Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

“The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, in which you can shoot anyone you wish with your ideas, if you’re willing to risk the consequences.” –from “Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age,” by Paul Graham We are living in the computer age, in a world increasingly designed and engineered by computer programmers and software designers, by people who call themselves hackers. Who are these people, what motivates them, and why should you care? Consider these facts: Everything around us is turning into computers. Your typewriter is gone, replaced by a computer. Your phone has turned into a computer. So has your camera. Soon your TV will. Your car was not only designed on computers, but has more processing power in it than a room-sized mainframe did in 1970. Letters, encyclopedias, newspapers, and even your local store are being replaced by the Internet. “Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age,” by Paul Graham, explains this world and the motivations of the people who occupy it. In clear, thoughtful prose that draws on illuminating historical examples, Graham takes readers on an unflinching exploration into what he calls “an intellectual Wild West.” The ideas discussed in this book will have a powerful and lasting impact on how we think, how we work, how we develop technology, and how we live. Topics include the importance of beauty in software design, how to make wealth, heresy and free speech, the programming language renaissance, the open-source movement, digital design, internet startups, and more. And here’s a taste of what you’ll find in “Hackers & Painters”: “In most fields the great work is done early on. The paintings made between 1430 and1500 are still unsurpassed. Shakespeare appeared just as professional theater was being born, and pushed the medium so far that every playwright since has had to live in his shadow. Albrecht Durer did the same thing with engraving, and Jane Austen with the novel. Over and over we see the same pattern. A new medium appears, and people are so excited about it that they explore most of its possibilities in the first couple generations. Hacking seems to be in this phase now. Painting was not, in Leonardo’s time, as cool as his work helped make it. How cool hacking turns out to be will depend on what we can do with this new medium.” Andy Hertzfeld, co-creator of the Macintosh computer, says about “Hackers & Painters”: “Paul Graham is a hacker, painter and a terrific writer. His lucid, humorous prose is brimming with contrarian insight and practical wisdom on writing great code at the intersection of art, science and commerce.” Paul Graham, designer of the new Arc language, was the creator of Yahoo Store, the first web-based application. In addition to his PhD in Computer Science from Harvard, Graham also studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence.

Persuasive Online Copywriting: How to Take Your Words to the Bank

Writing for the web. Web word wizardry. Web writing that works. What does that mean? Your online copy must persuade – it’s integral to getting your visitors or readers to register, subscribe, qualify as leads, and yes, even buy from you. It’s writing that must earn its keep. And to effectively manage the quality of your online writing, you need to understand what works, why it works and how to make it work better for you. Whether you are the marketer responsible for the bottom line or the writer creating the copy, Persuasive Online Copywriting provides the tools you need to get results.

Bread and Circuses 2: Korean BBQ and Mark Haddon

I did not get much response to my previous installation of Bread and Circuses, the series of articles where I match my favorite books with my favorite food, but since I started already, well, I can’t chicken out now. You can read the first part here.

Ok, so let’s say it’s 22 century, agents of the corpocracy captured me, and are about to send me to the Litehouse. Michael-47, they say, what kind of a last meal and book would you like?  I’d choose a David Mitchell novel and some pho, but they tell me that they are fresh out. What would my second choice be?

Korean BBQ and a novel by Mark Haddon, of course.

Korean food is spicy and strong smelling. It’s not subtle. It’s not refined. But it is the ultimate comfort food. It’s a bit like a little room in a Soviet communal apartment – dingy, smelly, but oh so homey. Also, I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, it’s very, very tasty. To me, the ultimate family meal is Korean BBQ (aka galbi).

Whenever I feel extra bad and I need a cheer-me-up meal, I drag my wife to K-Town.  A typical meal involves frying bits of high and low grade meat over a special fire pit in the table, wrapping them in lettuce leafs and eating them. My favorite part is the little side dishes called banchan containing high quality kimchi (not the stuff you can find in a jar in a supermarket), various pickles, pancakes, salads, and many steamed, crunchy, slippery, tentacly things I don’t know the name of.  In better places they replenish the little dishes as you consume them. A galbi meal rarely fails to lift my spirits.

Mark Haddon rose to prominence  for his book  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel written from the point of view of an autistic boy.  As most programmers I am slightly touched by the engineer’s affliction, so I can understand it very well. Haddon knows a lot about working class British engineers, dysfunctional families and  psychological trouble. His second novel, A Spot of Bother  is about a retired engineer who is losing his mind, yet keeps a stiff upper lip about it.  Haddon’s plots are very interesting, characters likable, and sense of humor outstanding.  These two novels really put of my mind from waiting for David Mitchell’s next novel.

Once I finished Haddon’s bestsellers I learned that he actually started his career as a children’s writer.  He wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books,  culminating in the so-called Agent Z series. Oh, Agent Z. How I wish there were a few more of these left for me to read. Unfortunately the last one was written in 2001 and it does not look like Haddon is planning to write any more.

The Agent Z series is somewhat similar to the popular American tv show Malcolm in the Middle. In fact, I suspect that “Malcom” was inspired by “Agent Z”.

Agent Z is the pseudonym assumed by three British school kids who specialize in elaborate pranks. They are: Ben Simpson, the ‘handsome’ one of the crew, too smart and creative for his own good daydreamer from a lower middle class family; Barney Hall, a fat practical kid from an upper middle class family, who understands the adult psychology and is usually the brains of the outfit; and Jenks Jenkinson, a super skinny, wound up and ratty kid from a working class family who nevertheless has great fighting spirit.

  They take their revenge on bullies, boring teachers, nasty neighbors and relatives. Being kids, they don’t always stay anonymous under the cover of Agent Z organization, but usually get away with enough dignity to triumph over their tormentors.

These books are infused with British culture, and I learned many interesting things.  For instance, it turns out that the Brits call ballpoint pens “biros” – honoring its Hungarian inventor (I guess that theory about Hungarian Martians is not that far from the truth).

I also learned about chip butty (one of Ben’s favorite foods). Believe it or not, a chip butty is a sandwitch made out of two white (!) buttered (!!) pieces of bread, french fries (!!!) and ketchup (!!!!).

Why am I so hung up on the Agent Z? Well, in my youth I had two friends, a good looking one and a crazy one, and together we formed the XYZ secret society. We did pull off a few pranks. MIT is home to a very powerful and very secret society that specializes in pranks, I followed their fine work for years. Hacks and pranks are ingrained  in the souls of all engineers.

One of my favorite parts of the books is the illustrations that the author drew himself. Haddon is a very talented illustrator.

Agent Z Goes Wild is hard to find for some reason. I got my copy at abebooks.com.

Web 1.0

I am not suffering from writer’s block. Oh no. I have many, many, many things I want to write about. There’s a couple of dozen back-burnered posts in my Writely account, many with photos already uploaded. It’s just that I’ve been busy…

I was chatting with Joe Grossberg recently, an he said that my excuses are so Web 1.0. What do I have to say to that?

In other news: the steady supply of links, which it seems to mostly be an aftershock of the BoingBoing link to my Starbucks Mermaid post, has lifted deadprogrammer.com pagerank to 6. I wonder if all of my hotlinked and uncredited images going to myspace.com count towards pagerank.

I’d like to thank you all for your past and future links, as well as submissions to digg, BoingBoing and other fine MLP sites.

I am probably going to disclose my secret (well, not so _particularly_ secret) identity on “about me” page. I am still hesitant, but I’ll probably do it anyway.

Also, my posting frequency will go up. I’ll try for at least 4 posts a week, maybe as many as 7. I’m workin’ on it.

I’m Still Here!

As you might have noticed, dear readers, my blogging frequency is not what it used to be or should be. It’s not that I have writer’s block – in my GTD project folder I have enough notes for several hundred posts. But with the time constraints that a new baby, a demanding day job and several Quadrant II projects put on me, I have trouble finding motivation to sit down and craft my posts.

Still, blogging in itself is a Quadrant II activity, and even though so far I failed to make any real-life friends with it or attain any career-related connections, there’s the question of monetary gain. Belieive it or not, but even a small blog like mine, with only about 1000 readers or so, makes me enough money to pay for the hosting fees, and then buy myself a significant New Year present. I am talking a rather nice and expensive lens kind of money. Over the time, I had some thoughts about online advertising, and today, in order to make up a little for my blogging hiatus, let me share them with you in the next post.

Morning Deadwood

People were filthy and smelly in the olden days. And HBO capitalizes on amazingly good historical dramas teeming with filthy, period authentic characters. First there’s Carnivale, a mystical drama set at the turns of the Century. It has everything : carnies, okies, tarot cards, old cars, Art Deco and Craftsman interiors, mysteries, psychics, telekinesis, Knights Templar, evil preacher played by brilliant Clancy Brown aka Mr. Eugene Krabs from Spongebob and a lot of filthy people. And absolute tivo-worthy show.

Then there’s Deadwood, set during the gold rush. A high quality historical show, Deadwood writers try to stay as authentic as possible, hygiene and all. Famous hacker JWZ is not a fan: “It’s like watching paint dry. Dirty, foul-mouthed paint, but paint nonetheless.” I guess he is just not used to “Milch-speak“, a very peculiar style of dialogue that the show’s creator and writer, David Milch uses for his characters.

Familiar to fans of NYPD Blue, Milch-speak is a rather weird . I real life I encountered Milch-speak being used by often smart people with difficult and important jobs, who although lacking formal education, try to sound educated. It’s rather hard to explain, but I’ll try. First of all, milch-speakers use a lot of long words, meanining of which they more often know than not. They often mispronounce them though. The sentence structure is strange and tortured. It’s almost overly formal, Victorian in nature, and at the same time involves elements of Brooklyn Yiddish. It’s like as if listening to a very profane Victorian Yoda from Brooklyn. The sentence structure often resembles programmer-speak, so many logical twists and turns it has. There’s also lot’s of irony and slang.

Here’s a quote from recent episode: “Bad news or tries against our interests is our sole communications from strangers, so let’s by all means plant poles across the land and festoon the c*cksuckers with wires to hurry the sorry word and blinker our judgments of motive.”

The character who spoke that line, appropriately named saloon owner and master criminal Al Swearengen, according to Entrepreneur magazineinspired David Tufte, a professor at Southern Utah University’s business school to use Deadwood as a source for his students.

Here’s Al staring at me from an ad inside special Deadwood themed subway train:

Subway seats wrapped in special plastic to resemble old-timey leather chairs. Add a lot of filthy passengers and you’ll get a full Deadwood experience.

What’s In Your Cave?

I usually feel bad leaving a bookstore after a lot of browsing without buying something. So, last time went to a Russian bookstore looking for Zemfira cds, but found no new ones. Fulfilling my obligation to the bookseller I bought a book by Tatiana Tolstaya, one of the few missing from my library. It was one of those – a cover tastefully designed by Tema Lebedev, and inside a mixture of the good short stories from “On The Golden Porch” bitter recent editorials/rants.

I was reading this book on the train this morning, and one of the new “stories” wasn’t even a story – it was an introduction to another writer’s book. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, I thought, but continued reading. I was rewarded as there was one interesting tidbit there – a new-agey psychological experiment .

Basically it goes like this: you close your eyes and try to imagine yourself going down stairs until you see a dark forest. In the forest you see a river which you need to cross to get to a cave. You look inside the cave and find an object. That object symbolizes something or other about you. Tatiana Tolstaya described finding a bone and the author for whose book she wrote the introduction found a lump of coal.

No time like the present, no place like the stainless steel worm. I closed my eyes and imagined myself quickly going down a dark spiral staircase, then arriving at a dark underground forest. Turning around, away from the forest, I found a river and a boat waiting for me. The boat deposited me straight at the mouth of the cave. The object that I found there first was an adjustable wrench. Right under it was a set of lineman’s pliers.

And now for a dose of useless trivia. It’s interesting to note that I was incorrectly thinking of the wrench in question as of “monkey wrench”. A monkey wrench is an older type not used much, and is called so after it’s inventor, “Charles Moncky, […] (who) sold his patent for $2,000, and invested the money in a house in Williamsburg, Kings County, N.Y., where he afterward lived.” A wise investment I might add – houses in that Brooklyn neighborhood are way out of reach these days.

The wrench that I was thinking of is properly known as a “crescent wrench” or a “bulldog wrench”. In Russia I remember it being referred to as “French wrench”.

I guess my choice of symbols is pretty clear – they are engineering tools. Good for plumbing and electrical work – and what’s closer to that than programming?

I don’t know about coal, but the Tolstaya’s bone is pretty much clear to me. She has a bone to pick. A rather nasty essay that she wrote about America’s glorification of Mickey Mouse made it pretty clear to me. She drove a point that most Americans think of Mickey Mouse as of an absolute good. I guess she never looked him up in a dictionary.

Who Are They?

From The “Curve of Binding Energy” by John McPhee (1973, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 104-105):

“Not all the Los Alamos theories could be tested. Long popular within the Theoretical Division was, for example, a theory that the people of Hungary are Martians. The reasoning went like this: The Martians left their own planet several aeons ago and came to Earth; they landed in what is now Hungary; the tribes of Europe were so primitive and barbarian it was necessary for the Martians to conceal their evolutionary difference or be hacked to pieces. Through the years, the concealment had on the whole been successful, but the Martians had three characteristics too strong to hide: their wanderlust, which found its outlet in the Hungarian gypsy; their language (Hungarian is not related to any of the languages spoken in surrounding countries); and their unearthly intelligence. One had only to look around to see the evidence: Teller, Wigner, Szilard, von Neumann — Hungarians all. Wigner had designed the first plutonium-production reactors. Szilard had been among the first to suggest that fission could be used to make a bomb. Von Neumann had developed the digital computer. Teller — moody, tireless, and given to fits of laughter, bursts of anger — worked long hours and was impatient with what he felt to be the excessively slow advancement of Project Panda, as the hydrogen-bomb development was known. … Teller had a thick Martian accent. He also had a sense of humor that could penetrate bone.”

Steve “Developers, Developers, Developers!” Ballmer, Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan were also Hungarian Jews. Kissinger has a thick Martian accent. But the scariest Hungarian/Jewish Martian is of course Ron “But Wait, There’s More” Popeil, the inventor of Mr. Microphone, GLH-9 Hair in a Can and other alien products. How can you doubt that he’s an alien?

From the website of Rosanna Hart, Linebarger’s (see my article “Psywarrior” ) daughter:

“ARTHUR BURNS WRITES ABOUT PAUL LINEBARGER

“He was above medium height, terribly gaunt, bald, high-nosed, narrowing in the chin; he wore severe excellently-cut suits; his favourite hat was a soft black velour like an Italian film producer’s. He was constantly ill, usually with digestive or metabolic troubles, and had to put up with repeated surgery, so that in middle age he always lived close to the vital margin. He took time off from a dinner party in Melbourne for a long drink of hydro-chloric acid, at which a guest, quite awed, remarked that Linebarger probably *was* a man from Mars… “

Linebarger was an alien for sure, what with the acid drinking and everything, but II wonder if Linebarger was one of the Hungarians…

A sci-fi story called “Occam’s Scalpel” by Theodore Sturgeon comes to mind. Oh, I am not going to spoil the story for you. You should read it yourself.

While reading Vonnegut I never realized that Kilgore Trout was based on Sturgeon. I always thought that a writer that good (I tend not to notice awkward style when the authors ideas are good) is respected, famous and well read unlike Mr. Trout.

And Then There Were None

I have been hunting for Henry Kuttner’s autograph for a very long time. Henry Kuttner is one of my favorite sci-fi writers of all time (see my article about Kuttner). Kuttner died early and his signatures are very rare, fetching upward of $500. I keep a request for a book signed by Kuttner in hope that some ignorant bookseller might sell a signed copy cheaply. A few days ago abebooks wishlist emailed me a really weird item:

“henry kuttner
His personal baby book
his very first book starts on april 7th 1915 and includes his first photograph, mother’s as well as his nurses’ signature, and documents his first 3 words (please nobody take offense) nigger, nigger, nigger. It was in the possesion of author C.L. Moore but now it could be y
ISBN:
Bookseller Inventory #22224
Price: US$ 2500.00 “

I hope nothing bad happened to Kuttner’s wife and co-author, C.L. Moore. Why would a thing like that end up on the market?

Now, that’s a rather weird choice of first words for a baby. But the year being 1915 and everything, my guess is that little Henry must have been rather fond of the nursery rhyme that Agatha Christie used for her whodunit masterwork. Here’s a write-up from Rosetta Books, and eBook publisher:

.. A note about the title — Christie originally called the novel Ten Little Niggers, a reference to an old nursery rhyme that she places, framed, in the guest rooms of the ten characters in the story. Each dies in the manner described in a verse of the sing-song rhyme — e.g., “Ten little nigger boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there nine.” The rhyme ends with the words, “… and then there were none.” The offensive word, which carries an extra dimension of ugliness in American culture, was replaced with “Indians” for American publication. Ironically, “Indian” is now also a politically incorrect term, so the novel has officially been retitled And Then There None. As Charles Osborne points out in his delightful and indispensable study The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, the shift in the old American title creates a bit of confusion. For Americans think it refers to another nursery rhyme that begins, “One little, two little, three little Indians …” The nature of the original title reflects the time in which the novel it was written and the world in which Christie became an adult and a writer, one shaped largely by the British Empire and the racist thinking of the past. The cosmetic change of title to And Then There Were None is merely that, however. It erases a troubling shadow from an extraordinary, hugely entertaining achievement.

Some somewhat related links:

Straight Dope : In whodunits, it’s “the butler did it.” Who did it first?

A complaint to Canadian Broadcast Standards Council :

This case is, in the experience of the CBSC, unique; it marks the first occasion on which a Regional Council has been asked to review the title, as opposed to the content, of a television program. The broadcast in question is a cooking show entitled Gwai Lo Cooking which is aired by CFMT-TV (Toronto). The source of the complaint is the historic Cantonese expression “gwai lo” which is used as a material component of the show’s title. In its etymological background, “gwai lo” translates as “foreign devil” or “ghostly fellow” and it continues to be used by some Chinese to refer to “pale-skinned” Westerners. In the context of the title in question, “gwai lo” refers to the show’s host, who, although of Caucasian, rather than Oriental, much less Chinese, descent, speaks Cantonese and is able to offer North Amercian and European cooking recipes to the Cantonese-speaking Chinese Canadian community. …

Best Sci-fi You Haven’t Read Part III or Call Time Police – We’ve Got a Time Traveler


William Fitzgerald Jenkins, better known under his pen name Murray Leinster, was born in Norfolk, Virginia on June 16, 1896 (or so they tell us). I have many reasons not to believe this. He earned his living entirely through freelance writing, except when he worked as a researcher in the War Department during WWI and WWII. In his early literary career he wrote various junk, including “cautionary tails of the perils that could await a young woman, who, in all innocence, failed to insure that she was properly chaperoned at all times” (I am still trying to locate those). In 1919 he witnessed a clock being reset on a building across the street, and rapidly rotating hour and minute arms of that clock gave him an idea. He wrote a story about time travel called “The Runaway Skyscraper”. Since then he wrote mostly science fiction. Good science fiction too, for instance he won a Hugo for one of his stories (becoming the only person who wrote before 20s to win a Hugo).

As I mentioned, he served in two World Wars as a researcher. I bet that most of his work was classified, but I’ve seen mentions that it had something to do with submarines. Crypto, nuclear propulsion – your guess is as good as mine. Seems pretty strange that a freelance writer would also turn out a brilliant technologist, because he was definitely a good engineer : he got two patents for “Front Projection System” (frigging Delphion is charging for access these days, so I can’t really look up what they are) which he later sold to Fairchild Camera.

How does a “cautionary tail” writer becomes a great sci-fi writer, submarine researcher and inventor? I think that he was replaced by a time traveler. He wasn’t alone, he had friends too.

Here is an excerpt from and introduction Will Jenkins wrote for an anthology “Great Stories of Science Fiction” that he edited:

“During the late lamented World War Two, the FBI had occasion to check on me. They decided that I wasn’t subversive, and made due note of the fact. As a consequence, one day I had a telephone call. A voice said pleasantly that it was the FBI calling, and they’d like to talk to me. I searched my conscience hurriedly, and then asked where I should come to talk. The voice said graciously that he’d come to see me. He did. In a hurry. With a companion.

One was a large man with a patient expression, and the other was quite young and looked rather shy. They produced credentials and proved who they were, and I obligingly proved who I was, and then one of them said, “Tell me, have you ever read the Cleve Cartmill story, ‘Deadline’?”

I said I had. The larger FBI man asked interestedly, “What did you think of it?”

“A pretty good story,” I said, “and the science is authentic. Quite accurate.”

Then there was a pause. A rather long pause. Then he sighed, and reluctantly inquired, “Well, what we want to know is: could it be a leak?”

At this point my hair stood up on end and its separate strands tended to crack like whiplashes. Because “Deadline,” by Cleve Cartmill, was a story about an atomic bomb, and this was a year before Hiroshima. The bomb in the story was made of uranium-235, it was to explode when a critical mass was attained, and there were other details. The story described most minutely the temperature of an atom-bomb explosion, the deadly radiation, the lingering aftereffects, the shock-wave, the heat-effect, and all the rest of the phenomena that a year later were observed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I was being asked about it before Hiroshima, and the Manhattan Project was perhaps the most completely hush-hush of all the hush-hush performances of the war.

My copy of this book is of course signed :)

But that is nothing, nothing I tell you, compared to what Will Jenkins himself wrote. You see, he wrote a story called “A Logic Named Joe” in the year 1946. Here is an excerpt

“I’m a maintenance man for the Logics Company. My job is servicing Logics, and I admit modestly that I am pretty good. I was servicing televisions before that guy Carson invented his trick circuit that will select any of ‘steenteen million other circuits—in theory there ain’t no limit—and before the Logics Company hooked it into the Tank-and-Integrator set-up they were usin ’em as business-machine service. They added a vision-screen for speed—an they found out they’d made Logics. They were surprised an pleased. They’re still findin out what Logics will do, but everybody’s got ’em.

You know the Logics set-up. You got a Logic in your house. It looks like a vision-receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It’s hooked in to the Tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say you punch “Station SNAFU” on your Logic. Relays in the Tank take over an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin comes on your Logic’s screen. Or you punch “Sally Hancock’s Phone” an the screen blinks an sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the Logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfields administration or what is PDQand R sellin for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the Tank do it. The Tank is a big buildin foil of all the facts in creation an’ all the recorded telecasts that ever was made—an it’s hooked in with all the other Tanks all over the country—an everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an’ keeps books, an acts as consultin’ chemist, physicist, astronomer an’ tea-leaf reader, with a “Advice to the Lovelorn” thrown in. The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, “Oh, you think so, do you?” in that peculiar kinda voice. Logics don’t work good on women. Only on things that make sense.

Logics are all right, though. They changed civilization, the highbrows tell us.All on accounta the Carson Circuit. “

Holy Crap! How did the time police miss this guy??
By the way, notice some military humor there. Do you know what SNAFU means?

If you would like to read some of Murray Leinster’s stories, a good place to start is “First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster”