Friday, June 18, 2004

Hackers and Painters

Re-reading Paul Graham's essay "Hackers and Painters" (in book form), the following passage stood out. I'd like to go back to university, but always suspected that there's no research topics that I'd like to do. This gives some kind of justification:

In the best case, the papers are just a formality. Hackers write cool software, and then write a paper about it, and the paper becomes a proxy for the achievement represented by the software. But often this mismatch causes problems. It's easy to drift away from building beautiful things toward building ugly things that make more suitable subjects for research papers.
Unfortunately, beautiful things don't always make the best subjects for papers. Number one, research must be original — and as anyone who has written a PhD dissertation knows, the way to be sure that you're exploring virgin territory is to to stake out a piece of ground that no one wants. Number two, research must be substantial ‐ and awkward systems yield meatier papers, because you can write about the obstacles you have to overcome in order to get things done. Nothing yields meaty problems like starting with the wrong assumptions. Most of AI is an example of this rule; if you assume that knowledge can be represented as a list of predicate logic expressions whose arguments represent abstract concepts, you'll have a lot of papers to write about how to make this work. ...
The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way. This kind of work is hard to convey in a research paper.

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