Hackers & Painters

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yet another book I recently picked up again: “Hackers & Painters” by Paul Graham. Paul Graham is sort of a celebrity in the LISP community, but I fear I’m a bit too young for that. Don’t tell anybody, but I got my basic training on the good ol’ commodore basic v3.5. Yes, I owned a C=16!

Anyway, from what I gather, Paul has developed the software which would eventually power the Yahoo Store! back in the 90s, and got really rich by selling his startup company to Yahoo. Oh, and I forgot that he wrote the whole thing in LISP.

So it seems that Paul Graham has since had an ample amount of time to work on some new projects, like arc, the last LISP dialect you’d ever need to learn, show people how to start your own company and get rich, and writing books.

I read the whole thing a while ago and it contains a number of interesting little essays. This morning, on my way to the lab I started to read the first few pages of the chapter “Hackers and Painters” and I had to smile how accurate his descriptions were.

According to Mr. Graham, computer science is home to many different types of people. On the theoretical end, there are mathematicians who prove theorems and are basically doing, well, math. Then there is what he calls the “natural sciences” of computation: people who study algorithms and their behavior the way you would study an animal. You devise experiments to collect data and statistics about how one algorithm compares to the other.

The “true hacker”, though, is again different because his goal is to create new software. It is not just engineering, but it is a mixture of architecture and engineering, and the hacker ideally combines both these professions in one person.

However, Paul argues that the hacker’s endeavor is unscientific at heart, or at least does not fit in well with the usually scientific measures of quality. Often, writing a program is not about reinventing something, or solving really hard problems, but about combining existing techniques in a clever new fashion.

When I look at my field, machine learning, I can easily identify each of these three different school of thought, sometimes even within one paper. For example, you first proving some theorems which nevertheless fail to give a complete answer, and then compare algorithms experimentally.

And sometimes, you end up doing work which you think is cool and valuable, but which just brings together existing techniques in a really nice fashion. People will object that it all has been done before, and you agree that they are right, but still, your specific mixture really adds something to, well, the mixture.

An example is our little programming language pet-project rhabarber. Well, it borrows a lot of LISP, maybe some smalltalk, and a lot from python and ruby in terms of how you would want to work with a language. People instantly ask why we need a new computer language. And yet, I think that the specific mixture is something special, which will lead to a more useful tool than all existing languages.

But I disgress. So if you’ve finished reading Steve Levy’s “Hackers”, I recommend reading Paul Grahams “Hackers & Painters” next ;) And if you don’t feel like buying the book, Paul has many essays on his homepage.

Posted by at 2007-08-21 19:55:00 +0000

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