Somewhere in the world, a pickpocket is listening to rock music on a classic Nintendo NES controller through a pair of jacked-in headphones. When a slow tune comes on, the thief hits the D-pad and randomly skips songs, giving onlookers a hint at what's inside: an iPod shuffle.
The hack is the creation of Colin Ashe, a biochem student at Northeastern University in Boston. It was stolen from him on a bus full of Westerners, between Delhi and Dharmsala, India.
"There I was, worried about disparity of wealth," Ashe says. "The real factor to watch out for was disparity of style."
Somewhere else in the world -- Mesa, Arizona, to be precise -- Jim Younkin is paying homage to this disparity of style. His Shufflehacks blog contains page after page of beautiful destruction in the form of modded shuffles. Shuffles with cases made from Altoids tins. Shuffles that power up in Xbox controllers and baking-soda cans. Shuffles with their innards lovingly rearranged in clear plastic cases.
Younkin started the site after wiring a shuffle into the earpiece of a pair of stereo headphones. He improved the design on a second pair by adding an audio port, then posted the pictures online. The hack drew lots of attention.
"It got hit on Slashdot, so my site got like 60,000 visits in one day," says Younkin, a soft-spoken video game designer. "At that point I realized there was something there."
Younkin launched his blog and put out a call for submissions. Readers from all over started sending designs. And while much of the craze can be attributed to the DIY zeitgeist, it also has to do with the little white lothario itself.
"The shuffle has a certain likeability to it. It's small and personal," Younkin says. But it has a practical side, too. "It's relatively inexpensive, so if you destroy it, it's not too big of a deal. It's also durable; it doesn't have the screen or the preciousness that newer iPods do."
Ashe understands the allure of shuffle hacking. His shuffle-cum-NES controller generated serious buzz on the web. "I was just looking at a broken NES set," he says, "and it occurred to me that you could substitute headphone wires for the cable coming off the controller. The visual identity of the controller would be almost completely preserved, but with a sort of conceptual reversal -- now you plug the controller into yourself."
But he needed help. If genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, David Sonnenshein gave up the sweat. Ashe asked Sonnenshein, an electrical engineering major also at Northeastern, whether it was possible to eviscerate the NES controller and use the shuffle for guts.
"I told him it was worth a shot," Sonnenshein says. "You can do a lot with the shuffle because it's so simple and easy to work with, from a reverse-engineering point of view."
For the most part, he was right. The only hitch: the shuffle's rear On-Off switch. To preserve the NES controller's integrity, exposing the back was out of the question. Instead, Sonnenshein ran a three-way switch to the Start and Select buttons. Before it was stolen, the hack piqued the curiosity of a kid in Chennai, India, who wanted to know if Ashe was listening to video games.
Though Ashe's purloined shuffle is now in the clutch of an unscrupulous traveler, it will always truly be his. For that, Sonnenshein says, is the appeal of hacking: to create is to own.
"There's just something to be said for originality," he says. "You can say that this is your shuffle, but how is it different from anybody else's? When you build something, it becomes an extension of yourself."