I’ve been reading Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters. Published in 2004, it only just found its way off of my reading shelf and into my brain. This Amazon reviewer really sums up the book nicely although I mildly disagree with some of the statements.
Most of the book is a long-winded lecture about how great Lisp is, and about how that is the language of the cool, smart people.
There is very little about painting, it is only briefly mentioned in the beginning.
The first chapter is quite good, then it gets more preaching and more dull rapidly.
Mr Graham is obviously a smart guy and a capable writer. The fact that he was part of a dot-com start up that actually succeeded seems to have gone to his head though. Somehow the fact that he was in the right place with the right idea at the right time enables him to declare Lisp as the uber language, and everybody who doesn’t see that is a dullard?
The title suggests a book which is whimisical and fun. This book is a preachy diatribe by a pompous hacker who things he has the proper world-view for everyone.
— Kevin Stokes
But to give Paul his due he covers some excellent topics. One of the most intriguing ones is the third chapter about thinking the un-thinkable. The suggestion is that by thinking the un-thinkable you will enter a new head-space where perhaps you can make a concerted difference to yourself or others. When I read it, I thought: “I like this idea, I might try it out”. A few more chapters passed and he is talking about Lisp (which I will return to shortly) and I’m thinking: “I’m bored. Where’s my unthinkable thought got to?”. I thought really hard and I got one: “Paul Graham is mad”. Plain and simple. As instructed by Mr Graham I started to explore this idea right away to test its validity.
- If Paul had a mania what would it be?
- Where should we look for manifestations of this mania?
- Will trying out Lisp make me as mad as I perceive all the other people that use it to be?
- Am I mad and if I am would I be able to answer this question?
And I came to the conclusion that Paul Graham is not mad. Sorry folks. It’s just not true. However, the majority of his un-thinkable ideas (at least in this book) all seem to originate from a single perspective point (you get these in art too I understand!) that choosing Lisp allowed him and his colleagues at Viaweb to produce something others could not. Which is in itself a remarkable statement if it is as true as he suggests. So I thought I’d have another try at Lisp. I tried it once before and wasn’t totally turned off by the idea I just never really got going.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ll not be trying it just yet. This is just a warning you understand, especially since I wouldn’t want Paul to think that he’d succesfully goaded me into it when he said:
… but I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind (about Lisp) over the age of 25 …
I reserve the right to not let Paul Graham into my head and eat my brain. It’s mine and I’m keeping it mine until I decide otherwise.
One of the cricisms of Lisp is that it doesn’t have very good library support. A little investigation into Unit testing frameworks and MySQL wrappers seemed to bear out what the Reddit development team are saying.
What makes Lisp so much greater (it seems) is that data and program are inter-changeable in as much as you can treat pieces of program like they’re data and vice-versa. And it’s difficult to conceive of a programming language that has the two concepts so fully inter-twined. Reflection is a way of achieving it but in my view reflection is evil because it makes compiler optimisations and function call traceability harder. These two arguments don’t apply to Lisp so Lisp wins again. It is partly because Lisp has all those brackets that it is so powerful.
And so we link into another one of Paul’s un-thinkable ideas which is to design the programming language of the future. His belief is that by imagining what we will want we can make this language today. Anyone can do it. And probably either has or will, we just don’t know it yet. He believes that this language will be optionally OO, with very few axioms, and support something like macros. Smells like Lisp to me. Change the meat on the barbecue Paul.
I refuse to believe that Lisp is the future. It would be quite extraordinary and quite exciting if it were to become so, but my crystal ball says no-way padre. But it is one of the languages in the evolution of languages that has played a significant role. And I do believe it has more to offer. Its time will come again and some spark will incorporate the final pieces of high-hanging Lisp fruit into the language of tomorrow.
It’s just that we’ll be able to do it without having a permanant speech impediment. Thhhorry Paul.