For the art of the hack

I think computing should be fun. Both programming and using them should be fun and if not easy, at least not menial and the rewards should be worth the time and effort put into it. Many of us write code on a daily basis, read about programing, blog about programming and generally consider it much more than a job. But after years and hours spent hunting bugs, dealing with incomplete APIs, non-existent documentation and multiple layers of questionable usefulness, it’s not hard to feel jaded and just a little bit fed up with writing code. At times like that it’s really helpful to see fun little projects which remind us about why we became hackers in the first place.

A latent gift

The first is a latent gift from the hacker formerly known as _why the lucky stiff. He was a hacker in the truest sense of word. Not only was a prolific programmer, he was a pretty darn good teacher (I believe he preferred the term “freelance professor”) and had a wonderful sense of humor. He wrote a number of great teaching tools including Hackety Hack and Try Ruby. _why suddenly disappeared from the Internet in 2009 but most of his projects have been collected on Github. Today on the Hackety Hack blog there was a post about how the author had completely by accident discovered a complete vector editor with a color picker and support for drawing shapes.

It’s a rather masterful hack. A very useful little program hidden almost in plain sight just waiting for the unsuspecting user to stumble upon it and experience a “WOW” moment. It reminded me of all the little wow moments I had (and still have) when I realized that I could make the computer do just about anything I wanted with the right incantation. As the author says, finding the little gem doesn’t just make you say “that’s cool”, it also makes you wonder why you never came across it and how _why managed to slip it past you. It brings out the hacker in all of us.

One line at a time

I’ll admit that I’m not entirely excited about the rise of the browser as an application platform, but the doubts I have are somewhat balanced when I see things like a complete website tucked into a simple command line. Eneko Alonso’s website is a really neat example of the power of JavaScript and the result is a hacker’s delight. Anyone who’s spent any time in front of a command prompt (UNIX or not) will be instantly at home.

Again, it’s a really neat little hack. It’s not going to change the world, it’s doesn’t solve interesting research problems, it’s just something that makes you smile and say “that’s cool”. It serves a purpose and solves a problem (showing Alonso’s website) and does it in a fun, novel way. Perhaps just as importantly, it flies in the face of what most people would consider a typical personal website. Would you send it to a potential employer or graduate school? If you were looking for people who shared your sense of humor and your love of the hack, then yes, you would.

Hackers first, programmers second

The more I interact with people in the field (mostly via the Internet) the more I’m convinced that we are hackers first, programmers second and that our use of computers is mostly incidental. If we lived in age without computers we would have been greasemonkeys, artists and inventors. Some of us would probably have built the first computers. It’s not really about computers, or programs or code. It’s about solving interesting problems, doing fun things and coming up with useful, quirky and uplifting inventions. Computers just happen to provide the quickest and cheapest way of doing all those things (and just as importantly, telling other people about them).

And it’s not just confined to computers either. Take a look at  Hack a Day and you’ll come across people building all sorts of interesting and some downright weird things out of all sorts of components. Within the next few decades we’re likely to see a similar trend spread through biology (though at this point, I’m not entirely sure that it’ll take the same form as the computer hacker movement). Even today, people are hacking books, business, social service and so many incredibly varied things.

The art of the hack lives on.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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