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Why the lucky stiff

why the lucky stiff
_why at RailsConf Europe
Born Jonathan Gillette
Disappeared 19 August 2009
Status Possibly returned to online community
Other names why, _why, Jonathan Gillette
Occupation Ruby programmer, author, musician
Known for Why's (poignant) Guide to Ruby, Camping

Until he disappeared from public view on 19 August 2009, Jonathan Gillette, known by the pseudonym why the lucky stiff (often abbreviated as _why), was a prolific writer, cartoonist, artist, and computer programmer notable for his work with the Ruby programming language. Annie Lowrey described him "one of the most unusual, and beloved, computer programmers" in the world.[1] Along with Yukihiro Matsumoto and David Heinemeier Hansson, he was seen as one of the key figures in the Ruby community.[2]

_why made a presentation enigmatically titled "A Starry Afternoon, a Sinking Symphony, and the Polo Champ Who Gave It All Up for No Reason Whatsoever" at the 2005 O'Reilly Open Source Convention.[1] It explored how to teach programming and make the subject more appealing to adolescents. _why gave a presentation and performed with his band, the Thirsty Cups, at RailsConf in 2006.[3][4]

On 19 August 2009, why's accounts on Twitter and GitHub and his personally maintained websites went offline.[1][5] Shortly before he disappeared, why the lucky stiff tweeted, "programming is rather thankless. u see your works become replaced by superior ones in a year. unable to run at all in a few more." [5]

_why's colleagues have assembled collections of his writings and projects.[6][7][8]

On 5 January 2013, _why's site[9] was back online,[10] although, as of October 2013, it was only serving a blank page. In March 2014, the site re-launched as the personal blog of an anonymous individual from Australia with no apparent connection to _why.


  • Works 1
    • Books 1.1
    • Code tutorials 1.2
    • Code 1.3
    • Art 1.4
  • Real identity 2
  • References 3
  • External links 4



His best known work is Why's (poignant) Guide to Ruby,[11] which "teaches Ruby with stories."[12] Paul Adams of Webmonkey describes its eclectic style as resembling a "collaboration between Stan Lem and Ed Lear".[13] Chapter three was published in The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky.[14]

In April 2013, a complete book attributed[15][16] to Jonathan Gillette was digitally released via the website and the GitHub repository cwales. It was presented as individual files of PCL (Printer Command Language) without any instruction on how to assemble the print outs into a book. Based on timestamps from the git repository, Steve Klabnik compiled the pages in the order in which they were released into a PDF file which he titled CLOSURE[17] since the book provides some resolution to the story. Although no authorship is claimed in either the book or the git repository, the writing style and content are remarkably comparable to that of Jonathan Gillette[18] and the storyline references certain events and the text includes the names Jonathan Gillette and _why.

Code tutorials

Try Ruby is an online interactive learning tool that provided a browser-based Ruby shell and an instructor that guided beginners through their first steps in Ruby. Since Why's disappearance, the project has been continued in spirit at Try Ruby[19]

His final project before his internet retirement, Hackety Hack, is a Ruby- and Shoes- based environment intended to bring the power, freedom, and simplicity of BASIC programming to the current generation, with special intent to be accessible to children.


_why is the author of several libraries and applications, most of them written in or for Ruby.

  • Camping, a microframework inspired by Ruby on Rails and based on Markaby that is less than 4 kilobytes.[20]
  • Park Place, a "nearly complete clone of the Amazon S3 web service."[20]
  • Hobix, a YAML-based weblog application written in Ruby
  • Hpricot, an HTML parser
  • Markaby, (markup as Ruby), a DSL to generate valid HTML using Ruby blocks and methods instead of tags.[21]
  • MouseHole, a personal web proxy that can rewrite the web à la Greasemonkey
  • the RedCloth library, which implements the Textile markup language
  • the Sandbox, a library for managing several Ruby environments in a single process
  • Syck, a YAML library for C, Ruby, and several other languages. Syck has been a part of standard Ruby libraries[22] since Ruby version 1.8.0.
  • Shoes, a UI toolkit "for Making Web-like Desktop Apps"[23][24]
  • unHoly, A Ruby bytecode to Python bytecode converter, for running Ruby applications on the Google Application Engine
  • potion, a tiny, fast programming language with a JIT compiler, closure support and an object model built around mixins
  • bloopsaphone, a crossplatform chiptune-like synth, based on PortAudio with a Ruby frontend


He has illustrated The Ruby Programming Language, authored by David Flanagan and Yukihiro Matsumoto.[25] He also dedicates his illustration every year to RubyKaigi, the biggest Ruby conference in Japan, similar to RubyConf.

In March 2009, he was a speaker at the Art and Code conference at Carnegie Mellon University.[26]

Real identity

_why never publicly revealed his own identity while he was active as why the lucky stiff. Shortly before he left the public eye, an anonymous blog was posted,[1][27] identifying him as Jonathan Gillette, and offering detailed information about his identity, including his schooling, his address, his membership in the band The Child Who Was a Keyhole, and the identity of his spouse. At the time, he did not make any statement on his being outed.

While his offline identity was considered common knowledge in the Ruby coding community, it remained unconfirmed until a 2012 article in Slate magazine quoted a statement from a fellow programmer saying, "Jonathan is _why, he is fine, and he just wants to be left alone."[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e  
  2. ^ Terror, Diogo (15 May 2010). "_Why: A Tale of A Post-Modern Genius". Smashing Magazine. Retrieved 13 March 2012. 
  3. ^ DeVilla, Joey (30 June 2006). "RailsConf 2006: why the lucky stiff and the Thirsty Cups". Retrieved 28 June 2016. 
  4. ^ why the lucky stiff presents at RailsConf 2006 (video). Uploaded by Jeremy Ruten. 20 April 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Cooper, Peter (August 19, 2009). Why The Lucky Stiff' Is Missing"'". Ruby Inside. Retrieved 28 June 2016. 
  6. ^ Kromer, Flip; Rasmussen, Seth Thomas. "A Living Archive of _why's Executable Poetry". GitHub. Retrieved 28 June 2016. 
  7. ^ Kromer, Flip. "A mirror of _why's executable poetry". Retrieved 28 June 2016. 
  8. ^ Ruten, Jeremy. "_why's Estate". Retrieved 28 June 2016. 
  9. ^ "Why the lucky stiff". 
  10. ^ Brethorst, Aaron (5 January 2013). "_why's site is back up". Hacker News. Y combinator. Retrieved 16 May 2013. 
  11. ^ Fitzgerald, Michael (2007). Learning Ruby. O'Reilly.  
  12. ^ Richardson, Leonard (2006). Ruby Cookbook. O'Reilly.  
  13. ^ Adams, Paul, ed. (2003). "Getting Your Feet Wet With Ruby on Rails". Archived from the original on 2006-12-31. 
  14. ^ Spolsky, Joel, ed. (2005). The Best Software Writing I. Apress.  
  15. ^ The CLOSURE Companion 
  16. ^ Kevin Morris (April 18, 2013). "The cryptic return of programming legend Why the Lucky Stiff".  
  17. ^ CLOSURE. 2013. 
  18. ^ Is _why Coming Out of Exile? 
  19. ^ Try Ruby .
  20. ^ a b Advanced Rails. O'Reilly. 2007. p. 235.  
  21. ^ Beginning Ruby: From Novice to Professional. Apress. 2007. p. 443.  
  22. ^ Standard Library documentation for Syck
  23. ^ InfoQ: Ruby Shoes for lightweight GUIs, graphics and animation
  24. ^ O'Reilly Network: Shoes Meets Merb: Driving a GUI App through Web Services in Ruby
  25. ^ Flanagan, David; Matsumoto, Yukihiro. The Ruby Programming Language. O'Reilly.  
  26. ^ "Art && Code Symposium: Hackety Hack, why the lucky stiff". Vimeo. March 2009. Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  27. ^ "Who is Jonathan Gillette?", Who is why the lucky stiff, Posterous, archived from the original on August 21, 2009 .

External links

  • A video of _why's public lecture at the Art and Code Conference, March 2009
  • Episode of the Ruby on Rails Podcast about Camping
  • A list of _why's open-source projects (which points to a new location for source code)
  • Shoes Roundup: Ruby GUI App Development Goodness, lists a few resources for Ruby/Shoes development
  • Why's (poignant) Guide to RubySoundtrack for the book,
  • RedHanded, a defunct blog dedicated to Ruby culture
  • RubyKaigi2008 Goodies, _why's illustration used in RubyKaigi2008 (Japanese page)
  • RubyKaigi2007 Goodies, _why's illustration(s) used in RubyKaigi2007 (Japanese page)
  • _why's estate
  • WhyDay 19 August 2010
  • Internet Archive of _Why's Complete Printer Spool
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