The MacHack Hack Contest 1999
Most often, the primary news items that appear in the press after MacHack are the results of the Hack Contest, run by the MacHax Group at MacHack every year. The reason is simple – the results of the Hack Contest give the world a glimpse into the creativity of the Macintosh programmers when unfettered by reality, utility, or stability. Hacks generally aren’t stable, useful, or even usable – they’re just impressive feats of technical prowess. In fact, if a hack could be construed as having some utility while being demoed at the Hack Contest, someone in the audience will derisively yell, "Useful!" And if the programmer dips too far into promotion, the audience may reply with jeers of "Marketing!"
Since I first attended MacHack this year (see "MacHack: The Ultimate Macintosh Event" last week in TidBITS-487), I can’t compare this year’s Hack Contest to previous ones, but it was certainly a unique experience for me. The producers of the Hack Contest queued up a vast number of hilarious QuickTime movie clips to fill bits of time in between demonstrations, while contestants feverishly loaded new hacks onto the computers hooked to the projection systems. Also keeping the audience alert and happy were goodies thrown from the stage: the basic rule was to stay attentive or risk getting whacked upside the head by candy, a software package, a stuffed iMac, or one of the many basketball-sized inflatable plastic balls from Netscape that bounced around the entire conference.
Top Five Hacks — This year’s top five hacks had little in common, although there was no doubt which was going to win: Lisa Lippincott’s Unfinder, which provides an Undo command in the Finder for non-destructive actions such as moving files, was a shoo-in for first place. Lisa had been one of the first to demo, and as she finished her introduction, moved a few files, and chose Undo from the Finder’s Edit menu, the crowd gave her a full-bore standing ovation (after a few catcalls of "Useful!"). I hope Lisa’s hack shames Apple into adding the feature to a future version of the Mac OS. It wouldn’t be the first time a hack contest entry led to improvements in the Mac OS.
The prize for the best hack is the coveted Victor A-Trap, a large rat trap whose name has been modified to be a perfect pun. First, it’s made by the Victor Corporation and goes to the winner. Second, it’s named "A-Trap" (the R and T in RAT are excised with an X-Acto knife) after the initial character of the hex values for trap addresses used by programmers to patch the Mac OS. The contest organizers also get a kick out of coercing the winners into prominently displaying a large rat trap for friends and coworkers to see. For me at least, it also seemed a slight nod to the concept of building a better mousetrap.
Eric Traut’s Out of Context Menus application took second place by providing a set of contextual menu items that aren’t normally provided for Finder windows, including Gaussian Blur, Compress, Duplicate, and Slide (all of which visually modified the contents of the window). A more involved command, New Game, required the creation of Left Paddle and Right Paddle folders in the window first, after which choosing that command caused the folders to play a game of Pong. Eventually something caused a problem, so Eric chose Restart from the contextual menu, seemingly restarting the Mac OS within only that window.
Ed Wynne’s DesktopDoubler came in third place. DesktopDoubler essentially fooled a PowerBook G3 into thinking it had a second screen attached, but went one step further than most virtual screen utilities by fooling the Mac OS into thinking a second monitor was attached instead of virtually enlarging the existing monitor or faking a larger desktop. As a result, the Monitors & Sound control panel saw the second screen, so you could arrange it however you wanted. DesktopDoubler also put a menu bar and certain desktop items like the Trash on the secondary screen. Movement between the two screens was accomplished by moving the mouse pointer between them.
Fourth place went to Jorg Brown and Ned Holbrook for MacJive, a politically incorrect extension that caused all text in every application on the Mac to be translated into fake ghetto-speak. A variety of these translations exist as CGIs through which you can run Web pages, but seeing the entire Macintosh interface so translated increased the effect. For MacJive, Jorg and Ned won a large frozen turkey, in part, I suspect, just to see how they’d attempt to get it home.
Filling out the top five was Paul Baxter’s PatchMaker, a programmer’s tool that took care of the basic support code necessary to create each of 1,258 68K and PowerPC patches, enabling the programmer to concentrate on the hack itself. Like Unfinder, PatchMaker garnered some cries of "Useful!" from the audience, and at least one person was considering writing next year’s hack using PatchMaker to get started.
More Hacks — Although the above five hacks took home top honors, other hacks deserve public recognition (and I’ll probably make some mistakes here, due to taking notes in the wee hours).
In a successful attempt to avoid "Useful!" cries, Leonard Rosenthol and Miro Jurisic wrote Mactive Desktop, which used Microsoft Internet Explorer, Netscape Communicator, or iCab to put live Web pages on the Macintosh desktop, much like the Windows Active Desktop. Also truly useless was Bill Hubauer’s "CD-ROM Drive You Crazy" which caused the CD-ROM trays on Macs elsewhere on the network to move in and out. Jesse Donaldson and Katherine Smith entered ReaderMouse, which used speech synthesis to read the word under the mouse pointer, reportedly performing OCR on the pixels on the screen.
Richard Ford, previously Apple’s Open Transport product manager, showed HUF (Hotline User Frustrator), a hack that made use of the PacketShaper, a neat device made by Packeteer, the company where Richard now works. Responding to complaints that Hotline users were flooding MacHack’s 256 Kbps Internet connection with downloads, Richard set the PacketShaper to restrict Hotline users to 300 baud, then showed real-time graphs of how his hack had improved network throughput for other protocols. Another popular Internet hack, Geo Killer from Mark Lilback, automatically closed those annoying pop-up windows that appear when visiting Web sites hosted by GeoCities; it could be configured to close pop-up windows from any site.
Apple DTS’s Andy Bachorski continued a theme from last year, when he wrote a version of BrickOut in MacsBug. This year, he used BBEdit to write ASCII Invaders, a version of Space Invaders. He created the screen display by making a special font, and handled the animation entirely through text manipulations in BBEdit.
Keynote speaker Andy Ihnatko also stayed with the kind of hacking he had shown in his keynote. Using an ADB/IO device and some custom AppleScript scripts, Andy wrote Skinner Cubicle (a takeoff on the Skinner box used in behavioral research). The basic idea was that sometimes you need to provide positive or negative feedback to cubicle dwellers; one script caused a motorized candy machine to dispense a piece of candy, and another fired a toy dart gun.
Finally, several people showed Y2K-related hacks, the most amusing of which prevented the Mac’s clock from ever ticking over to midnight on January 1st. Instead, every time it reached 11:59:59, it reset to 11:59:00. Good thing we won’t be needing that one.
Yoot Hacks — The student hacks ranged tremendously in sophistication, which wasn’t surprising, given that the youngest entrant was seven year-old Rachel Green while several other contestants were in their last year of eligibility for yoot status, as defined by graduation from college. Rachel’s hack used AppleScript to make two icons chase each other around the screen. On the other end of the spectrum was Avi Drissman’s Balloon Preview, which used QuickTime to preview images and movies in help balloons that popped up when he pointed at the files. Ned Holbrook’s CD Namer was also quite sophisticated; when you inserted an audio CD, CD Namer automatically figured out which CD it was, looked it up in an Internet database, and filled in the disc and track titles.
Other yoot hacks were quite impressive, including Lucius Kwok’s Prose Posse, which rewrote text files based on word proximities, and a three-person yoot hack called Altered States, which could apply a number of garish effects (especially garish at 2:30 AM) to windows. Ben Furnas’s The Creep hack implemented a simple dialog box-based network chat client using program linking.
One yoot hack made its way into MacHack legend. Matt Linden’s AppleScript-based "Is it a folder?" hack was supposed to identify either files or folders selected in the Finder. If you pointed at a folder, it said out loud "This is a folder." and displayed a dialog box containing the same words. Unfortunately for Matt, a bug caused it to display the same dialog box when he clicked a file, though the spoken words correctly stated that "This is not a folder." Unable to believe his code wasn’t working, Matt tried and tried to get his hack to work, pointing at numerous different files. The sleep-deprived audience found this hilarious, and badges labeled "I am not a folder" appeared the next day, and Steve Kiene of MindVision made a t-shirt that proclaimed, "I am a folder and I’ve got the documents to prove it!"
AltiVec Hacks — A perk of attending MacHack was that Apple sent a few prototype G4-based Power Macs for the developers to hack. The PowerPC G4 is essentially a souped-up G3 with the AltiVec vector processor, an addition to the chip that radically speeds up certain types of code. Most of the AltiVec hacks, including AltiVec expert Doug Clarke’s "42," showed code running both normally and with the AltiVec processing turned on. In one instance, using the AltiVec instructions ran 188 times faster, although Doug said speed increases of 2 to 4 times were more likely with minimal work.
Other Platforms — A couple of hacks ran on top of Mac OS X Server, including one called Blue Box Spy, which let you see what was happening in the Blue Box (where the Mac OS was running) even when the Blue Box was hidden. Andrew Stone also entered a hack that provided a graphical interface to a chat-based poker game. The most serious Mac OS X hack was entered by Apple engineers who wrote a Mac OS X device driver to enable a Mac running Mac OS X Server to use a Windows Theater TV tuner they’d just bought at CompUSA. And for those who want to get used to the NeXT interface early, Jonathan "Wolf" Rentzch wrote Carbonized Menus, which hid the normal Mac OS menu bar and replaced it with NeXT-style floating menus.
A few Palm OS hacks were also shown, including an impressive one from 3Com/Palm’s Steve Lemke and Jesse Donaldson that not only created a remote control that controlled a PowerBook’s CD-ROM drive via infrared, but also used a serial connection to display on the Palm’s screen a DVD movie playing on a PowerBook. Steve and Jesse awarded the best Palm hack to Andrew Downs, for his P1 Preview, which simulated the Finder on the Palm.
Getting the Hacks — You can buy a CD containing all the hacks for $20 via the MindVision online store at the URL below (profits go toward next year’s conference). The MacHack Web site also lists the hacks and includes the top five for download.