Dabblers and Blowhards

Paul Graham’s “Hackers and Painters” takes a beating in Maciej Ceglowski’s “Dabblers and Blowhards”:

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.


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.

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.

“Dabblers and Blowhards”:http://www.idlewords.com/2005/04/dabblers_and_blowhards.htm is worth reading for Maciej’s writing-style alone. Brilliant. Paul Graham’s original essay, “Hackers and Painters, can be found here”:http://www.paulgraham.com/hp.html.