Eulogy to _why


Unfortunately I’m short on time at the moment (trying to launch a project this week) but I have to say, at least, a few words about the hacker and artist _why.

At this moment, _why’s online presence appears to be no more. All of his sites and code are gone. This includes, and is not limited to:

  • http://twitter.com/_why
  • http://github.com/why
  • http://whytheluckystiff.net/
  • http://poignantguide.net/
  • http://hackety.org/
  • http://shoooes.net/
  • http://hacketyhack.net/
  • http://tryruby.hobix.com/

Two conjectures are common at the moment: His account(s) were hacked and sites taken down or he simply decided to delete his online presence. I personally believe that he did this deliberately and with some amount of forethought.

One of the things that’s made _why unique amongst programmers is that he has worked in virtual anonymity. Some people knew his name but it was never a focus of his online persona (and, at least, never actively associated with him as a person – I’ve seen sites that purport to identify him, but they’re generally incorrect, and fringe, at best). Even live, giving talks or performing music, he still went by his pseudonym.

Reading through the original discovery thread you can see a full range of emotion regarding his disappearance; Anger, confusion, and sadness.

Personally, I feel a mixture of joy and amazement.

_why, the code he’s written, the persona he projected, and the art he produced has been a long-time admiration of mine. Some only see _why’s code or writing (Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby, for example – which can still be purchased on Lulu).

I tend to see _why more as an artist. He used a wide variety of mediums for his exploration: Written word, drawings, code, and even music.

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).

Nothing can capture the artistic ethos of _why better than the above song.

_why – even in his code – was eccentric, humorous, cute, and whimsical. He relished his ability to express his art and was extremely good at it, at the same time.

Underlying the layer of whimsy that permeated his work there was a more serious tone: expression, simplicity, and education. In all of his code, and writing, he was constantly trying to find ways to bring the art of hacking to more people – to younger people – to simplify the complexities that normally permeate development.

It’s never completely clear from his writing, but I like to imagine _why with children. Either as a grade school teacher or with his own children. Finding ways to communicate with them, teach them, and encouraging their imagination and freedom of expression.

Due to his expressive nature I feel like I understand _why, even though I only managed to chat with him once, for a couple minutes, on IRC. I can especially appreciate his anonymity.

In my life I constantly try to keep my work and personal life separate. What _why did with his online persona has been a great inspiration to me. He was successful in having virtually no bleed-over of his personal life (with his family and friends) into his online persona, and likely vice-versa.

People get way too caught up in their work. I like to think that he was able to keep the products of his online persona separate from the rest of his life, treating them as completely distinct entities – the perfect, clear-cut, division between personal life, work, and play.

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.

If there’s any analogy that I can make about _why, his online persona, and all the works that he’s produced over the years it’s to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the sand mandala.

Sand mandalas are incredibly intricate works of art that take many people many days to construct. They’re very expressive, but fragile, works of art.

After a mandala has been constructed – and displayed – it is ceremoniously deconstructed – which is meant “to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.”

_why’s entire online presence and code was presented in the sand mandala that was ‘_why’. The person behind ‘_why’ simply decided to move on and close that portion of his life.

I’ve seen a few people ask why he opted to remove his code – why didn’t he take his work seriously? (Especially since others have grown to depend upon it.)

Looking at the cumulative work and art of _why it should become painfully obvious: The online presence of _why, and all the code, writing, music, and drawings that’ve been produced are a mere transitory portion of one person’s life. He was constantly moving from project to project, blog to blog. Now he’s truly moved on and we should feel joy in having gotten to know him, and his art, over the past couple years.

While this isn’t a eulogy for a living person – I fully expect that he’s happy and continuing to explore life with his friends and family – it’s a eulogy to one portion of one man’s life.

I wish I could better express what I feel for _why. Whenever I think of him I think of artistic expression, happiness, and the joy of exploration.

To _why: Thank you for bringing your code and art to us over the past couple 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.

Posted: August 19th, 2009


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