Where’s _why? What happened when one of the world’s most unusual, and beloved, computer programmers disappeared.
March 19, 2012
In March 2009, Golan Levin, the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s interdisciplinary STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, invited an enigmatic and famed computer programmer known to the virtual world only as “Why the Lucky Stiff” or “_why”—no, not a typo—to speak at a CMU conference called Art && Code—also not a typo—an event where artsy nerds and nerdy artists gather to talk shop.
_why came to Pittsburgh and presented his latest project to a room full of a student programmers and artists. He was scruffily handsome, seemingly in his early- to mid-30s, with shaggy brown hair falling in his eyes and a constant half-smile. He looked like a member of an indie band—he actually was in anindie band—or the leader of an experimental improv troupe.
At this symposium, he wore a pair of oversize sunglasses and a tidy sports coat with a red pocket square, a silly riff on a stuffy professor’s outfit. He introduced himself as a “freelance professor.” “I don’t know exactly why I was invited here today. I’m not associated with anything of repute,” he admitted to giggles from the packed crowd.
He riffed on his nom d’Internet, Why the Lucky Stiff: “Some people want to call me Mr. Why. My nametag was filed under ‘L.’ The thing is, it’s just a middle name. There’s no first or last. It’s just one middle name. That’s just the nature of it,” he said.
The Little Coder’s Predicament arises from the following problem: We live in world of astonishingly advanced technologies, easy to use and all around us. Your grandmother has a smartphone. Your 2-year-old can play with an iPad. But the technology behind such marvels is complex and invisible, abstracted away from the human controlling it. Nor do these technologies offer us many ready chances to do basic programming on them. For nearly all of us, code, the language that controls these objects and in a way controls our world, is mysterious and indecipherable.
Back in the old days, you could hack your Commodore 64 without too much trouble. But just try to get a sense of the millions of lines of code controlling a Windows computer, or the Google search engine, or your Android or iPhone. For starters, the user interface and legally enforced sanctity of the code will prevent you from even seeing it. And even if you managed to take a look, the code would be so complex you would struggle to understand it, let alone manipulate it.
For that reason, _why explained in the “Little Coder’s Predicament”—and over and over again at conferences and panels—too few people were learning to code. The learning curve was too steep. There needed to be a simple, fun, awesome way to draw people in.
“We need some instant results to give absolute beginners confidence. Simple methods for sending an email, reading a Web page, playing music,” he wrote. Moreover, novice programmers—especially kids—needed that ecstatic moment where they understand that they are controlling the computer, that programming ensures that the computer answers to them.
That’s what Hackety Hack did.
Hackety Hack begins by introducing kids to Ruby, _why’s programming language of choice. Then it explains that programming is nothing more than giving a stupid, unthinking computer your commands. You are its boss. It answers to you. And you can make it do nearly anything with simple keystrokes and enough practice.
Within a few minutes of using Hackety Hack, you can use real code to order a turtle to draw a line or a shape. In an hour, you can create a virtual library of your comics, or put jokes in pop-up boxes. Instantly, you are empowered as a creator. And eventually, the mysteries of how a computer works do not seem so mysterious after all.
Hackety Hack solved the “Little Coder’s Predicament”: It was fun enough to engage a kid, and smart enough to teach her something to boot. But just a few months after launching it, to the astonishment of the community of Ruby programmers who treated him with something approaching messianic worship, _why vanished.
On Aug. 19, 2009, his personal site stopped loading. He stopped answering email. A public repository of his code disappeared. His Twitter account—gone. Hackety Hack—gone. Dozens of other projects—gone.
The popular Ruby message boards, listservs, and blogs descended into a state of panic. Had he been hacked? Who had heard from him? Was he in physical danger? And there was one especially pressing question, the irony of which hardly went unnoticed by passionate Rubyists: Why?….