Halt and Catch Fire

So I finally joined the streaming video generation. I joined Netflix back in November, Hulu in December, and it’s only now that I’m starting to come up for air. It’s true what they say: That shit is addictive!

After several months of my new addiction, I’ve now burned through a number of shows that either I missed when they aired or that are only available on streaming platforms. I never got to watch Burn Notice, for instance. Now I have. All seven seasons!

Another one I missed (and have now seen) was AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, and I have very mixed feelings about this one. Kind of a love/hate thing…

The love comes, in large measure, because I was there in the era that the show is about — the mid-1980s to the early 1990s — when home computers changed the world forever. In fact, I was involved with computers starting in the late 1970s, so I had a good seat to watch it all unfold.

The show mainly involves the IBM PC and clones, and also the Commodore 64, both computers I owned (in the former case, built myself) and used for programming.

So the show’s topic is very squarely in my bailiwick.

Which is also where the hate comes from, because while they got (as a meaningless emotional guesstimate) about 25% of the tech talk dead on, the other 75% isn’t just wrong, it’s utter gibberish. “Not even wrong,” as they say.

And what really grates is the meaning they attach to the name of the show: Halt and Catch Fire.

This is such utter gibberish that it’s not even wrong. It’s just gibberish.

Okay, first of all, there never was any such actual computer command. It was a joke! Due to the joke, some designers added instructions to their CPU sets that did halt it, and some CPUs have instructions used for debugging purposes, and some had flaws that stop the machine dead under certain inputs.

But, of course, none of them cause the CPU to catch fire!

(As a minor quibble, at the CPU level, they’re usually called “instructions” rather than “commands”. The latter is used for higher level languages and interfaces. Note they use the proper term later in the sentence.)

More importantly, “a race condition”? WTF?

Generally, a race condition is a hardware thing: two (or more) electrical signals racing toward a single detector where the outcome depends on which gets there first. Race conditions just aren’t possible with CPU instructions.

(Okay, full disclosure: In certain very specific cases there can be a sort of race condition with software. The recently discovered, very bad, Meltdown vulnerability depends on a race between an instruction making an illegal memory access and the exception triggered by it.)

But there is no way for multiple instructions to be in a race condition, let alone any notion whatsoever that they “compete for superiority.” That is utter, complete, total gibberish.

The show’s creators clearly intended this as a metaphor for the era and the behavior of the characters in the show, but this utter disregard — nay, almost contempt — for accuracy pervades the show and often made it very hard for me to enjoy.

That level of disregard seems odd in a show about computing.

Did they really not have a qualified expert to help them? Did they just not care? I don’t see this as a case of drama-over-facts (because the facts can be boring dramatically). There’s no reason they couldn’t have done better and been just as enthralling.

(This is a frequent complaint of mine when it comes to science- or technology-based stories and especially science fiction. One doesn’t have to info-dump tons of facts, but the ones you do choose to use, please get them right (or at least right-ish). Not all viewers are ignorant chimps even if most are.)

And it’s not that they got better over the four seasons. In one of the last episodes Cameron uses recursion as a metaphor (which is fine), but she acts like recursion is some distant comp sci topic that she remembers from her school days.

Recursion, for fucks sake, is a fundamental aspect of software. It is, in fact, one of the three things required for any programming language. (Its lack is one reason HTML is not, repeat not, a programming language. (But it is a computer language.))

For Cameron to act like it’s anything special reveals that the folks writing this show shouldn’t have been writing this show. Or at least they needed someone who understood the topic at the level the people in the show supposedly do.

There are major plot points that don’t make sense to me. For the life of me, I don’t understand what Westgroup actually does for Mutiny. They don’t provide computing power — that’s at Mutiny. Phone lines? But why would Westgroup have them, and doesn’t Mutiny need the same number of lines coming in?

In fairness, there is some talk by Tom about having multiple users on one phone line (which is weird and impossible if we’re talking normal dial-in), so maybe they’re line-sharing between Westgroup and Mutiny?

But, again, why does Westgroup have phone banks? It was Joe who (secretly) added the TSO to the system. It’s not like Westgroup had tons of users dialing in.

And on top of that, the whole thing was Joe using Westgroup’s computing resources during off hours. What did that mean for Mutiny users?

The whole season (two) seems built on some egregious bullshit.

But okay fine, fuck it. I’m a computer geek, and maybe I’m being too picky about getting computing details right in a show about computing.

But for contrast, consider the UK sitcom The IT Crowd, which has (so far) gotten every detail dead spot on. It’s pretty damn funny, too. You just have to decide to take what you’re doing seriously.

From a purely storytelling point of view, tech details ignored, I still have something of a love/hate relationship. The hate comes from not really liking any of the characters.

Joe and Cameron, in particular, strike me as a pair of narcissistic, immature assholes with no impulse control (i.e. the sort of people I really despise).

Gordon is kind of a loser asshole, and after four seasons I wasn’t that thrilled with Donna anymore, either.

And while I will confess to seeing parts of both Gordon (the hardware guy) and Cameron (the software gal) in me, other than their talent and intelligence, those are parts of me I’ve tried to hard to improve. They are not enduring or welcome traits. (And they did get me in trouble at work over the years.)

So, okay, maybe I’m rejecting personality traits in characters that I find so unwelcome in myself, and perhaps that makes them more authentic and real and, from a dramatic point of view, more interesting.

But damn. Hard to watch sometimes, especially when I’m smarting over all the damn techno-babble. It would have been nice if there had been at least one character I could really just plain like.

I thought, for a while, that Boz was that guy (and how ironic is that? the least tech member of the cast), but that didn’t really last. But still, if I had to hang out with any of them, I’d pick Boz.

Okay, so that’s a lot about why I hated the show, but not so much about why I loved it. Or, more accurately, really liked it pretty much okay.

As I did mention, I lived through that era being deeply into computers at the time. It was sheer fun to relive that era, which reshaped the world and certainly reshaped me. In a word: nostalgia!

And, personal flaws aside, the characters were interesting and certainly well performed and generally consistent to their natures. I did find the fourth season relationship between Joe and Cameron mindbogglingly boring. Why I was supposed to give even the tiniest of shits about them was completely beyond me.

One fourth season episode consists largely of a day(s?)-long phone call between Joe and Cameron. Most painful episode in the series and the only one I fast-forwarded through all that Joe and Cameron noise.

On the other hand, you got to hand it to any actor who can construct a character you take seriously enough to intensely dislike! No complains about the acting! Not one!

They also get high marks for getting the timeline right in terms of historical events, even small ones like movie release dates. Which makes the computer gibberish all the stranger to me. They clearly did care, so why the gibberish?

I also enjoyed, very much, the production design. Loved the sets!

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So, bottom line, thumbs up or down? You might think, from all the ranting, that it’s thumbs down, but I find that I need to like something a lot before I can be bothered to dislike it much, if you follow what I mean.

Maybe another way to say it is that I have to like something a lot before I can be disappointed or upset by it. “You only hate the ones you love,” as the saying goes.

So, with a lot of caveats, it’s definitely thumbs up. I’d recommend it (with qualifications), and it’s even possible I may watch some of it again someday. (Odds are poor just because there’s so much to watch that I’ve never seen.)

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I’m pretty sold on the whole streaming video thing. There are three things I really love: No commercials, no commercials, and no commercials.

Wait! Make that four things: No fucking commercials! (I can’t find the words to describe how much I loathe commercials, especially those prescription drug ones. I can only pray streaming video destroys that world.)

I’m seriously considering “cutting the cable” — I just need to do some analysis on subscribing to various platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) as well as various networks’ services (CBS, TNT, etc.) compared to what I’m paying Comcast.

Whom I loathe so, so, so much. I can’t wait to break up with them.

For one, their on-demand service is commercial-full (not quite as bad as aired, but close), plus they disable your ability to FF through them. And I can hardly even watch aired broadcasts now (baseball excepted) because of the commercials.

No. No. No. I’m paying for content. Fuck your commercials.

In fact, that considered, I’d be willing to pay more for various subscriptions than I do for cable if it makes my life commercial-free.

So let’s see… Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, CBS, NBC, TBS, TNT, MLB,… That’s eight so far, and if I assume an average of $15 per month each that’s $120 per month (which is about what I pay Comcast).

Oops, forgot: BBS, HBO, Showtime. So probably more than I’m paying now, but hey, no commercials!

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P.S. For Christmas I bought myself a 65″ OLED TV (the LG B7A) and holy shit is it wonderful! I had a 45″ LCD previously (since, like, 2004, so def time for an upgrade), and it was a fine TV, but this new one is awesome!

And I’ve almost gotten over the soap opera effect! 🙂

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

4 responses to “Halt and Catch Fire

  • pendantry

    I’ve never understood the mentality of ‘pay a subscription’ — AND get adverts. The showmakers must be laughing their socks off, all the way to the bank.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, exactly.

      Hulu apparently has a lower priced subscription with “some” commercials, but I went for the higher priced one without. (Weirdly, when watching on my iPad, before and after each video there’s a little circle thing in the upper left that spins for a few seconds. It’s labeled “Advertisement,” although, of course per my subscription, no actual advert appears. It’s like the Hulu app still has a “slot” for the ad to go or something. Personally, I think the Hulu app is a piece of shit. They can’t even keep my watch list straight between devices. Idiots.)

      Ah, well, we can only hope that, as more and more people pay for ad-free streaming and say “fuck off” to commercials, maybe the industry that makes all that shite will decline and vanish. Or at the very least return to a pale shadow of the monster they’ve become in our time.

      Yeah… I really hate advertising! 😛

      • pendantry

        You and me both!

        Everyone I’ve talked to about it claims that ‘adverts don’t affect them’, but it’s a multi-, what, -trillion? dollar industry. Obviously advertising works or they wouldn’t do it.

        I just resent wasting my life watching adverts (I use the mute button) and waiting for them to finish. Roll on the day when they’re a thing of the past, I say! 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Indeed. And, despite my best efforts, I’d have to admit it has worked on me on occasion.

        And for the record, it’s not advertising, per se, that I object to. Companies have a right to let you know what they can do for you. It’s the annoying, distracting, invasive, obnoxious juggernaut that it’s become. And I despise the way it tries to generate false need and unnecessary sales.

        It clogs snail mail, it clogs web pages, it clogs TV shows, it even clogs my phone line, and technology just makes it easier and easier for them to directly target you. SPAM is cheap!

        If it were up to me, the only adverts allowed would be in white- and yellow-page systems (paper or online) so that people with needs would seek out companies who can provide for their needs. It’s only when I’m looking for a new TV or new recliner chair for the new TV that I care about companies selling those things. Any other time, it’s an annoyance and distraction. It can actually turn me against a company when the time does come I need a product.

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