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"Halt and Catch Fire" premier Sunday on AMC - high hopes for a great show

Discussion in 'TV Show Talk' started by phrelin, May 30, 2014.

  1. phrelin

    phrelin Hall Of Fame DBSTalk Club

    Jan 18, 2007
    The problem with anticipating a new show is expectations. Potential fans for "Halt and Catch Fire" (premiering this Sunday on AMC) have already been set up for disappointment because reviewers compare it to another AMC drama show aired in the time spot, "Mad Men". Or worse WIRED gave the review the headline Halt and Catch Fire Gets the ’80s PC Revolution Perfectly Right. Here’s How. Perfectly right? Well, now I have to look for the errors.

    As many here know, I have written reviews of "Mad Men" after each episode for several years now. It's always been a little weird to watch and write about a show that treats your own life as history. I wanted to say: "Yeah I'm old, but not old enough to have lived in history."

    After 7± seasons of "Mad Men" I have gotten over that. One begins to realize that the larger events of the lifetimes of you and your contemporaries were history. And your personal experience of those events shape your outlook.

    The characters and settings of "Mad Men" have seemed somewhat removed from my personal experience - New York City is a long way from a Californian who has spent most of his life in Northern and Central California and advertising is about as far removed from my working life as one can get.

    In contrast, I had a very personal interest in the story arc of "Halt and Catch Fire" set in the early 1980's.

    In 1980 my wife and I started a business providing computer-based business services. We bought our first of three Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II computers with 64K RAM - list price $3,899. But you really couldn't get along with the computer alone. And in fact the Model II 2-Megabyte “Business Management System” totalled $8,766.00 as described:

    To put that cost in perspective, adjusted for the CPI its $24,783 plus tax - well over the equivalent $25,000 for one powerful computer. By 1983 we had three Model II's, each configured differently, including one 5 MB hard drive.

    It put a dent in our finances. But it was all good.

    Except in 1981 IBM introduced its first microcomputer (that's what they were - there were mainframes like the IBM 360 which in 1970 I began working with in programming, and there were minicomputers which my wife had been working with in accounting systems).

    Like most in management roles who had IBM computer experience prior to 1980, I had a love-hate relationship with IBM. In terms of human rights and social policy, IBM was in the forefront having non-discrimination policies (1953 race, ethnic origin, or gender policy; 1984 sexual orientation was added). And they stood behind their equipment as long you accepted all the rules without deviation.

    The one thing most of us in 1980 who had gotten out from under the limitations of IBM systems did not want to see is IBM to controlling the microcomputer environment.

    Sometime in 1983-84 Pacific Gas & Electric's IT department bought several hundred IBM PC's, a depressing development. It was clear to me that, if left unchecked, IBM was going to dominate the business side of the microcomputer and with it the microcomputer business. There was really no room for Tandy, Apple, Commodore, etc., in the volume sales of computers to businesses if IBM became the sole source - a fact that would make it economically undesirable to write business software (Apps in today's jargon) for other computers systems.

    Or would IBM dominate?

    Initially, IBM did make one big mistake. Instead of buying out Paul Allen and Bill Gates - or at least buying all rights to MS-DOS operating system - they bought from Microsoft a license to use the operating system. And Microsoft retained the rights to license to others the operating system that would be used in the IBM PC. There is a whole legend and a true story about this, but I won't go into that.

    Which brings us to 1983.

    Compaq Computer Corporation was a company founded in 1982, that developed, sold, and supported computers and related products and services. Compaq produced some of the first IBM PC compatible computers, being the first company to legally reverse-engineer the IBM Personal Computer. The company, headquartered in Harris, Texas, was formed by Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto—former Texas Instruments senior managers. Their first product, the Compaq Portable, a portable IBM PC compatible personal computer, was released in March 1983 at $2,995. Compaq was able to market a legal IBM clone because IBM mostly used "off the shelf" parts for their PC. The only part which had to be duplicated was the BIOS, which Compaq did legally by using clean room reverse engineering at a cost of $1 million. For more see Wikipedia.

    Beginning in the late 1980's, after trying to stay with Tandy, we went with Compaq. It was irritating to be using "IBM clones" but the programming and software environment was open enough to do some creative things when you needed to.

    Which leads to "Halt and Catch Fire." From Wikipedia:

    "Halt and Catch Fire" is a series ostensibly about IBM alum Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace who you may recognize from "Pushing Daisies") and Gordon Clark (played by Scoot McNairy who you may or may not recognize), who reverse-engineer an IBM PC in the garage of Clark’s Dallas home during a single weekend in 1983. Their company, Cardiff Electric, is thus set up to develop a portable PC twice as fast and half as expensive as anything then available.

    A third character, Cameron Howe (played by Mackenzie Davis who you probably won't recognize either), is an angry college "coed" sort-of-drop-out who gets kicked out of bars for hacking arcade games and was aware of the Internet at the time Al Gore was learning about it while chair of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

    I consider "Mad Men" TV's first great American novel. That is different from other great shows, whether scifi like "Star Trek: The Next Generation" or comedy like "All in the Family" or crime like "Breaking Bad." Regarding "Halt" I'm keeping my expectations in check but I'm hoping for something good. I guess it will be another "period piece" about a time lived through. :sure:

    (Also I'm waiting for the premier on AMC even though it is available on line.)
  2. Laxguy

    Laxguy Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense.

    Dec 2, 2010
    I'll be watching tomorrow, and then this space for more excellent writing..... :)
  3. RunnerFL

    RunnerFL Well-Known Member

    Jan 4, 2006
    I've got it set to record and I'll start watching it once it gets renewed for a second season.
  4. TomCat

    TomCat Broadcast Engineer

    Aug 31, 2002
    I think this should be your new sig.

    Watched it; liked it. I'm probably in for the next 9, should they keep the quality up. Reviews are good. Both female leads are hot enough to keep me from wandering if I get too bored (now there's a ringing endorsement).

    I was a computer science minor in college; they had a 360. The term paper was done on punch cards. I was not impressed, went elsewhere.

    I had a friend in high school who came in all riled up one day and wanted me to see his "computer". My reply. "What's a computer?" But he was excited, so I let him drag me over to his house. What he bought was a kit, the first available personal computer, an Altair. It was a box the shape of a small loaf of bread, with 8 LEDs and 8 toggle switches, one each for each K of RAM (or probably each byte of RAM). It did barely nothing, and I was underwhelmed. That kid is probably the owner of a tech company in silicon valley by now.

    In 1983 a friend told me they were selling Commodore 64's at Toys 'R Us for $283...I remember the price exactly. My reply, "What's a toys are us?"

    Intrigued, I bought one; my one and only trip inside a TRU. A couple months later I bought a 128 (timing may be fuzzy here). I was intrigued, a little excited, and mostly frustrated by them (although a TV station who shall remain nameless used one to position satellite dishes well into the 90's). No offense, but we looked down our noses at "Trash 80" users at the time (but your commitment and dedication is impressive).

    Then in 1984, my boss was trying to buy an IBM PC, in a business that was based on microfiche (he was a tech visionary by comparison). He watched the superbowl, and the next week brought home an original Macintosh 128. He upped it to 512; a "fat Mac". Sounds like I made that up, but I didn't.

    He and I bonded over that, and it was my "Eureka" moment..."Of Course! THIS is what a personal computer should be like!" The rest is history, I sold the Commodores, and I never looked back, learning WIndows only reluctantly for business purposes. My boss left the company two years later and bequeathed the Mac to me...I was the only one in the company with a computer on my desk.
  5. oldengineer

    oldengineer Godfather

    May 25, 2008
    I spent 37 years in the semiconductor business and was pretty impressed with the writing of the show. I think they took a little director's license with the reverse engineering scenes but they got the concept of reverse and forward engineering the software dead on. I worked for a company that made a chipset for the original IBM CGA Adapter (remember the thing that supported a 320X240 display with a choice of two 4 color pallets?). We didn't even have to reverse engineer it because IBM had schematics of it, using 54/74 TTL logic, in the CGA Technical Reference Manual. We just implemented it in a gate array and made big bucks. I think there were also schematics for the PC and it used a lot of Intel off the shelf components like the DMA Controller, Timer, Interrupt Controller, I/O controller, etc. We also reversed those chips from the data sheets and made chipsets for several versions of the PC using gate arrays.

    I'll keep watching.
  6. phrelin

    phrelin Hall Of Fame DBSTalk Club

    Jan 18, 2007
  7. Drucifer

    Drucifer Well-Known Member

    Feb 12, 2009
    NY Hudson...
    Found it interesting, but it not one I would put in the must watch now category.
  8. oldengineer

    oldengineer Godfather

    May 25, 2008
    Second episode was OK but a littlte too melodramatic for me. My main complaint about technical accuracy was the BIOS which was also the main topic of the show. Gordon has a copy of the IBM BIOS which he supposedly reverse engineered from the PC they bought. In reality he should have written a spec detailing the operations the BIOS performed and then handed the spec over the Chinese Wall to Cameron, who would write the new BIOS from the spec. The folder with the IBM BIOS, a central point of the show, should not have been necessary and should have been destroyed or at least archived once Gordon's reverse engineering task was finished. Cameron had something to work on because she did get some work done before she was handed the IBM BIOS folder and it wasn't clear if she used the folder to complete her job. In any case, had that been a real reverse engineering project, the company would have been in deep doo doo.

    I'm still watching, but it's almost like watching old flicks about diesel submarines. I end up looking for technical glitches more than just enjoying the show for what it is.
  9. phrelin

    phrelin Hall Of Fame DBSTalk Club

    Jan 18, 2007
    As I note in my review of this second episode, IMHO it's too easy to nit-pick the details, particularly the technical ones. But at times it was almost melodramatic.

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