A lot of people pointed out in Slashdot's recent coverage of an article run on C|Net called "The Top 10 Subversive Hacks of All Time" that 8 out of the 10 so-called "Hacks" listed were merely website defacements and not deserving of the "Hack" label at all. Here's your chance, as the Slashdot community, to set the record straight!
C|Net, perhaps in some kind of bizarre response to millenia fever, has lately been printing a few "Top 10 Lists" of sensational-sounding topics but rather lame content:
Top Ten Terrors That Scare Web Builders - I'm not even sure where this article is supposed to be going. I know when I'm building a website I'm always "scared" of the Y2K problem as it relates to interfacing with my mainframe...
Ten Tricks for Digital Pranksters - Which I'd hoped might be at least slightly amusing, but turns out to be amusing in the same way that going to a K-Mart, finding the Commodore 64's on display, disabling BREAK and writing that BASIC program '10 PRINT "K-MART SUCKS "; 20 GOTO 10' was amusing when I was 12. (But then, it's not a "Top Ten" list, so I shouldn't complain.)
Given the trend, one wonders when their "Top 10 Pr0n Websites That Will Make Your Child Grow Up Into A Pervert If He or She So Much As Thinks About The URL", "Top 10 Most Violent Video Games Guaranteed To Make The Flesh Of Your Flesh And Blood Of Your Blood Turn Into A Deviant Sociopath Who Will Probably Shoot Up A McDonalds By The Time They're 25" or "Top 10 Really Annoying Top 10 Lists That We've Broken Up Into One Page Per Entry To Maximize Our Banner Ad Display" lists will show up.
Regardless of whether or not C|Net gets it in general, (I think I've made my opinion on that clear by now. :) they surely dropped the ball on their "Hacks" article. Rob and the gang at Slashdot liked my suggestion that the question be put to the Slashdot community and find out what you consider a "Great Hack."
So what is a "Hack"?
A lot of people reading that article were disappointed that C|Net decided to more or less define "Hack" as being equivalent to "website defacement", completely ignoring the traditional, more creative and useful meaning of the word. (Notice here how I deftly sidestep the whole 'hacker' vs. 'cracker' debate...) How should we determine what's a "Great Hack", much less the Top 10 of All Time, then?
"1. n. Originally, a quick job that produces what is needed, but not well. 2. n. An incredibly good, and perhaps very time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed."
(Which are entirely contradictory, but hackers never let mundane things like paradoxes slow them down.) He further refines the meaning in Append ix A, "The Meaning of Hack" as:
"Hacking might be characterized as `an appropriate application of ingenuity'. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it."
If you'll notice, nothing in these definitions say anything about a "Hack" being computer-related. There have been many great Hacks that are not computer-related; it's just that people tend to associate the word "hack" with computers.
Adding to the ideas defined above, an "All-Time Great Hack" will probably also have:
- longevity - people should still be talking about it 20 or 30 years later, or even beyond.
- social and/or technological impact - it should change some aspect of life, either by directly changing every-day life or indirectly by changing how people view the world
- "eleganc e" - note however, that this does not necessarily equate simplicty. (Some people may consider the Saturn V booster a truly moby hack, as it got its job done precisely well with no doubt as to its purpose, but was anything but simple.)
- that not-easily definable quality of "I shoulda thought of that!" A Great Hack doesn't have to be "not immediately obvious" - it may just be something nobody else has done yet. For example: the WWW - there's nothing "unobvious" about defining a set of page layout macros that include text and graphics and a way to transmit and view them, but it didn't become commonplace until Tim Berners-Lee made it a big deal.
Some examples of things I would consider "Great Hacks" by these guidelines:
- Putting Apollo 11 on the moon - the NASA engineers at the time of the Apollo project are, to my mind, some of the greatest hackers in history. When you consider the state of technology at the time, what they accomplished is amazing.
- Ken Thompson's "cc hack" - No explanation necessary. A truly elegant hack that is already part of computer folklore.
- Both the "development" of AT&T UNIX into BSD UNIX and the way BSD was distributed, essentially creating the first widespread market demand for "open source software."
- Of course, no Slashdot feature article would be complete without mentioning: the development of the Linux Kernel, both for what it is and how it was/is developed.
But wait, there's more!!
In his Appendinx on "The Meaning Of Hack", ESR also says:
"An important secondary meaning of hack is `a creative practical joke'."
"The word hack at MIT usually refers to a clever, benign, and "ethical" prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!)."
A sure point of dissent in this definition is going to be the "ethical" clause. I'll take the easy road out and leave this point to be decided by the audience - if enough people think a particular hack is a "Great Hack" regardless of ethics - then into the pot it goes.
On the other hand, the closest thing I can think of to a "Great Hack" that skirts ethical boundaries is the Robert Morris Worm. It's an event that will live in infamy in the lore of the Internet for all times for the problems it caused, but that it could accomplish what it did shows an incredible understanding of the way the systems worked and how they were interconnected at the time it happened.
It's still not entirely easy to think of "All-Time Great Hacks" that fit this definition, including the "ethical" clause:
- The canonical example is usually the MIT hack of the Harvard-Yale football game in which MIT students caused a six-foot weather baloon covered with the letters "MIT" to inflate at the 40 yard line during a pause in gameplay
- In the Slashdot article, "Uruk" pointed out that Orson Welles' broadcast of "The War Of The Worlds" in 1938 is arguably the best example of this definition of "Hack" that the world has ever known
So we have two definitions to deal with: The "Classic" Hacks, and the "MIT-Style" Hacks. It may or may not be worthwhile to separate these out into two distinct categories - I think we'll have to wait to see if there are enough unique entries in each category to require two lists.
In this feature, I would like you to list what you think are the "Greatest Hacks of All Time" and after a time to let enough people enter their suggestions and comments, I'll come back and gather up the most popular/frequent responses. Those suggestions will go up as a Slashdot poll, and the top ten from that poll will be officially listed in a subsequent feature article: "Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of All Time" along with a bit of background on each one; rather like C|Net, except we'll put them all on one page for you.
There is only one restriction I would like to impose on suggestions: they have to be able to be documented somehow. I used to know a guy who could make his TRS-80 machines play music with software that somehow buzzed the floppy disk motor at different rates, which is a neat hack, but as I have no idea where he lives, if he still has a copy of his software, or even where to find a TRS-80 to play with anymore it's not a good candidate for this.
I've defined what it takes for a hack to be a "Great Hack", I've given some examples to help "seed the idea pool", and now it's your turn: what do you think should go on Slashdot's list of the Top 10 Hacks of All Time?