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Dabblers And Blowhards

I actually worry a lot that as I get "popular" I'll be able to get away with saying stupider stuff than I would have dared say before. This sort of thing happens to a lot of people, and I would *really* like to avoid it

- Paul Graham, posting on lemonodor.com

About two years ago, the Lisp programmer and dot-com millionaire Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled Hackers and Painters, in which he argues that his approach to computer programming is better described by analogies to the visual arts than by the phrase "computer science".

When this essay came out, I was working as a computer programmer, and since I had also spent a few years as a full-time oil painter, everybody who read the article and knew me sent along the hyperlink. I didn't particularly enjoy the essay — I thought the overall tone was glib, and I found the parallel to painting unconvincing — but it didn't seem like anything worth getting worked up about. Just another programmer writing about what made him tick.

But the emailed links continued, and over the next two years Paul Graham steadily ramped up his output while moving definitively away from subjects he had expertise in (like Lisp) to topics like education, essay writing, history, and of course painting. Sometime last year I noticed he had started making bank from an actual print book of collected essays, titled (of course) "Hackers and Painters". I felt it was time for me to step up.

So let me say it simply - hackers are nothing like painters.

It's surprisingly hard to pin Paul Graham down on the nature of the special bond he thinks hobbyist programmers and painters share. In his essays he tends to flit from metaphor to metaphor like a butterfly, never pausing long enough to for a suspicious reader to catch up with his chloroform jar. The closest he comes to a clear thesis statement is at the beginning "Hackers and Painters":

"[O]f all the different types of people I've known, hackers and painters are among the most alike. What hackers and painters have in common is that they're both makers."

To which I'd add, what hackers and painters don't have in common is everything else. The fatuousness of the parallel becomes obvious if you think for five seconds about what computer programmers and painters actually do.

  • 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 is true that both painters and programmers make things, just like a pastry chef makes a wedding cake, or a chicken makes an egg. But nothing about what they make, the purposes it serves, or how they go about doing it is in any way similar.

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. Even the most elegant of computer programs, in order to be considered a program, has to compile and run [1]. So just like mechanical engineers and architects, computer programmers create artifacts that have to stand up to an objective reality. No one cares how pretty the code is if the program won't work.

The only objective constraint a painter has is making sure the paint physically stays on the canvas (something that has proven surprisingly challenging). Everything beyond that is aesthetics - arranging colored blobs in a way that best tickles the mind of the viewer.

This difference is what makes programming so similar to engineering, which also tries to create beautiful things in the face of objective constraints, but it's a parallel that really rankles Graham. He interprets it as implying that there should be limits on the creative control programmers exercise over their work: [2]

Doug Kaye: In what ways do you think to program is more like painting than it is like some of our more common metaphors such as engineering?

Paul Graham: [...] in buildings, for example there is this distinction between architects and engineers. Architects decide what the building is going to look like basically and then they say to an engineer, "Can I do this? And then how?" And the engineer figures out how. So architects figure out "what," engineers figure out "how." Well painters do both. Painters decide what to paint and then have to paint it. And hackers in the best case also do both[3].

You can safely replace "painters" in this response with "poets", "composers", "pastry chefs" or "auto mechanics" with no loss of meaning or insight. There's nothing whatsoever distinctive about the analogy to painters, except that Paul Graham likes to paint, and would like to feel that his programming allows him a similar level of self-expression. The reason Graham's essay isn't entitled "Hackers and Pastry Chefs" is not because there is something that unites painters and programmers into a secret brotherhood, but because Paul Graham likes to cultivate the arty aura that comes from working in the visual arts. Having been both a painter and a programmer, I can certainly sympathize with him.

Great paintings, for example, get you laid in a way that great computer programs never do. Even not-so-great paintings - in fact, any slapdash attempt at splashing paint onto a surface - will get you laid more than writing software, especially if you have the slightest hint of being a tortured, brooding soul about you. For evidence of this I would point to my college classmate Henning, who was a Swedish double art/theatre major and on most days could barely walk.

Also remark that in painting, many of the women whose pants you are trying to get into aren't even wearing pants to begin with. Your job as a painter consists of staring at naked women, for as long as you wish, and this day in and day out through the course of a many-decades-long career. Not even rock musicians have been as successful in reducing the process to its fundamental, exhilirating essence.

It's no surprise, then, that a computer programmer would want to bask in some of the peripheral coolness that comes with painting, especially when he has an axe to grind about his own work being 'mere engineering'. Yet while this might be charming or quirky in the abstract, it gets seriously annoying when real facts start getting butchered:

""When oil paint replaced tempera in the fifteenth century, it helped painters to deal with difficult subjects like the human figure because, unlike tempera, oil can be blended and overpainted." [4]

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

"Compositional symmetry yields some of the most memorable paintings"

" It is not merely an accident of history that the great paintings of the Renaissance are all full of people. If they hadn't been, painting as a medium wouldn't have the prestige that it does."

"Worse is Better is found throughout the arts. In drawing, for example, the idea was discovered during the Renaissance."

"What made oil paint so exciting, when it first became popular in the fifteenth century, was that you could actually make the finished work from the prototype."

"Most painters start with a blurry sketch and gradually refine it."

"Line drawings are in fact the most difficult visual medium [5]"

" The point of painting from life is that it gives your mind something to chew on: when your eyes are looking at something, your hand will do more interesting work."

"Hackers need to understand the theory of computation about as much as painters need to understand paint chemistry. You need to know how to calculate time and space complexity and about Turing completeness. You might also want to remember at least the concept of a state machine, in case you have to write a parser or a regular expression library. Painters in fact have to remember a good deal more about paint chemistry than that." [6]

All of these statements are wrong, or dumb, or both, and yet they are sprinkled through various essays like raisins in a fruitcake, with no further justification, and the reader is expected to enjoy the chewy burst of flavor and move on to the next tidbit.

I am not qualified to call bullshit on Paul Graham when he writes about programming, history, starting a business, or even growing up as a social pariah, but I do know enough about art to see when someone is just making shit up.

In Paul Graham's world, as soon as oil paint was invented, painting techniques made a discontinuous jump from the fifteenth to the twentienth century, fortuitously allowing Renaissance painters to paint a lot like Paul Graham. And the difficult problems the new medium supposedly helped painters solve just happened to resemble the painting problems that confront an enthusiastic but not particularly talented art student. I hope I am not the only to find this highly suspicious.

I blame Eric Raymond and to a lesser extent Dave Winer for bringing this kind of schlock writing onto the Internet. Raymond is the original perpetrator of the "what is a hacker?" essay, in which you quickly begin to understand that a hacker is someone who resembles Eric Raymond. Dave Winer has recently and mercifully moved his essays off to audio, but you can still hear him snorfling cashew nuts and talking at length about what it means to be a blogger[7] . These essays and this writing style are tempting to people outside the subculture at hand because of their engaging personal tone and idiosyncratic, insider's view. But after a while, you begin to notice that all the essays are an elaborate set of mirrors set up to reflect different facets of the author, in a big distributed act of participatory narcissism.

The whole genre reminds me of the the wooly business books one comes across at airports ("Management secrets of Gengis Khan", the "Lexus and the Olive Tree") that milk a bad analogy for two hundred pages to arrive at the conclusion that people just like the author are pretty great.

This is a shame, both because Graham is an excellent author when he sticks to topics that he knows well, and because there are real books out there that address the connections between computer programming and visual art. The best of these is called Light and Color in the Outdoors. You may see my copy on a subway train somewhere, where it was liberated into greater New York by my roommate, the Bulgar of Fortune. Minnaert never specifically mentions painting or computer science, but the book is all about the optics and physics of outdoor phenomena, and you will never look at a sunset the same way again.

From a more cultural studies angle, there is the unparalleled The Birth of the Modern : World Society 1815-1830 by Paul Johnson, which describes the historical moment when engineering and art bifurcated in Western culture, and is full of revealing character sketches of people you will immediately want to run out and read up on.

John Ruskin is a Victorian art critic and enthusiast who is on my perennial to-read list, since he seems to have bridged a number of worlds and was a supremely effective popularizer of high art. He was also a talented draughtsman and watercolorist in his own right.

And of course, the canonical art-and-computer book is Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, which successfully makes the kind of extended analogy that Paul Graham can only dream of, and does so in a way that is both intellectually honest and mind-broadening.

Any of these books will give you more in a page than Paul Graham can offer across the whole broad and aggressively expanding corpus of his online essays, and none of them will leave you with that dissatisfied, preached-at-in-the-corner-by-your-uncle feeling that has become a hallmark of Graham's less technical writing.

As for the mystical connection between painters and programmers, the famous Lloyd Bentsen put-down keeps coming to mind. Unless you are actually making art with computers - something that can be perfectly wonderful - being a hobbyist programmer is not going to let you in to art club. You can look up to the guys who made the Boeing 747, the original Macintosh, the Verazzano Narrows bridge, and other beautiful artifacts of engineering and design. And you can aspire to walk in the footsteps of Faraday, Edison, Telford, Benjamin Franklin, and any other number of inspired tinkerers and builders.

But you, sir, are no painter. And while you hack away at your terminal, or ride your homemade Segway, we painters and musicians are going to be right over here with all the wine, hash, and hot chicks.

Hee hee.


[1] Some Arc hackers may disagree with this.

[2] Paul Graham is a weenis.

[3] Yes, these notes are a parody.

[4] It's hard to understand how fatuous this statement is unless you've tried your hand at painting, which is one reason Graham gets away with this stuff. The allusion here is to a sketchy, iterative style of painting that used to be called "alla prima", where you block shapes in in oil paint and then swoosh them around the composition as the painting progresses, perhaps repainting entire sections of the picture. This is the way Graham and I were taught to paint, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with painting in the fifteenth century, where you had a superprecise underdrawing and underpainting that were covered with thin glazes of color.

And it has equally little do with the difficulty of your subject matter. Being able to blend and overpaint has as much to do with being a skilled draughtsman as having an eraser on your pencil has to do with being a good writer.

The Greeks did pretty well with the human form despite having to work in stone.

[5] Dipshit.

[6] All painters really have to remember about chemistry is fat over lean and don't ash in the turpentine.

[7] Winer, at least, has yet to publish a HOWTO on proper oral sex technique, but if he ever touches a woman I expect the worst.

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