After 20 years, ADHOC, the conference formerly known as MacHack, is shutting down. Attendance, which was similar to the level of last year at about 100, was simply too low to be sustainable; conference organizer Expotech essentially broke even on the show for the second straight year. With increased competition from companies handling their own logistics for small conferences and from large exhibition organizers now handling smaller conferences than they would previously have considered, Expotech’s Carol Lynn decided to close down her company and move on.
Honestly, it’s a blow. ADHOC/MacHack was a fixture in the lives of many of us, and numerous top Macintosh programmers honed their skills and made key contacts at MacHacks of the past. Winning the MacHax Group’s Best Hack Contest was a mark of honor for years, and the contest generated both early takes on software that would later become available commercially and proofs-of-concept that would find their way into the Mac OS itself (I still remember the standing ovation, coupled with happy catcalls of "Useful!", that greeted Lisa Lippincott’s UnFinder, a hack that finally added Undo to the Finder many years after the debut of the Macintosh). ADHOC/MacHack was unique, and everyone who attended a show will mourn the passing of its unique aspects, the hacks, the midnight keynotes, the sleep deprivation, the convivial atmosphere of Mac geeks at all hours of the hotel lobby, the always-available snacks, the nightly pizza or ice cream parties, the last-day movie, and more. Other conferences could mimic some of these ideas, but I’ve yet to experience one that did.
Alas, there’s no sense crying over spilt milk, and so let’s celebrate the passing of ADHOC with a look at what made this year’s event as unique and enjoyable as ever.
Tour of Dearborn — When I wrote about ADHOC last year, I made an offhand comment about how one frequent attendee had gone to another conference in Seattle rather than attend ADHOC in "charmless Dearborn." Two TidBITS readers independently forwarded that minor slam to Sharlan Douglas, head of the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce, who volunteered to give me a personal tour of Dearborn in the hopes of changing my opinion of the city. So on Friday after lunch, I met Sharlan, a slight, energetic woman, for a drive around some of the more interesting parts of Dearborn. To share the amusement, I invited Scott Knaster and Lisa Lippincott along for the ride; when we met Sharlan in the hotel lobby, she said that her boss couldn’t believe she was going to give some random people she’d met on the Internet a tour. Of course, everyone we had told about the tour was equally incredulous that there was anything interesting to see in Dearborn.
Happily, the drive proved to be highly enjoyable, as Sharlan ferried us around and filled us in on the history of the area. It’s all about Henry Ford, whose heavily wooded Fair Lane estate is located in Dearborn and whose family farm now houses a Ford-designed development across the street from our hotel. Henry Ford built large chunks of Dearborn, including a now-historic district of cute brick homes designed for Ford workers; the summary seems to be, "It’s good to be king." Sharlan also showed us the two downtown areas of Dearborn, one of which is a vibrant Arab community, and treated us to ice cream at Shatila, a bakery considered one of the top ice cream stores in the country. The most notable problem is that, with the exception of the small downtown areas, Dearborn is almost entirely impassable for pedestrians, an unsurprising fact given the supremacy of the automobile in the area. We didn’t have time to visit the highly recommended Henry Ford Museum and associated Greenfield Village, or the Arab American National Museum, and although I still can’t rank Dearborn among the country’s top tourist destinations, Sharlan’s tour easily convinced me to retract my "charmless" categorization.
Hmm, if a mild insult about Dearborn, Michigan garnered a personal tour, perhaps I need to think more carefully about what I write. After all, I’ve always thought of Dearborn in the same category as perennial conference towns like hum-drum Austin and bland New Orleans. Just kidding!
Google! Although the first night’s speaker was Jordan Hubbard, co-founder of the FreeBSD project and Apple’s manager of the Darwin core of Macintosh OS X, he was joined by only one other Apple employee – ex-Mac OS 9 technical lead Keith Stattenfield. Despite the conference’s start in the Macintosh world, it was telling that there were more attendees from Google: Scott Knaster, Jorg Brown, and Maf Vosburgh (along with a recruiter who flew in for the last day). All three go back a long way with the Mac, but like so many other engineers in Silicon Valley, they’ve moved from more traditional software companies to the high-flying Google, with its geek-friendly culture, policy of giving engineers freedom to work on whatever they want for 20 percent of their time, and informal motto, "Don’t be evil."
Google was one of the main sponsors of ADHOC, and the company’s name was on everyone’s lips. There were jokes about Google needing to buy a satellite to improve the image resolution in Google Maps, not one but two sessions about what it’s like to work at Google, and rumors of Google opening an office in nearby Ann Arbor, Michigan. Several of the hacks in the ADHOC Showcase revolved around Google, including the winning entry.
In short, Google is hot right now, and it seems the company can do no wrong. I’m sure there’s more to Google than meets the eye, but the fact that they’ve managed to maintain a strong sense of humor and desire to do things differently helps convey the feeling that there are individuals behind the corporate facade
[Brief aside: While writing this in the Detroit airport, I saw a middle-aged woman roll by on a Segway; perhaps I’m out of the loop, but I’ve never seen a Segway in the wild before. Cool, but when I was later telling Tonya about this at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, we were overheard and then harangued by a woman on an electric scooter about how Segways were overly expensive and hard to live with in comparison to electric scooters.]
ADHOC Showcase Hacks — Though the number of entries has fallen precipitously over the years (I remember one MacHax Best Hack Contest that ran from midnight to daylight), this year’s ADHOC Showcase saw plenty of inventive hacks, including Andrew Turner’s DashSaver, a screensaver module that displays Dashboard; Shawn Platkus’s HoverDash, which lets you "extract" Dashboard widgets and display them as normal windows; and David Steinbrunner’s Jobs for Everyone, a command line tool that, as a joke, automated the task of applying for jobs at Apple via Apple’s Jobs Web page.
The top five vote-getters this year were:
#5: Improbability 101 from Avi Drissman, which was a humorously presented hack that modified the Finder’s sorting algorithm from Mac OS 9 style (where 10 came before 2 because of the leading 1) to the more-correct approach in Mac OS X to a version that also properly sorts files named with spelled-out numbers (as in 1, two, three, 4, 17, two-hundred thirty-seven, and so on).
#4: Don’t Panic from Keith Stattenfield replaced the kernel panic screen with an alternate picture. Keith showed several possibilities, including one with icons of a person and a screw, separated by the letter R (work it out yourself), but settled on a logo from Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, complete with the words "Don’t Panic" in large, friendly letters.
#3: bTop was a Mac mini-based, wheeled robot built before the show by Perfectly Scientific’s George Storm, but the hack part of the project coupled an iSight camera with the bTop digital acquisition board to perform rudimentary visual processing for robotic navigation. That’s a fancy way of saying that the robot relied on code from Lisa Lippincott and Andrew Turner to activate its wheels when it saw the color green. George Storm demoed the hack by walking in with the robot hesitantly following him, lured by several strips of green gaffer’s tape around George’s leg.
#2: CubeDetach from Adam Goldstein modified Fast User Switching to go beyond the current cube-rotation transition between active users. With CubeDetach loaded, you could rotate a cube whose faces showed the Desktops of each active user, either by pressing a number key associated with each user or by using the mouse to rotate the cube freely; once you’d settled on a user, you could press a key to display the login screen and enter that user’s password.
#1: GoogleFlash by Geoff Adams and Allon Stern took home the top honors, coupling a Google pin with flashing multi-colored LEDs with a clever presentation and some custom software. Geoff and Allon claimed to have created a Bluetooth interface to the Google pin and pretended to pair with the pin at the start of their presentation. In fact, the whole Bluetooth thing was a red herring; they’d renamed a phone "Google Pin" and were actually interfacing with the pin via one of the bTop digital acquisition boards over USB. Then they performed some Google searches in what looked like Safari (in reality it was a custom browser, and with each search, the Google logo on the Web page flashed colored outlines around particular letters as the Google pin that Geoff was wearing flashed in exactly the same pattern. For their prize, Geoff and Allon received an engraved "code injector" – a large basting syringe filled with the green glowing liquid from a light stick.
Final Memories — ADHOC/MacHack is the sort of event that lays down indelible memories for the attendees, and a few from this show will stay with me.
On the positive side, Scott Knaster and Andy Ihnatko ran the Showcase and presented the awards in a style to which I’d like to become accustomed. Their humor, good will, and massive collection of pop culture fan films kept us all entertained into the wee hours. Andy also filled in at the last minute with the second night’s keynote, delivering a multi-hour extravaganza despite having hard disk corruption problems just hours before he was slated to begin.
On the other hand, the group movie this year, Stealth, was the worst movie I’ve seen at one of these conferences, and, although I don’t see many movies, is very possibly the worst movie I’ve ever watched. It’s bone-crushingly, mind-numbingly, soul-suckingly bad. It was so bad that in the immediate aftermath, the main positive thing we could think of to say revolved around the font face used for the credits. Only the audience heckling made this 121 minutes of our lives worthwhile; the highlight was a balsa glider that someone threw into the projector beam just as one of the movie’s airplanes (OK, they were cool looking) zoomed across the screen during one of the near-instantaneous and disbelief-defying flights between Tajikistan, North Korea, Siberia, and Alaska.
My five-year-old running joke of hiding a 4-foot wooden stake in the hotel ended this year, as the hiding place at the base of one of the fake trees in the hotel lobby was apparently discovered at some point during the year. The hotel staff must not have realized they’d found it, since the ADHOC organizers told them about it in the pre-conference setup meeting, and they were apparently extremely excited to see if they could figure out my hiding place. Even though I wasn’t able to pull the stake from a hiding place one more time, the joke lived on. Andy and Scott, knowing in advance that it had been lost, told the entire story during the awards banquet and gave me a special prize of a new stake… actually, a leftover steak from the Chili’s restaurant across the street. The stunt garnered much laughter and I certainly hope the steak doesn’t stay hidden in the hotel as long as the stake did.
And lastly, I’ll remember the end of the awards banquet, where nearly everyone said the most incredibly nice things about everyone else, an act notable not just for its generosity, but because I dare say that more than one person in the audience felt moved nearly to tears at the thought of losing the opportunity to connect personally and professionally with so many intelligent, interesting Macintosh users and developers. Other trade shows may have their pros and cons, but to those who have attended it, ADHOC/MacHack had real meaning. It, and all who made it what it was, will be missed.