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Moof on the Hoof: MacHack ’98

MacHack, held in mid-June this year at the Holiday Inn Fairlane in Dearborn, Michigan, bills itself as "The Annual Conference for Leading Edge Developers." If you develop Macintosh software (or want to), you have either been to a MacHack or you aspire to attend. Unlike most programming conferences, only half of MacHack is about learning new programming techniques and operating system directions. The other half is atmosphere. In fact, given its relative chronological proximity to Apple’s own World Wide Developer’s Conference, the social climate may well be the most important part of MacHack. Even for someone who’s technically savvy but not, strictly speaking, a Macintosh programmer – such as myself – the atmosphere can be intoxicating. MacHack is plain fun in a way that an Apple-sponsored event such as WWDC finds difficult to emulate. In large part this is because MacHack is organized and run by volunteers and funded by several sponsors, effectively negating any agenda one of them might have.


No coverage of MacHack would be complete without a mention of the defining event of the conference: the Best Hack Contest, produced by the MacHax Group. The goal of the hack contest, if you’re a developer, is to devise and program a demonstration of how clever a programmer you are. Anything goes, even programming techniques that don’t play well with other applications. The wilder and more silly the concept, the better. You garner extra prestige if you develop the hack during the conference itself. However, if your program actually does something useful, you will likely be greeted with derisive shouts of "Useful!" when you present it – although, for comic effect, audience members seem to call it out just as often for completely useless hacks. Trying to plug your other products will result in equally derisive shouts of "Marketing!" The occasional technical difficulty is often met with cries of "Ship it!"

It’s difficult to attend MacHack without being swept up in the excitement of new ideas being generated and realized as code, especially if you’re in the machine room just before the actual contest begins at midnight. I’m not much of a developer myself, but last year, I was sucked into helping programmers from Corel with graphics and sound for their project, and this year I found myself helping Andy Bachorski and Nat McCully name their hack and create a splash screen for it. It was a Breakout game that runs within the MacsBug debugger – MacsBug hacks are always popular – which was dubbed, depending on who you believe, either BrickPoint or BreakPoint.

Some of the hacks took a few moments for their creators to set up in the conference room, so the contest staff kept the audience entertained with QuickTime clips from Babylon 5, a Star Wars-meets-Cops parody called Troops, the ubiquitous clip of Bill Gates getting a pie in the face, and old Apple marketing videos. Some of the latter had been doctored – "We’ve got a family of two-bit products," said Steve Jobs in one (the original clip said "thirty-two bit"). Attendees’ laser pointers played Pong on the large video screen.


The ingenuity and creativity displayed by the Macintosh developer community is astonishing enough in ordinary circumstances, but here, in a handful of caffeine-drenched hours, it reaches a crescendo. Marcus Jager and Quinn "The Eskimo!" went BrickPoint one better by creating OFPong, a version of Pong which runs on newer Macs’ Open Firmware FORTH interpreter. (The code for the game, which runs before the Mac even starts up, must be loaded through the serial port.) Eric Long’s "Spell It Don’t Yell It" rearranges desktop icons to spell out words. Allon Stern, Dave Kamholz, and Jon Gotow presented a hack called Gestalt & Battery which enabled Power Manager features for desktop computers with a serial-interfaced uninterruptible power supply (that is, you could see your UPS’s battery status as if your desktop computer were a PowerBook battery). Kamholz on his own presented a hack called Spotlight, which produced a transparent circular area around the cursor which allows you to see (and manipulate) desktop icons behind open Finder windows. Eric Slosser figured out how to boost the speed and range of the IR port on a Power Macintosh G3 by tightening the beam and boosting the power; the resulting laser-like beam was visible in a smoke cloud and set fire to a piece of newspaper at one point.

A set of three applications dubbed PhaseShift (by Ed Wynne and Matt Slot) adds screen-saver-style visual effects behind your desktop icons; this hack received much applause when all three effects were launched simultaneously. Mike Neil and Leonard Rosenthol contributed the nostalgic Switcher 98, which provides the sliding visual effect of Andy Hertzfeld’s original Switcher when switching applications. Rob Churchill, Mike Pinkerton, and Eric Shapiro from Netscape contributed Mozetta, a re-working of the Netscape browser which adds a pop-up menu that allows Web pages to be passed through Digital’s Babelfish translator (or a Pig Latin translator!) automatically – the name derived from Rosetta Stone and "Mozilla," Netscape’s mascot. (This idea was raised by Apple’s Maynard Handley during the previous day’s Thank Apple session – Handley suggested something similar be built into the OS.) Even keynote speaker Chris Espinosa participated in a hack or two, producing a usable voice dictation system that allows you to speak letters to your computer – as long as you do it in hexadecimal ASCII codes. Hilarity ensued as he tried to demonstrate it working through a string telephone.

There were a number of "youth hacks," a term which encompassed all student contributions, even those of college students. One team contributed an updated rendition of the classic NetBunny hack featuring a character called Mr. BagelButt. ("You were five when NetBunny was written!" objected one attendee.) Not all the hacks involved actual programming, either: a couple were QuickTime movies; one involved a couple of songs. There were Rhapsody hacks, a Newton hack, and a PalmPilot hack – even a hack for Hewlett-Packard calculators, presented in absentia. Many hacks took potshots at Microsoft or Apple; one hack, a MacsBug command called "jobs", kills all running programs but the Finder while displaying a message saying that it is necessary to focus priorities to succeed. Another hack allows users to turn OS features on and off to match Apple’s changing OS strategy. Another, called the Crash Manager, allowed users to select Microsoft-style crash messages (including a Blue Screen of Death) or the "Classic Apple" bomb dialog and to determine how frequently the OS goes down, ranging from "Never" to "All the Time."

The ASCIIs to Successful Hacking — The most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping hack, though – one that had "winner" written all over it at first sight – played off the resemblance of the iMac to an old DEC VT terminal. Dubbed asciiMac, this hack from Alexandra Ellwood and Miro Jurisic converts the entire Mac screen to color ASCII art – in real time. The programmers demonstrated the hack converting QuickTime movies and CloseView-magnified screens to a thunderous ovation. It was a shoo-in during later balloting and received the coveted A-Trap award (a Victor rat trap). OFPong, "180 Years of Hack" (which didn’t involve programming at all), PhaseShift, Spotlight, and Switcher 98 took the honors as the first five runners-up. Most hacks received a token award of some kind, usually related in some humorous way to the hack itself – for example, a youth hack that played a video clip from South Park whenever you quit an application was awarded earplugs.

Last year, conference attendees had to wait months to get a CD-ROM containing the year’s hacks. This year, the CDs were burned on-site and were available the day after the hack contest. If you didn’t attend, the hacks will appear on the MacHack Web site soon.

(Special thanks to Lynda Botez for her assistance with this article.)

[This article is excerpted from a longer report with permission from MWJ, the Weekly Journal for Serious Macintosh Users. If you can’t get enough insightful Macintosh news, sign up for a free, no-obligation, two-issue trial subscription to MWJ, or download some of the free sample articles. For more information, see the MWJ Web site.]


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