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Eulogy to _why (ejohn.org)
318 points by jcsalterego on Aug 19, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments

Though it would be considered a bit rude by many, somewhere I understand the philosophy of _why. It would be better to kill something fast than watch it wither away and die.[especially when they are close to your heart]. if _why had left the code in place, it might have withered [like say mongrel]

This post and zed shaw's tweets on the same subject are so stark in contrast.I think I finally understand why zed shaw is so unloved by many. It is because of lack of respect for someone else's choices.

Edit: http://twitter.com/zedshaw/status/3412128128

_why preached "peace & love" and "ruby's nice" and then the second he's outed he rips down gear people depend on. He's a dick.


"I believe that whatever the author wants to do with his or her works is their right. They wrote it, despite everyone telling them it wouldn’t work. They slaved over it rather than going out with friends. They debugged it, and wrote documentation for it so everyone else could use it. They may have even spent a part of their time promoting it and helping people with it. All for free, and for whatever reason they choose."

There're a lot of jokes making _why and Zed out to be foils today, and in a lot of ways they're true.

Zed's very no-nonsense. He's spent a lot of time manufacturing an image of himself. He lets himself get carried away and angry and he's been searching for a community he likes, butting heads all the way.

_why, on the other hand, was truly bizarre. I never got into his blog, for instance, because it seemed frequently nonsensical and more than a little rambling. Despite that (or, more likely, because of it), he seemed almost always happy with whatever it was he did. I only ever really got into TryRuby and his Poignant Guide, but they were the only two guides to programming I've played with. There was a giddiness in his work that I haven't found in other coding. It's comparable to the moods of artists in other fields.

Zed's argument against _why is that what he did was impractical and unproductive. That's what made _why as a persona, though: Zed is a hacker, _why was more of an artist, pretenses and unreliability and all. It's left-brained versus right-brained; it's also why there's a definite rift between the people who like _why and the people who think the guy was raving mad and immature.

Practicing yoga is the only requirement to be a yogi. Hacking is much the same way. We all share similar goals but our practices are always intensely personal. If you're practiced enough you know that what you consider important and what you consider progress continuously changes. Thus we don't judge someone else or their practice but appreciate the opportunity to practice with them. Without question both Zed Shaw and _why have hacked. I think it's important to appreciate many qualities of both without needing to apply labels to either.


Zed Shaw(and many others) may not agree with what _why did but what _why did was well within his rights and hence there is no reason to disrespect him. What disappoints me is that Zed shaw(and some in the original thread) quickly declaring _why a dick. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it - Voltaire". Where is that spirit ?

Huh? KKK members have every right to express their racist attitudes, but I'll still call them dicks. "You have every right to do what you did" and "I think what you did was an asshole move" are not exclusive statements.

I understand your point, but you just compared some guy removing his freely-released code from the Internet to a gang of people who went around lynching black people.

No he didn't (mature, right?), he was just showing the obvious flaw in the argument by taking it to its extreme. He did not in any way compayre _why to the KKK.

His and your analysis of the argument is incorrect, and I'm surprised you'd endorse such a Godwin-violating^ argument.

^ Yes, I know the KKK are not technically Nazis.

Leaving personalities out of it, there is a big qualitative difference between ceasing to share something (in the worst case, undirected passive-aggressive behavior) and actively attacking other people (in the worst case, highly directed active-aggressive behavior).

Maybe I wasn't very clear in my original statement. I wasn't reaching into the past and saying that the KKK burning crosses on lawns and lynching black people is a right in any way, shape or form. That sort of activity is illegal whether or not it is 'hatred' related and for good reason. Nowadays the KKK is pretty much just another protest group. They show up to places having to do with race and protest (or try to agitate opposing protesters). My point basically being 'freedom of speech' (i.e. the KKK expressing their racist attitudes by speaking or writing/publishing) is their right.

In any case, with or without the statement involving the KKK, I believe that my final statement in that post stands.

The editing clock has expired on my post above. I appreciate your point which was why I abstracted things into general terms - I still feel the qualitative difference is there, not because of specific history or PC-ness.

It's like if I was mad for some reason (eg my zero karma above) and responded by flaming you vs. simply not answering.

No, they don't have a right to express racist attitudes and thats why if they did they would be dicks.

Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom to abuse and offend.

I'll assume that you're not from the US and politely disagree with the Canadian/European attitude that you can institute social change by making certain types of speech illegal... (i.e. Holocaust denial is illegal -- well at least publishing material about it is -- in Canada because it was deemed to be speech that 'incites hatred') (i.e. Nazi memorabilia is illegal in Germany, as well as other European nations like France)

I'll leave you with this little nugget though. Freedom of speech isn't really true freedom of speech if what you really mean is 'freedom to say only the things that I want to hear.'

Freedom of speech in Europe is essentially dead as long as in the countries with royal houses you can't insult the royals and you can't state any falsehoods wrt to whatever happened in worldwar II.

I'm all for documenting and educating, not for outlawing stupidity, no matter how long your toes.

I think I'd rather have USA style free speech laws than the make-believe ones that we have here. You can keep the guns though.

> you can't insult the royals

?? living in the UK I have yet ot be lynched for calling the royal family pompous.. well.. ;)

Also I think there is some confusion here on the difference between the statments:

"It is my belief that...." and "It is a fact that...."

One is covered in free speech, one is (rightly) restricted by all sorts of law (for example defamation when applicable to statements about people). Think about it - if we had the inherent right to tell people our ideas were fact when this is not established

Your free to think what you want, and tell people that's what you think. But presenting beliefs as fact is a big no no. Right? :)

(holocaust denial being illegal is, I agree, somewhat of an extreme case and I dont agree with it so much)

dutch example:


international situation:


In the UK such laws are also still in the books.

Thanks. Though I would point out (still gotta translate the dutch example to read it) that "insult" is probably a bit of a generalisation.

Yes it does, unless it is restricted (as it is in many places, online as well as offline).

Freedom of speech is not a right if it conflicts with the rights of others. That is what i believe in.

Anyway comparing _why's actions to hate speech is just ridiculous.

Ahh, so people suddenly have a right not to be offended now?

I find this view of yours very offensive. Shut up.

I agree entirely. While I'll miss _why, he had the right to do what he did and I'm a bit offended that people would presume to tell him otherwise.

From what I heard, people said _why is a machine that constantly crank out code.

> "the people who think the guy was raving mad and immature."

haha. which one are you talking about?

I think that in Zed's case people would say "raging mad and immature."

I don't remember to ever read _why's texts or interact with him in any other way - but what you write here, seem close in a way, even if the very opposite in other ways, to the story of Netochka Nezvanova (http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?NetochkaNezvanova). By they way I've already posted that link as a story here.

Now wouldn't it be hilarious if Zed Shaw and _why were the same person? I know, they're not, but damn..

...especially if they were the same person in a Fight Club kind of way. Zed sleeps and _why comes out to play... or vice versa.

That would make for a fantastic nerd-Swede tribute film!

What the hell is a nerd-Swede tribute film? That's not funny.

"Swede" is a term from the movie Be Kind Rewind. It refers to homemade remakes of movies.

The first rule of Code Club, is you do not tweet about Code Club!

If you're wondering why Zed Shaw is always at the top of HN whenever he blogs about his least favorite kind of steak sauce, this is why. He writes some random, moronic, offensive comment on Twitter, and we can't shut up about it. There ought to be a word for this tactic he's using. I think I'll coin one. Zed Shaw is a message board goblin. He's goblining you.

The next stage in Troll evolution: from polluting other people's discussions to creating negative meme's.

They wrote it, despite everyone telling them it wouldn’t work.

Why are we programmers, as a group, so negative? When Ernest Lawrence was going on-and-on about the Cyclotron, other physicists got tired of him, but they told him to get off his ass and build it, not that he was an ignorant git and it wouldn't work. Why is it that every interesting idea in programming is met by someone saying it wouldn't work with the supporting logic inversely proportional to the nastiness of the tone?

I suspect it's because programming is an intense meritocracy, but a meritocracy governed by the intense subjectiveness of how smart your peers think you are rather than some more objective criterion like published papers or citations.

Therefore, to some programmers, if someone else is likely to do something more brilliant than you, it's motivating to stop them. Especially so, since if you are successful in stopping them, your own perceived merit goes up as the smarter dog in the room.

This game is reinforced by the game of karma on many programmer discussion sites. I have to admit, I succomb, as I want my karma to cross 200 so I can downvote. It's a stupid goal, but my ego is prone to it.

P.S. Please note that science is also prone to this behaviour, and programming and science have the same solution to the problem: actually building a verifiable { experiment / correct theorem / more efficient algorithm }.

cf. Science in Action by Bruno Latour (1987), which I tried to summarize on http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?SocialConstructionOfScie...

I suspect it's because programming is an intense meritocracy, but a meritocracy governed by the intense subjectiveness of how smart your peers think you are

But then, why are the objections so often brain-dead!?

I would deeply love to know the answer to that question. And why do I feel so angry about thing like that?

There's more to Zed's response than that. Consider the following:


"Actually, I didn't see a lot of sympathy from _why when I was going through similar tough times. In fact, the inverse."

And: http://twitter.com/zedshaw/status/3414567310

"Totally jealous, I wish I could leave the ghetto as completely. :-)"

What comes off as gruffness, I think, overlies a complex substratum of hurt and ambivalence.

Of course. Zed's a complex human being like all of us. He and _why have a history. I recall _why delivered a pretty twisted put-down to Zed once, the sort where you were more confused than hurt. And they both had a unique position in the RoR community.

Doesn't change the fact that Zed's cursing out _why and acting like a jerk. He's not just being a jerk, but he is being a jerk.

Good work (not necessarily "hard work" ;-)) pointing out Zed's hypocrisy.

I love how _why considered code art. I loved it when he wrote out his code by hand and animated the background of the text. It made the code seem magical, which it sometimes is.

Parsing through that led me to this: http://whoiswhytheluckystiff.wordpress.com/

Which is what Zed is referring to when he says "the second he's outed."

...which is odd, since it was hardly the "second he's outed". The post was made over a month ago. We have no guarantee the post and his disappearance are actually related.

Curiously, an old Wikipedia edit identifies the same place of employment, three years ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Why_the_lucky_stif...

Consider taking 31 minutes to watch _why speak at the ART && CODE Symposium from a few months back:


I'm planning to make a modern version of Logo (yeah, with the turtle) using Shoes.

WAIT just a minute... the dude took down a bunch of domains and accounts TODAY. Isn't this a tad premature for a eulogy? Maybe we ought to wait until we find out what happened, and what _why intends to do before going into "mourning."

The way I figure it the "worst case" is that his account(s) were hacked and that he brings everything back online. In that case he now has a letter, from me, letting him know how much I appreciate him and his work. Frankly, I'm long overdue for writing one, anyway.

Wikipedia has been updated, so it must be true!

Using the world "eulogy" makes me very uncomfortable.

Why? Do you have some issue with death?

Speaking of a still-alive person as if they were dead is a reasonable taboo. To do so casually creates a lot of potential for damaging misunderstandings.

But in this case we're talking about the death of a persona. It would be like me talking about the death of Kiss (the band)-- as in if they were breaking up. You wouldn't say that it was damaging because the band members were still alive, no?

With an assemblage like Kiss, it's clear.

OTOH, _why is one real person who has interacted in real life as '_why'. He could be dead, and that would be more sad than a mere retraction of published material.

Has there been anything other than speculation as to the real reason for the takedowns? If so, I haven't seen it; Resig's 'eulogy' has only "I personally believe [more speculation]."

What if _why is physically or mentally sick? What if he's in a self-destructive mood?

I'm not saying Resig did anything wrong with his chosen conceit -- it's a reasonable turn of phrase -- but I also completely respect and understand the g-g-grandparent poster's declaration of discomfort.

Is it just me, or does the Ruby community go in for cults of personality considerably more than others?

Perhaps, although I don't think that to be the case here.

For me, the _why persona was a little beacon that radiated the message: "you can make cool stuff and have fun regardless of your circumstances". That's a nice contrast to the dreariness of so much of the IT world on the one hand and the (often justified, but still depressing) rants about the evils of the IT world on the other hand.

But the tone of this entire thread is suggesting that somebody who wrote a bit of Ruby code is some sort of creative visionary! He may be a very talented programmer, but let's keep things in proportion. This idea that someone can be a big star in the Ruby world for doing not-very-much is a bit bizarre to me.

I'm reading this as a complete outsider, and trying to find the source of this level of adulation is difficult at best. I assume it's a community-centric thing, where someone outside of the community wouldn't "get it". It all just seems so bizarrely self-congratulatory.

And what do you mean "regardless of your circumstances"? What do we know about his circumstances that would convey that message?

You're grossly over-simplifying this man's life. Personally, I'm not a part of the Ruby community, nor do I write any apprecible quantity of Ruby code. However, _why's ability to code, write, draw, and generally produce art greatly inspired me. I hope some effort goes toward collecting his works so that you too can be inspired.

But it is eulogizing someone who isn't dead! After 1 day of inactivity!

I feel very inspired by the works of Salman Rushdie. He hasn't published anything for a few days - should we eulogize him on HN too?

I'm not over simplifying the man or his life - I'm suggesting that this is absurd way to react!

It's one thing to be inactive for a day, it's another to drastically truncate your online existence.

So what? I understand that it's considered a "big thing" by people who spend a considerable amount of energy cultivating an online persona, but I have trouble believing this is actually as big of a deal as it is being made out to be. I can think of two reasons for such an action:

1) Generally being "done" with that particular identity or community, and having lost interest to the point where the effort required to maintain it was disproportionate with the enjoyment or self-aggrandisement derived from it. If this is the case, then eulogising and lamenting and celebrating is misplaced: Perhaps introspection would be a better reaction - asking, "what is wrong with the community such that a high-profile member no longer wants to be a part of it?"; or

2) Some kind of personal or mental problems that have precipitated this, in which case, the value of maintaining an online profile is probably just less than the perceived value from removing all traces of an online presence.

Or alternatively, any number of explanations to do with hackers or vandalism could be in play too.

I just think the response has been totally disproportional to the event, at least until more information is available.

"what is wrong with the community"

This communities in this case would be the entire online and open source communities.

"But the tone of this entire thread is suggesting that somebody who wrote a bit of Ruby code is some sort of creative visionary!"

No, people are saying that a remarkably unique artist/hacker is a creative visionary, which he is.

"I'm reading this as a complete outsider"

Outsider to what? Creative work?

> No, people are saying that a remarkably unique artist/hacker is a creative visionary, which he is.

That's very subjective.

And I was claiming to be an outsider to the Ruby community, which this entire thread appears to be centred around.

The hacker side of the sentence is not debatable.

He wrote a graphical toolkit, a sound synthesiser, an HTML parser, html template language, a language (grammar, parser, vm and jit, gc, ...), and many other software projects on his own.

All of these are a joy to use. They are not only well though out technically (and it's an euphemisim), their APIs are excellent and often fun to use, and they are wonderfully documented.

Do you know of many people who are proficient in so many domains?

He also has a very personal graphic and literary style. What makes him unique is that he treated coding as an artistic medium too, and that he was able to mix his various skills to create integrated works.

Can you name somebody else that would qualify for these traits?

If not he's indeed a remarkably unique artist/hacker, and a creative visionary since no one had done that before.

"That's very subjective."

No, taste is subjective. That _why is unique, a hacker, an artist and creative is not.

"And I was claiming to be an outsider to the Ruby community"

Yeah, hence why I'm highlighting the inanity of your insistence on viewing his work through the prism of "Ruby" rather than for what it is: creative code in multiple languages including one he invented, artwork, music, books and commentary on making programming more accessible and fun.

Right. I disagree, but I'm going to stop contributing to this thread. Apparently you get down-modded for speaking ill of the dead.

While I concur that the Cult of Personality problem is pretty high in the Ruby world, I would like to say that I'm not a Ruby programmer, and really wasn't very interested in Ruby at all .. until I encountered _why's "shoooes" project. I had so much fun reading that document on shoes that I really thought to myself "okay, time to get up on this ruby stuff" .. and was just about to launch into a few hours of tutorial and study, just a few minutes before I read that _whys' stuff had all been deleted.

Darn. What a shame. Guess I'm not gonna learn Ruby now.

On a lighter side, for some reason Ruby reminds me of "The Mighty Boosh" .. its supposed to be great, amazing, and all the younger kids are into it, but when I actually sit down and try to comprehend "why?" (no pun intended), its just a big fat meh.

Come on, they've got nothing on perl.

You think? I can't say I really engage with either community, but purely as an outsider, it appears that anybody who has written any software in Ruby and published it ends up with a minor cult of celebrity, with legions of worshippers being sycophantic.

OK, I could be overstating it a little, but I reckon there are people in the Ruby community who could tell me what DHH had for breakfast.

Perl seems to focus its love and attention on Larry Wall himself, for the most part.

What, the guy made songs too? Incredible.

Beyond the one John links to, here's a YT compilation of three others. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YReSQfSBz4k

He's unpolished, but his songs are whimsical and his instrumentation is ridiculous. I didn't know he had an album. I really want it.

There are a lot of very arty people who are programmers. Just look at the people who started Pixar (and I am not just talking about Steve, but he definitely qualifies). They were scientists (PhDs) and they loved art, and using the computer to generate it. And in those days, that meant knowing how to code.

This reminds me of that story about people disappearing in real life. _why had some really cool projects. It makes a little more sense looking at him as an "artist" I guess, but aren't hackers sort of artists too? I always thought the dichotomy was a little artificial myself...

Although, hackers are associated with more utilitarianism and art isn't always functional. Sometimes hacking is for the sake of hacking though, just like art.

Wasn't there recently that story on front page of HN about disappearing completely? Maybe _why got the idea to disappear from the article.

This made me think of that one too actually. Kind of an intriguing concept... there's almost something romantic about the idea of escape, something artistic...

Thanks for that, John. A very eloquent eulogy that captures how I perceived _why to be.

I'm really sad for purely selfish reasons. My 11 year old really enjoyed hackety-hack up to the point that it worked. Likely it won't be finished now, which is a shame because it was a really great tool for introducing kids...

Can't even access that page. Is the site being hammered with traffic? ejohn.org is down as well.

Sorry, getting absolutely destroyed. I've replaced the blog post with a static HTML page for the time being, hopefully that helps.

Thanks. It was a really enlightening post. That song he made was actually quite impressive for what was presumably just a hobby.

http://www.manu-j.com/downloads/site/_why.html Copy of the text if you can't access ejohn.org

John's comparison of _why's work to sand mandala is very poignant and apt!

What a beautiful piece of writing.

Assuming this is a scratch of his identity (and not a hack) I have a grudging respect for it.

Not because he killed all his sites and code but because that's possibly the last we will ever hear! Too often do high profile programmers have a "hissy", delete stuff and then a few hours later make loud proclamations about why they left and who was being a dick for XYZ reasons (and how it is their fault)

Kudos for having the balls to just switch off I suppose.

(on the subject of it being a "dickish" move; it's not one I agree with or one I would take BUT I suppose it's possible he reasoned that copies of his code are around and anything seriously useful would be recoverable. The damage isn't too great. But the statement of removing it all is huge. That's it - no more contact ever).

With nothing to maintain or a way to be contacted he can just get away from everything that was bothering him (and it is clear stuff was bothering him). Assuming his actions are not more drastic (I cant believe NO ONE knows enough about him to contact him in some way) than this then perhaps in 6 months, a year he might return and carry on :)

To paraphrase a great film - lets at least end it with hope;

Hope guides me, that is what gets me through the day and the night. The hope that after you're gone from my sight, it will not be the last time that I look upon you.

Hopefully he'll be back.

What a lot of puerile drama.

Thank you John. This was truly a beautiful tribute to a great hacker.

_why really deserves this tribute! he created great things and I always liked _why's idea of bringing programming to a wider audience (especially children). reading through john's post and thinking about the mystic (and very smart) person _why was, I'm really sad about the fact that he disappeared online!

A stray point, but it's a bit unfair to both Buddhism and deconstruction to write "After a mandala has been constructed - and displayed - it is ceremoniously deconstructed". Actually, it's swept up with a small broom, and then dumped in a river, which is something different altogether.

_why is experimenting an identity change; probably he is online again (in a new domain?) with a new ID and reading now about his own 'funeral'.

God bless him for giving himself (grudgingly?) to the public, and god bless him for ending his public life when we all remember him so fondly.

I must admit that he wasn't on my radar until now, though I read his guide to Ruby, but now I love him.

I turned the eulogy into a Caring Candle: http://www.caring.com/caring-candles/loss-of-programming-ico...

Oh no! Now how will I break my trainees' brains by having them unravel Camping?!

_why's writing was incomprehensible, and his code was just as bad. Good riddance. Unless he's dead, in which case Oh, the humanity.

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