Why Did why the lucky stiff Quit?

30 April 2013

…or, is this time well spent?

Have you read _why’s weird new print spool novella?

Here you go: CLOSURE (a 58mb pdf, but oh so worth it)

After famously committing infosuicide in 2009, he was silent for a few years. Then early in April 2013, his website was updated with a series of pages. Assembled, they make up a new mini-book by the quirky Rubyist and self-proclaimed “freelance professor.”

Steve Klabnik is calling it CLOSURE. You can find the collected full PDF there, or the “book” portion on Scribd. Constructed of images, drawings, handwritten notes, and a mishmash of artful typesettings, it’s classic _why–I recommend it for any fans of his older stuff. It’s great.

Maybe I’m nostalgic for the days of reading RedHanded, but this new writing’s melancholic take on programming resonated with me. Or maybe I’ll just compel you to read it (the real goal, here) by excerpting some of the quotable bits. In any case I want to use CLOSURE as a lens to ask and venture answers for questions I’ve had for awhile now:

  • Why did _why quit?
  • Why is programming sometimes so terrible, and sometimes the best?
  • Is _why coming back?

somewhere off the coast…

CLOSURE begins with a map, perhaps in the great tradition of fantasy novels seeking to establish a sense of realism and place in the face of the strange and supernatural. It seems to be a highly modified map of the San Juan Islands between Washington and Canada. There are some startling changes, though…the thought of any place on earth named “Wayne Newton Island” is pretty terrifying.

I like to imagine that this sort of stage-setting is a hint that _why, in his sabbatical from public hacking, has been doing some travelling, been seeking answers for himself. Maybe been on a boat, playing guitar, drawing foxes.

In the story, _why will travel to one of these islands–but first, we get to meet the “jerktoasters” on Oprah.


The jerktoasters are a group of people who have decided to annihilate their identities completely. They’ve burnt their birth certificates, erased their records, etc. They sit in the dark, as silhouettes, fielding questions from the culturally-omniscient talk show host. To the obvious one–why would anyone want to do this kind of thing?–they answer as a group: “We don’t want to answer that question.”

Eventually a frustrated Oprah, impatient with the anonymous bunch’s refusal to be normal, to give us an explanation–has a producer turn on the stage lights to reveal their identities. To get some answers. But after the switch is flipped, the jerktoasters are all slumped in their chairs, dead!

We see that they’re all connected via tubes to a weird machine with a “light sensor.”

The light killed them. Anonymity was jerry-rigged as a necessary condition for their survival.

performance art & anonymity

Is this a clue that a much-linked blog revealing _why’s identity in 2009 was a factor in his disappearance?

There are lots of convincing arguments for anonymity–e.g., political or physical retribution for expressing opinions unpopular with corporations or organizations. But another perfectly good one that may apply here is that, for _why, the pseudonym was part of the game. He was doing performance art with a superhero mask on. Part of the fun was the anonymity itself. And when that was gone, at least some of the magic disappeared with it.

There’s some more indirect admonishment, re: anonymity, later. He tells us in 2009 he read most of Kafka in one month, but that he skimped on his letters:

Why did he skip Kafka’s letters?

Because _why didn’t care who Kafka was outside of his own imagination.

Because the work is the thing. (See Barthes for a pithier formulation.)

Of course, _why caused a bit of controversy when he disappeared–when he vanished from the internet, he killed more than just the author. He took the work with him, deleting his blogs, his code, and his online projects. Zed Shaw called it a dickhead thing to do, and I didn’t entirely disagree with him.

Remember though, that today, we’re at least approaching an epoch where information published online–especially widely shared information–may be easily available for the rest of recorded human history. Thanks to Git and Mercurial and the wave of distributed version control systems, it’s also very difficult for published and widely used code to just disappear.

And so–yep–it turns out that you can find probably everything _why ever published in one place. So maybe his sweeping away his footprints as he left wasn’t so catastrophic after all.

He knew his work would live on. But so why the need to delete everything?–especially in an era when nothing can really be gone for good?

He gives us an answer, almost directly, when talking about how when Kafka was dying of tuberculosis, he told his friend to burn all of his writing, unread. Kafka died without fame, but his friend published his work anyways. _why postulates that Kafka didn’t actually want his stuff to go up in smoke:

There was no harm meant in wanting to vanish–it was fundamentally creative, not destructive.

Kafka’s (and _why’s) playful duplicitousness wasn’t out of exasperation, or spite. It was the point.

programming, or: building sandcastles on shifting sands

Reading Kafka also seemed to affect _why’s will to program.

And later…

This mirrors very closely the sentiment in one of _why’s last tweets–

(08/18/2009 12:32:21 PM) _why: if you program and want any longevity to your work, make a game. all else recycles, but people rewrite architectures to keep games alive.

This line of thinking will get you into REAL trouble, or maybe at least a drinking problem, quick. I don’t recommend it. But hey, let’s try it, anyways…

He’s right, in a way, right?. How many times has DOOM been ported to how many platforms? It lives on. On the other hand, how might we still appreciate something monumental in programming, like, say, the creation of Visicalc? Or, to be more dramatic, the source code for Apollo 11? Besides reading the source? Who’s even doing that? Even they were tools, and they served their purposes.

This transience is something I would worry uselessly about programming sometimes. Obsessing about the inevitable and endlessly continuing obsolescence of what it is we’re making exactly when programming.

One of the real gotchas is, of course, that the process of creation in programming feels artistic. Like a dynamic and creative endeavor–with plenty of opportunity to pour yourself into the work in a satisfying way.

But you quickly learn so much of it gets thrown away. Or a year or two after you create something, it’s obsolete, or replaced by something better, or just not used anymore. Or never used in the first place.

And many times when you’re working on something with scale that will impact a lot of people, you’re in a company, on a team, and the actual things you create might be cogs in a bigger machine–necessary and fundamental plumbing, but plumbing nonetheless. Note that even ostensibly very visible UI work is often most successful when it “disappears.”

Combine programming with this sensibility long enough, and software can sometimes feel like a vast and teetering house of cards, one whose foundation is continually being repainted, replaced, all the while we build higher and higher.

There is an analogy with the relationship between volume and surface area here somewhere–that endless amounts of software engineering goes into constructing the labyrinths underneath the surface, while high above only a few islands of interactivity are poking above the water at any one time. You’re lucky to have a sizable population inhabit that tiny island of yours for a year or two! And most of the residents will never know that it’s actually a mammoth iceberg they’re standing on, a carefully constructed and colossal temple of arcane abstractions assembled by hand, endless and ornate byzantine mosaics looming in the dark…

I guess part of what I’m trying to say is: there is a certain (and admirable) degree of selflessness you need to possess utterly if you’re going to be happy programming. Especially if programming is going to be your “art form.” This is something I had to learn. Is it true for you?

And hey, when you look closer, even DOOM–brought ever forth into a collapsing technological modernity, playable on the device in your pocket even–suffers from this sort of slippage (erosion? structural evolution?). If you play a modern port of DOOM, there’s a good chance that a GPU with highly parallel hardware is rasterizing triangles. But much of the game’s real holy-SHIT-factor (one of the most reliable measures of success in computer graphics, we may note) was made possible by John Carmack’s clever rendering hacks making the raycasting of walls behind shotgunning demons in fortresses on Mars possible on commodity hardware. In 1993.

(Of course, DOOM is also just a fun game. That’s why it’s on every device known to man. I know personally one reason I’ve been tempted to seek refugee as a game developer is because a game, when you ignore all the spectacle, is a static and essentially fixed system of symbols and metaphor and meaning–one whose rules exist outside of their technological substrate. Art. (Of course, the “machine” Art’s rules run on is an ever-shifting cultural context…so maybe we should just throw our hands up in the air and go lay on the beach with that drink.))

In interviews I’ve heard this basic question posed by movie directors who get elevated through the studio ranks to make blockbuster films, too. It’s often accompanied by deflationary sigh: is there room for creators and individual expression in film? How about in programming?

The answer I think is: of course there is. Don’t be so dramatic. It’s just easy to forget amongst the avalanche of technological progression sometimes.

the NULL rant

It’s also easy to get lost in the woods–if not philosophically, then at least motivationally–when you’re mired in technical detail.

_why obviously struggled with this part of programming too. After a litany of some of the soul-atomizing minefields programmers must navigate (“scanning hundreds of pages listing out Cocoa delegates”), we get a beautiful little rant about NULL. I won’t say much about it, other than offer it here, and note that a weariness with the mundanity of programming is both something I’ve seen in many people, especially as they get older, and that it’s perhaps something we can fix, gradually…

“I’m not saying that software is terrible, though. On the contrary, people do amazing things. I was just glad to not be fighting NULL.

(To me, fighting NULL is the epitome of why I struggled as a programmer. I am not a natural at it, but I wanted very much to be–and I found no use for NULL. I never needed it, but it was always there. I kept pushing it down, painting over it, shutting it up, constantly checking for it–

“Are you NULL?

Are you NULL?

What about you?”

–and sometimes I would deceive myself, that my problems were other things, but then NULL would pop up, I would find that it was the cause–however, NULL is never really the cause. It is someone you always run into in bad situations, someone you never want to see. NULL penetrates all the layers to find you, and can only say, helplessly, “Looks like you’re having a problem.” Endemic to the problem, not the problem, complicit, and might be the problem.)

You may read this as an indictment of type systems weak enough to lack a Maybe type (almost every one in common “professional” usage), or as symptomatic of a more general malaise about the endless and difficult slog that can be wrangling enough code (code!–whose overly precise nature is often its greatest weakness…) to create something useful and/or meaningful in a messy world.

Either way, _why says it well, I think.

starving on flute island

Late in the story, _why’s journey takes him to “Flute Island,” a strange place where a group of old emaciated men dress suspiciously like a certain certain CEO, in black turtlenecks and blue jeans, roaming around the island in a pack, playing strange tiny flutes to each other. He calls them the “Jobsian derelicts.”

They have three fingers on each hand and mutter “Dune” to each other. Otherwise they speak a weird, bastardized half-French, but seem to mostly communicate with the flutes. Their music sounds high pitched, and grating, like “free jazz sped up”–

I tried to find a way to enjoy this music, but it was so random and hermetic, high, flinty, and impossible to predict, it felt anthropologically valuable, sure, but that’s it, I couldn’t kick the feeling that it was too primitive a kind of world music, too low in its evolution, devoid of important nuance and dynamic.”

They play songs to teach each other how to make flutes. They encode words in a series of numbers. Flutes have been getting smaller and smaller, and some of the older members remember a time when flutes were “very large.” They’re thinking of making flutes out of a paste made of leaves, because metal is becoming scarce.

At one point _why finds a red pencil with a green eraser, and words embossed on the side in gold: THIS IS TIME WELL SPENT.

There seems to be a problem, though. These strange flautists become old in a matter of days. It’s affecting _why, too. Two days with the group, and his hands are old and wrinkly, and he’s wheezing like an old man. At the same time, new flute players get “born” out of a hole in the ground and are quickly dressed in the turtleneck uniform.

At some point someone named Paul Allen appears, congratulates him for having “learned English,” and hands him two hundred dollars as an “investment.”

But _why finds himself aging too quickly, with a striking pain near his kidneys, and before you know it, he’s on his deathbed, clutching that pencil, shouting angrily at the mostly-uncommunicative men–

“We could have found a cure. There’s a disease out here, all of you. What if there’s radiation out here? What if it’s the stupid god-forsaken flutes? What if these piccolos speed up your brain?”

“This is crazy, to be spending all of your time on these blasted flutes…”

“No! No! Listen! You need to start looking around, what could be causing this? Is it the leaves? Is it the trees? What is it?”

This echoes a passage earlier when _why is talking to his friend Amanda. He’s explaining his alternative explanation for what really was going on in THE HAPPENING, a film where everyone suddenly goes mad because of a neurotoxin released by the Earth’s plants as a defensive measure:

“Maybe the characters in the film were misled. Maybe it was something else, something impossible to explain, perhaps a phenomenon in a dimension that we’re unaware of, like a kind of unseen presence that is killing everyone, not just unseen, but completely out of our abilities to sense it.

Something we could never guess, never presume to guess, something science would never point to….and so, reaching futilely for answers, they blame the trees!”

time well spent

One interpretation seems clear: the flutes are computers, and programming, and the old men are programmers–shouting gibberish at each other, aging rapidly, and quickly indoctrinating new students into a hermetic culture.

Is he warning us about a community that doesn’t get enough nourishment outside of its bubble? That repeats the same things over and over to each other, perpetuating certain bad habits, and prejudices? Maybe. That’s how I read it, anyways.

Sometimes in programming it can feel like we haven’t even crawled out of the primordial soup.

If anything, it’s just _why telling a story–maybe one obliquely about his own experience. Or maybe it’s just a fever dream.

But there’s hope in the story, too. A final page mostly obscured by _why’s hand hints at a rebirth, out of the hole in the hill. Is it a cycle in purgatory? Or an opportunity to sculpt a new experience? To effect new positive change? The page is titled NOTYET

_why’s theory about THE HAPPENING, too–that we’re blaming the trees because they’re there, and prevalent–might be a hint that programming burnout may be less about something doomed and intrinsic to programming, and more about something more mysterious. Maybe just the need to go elsewhere to feed that part of our brains that may be idling, when we need it.

CLOSURE is a wonderful excuse to remind myself that it’s important to keep a playful humanism in hacking. To always try to be boundlessly creative. To attempt completely new things. To keep inventing programming languages. To keep programming education accessible and exciting. That meaning and success is personal, and isn’t always measured in page views, or karma, or dollars, or even necessarily tied to your public identity.

And that anything is possible when you’re having fun.

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