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«Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age», Paul Graham

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Several later chapters are about something most people outside the computer world haven't thought about: programming languages. Why should you care about programming languages? Because if you want to understand hacking, this is the thread to follow—just as, if you wanted to understand the technology of 1880, steam engines were the thread to follow.

Computer programs are all just text. And the language you choose determines what you can say. Programming languages are what programmers think in.

Naturally, this has a big effect on the kind of thoughts they have. And you can see it in the software they write. Orbitz, the travel web site, managed to break into a market dominated by two very formidable competitors: Sabre, who owned electronic reservations for decades, and Microsoft. How on earth did Orbitz pull this off? Largely by using a better programming language.

Programmers tend to be divided into tribes by the languages they use. More even than by the kinds of programs they write. And so it's considered bad manners to say that one language is better than another. But no language designer can afford to believe this polite fiction. What I have to say about programming languages may upset a lot of people, but I think there is no better way to understand hacking.

Some might wonder about "What You Can't Say" (Chapter 3). What does that have to do with computers? The fact is, hackers are obsessed with free speech. Slashdot, the New York Times of hacking, has a whole section about it. I think most Slashdot readers take this for granted. But Plane & Pilot doesn't have a section about free speech.

Why do hackers care so much about free speech? Partly, I think, because innovation is so important in software, and innovation and heresy are practically the same thing. Good hackers develop a habit of questioning everything. You have to when you work on machines made of words that are as complex as a mechanical watch and a thousand times the size.

But I think that misfits and iconoclasts are also more likely to become hackers. The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, where you can think anything you want, if you're willing to risk the consequences.

And this book, if I've done what I intended, is an intellectual Western. I wouldn't want you to read it in a spirit of duty, thinking, "Well, these nerds do seem to be taking over the world. I suppose I'd better understand what they're doing, so I'm not blindsided by whatever they cook up next." If you like ideas, this book ought to be fun . Though hackers generally look dull on the outside, the insides of their heads are surprisingly interesting places.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

April 2004

Chapter 1. Why Nerds Are Unpopular

When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down's Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called "retards."

We sat at a D table, as low as you could get without looking physically different. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise. Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us.

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

Why? To someone in school now, that may seem an odd question to ask. The mere fact is so overwhelming that it may seem strange to imagine that it could be any other way. But it could. Being smart doesn't make you an outcast in elementary school. Nor does it harm you in the real world. Nor, as far as I can tell, is the problem so bad in most other countries. But in a typical American secondary school, being smart is likely to make your life difficult. Why?

The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. Why don't smart kids make themselves popular? If they're so smart, why don't they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just as they do for standardized tests?

One argument says that this would be impossible, that the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart, and nothing they could do could make them popular. I wish. If the other kids in junior high school envied me, they did a great job of concealing it. And in any case, if being smart were really an enviable quality, the girls would have broken ranks. The guys that guys envy, girls like.


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