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_Why: A Tale Of A Post-Modern Genius

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) Link


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.

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 Link


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 comics and art have also made their mark on people.


_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.


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 Link

Through his persona “life spam,” _Why maintained several blogs. His main website, 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 jokes3 from _Why, along the way.

hackety-org-header 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 (~.)4.

_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 Link


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)5.”

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

— John Resig on

Being a big fan of music, _Why also created an interesting Ruby library to generate 8-bit music. It’s called bloopsaphone6, and as an example, one could play the Simpson’s theme with this little code:

require ‘rubygems’
require ‘bloops’

b =
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”
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… Link

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 Link


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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 work7, 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 Link

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


Footnotes Link

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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.

  1. 1

    Sweeeeeeet roundup of the history. Now! Who shall succeed?

  2. 4

    never heard of him but it sounds to me like this guy wasn’t so smart at all? he was smart in code but not smart enough to socialize and make friends with his fellows in the community? Theres more than one way of smart…

    I dont mean to offend anyone but there is more than 1 way to look at things I felt this perspective was left untouched in the article.

    • 5

      Joseph Jaber

      May 15, 2010 4:01 pm

      Does your “perspective” that wasn’t left in the article do anything productive for anyone to learn from? Will anyone really read your point of view and walk away from it changed for the better? Needless to say the ideas expressed were childishly moronic and unnecessary. Kind of like someone saying, “Einstein was a genius.” and you’d walk in and add, “Yes, but it’s extremely important and crucial that everyone understands, Einstein was not a genius at cooking! Or Soccer! Or Cubism!” as though it serves any value at all. Who exactly would serve to gain from your clout, had it been included? It’s worthless surmising.

    • 6

      You guys (peach, tripdrag, luis) are a bunch of dipshits. If you are not part of the ruby community I can understand why you fail to grasp this person, or this article. Best to just not comment.

    • 7

      What’s smart about socializing?

      • 8

        what’s your definition of being smart? Mine includes a more rational (technical) aspect and also a more sensitive aspect that involves dealing intelligently with people in (and outside) your community. I think the decision to delete all the code and other materials was not the smartest with regard to the second part of my definition.

        Then again you might also say some people are too smart/complicated for their own good and get overloaded, resulting in poor decisions, it that case perhaps you cannot say the poor decision was not smart.

        • 9

          maybe you humans just bore him… do you socialize with ants?

          • 10

            Reminds me of Dr Manhattan in Watchmen:

            “I have walked across the surface of the Sun. I have witnessed events so tiny and so fast they can hardly be said to have occurred at all. But you, Adrian, you’re just a man. The world’s smartest man poses no more threat to me than does its smartest” ant.

    • 11

      peach - sooperthemes

      May 16, 2010 3:16 am

      After reading some of the comments here I decided to check out his book and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised! Very creative and funny cartoons, awesome writing style, nice typography. I read about half of it just now even though I dont do any Ruby stuff.
      He sounds like a really friendly and social guy in his book so I guess I was wrong in my first comment, maybe the guy burnt out, like he predicted himself in the introduction of the book.

    • 12

      I know next to nothing about code, and yet I am deeply inspired by this man’s story, almost viscerally so. Smart is too trifling a word. Genius is more apt.

  3. 13

    _why is the unadulterated form of joy, passion and freedom. I collected _why’s picture sometime back, hopefully you will enjoy seeing them –

  4. 15

    Ok I fail to see the point of this article. I have no knowledge of this guy. Things we learn from him:
    1. Have fun doing what you do…really, again?
    2. Inspire emotions…nobody can count how many times we’ve heard that one
    3. Taking risk with code is like jumping from a plane without parachute. You’re sure to be first on the spot, but then again you’ll be also gone like right after that. As long as you’re not genius.

    I think I’m beeing rude, but why is this article here? I read it with respect for SM, but there’s nothing in it and I’m annoyed. I really like Vitaly’s articles though – keep ’em coming.

    • 16

      David Vrensk

      May 15, 2010 3:32 pm

      @peach, @kiwus,
      perhaps the article only “works” if you have been touched or moved by _why. It is hard for me to say. But if you read between the lines, you can see that _why didn’t talk about being inspirational (which, yes, we might have heard once too often). _why *was* inspirational. Every day I found something new that _why had written was a good day. kiwus, I think you are bordering on rude, but if you feel that the article wasted your time, that might be OK. But you are missing the point. The point is: if you don’t know about _why, if you haven’t seen any of his works, you have missed out. If you’re a programmer, or would like to be, go read “Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby.” I’ve never had so fun learning a new language.

      Then, of course, there is no accounting for taste.

    • 17

      I think you should do something more useful with your day than comment on an article you didn’t get. Break out of your narrowly defined artistic mediocrity for five minutes.

      I’ve never heard of the guy before, but I’ve now downloaded his Ruby book and read a few pages and discussions on him. It’s history and persona and quirk, which is *good*, because it has soul.

    • 18

      I think you wish you mattered.

    • 19

      I’m not a Ruby developer, but I followed _why’s blogs and books.

      I think the thing that made him an important figure – which the article touches on – is that he was a real throwback to the 80s idea of pedagogic computing – i.e. languages like Logo, even BASIC, and figures like Seymour Papert or Alan Kay – who saw a value in teaching programming to children.

      And not just a step towards a well-paid career, but in the sense that it’s an empowering basic skill, like being able to draw or cook (which we learn, with little expectation we will go on to become artists or chefs). There’s a satisfaction to using a tool like Nodebox to create a drawing from a 20-line program – and that satisfaction is definitely the same as real programming.

      In that respect, he stood aside from a lot of the Ruby/Python etc vs Java debates – which were focused on the best approach to professional software development.

      I can’t really think of any other major programming blogger who had those concerns – even looking at the community around Squeak, it’s more concerned with the technical side of developing Squeak, than teaching developing with Squeak.

      I don’t know that he had much to teach the world of professional software development – there are reasons why we err on the side of safe and boring (the biggest of which is always that you are not writing for yourself).

      But he was a good reminder that programming and hacking were once something people did as a hobby – and we didn’t it that using COBOL and SSADM.

      • 20

        The thing you said about learning to draw or to cook without expectations to become an artist or a chef is so true and is exactly how I think things should go on with programming. Really liked the way you put this. :)

  5. 21

    Pointless hacker folklore. I’ll buy Teen magazine next time I need a hero.

  6. 23

    I had never heard of him but that last video link was super inspiring and entertaining. Thanks for the post.

  7. 24

    Didn’t get it :D

  8. 25

    Steve Klabnik

    May 15, 2010 1:46 pm

    Just so you know, Hackety Hack got accepted as a project for the Ruby Summer of Code:

    Various people are still keeping all of _why’s projects alive. It’s a shame he’s gone, but we can remember him forever…

  9. 26

    nice roundup. Thanks

  10. 27

    He sounds like a character straight out of a Cory Doctorow novel. Thank you for this story. Quite moving.

  11. 28

    Marin Todorov

    May 15, 2010 2:18 pm

    I’ve read the ruby guide, and must say the cartoons were funny and the text was good, but I agree with Edward that the pathos of this article is not fitting with Smashing magazine… it’s a splash after splash, maybe the guest writing isn’t really paying off

  12. 29

    @Kiwas – Sorry to be snarky, but – You don’t code ruby. Know how I know? Because you don’t know who _Why is. That’s why this article is here.

  13. 30


    May 15, 2010 2:54 pm

    it’s “_why” not _Why

  14. 31

    Philippe Monnet (@techarch)

    May 15, 2010 3:33 pm

    _why definitely inspired many people – rubyists or not. He was a very creative and prolific developer/designer/artist.

    Last summer, many folks came together to consolidate copies/mirrors of _why’s original GitHub account into “whymirror” at:
    And the communities which formed around his projects have continued to maintain and cultivate his original works.

    An example of this is the Camping web framework, a small but powerful framework aimed at making web development with Ruby as enjoyable as possible. Camping is also a great example of meta-programming for those interested in that topic. See for details. Camping is definitely alive and well so check it out!

    And _why, if you are reading this (wink-wink), we have taken your advice and continue to be inspired. ;-)

    – Philippe

  15. 32

    Ian Storm Taylor

    May 15, 2010 4:15 pm

    I don’t code Ruby, and I didn’t know who _why was… but this article was very moving. Thank you for publishing it SM.

  16. 33

    Very nice article. I’m a C guy myself, but the essence of enjoying every moment carries over :-)

    Bad karma to the rude peasants who felt it necessary to chime in with their worthlessness.

    • 34

      Hey, i’m a peasant, too. It’s not nice to be so petty bourgeois. Please be more sensitive.

  17. 35

    Scott Burton

    May 15, 2010 5:16 pm

    I miss _why.

    The Poignant Guide introduced me to Ruby, and I still think about bat wings every time I use the array constructor %w{}

  18. 36

    I’ve been a fan of him from the beginning. He is insanely brilliant at everything he does. Whenever I require hpricot, I require _why.

  19. 37

    Dude that was a great read and brought back fond memories of when I visited _whys sites every day. Thanks.

  20. 38

    Cool article! _why is definitely a tragic hero for me. Really enjoyed your retrospective of his life.


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