Txtmob hacked?

The art of the essay

Paul Graham is a programmer who invented Arc and one of the first Bayesian spam filters. But he’s also a superb, first-rate essayist who this year published Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age — a meditation on art, programming, business, life, and just about everything else.

Now he’s released a new essay, which is, recursively enough, about the art of the essay itself. Essentially, he argues that an essay ought to be an record of “thinking something through” — as opposed to the stilted “take a position and defend it” that prevails in most high schools. (It reminds of Robert Frost’s description of writing poems: He often said he had no idea what the poem would be about until he’d finished writing it.) At one point, he talks about what happens when someone reads a draft of his essay and doesn’t agree with his points:

… I don’t try to fix the unconvincing bits by arguing more cleverly. I need to talk the matter over.

At the very least I must have explained something badly. In that case, in the course of the conversation I’ll be forced to come up a with a clearer explanation, which I can just incorporate in the essay. More often than not I have to change what I was saying as well. But the aim is never to be convincing per se. As the reader gets smarter, convincing and true become identical, so if I can convince smart readers I must be near the truth.

Heh. It’s the ultimate nerd’s way of looking at the world: There is an objective truth out there, and smart, reasonable people will find it. It’s that wonderfully meritocratic mindset of the programmer, where if the code’s not running, it’s because of a showstopper bug; remove all those bugs, and presto, it works. There are only two flips to the bit: 1 or 0, true or false. Graham’s stance is so wildly out of keeping with the relativistic, everyone’s-got-a-point-of-view tenor of modern thought that I can’t help be charmed by him. Half the time I think he’s right, and half the time I think they’re right.

He also includes this gem:

Whatever you study, include history — but social and economic history, not political history. History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.

That’s just plain brillant.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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