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Reclaiming Hacks

by Hadley Stern, author of iPod and iTunes Hacks

These days, when you say the word "hack," most people think of nefarious individuals trying to break into banks, universities, or companies to steal information or bring down networks with viruses. The O'Reilly hack series, which covers a wide gambit of topics, Windows, Flash, PayPal, Amazon, and Google being but a few, reclaims the word "hack" for the playful and smart hobbyist who wants to push the envelope.

But language can be a darn confusing thing. Take my three-year-old son, Miles, for example. He was trying to figure out the word "sight," as in eyesight. But the "sight" in "eyesight" sounds awfully close to the "site" in "website." And even a word spelled the same way has multiple meanings. It's all very confusing. Of course, this ambiguity of words is what makes Shakespeare sing (yet another word that can be used in multiple ways) and comedians funny.

So too it is with the word "hack". A quick look at the definition of the word reveals a number of disparate meanings. A hack can be, just to start, a cough, a taxi, someone who is bad at something, something you do to a tree with a saw, or, as in the case of the O'Reilly hack series, a way to do something neat or unexpected.

When I began to tell people I was writing a book called iPod and iTunes Hacks, a significant minority wondered aloud how I could legally write a book of hacks. It was almost as if I was writing the Anarchists Cookbook for iPods! Would I cover how to steal music for the iTunes music store? Steal iPods? Or hack into people's machines over the Internet and steal their music?

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Criminals looking for illegal tips won't find any in my book. What they will find are some hardcore technological pieces (for example, about Java, Perl, AppleScript, and .NET interacting with iTunes) as well as some more harmless and fun hacks (including creating your own cardboard case, using an iPod with a Mac and a PC, and exercising with your iPod).

However, I must admit that some hacks did give me pause as I was writing them. For example, one hack covers how to access songs hidden on your iPod. One of the many things that makes the iPod great is that you can also use it as a hard drive to move files back and forth between computers or as a backup volume. The most logical thing to do once you have mounted your iPod as a hard drive volume is to look for the music files you transferred from iTunes to the iPod. However, Apple has hidden them from view, making them invisible files, in an attempt to thwart piracy. Open up a brand new iPod, after all, and you will be greeted with a sticker saying "Don't Steal Music" in multiple languages.

There is a relatively easy way around this issue, and I wrote a hack outlining how to do it using either the Terminal on the Mac or through Windows Explorer. There are also multiple shareware programs that make copying files from your iPod even easier, allowing you to browse your iPod in an iTunes-like interface and copy songs from it. The moral rub comes from the fact that the most obvious use of this hack is to copy songs from a friend's iPod onto your computer; a friend comes over with a 60GB iPod full of music, you plug it into your computer, and, using this hack, you copy all their music (amounting to about 600 CDs for a 60GB iPod) onto your machine.

Illegal? According to a strict interpretation of copyright laws, yes. However, you could also use the hack (as many do) to copy your music files from a home machine to your work machine. Or, one day, your hard drive could (as is known to happen) go on the fritz. If you weren't a smart user and hadn't backed up your music, particularly your iTunes Music Store purchases, your only hope is to get those hidden songs off your iPod.

Other hacks that gave me pause were building your own FM transmitter, using your iPod with a Mac and PC, and one that covers the iTunes Music store protocol.

While writing the book, I had to decide whether or not to go over the legal and moral issues blow by blow. I decided against it, trusting the intelligence and integrity of my readers while briefly mentioning that, in the example of finding invisible files on your iPod, it probably isn't best to use it to copy music from a friend's iPod.

Clarifying moral and legal issues within the book is one thing; getting prospective readers and bookstore owners who stock my book to understand that the book uses the word "hack" in a playful and harmless way is another. Thanks to the aforementioned criminals who use their knowledge to hack into computer systems, bring down networks, and write viruses, hobbyists who want to install Linux on their iPods (one of the hacks covered in the book) are unfortunately lumped in with them.

The O'Reilly hack series is an opportunity to add another definition to the word "hack." An O'Reilly hack is someone who is an advanced user who wants to get the most out of technology and life. This spirit is inherent in the inventor, the tweaker, and the technologist, not the criminal.

Hadley Stern is a designer, writer, and photographer residing in Boston.

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