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I've always felt the painters connection was too tightly focused, though I think this essay (which is ancient, and would either be more true of pg's work today or less depending on how much you agree with it) goes overboard and manages to miss the point.

The bone that I do think can be picked with Hackers and Painters is that there just aren't very many hackers who are also painters. In fact, I only know one: pg. I know literally dozens of hackers who are musicians and four who are writers (oh, wait...pg makes it five). It seems to me that if the two categories of people were so alike, there would be significant overlap, but there is very little that I'm aware of. If you take "creative, systematic, and challenging pursuits" as a whole, however, you begin to see a lot more overlap (and again, musicians overlap a lot with hackers, moreso than any other "creative, systematic, and challenging pursuit").

Maybe because I'm a musician and a hacker (by some definition of "musician" and "hacker") I'm seeing all of these connections in the same way that pg, who is a painter and a hacker, sees connections between his two loves. It all makes sense when you're looking at your own likes and dislikes, but nobody else will really understand exactly what you see in your hobbies.

Interesting question. Probably one reason there are a lot more hacker/musicians than hacker/painters is that there are a lot more musicians than painters. Painting is not exactly a flourishing field at the moment. But there are a significant number of hackers who are good at graphic design.

The thing I was saying hackers and painters had in common was that they're both makers. As opposed to the idea prevalent when I was in college, that programming was applied math. I believe it was in protest against this idea that Knuth called his books The Art of Computer Programming.

I enrolled in a design class once. I figured graphic design would be a good place to start with as far as artistic fundamentals. Not knowing what I was getting into, I took Design I at ArtCenter at Night, because, of course, I wanted the best fundamentals.

Instead I learned that gouache is really, really hard to use to make flat, even-colored swatches which satisfy the professional painter who you have for a teacher, particularly if you've not painted beyond watercolors in elementary school.

It was fun, but suffice it to say that I am still very much a hacker; a painter, not so much. In any case, as a result of that experience, I gained a new level of empathic understanding for non-hackers dealing with technology. It was very much like an Excel macro programmer being dropped into a course on compilers at Stanford.

But there are a significant number of hackers who are good at graphic design.

Righteous argument. If painting, as an art form, has been replaced by graphic design, then clearly there is significant overlap, and probably on the same order as musicians. I don't know how much I believe "painters", as a class, have become "designers", since almost none of the painters I knew in high school (I went to a school for fine arts, so I knew a lot of painters) have since become digital artists, but that may be just a sign of my age...I was among the last generation of kids that didn't grow up using computers daily.

Anyway, as I mentioned, I think the primary problem is that "painters" is too specific...though it makes for a better title than "Hackers and People Who Make Art of Some Kind". When you open it up to include designers and other visual artists, musicians (like Knuth, who has a massive pipe organ in his house and plays it beautifully), and writers, the overlap becomes very nearly 100%. Every hacker of note that I can think of off the top of my head has at least one of these as a hobby, particularly if you allow "visual arts" to include things like robotics, DIY electronics with an artistic purpose, 3D modeling, etc. As you've said, hackers are makers, and it often spills over into other kinds of production.

hackers are makers, and it often spills over into other kinds of production

Yes, definitely. I think hackers may be more like architects than painters, for example. The reason I wrote about the connection between hacking and painting is that I understand painting fairly well. I haven't studied architecture.

The core of this Dabblers & Blowhards thing is a strawman argument. He claims I say the connection between hacking and painting is much stronger than I do, then "proves" it isn't. When in fact all I say is:

  of all the different types of people I've known, 
  hackers and painters are among the most alike.

He claims you say the connection between hacking and painting is strong, in an essay titled "Hackers and Painters", in which you say, "of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and painters are among the most alike". I think you're begging the question.

Moreover, you yourself are constructing a straw man. His point isn't simply that your comparison is broken, but that it's hopelessly filtered through your own experience. He knows you see similar connections with architects. He's saying, the only reason you picked "painters" was that your art education taught you to admire painters and their lifestyle.

The word "fatuous", repeated in his essay, is the core of his argument: that your insight about the relation between Hackers and Painters is superficial, and where it applies at all, it's built on knowledge of painting that is itself superficial.

I neither agree nor disagree, but it's graceless to dismiss him like that. I'd be flattered to have someone refute me as carefully as he did you.

the core of his argument: that your insight about the relation between Hackers and Painters is superficial, and where it applies at all, it's built on knowledge of painting that is itself superficial.

Can you give an example where you feel he has successfully refuted something specific I said about painting?

Sure. I've taken his thesis and applied it, substituting "pastry chef" for "painter" into the text of each of the topic sentences in the lead graf of each section of your essay. The essay continues to work. Your critic's point seems valid.

You learn to bake mostly by doing it. Ditto for hacking.

Because pastry chefs leave a trail of work behind them, you can watch them learn by doing.

For a pastry chef, a cookbook is a reference library of techniques.

Another example we can take from pastry is the way that dishes are created by gradual refinement. New dishes usually begin with a sketch.

In hacking, like pastry, work comes in cycles. Sometimes you get excited about some new project and you want to work sixteen hours a day on it. Other times nothing seems interesting.

A lot of the great cooking of the past is the work of multiple hands, though there may only be one name on the wall of the restaurant.

Like pastry, most software is intended for a human audience.

That's not a refutation. Find something specific I said about painting that he has shown to be false, not merely also true of some other field.

For example, pick one of the list of statements I made about painting that he quotes in that list in the middle, and explain how you feel he has refuted it. Or any other statement about painting he quotes.

Your argument was that painting has an interesting connection to hacking.

"No it doesn't," your critic argues, "because in fact you can make the same argument about many other professions --- for an absurd example, take pastry chefs".

Unless we're secretly on Usenet, he's refuted your argument. He used evidence to deny the premise of your essay.

Draw his argument out further, and you can make the same statements about law, insurance, and surgery. For instance, "because constitutional lawyers leave a trail of work behind them, you can watch them learn by doing." Or, "a lot of the great innovations in corporate reinsurance are the work of multiple hands, though there may only be only a few names in the list of partners at the firm".

Also: it took time to re-read your essay, read his essay, jog my memory about your book, and write that response. I'm not sure I feel like your response to me dignified that work. Can you respond this time without redefining the word "refute" to suit your argument?

The challenge I gave you was to find any specific statement I made about painting that he has shown to be false. It's a disingenous trick to claim that the thesis of the essay is implicitly a statement about painting. Not that he has even refuted that. But put that point aside for the time being, and let's return to my original challenge, which I hope is clear now. Find one specific sentence or series of sentences I wrote about painting that he has shown to be false.

If my understanding of painting is "superficial," I should have made lots of mistakes, right? So let's have one.

Sorry, Paul. I read your essay and his as essays, not as series of independent sentences to be reviewed like lines of C in a group code review. I therefore reject the premise that I am somehow obligated to find an individual statement in it that is provably false.

Next, since you wrote the essay and not me, you're clearly in a position to dictate what the essay "is about". Clearly, both me and your critic read it as being "about" the connection between hackers and painters. I muster as evidence the facts that:

* The essay was titled "Hackers and Painters"

* The essay said there was an interesting connection between hackers and painters in the topic sentence of the lead graf.

* Of the 89 grafs in the essay, 26 have as their topic the connection between programming and painting.

* Of the 17 sections in the essay, 10 of them have as their thesis statement either a specific connection between programming and painting, or an explanation of why that connection is important.

If you want to argue that your essay is "about" something other than painting, there's not much I can about that other than to complain about unfairness. I'd rather not.

As to whether your understanding of painting is superficial, I certainly wouldn't know. But your critic repeatedly and explicitly says it is, again with evidence. Which of his arguments ring false to you? You might start with his footnotes.

I've seen quite a lot of evasions when I asked people to get specific, but this is definitely the longest.

I didn't ask you to find a passage that's provably false, just any specific statement I made that you feel he's refuted. It's a red herring to suggest that simply because I ask you for evidence, I'm somehow claiming that essays work like math.

You're not of course obligated to provide evidence, when asked for it, but most people on forums do so voluntarily in order to preserve their credibility.

You said:

"Hacking and painting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and painters are among the most alike."

Your critic refuted that hacking and painting have much in common, and probably (but obviously speculatively) that hackers and painters are among the "most alike" of all the people you know.

And again, this appeared to me to be the central argument of your essay; it would not have been so widely noted had it argued instead that "hackers are like everyone who does constructive work", because by enlisting gardeners, grade school teachers, and psychologists, that argument reduces to "hackers are like many of the people you know". A barista at Intelligentsia Cafe downstairs from me invented an excellent drink --- horchata with a shot of espresso. Hackers are apparently also like him.

At this point, because you are calling me names instead of rebutting any point I make, I can only guess that you think none of these points are valid, and that hackers and painters share a unique bond, one that you feel your art education and work history allowed you to reveal in an essay (were it not so, the topic wouldn't merit the work you put into it). If you're seriously asking me the questions you're asking because you want to know the answer, and not because you want to win an argument, I'll say that when I read "Hackers and Painters" originally, I agreed with you. When I read your critic, I believe him more: there's there's little interesting to say about the relation between hacking and painting as practiced by modern professional artists.

"Hacking and painting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and painters are among the most alike."

Well, he certainly didn't refute the first sentence. Arguing that other things have a lot in common with hacking doesn't prove that painting doesn't. And I don't see how either you or he could say anything about the second. You don't know who I know. And I didn't even say they were the most alike of people I'd known, only among the most alike.

You both pretend I'd written "Hacking has more in common with painting than any other field." But if I'd meant that, I would have said it.

In fact, I say explicitly that what hackers have in common with painters is that they're both makers, and I mention other types of makers (writers and architects) who are also like hackers. The kinds of work I claim hacking is unlike are math and science, which I think is an important point, because lots of people have tried to push it into the mold of one or the other.

Now that's settled, will you answer my original question? Can you give me an example of a specific statement about painting that he's refuted? Not (what he claims is) the thesis of my essay, but one of the statements I make specifically about painting. As you point out, he attacks these "repeatedly and explicitly," with footnotes. I'm asking you to produce just one you feel is convincing, to support your claim that he has "carefully refuted" me.

The reason I'm asking is because I think you'll find, when you look more closely, that you've been convinced by the form of his arguments (the emphatic tone, the citations) without actually understanding them. But go ahead, prove me wrong.

I see your point, Paul. But if all you're saying is that hackers are like "makers", your essay is really boring. There is nothing special about being a "maker". And because you've applied no rigor to defining the term, you haven't even set up a comparison: you can substitute "mathematician" as easily as "painter" or "bicycle builder".

Meanwhile, your critic has provided several examples of ways hackers are specifically unlike painters. For instance, you felt painters needed to know about paint chemistry, like hackers need to know about big-O notation. No, your critic says, most painters don't know anything about paint chemistry, just "fat over lean". Painters, the critic very credibly notes, also get laid more than hackers.

I've answered your original question several times over now. You seized on the word "refute" and demanded that I provide a specific statement that the critique refutes. I caved and said, "ok, you said hackers are more like painters than most other people you know". You've now backed off that statement, which I still read as the core of your argument. You've now mooted the argument. I'm fine with that.

I agree, the critique is stylish and fun to read, and more convincing for it. Maybe that's not fair. But your essay got more attention, so I wouldn't worry.

Where did I back off any statement? I still think hackers are more like painters than most other types of people I know.

I notice now that you've finally produced a specific statement about painting that you claim he's refuted, though. And you are mistaken, as I think even you will have to agree. What I wrote was:

  All the time I was in graduate school I had an 
  uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind 
  that I ought to know more theory...

  Now I realize I was mistaken. Hackers need to 
  understand the theory of computation about as 
  much as painters need to understand paint chemistry.
In other words, I am in fact saying that painters don't need to know a lot about paint chemistry, and using that as an analogy in statement that hackers, similarly, don't need to know much about the theory of computation.

Is this finally starting to give you second thoughts about the idea that he's "carefully refuted" me?

I think he wrote carefully --- his critique is funny, a fast read, and works on multiple levels (as a parody of your writing style, as a reasoned criticism of your argument, and as a takedown of the cult of personality that surrounds you). I don't think either of your arguments are particularly careful anymore.

But you're right, if one chooses to be harshly analytical about your essay, it is indeed hard to pin you down to something that can be refuted directly.

Again: he wrote something clever and funny about you. You should be flattered. Right now, you really just seem petulant.

Yeah, I'm done here. I thought to bring some logic to the table, but with this sentence "Painters, the critic very credibly notes, also get laid more than hackers," its clear that logic will have no part of it. What that sentence has to do with anything about proving or disproving the actual original point of PG's essay I don't know, and probably never will. We're so far removed from what matters or counts as reasoning thats its useless to continue.

You clearly haven't read any of what we're talking about.

Seriously, did you two just spend all this time discussing a simile? Can a simile even be wrong if one thing is right? I'm with PG on this one, if he wants to think hackers are like painters then he can. If someone wants to write that they are not alike, then they can, which will presumably be refuted by another PG essay on why they are, in fact, alike. Either way, hackers and painters can be like lots of other people, because its a free world and everyone can make up their own damn simile if they please.

In PG's defense, the critic tried to actually disprove the simile. Unfortunately, as he himself pointed out, hackers can be like painters in that they are both makers. The critic then goes on to say they are nothing like each other, having just pointed out that PG came up with something where they are, in fact, like each other. When you're writing an article disproving something someone said, its not wise to disprove yourself as well. It just makes reading it a big waste of time.

If it's really "just a simile", than Graham's original essay doesn't say much, does it?

I can see why PG is getting a little out of sorts. You're really missing the point. And so does the critic. Its not about deconstructing the simile to see if its valid. Who really cares if hackers are like painters? That's why the critic had a hard time finding a thesis statement, because he wasn't looking for the right thesis. The point was that writing code takes creativity and imagination. Its not just a rote exercise or an academic endeavor. If the critic had wanted to refute pg's thesis, therefore, he would be trying to prove that hacking doesn't take imagination or creativity and that any joe who knows a programming language can create an amazing site/app. Instead, the critic concentrated on a simile used to explain the thesis, which can easily be substituted for another simile, as the critic pointed out. Substituting a more appropriate simile, however, does not refute the point of the essay. Essentially, all the critic ended up saying was that in his opinion, PG used a bad simile. The point of PG's essay remains valid: it takes creativity and imagination to be a good hacker, and its wrong to characterize the profession as something that lacks that creativity.

Well, in that case, the title of the book "Hackers and Painters", overstates the connection.

As a programmer who has had some success and money (and not a painter, not a musician, in fact, not well-endowed in any of the arts, but with a fairly decent math background), I have to say that I found the connection tenuous too. Not to say I don't agree with PG on most things - I actually do.

If I were to write a book I would say "Hackers & Thinkers" because that's what I do with my time - think about things.

I don't see how linking hacking and thinking brings any new insight. It's pretty obvious the two are connected. Hacking and painting is a more interesting cross-pollination.

The title "Hackers and Painters", in my opinion, doesn't overstate anything - it's an appropriate title, out of many, for the essay.

I said "Hackers and Thinkers" just to illustrate the point that we tend to overemphasize our own particular areas of interest. Hacking and thinking don't have to go together - as an example, PG is a thinker who writes essays, but there exist many great hackers who don't spend much time thinking about general stuff. They tend to be fairly narrowly focused.

I think hackers may be more like architects than painters, for example.

I've always felt that the character of Howard Roark captures the quintessential hacker quite well. Not being an architect, I can't comment on how well he represents architects, or how common that overlap might be :)

At least as I interpreted it, your essay doesn't argue for the connection between the activities of hacking and painting as much as between the people who do these things. Devotion to a craft that brings artistic satisfaction attracts a certain sort of person.

As much as I admire Howard Roark, could you explain more clearly how we hackers can take credit for him?

Hahaha, I'm not sure "we hackers" can take credit for him -- he's Ayn Rand's creation, after all, and she didn't even use a typewriter. Although, on the subject of "Hackers and Blank", her essays on writing always very much echoed my feelings about programming.

I collected some illustrative quotes from the book in this blog post:


Say, well that's odd. My short URLs don't work unless you're signed in. I suspect WP-Supercache is to blame.

Thanks for fixing the link.

This works: http://foohack.com/index.php?p=32

Interesting. I was telling one of the artists that I work with that a programmer is like a cross between an architect and a lawyer.

We build [abstract, conceptual] structures, but need to assign precise meanings to concepts. It's not as catchy, and it does not fully capture the engineering aspect, but I was pleased with it at the time.

As a hacker / musician and one who's tried my hand at painting, at least painting as it exists in culture at the moment tends to be less analytical than current approaches to music (which are very analytical). I think the balance might be shifted if we were looking at painting in for instance the Bauhaus movement, or classical painting.

That said, as someone who's also pretty serious about music and hacking, while there are similarities in being able to work from an idea and bring that to realization, there are gaps in that programming is functional; music needn't be. In that I see programming as closer to architecture than to painting or music.

But graphic design, as most people (not Escher) mean it, is significantly different from painting. Serious graphic design is functional in a way that painting isn't. It's as much architecture as art.

If you had written an essay called "Hackers and Graphic Designers", the rebuttal we're discussing wouldn't have been written.

Music is also much more portable, and much cheaper. I used to paint before I left home, but I've never had the space to assemble a studio since. Without a studio, I can't just start working when the urge strikes me. By comparison, when I have my guitar or keyboard with me I probably play an hour or so a day. It's kind of like how, with a separate 'internet computer', you mostly don't go online by accident. The problem is that you need to doodle to make something as a painter or musician (or hacker).

The only time I've painted since involved jury rigging an easel out of a basement gym at the Princeton graduate college. I could take a class, but they're expensive.

This is a complete aside, but as a drummer I have to disagree with you there.

Hmm. I suppose you consider tapping on a desk, or rolling on bongos the equivalent of a sketch?

Absolutely. I can't say enough good things about drumming: literally every bit of music I hear can become a collaborative (well, Karaoke-style collaboration) piece of shared expression. The only limit is the degree to which I'm willing to annoy the people around me.

Ha, never thought of it that way but a lot of times you are sitting in class and think up something on your desk so I guess so

> there are a lot more hacker/musicians than hacker/painters

This is very true. I have spent a lot of time with visual artists discussing why their field no longer seems to be of general interest.

Not just makers but 'conceivers'. To take an idea and express it in some form is artistic expression. And that perhaps is the similarity. Also, I think emotion(passion) has a part to play because the similarity exists at an emotional level not at 'process' level.

You should read a book called The Genesis of Artistic Creativity, by Michael Fitzgerald. The thing that you are talking about that many great hackers and painters have in common is a high functioning subtype of aspergers syndrome. The personality traits and drive to create you admire are manifestations of an "Autistic Superego" outlined by Fitzgerald in his book.

Thinking in images is a skill that relies on a mechanical-mathematical mind. In painters, they use this skill to paint, in hackers, they use it to architect complicated systems which they hold in their heads while they code. In both these cases, it's the same neurological mechanism underlying the ability you admire.

Your insight that painters and hackers is fundementally correct, and also deeper then 98% of what I have read about the hacker culture. If you want to explore it deeper, from a psychological and sociological point of view, reading Fitzgerald's book is the place to start.

>here just aren't very many hackers who are also painters.

I'd raise the hand for, as you say, "for some definition of" hacker, painter, writer and musician. And for any of slacker :-) I only program now, though.

Edit: oops! half the commentary disappeared before. I was going to say that painting (and composing music and writing) is really alike to programming, IMHO at least. I haven't read Paul Graham's book so I don't know if it has the same things that I feel alike. But the fact that there is a visible result and that result must "work" and the means are mostly a thought product, it's all the same. And there are also other similarities of the joy that I feel when doing any of these things that I couldn't express easily.

You would think that what means that the result "works" is different, that it's easier to have objetive measure of a working program than a "working painting". In fact it's not very clear in most companies. If the sales dept. can fool one customer to buy some crap (or undone) software for a fortune, that'd be "working". Not better than "art market".

"... I've always felt the painters connection was too tightly focused, though I think this essay (which is ancient, and would either be more true of pg's work today or less depending on how much you agree with it) goes overboard and manages to miss the point ..."

I don't think the hacker/painter correlation is far off the mark. We might not know of many painters who can hack but I think the idea might better be illustrated by someone who could be best described as a "Hacker" in his day.


Leonardo had lots of attributes you could ascribe to modern day Hackers:

- inately curious (how else would you work out how the human heart valves worked or the observation that the hardening and constriction of the minute capillaries in old people (compared to young babies) has something to do with death. Something that modern science had to re-discover.

- wrote excessively in notebook diaries on ideas and creations he was working on. (I've seen a sample of these diaries as part of the Royal Library collection. Images of cross sections from human skulls to yet to be born in-eutero.)

- sketched out his ideas as a combination of pictures and words (using silverpoint on vellum: a prepared animal hide covered with ground up animal bones and glue. then built upon these prior ideas as finished works)

- emperical in outlook and willing to try new ideas: that is he observed what worked and not just theorised or accepted common wisdom. A good example of this can be found in the paint composition of "The Last Supper". Leonardo decided "fresco" didn't allow him to express his painterly style, shunned the conventional and tried "fresco" over "gesso" (gypsum). In this case it failed miserably. But this ability to experiment also allowed Leonardo to master oils. The results of this stable medium you can see today in "La Gioconda" in the Louvre in Paris.

- exhibited unnatural powers of concentration (shunning food, rest and drink for instance during the painting of "The Last Supper".)

- mastery of numerous different technologies

The key bit that most people might not realise is that for Leonardo, painting was his technological multiplier. Leonardo expressed his sketches as drawings and words and presented finished ideas in paint. It is through the act of painting that we recognise the most famous painting of the Renaissance. I think the key to understanding the relationship between hackers and painters is that the expression of the intangible thought through art is what matters. Painting and drawing of ideas is to Leonardo as Macs are to modern day hackers. The product might be different but in the end both, modern Hacker and Leonardo as painter create new, seemingly intangible things from pure thought. I'm not surprised pg went to study in Florence. What does surprise me is why it took so long to realise that it was not the location that elevated Leonardo but the "tech revolution" of the time, painting.

what about "Hackers and Graffiti Artists"? That would make also make sense on a lot of levels depending on your definition of graffiti and hacking.

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