My Corner of the ‘Net

Halt and jump in a fire…

Posted on | July 16, 2014 | No Comments

Everyone wants to understand the Hacker generation, if for no other reason then because the Internet has gone from fun novelty, to techno-lifestyle, to a necessity akin to phone or electrical service. As the ‘Net became integral to our lives people became more and more interested in those who build the addictive phone apps, designed the global networks we depend on, and created the hardware we all grew up using.

The recent Steve Jobs biopic was part of this curiosity, a pulse of nostalgia over the man who spearheaded efforts to create modern personal computing. There are also television series which are mining this vein of geeky infatuation, including Betas (good but technically flawed) and Silicon Valley (more accurate but as a drama, uneven).

But one impressive show that has unbounded energy, but seems to have yet to find it’s voice, is Halt and Catch Fire.

The title is based on a little known resource allocation error, happening when a program causes a computer to be stuck running, forcing a CPU to keep consuming runtime and needs to be forced to stop. It’s a title chosen to reflect the series, which is casted with not the usual array of modern twenty-something 21st century hipster-nerds, but set in the 1980’s with a cast including a hard-working visionary engineer, a (rare) grunge girl programmer savant, and a salesman-demogauge who’s motivation to build the first truly portable IBM clone is veiled in mystery.

This isn’t a light adventure in programming, with the characters huddled over laptops and debugging code, gulping down cans of Rockstar while their day-roaming counterparts hustle for venture capital. The show is about engineers, men who sketched up a blueprint io something that no one has even thought about doing before. They’re out there at the edges of technology, alone, so terribly alone that they don’t even know if what they’re building will work. They’re adults with families, children that they never see enough. There’s no Google to use for searching for answers if they hit a snag, not a single forum to post to for brainstorming with like-minded individuals. All they have is their own knowledge and whatever they can read from good old fashion in-hand paper.

It’s too easy to forget that so much of innovation is the willingness to slog it out, just be a good employee and do the job they pay you to do. Somewhere along the line our culture started expecting all innovation to happen overnight, with a spark, a lightbulb that would make the inspired genius jump from his bed and type the critical keystrokes that solve the insoluble problem that’s been plaguing his “killer app”. There’s some of that in this show, but the focus is mainly on how hard it is to be a trailblazer, cutting a path through territory no one has explored before.

It does tend to bog-down with personal drama, which would be my one complaint about the show, but the stressors that the high-drama represent are believable. We see how hard individuals are willing to push themselves in order to achieve, making their mark in the technology world along the way.

Right now, Halt and Catch Fire is a lot of bricks that were thrown into a wall-shaped stack in the pilot episode. It has a lot of potential, but it’s still too visceral, too gritty in its execution. What it needs is a triumph to make all the pain worthwhile. What it looks like when it finally gets put together…will be interesting.

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