Desert of My Real Life

{June 19, 2014}   HCF Redux

Three episodes into Halt and Catch Fire and I still can’t make up my mind about whether it is an interesting show or not. I really want to like this show. I love that it isn’t afraid to be confusing about the underlying geeky details of computing. The show almost relishes those moments when characters articulate what they’re thinking about the technology without speaking down to its audience. On the other hand, the motivations and actions of the characters outside the realm of technology are the stuff of melodrama and really cheapen the engagement we might have in the pseudo-historical story of developing a new technology that is very different than all that has come before.

Spoiler alert–there is one major plot twist that I’m going to discuss below that if you haven’t yet watched the first three episodes of this show, you might want to avoid.

One of the reasons that this show has intrigued me is that Cameron Howe, the (genius) developer of the BIOS of the new personal computer in the show, is a woman. She is androgynous in her name and her appearance and she is brilliant and defiant. All of that intrigues me when the story takes place in the early 1980s. She is focused on developing this really base level machine code without which the hardware cannot succeed. So psyched that a woman is central to the success of this new machine. On the other hand, she is the only character who is shown shopping for new clothes because, of course, in the middle of trying to revolutionize computing, she would be concerned that her clothing isn’t feminine enough. Annoying.

Another woman in the show, Donna Clark, is portrayed as both the nagging wife of our hardware genius, Gordon, and the unacknowledged originator of the chip layering idea that we already know will be the thing that allows our new computer to be light enough to be portable. I might appreciate the complexity of this character if it wasn’t done in such a shallow obvious manner. Donna seems to be the inhibitor of Gordon’s real genius because she keeps reminding him that he has children and they might need a little bit of his attention. The bird that shows up in episode three was a bit much for me, especially when Donna was the one who had to be practical and kill it with a shovel. Metaphor, anyone?

Lee Pace’s portrayal of Joe MacMillan has been particularly annoying. His single emotion seems to be anger. The story line about the scars on his chest is only interesting if the creators take advantage of the inconsistencies that Cameron pointed out in his telling of how he got them. I get it. He’s angry. With EVERYONE. So let’s start explaining some of the past events that have so far been alluded to. And here’s the big spoiler–what is up with sex scene with LouLu’s boy toy? That was a plot twist that surprised me. But I don’t think Lee Pace is great in this role because he seems to think that playing a genius means constantly displaying arrogant anger. I think it would have been much more interesting if he had played that sex scene more tenderly.

So where do I currently fall in regards to this show? I still like that the show doesn’t sugar coat the technicalities of what this group of people is trying to achieve. I want the show to succeed in telling that story. On the other hand, I think the layering of the interpersonal relationships has been a bit heavy handed and has taken away from what might be a powerful story.

{June 5, 2014}   HCF

I just watched the pilot episode of AMC’s new show, Halt and Catch Fire, which airs in Mad Men‘s Sunday 10pm slot. I was pretty intrigued by the slew of previews I saw while watching this spring’s half season of Mad Men (and by the way, since when does a season start in the spring of one year, take nearly a year hiatus, and then end in the spring of the following year?). I definitely recognize that a show about building a new computer in the early 1980s has the potential to be incredibly boring. There was a lot of good stuff in the pilot as well as some potentially bad but I definitely wasn’t bored.

One of the annoying things about the show is the arrogant genius behaving badly trope. Lee Pace plays the first arrogant genius, Joe MacMillan. When Joe is introduced to us, he is driving his Porsche very, very fast and runs over an armadillo, which is our first clue that he’s in Texas. Joe makes speeches full of the vision thing and gets annoyed when his fellow computer salesman, Gordon, tries to talk about mundane details like free installation. He is a master manipulator, which I found annoying, but he has some mystery in his background, which I found intriguing. I look forward to finding out what he’s been doing since his disappearance from his IBM job a year prior to the events of the show. The second arrogant genius is Cameron Howe, a woman who is a senior at an engineering school, where, for some unknown reason, Joe is a guest speaker. She is the misunderstood genius that no one pays attention to because she is so far ahead of her time. As Mackenzie Davis portrays her, Cameron reminds me of Watts, theĀ  Mary Stuart Masterson character in Some Kind of Wonderful, complete with anger at the world and a punk soundtrack playing on her Walkman. But she’s a genius so we forgive her her quirks. The final genius is not as arrogant as he is depressed. Gordon Clark, played by Scott McNairy, was the inventor of a failed computer who has been reduced to selling other people’s computers. When we first meet him, he is drunk and his wife has brought their kids to the jailhouse to bail him out. He drunkenly reminisces about the failure of his computer–when they tried to turn it on to demo it, it wouldn’t turn on. But he is also a visionary, having written an article for Byte magazine about open architectures for CPUs. Joe quotes that article to convince Gordon to come work with him on his new project.

Although I found the genius trope annoying and over the top, there was a lot about the show that I enjoyed. I really enjoyed the history of the show. Even though it’s fictional, it reminded me of a lot of things that I haven’t thought about in years. Byte magazine is one of those things. I loved that magazine and was a regular reader in the 1980s. It seemed completely believable to me that someone might have written an article for the magazine that inspired someone else to take a big chance on trying something new and different. Other mentions in the show that brought back memories: CP/M, SCP, the dominance of IBM (International Business Machines) in the computer industry of the day and the joys of playing Centipede at the arcade. I also liked the reverse engineering scene although I can understand that if you don’t have a tech background, that scene might have been confusing or boring or both. That’s probably why it’s kind of glossed over. Most viewers probably won’t be too excited about watching guys using an oscilloscope to record pin voltages and then recording the contents of 64K of ROM to get the BIOS instructions in assembly language. Just writing that sentence makes me smile. It’s a very cool scene.

I am a little torn by the title of the show. On the one hand, I think it’s cool that the title refers to an assembly language instruction, HCF. Assembly is a low-level computer language which means that there is a very low level of abstraction which means the programmer is very close to writing code in binary, the zeroes and ones that the computer understands. It is really geeky to program in assembly these days as most software is written in languages that contain instructions at a higher level of abstraction from binary. HCF is an instruction that halted operation of the computer by instructing it to repeat the same operation over and over. The “catch fire” part of the instruction comes from the story (myth?) that some of the wiring in an old computer heated up so much by this repetition that it actually caught fire. Nice. On the other hand, “halt and catch fire” seems like an obvious metaphor that sometimes the best laid plans blow up in your face. Bleh. In fact, metaphor in this show is pretty obvious. At one point, for example, when it looks like Gordon won’t work with him, Joe pulls out a bat that has the inscription “Swing for the fences” and so he does, literally, by hitting a ball over and over until he breaks a window. Not so subtle.

A couple of other things made me roll my eyes as well. Most of the bonding/conflict stuff between Cameron and Joe, for example. The trick quarter, the conversation about VLSI, and the stupid sex scene all seemed too superficial and lazy. But I understand that first episodes are tricky. The characters have to be introduced and established quickly and so shortcuts are often taken. I just hope the show relies more on the cool stuff once the story is established. I will keep watching to see what they do with this fairly promising start.

et cetera