Hackasaurus Rex

This past weekend, SIPB held a hackathon (an event where people come and work on various computer projects). SIPB, the Student Information Processing Board, is the student group at MIT in which I am most heavily involved. SIPB is essentially MIT’s computer club, and I had the honor of being elected Chair in February. Greg Brockman, my co-conspirator in SIPB administration (aka, the Vice Chair) organized the whole thing almost single-handedly – from finding sponsors and advertising on Facebook, to making sure there would be projects for everybody to work on.

This particular hackathon, entitled Hackasaurus Rex (“the king of all hackathons”), featured prizes from ThinkGeek and mango lassis. It was, in my opinion, a huge success. Over 50 people showed up over the course of the evening, and the office had 5-10 people until about 4am (even at the very beginning, when the office is usually pretty empty during hackathons). We recruited several new people to SIPB, and even got existing SIPB people involved in new projects! I am very pleased with how it went.

I personally worked on Gutenbach and MITeX. Gutenbach is the software the runs sipbmp3, the music player we have in the office, which works by printing music files to a special printer: the printer send the file through a filter (which pipes the song to mplayer), and finally dumps the data not to an actual hardware device, but to /dev/null. Gutenbach/sipbmp3 was originally built using lprng, but given that all of MIT is migrating to CUPS, I figured it would be a good time to move Gutenbach to CUPS as well. I played more of an administrative role for Gutenbach during the hackathon, and got people working on patching the filter and the configuration parts of the Debian package.

Once that got started, I turned my attention to MITeX. A few of us were in the SIPB office the other day, bemoaning the fact that few people around MIT know how to use LaTeX, and that the activation energy needed to learn it is beyond what most people are willing to give. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an easy way for students to write a document, and have it be tex’ed for them? Well, there’s LyX, which doesn’t let you edit the LaTeX source, and has terrible support for loading templates (I’d rather use my emacs with AUCTeX, thank you very much). So, we thought, why don’t we create our own application, one specifically geared towards the types of documents MIT students need to create? We could make it be a web application, meaning no installation required! And thus, MITeX was born.

So, at the hackathon, we began work. We now have an interface that provides four different templates to choose from, allows you to create your document, and save it as either a .tex, .pdf, or .ps file. You can also test-compile it to view the log output. Next step: WYSIWYG editor, for people who don’t understand LaTeX code. It doesn’t look like much yet, but all in all, we got quite a bit done.

Many other projects also got worked on during the hackathon, including anygit (an index of the world’s git repositories), Scripts Pony, MacAthena, QuickPrint and the apt-zephyr hook (which sends a zephyr when aptitude takes updates). Some Planet Libre people also showed up and worked on their own stuff later in the evening.

Given how much work got done, and how many new people we introduced to SIPB during this hackathon, I think that SIPB will need to continue to have such awesome hacking parties of this magnitude every so often! It’s probably not feasible to do it every month, but once or twice a semester seems like a reasonable rate. Look forward to more exciting hackathons in the future!