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A Tale of Two Conferences: MacHack 2003

by Daniel H. Steinberg

I'll miss MacHack.

This year was the 18th running of this Iditarod of a conference. As always, the conference opened Wednesday night at midnight with the keynote address that kicks off the 72-hour conference. You have 48 hours to create a hack, attend a wide array of sessions throughout the day, and enjoy late nights filled with keynotes, coding, and a hack show.

The Conference Begins

James Duncan Davidson and I drove up from Cleveland. Did I mention that MacHack is hosted in a Holiday Inn just outside of Detroit? For us, MacHack was sandwiched between two conferences held in San Francisco's Moscone Center. The week before was Sun's JavaOne conference and the week after would be Apple's WWDC. The timing of the WWDC was a bit problematic. Apple had moved its conference from May to the week following MacHack. This made it hard for developers to attend both conferences and meant that those attending both had to leave MacHack a little early to travel west. Apple's presence at the show was reduced as WWDC preparations precluded a trip to MacHack.

One of my favorite features is still the conference bag. Want one to match mine? Next time you're in a grocery store and they ask "paper or plastic" answer "plastic." It sets the tone for the conference. No fancy giveaways. No frills. We're here to learn from each other, to code together, and to hang out with people that care about the same things we do.

No time for a nap -- besides there's the unofficial conference motto that "sleep is for the weak." It's weird having MacHack a week before WWDC. Instead of talking to other developers about the latest from Apple, we could only speculate about what's coming. Not much point in that. Soon Duncan and keynote speaker Ken Arnold are talking about Ant and Arnold (much of MacHack was blogged by Ken and Duncan on the weblogs at

It's getting towards midnight and a couple hundred people head to the largest room. Music is streaming everywhere. Wireless is working, a base station sits in the middle of the stage. Open up iTunes and there is an overwhelming array of interesting music to listen to.

By two Arnold's presentations -- one on object design and the second an expansion of the ideas to distributed computing -- are winding down. Some folks head off to bed and others start working on their hacks. Arnold has an idea for a Jini hack. No one yet knows that this is the last MacHack.

The Stuff in the Middle

Early Thursday morning is taken up with email, code, and editing articles. The network is acting up. It turns out that someone has assigned himself or herself the server's IP address. No network for a while so we grab a quick breakfast and head to sessions. Sessions are the part of the conference that allows people to convince their employers to let them come to MacHack and perhaps to even pay for it. The sessions are quite good. People hip deep in technology share what they have learned the hard way. Audience members are likely to ask questions along the way.

The afternoon begins with Chris Adamson's presentation on QuickTime for Java. A question comes up about reading in a DVD and Chris lights up. The bad news for the person asking the question is that they can't do what they want to do. The good news for Chris is that he has found a hack he wants to do. About 32 hours to show time he heads off to start coding.

It's easy to get disoriented and forget what day it is. I've been here less than 24 hours and I'm losing track of time. With no hack in mind, Duncan and I head off to Leonard Rosenthal's excellent back-to-back sessions on PDF. Neither of us has started preparing the slides for our talks Friday night. There seems to be plenty of time.

Scott Knaster's keynote starts uncharacteristically early at 10 p.m. At 1:30 a.m. he's still going strong and takes a break for us to stretch and try some of the pumpkin bread he's brought. He's tracing his career and has great stories about his time at Apple and elsewhere.

There was the one about the large delivery to Colorado. Instead of having to figure out logistics for shipping thousands of computers there, the Coors trucks --which would have returned to Colorado empty on their way back from delivering beer -- were loaded up with Apples. Scott put up the cover art from his first book and answered the trivia questions about who was who and what was what in the Mad magazine style image. At 1:45 the pumpkin bread was gone and all that remained were his stories of his Microsoft years. Sleep may be for the weak, but it was time for me to call it quits for the day.

I only know it's Friday morning because the right side of my menubar says so. Breakfast is a Ding Dong and a bag of Cheetos from the snack room washed down with a Diet Coke. I finish the slides for my Friday evening talk on making cross platform Java applications look like native Mac applications and get the demos all working. It feels too early to start working on my slides for my Saturday afternoon talk on combining Jini and Rendezvous, but I might as well. The talks today and tomorrow are fun but the main event starts tonight at midnight.

The Hack Show

It's not the Twinkies being tossed at the audience or the jokes told by the emcee, but the Hack Show is at the center of MacHack. Starting at midnight Friday night, the Hack Show is a chance for the developers to show off the hacks they've been working on for the last two days. There is a carnival-like atmosphere, but what's happening on stage is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

I didn't write a hack but Ken Arnold is kind enough to include me in his group. It's after midnight and his mood ring hack needs to be packaged up. We try running it as a Java Web Start application and there's a problem. Instead we bundle the client up as a double clickable application and a nice icon is added. It works. Four of us can download the app, start it up, and indicate our mood using a slider on the right side. On the left side we see everybody's mood reflected along with a color indicating the aggregate mood of the room. The big question is, will it scale. Ken continues to fuss with it and add features.

While we wait for our turn on stage, the three-ring circus continues. Someone shows off a variation of a progress bar. While your application loads water flows through the progress bar and out the other side, spilling into the dialog box containing it. The water continues to flow and fill the dialog box. Someone else shows a hack where windows shrink and start bouncing around the screen. Then a rocket appears and shoots at the windows in an Asteroids-like game. There's an animation featuring a spoof of Jean-Louis Gasse singing "Do your best" with inside references that please the crowd.

Another presentation shows a pong game where the ball travels between two machines and is then extended to travel among four machines. In a more useful application of this idea, another hack allowed two people working on different machines to select and drag text from one machine to the other.

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In this hands-on session you will see that Mac OS X is well suited for Extreme Programming. You will get a chance to pair program, refactor, test first, and write and run acceptance tests. We will use Hydra for pair programming and a customized version of JUnit to support tests first. Rendezvous will allow us to easily set up a network on which we can run acceptance tests using Fitnesse and Fit.

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A little after 3:30 a.m., which is way after my bedtime, we take our place on stage and Ken describes how the mood ring idea comes out of his past at Berkeley. He provides the URL where audience members can download the client. One by one people register and change their moods. It works nicely. Although I had done no real work on the hack, it was a lot of fun to be a part of it.

The Future

This was the last conference that will be officially known as MacHack. In some ways the story is complicated and in some ways it isn't. The short version is that the guy who ran the hack show isn't coming back next year and he's taking his name with him and going home. There has been a MacHack show for 18 years and an argument could probably be made that the name is identified with the conference. But the conference organizers have decided to move on.

There will still be a cool show in Michigan at the very same Holiday Inn with developers coding around the clock, daytime sessions, and late-night keynotes. It will now be in July and it will now be called ADHOC/MacHack 19.

Think about a paper you can present or a topic you can speak on. Dream up a hack that you'd like to write. Bookmark the website at and drop by from time to time. Save July 21-24, 2004 for 72 hours of hard work, collaboration, and fun in a conference dedicated to Mac OS X, UNIX systems, tools, compilers, techniques, and the business of software.

I'll miss MacHack, but I am looking forward to its next incarnation as ADHOC.

Daniel H. Steinberg is the editor for the new series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple's ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack and other Mac developer conferences.

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