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Halt and Catch Fire: "I/O" OAD 6/1/14 ***SPOILERS***


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#1 OFFLINE   phrelin

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Posted 02 June 2014 - 11:17 PM

H&CF-101-01.jpg

 

The two camera shots above from the first episode of "Halt and Catch Fire" were intended to tell us something about one, or really two, of the characters and about the story. They did achieve that goal. But....

 

The reality is that most Americans in 1983 didn't peruse the latest issue of Byte and had no idea what "open architecture" meant - in fact most Americans had never seen the insides of a microcomputer. And I don't think most Americans today know what difference "open architecture"  has made in their world.

 

That tech history orientation could potentially make "Halt and Catch Fire" seem less accessible at the outset. We hope, and the show's creators hope, that the four principle characters in the show will draw in and hold viewers - we know they have interesting backstories and their future together could make a stimulating primary story arc.

 

Let's hope so because even those of us who had a vested interest in someone creating open architecture competition with IBM aren't going to find watching people develop BIOS code interesting. (I explained my own vested interest in the thread "Halt and Catch Fire" premier Sunday on AMC - high hopes for a great show.)

 

Before moving on to the characters and story, it helps to know just how difficult it was to face down IBM. The article below from the July 10, 1984 issue of PC Magazine describes the complexity and the threat including offering up a descriptive phrase - "the lone programmer" - which relates to the task facing one of the characters in the show.

 

H&CF-101-02.jpg

 

And simply for fun and context, the following is a full page (p. 55) ad for Stride Microcomputer ("formerly Sage Computers") from the September 1985 10th Anniversary Edition of Byte which includes pictures of the company's President Rod Coleman.

 

H&CF-101-03.jpg

 

Yes, he was a real person who looks like he ought to be in the show. (For anyone who might want to download it, I've uploaded in a 325 MB PDF file that 10th Anniversary Edition.) Anyway...

 

As this pilot episode opens, we see an armadillo in the road which has an unfortunate encounter with a Porche 944 (there were only 5,490 944's in the U.S. in 1983 the first year it appeared in this country) being driven by Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace). We then shift to a college classroom full of budding computer engineers where MacMillan is introduced: "Today's discussion is postponed as we have a very special guest. He's played an instrumental part in the debut of the IBM PC which has now on the verge of becoming the industry standard for corporate America."

 

By the end of the episode we think we've learned a lot about MacMillan. He obviously was a hotshot sales rep for IBM - "200% of quota" he says showing his W-2 while interviewing for a job. And we've learned that he simply disappeared from IBM - his face should have been on a milk carton.

 

Besides having superlative sales skills honed at IBM, an exotic $20,000+ car ($50,000 in 2014 dollars), and an understanding of computers, the only other thing I believe we know about MacMillan is that while ostensibly he came to Cardiff Electric to get a job, he actually went there to partner up with Gordon Clark (played by Scoot McNairy).

 

We know somewhat more about Gordon Clark, an engineer at Cardiff Electric. He's married with two kids. His wife, Donna (played by Kerry Bishé) is a programmer for Texas Instruments. A few years before, together they designed and built the “Symphonic” a personal computer that Macmillan describes as “ahead of it’s time.”

 

Gordon is depressed by the failure of the Symphonic - his job and everything he has done since is depressing. Donna is just trying to keep it all together and chooses caution, a reasonable choice when you're trying to raise two kids. By the end of the episode MacMillan successfully entices Gordon to take a major financial risk and Donna decides to support Gordon, whom she obviously loves.

 

What we know is that this ongoing story arc represents a real risk for this couple, financially and emotionally.

 

While in the classroom at the beginning, MacMillan meets engineering student Cameron Howe (played by Mackenzie Davis). Not surprisingly Howe is jaded and unhappy Lisbeth Salander type - and also apparently a bored genius.

 

MacMillan asks the class: "Tell me one thing that will be true about computers 10 years from now."

 

Howe answers: "Computers will be networked together across one network with a standard protocol."

 

MacMillan: "Like phone lines."

 

Howe: "Obviously like phone lines."

 

MacMillan: "What's your name?"

 

To make a long story short, they "hook up" (before the phrase became became slang for having casual sex) while MacMillan is adding her to his list of people he might want to work for him.

 

The key episode story arc is that Clark and MacMillan spend a long weekend in Clark's garage reverse engineering the BIOS of an IBM PC. MacMillan apparently then tells IBM which threatens to destroy Cardiff Electric with legal action forcing Cardiff to actually try to develop a BIOS for an IBM  PC clone.

 

But they cannot employ anyone to do it who has ever, ever torn down an IBM PC. And so Howe will become "the lone programmer" for Cardiff.

 

And as the pilot episode closes we see the small army of suits from IBM marching in. It is important the we remember it was a pilot and that it will take a number of episodes before the show might feel comfortable.

 

I won't compare it to other shows that over a number of seasons fans have come to love - that isn't fair. With that said it was pretty well done. It does have one appeal for some of us.

 

"Top notch" was Steve Wozniak's description and he added: “I saw lot’s of people I know from tech in Halt and Catch Fire, including myself and Steve Jobs.”

 

I'm not sure what to make of the dead armadillo.


Edited by phrelin, 02 June 2014 - 11:21 PM.

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#2 OFFLINE   jeffshoaf

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Posted 03 June 2014 - 07:25 AM

I miss Byte magazine!

And to stay on-topic: got the show recorded and will watch soon. I'm just hoping it doesn't degenerate into a soap opera.

#3 OFFLINE   oldengineer

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Posted 03 June 2014 - 07:27 AM

I worked at Intel in the late 70s and early 80s when the 68000 vs 286 war was on. The 68000 was a superior architecture and the instruction set was very DEC like which made it a natural for users. It should have taken over but for the superior management at Intel. Andy Grove, the CEO at the time, made it a corporate wide goal to get 500 design wins for the 286 in 1979 (or 1980) and the company went all out to achieve this. They sent Field Apps teams to your site and would practically design your board for you. In addition they had a large array of cross compilers and assemblers, In Circuit Emulators, hardware and software models, etc available for users. IMO it was a classic example of how good corporate management was able to hold off technical superiority until the 386, 486 and beyond processors got to market.

 

They didn't mess around technically either. They had a group of PhDs working on branch prediction theory, for example, with the goal of optimizing prefetch and caching schemes.


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#4 OFFLINE   Stuart Sweet

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Posted 03 June 2014 - 07:52 AM

First of all, phrelin, nice to see that you've taken up this show for review. I was hoping you would. 

 

I think the show is an interesting one because it tells what seems to be a completely fictional story set in a real world. Which is to say, there were people and companies doing just what we were seeing here, just at that time. This just isn't a real story. I had thought this would be the story of Compaq, and certainly there are parallels, but there seems to be no reference to any of these people or companies in reality, until you get out into the periphery where they're all real: Tandy, IBM, Texas Instruments, Byte Magazine, etc. 

 

My finely-tuned 1980s brain caught a few issues, of course; First and foremost you cannot run IBM ROM BIOS on a TRS-80, not ever. Period. Second there seemed to be the bones of a Compaq Portable on the shelf in the garage, highly anachronistic. Most arcade machines by that time had detectors that made it impossible to use a quarter on a string. But these are minor issues. 

 

Oh, and the org chart we saw was printed using Arial, a font that did technically exist in 1983 but was extremely rare until its release in Windows 3.1 in 1992. 

 

I thought this was well-written, well thought out, and had a comfortable familiar setting that made me yearn for the days of knobs on TVs and top-load VCRs. I hope the writing continues to stay strong. 


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#5 OFFLINE   oldengineer

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Posted 03 June 2014 - 08:45 AM

My first thought was also Compaq, Stuart.


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#6 OFFLINE   TomCat

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Posted 06 June 2014 - 12:12 AM

 

The key episode story arc is that Clark and MacMillan spend a long weekend in Clark's garage reverse engineering the BIOS of an IBM PC..

 

 

Hey, Phre... It is heartening to see how involved with this program you appear to be. I have not seen that much enthusiasm for a show by one poster since that guy who posted ad nauseum about True Detective (whatever happened to that guy, anyway?) But then your enthusiasm is about a show about the computer industry, fairly innocuous, while his posts were about a show about ritual murder, white slavery, and serial killings, so you are probably the saner of the two, by far.

 

As far as that "long weekend", the first procedure took about 30 seconds, even in compressed TV time, so since they would have to repeat it another 65535 times, even at 30 seconds a pop and 16 hours a day, well, that would have been a very "long weekend" indeed, over 34 days. I hope their Speed Stick was up for the challenge. But mercifully, the producers realized they only had to put the viewer through the first one.

 

My only complaints are that Lee Pace is having a hard time making that character likable. It's partly the writing, which is otherwise pretty good, but a better actor could convey that arrogance and douchery and still make you invest yourself in the character. For example, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart were both arrogant douchebags, but you still gave them both a break because they were also fascinatingly charismatic. Lee Pace, maybe not so much. The whole armadillo/Porsche sequence was kind of cheap filler, too. Otherwise, I'm in.

 

Speaking of armadill...er, Porsches, did I ever tell you that joke about the neighbor kid who cut lawns, that a guy gave $30 to paint his porch in the back of his house?

 

Well, maybe another time.

 

But the punchline was "By the way, mister, that wasn't no Porsche, that's a BMW."

 

(you can fill in the blanks)

 

Keep posting; we'll keep watching. Personally, I can't wait for the next ep.


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#7 OFFLINE   dpeters11

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Posted 06 June 2014 - 07:52 AM

I enjoyed this as well. It's easy to nickpick the details. I heard one complaint that the hex codes didn't match up to what they were saying but I'm willing to give that kind of thing a pass when overall it's well written.

 

I'm much less forgiving when it's something that involves ridiculous hacking etc.



#8 OFFLINE   TomCat

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Posted 08 June 2014 - 12:20 PM

I sort of noticed the hex thing too, but got over it quickly enough not to rewind to make sure.

 

But there is real value in not faking it. On Louie the other day, his adorable-yet-troubled little daughter played the violin in a really sweet segment with the Hungarian neighbor girl, and at the end it was obvious she was not really playing it only because the frequency of her vibrato did not match the music track. But she knew her way around a violin, and you have to give her credit for a pretty good simulation. Also, it would take a really good vet of the computer industry to see any fakiness on Silicon Valley; those guys have the procedural minutia down pretty good.

 

On the other hand, I am getting tired of court reporters in legal dramas who can only do with one hand exactly what they are doing with the other hand, which is glaringly fake. I am also a little troubled by Felicity Smoak pounding furiously on just the middle 8 keys of her keyboard to fake how quick and smart she is around a computer. But then she is also adorable, so she gets a break from me.

 

But if you're gonna fake it, at least try to make me believe it. Even if I know its fake, you get points for trying harder, only because on TV, everything, including "reality" is pretty fake.


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