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Welcome To 1986: Inside 'Halt And Catch Fire's' High-Tech Time Machine (fastcompany.com) 75

The third season of AMC's technology drama "Halt and Catch Fire" painstakingly recreated Silicon Valley and San Francisco in 1986. Long-time Slashdot reader harrymcc shares his first-person report: The new episodes...are rich with carefully-researched plot points, dialogue, and sets full of vintage technology (including a startup equipped with real Commodore 64s and a recreated IBM mainframe). I visited the soundstage in Atlanta where the producers have recreated Northern California in the 1980s, and spoke with the show's creators and stars about the loving attention they devote to getting things right.
Harry argues that the show "is in part about how we got from the past to the present," and writes that he saw several 5 1/4-inch floppy disks "including Memorex, 3M, and BASF FlexyDisk," plus "a manual for Frogger for the Atari 2600, a copy of a spreadsheet program known as MicroPro CalcStar...and countless other little pieces of history."
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Welcome To 1986: Inside 'Halt And Catch Fire's' High-Tech Time Machine

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  • Anyone seen my 1541 floopies?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Your drive still works? Mine died after playing Bicycle Built for Two a few too many times.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I can open a cupboard and pull out a real C64 with 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, although I favored Verbatim.

    • Re:So? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Sunday August 28, 2016 @04:52PM (#52786157)

      No screenshots I've seen from that show look like Silicon Valley in the 80s. At best they look like a San Francisco hipsters idea of what it was like. Seriously, brick buildings in Silicon Valley?

      • First 2 seasons they where based in texas. Its mirroring the fact that Compaq was an off-shoot from Texas intruments. Compaq was the first company that reverse engineered the BIOS.

        • by Rob Y. ( 110975 )

          It's my impression that Compaq reversed engineered the BIOS with some nod-and-wink help from Microsoft in order to wrest the PC business away from IBM.

          This show simply implies they were building a better clone, and has nothing to do with reverse engineering the BIOS. In fact, there's a subplot about 'building a new OS that understands natural language commands'. ...and then the Mac happens. So, it's a bit of a mishmash of everything that was going on at the time. Now they're trying to compete with Compus

  • by jader3rd ( 2222716 ) on Sunday August 28, 2016 @06:52PM (#52786697)
    I started watching Halt and Catch Fire, but it never really held my interest. I don't think that I made it past the 5th episode. The portends to be based on 1980's experiences, but I can't think of anyone with whom they could base the main characters off of.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      The first season had a Jobs and Wozniak vibe mixed with a bit of storyline from "Soul of a new Machine". It was almost interesting. Predictably it has decided to promote a feminist agenda because, you know, that's the in-thing these days. Next we're likely to get a full-on soap opera by watching a marriage fall apart and the emotional fallout. Boring shit.

    • The portends to be based on 1980's experiences, ...

      Not mine. From 1985-87, while still in school, I worked on developing automatic-programming code on a Xerox 1108 (Dandelion) in InterLISP-D [wikipedia.org]. And ported Franz LISP from 4.3 BSD on a VAX 785 to SunOS on a Sun-3 (I believe). After graduating, I later went to work at NASA Langley in 1988 as a sysadmin for their Convex and Cray (2 and YMP) systems.

      I watched most (maybe all) of the first season of "Halt and Catch Fire" and was pretty bored. Never went back.

      Although... my micro-programming / assembly class w

    • Does it matter that the characters are based on real people from the 80's? My main criteria is that the characters are compelling in some way and their environment is consistent.

      FWIW, if you only watched the first 5 episodes maybe give it a second look. They've reworked the show from "Don Draper in tech" to plucky start up vs well funded former colleague.

      • Does it matter that the characters are based on real people from the 80's?

        Kind of, yes. I know that the show is fictional, and it never says "based off of real experiences," but it gives the vibe that it is at least based off of real peoples experiences. But since I can't think of anyone having similar experiences in that time setting, it bothered me enough that the characters weren't consistent with their setting, such that all of the self inflicted drama never really garnered my interest.

    • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot@nOSpam.worf.net> on Monday August 29, 2016 @01:16AM (#52787783)

      I started watching Halt and Catch Fire, but it never really held my interest. I don't think that I made it past the 5th episode. The portends to be based on 1980's experiences, but I can't think of anyone with whom they could base the main characters off of.

      They didn't. It's based on real events that did happen, but like Silicon Valley, it features a set of characters who are basically living through the home computing boom of the 80s. There are some real life similarities, but I think they were done to tell more interesting side stories that happened for real that people may not know about,

      Season 1 was about developing an IBM PC clone and basically delves into the design and coding of the most important part, the BIOS. They also explore side threads like a friendly computer that greets you and all that, bookending with the discovery of the Macintosh demo and its graphics.

      Season 2 was developing an online service, timesharing systems, and worms (a recount of the Morris worm).

      Season 3 is just developing, and it's too early to tell what stores it may tell.

      It's less about real life 1980s, and more about a bunch of people doing tech stuff during the 1980s, completely independently of what happened. Sometimes they tell an interesting story like Senaris (Morris worm), which given how limited internet connectivity was in the 1980s, most people blew right past, but here it is retold (a programming bug caused it to spread over and over again).

      Take it more for the nostalgia of what the 80s were like in the tech industry and less about real history. And enjoy it - Season 1 didn't get great ratings, but AMC felt it had potential and gave it a season 2. Season 2 had terrible ratings and for some reason or other, AMC renewed it. Chances are, though, Season 3 is it. (Let's say Walking Dead is penthouse. Halt and Catch Fire is somewhere in sub-basement level 10, only accessible via ladder from a dark corner of the underground parking lot because that's where someone decided to put a storage rack.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Season 1 was basically about creating an "IBM" Clone, so the storyline pulls details from Compaq, but then throws a few details that is more in line with the creation of the Apple Lisa than anything else. It ends with a truck load of computers being torched.

        Season 2 is likely a lot more familiar to the /. crowd, as it has all the things you remember about the early BBS era (that I was fortunate to see, but the area I lived in lacked any BBS, so long distance calls boo, so I created my own.) The *spoiler* th

      • by Raenex ( 947668 )

        Take it more for the nostalgia of what the 80s were like in the tech industry and less about real history. And enjoy it - Season 1 didn't get great ratings, but AMC felt it had potential and gave it a season 2. Season 2 had terrible ratings and for some reason or other, AMC renewed it.

        Meh, as much as I like tech, these kind of drama shows about tech history don't translate into good entertainment. A documentary like Triump of the Nerds [wikipedia.org] is more informative and entertaining to watch.

        • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

          I have to agree, I have never cared for the spaghetti western and the spaghetti tech story isn't really any better. The real events are plenty interesting and certainly can be dramatized with some little interpersonal side stories, and self reflection history obviously did not record without veering to pure fiction. You can also go the strait facts documentary route like "Triumph of the Nerds", which as far as docs go probably belongs up there with the "The Civil War" in terms of excellence.

          Treating histo

          • Its confusing, and it usually feels hackney because its to close to reality to suspend disbelief your brain therefore is keeps pulling in everything else you know and remember from that time and saying "but this would never have happened because..."

            That could be why I wasn't finding it entertaining; it's running into an uncanny valley issue in my head. But instead of with graphics, with the main characters.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        It's good that AMC are willing to support shows that might not be instant mega hits but have potential for either growth or long term cult status. Like Star Trek. It's got the point where I don't watch new stuff on channels like Fox because they tend to kill shows before the first season is even over if the ratings aren't stellar, and I hate unfinished stories. HBO seem to have lead the way with developing shows and other channels are now following.

        HACF is an interesting show, good characters, with some nic

  • by andrewa ( 18630 ) on Sunday August 28, 2016 @09:02PM (#52787077)
    When I was programming commercial games on the C64 I eventually used a cross-development system, which was a piece of hardware attached to some cruddy PC clone, an Apricot iirc... Basically it used an interface card to the target computer (I also occasionally did Spectrum and Amstrad CPC/Schneider stuff, but mostly C64). It was horribly expensive, about £2000, and that was before purchasing a HDD... Would be interested to see if this show features that development system, but I'm highly unlikely to watch it, I still haven't watched Silicon Valley or Mr. Robot yet...
    • by Anonymous Coward

      >When I was programming commercial games on the C64...

      Thank you. Thank you so much for a beautiful childhood, (and the motivation to learn code myself).

  • The first three seconds of the (longer) trailer of the first season lost me with:

    LOADHIGH A:/SYS/BIOS

    PRINT /D:LPT1 /A:/SYS/BIOS

    What the hell is this? TI-RTOS? Nope. CP/M, or its bastardized cousin, PC/DOS? Nope. Sorry - with a name like "Halt and Catch Fire", I'd have expected something better than stupid TV writer gibberish.

    • The first three seconds of the (longer) trailer of the first season lost me with:

      LOADHIGH A:/SYS/BIOS

      PRINT /D:LPT1 /A:/SYS/BIOS

      What the hell is this? TI-RTOS? Nope. CP/M, or its bastardized cousin, PC/DOS? Nope. Sorry - with a name like "Halt and Catch Fire", I'd have expected something better than stupid TV writer gibberish.

      hell Yah. Star Trek lost me at the whole faster than light space travel thing, Firefly with English and Chinese speaking human beings in a distant solar system... That whole "Willing suspension of disbelief" thing is overrated...

  • by Casandro ( 751346 ) on Monday August 29, 2016 @02:13AM (#52787901)

    I mean realism is not everything with those shows, but it hurts when they include segments that make no sense in he context and are historically inaccurate.

    I'm specifically talking about the "reverse engineering the IBM PC" bit. That bit involved reading a PROM with switches and LEDs... those LEDs came in colours unimaginable back in the 1980s. That wouldn't be bad if the whole scene would have made no sense. You can read out that PROM with the BASIC Interpreter provided with the computer... and the rest was documented in the manuals. The IBM PC was, essentially, open source (but not free). That's why it áfas to popular. There was no need to reverse engineer.

    So spending a large part of your episode showing something that made no sense... and showing that very badly, kinda killed it for me.

    I don't know how the other episodes went, but this kinda pissed me off. In a time where we have TV series like Silicon Valley or Mr Robot we shouldn't applaud a props guy ordering some C-64s.

    • by HBI ( 604924 )

      And it was open like that because it was directly competing with CP/M systems which generally were same/same - source of the BIOS readily available and easily dumpable from the system's ROM.

      • Well there was no way to prevent dumping the ROM on those machines. And the schematics were obviously there to signal that the machines are maintainable. Also back then virtually any electronic device came with its schematics.

  • I'm surprised that NONE of the designers on the show were aware that the most recognizable and maligned font of all time, Comic Sans (shown in this image http://b.fastcompany.net/multi... [fastcompany.net] ), wasn't invented until 1994.

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