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Book Review: Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

Diomidis Spinellis
Athens University of Economics and Business

Paul Graham
Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age
O' Reilly & Associates, Sebastopol, CA. 2004
258 pp.

Paul Graham has a Computer Science PhD from Harvard University, and has also studied painting at the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and the Accademia in Florence. His background reveals itself both in the title of the book "Hackers & Painters", and the contents of its 15 separate essays. Their subjects vary; an overarching description of the work could well be an Ode to Freedom: freedom to be unpopular in school, freedom to write programs by hacking, freedom to break the rules, freedom to think heretical thoughts, freedom to create (and keep) wealth, freedom from spam, freedom to program in the most expressive programming language the task at hand.

Don't look for a balanced treatment of ideas in these essays. Graham knows exactly where he stands on many different issues: server-based software is the future of computing, unequal income distribution is a sign of a healthy society, Bayesian techniques are an effective method for fighting spam, languages supporting dynamic typing, and Lisp in particular, are tremendous boosters of programmer productivity. He expresses his thought-provoking and often contrarian ideas in no uncertain terms, with eloquence, convincing arguments, and entertaining examples. In the essays there is a nugget of wisdom for (almost) everyone: for the budding computer hacker who wonders which language to learn, the parents whose bright kid is harassed at school, the Megacorp's CEO rethinking the company's hiring practices and compensation plan, the startup founder who wants to take Megacorp's business, and the politician who wants to encourage both companies to invest in her country.

People involved in information technology, either from a technical, or from a business perspective, will certainly enjoy reading and benefit from this book. The book could also be used as background reading material in graduate courses dealing with technology policy; it will certainly sparkle many lively discussions in class.

While one may not agree with all the ideas put forward in the book, one has to admit that putting them on paper takes courage and provides a valuable service to our community. And we have to thank Graham for that.