Book review: CLOSURE by why the lucky stiff
After I wrote this, I did a quick google for “how to write a book analysis”, to see if there was some structure I could mould my writing to which would have been more standard. To my disappointment, a real literary analysis is about having a thesis and using examples to back up that thesis, along with a critique of the work. It is a concise, technical, and focused piece of writing.
Instead what I’ve written here is an endless ramble as I grasp at the air of what I thought _why meant, and I end up literally explaining many of the passages and providing a beat-for-bear recount of the entire story.
Of course in the act of doing this, I completely spoil the book, and suck it dry of the classical whimsy and signature style. Instead of changing this post, I have put this warning here instead. So yeah. You’ve been warned. You should probably just read CLOSURE. And if you have the patience, come back to entertain my writings - devoid of an editing phase, straight from my head to my keyboard to bits to your eyes to your head.
Also (obviously) WARNING: SPOILERS ahead. If you haven’t read CLOSURE I suggest you read it now (direct link). It’s much more entertaining than this review, and will feel about just as long.
In case you’re unaware, “why the lucky stiff” (usually abbreviated _why) was an author who was quite large in the Ruby community mostly for his magnum opus “Why’s poignant guide to Ruby”, an at times absurdist but incredibly entertaining and smart book about the Ruby programming language.
For some reason all the press around _why is always about how he disappeared after he got doxxed online. The story goes after some rabid fans of _why tried really hard to learn who _why was in reality, found out, and _why disliked this and decided to go offline. He did this in a rather loud way, deleting all his code and work off the internet. It was up to the fans to repost everything he made, and pick up projects worth continuing.
That is the story I usually read about after learning about _why. Read the poignant guide, saw a couple of his talks (like the one with the card game) and then learned about how he left the internet abruptly.
Since I learned about _why after all this happened, I felt like an anthropologist rediscovering an ancient conflict. Observing events with a cold and objective stance, saying “ah yes, and here _why was dealing with code never being as permanent as writing. And here we can see events that lead to _why’s downfall. And here, ah yes, here we have a piece of news which covers the _why account in great detail.”
One aspect of the _why saga which I don’t think gets enough coverage (or maybe I just put my blinders on) is his final book, CLOSURE. In this book semi-autobiographical fictional narrative in the classical absurd _why style, we get a clearer picture of _why’s philosophy on life, art, and programming.
An avant-garde delivery#
First of all, CLOSURE is no ordinary book. In fact, it wasn’t even called CLOSURE. It had no name. It was originally distributed as a series of PCL files, which are printer control files. In order to “read” a PCL file, you must first print it. (Or use a program that interprets it to pdf)
Reading the book this way gives a very homemade feel to book. Like you have a direct line to _why’s head. Parts of the page are annotated with his handwriting, which clue us into his internal dialogue (for example, that he dislikes idle chatter).
From what I understand, _why went completely offline in 2009 and in 2013 dropped these printer spool files out of nowhere. They were given in a strange order with punchy names in all caps (you can find the files on GitHub thanks to Steve Klabnik).
The book follows _why for some time, maybe about a month, divided roughly into four parts:
- The author’s conversation with his friend
- The author talking to his dentist
- The author leaves his normal life to go to the forest
- The final and longest section, where _why hangs around a strange steve-jobs looking cult
But that’s just my categorizing of it, since the story doesn’t really follow a structure at all, let alone a 4 act structure. For example there are the random panels of artistic flourish which are sprinkled throughout the book which are filled with _why’s trademark whimsy.
Part 1: Conversations#
The book is dedicated to “All the great friends that I never could have”, in french. This may be reference to the frenchmen which appear later, and who represent programmers. Maybe since _why has left the programming community, he dedicates this to the friends in tech that he could never have.
In the beginning _why tells us this is his final act, that he likes what we’ve done with his character. Indeed, he never produced anything else after CLOSURE.
The book starts out with our narrator, _why, recounting a fictional account of the Oprah show where the participants are social recluses who have dropped out of society. They call themselves the “jerktoasters”. When Oprah asks them why they have dropped out of society they reply that they wouldn’t like to answer that question. Oprah, not satisfied with their answer, and failing at persuading them, lights up the stage and the jerktoasters all instantly die, as they were attached to a machine which was light sensitive.
The jerktoasters, like _why, prefer to be private, and like _why, when doxxed, decided to commit suicide. The important point is that the jerktoasters don’t have a specific reason they want to have a private life, they just do.
Then there are handwritten notes about how if Kafka didn’t want Amerika to be published, he could have just written it for the power pc. This is the first time _why talks about the central theme the book: the impermanence of software.
Next _why recounts a conversation he has had with a friend about a Shamylan movie, the conversation is annotated with his handwriting that reveal his inner dialogue.
He doesn’t like idle chatter, but then tries for a “deep” point and quickly asks, is this even that different from the shallow conversation isn’t he just saying some ridiculous opinion? Does the mundane-ness of an opinion render it worth less somehow?
Aside: Proponents of information theory might suggest a strange opinion has more entropy and hence is harder to compress and therefore conveys more information. But is that even a worthwhile goal?
Part 2: The dentist#
_why then visits his dentist, Dr. Bloodcastle and recounts that someone he knew back in highschool was also a patient of Dr. Bloodcastle’s. He recounts that she is now dead and remembers not being able to apologize for to her for something he did. These side excursions of thought are classic _why.
He’s my dentist and he’s my father’s dentist and my sister’s dentist, too, and I know one other person who went to him: a girl that I went to school with, but who died in a car accident with one of her children.
_why recounts some stories about his family to the dentist, and we are treated to another handwritten chapter which starts with
I didn’t realize this at first, but there is an enormous temptation (when you’re completely disenfranchised from society) to write a manifesto, a scathing one, that shreds apart all the fixations of that society (both real and imagined) and attempts to predict that society’s demise or deliver up a host of cryptic and/or seemingly lucid stuff as a challenge for that society to live the way I do.
Which I think is kind of a nice burn on people who, you know, actually thing there is something inherently deep about doing the whole manifesto thing. I think he’s being totally genuine here too, I think that the temptation to do that is real, or else you wouldn’t drop out of society, right?
But our absurdist auteur doesn’t fall prey to that, and simply expresses he feels better now that he’s not a programmer and evokes the imagery of looking out a bus window
If I could, I always took the seat by the door, a bench behind a sheet of plexiglass with a stencil frosted into it. Many people avoided this seat because view opposed the flow of traffic, meaning that you would see car moving past you on the freeway, giving the appearance of tremendous forward traffic.
_why then talks about the various reflections he’d see in the bus window, and if he looked just right, he could see four simultaneous worlds together.
Reflections while looking out the bus window are a bit of a repeat theme for _why, as in the poignant guide he says
I sat, staring out the window at the world, a life-sized blender mixing graffiti and iron smelts before my eyes. This world’s too big for such a a little language, I thought. Poor little thing doesn’t stand a chance. Doesn’t have legs to stand on. Doesn’t have arms to swim.
He says he’s happy to be writing in a language that’s been here for hundreds of years, (English) the language that Tristram Shandy was written in. He says he’s happy to no longer be checking for null “Are you null? Are you null?” and that NULL was only something that came up when something else that was wrong happened. It was like having someone say “Looks like you’re having a problem”. It’s like saying “Hey, you crashed” to someone who just crashed their car. Perhaps hilarious but infuriating if you’re on the other end. _why’s description of NULL reminded me of that.
Anyways, next _why jumps aboard a ferry with few possessions (namely the book Frances Johnson) and leaves society.
Part 3: The professor leaps#
Instead of arriving at his destination, _why leaps off the side before it arrives and washes ashore on a different island. He stops at a gas station and sees a book called SACRED CLOWNS which prompts this surprisingly deep little text about not looking things up on the internet
I must strictly require you that, if you are to continue reading and go with me on this sally, that you resist from looking up anything to do with the book SACRED CLOWNS. This is paramount. I know the urge must be incredible to go out with your smartphones and find out if the book is real and if this is what the jacket truly read, but I must INSIST that you just let it be. I don’t know if it’s possible for you to exercise that kind of self-restraint in this modern age, but you must.
This is because _why tells us, that that is how he experienced. When he saw SACRED CLOWNS, he felt it must have been fake.
It echoes what _why says to his friend during the earlier scene, where they are talking about the Shamylan film, and they’re trying to remember who acts in it and his friend brings out her phone to look it up and _why grabs it asking her not to. He asks not to look things up while he’s talking.
The idea that the ability to look anything up, at any time, any way we want, has ruined the mystique and charms of certain aspects interaction has been written about at length by the tiny crowd of anyone-who-has-ever-had-to-deal-with-a-teenager.
It’s not about the information. It’s about how it was for them. If you have trouble remembering the name of an actor that’s how it is for you. It’s a little unique. The internet gives us all a common denominator of absolute knowledge. No room for half-knowledge.
I like to imagine the cover of SACRED CLOWNS is a cheesy looking clown with a creepy smile and the title font looks like dripping blood.
He also leaves these funny asides in the margins
As _why is walking throughout the forest, he encounters another adventurer who is full of excitement and wonder about the earth.
This new adventurer tells _why that his dream is to “never stop learning, never shy away from pursuit, and engage the whole world directly”. He says he’s left the “city life, with all its distractions and women” to come to this wonderful land of secrets. This adventurer, I think, is the general programming community. Eager to chew up and learn anything and everything from the latest JS framework to GPT to writing smart contracts. The adventurer also notes the lack of gender diversity in the field, since he left city life with its “women”. As a male who studies compsci formally and for fun and whose completed two bootcamps for AI and blockchain, this caricature hits close to home.
The man later tries to give a little pep talk to _why by inspiring him and then gets really mad when _why doesn’t reveal his real name. He’s the typical pseudo-intellectual do-gooder type _why fan.
Escaping the man in an text-game like sequence, _why comes across a shed and sleeps. He is awakened by the sound of a woman on an intercom, who tries to seduce him, but _why refuses and instead takes the shed door off its hinges and floats across the river to the next island.
I think the woman might have been a different programming language or framework or something of the like, which do a lot of marketing.
She could be one of the languages without Null (Rust?) or some feature that _why is complaining about because those are not a thing in their language and he’ll be good once he learns their language/framework or whatever. I think the woman might be Node.js (though Node has null and NaN)
Part 4 (finale) : Flute Island#
As _why sails to his next destination, he thinks of the idolization of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. He said people would ask “are you Steve Jobs or Bill Gates type?”. _why laments
These two guys weren’t but two sides of the same coin. The Rich Computer Guys Of The Late Twentieth-Century Commemorative Coin. They represented that old rags-to-riches ideal that’s so intoxicating to our society.
With Gates, it was that no one really liked his software… People who liked Windows didn’t really like Windows - they were just demonstrating how pragmatic and down-to-earth they were. … The ego on these two capitalists was breathtaking!
I find this passage especially poignant because you could easily write “Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos” here and it would fit the mould perfectly. Like “with Amazon, nobody really like the website, it was just pragmatic” and how Elon has big ego? (Although I am still an Elon fan). Just replace the “Rich Computer Guys Of The Late Twentieth-Century” with “Rich Tech Guys Of The early Twenty first” and call it a day.
Maybe this is just a repeated pattern in the ultra-high end of capitalism: big egos, bad software, and the idolatry of the masses.
After _why denounces the billionaires, noting his model person is Huck Finn, he finds a strange group of frenchmen.
_why spots the frenchmen at a distance and after careful inspection realizes that they all wear black turtlenecks and new balance sneakers. These were Steve Jobs worshippers, but when _why asks them about Steve Jobs they claim they don’t know who that is.
After talking to them, _why (who speaks a little french) realizes they only have three fingers on each hand. When he says there are seven people here, the frenchmen say no, there are 11. From this we understand that frenchmen have a seximal numbering system (for more info, seximal by Jan Misali)
The old frenchmen are programmers, and their strange numbering system is much like our (programmers) strange numbering system - binary or hex. They speak a different language than _why, which he understands intermittently, like a new developer that has just learned the basics of coding. He notes that the frenchmen all have flutes and play them to each other.
_why decides to hang around the frenchmen, says that while he was with them he “had no concept of time, perhaps it was 11, perhaps it was 3 in the afternoon”. _why is echoing the energy of the budding new and young programmer, who stays up coding, loses track of time in fascination. As an aside, I’m told this phase doesn’t last forever, and I’m anticipating the day when I come out of this phase.
_why eats blackberries out of nervousness but was seeing that he kept eating them because they just couldn’t hit the spot, and “I realized this and stopped immediately”. I like the idea of someone realizing that their mindless eating wasn’t hitting the spot, doing a quick proof by induction that since it wasn’t hitting the spot now, didn’t after eating another they should stop immediately. Maybe I’ll think of this passage next time I mindlessly consume cheetos.
The men play the flute to each other in a “random, hermetic, high, flinty, and impossible to predict” manner to each other. This flute playing is the act of programming, and these flutes are their computers, naturally their songs are their programs.
Since _why is currently just learning to program, it seems strange and arbitrary to him. He notes that the frenchmen always end their by saying “dune”. This might be like compiling a program, or (since ruby is interpreted) just running the code. _why then sees the birth of a new frenchmen who emerges with three fingers on each hand and is quickly put into some jeans and new balance. This is like the new grad who enters the software industry.
Later one of the frenchmen dies, and the other simply laugh, take his flute, and give it to another one. _why is disturbed by the sociopathic tendency of these people but they brush it off, so _why thinks since he’s much younger than these men, they must know what they’re doing. This is the software industry eating kids up, chewing them up, and spitting them out. Since software was like this when _why entered the workforce there must be good reason for it to be like this.
After sometime with the men, _why loosely understands the programs and tries to teach the young boy to say “dune” as well. The frenchmen used the C#-F notes, which is a scale with 7 notes. C# is also the programming language from Microsoft.
They teach with their flutes, and he listens to tale about take the difference between 1 and 3 and getting 86. Since 86 is out of the base-6 system, maybe _why is translating back to decimal in his head. 86 is 222 in base 6, which is the difference between 1 and 3 but maybe he’s just printing the number multiple times. Something to do with string concatenation and regular addition?
_why asks who invented the flute and one old man says it was one of them. He says every time they improve the flute, and recently it has gotten smaller and can open cans. This is like smartphones which have gotten smaller and picked up random responsibilities (camera, flashlight, fitness monitor, clock, etc).
The man then says the way they learn to play flutes is by playing flutes. Like a SICP’s metacircular interpreter or even something more simple like learning how to code from the internet, then teaching how to code on the internet.
A program that runs programs.
_why realizes frenchmen have terribly short lifecycles, getting old and dying within a few days and they always refuse to eat, probably because they know it’s no use. They say “I will return” and are off. This could be programmers leaving the industry, or getting their tech grandfathered, of having their skills replaced by strange shiny new ones. Maybe this is moving into management.
_why calls this “incredibly foolish. To live just to die. And to die easily”. To _why, getting a job in tech is to ask for an easy death, because it moves so fast.
There are more allegories to the flutes being computers, then _why takes out a pencil with “THIS IS TIME WELL SPENT” inscribed on it and writes a test note to see if he’s growing old like those around him. This is like a programmer writing a test project to see if they’ve “still got it”. Earlier, _why is afraid he’s also aging quickly but says maybe it’s just in his head. He is in denial about the speed change in tech.
He says he longed for the idle conversation he was denouncing earlier. _why is now old and feeble, and he retreats to the cave, when suddenly Paul Allen of Microsoft walks in and offers to help him out of the cave but instead just gives him two one-hundred dollar bills, quickly humblebrags about microsoft, and leaves.
“Why did you give me this?” say _why “I just need a ride”. This could represent how to make an exit in tech people expect you to go off and start a company, now that you’re a seasoned programmer, to go out and make a bunch of money. “How do I get out of here?” asks _why, “You can go anywhere” says Paul, but it’s hard for _why to move and Paul gives him money implying he needs to start a startup. This is a classic one of silicon valley’s fallacies: the unicorn startup exit. The idea that starting a startup to exit perpetrated by everyone in the bubble and always seems like the natural next step.
Unable to leave and growing old at a terrifying rate, _why lashes out at the frenchmen but realizes that none are left that he recognizes - they’re all new faces. In his anger _why even blames the trees, something he said the characters of the Shamylan movie were doing to rationalize since they had no explanation. _why doesn’t have any explanation how the tech industry scooped him, and killed him. As he dies, another frenchman tells him it’s no use trying to judge everything by the condition you are in right now.” Note that _why can completely speak fluent “French” at this point, and is now too old to judge new tech.
He cries and grabs the hand of the man next to him. He notices that there’s a pencil in the man’s hand. It’s his pencil that says “THIS IS TIME WELL SPENT”, and he dies.
_why wonders if his life was worth living, if all the hours put into programming was worth it in the end, if the system he was fascinated with was worth the speed, if the time was well spent.
The final page is a picture of a handwritten note which _why’s hand on it, covering most of the text. But we can imagine what it says. Maybe it says the whole flute island was a dream, and that he’ll be back in 2021, maybe it’s the afterlife. Whatever it is, _why is no more than what we do with him now.
After I read CLOSURE, I discovered completely coincidentally, that in fact August 19 is “whyday”. Dedicated to the day _why left. It happened in 2009. Whyday 2020 is 11 years later. A decade and a day. In fact, 11 years ago I was 11. I was probably making Flash games. I think the spirit of Flash and the spirit of _why are very much in harmony. Flash was like my version of Hackety Hack. I recently looked at some of my old flash games. The pangs of nostalgia were fast and powerful. I remember my dad teaching me tweening on our old computer. “And this is how you tween. And this is how you shape tween”. I remember shape tweening blowing my mind.
I’ve always been a bit puzzled at why _why cared so much for his ruby code going stale. Or as some have come to call it, “bitrot”. Why would anyone care if he wrote bad code? But then I took a moment to think: if I was in his position, would think the same? And I thought an unequivocal yes. I mean, think about it - he had so many eyes on him and he wasn’t coding in any of the conventional styles. I mean, how could _why do anything with the amount of attention he got? In fact I feel a bit silly writing about programming right now and I have no readers!
See, programming isn’t as timeless as classical art. Not really. It’s more of a buddhist sand mandala than a renaissance painting.
You know, it’s kind of strange how much programmers have to remind themselves to have fun programming. It’s like a lesson that never sticks. What other profession needs to be reminded there’s fun in what they do? Much like Ableson and Sussman and Alan Kay and all the great and powerful names of times of yore, I think _why taught us that lesson in his own eccentric way.
_why was such a creative powerhouse of a person that everything he did took the form of art. That was the way he operated. Even the silliest aside became a playful delight in post modern creativity. He was simply an artist in the truest sense.
Anyways, happy whyday. I know I’m a bit late - but chalk it up to some null errors (are you null?)
Thank you why the lucky stiff. You are an inspiration.
I’m also thankful for the community that came after, that his audience grew big enough to envelop me even after all the smoke and dust had settled. Namely these are great _why sources:
- Website with all the _why content on the web : _why’s estate
- Steve Klabnik’s guide to CLOSURE : CLOSURE companinon
- Why did _why quit? : why did why quit by Kev Watters
Thanks for reading, friend.