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The cryptic return of programming legend Why the Lucky Stiff

After three years away from the Internet, programming legend Why the Lucky Stiff has returned with a novel of sorts, delivered directly to readers’ printers.


Kevin Morris


“Many, many years ago, so long ago that it’s a real stretch to find anyone else who can remember this, on the old Oprah show, she did a feature on individuals who had left society and, in the process, had eliminated every trace of themselves. She had like three or four guests up on stage, if I recall correctly, and they had all gone back and diligently destroyed every little bit of information previously known about them.”

These are among the first public words in three years from “why the lucky stiff” (aka “_why”), the enigmatic programming legend who, one day in 2009, decided to just pack up and leave the Internet. That was most unexpected, and a pretty new phenomenon. Some people called it “infosuicide.” (Another much-admired programmer and educator, Mark Pilgrim, did the same thing in 2011).

_Why was an influential figure in the Ruby programming community, where he was perhaps best known for his educational works, and especially his efforts to teach kids how to code. No one knows why he disappeared. He left no goodbyes. A Slate writer tried to track him down in 2012 and came up with nothing, except his real identity (something already well known in the Ruby community): Jonathan Gillette.

“Jonathan is _why,” a fellow programmer told Slate. “He is fine, and he just wants to be left alone.”

_why’s three years of self-imposed Internet exile ended on January 6, when his old website suddenly returned, bearing nothing but this cryptic message:

“Public Print Queue SPOOL/DESOLEE 2012-01-06T08:21Z”

And that was it—until earlier today, when the site suddenly began spitting out more network printer commands. Some clever readers at Hacker News figured out that perhaps _Why was sending messages in Printer Command Language. They were right. Soon enough, their printers began spitting out pages. Put together, they appear to be pages to a book: A novel or an autobiography, a combination of typed-out pages and hand-scrawled notes.

We’re not going to parse the writing. We don’t know _why, and we don’t know why he disappeared, though this does seem to be, at least in part, an exploration of that question. (“This reads less like a return and more like the goodbye he never made when he left,” one Hacker News commenter wrote.) We’re happy to follow along, and read his writing as long as he’s willing to share.

So are Hacker News readers. Jeremysr, one of the people who connected his printer to the spool, wrote:

“It’s quite magical. I was woken up this morning by my printer, when the first pages were being published. Now every 5, 10, or 15 minutes my printer starts clanking away (it’s an old one) and a brand new page slowly emerges. Great way to read a novel, if that’s what it is.”

Here are the pages Hacker News readers have collected so far.  It’s pretty damn good, if a little cryptic.

_why’s complete printer spool as one book

Image via Wikimedia Commons


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