Book Review: Hackers and Painters

This is really like a collection of long essays more than a single book.

I liked the chapter on geeks in high school, it’s very accurate. The war stories about running a startup are valuable data points.

The distinction between makers/hackers/painters and engineers is a valuable one. I think a good educator or project manager should take into consideration which of the two skills and personality types they are working with.

The article on economics was a bit too much folk-economics for my taste. I’ve got a masters in Economics and found some of the analysis to be the naive. For example, if some programmers are doing 99% of the productive work, then they should reap 99% of the wages & profits of the programming industry. They don’t, so on one hand the author is saying the free market system is inefficient, on the other hand, the rest of what he says implies he very much a laissez faire economics sort of thinker. So what gives? Also, the bit about how one’s wages are an averaging of all the employees outputs and thus inefficient seems suspect. If one can make another company richer, then the other company will bid for that employee, driving up their wages until an employee’s salary is equal to their marginal contribution.

Also, the bit about suggesting workaholism is a good thing is a bit naive. There are diminishing marginal returns to any input. The rate at which marginal returns diminishes varies, but no matter what the job, your 80th hour of work in a week is less productive than the 40th and is something less productive than 2 people working two weeks. In my personal experience, workaholism leads to catastrophic exhaustion, where eventually you just stop wanting to work. So you gain, say a 25% productivity boost for a few weeks, and then lose a larger absolute value of productivity when your brain and body fail and you can’t get any work done for a few weeks. Just because the machines can work 24×7, it’s reckless advise to try to make the wetware peripherals (ie. the programmer) do the same.

The programmers-are-libertarians bit, I don’t agree with. Online communities suffer from echo chamber effects and founder effects. Place like slash-dot and the like are overrun with likeminded libertarians because they got there first, drove off anyone that thinks differently and now they only hear each other. The now image that libertarians rule the world, that Ayn Rand is a popular author and Ron Paul has a chance. The ironic part is, that if one believes that the libertarians rule the world (even just among programmers) then you aren’t really exposing yourself to a wide variety of ideas, or ideas that are out of fashion– because you won’t be able to see what fashion is anymore! All you can see is that everyone on slashdot is a libertarian.

I am a programmer and I am not a libertarian. I think libertarians are sociopaths, who mostly just want others to believe and adopt libertarian policies to their own benefit to the detriment of others. I think they are as self serving a billionaire who opposes taxes on billionaires and deluded as the penniless, undereducated, unemployed rural conservative, who thinks policies favoring the rich and powerful are good because someday he’s going to be a rich and powerful man, too.

The don’t-trust-anything the-suppressed-ideas-are-right thinking in not automatically true! It is a intellectual tool you want to use, it’s just something to keep in mind. Sometime unpopular ideas are controversial because, well, one side really is wrong and yet the idea has something very attractive to it for dull witted and emotional people. At best, investigating out-of-fashion ideas is a starting point. One will have to do hard work and thought to find out if a currently controversial idea with vocal detractors is non-sense or not. Worse, the more vocal detractors there are, the more likely it is for the arguments to get sophisticated — i.e. have the trappings of science, reason but none of the substance. The gun controversy in the US is a good example– a good sign that the controversy in the US is clouded by things other than reason is that many places elsewhere in the world,

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