Curious what top Macintosh developers create when locked in a hotel for 72 hours? Adam looks at the winners of this year’s MacHax Best Hack Contest. Jeff Carlson weighs in with a look at VSE Link Tester, and in the news, electronic signatures become legally binding, Palm releases a fix for defective DRAM, Connectix scores against Sony in court, Webvan buys HomeGrocer.com, and we cover releases of MRJ 2.2.2, GraphicConverter 3.9, and Aladdin Tuner 3.0.
Clinton Signs Electronic Signature Bill — Quoting James Madison, who called the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution "a constitutional bulwark in favor of personal security and private rights," President Clinton last week signed into law the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act. Clinton first signed the paper bill in ink (as is required for federal legislation), then symbolically affixed an electronic signature by inserting a digitally encoded card into a computer and typing a password, "Buddy." (No one told the President that using a pet’s name as a password is lousy security.) Clinton went on to say that the new law "gives fresh momentum to what is already the longest economic expansion in our history" by enabling online commerce in the U.S. to take place without the delay of waiting for signatures on paper – online mortgages and other contracts have still required paper documents, even if all other steps are handled electronically. The legislation gives electronic contracts the same legal force as paper contracts and doesn’t favor any one technology. The electronic signature provision of the law goes into effect on 01-Oct-00, and electronic record-keeping (where record-keeping is required by federal law, such as mortgages and financial securities documents) will be permitted starting 01-Mar-01. [MHA]
Tests & Fixes for Defective Palm DRAM — Palm, Inc. has posted testing software for a problem caused by a batch of defective memory modules in Palm IIIc, IIIxe, and Vx handhelds manufactured between October 1999 and May 2000. The problem affects only 8 MB DRAM chips and can cause random data to be written to the handheld’s memory. If you own one of these machines, go to the support section of Palm’s Web site and enter your machine’s serial number to determine if your device falls into the timeline. (Your serial number is on the back of your unit; if it has rubbed off, Palm provides instructions for accessing your serial number via software.) If your unit is potentially affected you’ll be able to download the testing application, and a software patch is available to fix affected Palm IIIc and Vx units. (As of this writing, a patch is not yet available for the IIIxe.) The faulty DRAM also made its way into a few other Palm OS devices: Handspring, Inc. has posted a testing application (though it doesn’t currently offer a fix) for its Visor line, while the Technology Resource Group (TRG) recommends that owners of TRGPro devices upgrade to its version of Palm OS 3.5.1. [JLC]
Connectix Continues to Prevail Against Sony — In the long-running legal battle between Sony and Connectix, makers of the PlayStation emulator Virtual Game Station, Connectix has scored two recent victories. In May of 2000, Judge Charles Legge of the San Francisco Federal Court dismissed seven of Sony’s nine claims. The dismissed claims all centered around copyright and trademark infringement. The two remaining claims, which relate to trade secrets and unfair competition, will be reviewed by the court for possible dismissal on 01-Sep-00.
Then, last week, the day before Connectix’s motion to dismiss would have been heard, Sony voluntarily dismissed its patent claims in a second lawsuit the company filed against Connectix after losing its preliminary injunction against Connectix shipping Virtual Game Station. [ACE]
Webvan Buys HomeGrocer.com — The online supermarket industry has started its consolidation, with the California-based Webvan buying Washington-based HomeGrocer.com for about $1 billion in stock. (See "Groceries in the Mist" in TidBITS-470 for a look at HomeGrocer.com.) The combined company will serve thirteen major metropolitan areas by the end of the year (Atlanta, Baltimore, Bergen County (NJ), Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Orange County (CA), Portland (OR), Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.) and be in a good position to dominate the Internet grocery business, ahead of companies like Peapod and Streamline.com and the efforts of traditional supermarket chains, such as Albertson’s in the Seattle area. However, even though the companies expect their merger to save $200 million in capital investments, delivering groceries still requires massive infrastructure costs in a business that traditionally suffers from razor thin margins. With Jupiter Communications estimating $7.5 billion in online grocery sales by 2003, there’s no question that online grocery shopping will succeed, but the players may change significantly by the time the dust settles. But the main problem with this merger? Webvan isn’t nearly as good a name as HomeGrocer – what is a webvan, anyway? [ACE]
MRJ 2.2.2 Available — Apple Computer has released Macintosh Runtime for Java (MRJ) 2.2.2, its Java virtual machine for the Mac OS. Version 2.2.2 claims to improve memory usage and fix an unspecified security issue when used with Internet Explorer 5.0. MRJ 2.2.2 does not address network connectivity problems some users experience with Internet Explorer 5, although Apple claims to be working on those issues. Not surprisingly, MRJ 2.2.2 does not implement Sun’s Java 2 specification, instead sticking to JDK 1.1.8 and leaving Java on the Mac seriously behind other computing platforms. (Apple’s Java efforts are primarily focused on the forthcoming Mac OS X which should offer substantial and up-to-date Java capabilities.) MRJ 2.2.2 is a 4.7 MB download and requires a PowerPC-based system running Mac OS 8.1 or higher. [GD]
GraphicConverter 3.9 Expands Image Support — Lemke Software has released GraphicConverter 3.9, updating its impressive graphics manipulation program. The new version now opens and displays QuickTime files, imports and exports LuraWave (LWF) files, improves AppleScript capabilities, adds basic ColorSync support, and more. People looking for an inexpensive alternative to Adobe Photoshop often turn to GraphicConverter, as do users who need to open multi-page fax files (see "Facts About Internet Faxing" in TidBITS-484). GraphicConverter is a 2.4 MB download, and is available in nine languages. The program is $30 shareware. [JLC]
Aladdin Tuner 3.0 Connects to the World — Aladdin Systems has released Aladdin Tuner 3.0, a utility for connecting to Internet streams from radio and television stations worldwide. The program is an update to MacTuner, which Aladdin acquired when it purchased Trexar Technologies earlier this year (see "Aladdin Acquires Trexar" in TidBITS-523). Aladdin Tuner 3.0 adds access to streaming QuickTime and Windows Media Player formats to its existing RealAudio and RealVideo support, plus the capability to play MP3 files and audio CDs (linked to the CDDB title database). The utility also includes support for skins to let users customize its appearance. Aladdin Tuner 3.0 costs $30; registered MacTuner users can upgrade for free. The software is a 5.2 MB download, and offers a 30-day trial period. [JLC]
Poll Results: We Live to Serve — Coming on the heels of Ron Risley’s article about turning a battered PowerBook 5300 into an Internet server, last week’s poll asked which common Internet services, if any, you provide for other people from a Macintosh. Even though Ron’s article showed how easy and inexpensive setting up Internet servers could be, relatively few people participated in the poll, and roughly a third of them said they didn’t run any Internet servers at all. For those who did, a Web server was the most common, with FTP, email, file sharing, and mailing lists not far behind. DNS and media servers were less common, and it would seem that few people run BBS systems these days. If Ron’s article has inspired you to connect multiple computers to a single high-speed Internet connection, be sure to check out the TidBITS Talk debate on the merits of software versus hardware routers. TidBITS Talk also carried a variety of additional details about Internet servers on the Mac. [ACE]
Poll Preview: What a Tangled Web We Weave — Jeff Carlson’s Tools We Use column about VSE Link Tester this week started us thinking about other tools we use for creating and maintaining Web sites. We rely heavily on Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit, multiple Web browsers for testing, Anarchie for uploading, and a variety of custom CGIs and scripts we’ve written. But what about you? When you create Web pages, what sorts of tools do you rely on? Cast your vote on our home page, and if we’ve missed a category, let us know on TidBITS Talk at <[email protected]>. [ACE]
Gone are the days when you could easily build and maintain a Web site using nothing more than SimpleText, NCSA Mosaic, and a rough mental image of how pages linked together. On today’s Web, it’s not uncommon to find yourself lord of a sprawling Web metropolis that sprang from seemingly humble beginnings. Now, with thousands of links referencing both internal and external pages, the scope of maintaining those links has progressed beyond what one person can do.
Fortunately, this "beyond mere mortal" stage is often when good utilities emerge, hints of the promise that computers could make our work lives less repetitive and more rewarding. When I need to make sure a client’s site is navigationally sound, I turn to VSE Link Tester 2.5, an application that not only checks links but makes it easy to track down and fix the errant code.
Of course, you could do all this manually. For hours on end. Clicking until your fingers go numb and your eyes turn to jelly. But I prefer to run Link Tester and go enjoy a cup of coffee.
When Link Tester has followed all the links, it builds a HTML-formatted report detailing the links that were checked, which were broken, and the reason why they didn’t work. The program even includes an Error Explanation window that lists and explains the most common problems encountered.
Strengths — Link Tester understands how people use the program, and throws in just enough extra functionality to appeal to a broad range of users. Every site you scan is stored in a master list in the main window, so it’s simple to go back and re-run previous tests. You can also scan local files offline, specify the filename used when the URL ends in a slash (such as index.html or default.html), and be conscious of case-sensitive URLs on some systems. A helpful new feature is the capability to create filters to ignore addresses; for example, it can skip past URLs that are stored on a different machine when you’re testing offline.
When testing remote links, Link Tester includes a modicum of control over how it interacts with Web servers by offering a Server Load setting spanning five steps between Very High and Very Low. Although the interface is ambiguous, in practice Link Tester opens fewer connections to remote servers at lower settings.
Weak and Missing Links — From the point of view of a Web server, though, Link Tester’s method of opening multiple simultaneous connections can be problematic. Even at its lowest Server Load setting, Link Tester requests files much faster than a real user; at higher settings some Web servers will interpret Link Tester’s accesses as a denial-of-service attack. If you send Link Tester recursively into a large or infinite URL space (like the TidBITS article database), it will happily pummel the remote server for hours, or even days; further Link Tester doesn’t obey robots exclusion protocols or META tags, so even if webmasters mark those areas as off-limits to automated programs, Link Tester won’t notice. For best results, use only the lowest Server Load setting when checking links to any sites other than your own.
Another potential annoyance is the way Link Tester creates its reports. Each test is saved to an HTML file within a folder named using the URL and a number (such as "www.jeffcarlson.com 001"). Each report folder contains an images folder with a handful of icons used in the report. So, whenever you create a new report, Link Tester clutters your drive with a new set of identical images. It should be just as easy to store these images in one place and reference them in the reports.
I’d also love to see Link Tester support scheduling tests for automatic execution. This is just the type of tool I’d love to park on my PowerBook 5300cs (now acting as a Retrospect backup server) and have run in the middle of the night.
Thinking about Linking — I like Link Tester because it’s straightforward and powerful: typically, after a few minutes I can track down an errant URL or help unravel why something isn’t displaying.
Link Tester 2.5 is available in two editions. The standard version, which costs $20, will search one URL, following an unlimited number of links from up to 20 pages on your site. The Business version, at $80, can test an unlimited number of links and pages; an Academic version with the same functionality is available for $40. The unregistered software lets you enter one URL, and provides a limited error report. The software is a 1 MB download. Link Tester requires a 68K or PowerPC-based Mac running System 7.5 or later.
[11-Sep-000 — When this items was originally published, in many places it incorrectly said the product was named VSE Link Checker, rather than VSE Link Tester. We’ve amended the text here, and published a correction in TidBITS 547.]
Although MacHack features sessions and papers and a variety of other events, much of the emphasis is placed on the annual MacHax Best Hack Contest, organized by the MacHax Group. All the MacHack attendees arrive for the keynote at 12:01 AM on Thursday, and then they spend all of Thursday and all of Friday hacking to create entries for the Hack Contest itself, which starts at midnight on Saturday. Everyone demos their hacks in turn, with the contest organizers projecting movies and silly graphics (including a parody this year of Apple’s Think Different ads featuring Eric Raymond and the iBook that the MacHack attendees bought him) on the presentation screens between demos. This year may have been a record, with over 90 hacks submitted in a marathon session that finally broke up at 6 AM. You can see the full list of hacks on the online ballot at the URL below.
There’s no way I could tell you about all of the hacks submitted, in part because there were so many, and in part because lack of sleep seriously hampered my ability to pay close attention as dawn grew ever closer. Here then are descriptions of the top five hacks along with a few others that I thought worthy of mention. You can get all of this year’s hacks, along with papers and many of the presentations on the MacHack CD for $20. Also $20 (or $35 for both CDs) is the MacHack Historical CD, which contains hacks, papers, and presentations from the first 13 years of MacHack. All profits go toward funding future MacHack conferences. Keep mind that these hacks are completely unsupported, so any troubles you may experience are your own problem.
Fifth Place: Los Alamos Security — Jonathan Garry’s AppleScript-based hack implemented "security practices" based on those at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Drop a disk icon on the Los Alamos Security icon and the disk disappears, and a folder called Copy Machine appears on your desktop. Double-click the Los Alamos Security icon to hide the disks behind the copy machine, then double-click it again to reveal the disk. (If you don’t keep up on current events, this is essentially a news hack making fun of the recently lost then re-discovered hard disks containing nuclear secrets at the weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.) Be warned that like all of these hacks, it may not work properly on your Mac; when I tested it, it hid my disk fine, but wouldn’t reveal it. I recovered it by opening Sherlock, double-clicking the disk in the lower pane to open its window, then dragging the icon from the window title bar to the desktop.
Fourth Place: Monitor Doubler — Eric Traut had some trouble demoing his Monitor Doubler hack, which doubles the horizontal and vertical resolution of your monitor. The projectors just couldn’t handle the concept of a 2048 by 1536 resolution coming out of Eric’s PowerBook, so he had to show it using the camera provided for Palm hacks. Even then, it was technically astonishing, with text on the screen actually being readable. Eric also added a magnifying glass feature that expanded the size of objects around the cursor in case the text just became too small. Eric warns that Monitor Doubler is very buggy, not well documented, works only in thousands of colors (16-bit), and probably won’t work well with multiple monitors.
Third Place: Vertigo — Some things shouldn’t be allowed to happen near dawn, and this hack is one of them. Inspired in part by Chris Russ’s MacHack paper on 3-D imaging, a team consisting of Drew Thaler, Ed Wynne, Darrin Cardani, and Keith Stattenfield produced Vertigo, which displays the entire desktop in 3-D stereo. Chris provided the bicolored 3-D glasses for everyone, and although the result of looking at this hack on the presentation screens with the glasses on was quite striking, it did truly evil things to my head at that hour of the morning.
Second Place: EtherPEG — Written by three Apple engineers – Peter Bierman, Sam Bushell, and Stuart Cheshire (who wrote an excellent two-part article for us on bandwidth and latency some years ago), EtherPEG is a network sniffer that displays JPEG and GIF graphics being downloaded over unencrypted AirPort wireless networks. EtherPEG’s designers wanted to create a simple tool that would encourage everyone to turn on encryption in their AirPort Base Stations, and although the contest organizers were a bit scared that someone in the audience would be caught surfing through a naughty site during EtherPEG’s demo, everything went off without a hitch. Encrypting wireless network traffic may not be a big deal at your house yet (even if your office is good about it), but eventually there will be enough 802.11-compatible laptops out there that encrypting all network traffic will be the standard approach.
First Place: Dock Strip — The award for top hack of 2000 went to Miro Jurisic and Alexandra Ellwood for DockStrip, which makes the standard Mac OS control strip act like the Mac OS X dock, complete with the nifty way the dock increases the size of icons as the cursor moves over them. I was sitting at the same table as Miro and Alexandra while they were writing their hack, and it was amusing to see their approach to writing and debugging the code, along with some of the intermediate missteps that produced rather amazing visual glitches on screen.
Other Worthy Hacks — Among the many other hacks submitted, a few particularly caught my attention.
Jorg Brown’s Mac OS X Throbber hack was a comment on Mac OS X’s rather obtrusive throbbing OK buttons. Instead of just throbbing the OK button (which you could overlook, as Jorg noted), his hack caused everything on the screen except the OK button to throb, making it painfully clear where to click.
Mike Neil’s FishHack was one of the few hardware hacks of the contest. Mike took something called "Big Mouth Billy Bass," a trophy-mounted plastic fish that could move its head and sing "Take Me to the River," and connected it to the Mac via an audio out cable. Then, whenever the Mac beeped, the fish would start to sing. Billy Bass served double duty as one of the prizes awarded at the banquet.
Rich Siegel (author of BBEdit) produced a hack for the Justice Department’s antitrust trial against Microsoft. Instead of just splitting Microsoft into two separate companies, Rich’s Divestiture hack split the windows of all Microsoft applications down the middle. You could even click in the space between the two halves to access whatever application lay underneath.
Mark Johns and Justin Lee, a pair of 16-year-old "yoots," won the Best Yoot Hack for Doggie-Style Windows, a hack that referenced one of Eric Raymond’s keynote comments about dogs and territoriality. Whenever you dragged a window in the Finder, Doggie-Style Windows caused all the other windows in the background to "run away" so they weren’t underneath the frontmost window.
Finally, Jimmy Grewal, Steve Falkenburg, Tantek Celik, and Maf Vosburgh of Microsoft submitted Internet Explorer 5.5b1 as their hack, making it the first ever to come with an End User License Agreement (EULA). New in Internet Explorer 5.5b1 was the capability to drag any graphic (even animated GIFs) to the toolbar as a button, a Command-Shift-click shortcut for opening a link in a new window in the background (finally!), and type-to-select navigation that enables you to type the first few letters of a link to select it before pressing Return or Enter to follow the link. The Microsoft team also used their sleepless nights at MacHack to improve the Tasman rendering engine’s performance, standards-compliance, and stability. I even ran across a page that crashed Internet Explorer 5.0 instantly but loaded perfectly in 5.5b1. Internet Explorer 5.5b1 may just be a technology preview, but it is on the MacHack CD with the other hacks.
I was once again amazed at the incredible productivity caused by MacHack. Even though the code written during the short time before the Hack Contest itself was inelegant and horribly buggy, almost all of the demos actually worked. Several people noted that they actually did their best work at MacHack, since work doesn’t necessarily stop on other programming projects during MacHack, and the confluence of so many smart people with such deep knowledge of everything related to programming the Macintosh provides a fertile environment for coding.