MacHack 2003 Vignettes
Normally after Macintosh conferences I like to draw some conclusions about what we can learn about the overall world of the Macintosh from the attendees, the discussions, the attendance, and so on. After this year’s MacHack, there simply wasn’t much to say, thanks to Apple rescheduling the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) for one day after MacHack ended. That meant the developers at MacHack could merely speculate about what would be announced at WWDC, and worse, it meant there was no Apple Feedback session and that only a handful Apple employees came to MacHack, instead of the usual contingent of 15 or so. (Overall attendance was down less than 20 percent, a surprisingly strong showing given the WWDC conflict.) Sure, almost all the hacks used Mac OS X, and it took some looking to find anyone even still running Mac OS 9, but that’s not particularly telling any more. In the end, MacHack this year had a bit less of a Macintosh focus, and my impression from overheard comments was that the sessions and papers were particularly good this year. Especially enjoyable (if not representative) was Keith Stattenfield’s reprise of last year’s "Mac OS 9 is dead!" session, in which he spoke movingly about how much Mac OS 9 means to people still and how many people are still using it before emphasizing that "Mac OS 9 is STILL dead!" and launching into four or five slides of euphemisms for "dead."
In fact, the conference organizers have decided to acknowledge the expanded scope of the conference next year, renaming it the Advanced Developers Hands On Conference (ADHOC) and adding more sessions on Unix, Palm, and other platforms. The hack contest will also be changing somewhat, as the people who have run it for the last 17 years move on to other interests. But despite the name change and the expanded focus, I’m confident the basic experience won’t change much. That’s because unlike every other industry conference, the people organizing the sessions, papers, and other events are themselves long-time attendees. First and foremost, it’s a conference of the developers, for the developers, and by the developers, to paraphrase the Gettysburg Address. Look for ADHOC next year, tentatively scheduled for July 21st through 24th, 2004, but subject to change as necessary to avoid other trade shows.
So rather than attempt to draw any far-reaching lessons, I’d like to pass on a few vignettes of what it’s like for me to be at MacHack, along with a few behind-the scenes pictures from each.
Jumpsuit Week — Ever since he delivered the keynote at MacHack a few years back, Andy Ihnatko has become as addicted as I have to MacHack, and he returns every year. But last year he missed hearing about the informal oldest t-shirt contest, so in a fit of geek pique, he declared MacHack "Jumpsuit Week" and appeared stylishly attired each day in a jumpsuit. He started with a Wingz jumpsuit, an homage to the early days of the Mac when the Wingz spreadsheet made a huge splash at Macworld Expo. The next day was a jumpsuit worn by technicians at the Yankee Point 3 nuclear plant (bought at a salvage store and checked with a friend to make sure it wasn’t actually radioactive). And the third day brought an authentic pre-Challenger-era Space Shuttle flight suit, complete with NASA and shuttle patches.
News! Cell Phones Too Small! Shortly after arriving at MacHack, Greg Robbins, who works on RealOne Player at Real Networks, and who used to live only a few miles from us in Issaquah, Washington, couldn’t find his cell phone in his bag. Once he’d searched for a few minutes, I called it from my cell phone, and the ringing confirmed that it was indeed in the vicinity of his bag. Despite more searching, Greg still couldn’t find it, and a second call showed that it had in fact fallen out of his bag and into the hotel lobby’s indoor planter. Any smaller, and we’ll have to attach these silly phones to our bodies instead of just to our belts.
When You Come to a Fork — As the famous saying from Yogi Berra goes, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Yogi obviously never thought about where forks spend much of their time (other people’s mouths), but since this was one of the few times Geoff Canyon, who works on Runtime Revolution, and I had seen an actual fork in an actual road, we took it. Well, its picture anyway. And then we wondered if its proximity to MacHack might mean that it was actually a code fork.
Late Night Quips — Following Scott Knaster’s second keynote, filled with numerous stories from Apple and General Magic I’d never heard before, a number of people took over one of the conference rooms for an informal port and scotch tasting. (Note to self: Don’t assume you can buy decent port within driving distance of the hotel in Dearborn, Michigan.) Chris Page, who works on Palm Desktop for the Mac, brought some snacks as well. His Almond Tartlets generated a few risque jokes (keep in mind that it’s about 3 AM at this point), so when Chris pulled the next item from the bag, he said dryly, "And here we have a box of double entendres." I don’t think anyone actually inhaled their drink, but a few people came pretty close while laughing themselves silly.
The Family that Hacks Together… Default Folder author Jon Gotow and his 15-year-old son Ben were nearly inseparable for much of MacHack as they were working on their winning hack, Unstoppable Progress (see "The MacHax Best Hack Contest 2003" in TidBITS-685). At MacHack, technology is not only highly social, it even makes teenagers want to hang out with their parents. Well, some teenagers anyway, although I have to say, the students I’ve met at MacHack over the years have seemed far more well adjusted than the norm.
MacHack Food — After years of attending MacHack, I finally came up with a great way of dealing with the wacky eating schedule and programmer junk food that permeates the conference. On my way to the airport, I stopped at a grocery store and bought eight excellent Braeburn apples. That way, I was able to eat an apple every day for "breakfast" before the hotel-catered "lunch" that usually ends up being the first meal of the day otherwise. I don’t know about you, but I can’t quite face a full-fledged hot lunch after waking up, but the apple fooled my stomach into thinking it had moved on to the second meal of the day. Then, after a bunch of snack food and rectangular pizza at midnight, a second apple offered a great way to consume some healthy food. Evidence I was onto something? Every time I pulled an apple out of my bag, a different person looked longingly at it and asked where I’d gotten it. This may be a hint that we’re all getting older.
Actually, the food was a step up from standard hotel fare this year, since the conference organizers convinced the hotel chefs that MacHack attendees were adventurous eaters. The first lunch had a Mexican theme, and while it may not have been haute cuisine (or authentic Mexican), it was a darn sight better than the "please, not again!" rice pilaf with your choice of chicken or salmon. The second lunch danced around a Russian or at least Northern European theme, and again, while not exactly what I would have chosen to eat an hour after waking up, at least it wasn’t dull.
One of the chefs even got into the swing of things, carving an apple into a watermelon fruit salad bowl and helping bake a cookie that looked like the Spinning Pizza of Death. Maurita Plouff, who collaborated on the cookie, was soliciting experts to help the chef put together a multimedia business card to use in applying to chef competitions.
File Sharing Still Annoying — Amazingly, despite all the advances of the past decade, moving a file from one computer to another still proved to be more difficult than it should be. The internal MacHack network was plagued by what may have been a bad switch, and as a result, Rendezvous, as helpful as it is for displaying TCP/IP network resources, didn’t always show shared computers. And then there were the user mistakes – people who hadn’t turned on file sharing, or who, for some reason, had incorrect permissions on their Drop Box folders, or other problems. In some cases, switching to a Computer to Computer Network (Apple’s name for ad hoc networking, appropriately enough for the future name of this conference) solved the problem. The moral of the story is that even though file sharing is getting better all the time, there’s still room for improvement.
Smash Hulk — Lastly, we all went to see The Hulk movie after the awards banquet and, wow, was that a bad movie. Not even a good bad movie, where you enjoy yourself but feel slightly guilty that you haven’t yet seen A Mighty Wind (Spinal Tap for folk music, though almost nothing is as funny as Spinal Tap) or Bend It Like Beckham (an extremely enjoyable movie about an Indian girl playing soccer in England). No, The Hulk was just a bad movie that irritated all the comic book fans and confused everyone else, presumably thanks in part to the damage that was done when the Hulk was allowed to look at the script. "Hulk smash plot. Puny humans write stupid movie." During the traditional "Keith Explains" group attempt to understand what had really gone on in the movie (in which Apple’s Keith Stattenfield and the rest of us examine every little detail to extract more humor than was actually present in the movie), there was a bit of a discussion as to whether the best scene in The Hulk was the cameo appearance of Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno (who played the Hulk on TV years ago) as security guards early in the movie, or if it was actually the trailer for Tomb Raider II, which promises to be a much more enjoyable bad movie.