AMC’s "Halt and Catch Fire," set during the "Silicon Prairie" computer boom of the 1980s, has a lot of significance for Jim and Janet Miller. The Millers moved to central Texas in 1981 to work for companies including Texas Instruments and MCC. Before moving to northern California in 1988, Janet earned a master’s degree in computer science, Jim participated in the earliest days of artificial intelligence research and, together, they brought two children into the world — myself and my younger brother Eric.
As a result, Jim and Janet are uniquely qualified to comment on how well "Halt and Catch Fire" portrays that specific place and time in the industry’s history. So last weekend, they watched a screener of Season 2, Episode 2, "New Coke," and we talked afterwards.
During an hour-long Skype conversation from their home in Silicon Valley, which included an explanation of "client-heavy" programming I almost understood (I’m the only person in my family without a computer science degree) and Janet remembering the time she learned to shoot an M16 rifle (in order to write a program for a military contract), Jim and Janet explained just how well "Halt" captures the era. And that includes the question of whether or not people were really talking about the idea of "talking" to each other on the Internet in 1985. A significantly condensed transcript is below.
So, did you guys have any problem getting the Episode 2 screener up on the TV?
Jim: No, iPad into HDMI worked fine.
Oh, perfect. I actually haven’t tried that player on an iPad, so that’s cool.
Jim: Yes, the only problem was there was something way at the end, where I was trying to back up. I wanted to see what program Gordon was using to edit or connect or whatever it was. Couldn’t quite make it out, but anyway, I tried to back up by just sliding the thing back, and it wouldn’t slide. I didn’t know if that was because it wasn’t supposed to, for one of these protected screener things, or maybe you’re only allowed so many views. I didn’t want to screw anything up for you, so I let it go.
Janet: I probably will rewatch the episode using subtitles. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I didn’t get and I really wanted to get. When [Gordon, played by Scoot McNairy] starts rattling off how to identify who shot first, I’m just going, "Oh my god!" [laughs]
Why is that? What, specifically, about that dialogue?
Janet: Oh, he rattled off this algorithm, and the young guys, they get glassy, where they’re thinking about it, and, "Oh yeah, that would work! That would probably work!" And it would. Whoever is writing that dialogue, they understand. They know enough about programming to know that would be how you do it.
Yes, they do have a fair number of technical advisors on staff, from what I understand.
Jim: Yes, the hardware is all exactly right. [Janet laughs] There was that point where — I think it was Gordon — says, "I could learn C!" And he picks up a book which was exactly the right book. If you were in 1985 and were saying, "I’m going to learn C," you would get Kernighan and Ritchie, "The C Programming Language."
So you had that book?
Janet: That is the book I learned C from. There was this point when I got out of school and I didn’t have a job. I didn’t even look for a job while Eric was little. As soon as I started looking for a job, people would say, "Okay, so what languages do you program in?" And I’d say, "Well, I program in Lisp," and they’d say, "That’s nice," and I pretty quickly caught on that this was not going to do me any favors, because Lisp was a very nice language, but, well, that’s not what they’re looking for people to program in. That’s when I got a copy of Kernighan and Ritchie and sat down in the office in the house in Austin and taught myself to program in C.
Jim: Yeah, it was the book written by the guys who came up with the language, to document what the language is and how it works. All props to the production designer and the advisors and all that.
Do moments like that happen a fair amount when you watch the show? Or is it just every once in a while that you get a flash of something really familiar?
Jim: I think probably once in a while. I mean, there was a certain amount of, "Oh, hey! That’s really a Commodore 64 there," and "Oh, that really is Kernighan and Ritchie!" There was a really quick reference when Donna and Cameron were talking to the VC: "Oh, we’re gonna have to get six 11/750s. Those are $30,000" — "no, 28,000, used." [laughs] And so, the computer they were talking about was a real computer of the time and it was appropriate for what they were talking about. So, yes, it happens more than a little bit, and it’s kind of a nice, geeky shoutout. But I can believe that somebody who wasn’t prompted to recognize that would be, just, "Oh, yeah, that was a computer thing."
I think that if you don’t know, it’s just going to wash over you and it’s not going to matter. And if you do know, it’s a lot better than if they said, "Oh, we’re gonna need six Armatron XD14s," or some completely made-up name, where you simply say, "Oh, yeah, that’s not a real thing."
Janet: The conflict in the show is based a lot around things that I immediately recognize, and I don’t know that you would understand how important it is unless you understood it as well. I’ll give you an example of this: You’ve got the hacker [in Episode 2]. This is where, I think, unless you really understood what was going on, it was going to maybe a little bit go over people’s head. They wouldn’t understand what was so important about it.
He got in a back door and he had inserted code. What that extra code was doing was basically making it possible for a large number of people to use one single address and make it look like one account. Which means that instead of 10 people paying for 10 accounts, 10 people are paying for one account.
To my 2015 ears, what that sounds like is borrowing someone’s HBO GO password.
Janet: Well, the guy pulled it off by inserting code into somebody else’s code. Getting into the back door and reprogramming their code — that’s more than borrowing someone’s password.
You were saying something about how you feel the conflict’s all really rooted in these sorts of details. Do you think this is a bad thing?
Janet: No. It depends on the audience of the show. If the audience for the show is a ridiculous number of people like me, this would be their cream on top of the cake.
Jim: I would slightly actually disagree with that, in that I think the show is doing a good job of providing both cake and cream, or cake and icing, or whatever. If you have a background in this stuff, then the fact that they’re making some effort to go into a little bit of technical detail, and in fact getting that technical detail pretty much right, that’s a nice thing. But if you don’t have that background, as is probably the case of 90-something percent of the audience, I think they do a good job of setting it up in the show, so that you don’t know the technical details but you kind of get an idea of what’s going on. And that’s enough to understand that, you know, this character has a problem with that character. That’s, I think, what’s more critical for the show, is reaching beyond the people who can recognize a copy of Kernighan and Ritchie when they see one.
This is a question I actually have written down very specifically to ask you, Mom, based on watching Episode 2: When you were going out and looking for work, how often did the question of "Do you have kids?" come up?
Janet: It didn’t come up then. But I have heard that question before. I heard that question in the ’70s, when I first started looking. That was not an unusual question in those days. That is a question that will get you into serious shit today. And there’s a reason for it.
In Episode 2, this comes up, and the way it happens plays like it’s kind of a shock. But it’s interesting to hear that it was a common part of reality back then.
Janet: Things were changing at that point, but they hadn’t changed, and particularly not in a backwater like Texas.
Is it better to get the question if you do have kids vs. you don’t have kids?
Janet: It doesn’t work either way. If you have children, you’re going to be taking time off to be with your children. If you don’t have children, well you’re going to get pregnant. I mean, I got asked [in the 1970s], "Was I married?" And I said, "No, why are you asking?" And he said, "Because you might get married, and then you would have children, and then I would have to train someone else." I was told that directly by somebody.
Is there a specific kicking-off point to Texas suddenly aspiring to be a booming tech empire?
Janet: It was trying to keep it out of the hands of California.
Jim: Even through the ’70s and the ’80s there was a substantial tech presence in Texas, to be fair. And Texas Instruments was right there, they had a substantial chip business, so they did a lot of semiconductor work, they did a lot of military contract work, they did full-size computers of the time, you know, maybe smaller than full-scale IBM mainframes, but they were certainly building computers before they got into the PC business. And there were a number of other companies around in different aspects of this or that. So it’s not like they were trying to completely set up a tech presence in a vacuum.
Janet: But the reason everybody moved to Texas was because of all the money Texas was throwing in order to get all that business. Because Silicon Valley was becoming very well-known back in the ’80s, so Texas starts going, "Oh hey, how about us?"
That’s actually on my list of things to ask you guys about, because in the first two episodes of this season the concept of, "Oh, we should move to Silicon Valley," they’re not calling it Silicon Valley, but—
Janet: NorCal! I can’t believe—
Jim: One geeky guy once said that. Let it go.
Janet: No, he wasn’t the only one. It also came up with Joe! That’s what Texans call this area.
Jim: I don’t recall him saying "NorCal."
Janet: He did not say "Silicon Valley."
Jim: No, Joe did say "Silicon Valley."
Janet: He did? Oh, okay.
Jim: Yes, I’m pretty sure of that. I don’t remember hearing "NorCal," which is such a grating term. I don’t remember "NorCal" until this last episode. [Note: Jim is correct — in Season 2, Episode 1, Joe does say "Silicon Valley."]
But, anyway, I can really speak to that, because there was always a feeling of distance. We sort of knew there’s all this stuff happening in California, and a few times when I was [in the Valley] for a conference or some sort of thing, I was just, "Oh my god, it’s in the air here."
Yeah, if [in Texas] we want to find out something going on, we’ve got to make phone calls, send a bunch of emails — yes, we had email then. [laughs] We’ve got to get on airplanes and go and visit and then things are weird and time-constrained and different and all that stuff. As opposed to, you’re out here and you run into this guy at the Safeway, and he’s working on this thing, and then you start talking and then: "Yeah, look, come on by for dinner next Saturday, I’ll invite this guy from PARC over and we’ll talk to you about stuff." This is what this area is about — you know, the Valley.
And that was in 1985?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely so. It was just clear that this stuff was going on out there, in California.
So everyone in Texas talking about how they want to be in California — it feels very authentic?
It’s very authentic.
Another thing that I feel is really interesting about the season so far is that with Mutiny and its chat program, you’re seeing this big idea of people connecting online. Of course, nowadays, we understand how seismic this is. But in 1985, was that really something that people were talking about?
Jim: It was. We were actually on the Internet very early.
Jim: I was sending email on the ARPANET in I think 1975.
Jim: Yes, this was pre-Internet ARPANET, but it was kind of the same software. We had terminals at home for dialing into computers at work or the university or whatever. I think the first real network thing like that, aside from early email, was that I did have a CompuServe account in the mid-’80s. And I didn’t really do very much with it. That was, I think, my first real access to it, but I didn’t do a lot of looking for chat rooms or discussion groups or whatever. No particular reason — I just didn’t happen to do that.
You didn’t feel the need to go online and discuss the plot details of last night’s "Dallas."
Jim: There you go.
Janet: I didn’t actually do that much with that sort of thing until we came back out here to California. Like, you know, the old newsgroups. I didn’t really find those until I was working at Hewlett-Packard. I was actually quite surprised to see all of that happening so early on. I’m completely sure — everything else they’re getting so right — I’m sure that this was going on at the time, but I was just surprised to see it happening in a small house in Dallas.
Jim: The thing that people usually cling to with this stuff is The WELL.
Wasn’t that attached to Salon?
Jim: In its much, much later days.
Jim: Yes. The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. Which was formed in 1985. What CompuServe did offer, which I might have touched on, and which you, Janet, referred to, were discussion groups.
Jim: There are different notions of how people are communicating, collaborating, sharing whatever, over this kind of stuff. And one is a chat, which is a very real time thing. I type and then you type. As opposed to CompuServe groups or Usenet groups or a lot of the stuff on The WELL, which were these forums where you could post messages and then somebody would come back and reply.
There was IRC, which stands for Internet Relay Chat, which was one of the very early chat protocol systems. That was a layer specifically for people doing chat, and according to Wikipedia, that started in 1988.
Okay. So, the system that Mutiny might be using on the show, in theory, might be a little ahead of its time?
Janet: Keep in mind, they’re doing their own system. This is a homegrown chat/networking setup.
To wrap things up, is there something you feel like the show just doesn’t understand or doesn’t get right, for the most part?
Jim: Nothing is really, really blaring out at me. There are definitely tech shows where there is this, "Oh, we’ve got to come up with an explanation for this thing," and the explanation is so hokey that— "Fringe" used to do that a lot. They were never good at saying, "Oh, well that just sort of happened." They always insisted on coming up with this pseudo-scientific explanation for how something is happening. Well, that’s not how that works! And I think ["Halt"] has done a good job of avoiding that. No, nothing is really coming to mind like that. I was glad to see the comments by the showrunner guy about [Boseworth]. We’re exactly in sync on him.
Janet: How so?
Jim: Well there really were these kinds of — especially at Texas Instruments, that’s the big place that I’m thinking of — there were these guys and they were very solid, technical, business people, I’m not dumping on them at all. It’s just that there was this new thing going on, and these brand new technologies and brand new notions of who might be interested in buying these things. And the new focus on software that, it’s just not what they were used to, it’s not what they had built their businesses around, and I hate to say it because it’s a cliche at this point, they just didn’t get it because they just didn’t get it. But, yeah, it was just a very different thing. They’re doing, I think, a very good job of catching that.
Of course, Joe had his big soapbox speech in this episode, where he didn’t get as many— you know, there’s a new thing coming, and your company’s not going to be part of it, and you’re not going to be part of it, and, you know… "Something is happening/ But you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?" I’m surprised they didn’t close the episode with "Ballad of a Thin Man."
Okay, so what do you think it gets most right?
Janet: The business, that’s right.
Jim: I think they’re doing a really good job of capturing the time. That is, I think we’ve been saying all through this thing, that it just feels very true, having actually been there, oh, a little while ago. That’s really pretty much how it was. Good for them.