time I hit the second phase, the joyful part is over, from there it is just typing stuff in and realizing the vision that I already have in my head and debugging stuff.

Rarely (but it does happen occasionally) do I get back in the 'fun' bits while coding something. That would mean I've made some terrible oversight during the analysis phase.

The analysis phase sometimes also includes some programming, it is where you come up with nifty little programs to test your assumption and where you let your inspiration go wild in order to see if you can solve the problem in an interesting way.

That is the most joyful kind of programming that I know, it is on a white piece of paper without any kind of connection to the real world of data processing. This is were algorithms are born. I love doing that.

The rest is just plumbing and brickwork.

This is interesting - I haven't heard this expressed explicitly, but it describes pretty exactly how I feel about "programming".

I've also found that almost all the interesting stuff is in the stuff upfront where I'm sketching out ideas on a notepad - roughly how things will work together, what the running time of different approaches will be and how it will scale, the user flow and interaction, and getting down the trickier algorithms to become reasonably sure that the main idea is feasible.

The rest really is just plumbing and brickwork. It seems like a lot is written online about the different ways to lay bricks, but I've never really felt that that was very interesting, except for resulting reductions in time spent bricklaying. Sometimes it's fun playing around to make extremely abstracted code, or some other challenge, but for the most part, it's pretty repetitive.

Thanks for expressing it, I didn't realize that the cool part used to be a distinct profession.

So if we are going to judge programming as such, then what about all the plumbing and brickwork associated with art? Didn't an analysis of the Mona Lisa detect multiple layers of paint, indicating that the artist had retouched many parts of it? From what I understand, it's common practice.

For some reason, the plumbing and brickwork in programming isn't viewed the same way by all people. Perhaps it's because of the use of low level languages (and by low level, I mean anything less abstract than Ruby, Lisp or Haskell. you can't meaningfully remove boilerplate in the C family of languages.). I personally find it gratifying to refactor code into something more elegant, and I'm sorry if you don't see it that way.

> So if we are going to judge programming as such, then what about all the plumbing and brickwork associated with art?

In 'real' art (painting and sculpture for instance) the execution and the expression are inseparable, in programming you can delineate the one from the other reasonably well.

For instance, a mathematician without any programming skills could sketch out the basis of an algorithm, which could then be implemented by programmers familiar with their particular language.

> Didn't an analysis of the Mona Lisa detect multiple layers of paint, indicating that the artist had retouched many parts of it?

Yes, so ? He didn't get it 'right' or 'satisfactory' the first time and decided to change it.

But there is a reason why artists sign their works and programmers can collaborate, even across vast distances on the same work.

In the end it is all bits.

If Da Vinci had reduced the idea of the La Gioconda to 4 squares and you asked four different painters to create the 4 squares and you'd merge them the painting would probably not be hanging in the Louvre right now.

Even if he had sketched it and sent it off in four pieces as a guide it still wouldn't have worked.

And that process works quite well for software, which indicates to me that the two are fundamentally different.

> For some reason, the plumbing and brickwork in programming isn't viewed the same way by all people.

No doubt.

> Perhaps it's because of the use of low level languages (and by low level, I mean anything less abstract than Ruby or Haskell). I personally find it gratifying to refactor code into something more elegant, and I'm sorry if you don't see it that way.

Refactoring code and optimizations are a step above simply putting layers of stone above each other, effectively you've temporarily switched back to architectural mode.

And I definitely agree with you that that is a gratifying thing to do. But it also indicates to me that I should be more diligent during the design phase because refactoring, no matter how satisfying is an expensive thing to do.

But there is a reason why artists sign their works and programmers can collaborate, even across vast distances on the same work. In the end it is all bits.

Ok, I have to admit, that is by and far the most compelling difference between art and programming that I've ever heard.

To me the real joy in programming comes when you integrate these two phases. Writing and debugging code should provide you the resistance of the medium to further shape your concept of what is it that you are implementing.

Curious that Maciej should cite John Ruskin, who could be utterly dogmatic. Henry James, Italian Hours, writes

I had really been enjoying the good old city of Florence, but I now learned from Mr. Ruskin that this was a scandalous waste of charity. I should have gone about with an imprecation on my lips, I should have worn a face three yards long. I had taken great pleasure in certain frescoes by Ghirlandaio in the choir of that very church; but it appeared from one of the little books that these frescoes were as naught. I had much admired Santa Croce and had thought the Duomo a very noble affair; but I had now the most positive assurance I knew nothing about them. After a while, if it was only ill-humour that was needed for doing honour to the city of the Medici, I felt that I had risen to a proper level; only now it was Mr. Ruskin himself I had lost patience with, not the stupid Brunelleschi, not the vulgar Ghirlandaio. Indeed I lost patience altogether, and asked myself by what right this informal votary of form pretended to run riot through a poor charmed flaneur's quiet contemplations, his attachment to the noblest of pleasures, his enjoyment of the loveliest of cities. The little books seemed invidious and insane, and it was only when I remembered that I had been under no obligation to buy them that I checked myself in repenting of having done so.

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