Manhattan Metric
Software and Science in Equal Measure

Aug. 19th: International "_why We Fork" Day

Forgive me if I ramble a bit…

I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever. – Kurt Vonnegut

It’s only been two days that my friend _why has been gone, and as much as I’d like to believe it’s too soon to say he won’t be back, something tells me that he’s gone for good. As such, I feel compelled to reflect on matters, much as I would at any funeral. I must say that the disappearance of _why has hit me rather harder than I thought it might. You see, I really believed in his goal of being a free-lance professor, probably because I fancied myself a budding free-lance professor.

I’ve even gone as far as to entertain fantasies of a future troop of free-lance professors, all of us traveling the country and even the world, stopping only for a week or two in each locale. We’d contact the local libraries or civic centers or YMCAs and offer to put on impromptu programming classes. We’d print out 8 1/2" x 11" posters on our second rate ink jet printers and tack them to the telephone poles and bus stop shelters throughout town. The children, young and old, and even some of the adults, would show up with their rag-tag collection of laptops and other computing devices to learn how the wizards of code could make their computers dance and sing. Then, just like some kind of traveling carnival, we’d pack it all up and move along to the next town. Occasionally one of us would run into another in a diner on a dark night somewhere just off the highway. We’d recognize each other by the open notebook on one side of our dinner plate, and a laptop on the other. No words would need to be spoken, just a silent nod of acknowledgement that we were two of a kind: vagabonds spreading knowledge in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep. Like 21st century philosophes, we would be the great minds whose impact would be measured in the number of individuals influenced more than the code or books produced.

Alas, such fantasies are just that, and _why is gone. So it goes. Still, it seems almost inevitable that, faced with our own impermanence, we would try to take something away, to learn something. Therefore, I find it interesting and good to reflect on the way that the community at large has reacted to this stunning turn of events. Much of the discussion has revolved around _why’s dual roles as both software developer and artist. This seems fitting, as he was one of the crazy ones trying to show how something as utilitarian as computer code could also be artistic. It was almost as if a farmer tried to convince the world that hay could be hauled on a pitchfork with grace and aplomb worthy of an ice dancer. Yet, at the same time his work was vital. It was utilized by many. Some have felt that he has stolen by giving and then taking away, like a builder who had rigged the foundation of his own building with dynamite, only to detonate it after a family had moved in, claiming it as a grand piece of performance art.

Well now, let’s just calm down a bit. He was human, as are we all. He had human flaws. If we are unsure how to react to his sudden disappearance, it probably says more about us than him. What, exactly? I find that as I reflect on this I think about paper. Consider paper: from pressed Egyptian reeds to reams of copier quality (not to be used in the laser printer). Paper is just a medium, and yet paper has carried the works of many ages and the brilliance of some of the greatest minds. Paper almost never receives the thought or attention it deserves. No second thought was given to the paper in the Library of Alexandria, and if it weren’t for some forgetful cave dwellers the Dead Sea scrolls would likely have turned to dust many ages ago. Even the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States, as recently as they were written, were scrawled on any old piece of paper without much thought to their long-term preservation.

It has taken man 4000 years to finally understand paper, and what it’s really worth. Now we can take a jaunt down to the local drug store and purchase a notebook of acid-free paper and a pen with Guaranteed PermanentTM ink. Important documents are copied and microfiched and sealed in titanium and inert argon. We’ve come to realize that, without the medium, the ideas are lost. So why are we making the same mistakes all over again?

I remember my father telling me a story of the first computer his office purchased with a 20 MB hard drive. All the secretaries looked at each other and wondered aloud how they would ever be able to fill 20 MB. Somehow, I’ve never had that reaction to a hard drive. I seem to always be running out of space on mine. Over time this has led to an almost neurotic compulsion to delete anything which is not important, whatever that means at the time. Even now as I stare at the 40 GB of free space remaining on my current hard drive, I wonder to myself if I shouldn’t delete this or that folder. It’s not important. It’s clutter, distracting, completely unused and unnecessary. I’ve developed a habit in my life of trying to reduce clutter, as I am prone to pack-rat-ish tendencies if I am not careful. It is only recently that, when it comes to the bits and bytes on my hard drive, I’ve started resisting my deletionist instincts. "Who knows," I tell myself, "what the Rosetta stone of the next millennium will prove to be." Even though I may have no use for the information, someone might. So long as I can learn to ignore the extra icons, my hard drive won’t mind those megabytes hanging around.

And yet, there’s one area where I still have a bad habit of getting deletion happy: my source code. I haven’t pulled a _why yet, but I have probably removed more repositories than I’ve saved. I spend so much time in ~/Sources that I just can stand when ls displays more than 3 lines of 5 columns across. Then _why goes and disappears. Where’s my fork of Shoes? my copy of potion half-compiled? camping in its 4K glory?


So, if _why is going to teach us anything with his final act, I think it should be that we need to learn to treasure what we value, and to care for the medium that carries the ideas. Luckily, there are many more responsible than myself, and a nearly complete mirror of _why’s life work has been reconstructed. I say nearly complete because I had noted just in the last few days that _why had started a new project. Like potion, it was a take off on some of Ian Piumarta’s language experiments. For the life of me I cannot remember its name. I remember thinking, at the time, "Oh cool! Something new… I’ll clone it when I get the time…"