Bloodshot eyes, shaky hands, and Clarus the dogcow everywhere – where else could you find this combination except at MacHack, from which Adam shares the winners of the MacHax Best Hack Contest. Also in this issue, Chris Barylick examines how public schools and user groups can aid one another, Jeff chases down Apple’s frenzy of software updates from last week, and Adam’s iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide becomes available in paperback.
iPhoto Book Now Available — My latest book, iPhoto 1.1 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide, is now available in the traditional dead tree format from fine booksellers everywhere at a cover price of $20. Back in April, Peachpit and I published an electronic edition in PDF (see "New Book Documents iPhoto Features and Quirks" in TidBITS-626 for a complete account), making it available to those who pre-ordered the book through Amazon; those people should be receiving their copies any day now. The experiment of publishing an electronic preprint was a huge success from every perspective; while I don’t have the actual sales numbers yet, the book rose as high as number 8 on Amazon’s best-seller list. Although it has settled back down, no author will complain about being up in the listings with the likes of Harry Potter, if only for a short time. I’m still working with Peachpit on how best to release an electronic edition of the current version of the book. Anyway, I encourage you to visit your local bookstore and check out a copy; if you don’t have a local bookstore you like, you can order it for $14 through Amazon using the link below, which gives me an additional percentage of the selling price. [ACE]
Free Macworld Expo Exhibit Passes — Speaking of Peachpit Press, Kim Lombardi there tells me that they have stacks of free passes to the show floor of the upcoming Macworld Expo in New York City that they can mail out to anyone who wants one. If a free pass will help convince you stop in and check out what’s happening at Macworld Expo (such as one of my open talks – we’ll publish a list of them next week), send an email message to <[email protected]> with your snail mail address. You’ll receive a postcard you can bring to the Javits Convention Center to get in free. Obviously, with only two weeks before the show, you’ll want to do this right away to allow enough time for the postcard to arrive. [ACE]
Based on the number of times Software Update popped up on my screen last week, I’d believe Apple’s programmers were cranking to meet some end of quarter quota. The company released a number of miscellaneous updates and utilities for both Mac OS X and Mac OS 9, ranging from essential security enhancements to machine-specific fixes. Here’s a quick rundown.
Security Update July 2002 — A few vulnerabilities were recently discovered in two underlying Unix components that enable users to run Web Sharing and connect to servers remotely under Mac OS X. The Security Update July 2002 fixes a problem in Apache that could allow remote denial of service attacks and also corrects a problem in OpenSSH that could potentially allow a remote intruder to execute code on one’s machine. The update is a 1.2 MB download.
Apple has gotten better about responding to these types of security holes, issuing the update within days after the problems were discovered, and publishing more detailed information about the changes on its Security Updates Web page. It’s worth noting in this case that these vulnerabilities wouldn’t affect most Mac OS X users, since Apache and OpenSSH are turned off by default. Apple also sent an email message to its Security Announce list stating that Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server are not affected by a separate buffer overflow problem in Multiple DNS Resolver Libraries, described online in a CERT advisory.
Networking Update 1.0 for Mac OS X — Apple released Networking Update 1.0 for machines running Mac OS X 10.1.5, Build 5S60. (To determine the build number, choose About This Mac from the Apple menu, then click the version number.) According to Apple, the update improves Internet and network access after you wake the computer from sleep or restart it. The update is a 284K download.
iMac Update 1.0 — If you’re using an iMac running Mac OS X 10.1.5, Build 5T91, this update includes the Networking Update, mentioned above, and also improves support for installing third party applications. The update is a 2.5 MB download.
Repair Privileges Utility 1.0 — One side effect of having a Unix core in Mac OS X is that everything is based on privileges: installing software, changing preferences, printing, etc., are governed by which users on a machine are allowed to perform those actions. If your privileges get out of whack, you can run the Repair Privileges Utility 1.0 to reset them (at least those for the Mac OS itself and Apple-provided software) to their original configuration. Some common errors that could require the utility include problems mounting disk images using Disk Copy, trouble spooling print jobs, or the inability to unlock files in the Finder. Apple cautions that although the utility doesn’t alter permissions set by third party software, that software may not work as expected. The utility is a 112K download.
CarbonLib 1.6 — CarbonLib 1.6, the glue that links applications that run under both Mac OS X and the Classic Mac OS, improves reliability and performance under Mac OS 8.6 and 9.0, as well as Classic under Mac OS X. The update is a 2.9 MB download, and must be installed while booted from Mac OS 8.6 or 9.
AppleScript 1.8.3 Update — The latest version of AppleScript, available in separate Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X versions, corrects performance issues with some applications, improves reliability when using Unicode text data, and works with files and folders whose names contain accented or special characters. This version also makes file and alias objects behave as they did under Mac OS 9; a previous version caused many scripts to fail in an attempt to make the behavior more compatible with Mac OS X. The updates are 1.5 MB (Mac OS 9) and 2.2 MB (Mac OS X) downloads.
AirPort 2.0.4 Update — For owners of the Snow (Dual Ethernet) model of the AirPort Base Station, the AirPort 2.0.4 Update adds the capability to dial into the base station using a PPP phone connection and administer the base station and connected computers without being on the network (which is pretty neat). The update also adds compatibility with Windows clients that use PPTP (Point to Point Tunneling Protocol) or IPSec-style VPN (Virtual Private Network), as well as AOL 5.0 compatibility within the United States. The original Graphite model of the AirPort Base Station doesn’t gain any new features, but all versions of the AirPort cards installed in Macs pick up improved compatibility with other wireless networks.
Although you can install these updates using Mac OS 9, the new features must be configured using a Mac running Mac OS X, after which Mac OS 9 machines can take advantage of them. The updates are available as 8.5 MB (Mac OS 9) and 3.6 MB (Mac OS X) downloads.
On a quiet October afternoon in Arlington, Virginia, Dr. Rhonda Clevenson sits her sixth-grade Exemplary Project students down in front of the several iMacs scattered about her classroom to teach them how to edit video in iMovie. The children take to it quickly, mixing in sounds, film clips, and graphics of the things they know and love (professional wrestling stars, Pokemon, and pop culture references from a thousand different sources.) With the exception of casual conversation and Rhonda leaning down to help every so often, things go smoothly for the next 40 minutes until the class bell rings and the kids are turned loose into the hallway. The next class arrives with the same energetic abandon; the technology present in several iMacs is the linchpin for the entire class and its curriculum.
This is the new American public school system, something that has wrapped itself around computer technology and its ever-increasing potential within the classroom. From word processing to digital media to Internet research, public schools are spending more and more on computers and software. The belief behind this is logical: exposure to technology will both prepare the students for an increasingly technical world and enable new ways of teaching that can accommodate the needs of almost any student.
Until recently, when I returned to graduate school full-time, I spent 16 months working as a wandering systems analyst for the Arlington public school system – not a bad first job right out of college and definitely something that paid the rent and put food on my bachelor’s table. The basic job was both to repair and prevent problems that might arise with the school district’s computer systems by whatever means necessary. As you might expect, this is where things got interesting.
One for All — Within each school throughout the Arlington public school system, a single Instructional Technology Coordinator (ITC) runs each school’s technical curriculum. This person, often hired with a background in education, technology, and/or group training, has the assignment of keeping the school’s computers running smoothly. This task includes answering every potential question and repairing almost every piece of equipment within the building that can’t be fixed by the custodians: computers, televisions, monitors, keyboards, mice, and networks, to name a few. In addition, the ITC must devise a curriculum to teach students and faculty enough about technology each year so they can pass the state’s rigorous testing.
Virginia law demands that the teachers pass their TSIP (Technology Standard for Instructional Personnel) tests every five years. At the same time, simple logic dictates that students shouldn’t be staring at Microsoft Word with no idea what to do next. If the ITC fails to do his or her job, the teachers could potentially lose their jobs while the students lag further behind what the real world might expect of them. Thus, armed with little more than a set of clone disks, no real training for the position, and a "fare thee well" from the school, the ITC’s job begins.
Fortunately, the ITC can call on other computer experts in the school system for help. When the computers begin to indicate they’d rather do something other than what the teachers intend, a group of field technicians can be called in to fix the problems. If the network itself begins to act like HAL from 2001, the ITC can always call their network analyst assigned to the school (that’s me) to sort things out. Unfortunately, the turnaround may not be immediate since the technicians and analysts are often occupied with other problems. In short, an ITC might spend days trying to get help, since the people supporting them might be tied up with problems of their own.
So why would anyone choose to become an ITC in the first place? Reasons vary, but the most common backgrounds indicate a proclivity towards technology, training, better pay than a teacher’s salary, or a desire to climb the administrative ladder (which undoubtedly leads to some superb parking). In my time with the school department, a few ITCs were able to use the position to advance to Assistant Principal or start training for a full Principal position. Despite the fact that the job’s basic demand is to be the ever-present, infallible guru that people rely upon to handle the school’s technology, it can be a stepping stone on the path of career advancement.
All for One — Step for a moment outside of the public school system. On the other side of the spectrum from the lone ITC supporting an entire school are user groups, people who gather in their spare time to discuss technology and have become incredible sources of technical information from their years of experience with computers.
The first time I walked into a meeting of the Rhode Island Macintosh User Group (RIMUG) in 1993, I had no idea what to think. Here were people who shared a serious interest in the Mac gathering en masse, discussing software fixes, hardware upgrades, and what they could theoretically do with the technology available to them. Many had brought their own computers and were cracking open the cases with wild abandon, installing components, and then sealing them up to test the changes. The entire scene flowed with geeky, orgiastic knowledge emanating from those in the know, and fueled by a shared location to express that knowledge.
If I were to drop a discarded Macintosh SE/30 into a RIMUG gathering, the members would figure out how to make it clip a Labrador retriever’s toenails within minutes and launch the space shuttle within the hour. Ask for a current RAM price and it will be correctly answered within seconds. Wonder out loud about a fix for an extension conflict and odds are someone’s already gone through the problem and can offer a solution. To put it simply, you can’t stop these people from helping you with your computer; it’s something they’d do anyway. There is knowledge in abundance here. There are numerous user groups roughly like this; unfortunately, few conduits exist for them to share their knowledge with the rest of the world. Worse, the avenues of communication opened up by the Internet have taken over one of the primary purposes of user groups, and many have struggled to maintain membership and find appropriate outlets for their knowledge.
All for All — Good administrators make use of the tools available to bring a chaotic situation under control. Great administrators find new tools outside the norm that prevent a chaotic situation from emerging in the first place. It’s naive at best – and cataclysmic at worst – for the ITC community to expect immediate and continual help from their existing support networks. Also keep in mind that these people are constantly inundated with new ideas of what they could do with the technology available to them, sometimes leading to almost too much distraction to think, much less do the job at hand.
When local Macintosh user groups offer assistance to local school systems, they can form mutually beneficial relationships. ITCs can leverage the user groups’ knowledge, available to them online (via email, message boards, and chat rooms) and in person, with answers to any problems that may arise. The user groups also have something to gain from this relationship, since school systems are perfect places to dispense their technical knowledge and gain new members; they can help the ITC on the side, or directly contribute by resolving ongoing problems or making suggestions to the ITC’s lesson plan. Schools can also offer great, Internet-connected spaces for user groups having trouble finding meeting venues. Sure, most user groups may not possess the sleek appeal of the perky Apple representatives with their logo-emblazoned polo shirts, but they can provide the experience and solutions to problems that may continually plague the ITC.
In my experience, an outside voice, especially one that resonates with experience, can make all the difference. ITCs are called upon to deal with an endless barrage of problems every day of their professional lives. They deal with it all: forgotten passwords, Office formatting questions, concerns about radiation from several iMacs in a classroom, even partially masticated Swedish fish candy destroying a floppy drive. In one absolute worst-case scenario, an ITC assisted a teacher who had crushed the frame of her blue and white G3 tower by using it as a footstool. The ITC simply held his head in his hands, alternately groaning and laughing as he gradually discovered exactly why the CD-ROM drive wasn’t ejecting properly, how the machine had been destroyed, and what needed to be done to get it working again.
Simply put, there are times when an ITC needs an outside source of advice, even if just to share tech support war stories like the ones above. User groups, with their walking volumes of technical knowledge, are the solution.
Making the Connection — Apple keeps an updated database of user groups online, while other groups can be located through the User Group Connection Web site or Hershey Apple Core’s Ultimate Macintosh User Group List. For more of a human touch, you can post a query to the Association of Apple Computer User Groups (AACUG) Find a User Group form; a user group volunteer will contact you within a couple of days with suggestions. Don’t forget to contact your local Apple Store or Mac dealer, who probably has a list of area groups, too.
Actually locate and attend a user group meeting – you’ll find a hive of people offering their assistance, compassion, and experience, and receiving only the satisfaction of knowing they can help someone out of a jam. User groups and public school educators have more in common than they may realize. However, there are some who have already made the connection, as shown by a grant program offered by the User Group Academy. The program has awarded thousands of dollars since 1999 to public schools and user groups to support projects ranging from networking several iBooks for teacher use to creating a literary arts publication.
I’d also encourage the reverse situation – for those in user groups, introduce yourself and your group to the ITC at your local school. He or she may welcome assistance at a variety of different levels, but be too overwhelmed to seek it out. The role of user groups has been forced to change over the years, but helping improve public education is one thing that will never go out of fashion.
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.