The centerpiece of the annual MacHack conference is the MacHax Group’s Best Hack Contest, in which the world’s best programmers compete (preferably during the preceding 48 hours) to come up with software that displays the ultimate in programming creativity, knowledge, or arcana, ideally presented with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Hacks that perform some useful task are generally greeted by the audience with derisive cries of "Useful!", and pushing the benefits of a hack will elicit jeers of "Marketing!"
The hacks were many and varied again this year, with a total of 65 hacks, 26 of which came from the yoots (the proper plural of "yoot" according to at least one sharp-eyed reader). That’s down a bit from the last two years, but since the lower number meant the Hack Contest itself could end an hour earlier at 5 AM this year, no one complained.
The theme of MacHack was "Iron Hacker," a reference to the popular Iron Chef TV show, which brings a level of competition to cooking normally seen only in crazed sports shows like American Gladiator and BattleBots (an Iron Chef fan site even noticed MacHack because of the theme). The theme "ingredient" for the Hack Contest was Clarus the dogcow, a half-dog, half-cow creature that appears in the Page Setup dialog box in versions of the Mac OS up to Mac OS X. Many of the hacks were thus dogcow-oriented, and yells of "Moof!" resounded throughout the evening whenever Clarus appeared on screen. (It’s worth noting, for those unfamiliar with Clarus, that "Moof!" is not a term of affection, and both the dogcow logo and her cry are bona fide trademarks of Apple Computer. Moof!)
The Rest of the Best — Not everyone can win the Hack Contest, or even place in the top seven, but there were numerous valiant efforts. Most hacks were built on Mac OS X, and several played off Mac OS X’s Unix core, such as Josef Wankerl’s OldSchoolEdit, which let you open any text file in the Unix editor emacs (or vi) in the Terminal.
A few people hacked the Dock, making the icons somersault, roll around, or flee in horror from your mouse cursor. A yoot team of Travis Hicks and Paul Scandariato also built Dock Invaders, which featured Clarus defending the planet against icon invaders from the currently active programs.
Another yoot team – Andy Furnas and Noah Spies – hacked the Login screen in Mac OS X so you had to complete a round of the open source game TuxRacer before you could log in.
Peter Sichel of Sustainable Softworks wrote Mac Enforcer, which scanned the network and identified all the PCs by checking the Ethernet cards’ MAC addresses. There were a few cries of "Useful!" but people around me agreed that it might have placed in the top five had it then connected to the PacketShaper Richard Ford had installed on the network and throttled the PCs down to 1200 baud.
Some hacks involved other hardware – Mike Neil wrote an editor for the secret Breakout game that’s hidden inside the iPod. And Jorg Brown, Sean Parent, and John Shafer cobbled together a set of motors, pulleys, and cable, and then combined it with a USB controller kit to make AniMac, an animatronic iMac that could tilt its monitor up, down, left, and right. What’s more, it could stick out its tongue (the optical drive tray), and all the actions could be controlled remotely, since they were actually scripts driven through Apache.
Seventh Place: Depth Perception — Seventh place went to Lisa Lippincott, who won the Hack Contest a few years ago with UnFinder, a hack that added an Undo command to the Finder (such a good idea that Mac OS X now has such a feature built in). Her entry this year was Depth Perception, a hack that made use of Mac OS X’s transparency capabilities to let you look through a set of stacked windows by making them mostly transparent.
Sixth Place: Metadata — Allon Stern, who also serves up espresso to anyone at MacHack who needs a more refined caffeine kick than Jolt cola, won sixth place with Metadata, a biting commentary on Apple’s silly reliance on filename extensions in favor of the more powerful type and creator information. With Metadata running, if you renamed a file using the proper creator and type codes as filename extensions, Metadata actually changed the file’s type and creator appropriately. So, if you had a file named "foo" and you renamed it to "foo.Rch.TEXT", it would have its type and creator changed to become a BBEdit file (which deals with files of type TEXT and uses a creator code of Rch, a play on the name of the author – Rich Siegel).
Fifth Place: Clarus All Over — Fifth place went to the father and son team of Doug and Nigel Clarke, aided by P.D. Magnus, who put together Clarus All Over. It was a three-part hack: a dogcow made from Legos and animated with Lego Mindstorms to click the mouse; a set of attractive icons and a script to replace a variety of Finder icons with dogcow-oriented ones (the best was the Trash can, knocked over on its side with Clarus halfway in); and finally a hilariously hacked version of Apple’s Power To Be Your Best television ad with Clarus trying three times to click the mouse button.
Fourth Place: Classic Edge — Tony Francis and Matthew Morse took fourth place for Classic Edge, a hack that aimed to return some of the tension about applications crashing to Mac OS X. When activated, it picked a random program, and then asked a multiple choice question. If you answered wrong, it performed a force quit on that application. Ouch!
Third Place: Load Minimizer — In third place was Load Minimizer, written by Mac Murrett and Philippe Hausler. Load Minimizer attempted to show the load on the system graphically by shrinking the screen as the load increased. To place a high load on the Mac (and to gain presentation points), Mac and Philippe played a movie of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in full rant – Load Minimizer promptly shrunk the display to a tiny window.
Second Place: NewsTracker — In a tremendously unusual event, second place went to a yoot – 12-year-old Adam Atlas – for his program NewsTracker. Amid catcalls of "Useful!" and job offers from the audience, he showed a program that could visit a set of Web sites, collect headlines, and display them. When you double-clicked a headline, it loaded in your Web browser, or you could choose to load it in the mini-browser that Adam had built in. He even had an interface for configuring which sites to load and how to interpret the HTML to find headlines on each site. It was an impressive effort, good enough for the Best Yoot Hack award (and a coveted Victor A-Trap award), and I’ll be curious to see what he does next year.
First Place: FireStarter — First prize was, as always, the coveted Victor A-Trap award, a Victor Corporation rat trap whose name is slightly modified with an X-Acto knife (the R and T in RAT are excised) to match the name of the trap addresses used by programmers to patch the classic Mac OS. It went to Quinn "The Eskimo" for FireStarter, a program that draws a QuickTime burning flames effect and then propagates the effect to any Mac you plug in via FireWire, all without requiring any special software on the target Mac. That Mac can even be booted from an installation CD, or be waiting at the Login window. Basically, FireStarter is accessing the video RAM of the target Mac directly via FireWire’s physical DMA (Direct Memory Access). For those who might be worried about it being a security problem, rest easy – it requires specific information about the target Mac, and of course, if someone can get close enough to your Mac to plug a FireWire cable in, they can do far more nefarious things much more easily. Congratulations to Quinn, who has distinguished himself with a long career of programming on the Mac (including work on Internet Config, with Peter Lewis) and helping Macintosh programmers everywhere through his job at Apple’s Developer Technical Support. And yes, he just goes by "Quinn."
Getting the Hacks — In past years, CDs containing all the hacks, along with other papers and presentations from MacHack, have been available for about $20, with profits going to support the next year’s MacHack. The conference organizers haven’t yet been able to set that up this year, but we’ll mention it in TidBITS when it happens. Even if you’re not a programmer, it can be fun to experience these hacks first hand, even if you have to imagine the occasional calls of "Useful!" from the audience.