I Went To Hack Day and It Was Pretty Good

I just got back from “Yahoo! Hack Day”, an ultra-nerdy convention of sorts put on at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale. It was sort of reminiscent of the now-defunct MacHack conventions I went to in the early naughties (2000 and 2001 I think) except it was free, more conveniently located here in Silicon Valley instead of Detroit (?!?!? I know there is a perfectly logical story behind why MacHack was in Detroit that I would knowingly nod my head at while I was hearing, but I repeat: ?!?!?), and more focused on web technologies (Yahoo! APIs, specifically).

I went there right after work on Friday, checked in, and put my name on the “looking for teammates” whiteboard. There was free pizza, and then a concert outside by Beck. The concert was fine — there were a lot of hangers-on (hanger-ons?), folks who were there just for the concert — but I was distracted by brainstorming about what I would do for the veritable hack contest that was about to start. By the way, Beck seems to really be into marionettes. I do love a good puppet show.

I met up with a clever young whippersnapper by the name of Sandro who was also interested in using the web development tools that I have been using lately (“Django” — see http://djangoproject.com/) and we went through some ideas and finally settled on what he cleverly called Flick Rel8. It’s sort a license-platey name. It’s a game: we download pointers to a bunch of Flickr images that are labeled with popular tags. Then we show three images with tag A is a row, followed by a stack of four images with tags A, B, C, D in some random order. The user has to guess which of the four images has the same tag as the first three.

The tag is not displayed (although it is available as a hint). So you have to look at the images and figure out what they have in common… and then find a fourth image that has the same thing. It’s like the SAT, Flickr-style.

We spent a lot of time developing and not a lot trying it, so I still don’t know if it ends up being fun. I don’t think it was that fun with the data set we had, but I think you could make it fun, especially if you limited the tag list to a certain class of tags — maybe concrete nouns and adjectives. For example, “2006” is a pretty lame tag for this purpose.

The conference staff showed us clips from that indicated that every local news channel had a story about the conference.. Yahoo! must have some killer publicists. One dorky reporter disclosed the difference between “hackers” who are talented computer folk who mean no harm and “crackers” who try to break into computers. The irony was that he was the biggest cracker of them all.

Then at 3 PM, our hours of manic work came to an end. The 55-some odd teams took turns displaying their hacks. We were number 32. I started off with a joke that I knew would work with that audience, and indeed, it got a big laugh. It’s interested being able to not appear nervous in front of a crowd and to be able to be confident about getting a laugh.

All the stories had this spin that seemed to try to make the conference seem elite, or cool, or possibly even hip. I think Beck being there added to that sheen. I dunno, I think nerds are by definition not very cool. See Paul Graham’s essay on this. But so what? Why can’t things just be what they are?

All in all, a good time. I am exhausted, and I did not even stay up all night, as some people did (many camped out on the lawn). I met some good people. And I got to hack on computers, a thing I’ve been enjoying a lot more of lately.