|Akiva Lipshitz, a Teaneck high school freshman, demonstrates his winning Pong game.|
If your idea of a good time is staying up all night writing computer programs, you’re no doubt in the minority – and you’re also doubtlessly familiar with hackathons, which gather programmers together to do just that.
But if you’re a Shabbat-observing Jew who thinks a hackathon – with its race-the-clock challenge to create something high-tech and arguably functional – really would be fun, then you’ve probably already discovered the sad truth that most hackathons start when the weekend does, on Friday night. And while it may be fun, is anything less in the spirit of Shabbos than hacking down bugs in a computer program in the middle of the night?
Of course, real hackers – among computer cognoscenti, the term refers not to the malefactors who break into computer systems and disrupt lives, but to those able to put together quick if not always elegant solutions to difficult problems – see problems as challenges to solve. So it was only a matter of time before New York hosted its first shomer Shabbat hackathon.
That’s the back story to Hackathonukah, held two weeks ago for 25 hours starting 7 p.m. Saturday night December 13, and ending 25 hours later.
It was organized by two Paramus brothers, Oren and Donny Kanner. Both are graduates of the Yavneh Academy and the Frisch School in Paramus, and Cooper Union in New York. Oren, 28, is studying for a Ph.D. in robotics at Yale. Donny, 23, works for The Hackerati, a Manhattan engineering consultancy.
“Donny and I had some random conversation over the summer venting our frustrations about the lack of frum-people-friendly hackathons,” said Oren. “As a result, we just decided to make one.”
They formed a company to run it. They solicited sponsors. Theirs was not an amateur production.
“Sometimes Jewish events can be cute or kitschy,” said Oren. “We didn’t want it to be cute or kitschy. We wanted it to be at the same level of technical rigor as any hackathon.”
Donny explained some of the special fun of hackathons for programmers.
“There’s the element of doing a complete product from start to finish in a short period of time. You don’t often get the opportunity to very quickly come up with a concept and execute it.
“You get to meet people with other skill sets and other backgrounds. You get exposure to other technologies you may not be using in your day-to-day work,” he said.
The Kanner brothers decided to add more variety by focusing on hardware and, in particular – appropriately enough for the season – lights. Lighting manufacturers have begun enabling their products to connect to computers and smartphones in what is being called “the internet of things.”
Hackathonukah had corporate sponsors such as Philips, which not only donated some of their computerized Hue bulbs, but flew two engineers from their Netherlands headquarters to guide the hackers in using the technology.
Oren and Donny had never been to a complete hackathon before. “We were able to make it to the end” – after Shabbat – “never to the beginning.”
Of course, having finally organized a post-Shabbat hackathon, the brothers were too busy running the show for much hands-on geek fun. They were mostly busy making sure the food showed up (all kosher) and the participants could find places to sleep. Oren did spend “a few hours between midnight and 3 a.m.” building a menorah out of programmable light bulbs whose lights changed color based on stock market data.
About 60 hackers showed up. The youngest was 14. Most were in their 20s. Some came from as far away as Buffalo and Pittsburgh and Washington. More than half had never been to a hackathon before. “Probably half of our attendees were Jewish, and half were not. Which was great. Our message was accessibility and openness – that Jewish people didn’t have access to most hackathons.”
“We were really impressed with the work that was done,” said Donny.
At the end, the finished projects were judged on creativity, technical accomplishment, and aesthetics. The winning team, which included two teens, used a motion-sensing armband (lent by a sponsor) to play the video game pong. “You could move your arm to control your panel, and the color of a light would change depending on who was winning the game,” said Oren.
“We had a group that put together a whole solution for controlling lighting based on arm gestures, in a way that would be useful for theater. We had a group that had a small panel of LEDs that could be sewn on your clothing that would display sports scores. It would be a ticker, if you wanted to keep up on your scores and not watch television on Shabbat,” he said.
Looking ahead, “at the very least we’re going to want to do a repeat of this event next year,” said Donny.