ADHOC/MacHack: I Love the Nightlife
Volume Number: 20 (2004)
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Programming
Mac OS X Programming Secrets
ADHOC/MacHack: I Love the Nightlife
by Scott Knaster
If you're a Mac programmer, you've attended your share of computer conferences, such as Macworld
Expo, Java One, and Apple WWDC. But unless you've been there, you've never experienced anything like
ADHOC, the Advanced Developers Hands On Conference, formerly and still occasionally known as
MacHack. ADHOC starts at midnight and takes place in the tourist mecca of Dearborn, Michigan, and
those facts give you a good start toward understanding just how strange and wonderful ADHOC is.
In this month's column, I'll describe my visit to ADHOC/MacHack 19, which took place July 21-24,
2004. Wrapped inside is some actual technical content, a nifty iPod project that isn't nearly as
cool as Tim Monroe's program-your-iPod article a few issues ago, but that has the advantage of being
Day 0: It's Time To Start
ADHOC begins on Thursday, but it's really Wednesday, and...well, I'll just let this exchange from
the conference FAQ explain:
Q: When should I be there?
A: The best time to arrive is sometime on Wednesday before the conference begins. The
conference begins at midnight, Thursday, which is really just a minute after 11:59 PM Wednesday.
Don't get confused and think that you can arrive on Thursday. If you arrive on Thursday, you've
already missed the keynote.
So I got on a plane on Wednesday, in time to arrive and watch the keynote as Thursday began. My
flight from San Jose to Chicago was late, of course, which managed to eat up my layover time at
O'Hare almost perfectly. Due to a quirk in the universe, I was able to trade little-used frequent
flier miles for a seat in first class, which meant more service, a bigger seat, and, I'm pretty
sure, a higher quality of air freshener.
I arrived in Detroit just late enough to have missed my chance to attend a baseball game, and
headed to the glorious Holiday Inn Fairlane in Dearborn, home of ADHOC/MacHack.
Day 1: Night Fever
I checked in at the hotel, leaving my cable-and-battery-laden bag in my room. I registered for
the conference and happily greeted beloved organizers Carol Lynn and Maurita Plouff. Then I headed
to the ballroom for the first event of the conference: the midnight keynote (plus pizza - there's a
lot of junky-but-fun eating at this conference).
This year's speaker was the famous David Pogue, star of books, the New York Times, and many a
Macworld back page. The keynote was ostensibly about cool Mac tips and tricks, or something like
that, but no MacHack keynote ever stays on track for long. You see, we nerds have no social graces,
so as soon as the speaker begins, we start to "interact" with him - not by heckling, exactly, but by
adding our own comments, stories, and questions.
David said he was nervous, because he felt he was less technical than everybody in the audience,
which he probably was. He thought he would have nothing to teach us, but he was wrong. Even when he
revealed a tip that most members of the group already knew about - in one case, somebody knew about
a tip because he was the programmer who had actually written the code for it - David stayed
spontaneous and hilarious, and the crowd appreciated it. David dealt superbly with the ADHOC style
of interactivity, listening to all comments and responding to them, even when they required him to
change the ever-ambling course of his talk.
At one point in the talk, some of us nerds decided we weren't multitasking enough, so we started
interacting with David electronically. A couple of folks used iChat's Rendezvous feature to send
notes to David while he was talking. I started fiddling with my Bluetooth-enabled phone and managed
to bluejack David during his speech. He took it all in good humor, along with all the other geeky
David concluded after touring through a bunch of Mac OS X tips, lots of editorial comments, about
a million jokes, and even a few of his well-known parody songs, including "Don't Cry For Me,
Cupertino" and "The Girl I Met by E-mail". ADHOC keynotes go on for hours, and David finished up at
an impressive 3:40 AM. David's presentation was wonderful, and enjoyed by all the geeks in
One of ADHOC's oft-repeated mottos is "Sleep is for the week and sickly", but I prefer a little
preventative rest to avoid becoming week and sickly. So after hanging out post-keynote until about
4:30, I headed off to bed.
Day 2: We Belong To The Night
One of the Holiday Inn Fairlane's finest and most important features is the superthick blackout
curtains in the rooms, which prevent any trace of sunlight entering to disturb sleep. Taking
advantage of these wonderful curtains, which were probably installed specifically for our little
conference, I slept until the still-early time of 10:30, when I had to prepare for the ADHOC session
I was presenting on writing books at 11:00. I was told that I would have few attendees at that early
hour, but that more folks would trickle in as we approached noon (nobody wants to sleep through a
meal). So, in the spirit of the conference, I decided to present the session backwards, beginning
with Q & A, then the summary and miscellaneous info, and the important stuff at the end. This
worked out OK - everybody understood and appreciated my meager attempt at adding entertainment
After lunch, I started to think about working on my hack project. In previous MacHacks, the soul
of the conference was the attendee hack projects. People at the conference were encouraged to cook
up some weird and fun programming project while they were there - something they probably wouldn't
find time to work on while back at home in the real world. On the third night, attendees would get a
chance to show off their work in a marathon hack show, featuring MacHack-style interactivity. The
final night featured the awards banquet, at which contest honcho Scott Boyd bestowed weird and
appropriate prizes on all participants - last year I got a bag of rocks.
For a variety of reasons, the final hack contest took place in 2003. This year's conference
featured a reasonable facsimile called the ADHOC Labs Showcase. Although the name, details, and
traditions changed, the important bits - attendees hacking, showing off their work, and receiving
awards - were pretty much the same. Everyone at ADHOC is encouraged to create a hack, even the
non-programmers. For example, Mac maven Adam Engst hacks the hotel itself by hiding (sometimes in
plain sight) a four-foot wooden stake somewhere, which stays in the hotel until he can retrieve it
the following year.
As a professional explainer, I'm not really a programmer, and I had never attempted a hack in my
3 previous MacHacks. This year was going to be different: I wanted to hack the iPod.
Although some hack purists insist on waiting until Friday afternoon (that is, the last minute) to
start working on their hacks, I was much more cautious. I wimpily started on my project with more
than a day to spare.
Every iPod that has the Notes application includes a little-known feature called "museum mode".
With judicious use of museum mode, you can actually prevent users from getting to the standard iPod
commands, and replace them entirely with your own custom user interface. Of course, there's a catch:
your new UI can only take advantage of the iPod's notes features. Even with this limitation, you can
do a lot. Notes can display text (of course), link to other notes, and even play music.
The trick to stealing the iPod's user interface is to create a note with the following text:
<meta name="NotesOnly" content="true">
If you save this file with the name Preferences (or Preferences.txt) and put it into the root of
the Notes folder on the iPod, then reboot the iPod, it will no longer display the familiar commands
of the main menu. Instead, the iPod will only show the names of other files and folders in the Notes
My plan was to use museum mode to construct a faked-up "Super iPod" with all the features that
have been rumored for the iPod over the past few years. Of course, these "commands" would actually
be notes. On some of them, I would create dummy interfaces for the "features". What I lacked in
technical virtuosity, I would have to make up in comedic value, a standard MacHack technique.
Furthering The Hack
To make my iPod notes hack, I first created the Preferences file. In addition to the
tag shown above, I added another tag:
This title tag lets you replace the text that normally appears at the top of the screen with
whatever you want. Adding this tag to the Preferences note made sure that I would see "Super iPod"
at the top of the screen when the iPod started up, which would enhance the illusion.
Next, I wanted to figure out which fantastic items my main menu screen would contain. After a
judicious review of the best iPod rumors, I came up with these choices:
To simulate these Super iPod features, I created a folder in the Notes folder with the name of
each feature. You'll note a very important hidden feature of these commands: they're listed in
alphabetical order. The Notes application always displays files and folders in alphabetical order, a
fact I had to keep in mind when I picked the names of my super-features. I had hoped to use another
esoteric notes feature, the main.linx file, to list features in whatever order I wanted. But
unfortunately, when I created the main.linx file, I discovered that Notes didn't display the
right-arrow after the names of the folders such as Music and Pictures, which destroyed the illusion
that those were iPod commands. So I had to abandon the main.linx technique and avoid other
"features" (such as Backlight or Settings) that would appear out of their natural order.
Now it was time for the social engineering part of my hack. What should happen when I delved into
the Super iPod features? I wanted the Music command to actually play music, because that's what an
iPod does (and it's one of the things you can do from Notes). The menu I built inside the Music
command looked like this:
These weren't in proper iPod order, but I figured it was close enough for their quick appearance
during the demo. For the last item, Shuffle Play, I used another Notes trick: the .link file. I
created a file called shuffle.link, with the following contents:
<a href="song=Invasion of the Gabber Robots">Shuffle Songs</a>
The href tag plays the given song. Putting the tag into a file with the .link suffix tells Notes
to start playing the song as soon as the user selects the note on the iPod. The title tag hides the
file's true name and replaces it with another, in this case "Shuffle Songs", which is how we want it
to appear in the Music menu. The effect is that when the user clicks Shuffle Songs, the song will
start playing. The other notes (Albums, Artists, Composers, and Playlists) are just dummy files.
Adding Features That Don't Exist
Now that I had faked music playing, it was time to work on the Super iPod features. For the
Pictures "feature", I decided to simply add a set of folders chosen for their humor value, since I
wasn't really going to try to display images on the iPod. Inside the Pictures folder, I added these
kitchen remodel >
MacHack 1857 >
not safe for work >
vacation 2003 >
Because I wasn't going to open any of the folders, I simply left them empty. The next "feature" I
worked on was Video. I added some files and folders to the Video folder:
Ardussi's greatest hits >
iMovie Store Purchases >
Star Wars Episode III
The items with the greater-than sign were folders, and the others were files. As with the
Pictures folder, I wasn't going to do anything with these items other than just show and joke about
them, with one exception: The Incredibles. All the folders and files were empty except for "The
Incredibles". Inside that file, I put the following text:
The MPAA filterbot has detected the presence of unauthorized content.
Local law enforcement authorities have been informed. Thank you for your cooperation.
Visit Universal Studios!
"The Incredibles" is, of course, this fall's new release from Pixar. After I finished setting up
the Video folder, I moved on to the Telephone "feature". My idea for Telephone was to fill the
folder with names of people, one per note, as if they were contacts. I put files into the Telephone
folder like so:
I intentionally listed Adam first because he had been talking earlier in the conference about how
he's often listed first in cell phone address books and so gets more than his share of accidental
I-forgot-to-lock-the-phone calls. By listing him first, I would help Adam prove his point - and earn
another laugh, I hoped.
All the contacts were simply empty files, except one: Jef Raskin. For some reason, this year's
conference included a never-ending series of jokes and comments about Jef, I decided to add Jef to
my Super iPod and to actually call him there on stage when I was demonstrating my hack! Well,
What I really wanted, of course, was to display Jef's contact info, including phone numbers.
Then, I would click a phone number, and the iPod would "dial". At that point, I would say something
like "Well, it's late, and we really don't want to bother him right now", and I would press Menu to
"hang up" the "phone". To dial convincingly, I wanted the iPod to play a series of DTMF tones.
Asking Mr. Google for help, I quickly found a site that would turn any string of digits into the
corresponding DTMF tones. I added the tone-song to my iTunes library, then moved it to the iPod. I
then created Jef Raskin's contact note, like this:
1313 Mockingbird Lane
Palo Alto, CA 94030
home: <a href="song=raskin">650-555-8736</a>
work: <a href="song=raskin">650-555-2947</a>
mobile: <a href="song=raskin">415-555-7799</a>
Likes fondue, old movies, and formal arguments.
As you can see, I wired up all three (fake) phone numbers to the DTMF file. When I selected any
of the phone numbers, the tones would play, just as if the iPod were making a phone call. My Super
iPod was ready. I was even lucky enough to borrow a brand-new 4G iPod for the demo from David
Shayer, who also helped me get the hack up and running.
With my hack all set to go, I could enjoy the second night's keynote speech by Steve Hayman, an
Apple engineer who works in Toronto. Steve's speech was fast-paced and funny, and filled with great
hacks. Steve's best trick was using Apple Remote Desktop and a bit of script to make a line of
PowerMac G4 Desktops in the next room repeatedly open and close their DVD trays. Steve and his able
assistant Daryl Hawes even rigged an iSight camera and iChat to verify the remote tray antics. After
Steve's session and the requisite hanging around and munching cold pizza, I turned in about 5:45 AM.
Tomorrow was another day - well, actually it was the same day: Friday.
Day 3: What Day Is It? Can You Please Tell Me? What Day Is It? I'm Confused, You
Friday dawned bright and clear, probably. But I wasn't there to see it. I shuffled to my feet
just before noon and headed down to, er, lunch. With my hack in the bag, I devoted Friday to
socializing, attending sessions, and the inevitable road trip to Zingerman's, the incredible deli in
Ann Arbor about 30 miles away. Zingerman's is a MacHack/ADHOC tradition. Long live potato knishes!
As the hack showcase approached, I mentally went over my presentation. I concocted a story in
which I claimed I found a strange iPod in the bushes at Apple after parking my car for a nearby
restaurant. I started playing with the strange iPod, and...behold! Super iPod!
About 5 minutes before the show was supposed to start, I suddenly had an idea for something new
to add. I had planned on "dialing" Jef Raskin and then bailing out of the "call". But I had a Belkin
Voice Recorder for my iPod. I could use it to record "Jef's" answering machine, then play the
recording after the DTMF tones. I ran out of the ballroom and found a quiet corner, where I recorded
the message (got it in one take). I had just enough time to change Jef's contact file so that the
second phone number was connected to the "answering machine message". All I had to do was select and
press the second link - it would happen too fast for anyone to notice.
I got to demo Super iPod a little while later, and it went pretty well, although projecting the
iPod's screen proved to be a challenge. Of course, the highlight was the fake answering machine,
which proves an old adage about demos: the best part is the part you added right before the demo.
The show featured lots of great demos, as always, and I got to bed at the unusually early (for
ADHOC) hour of 3:15 AM.
Day 4: 'Round Here We Stay Up Very, Very, Very, Very Late
Saturday is always the last day of the conference. There are fewer sessions to attend, so there's
more catching up with old friends and general socializing. The day is capped by the awards banquet,
with everyone anticipating both their own prize and the overall winner. I received the "ADHOC Prize
in Women's Studies", apparently because in my session on writing books I jokingly claimed that being
a technical book writer would help you get a date - be careful what you say at this conference. The
actual winner was Jorg Brown for his wonderful Unsummarize, a Mac OS X service that takes a theme
sentence or two and expands upon it, exactly the reverse of Summarize, which you'll find in your
Services menu right now (it's in the Application menu). In the great spirit of ADHOC, Jorg was
inspired by a comment David Pogue made during his keynote, wishing for a program just like
Unsummarize, and Jorg put it together in less than 48 hours.
After the banquet, in another great ADHOC tradition, we all went to a nearby theatre to make fun
of a new movie. This year's target was "I, Robot", and it certainly proved worthy. And after the
movie, the attendees were treated to a lively movie discussion by Keith Stattenfield, star of "Keith
Explains!", this year for the first time participating via iChat video conference. And then it was
morning again, and time to go to sleep.
Day 5: Steal My Body Home!
Sunday morning features bleary-eyed attendees catching cabs and shuttles and returning to their
regular lives. As I schlepped my bags to the taxi, I took a last look at the majestic lobby of the
Holiday Inn Fairlane. It was another great time at MacHack, even though it's now called ADHOC. I
knew I would give (almost) anything to be back next year at this most uniquely geeky conference.
Plus, on the way to the airport, I saw the World's Biggest Tire.
Scott Knaster writes books, including the recently published Mac Toys and the brand-new
Hacking iPod and iTunes, both from Wiley Publishing. Scott can't read and listen to vocal music at
the same time. Scott writes these little bios in the third person. Write to Scott at