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Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of All Time

You may remember a few weeks ago when we posed the question What is the greatest hacks. Well Derek Glidden has compiled the most popular selections from that discussion, and he presents below the winners. I was pretty surprised by some of the choices, but I think its a great list, with hacks spanning all sorts of areas of human creativity. Enjoy.

The following was written by Slashdot ReaderDerek Glidden

Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks

It's been a few weeks since my first Slashdot Article on Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks was posted - enough time for the comments to settle down and get moderated and the story archived, giving me time to go through them and try to figure out some reasonable way of counting and scoring them to come up with the Top 10 list.

My initial desire was to make this a completely "Open Source" selection by simply picking the 10 Hacks most popularly discussed in the above article, but the sheer number of comments precluded an approach like that. Instead, I had to use a little personal judgement to pick what Hacks made it on the list and in what order. Hacks that were mentioned a lot or moderated high or generated a lot of discussion moved higher on my list of all nominees before choosing the top 10. So the list may not exactly reflect the order or moderation from the original article, but I think the overall "feeling" of people's comments is as close as I could get.

Here's what I believe Slashdot users picked as their "Top 10 Hacks of All Time", see if you agree:

Honorable Mentions

These are subjects that came up frequently in the comments but for whatever reason, either lack of a specific enough focus or just not quite popular enough, didn't make it into the Top 10.

  • Emulators - From the Vic-20 to the Nintendo 64, emulators do in software what the original system did in hardware. Some are relatively straightforward, reproducing in code a well-documented hardware interface, while others are inspired hacks, trying to reproduce the functionality of undocumented, proprietary hardware.
  • The demoscene - Some of the best hackers that have ever put fingers to keyboard have shown what they can do by writing incredibly tight, incredibly fast, incredibly optimized code to make machines do things nobody ever imagined they could. Future Crew are the indisputable kings of the PC demoscene.
  • The Trojan Horse - This Hack is so well known that its name became synonymous with any program that's disguised as one thing but secretly performs some malicious act.
  • The Great Pyramids in Egypt - Huge rocks moved with ancient technology. Experts today still can't agree on how these structures were built.
  • Duct Tape - Not a "Hack" in and of itself, but almost certainly responsible for more hacks than any other substance on the planet.

The Winners

  • Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast - In 1938 George Orson Welles broadcast a special Halloween episode of "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" in which he recounted H.G.Wells' "War of the Worlds" in the context of a radio news announcement. People who missed the fact that this was an entertainment show believed that Martians had actually landed in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. (CT: An anonymous reader linked us to an mp3 version of the classic broadcast.
  • Mars Pathfinder - Build a telerobot for cheap, ship it to Mars and then land it by pretending to be a big beach ball to cushion the impact by bouncing around the Martian landscape before finally settling down and getting to work. The amazing thing is, it worked. The more amazing thing is, it worked better and for far longer than NASA expected.
  • Ken Thompson's "cc hack" - Presented in the journal, Communication of the ACM, Vol. 27, No. 8, August 1984, in a paper entitled "Reflections on Trusting Trust", Ken Thompson, co-author of UNIX, recounted a story of how he created a version of the C compiler that, when presented with the source code for the "login" program, would automatically compile in a backdoor to allow him entry to the system. This is only half the story, though. In order to hide this trojan horse, Ken also added to this version of "cc" the ability to recognize if it was recompiling itself to make sure that the newly compiled C compiler contained both the "login" backdoor, and the code to insert both trojans into a newly compiled C compiler. In this way, the source code for the C compiler would never show that these trojans existed.
  • The AK-47 - A controversial winner? Probably, but Mikhail Kalashnikov created this weapon over 50 years ago and it is still one of the most commonly used automatic rifles in the world. Simplicity and elegance are the factors that went into the design of this weapon. "ktakki" summed up this gun well with the comments: "Five moving parts. Stamped parts instead of milled/machined components. Stranded steel wire instead of springs. Simple to operate and maintain. Fault-tolerant. A village blacksmith can gin up a new bolt carrier/gas piston assembly if need be. [...] Kalashnikov picked some of the best features of three contemporary designs (Mp-44, M1 Garand, SKS) and hacked together a design that's still in production 52 years later."
  • Bombes/Colossus/Bletchley Park - During World War II, the Germans used a device called the "Enigma" to encrypt most of their morse code radio communications. The UK set up a team of mathematicians at Bletchley Park to break the codes the Enigma device created. Alan Turing is generally credited with creating the "bombes" - mechanical computing devices that could be used to brute-force determine which key had been used to encode a particular message orders of magnitude faster than humans could. "Colossus" - a similar mechanical device, could be "programmed" using paper tape and may have been the first truly programmable computer, albeit with limited capabilities. Bletchley Park mathematicians frequently came up with simple, yet brilliant, strategies to cut decoding time for messages encoded with the Enigma to fractions of what they would have been using brute-force methods. Even with the technological advances, this "first distributed cracking effort" was done mostly with paper, pencil and brainpower.
  • Perl - A post-modern programming language or a scripting tool gone horribly, horribly wrong? When asking, you're likely to get both opinions on Perl, often from the same person. Because, or perhaps despite, of its "There's More Than One Way To Do It" attitude, Perl is probably responsible for more one-off hacks than any other tool in the programmer's arsenal. Perl is also probably responsible, more than any other technology, for more dynamic websites over simply serving up static pages. There's even this little website called Slashdot that's written in Perl...
  • Second Reality by Future Crew - Awesome, Mindblowing, Unbelievable, Impossible. Some of the words used to describe what this piece of code from demoscene gods Future Crew did on 1993-era PC hardware. Even by today's standards, what this program can do without relying on any kind of 3D graphics acceleration is impressive. As if the graphics weren't impressive enough, it can even playback in Dolby Surround Sound.
  • The Apple II - Woz created a masterpiece when he created the Apple II. In his words (from "The Apple ][ was the third such [computer to ever come with a keyboard and look like a typewriter] and was the first of this breed to be completely assembled, the first in a plastic case, the first with a cool switching power supply that permitted plastic, the first with a large DRAM capability, the first with color graphics, the first with hi-res, the first with sound, the first with paddles, the first with game commands in the BASIC, the first with BASIC in ROM, the second to use your free home TV (Apple I was first), and a few more important things that shaped personal computers forever." Woz designed, built and programmed it almost entirely by himself.
  • SR-71 "Blackbird" - This plane from "Kelly" Johnson's "Skunk Works" at Lockheed is made mostly of Titanium and expands an additional 11 inches at operating speeds from friction with the atmosphere. It has a cruising altitude of 85,000 feet, but has been reported to reach over 100,000 feet, higer than any interceptor missile could hope to reach and high enough that SR-71 pilots need to wear spacesuits. It is the fastest plane that has ever flown (that any government wil admit to, anyway) with a maximum speed of Mach 3.5 - around 2200 miles per hour. (Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in about an hour.) This plane, designed, built and deployed in the late 1950's/early 1960's with drafting boards and slide rules and in an amazingly short period of time, still outperforms and outclasses planes designed and built 30 years later using "state-of-the-art" technology.
  • The Apollo 13 Mission Rescue - What do you do if you're in a spaceship on the way to the moon tens of thousands of miles away from the nearest repair facility when an O2 tank blows out and leaves your ship crippled? If you're on Apollo 13, you call home and report you "have a problem." The Apollo 13 support team, working against seemingly insurmountable odds (not enough power, not enough air, not enough time) using nothing more than what equipment the crew would have had available on their ship, and knowing that any mistake could easily kill the three astronauts, nonetheless managed to keep James Lovell, John Swigert, Fred Haise and their ship alive long enough to bring them home safely.
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Slashdot's Top 10 Hacks of All Time

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