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The MacHax Best Hack Contest 2003

The touchstone for the MacHack developers conference has long been the annual MacHax Group’s Best Hack Contest, in which numerous Macintosh developers of all skill levels work alone or in small groups to show off their programming talents and learn new skills, all while having some fun and entertaining their friends. Despite the reduced number of attendees due to Apple’s rescheduling of the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the Hack Contest received more than 50 entries. Although the raw number of submissions was lower than in recent years, the overall quality and humor level was high.


Taking notes during the often raucous Hack Contest is tricky, since you’re trying to pay attention to what’s happening on screen, correctly transcribe the name of the presenter and the hack, and make comments to your neighbors, all while keeping an eye out for the various tchotchkes being thrown to the audience from the stage. So this year, after hearing about it from another attendee, I tried an experiment in collaborative note-taking. I took my notes in the Hydra collaborative editor, which enables multiple people on either the local network or the Internet to edit the same document simultaneously. It was simple for people to connect to my document via Rendezvous, and after we implicitly worked out some techniques for avoiding each other’s lines, it went quite smoothly. You can see the raw transcript at the second link below, though we could find no way to preserve the colors and internal identification of who wrote what in the saved text file.


< contest.txt>

The theme of this year’s MacHack was "Unstoppable", which was a tongue-in-cheek comment both on Mac OS X’s reliability and on the damage done to the conference by Apple rescheduling WWDC. As such, many of the hacks used the theme as launching pad, with Mac OS X’s busy cursor, the rainbow-colored Spinning Pizza of Death (affectionately known as "SPOD"), making frequent appearances. After all, the Spinning Pizza of Death is itself usually unstoppable as well. Anyway, on with the hacks!

The Best of the Rest — As usual, many of the hacks that didn’t place in the top five were still impressive or amusing.

  • John Vink’s Stinkin’ Badges hacked Mac OS X’s screensaver to display Dock icons that have status badges in them, such as iChat, Mail, and Mailsmith.

  • Maurita Plouff and Chef Chris from the Holiday Inn collaborated on a pair of huge cookies decorated to look like the Spinning Pizza of Death (although I suppose this raises the question if it might in fact be a Spinning Cookie of Death). It wasn’t clear who ended up eating them, or if they were at all tasty.

  • Mike Cohen wrote a Perl script that enabled remote control over iTunes via a Web browser, but members of the audience figured out it was readily accessible and started controlling it during his demo.

  • David Shayer used the Notes reader in the iPod 2.0 software to recreate the classic game Adventure. You can install this on your own iPod if you buy the CD; details at the end.

  • Darrin Cardani’s GLCheat put any OpenGL application into wireframe mode, which meant that you could see through walls in games.

  • In an amusing twist of events, a doctor named Carl Williams accidentally wandered into the conference and ended up porting a medical information application he wrote for NeXTstep to Mac OS X for his hack.

  • Nicholas Riley and Avi Drissman showed EdgeWarp, which enabled drag & drop between computers.

  • Noah Spies and Andy Furnas did a clever hack that showed what was "under" the Desktop (a Terminal window, of course!).

Lastly, though not an official hack, I was pleased to discover that my running MacHack joke of storing a four-foot wooden stake in the hotel was able to continue (see "The MacHax Hack Contest 2001" in TidBITS-585 for how it started). Last year after the Hack Contest finished, I buried the stake in the flower beds that line the raised lobby of the hotel. I forgot to leave myself a note in my calendar to that effect, but when people started asking me about it I managed to dredge the location out of my memory. Presenting the dirt-encrusted stake during the Hack Contest as an example of an unstoppable hack got a good laugh, and I’ve increased the difficulty level for next year by leaving the stake in plain sight. No one seemed to notice it during the last day of the conference, but I won’t know until the next conference if it will escape the attention of the hotel staff for an entire year. Given that the point of being awarded the stake several years ago was to see how I’d get it home, the contest organizers raised the stakes (sorry!) this year by awarding me an emergency flare, which I could neither bring on a plane nor mail home and which I wasn’t comfortable stashing in the hotel somewhere. Luckily Dick and Andy Furnas offered to drive it home to Ithaca.


Enough of the also-rans, though – here are 2003’s top five hacks.

Fifth Place: Size Doesn’t Matter — Nicholas Straker’s hack was dizzying, and I’m not speaking at all figuratively. Playing off a movie that showed how the next version of Microsoft Windows would be able to rotate windows smoothly (presumably to demonstrate graphical processing power), Size Doesn’t Matter brought a similar lack of utility to Mac OS X by spinning all sorts of windows around one of the corners. By the end, Nicholas had so many windows spinning, including the menu bar, that many in the audience felt distinctly queasy. But enough people had recovered by the next morning to vote it into fifth place.

Third Place (Tie): GUI Kablooie — Andrew Pontious and Mac Murrett tied for third place with this extremely well-presented hack. Initially, they said they were trying to make a Breakout game using Finder windows, but after lowering everyone’s expectations, their hack just kept getting better, until it became clear that they had in fact written an Asteroids-like game in which you fly around your screen, shooting SPODs to blow up windows and icons. This not only demos well, but it also turns out to be surprisingly fun, as I discovered when I tried running the hack myself. I may have to keep this one around for when I feel like letting off some steam. (Be warned that although GUI Kablooie doesn’t delete files when you blow up icons, it does close windows, and you must restart when you’re finished to see everything properly again.)

Third Place (Tie): Interface Unbuilder — If GUI Kablooie will be useful for taking out generalized frustration on the visible items on your Mac, Gorman Christian’s Interface Unbuilder hack is a tool for people who feel like being more methodically violent. Once Interface Unbuilder is installed, you can Option-drag any control in a running Cocoa application to a new location. Even more astonishing, you can also drag controls to other applications, and no matter where they’ve been moved, the controls continue to operate on their original application. Needless to say, there were no derisive cries of "Useful!" for Gorman’s hack.

Second Place: AirPong — Written by a pair of 18-year-olds, Paul Scandariato and Jon Johnson, AirPong takes a simple concept (the Pong game in which you use paddles on either side of the screen to keep a ball bouncing around) and extends it. In this case, they extended it over the network, so up to four Macs could be used to widen the AirPong playing field. The ball was of course a Spinning Pizza of Death, and it was both technically impressive and amusing to see the SPOD bouncing from screen to screen across the network while they were playing.

First Place: Unstoppable Progress — Capturing first place in a runaway vote (more than double the number of votes than any other hack received) was Unstoppable Progress from the father and son team of Jon Gotow and his 15-year-old son Ben. Unstoppable Progress hacks progress bars such that after the bar fills up, "water" from the Aqua-themed bar starts spilling out the end. A few seconds after that, the dialog containing the progress bar starts to fill up with water, complete with waves sloshing back and forth. (And yes, it could have been called MacLeak, the nickname for the now-defunct MacWEEK magazine.) The ovation immediately following their presentation made it clear to me that Ben and Jon were in line for an award, since Unstoppable Progress epitomized the theme of the conference, was technically clever without providing any utility whatsoever, offered high graphical production values, and was extremely funny. 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. This year, however, Jon and Ben also won a FireWire drive kit and an Nvidia video card.

Jon Gotow is best known for Default Folder, a long-standing system utility for enhancing Open and Save dialog boxes, and the only such utility to have made the jump to Mac OS X. Most recently, Default Folder X won the 2002 Best System Enhancement Utility Editors Choice Award from Macworld. Ben has written a math quiz application called FlashMath that works for one or many students and intermittently interrupts whatever they’re doing to ask questions. Congratulations to them both for a hack well done.


Acquiring the Hacks — Despite the need for everyone to catch up on their sleep after MacHack (one night I made it to sleep by 2 AM; bedtime for all the other nights came after 4 AM), the MacHax Group has managed put together a CD containing all the hacks for those who want to check out the source code or try the hacks. Keep in mind that the hacks will almost certainly crash, and you very well may need to restart afterwards. The CD costs $20 plus $5 shipping within the U.S. and Canada, $15 shipping elsewhere in the world.


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