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After my long post last week I thought maybe another one might not be needed. But then this week Cameron unleashed a torrent of technobabble, whiteboarding and wall code that even made me ponder a little. So here's some more explanations and background. As before, I try to provide a general meaning, then a little more detail for the curious.

In addition to these notes, you may want to look at AMC's Story Sync for HACF. It has some episode trivia, polls and other multimedia fun. It's designed to auto-advance while watching the show live, but it mostly works to page through it manually at any time.

OK, so here goes. Comments/corrections/additions welcome.

Preliminaries

1983: The show is indeed set in 1983. I thought the show might be about the first company to reverse-engineer the IBM PC BIOS, but it gets established in this episode that they're not the first to do so.

Columbia Data and Compaq: Real-life companies, at that time, mentioned by Joe. These companies reverse-engineered the IBM PC BIOS in 1982. They also used "clean room design" to avoid infringing IBM's copyrights.

CPU: Central Processing Unit. Also known as a microprocessor in the personal computer because it is entirely on a single chip. This is the part of the computer that actually executes the machine-readable instructions of programs. (I define this term here because I had to use it a lot, below.)

Cameron's Quotes and Scribbles

"Sure, I might decide I want to spend the rest of my natural life waiting to move an instruction without a 16-bit bus, ..." -- Cameron speaking to IBM Lawyers

  • The gist: Cameron is insulting IBM's PC hardware and BIOS as being frustratingly slow and inferior. Cardiff Electric's PC will be using a newer CPU with better capabilities, and Cameron's BIOS will support those features.
  • The tech: The data "bus" is the electronic circuitry that transfers data and instructions between where they're stored in memory and where they're executed in the CPU. The IBM PC had a data bus of only 8 bits, which could transfer 8 bits (1 byte) at a time. This doesn't mean the CPU with the 16-bit bus is fully twice as fast, but in this case it's certainly much faster.

"Computers should have photorealistic screens, ... a million pixels, ... and... and..." -- Cameron arguing with Gordon

  • The gist: Cameron is dreaming way beyond her current technology. Regarding graphics: true photorealism and a million pixels on personal computers didn't happen until about ten years later.
  • The tech: Pixels relate to the dots of light that make up an image displayed on the screen. Home computers of 1983 generally could only manage 64,000 pixels (320 horizontal by 200 vertical) using only 4 colors. Photorealism requires at least thousands of colors.

Cameron's big whiteboard

  • The gist: Most of it is useful, very technical details of the CPU that will be used in Cardiff Electric's clone computer.
  • The tech: Across the top is the 16-bit flags register (an internal detail) of the early Intel x86 family of CPUs. In the middle are misc details about x86 commands. At the bottom, oddly, are assembly language's naming rules for labels and values, using a style of specifying patterns called regular expressions.

"... to align on octal boundaries. ... we can do a shift left together with a 3 bit zero fill to the right, which is faster and gives the same results on the accumulator on the 80186...." -- Cameron speaking to Joe.

  • The gist: Cameron is taking time out from writing the BIOS to make sure what she's writing is very efficient and fast.
  • The tech: The "shift" she describes is almost analogous to multiplying a number by 100. Instead of taking time to multiply each digit the standard way as for any two numbers, you can just add two zeros to the end of the original number. Much faster. [... but I have a techy comment; see below.]

Cameron's wall of code on the wall

  • The gist: It's 3 columns of Cameron's assembly language code for the BIOS. It's not the whole BIOS, and judging from Gordon's awe, it's not copied from IBM's BIOS.

Other Quotes

"pure megahertz, crank up the crystal, attack it with software." -- Gordon
  • The gist: Gordon is brainstorming various ways to make a computer faster.
  • The tech: There's an electronic circuit that uses an oscillating crystal to "tick" millions of times per second (megahertz or MHz). Computers use this ticking "clock" to pace the CPU and other components. Using a faster crystal would increase the speed somewhat, but it is still limited by the maximum clock speed ratings given by the CPU manufacturer. As for the software approach, that is about writing software that does the same task in less time, usually by using fewer instructions and/or more efficient steps.

"... we're all unreasonable people, and progress depends on our changing the world to fit us. Not the other way around." -- Joe to Gordon and Cameron in the parking lot.

  • Just Joe: As was noticed already in the show, Joe is well-read and sometimes uses famous people's quotes. This one is attributed to George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Misc. & Technical Notes


The "computer" on Cameron's desk (the one that she takes apart) seems to be just a video display terminal. It's basically a monitor and keyboard that communicates data over a wire with a large, business-class computer in another room of the building.

OK, I have to admit, I've never heard of aligning data on octal [bit] boundaries. Yes multiply-by-8 can be done with 3 bit shifts to the left, there's no question there. I'm just curious if there's a real need to do this, or if it's a meaninglessness or misfire of technobabble.

Cameron's third whiteboard (on the floor, a later scene) contains more detailed info about how the CPU processes instructions, apparently relating to floating point arithmetic operations. It includes latency info that might only be a detail of 486 and later CPUs, though. (The 80486 was released 1989).

The guy sitting in front of Joe when he's being introduced to the team looks kind of like Steve Jobs back then. Perhaps just a popular hairstyle and outfit?

The 'stangs: College football, the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Mustangs, in Dallas.

And finally: good research by the show on the 80s-speak! Lots of references and even words that I haven't heard probably since that decade: 700 club, Doctor J, stagflation.
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Jun 13, 2014
Well that was a great episode! My heart was sinking when IBM "raided" Cardiff Electric. It was so sad. Joe is crazy mysterious and is anything he says true? Was he lying about his roof story? Was Cameron calling him out?
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Jun 12, 2014
One of the non-technical aspects of the episode I liked was the reference to the SMU recruiting fund. This was the period of time leading up to "death-sentence" for the football team due to paying players.
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Jun 12, 2014
There have always been some discussion on the subject of IBM compatibility. The Columbia Data Products one (June 1982) was the first to claim it and make it work. Whether it was 100% compatible remains to be seen. Their pc was followed up with a portable PC, the 32 pound (15 kg) "luggable" Columbia VP in 1983.

The Compaq Portable from November 1982 (or January 1983, dependant on which article you read), was the first 100% compatible IBM computer clone. This would not be in line with the fact that the series plays in 1983 and gave us the idea that there was no portable around.

IBM introduced their first portable in 1984.

In those years IBM compatibility was defined and tested in a way we probably laugh about in these days. It was tested by running Microsoft Flight Simulator and if the tester wanted to do something extra, one or more of DBASE-II, Wordstar and Lotus 1-2-3. Only a few used other programs.

Buying in for the whole Dutch government, we had Dutch companies claiming to be IBM compatible and giving us pc's for testing that were specifically (BIOS) designed to be able to run Flight Simulator. Other programs (beside their own), could falter. But as they passed the test, Dutch government was almost obliged to buy them and millions and millions of dollars were spent on computers that almost never left the boxes as they were hardly usable.

As I said, I have stories to tell that should be in books.
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Jun 12, 2014
Indeed, "portable" back then seemed only to mean "has a handle on it." We had a very heavy, bulky "portable" television with a 19" picture tube, for example.

Wow, that's awful about all those PCs. I didn't have to care about clones until after they had truly become 100% compatible, but I remember a lot of talk about most early brands falling ever so slightly short of that goal. I'm kind of hoping the show mentions something about it.
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Jun 12, 2014
I remember the first 'portable' computer coming in for testing in around 1985. I remember the technoboys laughing at it and calling it 'transportable'. We often needed a hand trolley to move them.
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Jun 12, 2014
This post the technobable is even techno for me, I seem to have forgotten most of machine language issues and I have never coded a bios in my life. My brother did, for the computer he built himself around 1982. But he was something between a nerd and a genius.
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Jun 12, 2014
Oh, stagflation, high inflation and stagnating grow. We had a kid of economical crisis in the Netherlands around 1983/84 and I was just trying to get my first job. It was a huge problem ....
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Jun 12, 2014
Just Joe: (Warning: possible spoilers) The parking lot scene made Joe actually appear to BE one of those unreasonable people who would change the world - full of vision and ideals. But he does seem to "borrow" a lot of other people's ideas, and sell them as his own. Cameron isn't fooled. Her reply in another scene was the best: "I heard all about it... have fun, make money... and then a whole bunch of other shit you either made up entirely or stole from someone else." After the final conversation between her and Joe at the end, you wonder if there's anything real about him at all, or if it's all just made up or stolen from someone else. (I'm also betting his big reveal in the parking lot was more likely from the data center incident than any childhood trauma. Stay tuned.)
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Jun 12, 2014
Strangely enough, we very much need those people who borrow from others and make something new out of it. Two old ideas, a bit of genius and a good talk can make a brilliant third idea. The 1 + 1 = 3. To be honest, I am one of those guys. I have always been able to take a few existing things, add to it and better the situation, process, design etc in my companies. Joe is different in the way that he does as if it's him who comes up with these stories. On the other hand, it seems that his ideas where to go with the pc's all have an original, creative part in them.

People with really original ideas have ideas that are based on hardly any existing knowledge. Those are the real geniuses like Leonardo, Einstein etc. Higgs f.i. of course is brilliant, but he deduced the particle had to exist to make sense of the readings.
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Jun 13, 2014
You're right of course. My comment was not really meant as criticism of his methods, but more speculation about his true motives. Since you can't take anything he says in his little pep-talks at face value, what's really driving him? Money? Revenge? Daddy issues? Some combination of these things? In spite of his speeches about wanting to change the world, he still strikes me as more of a salesman, promoter, or entrepreneur than a true visionary. That doesn't mean he won't change the world. You could say the same thing about Bill Gates, and look what he ended up doing.
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Jun 13, 2014
I have not seen the connection (yet) between him using text from others and his motives. For me it was just that he used what he had to get done what he wanted. I am still a bit vague about who is the visionary, him or Gordon, but we know for sure Gordon it a etch wiz.

We'll just have to wait to see what happened to Joe in the year he as missing.
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Jun 11, 2014
Nice info. I'm from "that time" and I remember stagflation very well. Not pretty, especially here in Brazil.
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Jun 11, 2014
I really enjoy this commentary. Is there a mailing list or another way to remind me it's here?
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Jun 11, 2014
The only way is to join the community and read the community feed. We have been asking for a lot more, but nothing changed over the last year...
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Jun 12, 2014
I guess I'll just leave the tab open then. :)
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Jun 12, 2014
Oh, and the other way is to leave the tab of @ArkhamNative's posts open :-)
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Jun 10, 2014
Hey! I haven't watched latest episode yet. When I do I'll be back!
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