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Paul Graham Fortune Cookies

About

Paul Graham is a software developer and essayist who maintains a web site with essays. This is a collection of memorable quotes from there.

Table of Contents

The Fortunes Themselves

Paul Graham: People who do Great Work

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The people I’ve met who do great work… generally feel that they’re stupid and lazy, that their brain only works properly one day out of ten, and that it’s only a matter of time until they’re found out.

Paul Graham
“Great Hackers” (later edited out)

Author Paul Graham
Work “Great Hackers” (old Version)

Paul Graham about Great Men in their Youth

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What they really mean is, don’t get demoralized. Don’t think that you can’t do what other people can. And I agree you shouldn’t underestimate your potential. People who’ve done great things tend to seem as if they were a race apart. And most biographies only exaggerate this illusion, partly due to the worshipful attitude biographers inevitably sink into, and partly because, knowing how the story ends, they can’t help streamlining the plot till it seems like the subject’s life was a matter of destiny, the mere unfolding of some innate genius. In fact I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they’d seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.

Author Paul Graham
Work What You’ll Wish You’d Known

Paul Graham about Java - #1

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It could be that in Java’s case I’m mistaken. It could be that a language promoted by one big company to undermine another, designed by a committee for a “mainstream” audience, hyped to the skies, and beloved of the DoD [= “Department of Defense”], happens nonetheless to be a clean, beautiful, powerful language that I would love programming in. It could be, but it seems very unlikely.

Author Paul Graham
Work Java’s Cover

Paul Graham - Java Hype

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But for what it’s worth, as a sort of time capsule, here’s why I don’t like the look of Java:

1. It has been so energetically hyped. Real standards don’t have to be promoted. No one had to promote C, or Unix, or HTML. A real standard tends to be already established by the time most people hear about it. On the hacker radar screen, Perl is as big as Java, or bigger, just on the strength of its own merits.

Author Paul Graham
Work Java’s Cover

Paul Graham - about Computer Science Mathematicians

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Bundling all these different types of work together in one department may be convenient administratively, but it’s confusing intellectually. That’s the other reason I don’t like the name “computer science.” Arguably the people in the middle are doing something like an experimental science. But the people at either end, the hackers and the mathematicians, are not actually doing science.

The mathematicians don’t seem bothered by this. They happily set to work proving theorems like the other mathematicians over in the math department, and probably soon stop noticing that the building they work in says “computer science” on the outside. But for the hackers this label is a problem. If what they’re doing is called science, it makes them feel they ought to be acting scientific. So instead of doing what they really want to do, which is to design beautiful software, hackers in universities and research labs feel they ought to be writing research papers.

Author Paul Graham
Work “Hackers and Painters” (the Essay)

Paul Graham - figure a Program Completely on Paper

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For example, I was taught in college that one ought to figure out a program completely on paper before even going near a computer. I found that I did not program this way. I found that I liked to program sitting in front of a computer, not a piece of paper. Worse still, instead of patiently writing out a complete program and assuring myself it was correct, I tended to just spew out code that was hopelessly broken, and gradually beat it into shape. Debugging, I was taught, was a kind of final pass where you caught typos and oversights. The way I worked, it seemed like programming consisted of debugging.

For a long time I felt bad about this, just as I once felt bad that I didn’t hold my pencil the way they taught me to in elementary school. If I had only looked over at the other makers, the painters or the architects, I would have realized that there was a name for what I was doing: sketching. As far as I can tell, the way they taught me to program in college was all wrong. You should figure out programs as you’re writing them, just as writers and painters and architects do.

Author Paul Graham
Work Hackers and Painters

Paul Graham on Business Oscillations

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I only discovered this myself quite recently. When Yahoo bought Viaweb, they asked me what I wanted to do. I had never liked the business side very much, and said that I just wanted to hack. When I got to Yahoo, I found that what hacking meant to them was implementing software, not designing it. Programmers were seen as technicians who translated the visions (if that is the word) of product managers into code.

This seems to be the default plan in big companies. They do it because it decreases the standard deviation of the outcome. Only a small percentage of hackers can actually design software, and it’s hard for the people running a company to pick these out. So instead of entrusting the future of the software to one brilliant hacker, most companies set things up so that it is designed by committee, and the hackers merely implement the design.

If you want to make money at some point, remember this, because this is one of the reasons startups win. Big companies want to decrease the standard deviation of design outcomes because they want to avoid disasters. But when you damp oscillations, you lose the high points as well as the low. This is not a problem for big companies, because they don’t win by making great products. Big companies win by sucking less than other big companies.

Author Paul Graham
Work Hackers and Painters

Paul Graham: “What those who teach, cannot do”

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It’s not true that those who can’t do, teach (some of the best hackers I know are professors), but it is true that there are a lot of things that those who teach can’t do. Research imposes constraining caste restrictions. In any academic field there are topics that are ok to work on and others that aren’t. Unfortunately the distinction between acceptable and forbidden topics is usually based on how intellectual the work sounds when described in research papers, rather than how important it is for getting good results. The extreme case is probably literature; people studying literature rarely say anything that would be of the slightest use to those producing it.

Though the situation is better in the sciences, the overlap between the kind of work you’re allowed to do and the kind of work that yields good languages is distressingly small. (Olin Shivers has grumbled eloquently about this.) For example, types seem to be an inexhaustible source of research papers, despite the fact that static typing seems to preclude true macros-- without which, in my opinion, no language is worth using.

Author Paul Graham
Work The Hundred-Year Language

Paul Graham: Meaning of Hacker/Hack

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To the popular press, “hacker” means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, “hacker” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants-- whether the computer wants to or not.

To add to the confusion, the noun “hack” also has two senses. It can be either a compliment or an insult. It’s called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s also called a hack. The word is used more often in the former than the latter sense, probably because ugly solutions are more common than brilliant ones.

Believe it or not, the two senses of “hack” are also connected. Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break the rules. And there is a gradual continuum between rule breaking that’s merely ugly (using duct tape to attach something to your bike) and rule breaking that is brilliantly imaginative (discarding Euclidean space).

Author Paul Graham
Work The Word “Hacker”

Paul Graham: Hacking Predates Computers

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Hacking predates computers. When he was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. This tradition continues today. When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much time around MIT had his own lock picking kit. (He now runs a hedge fund, a not unrelated enterprise.)

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Author Paul Graham
Work The Word “Hacker”

Paul Graham: Founding Fathers Saying Things Like Hackers

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When you read what the founding fathers had to say for themselves, they sound more like hackers. “The spirit of resistance to government,” Jefferson wrote, “is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be kept alive.”

Imagine an American president saying that today. Like the remarks of an outspoken old grandmother, the sayings of the founding fathers have embarrassed generations of their less confident successors. They remind us where we come from. They remind us that it is the people who break rules that are the source of America’s wealth and power.

Those in a position to impose rules naturally want them to be obeyed. But be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

Author Paul Graham
Work The Word “Hacker”

Paul Graham: MBAs in the Fortune 400

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If you work your way down the Forbes 400 making an x next to the name of each person with an MBA, you’ll learn something important about business school. You don’t even hit an MBA till number 22, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. There are only four MBAs in the top 50. What you notice in the Forbes 400 are a lot of people with technical backgrounds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore. The rulers of the technology business tend to come from technology, not business. So if you want to invest two years in something that will help you succeed in business, the evidence suggests you’d do better to learn how to hack than get an MBA.

Author Paul Graham
Work How to Start a Startup

Paul Graham: Judging a Book by its Cover

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The aphorism “you can’t tell a book by its cover” originated in the times when books were sold in plain cardboard covers, to be bound by each purchaser according to his own taste. In those days, you couldn’t tell a book by its cover. But publishing has advanced since then: present-day publishers work hard to make the cover something you can tell a book by.

I spend a lot of time in bookshops and I feel as if I have by now learned to understand everything publishers mean to tell me about a book, and perhaps a bit more. The time I haven’t spent in bookshops I’ve spent mostly in front of computers, and I feel as if I’ve learned, to some degree, to judge technology by its cover as well. It may be just luck, but I’ve saved myself from a few technologies that turned out to be real stinkers.

Author Paul Graham
Work Java’s Cover

Paul Graham: Java Aims Low

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2. It’s aimed low. In the original Java white paper, Gosling explicitly says Java was designed not to be too difficult for programmers used to C. It was designed to be another C++: C plus a few ideas taken from more advanced languages. Like the creators of sitcoms or junk food or package tours, Java’s designers were consciously designing a product for people not as smart as them. Historically, languages designed for other people to use have been bad: Cobol, PL/I, Pascal, Ada, C++. The good languages have been those that were designed for their own creators: C, Perl, Smalltalk, Lisp.

Author Paul Graham
Work Java’s Cover

Paul Graham: The Wrong People Like Java

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The wrong people like it. The programmers I admire most are not, on the whole, captivated by Java. Who does like Java? Suits, who don’t know one language from another, but know that they keep hearing about Java in the press; programmers at big companies, who are amazed to find that there is something even better than C++; and plug-and-chug undergrads, who are ready to like anything that might get them a job (will this be on the test?). These people’s opinions change with every wind.

Author Paul Graham
Work Java’s Cover

Paul Graham: Popularity and Being a Scripting Language

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Let’s start by acknowledging one external factor that does affect the popularity of a programming language. To become popular, a programming language has to be the scripting language of a popular system. Fortran and Cobol were the scripting languages of early IBM mainframes. C was the scripting language of Unix, and so, later, was Perl. Tcl is the scripting language of Tk. Java and Javascript are intended to be the scripting languages of web browsers.

Lisp is not a massively popular language because it is not the scripting language of a massively popular system. What popularity it retains dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when it was the scripting language of MIT. A lot of the great programmers of the day were associated with MIT at some point. And in the early 1970s, before C, MIT’s dialect of Lisp, called MacLisp, was one of the only programming languages a serious hacker would want to use.

Author Paul Graham
Work Being Popular

Paul Graham: Brevity of Programming Languages

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One thing hackers like is brevity. Hackers are lazy, in the same way that mathematicians and modernist architects are lazy: they hate anything extraneous. It would not be far from the truth to say that a hacker about to write a program decides what language to use, at least subconsciously, based on the total number of characters he’ll have to type. If this isn’t precisely how hackers think, a language designer would do well to act as if it were.

It is a mistake to try to baby the user with long-winded expressions that are meant to resemble English. Cobol is notorious for this flaw. A hacker would consider being asked to write

add x to y giving z

instead of

z = x+y

as something between an insult to his intelligence and a sin against God.

Author Paul Graham
Work Being Popular

Paul Graham: “Evolutionary Dead Ends”

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I think that, like species, languages will form evolutionary trees, with dead-ends branching off all over. We can see this happening already. Cobol, for all its sometime popularity, does not seem to have any intellectual descendants. It is an evolutionary dead-end-- a Neanderthal language.

I predict a similar fate for Java. People sometimes send me mail saying, “How can you say that Java won’t turn out to be a successful language? It’s already a successful language.” And I admit that it is, if you measure success by shelf space taken up by books on it (particularly individual books on it), or by the number of undergrads who believe they have to learn it to get a job. When I say Java won’t turn out to be a successful language, I mean something more specific: that Java will turn out to be an evolutionary dead-end, like Cobol.

This is just a guess. I may be wrong. My point here is not to dis Java, but to raise the issue of evolutionary trees and get people asking, where on the tree is language X? The reason to ask this question isn’t just so that our ghosts can say, in a hundred years, I told you so. It’s because staying close to the main branches is a useful heuristic for finding languages that will be good to program in now.

Author Paul Graham
Work The Hundred-Year Language

Paul Graham: Wasteful Things

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This isn’t just something that happens with programming languages. It’s a general historical trend. As technologies improve, each generation can do things that the previous generation would have considered wasteful. People thirty years ago would be astonished at how casually we make long distance phone calls. People a hundred years ago would be even more astonished that a package would one day travel from Boston to New York via Memphis.

Author Paul Graham
Work The Hundred-Year Language

Paul Graham: Succinctness is Power

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In the discussion about issues raised by Revenge of the Nerds on the LL1 mailing list, Paul Prescod wrote something that stuck in my mind.

Python’s goal is regularity and readability, not succinctness

On the face of it, this seems a rather damning thing to claim about a programming language. As far as I can tell, succinctness = power. If so, then substituting, we get

Python’s goal is regularity and readability, not power.

and this doesn’t seem a tradeoff (if it is a tradeoff) that you’d want to make. It’s not far from saying that Python’s goal is not to be effective as a programming language.

Author Paul Graham
Work Succinctness is Power

Paul Graham: Mathematicians and Vogue

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Bureaucrats by their nature are the exact opposite sort of people from startup investors. The idea of them making startup investments is comic. It would be like mathematicians running Vogue-- or perhaps more accurately, Vogue editors running a math journal.

Author Paul Graham
Work How to Be Silicon Valley

Paul Graham: about Technology Parks

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If you go to see Silicon Valley, what you’ll see are buildings. But it’s the people that make it Silicon Valley, not the buildings. I read occasionally about attempts to set up “technology parks” in other places, as if the active ingredient of Silicon Valley were the office space. An article about Sophia Antipolis bragged that companies there included Cisco, Compaq, IBM, NCR, and Nortel. Don’t the French realize these aren’t startups?

Building office buildings for technology companies won’t get you a silicon valley, because the key stage in the life of a startup happens before they want that kind of space. The key stage is when they’re three guys operating out of an apartment. Wherever the startup is when it gets funded, it will stay. The defining quality of Silicon Valley is not that Intel or Apple or Google have offices there, but that they were started there.

So if you want to reproduce Silicon Valley, what you need to reproduce is those two or three founders sitting around a kitchen table deciding to start a company. And to reproduce that you need those people.

Author Paul Graham
Work How to Be Silicon Valley

Paul Graham about Hackers and Discipline

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One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it’s only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it’s the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They’re all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they’re not interested in. One still hasn’t sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.

I’m not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I’m often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don’t run for several days, I feel ill. It’s the same with people who do great things. They know they’ll feel bad if they don’t work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Author Paul Graham
Work What You’ll Wish You’d Known

Paul Graham: “Kids behaving like Adults”

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Your teachers are always telling you to behave like adults. I wonder if they’d like it if you did. You may be loud and disorganized, but you’re very docile compared to adults. If you actually started acting like adults, it would be just as if a bunch of adults had been transposed into your bodies. Imagine the reaction of an FBI agent or taxi driver or reporter to being told they had to ask permission to go the bathroom, and only one person could go at a time. To say nothing of the things you’re taught. If a bunch of actual adults suddenly found themselves trapped in high school, the first thing they’d do is form a union and renegotiate all the rules with the administration.

Author Paul Graham
Work What You’ll Wish You’d Known

Paul Graham: Physicists and Professors of French Literature

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I disagree with your generalization that physicists are smarter than professors of French Literature.

Try this thought experiment. A dictator takes over the US and sends all the professors to re-education camps. The physicists are told they have to learn how to write academic articles about French literature, and the French literature professors are told they have to learn how to write original physics papers. If they fail, they’ll be shot. Which group is more worried?

We have some evidence here: the famous parody that physicist Alan Sokal got published in Social Text. How long did it take him to master the art of writing deep-sounding nonsense well enough to fool the editors? A couple weeks?

What do you suppose would be the odds of a literary theorist getting a parody of a physics paper published in a physics journal?

Author Paul Graham
Work Re: What You Can’t Say

Paul Graham: the Great American Novel

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Imagine, for example, what would happen if the government decided to commission someone to write an official Great American Novel. First there’d be a huge ideological squabble over who to choose. Most of the best writers would be excluded for having offended one side or the other. Of the remainder, the smart ones would refuse such a job, leaving only a few with the wrong sort of ambition. The committee would choose one at the height of his career—that is, someone whose best work was behind him—and hand over the project with copious free advice about how the book should show in positive terms the strength and diversity of the American people, etc, etc.

The unfortunate writer would then sit down to work with a huge weight of expectation on his shoulders. Not wanting to blow such a public commission, he’d play it safe. This book had better command respect, and the way to ensure that would be to make it a tragedy. Audiences have to be enticed to laugh, but if you kill people they feel obliged to take you seriously. As everyone knows, America plus tragedy equals the Civil War, so that’s what it would have to be about. Better stick to the standard cartoon version that the Civil War was about slavery; people would be confused otherwise; plus you can show a lot of strength and diversity. When finally completed twelve years later, the book would be a 900-page pastiche of existing popular novels—roughly Gone with the Wind plus Roots. But its bulk and celebrity would make it a bestseller for a few months, until blown out of the water by a talk-show host’s autobiography. The book would be made into a movie and thereupon forgotten, except by the more waspish sort of reviewers, among whom it would be a byword for bogusness like Milli Vanilli or Battlefield Earth.

Maybe I got a little carried away with this example. And yet is this not at each point the way such a project would play out? The government knows better than to get into the novel business, but in other fields where they have a natural monopoly, like nuclear waste dumps, aircraft carriers, and regime change, you’d find plenty of projects isomorphic to this one—and indeed, plenty that were less successful.

Author Paul Graham
Work The Power of the Marginal

Paul Graham - Democracy and the Wikipedia

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The second big element of Web 2.0 is democracy. We now have several examples to prove that amateurs can surpass professionals, when they have the right kind of system to channel their efforts. Wikipedia may be the most famous. Experts have given Wikipedia middling reviews, but they miss the critical point: it’s good enough. And it’s free, which means people actually read it. On the web, articles you have to pay for might as well not exist. Even if you were willing to pay to read them yourself, you can’t link to them. They’re not part of the conversation.

Author Paul Graham
Work Web 2.0

Paul Graham - Newspapers vs. Blogs

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One measure of the incompetence of newspapers is that so many still make you register to read stories. I have yet to find a blog that tried that.

Author Paul Graham
Work “What Business Can Learn from Open Source” (Footnote)

Paul Graham - News that are not News

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And when I read, say, New York Times stories, I never reach them through the Times front page. Most I find through aggregators like Google News or Slashdot or Delicious. Aggregators show how much better you can do than the channel. The New York Times front page is a list of articles written by people who work for the New York Times. Delicious is a list of articles that are interesting. And it's only now that you can see the two side by side that you notice how little overlap there is.

Most articles in the print media are boring. For example, the president notices that a majority of voters now think invading Iraq was a mistake, so he makes an address to the nation to drum up support. Where is the man bites dog in that? I didn't hear the speech, but I could probably tell you exactly what he said. A speech like that is, in the most literal sense, not news: there is nothing new in it.

Nor is there anything new, except the names and places, in most "news" about things going wrong. A child is abducted; there's a tornado; a ferry sinks; someone gets bitten by a shark; a small plane crashes. And what do you learn about the world from these stories? Absolutely nothing. They're outlying data points; what makes them gripping also makes them irrelevant.

As in software, when professionals produce such crap, it's not surprising if amateurs can do better. Live by the channel, die by the channel: if you depend on an oligopoly, you sink into bad habits that are hard to overcome when you suddenly get competition.

Author Paul Graham
Work “What Business Can Learn from Open Source” (Footnote)

Paul Graham - “How can you dismiss socialism so casually”

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I've thought a lot about this, actually; it was not a casual remark. I think the fundamental question is not whether the government pays for schools or medicine, but whether you allow people to get rich.

In England in the 1970s, the top income tax rate was 98%. That’s what the Beatles' song “Tax Man” is referring to when they say “one for you, nineteen for me.”

Any country that makes this choice ends up losing net, because new technology tends to be developed by people trying to make their fortunes. It’s too much work for anyone to do for ordinary wages. Smart people might work on sexy projects like fighter planes and space rockets for ordinary wages, but semiconductors or light bulbs or the plumbing of e-commerce probably have to be developed by entrepreneurs. Life in the Soviet Union would have been even poorer if they hadn’t had American technologies to copy.

Finland is sometimes given as an example of a prosperous socialist country, but apparently the combined top tax rate is 55%, only 5% higher than in California. So if they seem that much more socialist than the US, it is probably simply because they don't spend so much on their military.

Author Paul Graham
Work “Re: What You Can’t Say