_Why: A Tale Of A Post-Modern Genius

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Why the Lucky Stiff (or _Why for short) was one of the brightest and most inspiring programmers in activity. He became famous through a series of blogs and through the incredible amount of open-source projects that he maintained over the course of more than seven years.

_Why’s popularity grew along with the Ruby programming language’s popularity. When the Rails hype took off in 2005, a great number of young developers started looking to learn about Ruby, and that’s when most of them found Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby, a Creative Commons book in both HTML and PDF that embodied all of its author’s characteristics: an uneasy artistic mind with a different take on what programming is all about.

Even those who didn’t happen to read the Poignant Guide could not program in Ruby without a touch of _Why’s brilliance. He had by then written several libraries that were fundamental parts of everyday programming tasks, such as Hpricot, an HTML parser with an API that somehow resembles jQuery’s DOM manipulation API.

You may have noticed that we’re referring to _Why in the past. So, the question is, is he gone? Yes. For as much as he was worth to us, we had only his online persona, Why the Lucky Stiff. No one knew his real name or his job or where he came from. There was just _Why in all his eeriness and awesomeness. And _Why is no more. On August 2009, he closed nearly all of his online accounts and websites, including his source-code repositories, with all the code that thousands of developers have come to depend of.

The disappearance has left a horde of orphans of _Why’s code and activity. And while no one knows for sure why he did what he did, there are solid theories, the strongest one being that his real identity had been discovered, however weird that sounds. This article tells the tale of this post-modern artist whom people came to know as Why the Lucky Stiff.

“Isn’t it crazy…you make some cartoons at home or record some music in your basement and suddenly you’re famous around the world.”

— _Why, in conversation with Geoffrey Grosenbach

Freelance Professor (By Fated Appointment Only)

the.foxes-4b

On his blog, _Why described himself as a “freelance teacher,” even though he never took teaching jobs, freelance or otherwise. He explained this description in a presentation at the Art && Code Symposium. He said that he teaches “on fated appointments only.” As he explained it, this means that he teaches arbitrary kids and teenagers in arbitrary places whenever the opportunities arise. He tells the story of a day when he was on a train working on code as a group of kids was playing around and looking at what he was doing. They were intrigued to find that he was “hacking.” He showed them what he was doing (a simple game), and they started playing with the code, and that was his first teaching session.

about.the.poignant.guide-2

However esoteric his teaching ideology seems to be, it’s backed up by strong and meaningful arguments, all of which _Why lays out in his essay “The Little Coder’s Predicament1” and later on in the Hackety Hack’s manifesto. The gist of it is that in the early computer days, machines such as the Comodore 64 were easily programmable; a kid could play with it and make sounds with code and build simple games. Nowadays, computers are incredibly more powerful and proportionally less hackable. This hackability that _Why identifies and the process of discovering how to “control a computer” is the moment that many brilliant computer programmers are born. As just one example, this is exactly how Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, started programming.

Hackety Hack is a manifesto not only in words but in code. It is software that runs on Windows and serves as a platform on which kids can write programs very easily. It makes it possible to write a blog in six lines of code or your own IM in a few more lines.

Here’s an inspiring video of _Why’s presentation at the Art && Code Symposium, where he talks about the essence of programming and his motivation for Hackety Hack. Be sure not to miss the part where he presents his card game, Kaxxt, and explains the very nature of the craft of programming.

_Why unexpectedly showed up at my house for a BBQ one day. I offered to drive him back to his hotel or home, but he insisted on taking a bus schedule and finding his own way.

— Geoffrey Grosenbach

Why’s (Poignant) Guide To Ruby, And Nobody Knows Shoes

2007-cover-shut

Besides teaching by fated appointment, _Why has mostly been famous for his introductory tutorial to the Ruby programming language, called “Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby.” The Poignant Guide is completely different than what one might expect from a programming language book. It’s less of a technical guide and more of a stream-of-consciousness humor novel, full of cartoons, that happens to teach you how to write Ruby programs. The guide is licensed under Creative Commons and can be accessed in HTML or downloaded as a PDF. It not only became a cult hit in the Ruby community but made an impact on many programmers around the globe. What’s even more powerful, the Poignant Guide helped shape the culture of many people who were new to programming. His inspiration can be seen in projects such as Learn you a Haskell for great good2 and in programmers such as Ryan Dahl (creator of node.js), and his comics3 and art have also made their mark on people.

leahculvertattoo

_Why wrote a second book, a tutorial, reference, quick-start guide to his program Shoes. Shoes is a GUI toolkit for building cross-platform desktop applications very easily with Ruby’s clean syntax. The book is called Nobody Knows Shoes and is another work of art that’s underrated, even among the _Why initiated. Conceived for print and PDF, NKS’s editorial design is an achievement: concise (however randomly arranged), and readable (however chaotic). The book starts with a montage of a figure moving “towards the book,” while another character cries, “Midas, you shouldn’t walk that way!! […] NooooOOO, u’re going to run smack into a nerdy computer booooooookkk…” The last page of the book reads, “Midas knows Shoes.” This is only one of the almost practical jokes that are so common of him.

shoes

I appreciate your remarks, but I have a hard time believing that anyone would like my art. I will definitely die without recognition, and few will ever see the work I do. But I like it that way a lot!! One of the worst things a person can get in life is recognition. But a scalp rash is very, very bad as well. I have had some serious scalp rashes, and I also have thrown up blood quite a few times along the way.

— Why the Lucky Stiff, in an email response to Fábio Akita

Blogging

Through his persona “life spam,” _Why maintained several blogs. His main website, whytheluckystiff.net was where he kept random thoughts, cartoons, poems and other stories. The blog’s categories were “Stories,” “Comics,” “Incidents,” “Quatrains,” “Hacking” and “Five-Minute Plays for Twins Who Don’t Have Their Other Twin With Them And An Unlimited Supply of Animals.” It’s also where he kept links to all of his other creations, such as books and blogs.

When Ruby was still virtually unknown outside of Japan, _Why created a blog called RedHanded, on which he would evangelize the language, discuss its features and consolidate the community. The website was shut down after Ruby grew and particularly after the boom of Ruby-oriented material started in the US.

The blog served its purpose really well. You could find interviews and comments from people who would later become Web “celebrities,” such as David Heinemeir Hansson, creator of the Ruby on Rails framework and partner at 37 Signals. David was himself subjected to many jokes4 from _Why, along the way.

hackety-org-header

Hackety.org was the blog on which _Why talked about programming topics in the context of his Hackety Hack manifesto. There, he showcased his incredible knowledge of “hackety” resources, such as simple game engines and image- and sound-processing libraries. It is also a joyful read for programming-language geeks and underground-art lovers.

Another, relatively unknown blog of _Why’s was the image-only website that contained precious scraps of randomly found imagery. The blog could hardly be defined, although the words “eerie,” “surreal” and “kitsch” came up often. It was called (.~) what a quiet stiff (~.)5.

_Why was the one who coined the term “Tumblelog,” in reference to the blog Anarchaia by Christian Neukirchen. On his blog RedHanded, he stated, “Blogging has mutated into simpler forms (specifically, link- and mob- and aud- and vid- variant), but I don’t think I’ve seen a blog like Chris Neukirchen’s Anarchaia, which fudges together a bunch of disparate forms of citation (links, quotes, flickrings) into a very long and narrow and distracted tumblelog.”

Music

poignantguide.soundtrack

Besides writing the book, creating the cartoon and making the Poignant Guide website, _Why created with his band, The Thirsty Cups, a soundtrack, each of whose tracks accompany each of the Guide’s chapters. Needless to say, the the music style is wildly imaginative, fun and unpredictable.

Not many know that he released an album to go along with Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby. One of my favorite songs from the album is the one for the second chapter: “This Book Is Made (of Rabbits and Lemonade)6.”

Nothing captures the artistic ethos of _Why better than the above song.

— John Resig on ejohn.org

Being a big fan of music, _Why also created an interesting Ruby library to generate 8-bit music. It’s called bloopsaphone7, and as an example, one could play the Simpson’s theme with this little code:

require ‘rubygems’
require ‘bloops’

b = Bloops.new
b.tempo = 180
sound = b.sound Bloops::SQUARE
sound.volume = 0.4
sound.sustain = 0.3
sound.attack = 0.1
sound.decay = 0.3
b.tune sound, “32 + C E F# 8:A G E C – 8:A 8:F# 8:F# 8:F# 2:G”
b.play
sleep 1 while !b.stopped?

My first experience seeing _Why in person was in 2005 at FOSCON in Portland, Oregon. It was a free gathering of Rubyists on one evening during the larger OSCON conference.

We met in the back of the FreeGeek computer recycling shop, a perfect venue. You walk through shelves full of old computer equipment and parts ready to be rebuilt and donated to people. _Why and his three-person band got on stage and played a set of original songs with humorous lyrics about Ruby.  Partway through, his laptop ran out of power, and they brought him a random power adapter from the shop.

Always a non-conformist within the Ruby community, he had a Linux laptop, while most other people had Apple gear. As he plugged it in, the lights dimmed and the laptop jolted on to full brightness. We were sure that it was going to burst into flames, but he survived.  As would characterize many other concerts, he wasn’t there just to sing to the audience. He wrote a server that the audience could connect to on Ruby’s DRb prompt and change the colors on the screen. It got quite a few laughs as it sputtered to life, and a few people were actually able to connect. I still remember that event as one of the highlights of any Ruby “conference” I’ve been to since.

— Geoffrey Grosenbach

Not With A Bang…

Why the Lucky Stiff vanished on August 2009. Almost all of his Internet accounts were closed, all his websites went down, even the code repositories that he released as open source were removed. The real motive for his disappearance is and will always be a mystery, but the best clue is that his identity had finally been discovered.

People had gathered enough evidence to be sure about his real name and occupation. They found new content on the Internet and new music bands. All of the personal details that he was trying to keep private became public: his wife’s name, his sister’s name. With that, he vanished.

People responded in different ways. Some were understanding, others disapproving.

Seeing the complete deletion of his online persona doesn’t terribly surprise me. Back in 2007, _Why closed his main blog (RedHanded). That event truly shocked me, but it helped me to better understand him as a person. The blog, even though he had put years of work into it and people strongly identified him with it, was immaterial. It didn’t feel like the right place to talk anymore, so he moved on to another place, abandoning the old site.

— John Resig, creator of jQuery

Taking all of your code offline and erasing your whole persona without so much as a warning or helping people take over projects they spent years investing in is a dickhead thing to do. That’s a rough thing to say, but I feel very strongly about this, because while I respect the idea of impermanence, I have no respect for someone who has such a complete disregard for other people’s investments and feelings.

— Zed Shaw, creator of the Mongrel Web server

Despite the different takes on his decision to erase his presence and work, everyone who knew _Why shares a sadness for his absence.

Why the Lucky Stiff was a fixture in the Ruby community. He helped give us that quirky character and a sense of wonder and fun. I’m very sad to see _Why go. I’m sure he had his reasons, but it’s a big loss nonetheless.

— David Heinemeier Hansson

His virtual suicide, like the self-induced death of a friend or loved one, leaves an indescribable hole inside me. I don’t like it, I wasn’t ready for it, and I don’t think it’s fair that he did it. Nonetheless, as a real-life comic-book character, in death he will continue to be my muse to create fun things that exist only to be shiny and interesting. Long live coding for fun. Thank you _Why.

— Dr. Nic

To _Why: Thank you for bringing your code and art to us over the past couple of years. It’s been greatly appreciated, more than you can know. Please continue to enjoy your life and bring your joy and whimsy to others all over the world.

— John Resig

Unfortunately, he decided to go away, and there’s no official explanation for that. He’s just gone. After everything he did, I think no one can demand anything from him. :-) But we will miss him because he was an exceptional programmer.

— Fábio Akita

What Can We Learn From _Why

why

Why the Lucky Stiff was above all else an artist who treated whatever he did, whether a programming language in C or a presentation at a conference, as a work of art. He inspires people because he planned everything he did with an aesthetic mindset.

Fun

The single most important lesson that people say they have learned from the Ruby programming language is a lesson that _Why’s work embodies in its code: Programming (or whatever you do) should be fun. There must be joy in your craft, and there is precious value in tinkering and playing around.

Pathos

Pathos is “the power to evoke feelings”. It is also one of the three modes of persuasion in rhetoric. If what you do does not evoke feeling in people, then it may as well be dead. _Why’s work certainly did not please everyone, but people couldn’t, and still can’t, be indifferent to it.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

This is where _Why gets controversial. Contrary to what most developers believe and abide by, _Why’s programming style was not clean, readable or tested. Quite the opposite. This would give most “Agile” programmers the shivers, but _Why had a point, as this letter that he wrote in 2005 explains quite plainly.

I do not write tests for my code. I do not write very many comments. I change styles very frequently. And most of all, I shun the predominant styles of coding, because that would go against the very essence of experimentation. In short: all I do is muck around.

So, my way of measuring a great programmer is different from some prevailing thought on the subject. I would like to hear what Matz would say about this. You should ask him, seriously.

I admire programmers who take risks. They aren’t afraid to write dangerous or “crappy” code. If you worry too much about being clean and tidy, you can’t push the boundaries (I don’t think!). I also admire programmers who refuse to stick with one idea about the “way the world is.” These programmers ignore protocol and procedure. I really like Autrijus Tang because he embraces all languages and all procedures. There is no wrong way in his world.

Anyway, you say you want to become better. I mean that’s really all you need. You feel driven, so stick with it. I would also start writing short scripts to share with people on the Web. Little Ruby scripts or Rails programs or MouseHole scripts to show off. Twenty lines here and there, and soon people will be beating you up and you’ll be scrambling to build on those scripts and figure out your style and newer innovations and so on.

— _why

An insightful letter. _Why is defending an idea here that has been advocated by different people in different ways. The point is not about whether to write tests. The point is, don’t be scared of taking risks. If you’re familiar with Seth Godin’s work8, you’ll recognize that _Why is all about “shipping.” He just creates things and gets them out there in the wild, unafraid whether people think it’s “crappy” or “unprofessional.”

When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. so create.

— Why the Lucky Stiff

Further Resources

Here is a list of resources about Why the Lucky Stiff.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.advogato.org/article/671.html
  2. 2 http://learnyouahaskell.com/
  3. 3 http://community.livejournal.com/ry_comic
  4. 4 http://favstar.fm/users/_why/status/1640180235
  5. 5 http://web.archive.org/web/*/whytheluckystiff.net/quiet/
  6. 6 http://web.archive.org/web/20071018035725/http://poignantguide.net/sdtrk/chap%202%20-%20this%20book%20is%20made%20(of%20rabbits%20and%20lemonade).mp3
  7. 7 http://github.com/mental/bloopsaphone/tree/master
  8. 8 http://the99percent.com/tips/6249/seth-godin-the-truth-about-shipping
  9. 9 http://viewsourcecode.org/why/
  10. 10 http://www.rubyinside.com/why-the-lucky-stiff-is-missing-2278.html

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Diogo Terror is a web developer that is passionate about good design, whether that's in the graphic sense or in the computer science sense.

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  1. 1

    After reading the column and the comments, I still don’t understand the point(s) of the story and why it is on Smashing Magazine. Maybe a shorter article written less obliquely would have clarified things.

    0
  2. 52

    …another reason of why NOT to read comments. why can’t we just help each other in this amazing mission of making the web better?

    0
  3. 103

    Ryan Baillargeon

    May 17, 2010 4:01 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article and sent it to a buddy whose young children are just a few years away from their first code.

    0
  4. 154

    Thanks, rather inspiring.

    0
  5. 205

    Martin Lindelöf

    May 19, 2010 1:24 am

    Awesome piece of contemporary history (?) of the interwebs! I never did know the whole story, I’m not into Ruby. But have seen his pics on the webs.

    / M_

    2
  6. 256

    I had seen some of his work, and was always impressed by the combination of wit and intelligence. Knowing is not that hard, teaching is tough.

    It does kind of suck for kids that may have just found hackety and then the next day it’s gone, its’ not encouraging.

    0
  7. 307

    well…its funny because it was august 09 when i started learning Ruby… immediately I related to _why over anyone else because he was an artist / musician / programmer … up till that point i was a musician / artist .. i feel like him and i switched places in a way… or perhaps one might say that is a delusion of grandeur but the timing was uncanny…same thing happened when i started making hip hop beats… j dilla passed away like a week before… im starting to everyone out including myself but hey, the truth is often scary strange…

    so…yeah…he left and bless him for doing just that… practicing the art of letting go is key to evolving in life… do you realize how many paintings, drawings, writings, online monikers and photos I have trashed? … its a rebirth … so if I ever got famous (like _why did or worse) I would make myself dissolve in a heart beat … honestly, i am surprised he lasted as long as he did in the Ruby spot light … actually I was very surprised to find out in this article that no one had ever known his real name … that must have been hard for him if people actually found him out … can’t hide the truth forever if you are social like he was …

    anyways… i like to think that the reason he committed online suicide was because he was sick of the internet and technology all together…and that he began to realize that technology is human potential externalized into new physical structures… and that this idea was unsettling because he realized that if only the human could internalize this huge potential then they could begin to move matter with pure thought …move from space time point to space time point with out space or time passing …we are talking about the great siddhis

    -1
  8. 358

    …its funny because it was august 09 when i started learning Ruby… immediately I related to _why over anyone else because he was an artist / musician / programmer … up till that point i was a musician / artist .. i feel like him and i switched places in a way… or perhaps one might say that is a delusion of grandeur but the timing was uncanny…same thing happened when i started making hip hop beats… j dilla passed away like a week before… im starting to everyone out including myself but hey, the truth is often scary strange…

    so…yeah…he left and bless him for doing just that… practicing the art of letting go is key to evolving in life… do you realize how many paintings, drawings, writings, online monikers and photos I have trashed? … its a rebirth … so if I ever got famous (like _why did or worse) I would make myself dissolve in a heart beat … honestly, i am surprised he lasted as long as he did in the Ruby spot light … actually I was very surprised to find out in this article that no one had ever known his real name … that must have been hard for him if people actually found him out … can’t hide the truth forever if you are social like he was …

    anyways… i like to think that the reason he committed online suicide was because he was sick of the internet and technology all together…and that he began to realize that technology is human potential externalized into new physical structures… and that this idea was unsettling because he realized that if only the human could internalize this huge potential then they could begin to move matter with pure thought …move from space time point to space time point with out space or time passing …we are talking about the great siddhis

    -1
  9. 409

    I remember reading his ruby guide even though i didn’t intend to learn ruby. But it was so different that i just couldn’t help it.

    Then one day i wanted to visit his site, to see if he had continued the book (wasn’t finished back then – is it now btw?). I was kinda shocked to find out that every trace of him had vanished – worried even that he might be dead or something. The guy who made those quirky comic programming book dead? O_O

    Well, it’s good to hear that he only decided to dive under. He sure is being missed by a lot of people for all kinds of reasons. I’m sure he has a good one to leave himself.

    Take care _why. And don’t eat all the ham.

    0
  10. 460

    @font-face, Google TV, appengine-jruby, _why would have loved these days.
    (I know he’s quietly experiencing this stuff, but just not with us)

    I found a nicely formatted pdf of The Poingnant Guide and I read it all the time – it’s hysterical – belly laughs. So much to be thankful for. There are “Them What Make the Rules and Them What Live the Dream,” and I hope you’re livin’ the dream.

    0
  11. 511

    i promised not to say anything but he has joined Apple along with his intellectual property

    -1
  12. 562

    Every single one of us can be a lucky stiff. That was what _why was trying to show us all along.

    0
  13. 613

    skechers shape ups

    May 21, 2010 11:40 pm

    i promised not to say anything but he has joined Apple along with his intellectual property

    0
  14. 664

    Roger Rohrbach

    May 22, 2010 5:25 am

    _why was (is?) the Erik Satie of programming.

    0
  15. 715

    pretty lame move to post that 2005 letter from _why without a reference as to where you lifted it from. it wasn’t written to you; it was written to someone else who published it on his blog. you should reference where it came from, like you did _why’s other correspondences, rather than simply using it for your own purposes.

    i’ll go ahead and provide the link to the fellow it was written to since he’s the one who solicited _why’s feedback, which prompted the letter in response.

    http://aberant.tumblr.com/

    0
  16. 766

    Also found this to be quite inspiring. Having done ruby since 2002, and rails quite early on, I remember seeing _why’s nick on IRC quite often. I never knew him, though, and it feels like I missed out.

    0
  17. 817

    Love the memorial to such a prolific and influential programmer, but it’s very lame of you to plagiarize a personal correspondence.

    http://aberant.tumblr.com/post/167375099/a-letter-from-why

    It would have been so easy to ask for permission and give credit like you give for all of your other quotes. For shame.

    0
  18. 868

    _why was certainly a thought-provoking individual in the programming landscape, and produced much fine work in the Ruby field.

    However, it’s not clear to me that he could be a role model for a professional developer. If anything, he was a brilliant maverick dilettante who produced several/many fine artefacts in his chosen field.

    I still would welcome his return.

    0
  19. 919

    I was thinking about _why today and decided to Google him, which is how I got here. When my son was in high school, he taught himself how to program by studying _why’s online instructional materials. He later used Ruby to create a platform that has brought him a lot of notoriety and a fantastic job. I agree with Deej: _why informed, inspired and educated an entire subculture, along with a few parents here and there. As an English teacher, I was amazed by his ability to communicate so clearly and effectively. My son certainly owes his success to _why’s ability to engage young boys in learning to code. What we learn in life is what we remember. I’ll always remember _why’s basic message, which Eric pointed out so perfectly — that every single one of us can be a lucky stiff. And lucky stiffs don’t whine; they inspire.

    5
  20. 970

    Excellent work. I enjoyed reading this.

    0
  21. 1021

    I don’t know why so many people criticize Zed Shaw for making what I believe is the right call regarding _why’s actions.

    What _why did WAS pretty dickheaded. On the one hand, it doesn’t affect me, because I really didn’t care for his boring, incoherent, rambling tutorial. On the other hand, the actions do annoy me as being that of an immature self-absorbed, emo kid.

    It’s like a kid who lays something (supposedly) very useful out for his friends to appreciate, then when he doesn’t feel like it anymore, just yanks it out from underneath those same people’s feet without so much as a warning explanation. Maybe _why’s stuff wasn’t really all that useful which is why few people got pissed off when he suddenly nuked his entire portfolio.

    1

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