Best Hack award winner

10.03.00 -

by Katie Williams

For many, the term "hacker" has a negative connotation, meaning a computer programmer that breaks into systems and creates malicious, harmful programs. However, as demonstrated at the MacHack 2000 conference held in Dearborn, Mich., hacking can also mean the ability to come up with a creative—although not necessarily useful—program quickly and successfully. The MacHack conference allows professional and student programmers, including computer wiz-kids like Johns, to escape the everyday world of programming, relax with colleagues, and compete to create the "craziest" hack. The conference is sponsored by Apple, Bungee, Microsoft, and other companies that create software for the Macintosh environment.

NCSA's Mark Johns has attended the conference for three years, and he admits that he's still a little shocked by it. "It's the weirdest thing I've ever been to," he said. "It's just 72 hours of a whole bunch of industry professionals goofing off."

Johns, a 16-year old junior at Central High School in Champaign, Ill, and a student programmer in the Automated Learning Group at NCSA, said that his hack, called Doggie-Style Windows, was created as a satirical commentary on keynote speaker Eric S. Raymond's five-hour presentation about the open source movement. Open source advocates support making software codes available to all programmers and developers, thereby enabling a community of users to build on, and continue the development of, software programs. People who strive to maintain open source projects, much like dogs, always know their territory, said Johns.

Johns and his partner Justin Lee extended this conceit to create their program. As required by the MacHack competition, they developed their program right at the conference. Doggie-Style is a Macintosh system extension that patches over low-level functions in the operating system. The program causes all the open windows on the desktop to behave much like dogs—the active window, or front window, becomes the "big dog" on the block and other smaller windows behave like smaller, less dominant dogs, running around on the screen nipping at the heels of the big dog. Much like a real dog would do, the front window protects its territory by letting out a "hilariously annoying" barking noise. The smaller dogs then scatter, making the program a creative way to free up screen space.

Although they were surrounded by industry professionals and graduate students, Johns' and Lee's hack created quite a stir. During the last hours of the conference, attendees presented their programs and cast their votes for the winners.

Johns' and Lee's program beat out more than 60 other programs to be named Best Student Hack. The two were each awarded software, a Legos Mindstorm Robotics system, and a Victor—a mousetrap with "Best Student Hack" engraved on the back.

After his success at the conference, Johns was approached with job offers from various companies. He has, however, decided to continue his education through college. "A lot of the people there did the whole skip school and go to work thing," he said. "I don't want to miss the whole college experience." Johns added that programmers with college degrees make significantly more money than those without.

Besides, Johns is still uncertain about what he wants to do in the future. Not only is he interested in computer programming, he also has a great passion for films. He admitted toying around with the idea of a career producing or directing films, but he is still undecided about his future career.

For now Johns is content to finish up his last two years of high school and continue working at NCSA, where he writes Java for the Data-to-Knowledge (D2K) project, an effort to apply data mining and visualization techniques in a wide range of research and industrial settings.

According to Michael Welge, the technical program manager of NCSA's Automated Learning Group, which includes the D2K project, "Mark has really made a contribution to our group. His experience here has been a neat opportunity for a high school students to get a peek at real-world applications in the area of data mining."

To learn more about Doggie-Style Windows or to download the program, visit http://www.sloppydisk.com/.