why the lucky stiff

It’s Whyday!

by Joey deVilla on August 19, 2011


A hand-drawn copy of a comic panel from why’s (poignant) guide to Ruby on a traffic light in Austin, Texas.

It’s August 19th, which in some circles is known as Whyday. If you’re not familiar with what this day’s about or where its name comes from, you might want to read our earlier article, Whyday is Friday. I like to think of this day as a reminder to bring a sense of whimsy, sharing, fun and wonder to your work, whether it’s programming or anything else.

Jessica Allen tweeted the photo above: an expense report in the spirit of Whyday.

Roger von Oech, who wrote one of my favourite books — A Whack on the Side of the Headmentioned Whyday in a tweet today!

I must tip my hat to the appropriately-surnamed Josep M. Bach, whose Whyday contribution is Niki, “the first stable, documented version of Niki, a ruby DSL to write songs”. Programming and music — what could be more fitting?

_why’s cartoon foxes are everywhere. This stencilled graffito was found by Janet Swisher in Barcelona, which I believe is quite far from where _why lives.

Wyatt Greene, on this blog Techiferous, is celebrating Whyday with an article about programming archetypes featuring _why-esque comic illustrations. Nicely done!

Andrew Lenards, who leads “a team of developers working on a larger scientific application” is encouraging his developers to celebrate Whyday. Well done, sir!

Andrei Volkov tweeted: “I just MUST use #whyday to promote my translation of Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby into Russian.” Keep at it, Andrei, and…spaceeba!


The RubyLearning blog is celebrating WhyDay by announcing the 8th batch of their “Ruby with Shoes” course. Shoes is a great little Ruby GUI toolkit that _why whipped up, and there’s nothing that makes learning a new programming language fun like the immediate satisfaction and feedback of a desktop app.

Gogol is a game that’s written in Ruby, minimalist and brain-teasing. This is right up _why’s alley.

As for me, I’m doing my bit to spread the word about Whyday, working on a few ideas to help people get better at programming and ecommerce (which includes making more videos like this one), mixing music with coding with the assistance of my trusty travelling accordion as well as relearning all the Ruby I’ve forgotten over the past couple of years working at the Empire and sharing what I learn along the way.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be at Shopify (I’ve been with the company a shade more than three months), away from the Fortune 50 corporate world and back in the land of startups, programming languages like Ruby and CoffeeScript, and where whimsy and the willingness to take chances and try new things is greatly appreciated. It’s been a wild and crazy year for me both personally and professionally, and it’s only increased my appreciation for bringing the spirit and sense of fun to my work in the same way that _why did. I hope Whyday does the same for you.

Happy Whyday, and happy hacking!

(If you’re doing or did something interesting for Whyday, drop me a line and I’ll mention you and your activity in an upcoming blog post!)

This article also appears in the Shopify Technology Blog.

{ 0 comments }

Whyday is Friday

by Joey deVilla on August 16, 2011

Photo of why the lucky stiff's book 'Why's (Poignant) Guide to Ruby' in hardvoer form, backed by paper cutouts of why's cartoon characters.

Clever programmer. Multimedia and performance artist. Whimsical writer. Oddball performer. Howard Hughes-style recluse. All of these phrases are apt descriptions of the guy most of us know only as why the lucky stiff, or _why for short.

Bold, Brief and Gone

'Cartoon foxes' comic from why's (poignant) guide to Ruby

If _why had a personal motto, it might be “Be bold, be brief, be gone.” The bold part was plain to see. His Ruby tutorial, why’s (poignant) guide to Ruby, broke away from the style of your typical programming books and went for the wild and whimsical. Only _why would take a topic like metaprogramming — something that confounds a number of experienced developers, never mind the newbies he was trying to reach in his book — and turn it into a fantastic adventure game exercise, complete with comics. Few developers have the breadth of skill and interest to make projects like Try Ruby (a browser-based Ruby shell with instructional guides) to Camping (a Rails-like web app microframework smaller than 4K) to Shoes and Hackety Hack (a UI toolkit for “web-like desktop apps” and a development environment to teach children programming) to Park Place (a “nearly complete clone” of Amazon’s S3). There may be people out there who’d be able to pull off a music-and-programming performance like the one he did at the first RailsConf, but they haven’t yet presented themselves to the world.

Why non conformist certificate

The “brief” and “gone” bits take a little more explaining. _why’s notoriety rose with Ruby’s popularity, which in turn was connected to Ruby on Rails. I remember reading some posts on one of his blogs, RedHanded, as far back as late 2003, and the (poignant) guide surfaced in 2004 and found its way into print in 2005, when the chapter A Quick (and Hopefully Painless) Ride Through Ruby (with Cartoon Foxes) appeared in the Apress book The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky. His music-and-code extravanganzas at South by Southwest, O’Reilly’s Open Source conference and the first RailsConf cemented his rep as the programmer who was also a performance artist and by 2008, people were seeking him out for all sorts of things, from personal appearances (Pete Forde tried to get him to come to RubyFringe, but convincing him to leave the US proved to be impossible) to commissioning body art (Leah Culver got him to design a tattoo for her).

Leah Culver shows off her tattoo by why the lucky stiff

Close-up of Leah Culver's tattoo by why the lucky stiff

All in all, _why’s popular presence on the web spans about 5 or 6 years.

Milk carton with drawing of _why in the 'missing child' picture

For reasons still unknown to the Ruby community at large — perhaps Matz knows and is sworn to secrecy — _why “disappeared” on August 19, 2009. It’s not that he disappeared in the D.B. Cooper sense, but in the J.D. Salinger sense: not as a legal missing person, but as a person determined to remove himself and his activities from the public eye. In the span of a day, he removed as many traces of his online presence as he could: the blogs, the sites, the projects. Luckily, there’s a lot of his work floating around thanks to his open sourcing and Creative Commons-ing of his works and the curation of many techies who appreciated them.

WhyDay Declared

Whyday

A year after his disappearance from the online world, Glenn Vandenburg declared the first anniversary of his disappearance as “Whyday”. Whyday is a day to celebrate _why’s contributions to the culture and communities that have grown around the Ruby programming language and all the software built upon it. “We in the Ruby community wish him well,” goes the text on the Whyday site, “but we really miss him.”

A spread from 'Nobody Knows Shoes, the documentation for Shoes, _why's UI toolkit for desktop apps

The Whyday site goes on:

Why gave us a lot of cool software and other things, but what he really gave to the Ruby community was a spirit of freedom, whimsy, and creativity. When Why took the stage at the first RailsConf, in 2006, he strapped on his guitar, walked to the microphone, and yelled “Put your best practices away!”

Discipline, care, and responsibility are important; we owe our customers, employers, team members, and families to take our work seriously. At the same time, though, we need to play. If we don’t occasionally break out of the mold of our “best practices,” we can easily miss many wonderful ideas, some of which can bear rich fruit (just as Camping and Hpricot led to Sinatra and Nokogiri).

This year, on August 19, celebrate Whyday. Set aside that day to remember Why’s contributions to our community and culture by hacking just for the fun and joy of it.

Why the lucky stiff and the Thirsty Cups playing at SxSW

Among the things people were encouraged to do on Whyday were:

  • See how far you can push some weird corner of Ruby (or some other language).
  • Choose a tight constraint (for example, 4 kilobytes of source code) and see what you can do with it.
  • Try that wild idea you’ve been sitting on because it’s too crazy.
  • You can work to maintain some of the software Why left us (although Why is more about creating beautiful new things than polishing old things).
  • On the other hand, Why is passionate about teaching programming to children. So improvements to Hackety Hack would be welcome.
  • Or take direct action along those lines, and teach Ruby to a child.

I made a note of WhyDay on my personal tech blog, Global Nerdy, as well as the blog I got paid to write for (I was a Microsoft employee at the time). I didn’t get the chance to do as much as I’d like in the spirit of Whyday, probably because I was knee deep in getting ready for TechDays, a series of cross-country conferences run by The Empire.

WhyDay 2011

Youre leaving us here

Here we are, a year after the first Whyday. I’ve done some quick searching and haven’t found any mention of celebrating Whyday this year, so I’ve taken it upon myself to spread the word. It probably helps that I’m no longer at Microsoft and now in Shopify, which not only builds stuff on Ruby and Rails; it was also co-founded by an original member of the Rails core team, and people here are writing the next edition of Rails in a Nutshell. This place just oozes Ruby.

_why might not want to be celebrated, but in my mind, _why isn’t the real reason that Whyday should be celebrated anyway. I think it’s more about the spirit of what _why did: really getting to know the tools you’re using, helping people understand those tools using unorthodox means whenever conventional means just don’t get the point across, and building great tools when the tools you want don’t exist.

It’s about finding joy and delight in your craft, and bringing to it a sense of play. It’s about making things better. All that is in the spirit of why I quit a high-paying, cushy job and joined a rag-tag team of techies in a startup, and this year, I’m going to try to celebrate Whyday — this Friday, August 19th, 2011, a little more properly.

How about you?

Last page

This article also appears in the Shopify Technology Blog.

{ 0 comments }

How and Where is _why?

by Joey deVilla on August 20, 2009

why_missing_milk_carton Photo courtesy of "ejc".

A Little Bit About _why

Cartoon foxes from "Why's (Poignant) Guide to Ruby" screaming "Chunky Bacon!"If you were to walk up to someone and utter the seemingly meaningless phrase “Chunky bacon!” and get a smile rather than a look a bewilderment, you could probably mark that person down as a Ruby programmer. That strange two-word combination is seared in the minds of those who have read what is probably the most whimsical programming language book in existence, Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby. The book is one of the strange and beautiful Ruby-related works created by the enigmatic programmer, musician, artist, comic illustrator and wag known only as why the lucky stiff, or _why for short.

whys_poignant_guide

_why’s contributions to the world of Ruby programming are many. In addition to the (Poignant) Guide, some of his goodies that I’ve made use of are:

  • Camping, an incredibly tiny Ruby web application framework
  • Hackety Hack, a “coder’s starter kit” for Ruby, meant to bring back the spirit of experimentation of those days when the BASIC programming language was built into every home computer
  • Hpricot, a parser that’s great at scraping HTML and even parsing XML
  • Redcloth, a library that implements the Textile markup language
  • Shoes, a desktop UI toolkit
  • Syck, a YAML library

_why made it a point to reveal as little about himself as possible, and most of us were happy to indulge him. Most people were happy to simply know and address him as “why”, and in the community, it was a point of etiquette to not try and dig too deeply.

_why Vanishes from the Net

Yesterday, _why’s presence vanished from the web. The places online where you could find him have been taken down. These included:

John Resig has written a lovely “eulogy” for _why, and while I think it’s premature to say that he’s gone forever, it’s still nice to see a nice tribute to him. My favourite part of the eulogy is where John likens _why’s works to a 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 hope that _why’s disappearance is a brief hiatus. The Ruby world – hey, the programming world, the art world, the music world too – just isn’t the same without him.

Finding _why’s Stuff

There’s only one problem with _why’s deletion of his online presence: a number of people have come to depend on his works, particularly his code. The (Poignant) Guide is downloadable from Scribd, and I figure that if it hasn’t happened already, someone will start a Github repository of his code. There’s also Facebook group called Missing why the lucky stiff — let’s hope it doesn’t get all maudlin and support-group-y.

Last but not least, there’s programmer Leah Culver, who commissioned a tattoo from _why:

leah-culver

leah-culver-tattoo

In Closing

I’ll finish with my favourite tweet from _why, which I blogged about a year ago:

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

{ 6 comments }

Leah’s Tattoo

by Joey deVilla on January 30, 2009

Leah Culver shows off the new tattoo on her arm

At CUSEC 2009, some of the attendees attempted to psychoanalyze the speakers out of concern for what seemed to be obsessions. The IRC backchannel during my presentation expressed concern for what they believed to be my fixation on butts, what with mentioning the movie Deliverance and showing the “Bottle Rocket in the Butt” video from my blog entry Assrockets and Opportunities.

Other speakers had their own obsessions. Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman’s twin obsessions were with the level of lighting in the room and his “Four Freedoms” ethics. Pownce lead developer/co-founder and now Six Apart developer Leah Culver (who was on the conference’s other end of the scruffy/slinky spectrum) was obsessed about getting a tattoo based on designs created by the enigmatic Rubyist known only as why the lucky stiff (or _why for short). Leah somehow managed to contact _why – who is notoriously J.D. Salinger-esque in his reclusiveness – to commission him to create some tattoo designs, which she showed me at the CUSEC speaker dinner last Thursday night.

A message on Twitter from _why has confirmed that she did indeed get the tattoo. Here’s a close-up:

A close-up of Leah Culver's tattoo

The blank word bubble above the cartoon character is there to let her fill it in with whatever she feels like having it say for the day.

Late binding for tattoos!” I said, regretting that uber-nerdy statement mere moments later.

{ 4 comments }

“why the lucky stiff” on Why You Should Create

by Joey deVilla on August 8, 2008

Why\'s photo-illustration of his book, \"why\'s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby\"
why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby, the most whimsical programming book ever written.

Here’s a great quote from the enigmatic programmer known only as “why the lucky stiff” on why you should create:

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

Very true, especially since there are whole industries and professions that specialize in manipulating your tastes in order to get you to line other people’s pockets. Well put, why!

{ 2 comments }